It would feel like I am speaking Greek this Sunday. I would like to speak on a topic which to some may be topic of odium: the hierarchy of the Church.
Last Sunday I spoke on the rubrics and its relationship to a mystery that we have been celebrating since apostolic times. Before I go on, let me just state that in making a case for faithfulness to the rubrics, a case can be made also that I am suffering from excessive ecclesio-centricism—a form of idolatrous worship of the “Church” and not of God. By insisting that the Church, that is, the Apostolic See1, has the right to insist on a strict adherence to the rubrics for the celebration of the Eucharist, I seemed to have pulled the carpet from under the feet of “ingenuity”2 or of even heart-warming spontaneity. Would not a strict adherence to the rubrics encourage some form of “legalism” and further “deaden” the Mass which is already so “dead” and unappealing? This tension leads us to this Sunday’s readings which are centred on the Laws.
The three readings all touch on different aspects of the observation of the Laws. Moses prohibited the distortion of the observance of God’s statutes and decrees because they summed up the depth of God’s relationship with Israel. James spelt out that the true meaning of the observance of God’s commandments is to be found in our interest towards the well-being of the poor. Finally, the subject matter for our reflexion—how to interpret the laws--comes from the encounter between Christ and the Pharisees.
The discussion of rubrics has brought us face to face with a popular notion, which is to set up an opposition between Christ who came to liberate and the Laws which are at best cumbersome or at worst burdensome. In our preference for spontaneity, it is not difficult to give in to contempt for the Pharisees, who as a group, appeared to have this seeming penchant of “emptying” divine laws of its “spirit” by reducing them to mere positive laws; laws which may be changed, passed over or made more perfect. Furthermore, their nit-picking only served to render the laws oppressive as well as opened them to ridicule.
How do we make sense of this conventional wisdom? Was Christ against the laws?
The truth remains that the entire corpus of the New Testament does not record anything which shows Christ’s3 antagonistic attitude towards the law. In fact, the key to understanding His relationship to the laws is to recognise that in Him the Torah has become universalised. For example, St Augustine’s appreciation of this “catholicity” is seen in this quotation: “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old; the Old is made explicit in the New”. It shows that the Patristic Father understands the relationship between the two Testaments to be a seamless whole, meaning that, there is no divide between them and therefore between Christ and the Laws. On the contrary, the relationship is not of a division but rather of a fulfilment. Christ stood against a particularly narrow interpretation of the laws that the Pharisees had. As such, He came to fulfil the Laws. In that way, we may say that the divide, if there were one, may be coming from our predilection for “spontaneity” and our distorted sense of freedom.
In that sense, our progressive culture is not unlike the Pharisees. Instead of nit-picking, we tend to explain everything away with God’s love. Instead of reducing the Laws to merely positive laws, we reduce the majesty, the “otherness” (transcendence) of God, notwithstanding that Christ came to give us access to the Father, to the level of commonplace friendship to the point that God cannot be but a doting Old Grandfather who loves us to bits. If that be the case, then Christ cannot be anything but be against the laws. Certainly Christ against the Pharisaic concerns over the laws’ minutiae is helpful in our making a case for more “freedom” from the restrictions of laws.4
This is where we make a jump and it is not a far leap from the Pharisees to the Hierarchy, in our case, the Apostolic See, especially considering that Benedict XVI, according to some, have decidedly turned the clock back with an insistence on faithfulness to the Church’s liturgical norms. In the promulgation of the GIRM, what we observe is mostly a grudging compliance5 because there is either a lack of belief in the vision of the Holy Father or more so a caving in to the current “wisdom”.
A point can be made here on what is called “conventional” wisdom. A way to understand how it functions is to look at “peer pressure”. It is an unspoken wisdom that everyone is supposed to kowtow to, if he or she does not want to be ostracised. Take for example, political correctness. It is a wisdom which proclaims tolerance6 but it is an intolerance which borders on intellectual fascism. The point is, anyone who dares to stand against the “received wisdom” will know its might. Hence, the task of returning to liturgical norms is made difficult by the received wisdom which can be broadly characterised as a liturgical amnesia. We have, in the interest of horizontality, forgotten the verticality of the liturgy.7 We may understand why the endeavour of the current Pope is a lonely one.
A way to understand further why there is a need to insist on the rubrics is to make the connexion between the hierarchy and holiness. Firstly, holiness and “legalism” are somehow related. How? Holiness is an attribute of God. In an analogical way, the Church8 is described as holy; it is an ontological description because it speaks of the “being” of the Church. This holiness is a gift and hence, a grace. Instead of living it, we often try to “possess” it through legalism. The Pharisees themselves tried to “protect” the call to holiness by imposing it, forgetting that the call cannot be legislated9 through external forms alone. However, the value10 of something is often deduced by the laws surrounding it. For example, if the punishment for the rape of a girl were just a rap on the knuckle, the message sent out is that girls are not worth our protecting. Here we appreciate that the “rubrics” surrounding our liturgy points not only to a mystery but that they are also ontological indicators.
When we profess to believe in the “holy catholic Church”, it means we accept that holiness is the being of the Church. In that way it is sacramental because she is the sign, symbol, and the reality of Christ’s presence. Consequently, she has to be hierarchical. The primary meaning of the word hierarchy is the rule of the holy and only secondarily does it refer to the “Bishops” (by extension, the priests and deacons). The accent is not on the rule but the holy. That a Bishop is politically perceptive is a premium. That a Bishop is administratively adept is an advantage. But, none of these is as crucial as a Bishop who is holy.11
This is one of the meanings of sacramental and here is the crux: when a Bishop ignores the rubrics, then he has forgotten who he really is. Faithfulness to the rubrics is not an indication but rather an expression of a Bishop’s holiness because his holiness is the face of Christ. It is not about him at all. However, as stated, we cannot legislate holiness. That was conceivably the point the Pharisees were missing. Holiness is not ours to grant ourselves. Instead, it is given to us through Christ and through our baptism, our entire life is focused on appropriating Christ’s holiness and we do it through imitation, aptly referred to by author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “And therefore, we also having so great a cloud of witnesses over our head, laying aside every weight and sin which surrounds us, let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us” (Heb 12:1).
Finally, I end where I started: on the hierarchy. A protracted discussion on the rubrics led us to the hierarchy and the conclusion is that our task is to inculcate holiness. And this we do not so much through “laws” but through the real practice of the virtues. Here again, we return to life-giving habits; the habits of holiness. And in the context of the Church, a return to holiness is called for from the Bishops and by extension the priests and religious and married couples. Often we forget that we are “holy” first before we are anything.12
2 Inculturation, for example, is a form of “ingenuity” that tries to accommodate cultures beyond the spheres of Eurocentricism. Moreover, the Church should be more reflective of what is truly its character: catholic.
3 It is ironical that the attempt at distancing Christ from his “cultic” (priestly) background corresponds at the same time to a rapprochement with the Jews. A pluralist worldview tends to see Christianity not as an offshoot of Judaism—certainly, in the spirit of pluralistic tolerance—not as a fulfilment of Judaism. Is that not taking Christ out of His context and fitting Him into ours? For example, the current trend in revision history is to make Him out to be a revolutionary liberator. His being a cultic figure does not fit well into this “liberating” matrix we have set up for Him. Unfortunately, scriptural evidence does not support that. He came to fulfil the Law. He came to be the Priest of the Father. “Through Him, with Him and in Him, O God, Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours forever and ever”. In that way, Christ, the real High Priest, universalises the message that God had for Israel, and thereby not restricting our access to God. Is that not the very redundant project of the pluralists? The aim of pluralism is to level the religious playing field—all religions have to be equalised in order that no one is denied access to God.
4 Almost certainly the hermeneutics of discontinuity has a greater grasp on our imagination more than the staid, stuffy and stifling hermeneutics of continuity.
6 A liberal often commits what may be described as an axiological scepticism. Why? In theory he believes that all theories are on par but in practice, he will necessarily reject some theories. For example, he would certainly reject that it is acceptable to kill willy-nilly. So a liberal would demand tolerance for everyone except those who disagree with them. In other words, the act of rejection already shows forth that there are laws which we hold to, not because we are liberals but because we are humans. We do not function in a moral vacuum. On the other hand, a “conservative” does not pretend to be tolerant. Yet, that itself is no indication that he is intolerant. Tolerance is not to be prized for itself because it is a lazy intellectual’s security blanket. Thus, the question “But, what if it is true” may orientate us to what real tolerance truly means—bearing with one another in the quest for truth. In a relativistic age, tolerance often drowns out the voice of truth.
7 Church architecture is closely tied to the liturgy. Church architecture necessarily has a sense of verticality and length and not horizontality and proximity. Look at churches built in the shape of a “fan” with “theatre” seating. They may be modern, practical and certainly “open” to worship but in architecture, they have no ecclesiological ancestry. Verticality and height are indications that liturgy is directed to the worship of God.
8 Church here does not denote the Church as we often understand her. The Church was foreshadowed at the beginning of creation where the call was issued out to humanity to live a life with God. It was prepared for in the Old Testament through the calling of Abraham. With the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God, the Church as we understand her to be, the new covenant between God and Man, is instituted.
9 It may explain why imposition of the fast through policing will only increase its “pharisaical” observance. Fasting, whilst it has a “physical” component to it, must be an expression of conversion.
10 I dislike the term “value” for its economic connotation but it is a workable term. Otherwise, we can use the word “worth”.
11 The custom of kissing the bishop’s ring tells us that there is something more to the person of the bishop. Usually the custom is practised by simpler folks. They appear to have a more profound sense of sacramentality. They want to feel God’s closeness. However, this is custom is dying out probably out of reaction to the “Pharisees being greet obsequiously and wearing longer tassels”. At first glance, this reluctance may come across as humility but upon close inspection, the reticence exposes the reality that bishops (and priests too) are often full of themselves forgetting the respect the laity gives to them is accorded firstly to Christ the Lord and only secondarily to the “man” himself. Consider especially how many priests have no problem cooking, singing or dancing to entertain their parishioners. It is a testimony of the age we live in that priests are more at home with our “celebrity” status than we are with being “sacramental” icons. It is a heavy calling. The Pope makes a valid point in the discussion between ad orientem and versus populum. Mass versus populum tends to place an inordinate importance on the personality of the celebrant by placing him on a kind of liturgical stage—there are Masses which resemble talk-shows rather than what they are supposed to be—Christ sacrifice on Calvary. It is not surprising that this “liturgical stage” has spawned a generation of “celebritergy” (as someone calls is) and also fostered a generation of clerical narcissists.
12 Maybe a case can be made for democracy in the Church…more power given to laity because bishops, priests and religious have collectively failed in their main “ontological function” as custodians of holiness. It would seem that the laity is more “holy” than the clergy and religious.