How do you define “ancient”?

In an blog post by David Clayton, one of our friends* over at the New Liturgical Movement, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was described as an “ancient Church devotion”. (An aside: the photos of the Sacred Heart Shrine at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis associated with this article are particularly stunning: well worth a look.)

A blog post from “The Liturgical Pimpernel” opens with this salvo: “‘The liturgical books of 1962’. That is what Catholics of the Roman Rite are to use if they wish to worship according to the ancient liturgical forms.”

While the Sacred Heart devotion can be supported from scripture, its first flourishing in any sort of recognizable form comes from about the turn of the first Christian millennium. The liturgical forms in the Missale Romanum of 1962 developed over many centuries prior to 1570, true, but their connection to antiquity (especially as currently celebrated) is contestable. Neither of these would I consider “ancient”.

Calling something — anything — ancient (or otherwise appealing to antiquity) without solid historical evidence doesn’t fly far in my opinion (no surprise there). Ongoing scholarship in liturgical history calls the research of the last century or so, upon which many of our historical presuppositions have been built, into serious question. Particularly with regard to the period that I would consider “ancient” — prior to the year 450, Paul Bradshaw expresses some doubts:

historical research. . . does not give us the grounds for concluding that there is any fundamental continuity, except in the very broadest of terms. . . . There are very few things that Christians have consistently done in worship at all times and in all places. Of course, the task is made somewhat easier if one restricts one’s vision to just a single ecclesiastical tradition and ignores all the rest, but even there the genuine historical continuities are generally fewer than the often sweeping generalisations of liturgical theologians seem to suggest.

— Paul F. Bradshaw, “Difficulties in Doing Liturgical Theology,” Pacifica 11 (1998):181-194, here at 184-185.

In this light, I suspect some rather bald uses of the term “ancient” are little more than grasping at straws.

So — how do you define “ancient”?

*I really do consider the good folks over at the NLM to be friends. I think we’re all working for the same ultimate ends, even if we’re approaching things from very, very different angles.


  1. In my usage, I tend to limit the use of the word “ancient” to early Christianity, generally before 450.

    Paul Bradshaw was my off-campus dissertation advisor at just about the time the statement you cited came out in Pacifica. This was what I found him to be saying and teaching then, as well, and I think he’s right. So whenever I make an appeal to a liturgical precedent as “ancient” in my work for my denomination (I’m the liturgical officer for The United Methodist Church), I also qualify that by noting where and when a statement was made or a practice described.

    Antiquity alone is not a guarantee of authority.

    Authority happens then, as now, in situ. It happens, I would suggest, because there is a deep coherence between what the way of Jesus seems to say to a particular people in a particular place and the way they live their lives in light of all of that.

    For me this is a theological and missiological matter, and not simply an historical or sociological one. It is God-dwelling-with-us that we have in Jesus Christ. It is Christ-in-our-midst that discloses the hope of glory.

  2. I suspect people conflate “ancient” with “immemorial”. That’s reasonable proximate to common usage, so I would not correct it as incorrect.

    Ancient in a more technical sense might be limited to classical Antiquity, the historical period roughly before the early AD 7th century (when there were major shifts in the West, near East, the Indian subcontinent and China).

  3. “Ancient” can be a subjective term. When our college students talk about “traditional” music they often mean Haas/Haugen/Jesuits/Joncas. To them, that’s traditional while LifeTeen music is contemporary.

    1. Yes, it speaks to the ‘dumbing down’ of careful distinctions of the actual meanings of words in a (Western) cultural context. Your life-teen example fails to note the difference between “custom” (recent) and “traditional” (long-standing). Now, those are subjective terms, no doubt. Let us (“may we” [blech]) define ‘tradition’ in centuries and ‘custom’ in decades)

  4. Arianism is ancient, perhaps more ancient than “orthodoxy.” Shall we become Latter Day Saints?

    The 80’s are ancient? Wow! I thought it was Worship I and Gelineau.

    Well, at least we’re all together, singing our songs.

    1. And Quartodecimanism was older, and more prevalent, than observance of Easter on Sunday. I’m not suggesting that we embrace it, or orthodoxy.

      What I am suggesting is that we all be a little more honest in calling old things old (however old that may be), especially when that old-ness is part of an authoritative claim.

      1. You’re definitely the one “grasping at straws” here.

        The liturgical forms in the Missale Romanum of 1962 developed over many centuries prior to 1570, true, but their connection to antiquity (especially as currently celebrated) is contestable. Neither of these would I consider “ancient”.

        So you use the word differently than they do? This doesn’t really show anything other than that they use the word differently than you do. They’re not wrong, indeed, their usage conforms to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

        1: having had an existence of many years
        2: of or relating to a remote period, to a time early in history, or to those living in such a period or time; especially : of or relating to the historical period beginning with the earliest known civilizations and extending to the fall of the western Roman Empire in a.d. 476
        3: having the qualities of age or long existence: as
        a : venerable
        b : old-fashioned, antique

        It’s probably worth remembering that much of the language, culture and foundation of this liturgical debate is adopted from French sources, where the term “ancien regime” doesn’t refer to the Roman rule of Gaul.

  5. It is just as interesting to reflect on the confusion surrounding the word “contemporary.” Depending on context, its usage can vary radically. Consider for example how it is understood in the typical parish as opposed to what it means in the university music history course.

  6. The original post is, I think, a bit dishonest.

    Devotion to the sacred heart is an inherent part of devotion to the five holy wounds of Jesus. In light of this, it is – surely – fully fair and accurate to refer to it as ‘ancient’, even though it only because as prominent as it is now much later than that.

  7. When the word “ancient” is used as a “sweeping generality” it certainly sounds very subjective to me and I agree that any claims of liturgical practices being “ancient” need to be qualified by details of time and place. I think we often make exaggerated claims about the past to promote our liturgical opinions.

  8. I agree with almost every thing you say Fr. Cody. Certainly, most of the EF is not a product of late antiquity. Most of the ordinary of the Mass is post-antique. While the sequences are beautiful and very meaningful, most date from the early to mid medieval period. Although I disagree with the decision to remove the Dies Irae from the reformed requiem Mass, I respect that the requiem sequence is a relatively recent liturgical development.

    The preface dialogue and the Roman Canon are late antique prayers, however. I have never understood the post-conciliar desire to introduce new eucharistic prayers or even translate the Roman Canon into any vernacular. In my view, the recitation of the preface dialogue and Canon in Latin connect the Mass with the earliest fringes of institutional Christianity in the West and even farther back into the cultic language of Rome and the Hellenistic world. If I were a priest I would not hesitate to frequently say these parts in Latin at a Mass otherwise said in the vernacular. The priest’s aspiration of ‘Te’ joins a particular Mass with the billion of other ‘Te’s pronounced throughout the history of Western Christianity. The profundity of this experience is uniquely awesome and indicative of the enduring heart of the eucharistic sacrifice. I do hope that some priests would consider saying the Canon in Latin at a vernacular Mass (some do on request.)

  9. I’m reminded of a line by a Jewish character in Tony Kushner’s Angles in America:
    “Any religion less than 2000 years old is a cult. And I know people who would call that generous.”

    1. Hi, Adam Wood —

      I believe that quote is from the Carl Reiner/Mel Brooks routine “The 2000 Year Old Man”.


  10. I’m not sure how I’d define “ancient”… Most of my work is focused on Western sources from the 7th through the 10th centuries, though, so I tend to refer to anything from the eleventh century on up as “recent.”

    Both Trent and the Protestant Reformations just about qualify as “newfangled.” 😉

  11. Well I guess I like to reserve the word ancient for things that existed before the Common Era, preferably things that also lasted for a long time even if some of that was into the Common Era, e.g. ancient Greece, ancient Rome, ancient Judaism.

    That means that both Christianity and Islam are not ancient religions. Guess I find that convenient as a social scientist since they are also the two largest religions with more than half the world’s population. One could argue that religion progresses, as Rodney Stark does in the Discovery of God. Of course Stark also argued that Islam is not progress over Christianity.

    As an adherent of Christianity which is based upon a new revelation and Christ as the new Adam, I like talking about Christianity as new rather than old, or ancient.

    Therefore, I prefer talking about early Christianity rather than ancient Christianity. Ancient Christianity seems to say that it was not new in the centuries following its origin. Likewise I would not describe any Christian liturgy as ancient. Generally I think better descriptive words can be found in regard to time and place.

    Just my professional preferences, historians probably look at things differently.

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