My undergraduate students recently read the anaphora from a source which has been referred to as “the Apostolic Tradition according to St. Hippolytus of Rome.” Whether the students knew this lengthy title or not is unclear, as I, being a Notre Dame graduate, have taken an oath to use a heavy black marker to “x” out ruthlessly all references to Hippolytus in text books of liturgical history.
But, regardless of whence the text comes, what surprised me was how the students read the text. The first things they noticed were the words that sounded most like the present-day Roman Rite. They immediately saw the sursum corda exchange, and the “words of institution.” But it took them longer to see the repeated reference to Jesus as a “beloved” child or servant, the recital of salvation history, and certainly (gasp) this reference to “milk which has been coagulated,” let alone the olives, cheese, and oil (translation by R.C.D. Jasper and G. J. Cuming, 3rd rev. ed., Liturgical Press, 1990). What to make of these things? Why were the surprises in the text the most difficult to see?
I think there are a number of issues at play which make looking at documents such as these challenging. First, it is difficult to read primary sources, which are translated and formatted to fit within the leaves of a modernly-paginated book. Maybe students, who are such visual learners, would do better with scrolls of papyrus—literally to see—that these words are ancient. It seems there is a (perhaps justified) tendency to disbelieve that which we cannot see—if it’s just a translation, can we trust the translator? Aside from any visual cue, the language is, of course, not constructed in ways immediately-graspable. We have a hard enough time with Shakespeare (try making an allusion to Hamlet and you’ll probably hear crickets!). And, not unlike Shakespeare, or any play, it is difficult to make sense of a text which is meant to be practiced, or performed. Reading it simply feels flat.
But, aside from these pedagogical or technical issues, the real challenge lies in interpretation of the text. What does this source mean? Is it theologically legitimate? Is it condemnable, on one point or another? The Apostolic Tradition was not alone in receiving this scrutiny; our class also discussed whether or not John Chrysostom’s eucharistic theology could hold water or not, as he seems unclear about “real presence.”
I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to read these texts again from the students’ perspective. The students are beholding a new thing. And, I recognize the desire to see the celebration of the Eucharist as constant and unchanging—and to set aside those aberrant witnesses which challenge our understanding of the ancient Church’s Eucharistic theology as wrong, confused, misinterpreted, even heretical. But, the text isn’t lying to us. It sits there, printed on its page, and asks us to grapple with ideas which, as John Melloh once said, “do not compute” for the modern mind. For example, from the Apostolic Tradition (chapter 6), following a blessing of bread, wine, and oil: “Likewise, if anyone offers cheese and olives, he shall say thus: ‘Sanctify this milk which has been coagulated, coagulating us also to your love.’”
Instead of claiming that this text is “wrong,” “taken out of context,” or refers to “something other than a Eucharist,” let’s appreciate the text for what it tells us: that variable items might have been presented in the context of the Eucharist, that these various items were common foodstuffs, and that these items offered theological symbols to interpret the Eucharist. Just as milk had been warmed, curdled, and congealed to form a delectable, soft goat cheese, so too do we desire our hearts to be on fire, changed, and born anew into a better Body, one which can be shaped by the grace of God, and serve as food for the world.
Reading ancient texts is challenging—but instead of looking for what is “wrong,” or even liking them because we recognize our present in them—let’s look for what they teach us. Certainly the history of liturgical texts invites us to a feast, full of rich fare. As one of my students’ textbooks asks, how will we respond to the banquet’s wisdom (Gary Macy, Banquet’s Wisdom, OSL Publications, 2005; Proverbs 9)?