“Community” is a buzzword, but it is also a reality. What we must not forget is that our community stretches back to include Abraham and his descendants. We are involved in something far bigger, older, and deeper than ourselves, and bigger, older, and deeper even than our parish communities. The parish church anchors its reality in the meeting tent of Moses and David, in the temple of worship of Jesus’ day. When we enter into our common prayer, our Eucharist, we are in the Holy of Holies surrounded by a cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1). God is our loving Father, as Jesus taught, and the Son of God is not only our Lord but also our friend. And so, too, is God our friend. Yet true friendship with God must develop along lines of God’s choosing, not of our choosing. And those lines are laid out in the stories, songs, and prayers of His chosen people as set down for us by the divinely inspired Jewish writing.”

The Liturgical Pogrom

PURGING HEBRAIC ELEMENTS FROM CATHOLIC WORSHIPBy W. Patrick Cunningham | July/August 2000W. Patrick Cunningham recently celebrated his 25th year of writing on contemporary liturgical matters. His article “The Language of the Body & the Mass” appeared in the February 1999 NOR.

A quiz for Catholics: What language are we speaking when we say “Amen” and “Alleluia”? (A) English. (B) Greek. (C) Latin. (D) Hebrew. The answer is (D). As St. Paul taught long ago, the gentile followers of Christ have been grafted onto the Hebraic root (see Rom. 11). Christ is the vine and we are the branches, and the vine has roots in the rich soil of the Judaic covenant and Israelite history. In one of the most inspired phrases of the 20th century, Pope Pius XI, in the course of condemning anti-Semitism, said that Christians are “spiritual Semites.” We should not be surprised, then, if much of the language and culture of Catholic worship and belief are borrowed or developed from their Hebrew antecedents. Yet, Catholics find themselves in danger of forgetting their Semitic roots. We must, then, renew our understanding of what it means to be spiritual Semites, children of Abraham.

All three of the monotheistic faiths coming out of the Near East attribute their spiritual heritage to Abraham, the prototypical Semite. He is not only honored as the original patriarch of the covenant with God in human history; he is also held up as the model follower of God, a paladin of faith ready to give unconditionally to his God, ready to obey even the command to offer his own son in sacrifice (Gen. 22).

The pious Israelite is instructed (in Deut. 26) that when presenting his offering to the priest for sacrifice, he is to declare his radical dependence on the mercy of God, and to acknowledge his spiritual identification with Abraham: “My father [Abraham] was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there….” The worshiper was to retell the Egyptian bondage and the free and generous redemption his ancestors had at the hand of God, as well as the gift of the land from which the offerings were taken.

Nowhere is the spirit of “self-sufficiency” celebrated or even alluded to. All that one has and is are gifts of God, and all that one offers to God is far less than what He is owed. This is the spirit of Abraham and this is the heritage he passes on to his spiritual heirs, a willingness to be taught and led by God. This is the core principle of being a “spiritual Semite.” There is a direct line in the covenant from Abraham of Canaan to Mary of Nazareth, whose only direct command in the Gospels is “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn. 2:5), and whose characteristic response to God’s will is summed up in “Be it done to me according to Your word” (Lk. 1:38). A “spiritual Semite” comes from that lineage.

Both word and worship in Christian culture come from Hebrew antecedents. But with the recent and seemingly endless changes in the words and actions of Catholic worship, Catholics are not hearing about, and not acknowledging in weekly worship, their Jewish roots. The liturgical changes, both obvious and subtle, are everywhere in liturgical texts, scriptural translations, and worship movement and art, and they must have an effect on the religious attitude of the ordinary Catholic. Do your fellow Catholics in the pews know that they are called to be spiritual Semites?

Consider the changes in the language of the Canticle of Zechariah (Lk. 1:68-79) as they appear in Morning Prayer. Thirty years ago Catholics prayed “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has visited and wrought redemption for His people, and has raised up for us a horn of salvation in the house of His servant, David.” Today Catholics pray a version that omits the horn and says instead, “He has come to His people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty savior, born of the house of His servant David.” That’s a nice sentiment, but it loses some important elements that specifically connect this prayer by Zechariah (who was a Jewish priest and the father of John the Baptist) with prayers and commentaries in the Old Testament (as St. Luke knew them in the Septuagint).

The theme of a divine visitation, for example, is an echo in Zechariah’s prayer, but the new wording mutes it into a bland “He has come.” Additionally, the word “horn” (keras, in the Greek of Luke and of the Septuagint), is an essential connector to the Old Testament. This is its only appearance in the New Testament, but it is quite frequent in the Old Testament, appearing 51 times, especially in the prophetic and historical books. “Horn” is specifically Messianic, referring either to the horn of anointing used with priests or the Davidic kings, or to the horn of power, the horn of the strong bull. The specific term “horn of salvation” also appears in 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18. To excise this expression from the Gospel is to snip one thread of Christianity’s connection with the Israel of history.

The Catholic liturgical connection with the traditional synagogue service is strongest in the Liturgy of the Word. In fact, the structure of this first part of Mass is derived from Jewish worship: prayers, readings, Psalms, and a commentary. Even here we find that liturgical revisionists have cut several Hebrew roots when constructing or translating the Novus Ordo Mass. At the beginning of the pre-reform Mass, the priest recited parts of Psalm 43 (introibo ad altare Dei) with acolytes and congregation. Before the reading of the Gospel, the priest or deacon bowed and prayed the Munda cor meum, an invocation that recalled the vision of Isaiah (Isa. 6), and the cleansing of his lips with a burning coal. Both prayers were eliminated in the new Missal of Paul VI. In the realm of translation, a small but notorious example of de-Semitizing the texts is the awkward wording of the response to the priest’s Dominus vobiscum: The richly pithy et cum spiritu tuo (“and with your spirit”), which evokes the whole patrimony of spirit (ruah in Hebrew; pneuma in Greek) from the Old Testament, is rendered “and also with you.” This displays a poor understanding of the Latin and its Hebrew and Greek antecedents and is deplorable English to boot.

In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, at the great acclamation (the “Sanctus”) that begins the Eucharistic Prayer, the assembly echoes the words of the angels in Isaiah’s heavenly vision (Isa. 6), when the vision of the Lord on His throne was accompanied by smoke filling the temple and six-winged Seraphim chanted to one another in praise of the Lord God “Sabaoth.” The Hebrew word “Sabaoth” has a wealth of meanings: power, angels, hosts of Heaven, battling armies. To translate it is to risk denaturing it. Neither the translators of the Septuagint nor the early Christian writers dared do so. Even St. Paul, who was not shy about adapting and interpreting things Jewish for his mostly gentile readers, left Sabaoth alone. He simply transliterated the Hebrew into Greek (Rom. 9:29). So did James in his Epistle (5:4). The habit of preserving the Hebrew and its wealth of meaning continued in Justin Martyr (2nd Apology, 32, et al.), Origen (Contra Celsus, 5), and Archelaus (Contra Manes, 10). In the Latin Mass we sang “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.” But today’s English rendering is “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.” By eliminating this ancient and numinous appellation, we have lost an important connection with our Semitic — and Catholic — heritage.

The preface that introduces the Sanctus has also been stripped of the Hebrew names of the creatures in whose prayers of praise we join. The Latin Mass (old and new) joins our hymn of praise to that of the “angels and archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim.” These are, of course, specific instances of the Semitic elohim who are envisioned surrounding and serving the Lord. But in our new translations these celestial attendants are lumped together simply as undifferentiated “angels” and quickly passed over. Their Hebraic specificity, like so much other richness from the Old Testament, vanishes in the current liturgical vernacular.

The Eucharistic Prayers (of which there are 10 approved for use in the U.S.) have suffered from the same process. Prayer I, the ancient Roman Canon, still contains multiple Old Testament references, as well as a number of sacred genealogies, first of the patriarchs Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek, second of the New Testament saints, particularly the bishops of Rome. Genealogies, as any Bible scholar knows, are the backbone of all the priestly books of the Old Testament, such as Leviticus, Numbers, and Chronicles. Prayer I retains this Hebraic character, but it is the least used of the Eucharistic Prayers.

Old Testament references, Psalm phrases, and similar genealogies are some of the common characteristics of ancient Eucharistic prayers. For instance, in the Liturgy of St. James, we find the phrase “as Thou didst accept the gifts of Abel, the sacrifices of Noah, the priestly offices of Moses and Aaron, the peace-offerings of Samuel, the repentance of David, the incense of Zacharias.” In the Novus Ordo, however, standard Eucharistic Prayers II through IV, and the Eucharistic Prayers for children’s liturgies and for Reconciliation liturgies, all lack such references. Furthermore, they feature an alarming reduction in the number of allusions to the Old Testament and in the use of Old Testament language. There is a striking restriction in the use of sacrificial language between the “old canons” and the new, and that of course is a serious weakening of our Semitic roots.

One might object here that, in fact, Hebrew elements have been added to the new rite. It is true that the reformers and translators have given us a new rite at the Preparation of Gifts which includes two berekah prayers borrowed from the Jewish Seder (“Blessed are You, Lord, God of all creation…”). But considering all the eliminated Hebrew elements of the Mass, this prayer is by no means an even exchange, either in quality or quantity. Most liturgical commentators have agreed that these prayers look like an offering prayer (“the bread we offer You”), and that such language is out of place before the Consecration of the Mass since, after all, it is the Body and Blood of Christ that is the sacrificial offering of the Mass. Furthermore, these prayers are designed to be said quietly by the presiding priest; often the congregation or choir sing. Thus, we are made to eliminate most of the traditional, Hebrew-based elements of the Eucharistic Prayer, and to accept a nontraditional and out-of-place “preparation” prayer stolen from the Passover celebration and most often recited sotto voce. Not much of a trade.

Liturgists and liturgical translators often defend their elimination of the Hebraic elements of worship by appealing to the principles of “simplicity and transparency.” The parts of worship, it is said, should be easy to understand and relate to. Heavy Hebraic allusions and language supposedly impede the objective of making the meaning of our liturgical words and actions utterly transparent to the worshiper.

There are numerous problems with that notion. First, because by definition the sacramental celebration is a celebration of mystery, simplifying the words and actions may give the worshiper the wrong idea. Simplification tends to become elimination: as when, at the incarnatus passage of the Creed, we substituted at most Masses a bow for the genuflection; we ended up with nobody doing either. When we pulled out the altar rails and communion cloths and started giving the Body of Christ in the hand, instead of increasing the reverence and intimacy experienced in the Eucharist, we ended up with well over half of all Catholics not believing in the substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species.

Second, sacramental signs and both liturgical and scriptural language are not uni-dimensional. They can have multiple meanings on one level (such as the word Sabaoth discussed earlier). They can also have multiple levels of meaning. Consider, for instance, the Song of Songs. On a literal level, it is erotic poetry, mostly suggestive (e.g., 2:6, 16), but occasionally overt (4:5-6). Yet the Fathers of the Church ignored that obvious level of meaning, considering the Song as an account of the relationship between Christ and the Church, or between Christ and the soul. Nobody has suggested that this canticle be made transparent by translating it so that only the basic level is understood.

We saw earlier that when we say “Amen” we are speaking in transliterated Hebrew. The Commission on the Liturgy has not yet translated that traditional response into “Right on,” “You said it,” or “Yo!,” but it has not escaped unscathed. The good Semitic pronunciation is “Ah-men,” and Catholics said it that way until the 1960s, when they went to see Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field and came out singing its catchy theme song, “Amen…see the baby, Amen, wrapped in the manger…” we have largely mispronounced it ever since.

More importantly, “Amen” on the lips of Jesus is a most powerful word. In all four Gospels, Jesus precedes His most important sayings with the phrase “Amen (amen) I say to you.” This Hebrew expression was simply transliterated into Greek and Latin. St. Augustine (Tractate 41 on John) insisted that this was not only intentional but preserved an important meaning, for the use of this formula gives the statement that follows it the character of an oath. Thus the sayings that Jesus introduced with this phrase are so vital as to assume a kind of identity with Jesus Himself. The expression occurs four times in John 6, during the discourse on the Eucharist. In both John’s Gospel and the Synoptics, it almost always appears when Jesus is speaking on His own authority, teaching something distinctive and outside the Pharisaic tradition. But in the recent English renderings, including those used at Mass, the formal Hebraism “Amen, amen I say to you” has been translated in to the pompous “I solemnly assure you” or the confusing “In truth, I tell you.” The latter translation raises in the hearer’s mind the curious possibility that sometimes Jesus said things that were not said “in truth.” I doubt that was intended. But these are lame translations — weak, clumsy, and decidedly nontransparent substitutes for the forthright Hebrew.

Another instance of de-Hebraizing that has devastated the innate beauty of liturgy is the practical abandonment in Catholic parishes of Gregorian chant, which is ancient Christian song built upon a provably Semitic musical foundation. In modern Catholic worship the many, many instances of de-Hebraizing amount to a troubling pattern. It is clear that the practice of Catholic common prayer is incrementally becoming less Semitic, even a-Semitic, and that in our public speech and gestures we are becoming the opposite of what Pius XI pronounced us to be. Are we becoming, perhaps, spiritual anti-Semites? For we seem to be in the midst of what can only be called a liturgical pogrom, unprecedented in Church history.

The plain fact is that the Hebrew-ness of the Catholic religion is a critical element of it, and when we excise those Hebrew elements from our prayers and actions, we sever the roots that feed our religion. This has been a perennial temptation. One of the earliest heresies, Marcionism, was the total rejection of the Semitic roots of Christianity. Marcion, who led various communities into repudiating the entire Old Testament, was excommunicated in Rome in 144.

And properly so, for the Christian attitude is fundamentally Semitic. Abraham, believing God, became what in the natural order he could not be, the friend of God and father of a chosen nation. The Church celebrates such transformations sacramentally: The matter of each sacrament has a natural meaning, intimately connected with the natural properties of the matter. Thus water has a cleansing and purifying function of itself; bread, likewise, is nourishing as bread. But the sacramental matter responds to the creative and transforming Word of God, so that its existence is recreated, transformed into what it was not. Thus the water of Baptism can, by the power of God’s Spirit, become a means of giving supernatural life, and of purging sin, both actual and original. Thus also can bread and wine, by the power of God, become what it was not — the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, itself having a new existence and substance, and itself having supernatural power to heal and to incorporate the recipient more intimately into Christ. Thus we, like Abraham, become what in the natural order we could not be, “other Christs.” All creation, then, by responding to God’s Word and to the power of the Holy Spirit, can be transformed into the image of God, but only if that transformation is entirely docile to divine power, and conformable to the divine plan. This is the essence of the “spiritual Semite.”

With this in mind, we can see why certain modes of liturgical expression and theological thought are not likely to promote spiritual growth or ecclesiastical health. The translators and writers who practice a kind of practical Marcionism in preparing Catholic texts, the Catholic priest who departs from canonical liturgical form to “make it up as he goes along,” the reformers who insist on extreme horizontalism in liturgy — such people place themselves outside the lineage of Abraham our father and Mary our mother. And they seem to want to take the rest of us Catholics with them.

“Community” is a buzzword, but it is also a reality. What we must not forget is that our community stretches back to include Abraham and his descendants. We are involved in something far bigger, older, and deeper than ourselves, and bigger, older, and deeper even than our parish communities. The parish church anchors its reality in the meeting tent of Moses and David, in the temple of worship of Jesus’ day. When we enter into our common prayer, our Eucharist, we are in the Holy of Holies surrounded by a cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1). God is our loving Father, as Jesus taught, and the Son of God is not only our Lord but also our friend. And so, too, is God our friend. Yet true friendship with God must develop along lines of God’s choosing, not of our choosing. And those lines are laid out in the stories, songs, and prayers of His chosen people as set down for us by the divinely inspired Jewish writers.

Let the whole church say “Amen! Alleluia!”

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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