Monday, January 15, 2007

A New Week

Well, I decided to be a little less balanced yesterday in my sermon than normal after all. If someone is starving themself you don't go on about the danger of obesity, and I think in our case here the problem is not that we overdo the emphasis on experience and spiritual gifts, but rather that we ignore it altogether. Anyway, if you want to hear the sermon, it is available on our website!

Today, I am posting a homily I wrote for one of the other Latin Masses. This one for Pentecost in 1998. I should say that they were not controversial events. I wasn't out to cause trouble at all and if people were uncomfortable they could just stay away. They did raise questions though, which was the whole idea.

Let me make it plain that they were not a stunt, but genuine services of worship held for the reasons given in a previous post. I was, however, very happy that they should, in a non-threatening way, make people think about liturgy and language.

Today is the enthronement of the new Bishop of Hong Kong Island with a service at the Cathedral and a celebration meal at the convention centre afterwards. We have three diocesan bishops here in Hong Kong. Bishop Paul takes over from Bishop Peter who has just retired! It is not an easy task. May God bless him in his future ministry!

Have a good week. I will try and post again on Wednesday.

A Latin Mass


Questions have been asked about tonight's Mass. Essentially these centre on one question, 'Why have a Latin Mass?’ The reasons for this questioning differ. For some, it is about understanding. Why have a liturgy in a language we don't understand and don't generally use? For others, there is a theological suspicion. Did we not get rid of all that at the reformation? It may be worth, then, attempting an explanation while at the same time answering the implied objections!

Firstly, for much of the Church's history the liturgy in the west has been in Latin regardless of what language people spoke in their normal everyday conversation. Indeed, it was only comparatively recently that the Roman Catholic Church changed to the use of the vernacular for regular services, while maintaining Latin for formal and alternative use.

This means that much of the liturgy that we use, regardless of our tradition, has a Latin original. We still describe various parts of the liturgy using the Latin as with the Gloria, the Sanctus, and so on. There seems little to lose and much to gain in hearing these in the language in which they were originally composed. It is hard to see how it can do any harm!

Secondly, much traditional Church music comprises of musical settings of parts of the Mass. Often in putting the words of the Mass to music composers use precisely these Latin originals. If we are to use this music, and surely we should, we will find ourselves singing part of the service in Latin. It seems at the very least appropriate, on occasion, to use Latin for the rest of the liturgy as well.

It is not essential to do so. Choirs often sing in Latin for those parts that are set to music with the rest of the service in English or whichever language the congregation happens to speak. On special occasions such as this, however, it is good to use just the one language!

These are essentially pragmatic arguments. Some may not like the use of Latin and some may not even agree with the reasoning so far given, but there is no reason to fall out and not much to argue about. What, however, about the theological worries?

Firstly, the text we are using tonight is a modern one, albeit in Latin. Indeed, it is essentially the same as the Rite A Liturgy that we use once a month on a Sunday evening. True, it reflects a Catholic understanding of the sacrament -for want of a better way of putting it, but then so do all the liturgies we use here at St Ternan's - that is how we understand the Eucharist, regardless of what language we use. In principle, our use tonight of Latin is theologically no different to using English, German, or Urdu!

However, we must not be naive. For many there is a theological symbolism in the use of Latin. It was not after all English, German and Urdu that were rejected at the reformation; it was Latin. Indeed, the articles of the Church of England effectively ban its use in parish churches!

This is not the place to re-run old arguments. Indeed, it is the unwillingness of many to leave behind the arguments of the sixteenth century that is keeping the churches divided today. We can, perhaps, concede that our use of Latin does have a symbolic value over and above the pragmatic reasons that have been outlined above: a symbolic value that goes beyond particular arguments about the meaning of the Eucharist. By using Latin tonight, we are making an important theological statement.

Tonight we are celebrating Pentecost (this was in 1998). Pentecost is not just about the giving of the Spirit to individuals, it is also about the creation of the Church. Tonight is a birthday celebration! We as the Church are charged as were the first disciples to speak the Gospel to our own generation. To go into all the world and teach it to every nation, as Jesus put it in the Great Commission.

It is indeed right, it is a theological necessity that we do this in a way that people can understand and in the language that they use. The literary brilliance of the Authorized Version of the Bible disguises the fact that the Bible in its original languages was not written as a piece of literature. The New Testament writers all use language with one aim: to communicate. Indeed, the New Testament does not use a literary Greek, but the Greek of the market-place. It is a Greek that people would have used themselves in their daily conversations. Normally, in our worship and proclamation, we should do the same. Not to do so is not to be true to the Spirit of the New Testament.

However, all too often we make the mistake of thinking we are the first to do this. We all too easily think that our understanding of the Gospel is the only understanding. We turn our back on the ways the Church has historically understood it and proclaimed it. We limit, in other words, the Church to ourselves and to our own generation. This is nothing less than spiritual arrogance.

The Church is greater than us, and it is greater than the present age. It exists in every time and beyond time. It is composed of those who worship Christ from all nations and from all periods in the history of the nations. Its members are a multitude that no human can number.

Now it just so happens that quite a number of this multitude worshipped during their earthly existence in Latin! Tonight, as we do the same, we unite ourselves with them. We remind ourselves that although our age is temporary and transient, soon to pass away, the Church is eternal. The gates of hell will not prevail against it.

All our liturgies and all our worship, in whatever language, are ultimately unworthy of the Lord of the Church. But tonight we offer him our worship, however inadequate, and express our thanks that by his Spirit he has made us part of the 'one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church'. We thank God for all those who have gone before us and who tonight with angels and archangels join their worship with ours.

Soli Deo gloria!

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