Episode Twenty-Three: His Yoke Is Easy
Anyone who has spent much time in a school playground will know that childhood games are often of extraordinary complexity, with rules incomprehensible to the outsider yet perfectly transparent to the participants. Once upon a time, anthropologists studied this truth. In perhaps the greatest blog ever written, Sister Sarah reports on the literature that studied the lost “children’s cultures” of decades gone by, extraordinary legacies of a time where adults did not patrol childhood as they now do. At the end, she speculates - quite believably - that the complex social organization of play within video games may represent the last point of contact with this era.
Adults, too, love to play complex games with arbitrary rules. The late Jim Flynn used to argue for the real-world importance of the cohort-by-cohort rise in measured intelligence by pointing out the growing complexity of plots in popular TV and films. He may as well have cited games. Warhammer, Magic the Gathering, and Dungeons & Dragons are at record highs in their popularity, while the phenomenon of the “board game cafe” speaks to a culture ever more au fait with codexes and lengthy rulebooks.
In a bygone age, the liturgy of the Western church uncannily resembled a difficult yet beautiful game, with its own set of ornate, elaborate customs and regulations. We present, for instance, this excerpt of the rules governing the numbers of Collects (short prayers that sum up the theme of the day) to be said at Mass.
“…relating to the collects at Mass, it is sufficient to know this general rule: days of simple or semidouble rank normally have three collects, whereas days of double or higher rank normally have one collect. The rank of each day is given in the missal: if no rank is explicitly stated, the day is of simple rank. The rank of other days (that is, semidouble and higher) is always indicated.
So, for example, on a summer Sunday on which no octave or feast days occurs which requires a commemoration, there are three collects, as such Sundays are of semidouble rank. In that case the first collect is the collect for the Sunday, the second collect is ‘Of the saints’, and the third collect is chosen ad libitum, at the liberty of the celebrant.
On a feast of a doctor of the Church, such as Saint Augustine or Saint Ambrose, or a feast of our Lady, or a feast of an apostle (all of double or greater rank), and many other feast days, normally only one collect is read – that of the feast – because such days are of double or higher rank.
To this normal number, one might need to add a commemoration, when a feast day occurs on a Sunday or other day that requires observance. Normally if the commemorated feast is of simple or semidouble rank, a third collect is added, while if it is of double or higher rank only two collects are said.”
Perhaps you gathered that this gibberish means that one, two, or three Collects can be said depending on the situation, but in fact on ferias and in Votive Masses five or even seven Collects may be said, at the discretion of the celebrant. Unless, of course, the Votive Mass is taking place during the consecration of a church, or is pro re gravi et publica simul causa, or is the nuptial Mass at a wedding, or occurs on a variety of other occasions, in which case only one Collect is permitted. That’s before the rules concerning the order in which the Collects are to be said interact with the above. When do you say the Collect commemorating a Common Octave on a day where a double is celebrated and a semi-double commemorated?
A Norbertine priest prays some number of Collects, of an unknown quantity, in a mysterious order. Behind him stand the Deacon and Subdeacon, who assist at Mass, although they are unlikely to have any more idea what to say and when.
This is to say nothing of the equally difficult codes that governed the actual celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. What shall we say of the rules governing when the inferior ministers at Mass may genuflect on the predella? Of the order in which the deacon, subdeacon, and clergy in choir are censed at the Offertory, and with how many swings of the thurible? How this hierarchy shifts when a visiting lay dignitary is present in church - perhaps even the Monarch? Of the reverence paid to a greater prelate who assists at Mass in choir? What if this greater prelate is not the Ordinary? And these are just the rules for the Roman Rite, long renowned for its “beautiful simplicity:” we are informed by many reliable sources that the Byzantine Rite of the Christian East is - appropriately enough - even harder to master.
In the 1970s, the churches of the West restructured both their buildings and their liturgies, enormously simplifying both through brutal physical reorderings of churches and painstaking restructuring of ceremonial principles. This simplifying movement justified itself on the basis that all the old rules were out of touch with the needs of modern man, who allegedly required less meaty fare. The accrued customs of centuries were damned as tools of a controlling ecclesial bureaucracy, a mighty barrier to the freedom of the people of God.
It all didn’t work out quite as intended, perhaps because the whole idea was misconceived. The arcane laws of the liturgy are better understood as analogous to the rules that govern children’s games in the playground. This may seem scandalous and irreverent, but why not? Perhaps we do, after all, go to Mass as little children to play with our beloved companion Jesus, our master but also our friend, whose yoke is easy but whose burden is light. The great game of the ancient liturgy should be learned with a smile, as we say under our breath I will go unto the altar of God, even the God of my joy and gladness.