Sunday, November 27, 2011

What's New?

The Christian Year began with a bit of an uproar in the churches of our Roman Catholic neighbors. A new translation of the Mass from Latin appeared simultaneously for all English-speaking congregations this morning, the First Sunday of Advent. It’s no surprise that the change is controversial.

The idea, according to those who are behind this change, is to provide a more accurate translation of the Latin words. For example, when the priest says, “The Lord be with you,” or “Peace be with you,” the new response from the people is to be “And with your spirit,” which is a literal translation of “et cum spiritu tuo.” Previously the response was simply, “And also with you.”

The concern, however, was not simply to be accurate, but to get away from familiar speech to a more formal language appropriate to the worship of Almighty God.

The issue of what liturgical language should look and sound like is an old one, to be sure. In living memory, how people spoke and sang in worship (Protestant as well as Roman Catholic) changed because of the Second Vatican Council’s allowing the Mass to be celebrated in languages other than Latin. The English version was produced in 1973 and has been around ever since, up until this morning when the new version appeared.

For Presbyterians, the major shift appeared about the same time with the Worshipbook Services in 1970 and the Worshipbook Services and Hymns in 1972. The controversy then was over “contemporary” language, in particular addressing God with the familiar “You” rather than the more formal “Thee” and “Thou.” *

To many the “new” Mass will seem to be a retreat into the Pre-Vatican II era, or at least an unraveling of the Council’s achievements. Many Protestants will undoubtedly view it as such. To others it will be an accomplishment long awaited. To some, most, perhaps, it won’t matter one way or the other.

However you score the new Mass compared with the old version, the question is clear: How do we find the appropriate language for worship—language both worthy of worshipping the Divine, and capable of meaning to those who use it?

On one hand, it’s the difference between approaching God in awe as the fearsome and holy “Other,” and the “palsy-walsy” treatment of God as our Best Friend and Buddy. Somewhere there is a line which leaves us within reach of both the Almighty Creator and Judge and the intimate Father introduced to us by Jesus Christ.

Therefore, liturgical language is going to need to be theologically sensitive.

On the other hand, much depends on how useful the users of the language find it. Language that is elegant to the point of being stilted may seem pious to some, but it will slip out of reach of many others. A quick read of the new Roman Catholic Mass text leaves me with the impression that it is attempting to be more dignified, but in some places comes off as stuffy and priestly pompous. Certainly this is not a pitfall for Roman Catholics only—Protestants know how to inflate pious-ity in their worship as well.

Therefore, liturgical language must also be familiar enough to the worshippers to fit meaningfully in their mouths and thoughts.

Our Roman Catholic friends will struggle for a time getting used to the new Mass, just as Christians everywhere will have to wrestle with change. Whenever there is reform and renewal, some degree of adjustment is needed. That’s the way growth takes place. Better for us to deal with change than it is for us to go stale with the same-old-same-old worship.

What has changed in the worship at your church in the past ten years? Is the language used in worship your language? Is it too fancy and hifalutin? Or is it too common and everyday?
*It is ironic that “thee” and “thou” were originally the familiar forms one used to address family and close friends.


  1. I think it's important to strike the right mix - a fine line for sure. I know there are times when formal language lends a gravity to the proceedings, and I like that. But other times, the language can get in the way. "And also with your spirit" doesn't really mean anything to me and becomes something you produce out of your mouth rather than something you say with meaning. A rote phrase that's not connected, much as the Latin of the Mass was prior to Vatican II.
    Cool about the thee and thou thing. I'll remind the kids of that when we make them read a grace at dinner with lots of thees and thous!

  2. I have recently become aware of "Mishkan T'fillah," the new prayerbook for Reform Judaism and over the weekend acquired a copy. The two-page introduction is a highly condensed discussion of the issues of language. "The challenge of a single liturgy is to be not only multi-vocal, but poly-vocal--to invite full participation at once, without conflicting with the ,keva' text." Mishkan is prepared to alter the text, to make it "acceptable," but this is done with great sensitivity to historical and theological issues involved. A prayerful study of the "Mishkan" could help Christians develop a language for prayer that is faithful to the Tradition and to Life.

  3. With seven years of Latin, I know my prof would have given me a low grade if I simply translated the Latin words, rather than re-phrasing in the modern idiom. The RC church seems to be regressing in that if it takes 4-5 English syllables of an unfamiliar word to match the Latin, what ever became of "vernacular?" Somebody asked me last night if Christ spoke in Latin or his own vernacular.


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