Don't elaborate ceremonies contradict
the simplicity of the Gospel?

Jesus Christ said he came not to abolish the Law or the Prophets;[1] yet some Christians today sincerely believe that he came to abolish religion in general. Christianity, they say, is "not a religion but a relationship." Incense, vestments, sacred chant, and so on are, in their view, vestiges of the Old Testament which are no longer of value for God's people. In their minds public Christian worship is more or less a casual affair determined by the local community and completely changeable. They find repugnant the very idea of a fixed form of worship overseen by a divinely instituted hierarchy. Besides them, there are of course others with a less radical view, but still opposed to "high religion" or at least uncomfortable with it.

Christ did challenge the religious authorities of his day and their traditions, or at least their legalistic observance of them; and the institutions with which he endowed his Church do supercede those of the Old Testament. Baptism, and no longer circumcision, is the sign of the Covenant between God and his people; and Christ himself is our sacrificial victim, rather than animals. But this is no less a religion than that of the Old Testament; it is rather the fullness of religion.

It is also true that the ceremonies and observances of the Old Testament were very elaborate and spelled out in great detail by God himself, and that over time this was overlaid with many customs and traditions not specified by the Lord—whereas our Incarnate Lord left to his Church to determine many details of her public worship and her discipline. Still, it is not out of keeping with the nature of the Church, but intrinsic to her nature that she should grow.

Our Lord said that his Kingdom is like a tiny seed that grows into a great tree.[2] To expect the tree to look like the seed would be absurd. There is of course continuity: with every living thing, growth is natural and gradual. If that growth is observed in real time, the changes are imperceptible; but over time we see that the changes tend to the perfection of the thing. In other words, it becomes larger and more complex without violence to its nature. This is what is meant by "organic growth."[3]

In the 16th century, and again in the 20th, there was a peculiar fascination with the Primitive Church. Over the centuries, it was claimed, the Church had drifted increasingly farther from her origins, adding random prayers and customs to her worship until it became so encrusted with decadent, esoteric Medieval ritual, it no longer served its purpose. The proposed solution was to discard centuries of liturgical and doctrinal development to return to a supposedly purer faith.

Pope Pius XII condemned this error in 1947, calling it "antiquarianism."[4] The problems with it are manifold. For one, it denies the role of the Holy Ghost over time in shaping the worship of the Mystical Body of which he is the very soul. Those grand ceremonies which naturally took shape over centuries of Christian piety, and which still lift man's heart and mind to heavenly realities, are by no means random or useless. Those beautiful prayers and chants which are the fruit of saintly lives of contemplation, which have stood the test of time, are no artifacts of decadence.

True, Christ's message and life were simple; but also profound: so much so that for 2,000 years, the greatest contemplatives and theologians have not exhausted the truths contained in them. True, the Last Supper was not a Missa Solemnis with pipe organ and four-part polyphonic choir, but it was nevertheless a most solemn ritual; and the rites and ceremonies which have since developed around it under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, composed by men who chose the simplest lives, are by no means contrary to the simple message of the holy gospel, but rather inspire and assist us to live in harmony with it. For it is not by lowering God to our level that we render him true worship, but by lifting our hearts and minds to him, and by rendering him due honor as Lord. Our God has indeed become one of us; but he has not ceased to be God. The gospel is simple, not puerile.

1. Mt. v, 17

2. Lk. xiii, 19

3. See, e.g., Vatican II's document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 23.

4. Mediator Dei, nos. 62-64


Todd Aylard