Wednesday 27 January 2010

The Language of the Liturgy : Candlemas

The often disregarded reforms in the Roman liturgy which took place before the Second Vatican Council and the new Missal of Paul VI were largely kind to the Feast of the Purification, but the changes which were introduced were not insignificant in their ramifications. Regional variations of the Roman rite are often referred to as “dialects” of the same “language”, and in my own view, one fruitful way in which to approach the Liturgy is by analogy to language. Like any spoken language, the Roman rite employs a rich vocabulary, some of which will have “cognates” in other rites, some of which will be unique. The beauty of the eloquent use of a natural language is often associated with its ability to evoke other speech acts, words or expression over time and between places, the inter-dependence of different instances of language from which it derives its complexity and its refinement. The same is true of the liturgy.

The reforms of the Roman liturgy during the 20th century, then, can be seen as a sort of editing process. The kindest, most elegant type of liturgical reform throughout history has been termed “organic”, just like the “organic” development of languages. This type of reform isn’t really reform at all, but more properly the “form” of something that is by definition able to adapt and change from within, without need of poking or pruning from outside. The reforms of the 20th century have largely been of of a much more severe type; an extreme editing process that disrupts the meaning of something and alters it almost beyond recognition. A useful analogy would be to imagine the process of editing Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream…” speech. Imagine if the editor decided that the repetition of the phrase “I have a dream” was unnecessary and probably bored the people listening to it. With keenness, he preserves the phrase “the sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent” but dispenses with all phrases that start with “I have a dream” or else takes parts of them and moves them to the beginning of the speech. Imagine if this new, edited form of the speech became the official version to be taught in school and reproduced in encyclopaedias, such that the old form only existed in original recordings closely guarded by collectors. What remains is still wonderful oratory, but is it the same, full-blooded speech which planted itself in the hearts of a nation, and set them on fire with a yearning for justice?

The ceremony of the Blessing of Candles and Procession before Mass on the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary is for many one of the highlights of the liturgical year. The Nunc Dimittis with its antiphon “A light to lighten the Gentiles…” forms the liturgical backbone of this rite, and the theme of Simeon’s acclamation in the temple on seeing the Christ child runs through all the collects which traditionally accompany the blessing of the candles. The distribution of candles to the faithful has a symbolism which is both obvious and powerful, readily understood but replete with meanings which unfold in the prayerful heart of the believer. The form of ceremony that survived into the late fifties also possessed certain meanings, explicit and implicit, which were lost in the reformed rite. A brief comparison follows :

For a High Mass of the Feast of the Purification, the colour of the blessing and procession is violet and the Mass is sung in white. The meanings of the colour violet in the Roman rite are many and varied, but include such things as “not-yet-redeemed” or “awaiting the Messiah” (Advent and Lent, or indeed the Votive Mass pro pace). The colour takes us back to the time before the work of Calvary is complete, and the alternation between violet and white in the liturgical year reflects the gradual revelation of Christ to the world, the story of which is told in the Gospels from Advent to Easter. Before the ceremonies begin, the Altar is veiled in violet and unornamented. The pieces of liturgical furniture, the credence, the Mass vestments on the sedilia and even the candles to be blessed are all hidden under violet veilings. The sacred ministers enter, the celebrant in cope and the deacon and subdeacon in their violet folded chasubles. The origin of the folded chasuble, as has been discussed elsewhere, is obscure, but evidence points to the custom of deacons and subdeacons adopting the chasuble (and folding it up) for penitential processions, which is why they continue to be worn on ember days of Lent and Advent, and for the procession on Candlemas. The Celebrant kisses the Altar (but the other ministers don’t genuflect when he does so) and then the three line up at the Epistle Side for the blessing of the candles. The five prayers of the blessing speak of the light of Christ and the petition of Simeon, but mention also the work of bees and the pure oil burnt in the tabernacle. The candles are censed and lustrated, while the celebrant says the antiphon Asperges Me (without the psalm). The content of the prayers moves from an emphasis on Christ as light to the collective and the external (Israel, Gentiles, people, arms of Simeom) to the light and purification of the individual and his soul (“may not be wanting to our souls”, “purge me”). The Candles are distributed while the Nunc Dimittis is sung. There is a final collect which underlines the work of Christ on the soul through outward devotion (a good prĂ©cis of the five blessing prayers), before which (if it be not a Sunday and after Septuagesima) the Deacon and Subdeacon sing Flectamus genua and Levate respectively. These instructions from the sacred ministers to kneel in prayer and arise before the collect is sung also feature in the liturgy of Good Friday and on the Ember Days. The procession is then made, with the Subdeacon as cross-bearer and the Antiphon “Adorna thalamum tuum, Sion” by S. John of Damascus is sung, incidentally one of the few borrowings of text and music by the Roman Church from the Greeks. At the entrance to the church, or return to the sanctuary if the procession has not left the church, a responsary is sung V. They offered for him unto the Lord a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons. As it is written in the law of the Lord R. When the days of Mary’s purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. As it is written in the law of the Lord. As the Catholic encyclopaedia notes :

“The solemn procession represents the entry of Christ, who is the Light of the World, into the Temple of Jerusalem. It forms an essential part of the liturgical services of the day, and must be held in every parochial church where the required ministers can be had. The procession is always kept on 2 February even when the office and Mass of the feast is transferred to 3 February.”

Indeed, owing to the presence of the processional cross as a symbol of Christ, this act of entrance is the ritual re-enactment of the presentation itself, and as such forms the climax of this ceremony. During the procession, the Altar has been unveiled to reveal a white frontal, ready to greet the Lord. Without further ceremony, the Mass proceeds. The ministers assume white Mass vestments (the tunicle and dalmatic underlining the move into new light and joy) and the prayers at the foot of the altar are said. The Candles of the faithful are to be lit to greet Christ in the Gospel and From the Te Igitur to after the Communion.

As I mentioned, the Missal of 1962 has been largely kind to this ancient rite, preserving much of the form. However, there are some important changes which disturb and deform the original rite. Firstly the entire ceremony of blessing is said in the White Mass vestments. The entire “before redemption” meaning of the colour violet, which is (inconsistently) maintained in Advent and Lent to the present day, despite the suppression of the folded chasuble, is lost. Related to this, the instructions Flectamus genua and Levate are gone. These instructions particular to the Deacon and Subdeacon were also part of the Solemn prayers of pre-1955 Good Friday, but for no apparent reason, the Subdeacon was divested of his Levate, which was given to the Deacon.

Secondly, and consistent with a general move to suppress these prayers where another rite precedes Mass (viz. the 1955 Palm Sunday [though previous to this reform, the psalm was omitted as per Sundays in Passiontide]), the prayers at the foot of the altar are not said. While much could be said about the disregard shown in this reform for the liturgical coherence of the Mass, and the importance of the words “Introibo ad altare Dei” in the worship of the Church, I only have time here to share these words again from the Catholic Encyclopaedia :

"That the Mass, around which such complicated rules have grown, is the central feature of the Catholic religion hardly needs to be said, During the Reformation and always the Mass has been the test. The word of the Reformers: "It is the Mass that matters", was true. The Cornish insurgents in 1549 rose against the new religion, and expressed their whole cause in their demand to have the Prayer-book Communion Service taken away and the old Mass restored. The long persecution of Catholics in England took the practical form of laws chiefly against saying Mass; for centuries the occupant of the English throne was obliged to manifest his Protestantism, not by a general denial of the whole system of Catholic dogma but by a formal repudiation of the doctrine of Transubstantiation and of the Mass."

To my mind, the decision to remove in one stroke, a part of what is and has been for centuries, words that have become ingrained in the mind of every Catholic, is a serious assault on tradition, and, by extention, what that tradition seeks to protect, and this assault must be interrogated. The notion that a part of the ancient practice of the Church’s regular worship can be edited out, simply for the sake of convenience, is above all patronising to the very people for whom this service exists: the plebs sancta Dei. The assumption that the lay man or woman in the nave of the church has suffered, Sunday by Sunday, from a lack of comprehension, an inability to engage with the rite of Mass because of its convoluted ceremonial or its long-dead Latin is the great fallacy of the movement for reform, and a damaging lie. The simplification and reduction of the liturgy is, in my view, the very reason why church attendance has dropped so severely since the period of reform began. As one friend put it, when a churched Christian reaches adulthood and is still expected to engage with a dumbed-down liturgy that was altered to be accessible even to small children, then what really is there to keep them from leaving? An examination of the unreformed rites of Candlemas, as with any ancient ceremony of the Church, clearly exhibit a language in vibrant use, a language which can be heard readily by anyone who opens themselves to it. The particular language is the Roman rite, but the message is redemption. Dumbing down the Mass, the Liturgy, the traditions of the Church, can only indicate that much of the Church as a whole has stopped believing in Herself, and that what She has offered to Her children for centuries is no longer worth very much at all.


  1. Thank you for this. It actually has made me think much more about the significance of the ceremonies of the day, and put my thoughts together here, where I refer back to your post.

  2. A very moving post.

    Will you be keeping the old form with your splendid violet folded chasubles for the blessing and procession?

    The 1962 missal also supresses the verse Exsurge and gives the short conclusion for the collects of blessing. It is also one of the instances where Judica me etc is suppressed in the 1962 missal.

    Some of the English uses had a preface of blessing of the candles (c.f. the blessing of palms). Another strong parallel was the blessing of waters on the Epiphany. The old rite (suppressed in 1890) had a complex series of prayers of blessing, Sanctus and preface with strong similarities to the Byzantine blessing. This is given in the Marquess of Bute's book on the Blessing of Waters - recently republished and well worth getting IMHO.

  3. Ah, yes I look at the five prayers and think of Palm Sunday.....That perhaps at some time and in some place they had a preface to go with them.

    As far as I know, we will be keeping the old form with folded chasubles, although I don't know whether all the blessings and Antiphons will be included. My fingers, however, remain crossed.

  4. The first point to make is one of language and oratory, seeing that you mention Martin Luther King. Carefully chosen, often grand rhetorical, language coupled with a gift of convincing delivery can be very moving and stir people in a positive way. It was also used with the hungry and down-trodden people of Germany between the Wars to perpetrate a horrific evil.

    "Reform of the Reform" or going back to the English Missal (in its various editions) is a new (and welcome)development in Anglo Catholicism and perhaps most obvious at St Magnus, Resurrection NY and St Clement's Philadelphia. I could not help thinking yesterday that each time St Magnus' gets more old fashioned in its liturgy two things seem to happen; The congregation gets bigger and the average age of the congregation gets lower. Surely this tells us something?

    In the late summer of 1968 when he appointed me Director of Music at St Paul's Brighton, Father John Milburn said to me that he always told young people of an artistic and discerning temperament that if they think something is right they should stick to that belief, even if it goes out of fashion with everyone else, because one day it will come back into fashion again. He gave the example of his always loving the opera Martha. About that time when the Paris churches were throwing away (literally) all their lovely Baroque vestments he was buying them all up, dirt cheap, for St Paul's where he had a collection rivalling that of his protege Fr Graeme Rowlands. Interestingly, when I reminded him of this when he was ill from his strokes, years later, he couldn't remember saying this to me and he was one of the first extreme Anglo Catholic priests to introduce concelebration and Mass facing the people. Put simply, what goes around comes around. With any luck people of your generation will be able to enjoy the kind of liturgy that people of my generation enjoyed in the 1960s.

    Anglo Catholicism thrived in very poor areas - parishes like the Annunciation Brighton and St Martin's Brighton - because it brought colour and splendour into the lives of people whose lives were otherwise pretty dreary. It lifed their minds to higher things, it brought them to their knees through the numinous and it was fun. Good liturgy will always do those three things and, in doing so, will do what Fr Philip said so eloquently in a sermon a couple of months ago and make churches like St Magnus borders between earth and Heaven.

    Carry on the good work.