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.