Sunday, August 3, 2014

Excising the Sons of God: the decline of an ancient mythology and liturgical development.

The prospect of seeing another edition of the Missale Romanum back in print stirs the hope that it will, even if coming from more extreme elements, facilitate a real discussion of the twentieth century liturgical reforms in the Latin Church. How much depth the discussion will have is anyone's guess. Nevertheless, the hope is there that perhaps some additional perspective can be provided. Much as I agree with the observations that the Missale Romanum of Paul VI is a liturgy clearly distinct from the traditional Roman liturgy, I must also agree that the Missale Romanum of Paul VI did not emerge from a vacuum. It was the largest step in a series of previously tepid steps towards reforming the Roman liturgy in the light of criticism drawn by modern historical research, theology, and society.

So it seems that Pius XII reforms of Holy Week are often considered a crucial moment in the twentieth century's liturgical reform. It seems as though this was the moment confirming that a recasting of the Roman liturgy was not only possible, but indeed it would happen.

The arguments discussing the merits or lack thereof of Pius XII's reforms range over a variety of concerns. My concern is a particularly narrow one. It seems to me that the greatest casualty of the reform of Holy Week was the abridgment of the twelve prophecies to four. Now, the Holy Week reforms of Pius XII are not a major issue for me; I do not mark them as the beginning of the Roman liturgy's decline and I do not consider the pre-Pian form to be a indicator of sure orthodoxy. Among the Holy Week reforms, only the reduction of the prophecies strikes me as a loss, although it is not a be all and end all issue for the traditional Roman liturgy.

Truth be told, it is the elimination of only one of the twelve prophecies that concerns me. This would be the text of the second prophecy, which was comprised of Genesis 5-8, the narrative of Noah and the flood.  In particular, my concern is with one segment of this narrative, Genesis 6, the account of the sons of God and the daughters of man and the Nephilim.

Anyone with a background in Biblical Studies should immediately note that the account of Genesis 6 intersects with I Enoch. The relationship between these texts is still, in higher critical circles, considered somewhat muddy. We presume that I Enoch is an expansion of Genesis 6, although J.T. Milik, one of the original scholars to work on the text of I Enoch recovered from Qumran, championed the opposite view. It should be noted that Milik's position is not as off base as it might seem at first; many scholars of Genesis believe the account of Genesis 6 is a truncated version of a longer narrative. However, there is no consensus that I Enoch is the longer narrative.

In any event, the sons of God myth, be it through the text of Genesis or the Book of Enoch, played a major role in the formative years of Christianity, well into the end of Ante-Nicene period. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, to name a few, all accepted the sons of God myth of Genesis 6 as authentic and held to a literal interpretation of the text. An important example can be found in Irenaeus' Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. Some, such as Origen and Tertullian, if I recall correctly, cite the Book of Enoch as authentic. Of course, contemporary textual studies have highlighted the influence of the myth and the text of I Enoch on the composition of the New Testament, the most blatant example being found in the clear citation of the text in the Epistle of Jude and II Peter, wherein both authors treat the text as, in our parlance, canonical. Additionally, it seems as though Paul makes a very veiled allusion to it in his prescriptions for the head covering of women in II Corinthians.

Only the Ethiopian Orthodox Church retained the Book of Enoch in its canon. It appears as though the book fell off the radar in the West and the East rather soon after Nicaea. The sons of God myth, however, took a different route as the rise of platonic and neo-platonic philosophy in Christian theology struggled to find an acceptable interpretation. Augustine finds a way around it by demythologizing the passage in the City of God. Ascetic authors, such as John Cassian, aptly applied the four senses of scripture to the passage and offered an anagogical interpretation.

I have, alas, forgotten much the history of the development of the old Roman lectionary (as it came to us in the traditional Missale Romanum). The oldest manuscripts of the Roman lectionary date to approximately the 7th century, if I recall correctly, and it has been some time since I last studied up on the contents. As such, I will not try to argue a train of historical continuity between the Ante Nicene Church and the Missale Romanum as it stood in the 1940s. I would argue that whatever the circumstances of its composition, the second prophecy, whether by intention or accident, offered us a connection to the formative decades of Christianity. The sons of God myth stretched through the centuries to the early cosmology of Christian Church. In that mythological context we encountered the mythological frame work that underlined the greater cosmology of Christianity's earliest years. Based upon our studies of the literature that heavily circulated at the time of second temple and left its imprint on the New Testament, this mythological narrative may well have been the background for the worldview of Jesus himself. It is a strange and utterly alien worldview for us.

Indeed, it was alien by the time we reached the debate between Alexander and Arius that served as an impetus for the Council of Nicaea. Perhaps that is why even before the Second Vatican Council and the complete reform of the Roman liturgy, it did not survive. My wife and I had a discussion about this very topic. As I waxed on and on about the profound significance of this reading and the sons of God myth, she remarked, "Well, evidently it wasn't really passed on, otherwise they wouldn't have put it on the chopping block before Vatican II." I couldn't reply with anything other than, "true."

It was perhaps many centuries before 1950 that the second prophecy of the old Holy Saturday liturgy had become wrapped in obscurity. It preserved a kernel of the earliest Christian mythological framework that had otherwise failed to be passed on. One need only study a hand full of the obscure liturgical texts out there to realize that this is a recurring pattern in the history of the Western liturgy (I cannot speak with any knowledge concerning the Eastern liturgy). There is an elucidating article by Ward in my files. It focuses on the Ravenna Rotolus and how the text was incorporated into the collects of Paul VI's Missale Romanum. At one point, he highlights an oration not included in the reform of the Roman liturgy because the theology expressed therein was too alien. Yet, the prayer was clearly of a Roman type and is part of a collection of prayers used during the Advent/Christmas cycle, some of which were present in old Missale Romanum. Plainly, it is true; through the course of history some texts suffer a loss of meaning and Bugnini's generation was not the first one to drop a text whose relevance seemed utterly obscure.

Of course, the passage of time is a funny thing. Recent decades have seen a reemergence of the son of God myth's among scholars and more discussion of its influence on early Christianity. On a more practical level, the myth is having a renewed impact on more evangelical leaning Protestants who have grown disaffected with certain tendencies in mainline Protestantism. Yet, I have no delusions about this impacting Western Christianity as a whole, most especially mainline Catholic Christianity, especially those of a Roman variety.

As distant as Roman Catholics were from the second prophecy prior to the Pian reform, the distance has only grown and the worldview reflected in that text is yet more obscure. This should offer us something to reflect on. Much as proponents of Paul VI's liturgical reform like to chime in about going to earlier forms and earlier theology (disputable points to be sure!), the interest is really half-hearted. If one was interested in returning to an earlier theology, one would advocate for this text's re-introduction into the Roman liturgy. Similarly, those groups advocating the pre-Pian Holy Week scantly mention the significance of reducing the number of prophecies and the historical importance of the sons of God myth to Christianity.

The distance between Roman Catholicism and the old second prophecy of Holy Saturday is perhaps unbridgeable. This reading is perhaps a clear example of how liturgical texts can become obscure through the centuries, to the point where its relevance will only be appreciated by specialist or a few odd fellows. In the modern Roman liturgy, the application of Genesis 6 is careful to leave out verses 1-4, the truncated account of the sons of God myth. In this case, appears to be a deliberate editorial decision by the editors of Paul VI's Missal to eliminate the relevant verses. This, of course, leads us to the controversial topic of the new lectionary's redaction of scripture, which is another matter entirely.

There is an unavoidable question that comes up when discussing defunct liturgical texts: Is it possible to retrieve them and reapply them? In the instance of the Missale Romanum prior to the Pian reforms, the sons of God myth more specifically, it seems relatively easy. There is a contingent in Catholicism (be it Roman, Anglican, or even Western Rite Orthodox) that do not necessarily need to follow every pontifical directive on the liturgy and have proceeded to use prior editions of the Roman Missal, if not other branches of the Latin liturgy. In the instance of the reform of the Roman liturgy, the text were retrieved and reapplied in a selective if not ideological way, modified where the text did not reflect the editors' goals for the reformed Roman liturgy. It is the second instance which concerns us most. The majority of Catholics will likely not be part of a parish that uses the pre-Pian Holy Week liturgy, rather, they will be part of a parish that has either removed or severely redacted the text pertaining to the sons of God. How one answers the question of whether or not the text can be restored to the liturgy in those settings reflects how one conceives the liturgy. Is the liturgy something we create, or something we receive?

Without getting into a "pissing match" (as we call it in the real world) about who changed what first and when, the form and text of the pre-Pian reform, post-Pian reform, and Pauline reform missals is essentially fixed in place. Indeed, I think one can make the case that the pre-Pian will come into its own as a third option the vexed climate of the Roman liturgy (although, I still maintain the pre-Pian and post-PianMissale Romanum of Paul VI as a received liturgy and have done so by maximizing the usage of Latin in the celebration. If this continues and succeeds, whether using Latin or the vernacular, it is a crucial step towards establishing the Pauline liturgy as something received and, in turn, re-inducing a sense of perennial into the greater part of Catholicism. Once this happens to a liturgy, it is to a religious body's detriment if substantial changes are introduced, which a revision of the Easter readings would certainly be.

The wonderfully arcane text of Genesis 6:1-4 may well be lost in perpetual obscurity. We can discuss the revisions of Holy Week all we want, it does not change the fact that the significance of the text was not passed on. It was a prime candidate for elimination when Roman circles got that revision bug. Yet, it hardly seems as though the groups that would utilize the Roman Missal as it was before Pius XII's revision would know what to do with it. It would be read or chanted as proscribed by the rubrics, but it still lacks any poignant relevance.

Christianity long ago grew uncomfortable with a myth that had an influential role in its conception of reality, It tried various ways around the problem. The second prophecy of the pre-Pian Missal was, in a poetic way, a lingering reminder of the religion's original nexus, something that could not be shaken until the executive decision was made to excise it. Rightly or wrongly, the Church, both Eastern and Western really, has long since wandered from the ancient mythology represented in that text.


  1. Just stumbled upon your blog and thoroughly enjoyed most of the posts I've read but this one especially.

    -Just another frustrated westerner

  2. Thank you kindly. Western Christianity will find a way. Not sure what it will look like or when it will happen, but it will.