ULTON SHEEN frequently reminded his listeners that all seven Sacraments have parallels in the natural world. As birth begins our earthly life, Baptism begins our spiritual life. As our bodies require healing when wounded, so do our souls (Confession). As our bodies require nourishment, so does our spiritual life (Holy Eucharist). And likewise for the other Sacraments.
Moreover, many aspects of our faith have parallels in the natural world. Consider how God revealed Himself through the ages: very slowly, over many centuries. Some ask, “Why didn’t God instantly reveal everything to His people?” The correct answer is, of course, “Because God reveals Himself as He wishes.” However, wasn’t His choice fitting? Think of how children obtain knowledge. They can do almost nothing when born, but gradually begin to crawl and eat solid food. They begin to pick up a word here and there. They begin to understand who their parents are and ask questions. It’s a process requiring many years.
IN SPITE OF ALL THE PROGRESS our civilizations have made, when it comes to self-appointed “expert liturgists,” it seems that thinking themselves wise, they have become as fools (Rom 1:22). Not long ago, I saw yet another attempt to explain what the “primitive” Mass looked like, using the typical sources: Justine Martyr, Iranaeus, Didache, and so on. However—astounding as this may sound—there was absolutely no attempt to understand the circumstances under which those various fragments were written. I say “astounding” because this is the same error made by early Protestants with regard to the Bible (which has been thoroughly refuted many times). Stated briefly: the Bible was not intended as a “catechism”—it’s a collection of various documents and letters written TO VARIOUS GROUPS under various circumstances.
The same is true of the early accounts of the Mass. 1 One must take into consideration, for example, the disciplina arcani|: the deliberate hiding of what goes on at Mass (to protect something so sacred). Some of the descriptions were written in a deliberately obscure manner (since they were addressing pagans who feared the rites of the early Christians). I could continue, but you get the point: just as the Bible has very little to do with a “catechism” 2 (in spite of what some might wish), many early accounts of the Mass had no intention of describing the rites in a detailed way. When we ignore this basic reality, we end up making silly mistakes.
Here and there, the early Christians left us “clues” referencing the liturgy. For instance, Pope Leo and St. Augustine refer to some kind of ancient “Responsorial Psalm,” but we have absolutely no idea what such a thing would have looked like (much less how it sounded when sung). Several times on this blog, I’ve offered a $300,000 reward for anyone who can produce an authentic Responsorial Psalm from the 5th century or earlier, but no one can. By the way, the first time Catholics really began writing down liturgical manuscripts was under Charlemagne; the stability of his reign allowed for such things.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 I suppose it’s possible some early Christian attempted to leave a detailed description of the early Mass, but such a thing was either lost or destroyed because we don’t possess it. We can criticize the early Christians for not having the courtesy to leave us a detailed description of their rites, but we would be foolish to do so. (Remember, they did not possess iPads, iPhones, computers, electricity, running water, or modern medicine, and most of them couldn’t read or write.)
2 Of course, nothing in the catechism conflicts with the Bible (whose New Testament was composed by the Catholic Church), but Bishop Sheen has reminded us that “Christ left us a Church, not a book.”