Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Going back to the early Church
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Aug. 2, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Occasionally someone will express irritation that some liturgical practice is justified, at least in part, by the claim that this was the practice in the early church. Indeed much of the liturgical renewal over the past 30 years has been founded on how we know Christians were worshiping in the first centuries.
Why this concern about what Christians were doing 20 centuries ago? Can’t the liturgy develop and change independently of the forms of worship used by primitive Christianity?
The liturgy can and must change and evolve. At the same time, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy insists that “sound tradition be retained” while we are being open to “legitimate progress.” The Constitution also requires that “any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.
“Organic” development means development that is inherent or inborn, and not something created out of thin air or solely from out of someone’s creative imagination. It is not unlike our American concerns that our country’s laws develop organically – that they always conform to our American tradition and to our Constitution.
Liturgical development must grow out of our apostolic tradition, and therefore it is necessary to know, as best we can, what the church of the apostles thought it was doing when it gathered to celebrate the liturgical rites, just as we want to know what the authors of our American Constitution had in mind when they wrote that foundational document.
Going back to the earliest centuries also enables us to see the liturgy in its purer forms, before centuries of use and abuse changed it for the better and sometimes for the worse. At the same time, looking to the practice of the early church for fundamental liturgical principles and norms certainly does not mean that we should slavishly imitate the past. In the early centuries Greek was the common language for the liturgy, but this does not mean we should speak Greek today.
On the other hand, the practice of the early Church can help us appreciate what ought to be of primary concern for the church’s liturgical and devotional life, and what ought to be secondary. For instance, the sometimes abundant concern today about the placement and visibility of the tabernacle, the practice of kneeling during the liturgy, the daily celebration of the Mass, various devotions to the Blessed Sacrament and to Mary, confirmation separated by years from baptism, marriage celebrated in a church and witnessed by a priest, frequent confession – none of these things were of concern to the Christians of the early centuries, and indeed did not even exist.
The question we then have to ask is what was of primary concern for those early Christians – those faithful women and men of long ago who gave us our liturgical tradition.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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