Synodalia: Jottings on the margins of the Synod
Many of us will remember that much of the justification for the liturgical reform lay in an appeal to the early Church, a return to the sources and primitive purity, when liturgy had not yet acquired the accretions and “useless repetitions” of more recent centuries. It is more than open to debate that the subsequent reform has been successful. In part this is due to a failure to see that rituals can legitimately develop as the understanding of their significance expands. Some might argue that the liturgical reform’s exaltation of the primitive involved selling off a Porsche 911 in order to obtain a Model-T Ford.
However, with Christian truth, there can be no change. We might understand it more fully, express it in a more accessible way, apply it more fruitfully as time goes on – but truth remains true. So for theology it is legitimate to look back to the early Church to see the sapling form of our doctrinal oaks of today.
So, for example, the Synod Fathers might like to look back to the Didache, among the oldest extant pieces of Christian instruction dating from the mid-1st century and pre-dates most, if not all, the New Testament. Some labour its significance in some areas, but it is clearly written by Christians still in touch with at least one of the apostles. There are two clear principles (at least) about the Eucharist and ecclesial communion that might help the Synod today.
The first is simply and quickly put: Regarding admission to Eucharistic Communion, the teaching is from our Lord Himself: Do not give what is holy to the dogs. (9:5) Clearly, not everyone was admitted to the Eucharist even then. Now, it might be argued, that this comes explicitly in the context of excluding the non-baptized. However, a little later it teaches When gathering on the Lord’s Day, break bread and make Eucharist, confessing your sins beforehand so that your sacrifice may be worthy (14:1). As the Orthodox still proclaim before the reception of Communion, it is a case of Holy things for the holy.
Surely the modern obsession with avoiding any possibility that people might feel excluded or isolated is not totally new. Surely even in the early years of the Church there were some who felt a keen sympathy, even pity, for the public sinner doing penance or the non-baptized enquirer who was dismissed from the Mass after the homily. Both were not permitted to approach the altar to receive. Were they so hard of heart that they rigidly applied doctrine without a second thought?
In fact, the Didache reveals that early Christians acted far more in authentic solidarity with those not in communion than those who advocate an open-table for those in grave sin or outside communion. The relevant section is brief and spare, but pregnant with significance:
And prior to baptism, both he who is baptizing and he who is being baptized should fast, along with any others who can. (7:4)
So not only was the one preparing to enter communion told to fast, but so too the clergy and as many of the congregation as possible. This was their act of solidarity with the one not yet admitted to communion, and Communion. It is not a private matter for the neophyte alone. Says the scholar Thomas O’Loughlin:
If one accepts the notion… that they imagined a universe where spiritual benefits could be transferred from one person to another, then it may be that the fast of the various members of the church was to produce a benefit that could be transferred from them to their new brother/sister to enable the initiate to turn away from his or her sins and to enter Christ. [...]
… the involvement of the minister and preferably others in the community points to the fast being a collective act of intercession for the candidate. If the demons are to be confronted and ejected, then all involved must work together to bring about their casting out from the individual. (1)
Now, this is nothing but a reference to the treasury of the Church’s merits as we understand it today. The Church offers prayer and fasting in order to prosper the admission of the neophyte to the Church and so to the altar. The Church, in the tangible form of her members, stands in active solidarity with those not yet in Communion. It hardly needs to be pointed out that this works also for those outside Communion due to sin. The Church can offer prayer and fasting that the sinner might be freed from his or her sin and restored to Communion.
So, instead of fabricating false solutions or running down dead-end paths, why could the Synod not exhort the Church to show real solidarity with the active homosexual or the remarried divorcee: to pray earnestly and fast fervently that they might be liberated from sin and restored to Communion. They do not need a sop to their feelings, but help to their salvation.
It’s just a thought….
(1) Thomas O’Loughlin ‘The Didache as a Source for Picturing the Earliest Christian Communities: The Case of the Practice of Fasting’ in K. O’Mahony ed., Christian Origins: Worship, Belief and Society [Journal for the Study of the New Testament: Supplement Series 241], Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003, p.97.