“Liturgical Texts” in LSB

(Post edited 8/9/16, 8 pm)

One of the greatest features of the Lutheran Service Book family of books—including the Treasury of Daily Prayer—is that the biblical sources of the liturgical texts are all marked in the margins.

This is both informative—it teaches us where those texts are taken from—and edifying—it is a constant reminder that the vast majority of the liturgical texts come from the Scriptures rather than from the mind of some person or committee.

Every now and then, however, instead of the Bible, the reference is to a nebulous “Liturgical Text”, with no further clue as to what the source might be. Are those references the product of the mind of some person or committee?

As it turns out, the answer is a bit of yes and a bit of no. These portions of text, which are found almost exclusively in the various responsive chants of the orders of service (introits, graduals, Alleluia verses, responsories, and such like) are indeed taken from writings that are not in the 66 (Protestant) canonical books of the Bible but are found in the liturgical tradition of the Western church: the Latin sacramentaries and liturgies of the hours compiled in the first millennium.

However, with very few exceptions, these texts are not from the mind of a person or a committee any more than the biblical texts.

Instead, they are most commonly taken from books we refer to as the Old Testament Apocrypha: those writings which are found in the Septuagint (3rd century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament) but not in the Hebrew Bible.

Both the Eastern and Western churches read the books of the Apocrypha in the daily office (Matins, Vespers, etc.), as did the Lutheran and Anglican churches long after the Reformation. Since the responsories that follow the readings were often tailored to match the readings in any particular office, whenever readings were from a certain book, the responsory may well draw on the same book.

To give an example, the responsory appointed for the weeks of Propers 14–20 of the Post-Pentecost Season (Trinity 14–19) in the Treasury, has its origin in the service of Matins. From Septuagesima onwards, the Old Testament was read in that service continuously. In late summer, the readings were from the book of Judith, and so the responsories were also drawn from the book of Judith:

L: We have no other God except the Lord, in whom we trust. (Judith 8:19b Vulgate)

C: He does not despise us, nor does He take away His salvation from us (Judith 8:19b Vulgate)

L: Let us seek His mercy with tears, (Judith 8:14b Vulgate)
and humble ourselves before Him (Judith 8:16a Old Latin translation)

C: He does not despise…

Likewise, the previous season for Propers 8–13 is from the book of Tobit.

A complex set of factors have detached the responsories from their original context in the Lutheran church, not least our modern-day aversion to the Apocrypha and the near-death of the Daily Office in our church and personal lives.

It’s a shame that the editors of the LSB decided further to obscure our connection to the generations that came before us by concealing the source of these liturgical materials. After all, which is more offensive to a church that claims to be in continuity with the Church Catholic: the use of quasi-biblical texts that were read from the first apostolic generation of Christians until the eighteenth century, or the use of texts that came from the mind of some unknown person or committee?

Source: Ruth Steiner, “Gregorian Responsories Based on Texts from the Book of Judith“, in Terence Bailey and Alma Santosuosso, Music in Mediaeval Europe: Studies in Honour of Bryan Gillingham (Aldershot/Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 23–33

Bring back The Office

No, not this one. Or that. The original.

Because repetition is the mother of all learning.

I am frequently struck by the extent and depth of the biblical knowledge of the fathers—the apostles, the fathers of the early church, the Mediæval doctors, the Reformers and the great theologians of the late-16th and 17th centuries. How did they manage to absorb the Scriptures so thoroughly?

This facility with the Bible is most obviously demonstrated in two features of their writing. First, there are the frequent minor errors in quotations and references, which show that the author is quoting from memory. Secondly, it’s frequently difficult to tell where the Scripture reference begins and ends, because the author’s language is so thoroughly suffused with biblical language as to blur the edges. (In NT scholarship, there is talk of “echoes” of Old Testament in the language of the apostles.)

Nor is this biblical facility restricted to professional theologians. I remember being struck, when preparing a performance of Heinrich Schütz’s Seven Last Words, to see that the composer grossly misquotes John’s reference to the hyssop branch used to offer a vinegar-filled sponge to Jesus. It’s obvious that (a) he had forgotten what hyssop was and, therefore, (b) he can’t have been copying the words down from a book, but rather from memory. He got all the other words verbatim.

How did they manage to learn so much, so well—all without Navigators flash cards?

The answer (at least part of it): the Office. The Liturgy of the Hours.

From time immemorial, the Christian Church has marked each day, and different parts of the day, with the Word of God and prayer. The form of these services has varied from time to time, from one place to another, and from one setting to another. But it has always been there.

When the Lutheran reformers, or the later Lutheran theologians, were little lads at school, they participated in the Daily Office. At the very least, each day began and closed with a service where they sang the Psalms and heard readings from the Old and New Testaments (as well as the Apocrypha). Day in, day out. Year after year.

Then they went to university (or the monastery), and carried on doing the same, or in the case of the monastery, an awful lot more of the same.

And then they were ordained, so they continued to do so as part of their vocation in the church.

A whole lifetime of singing, hearing, reading the Scriptures, twice-daily or more. Repetition upon repetition.

And so they learned.

Looking back at the brief history of my church, there is much that is good, worthy of gratitude. Some things I wish hadn’t happened, and some things I wish that had happened.

I do wish that from the very start, all pastors would have been encouraged—nay, instructed—to observe the Daily Office in their churches, and to encourage all members of their congregations to attend these services as much as possible, so that priest and people alike grow in the Scriptures.

As of this autumn, that is what has started to happen in my congregation (see details here and here). I have been saying Matins privately for years, mostly silently in my study. A few months of public recitation of the Psalter and the reading of Scripture has already made a significant difference.

I started at 40. God willing, if I’m as average as I appear in other respects, I may have another 40 years to go. If in those 40 years I absorb a small part of what Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Gerhard, Schütz or Bach absorbed, I will consider myself blessed.

P.S. I am increasingly convinced also that assigning the same melodies to the same Psalms is an important tool in the learning. If I ever edit a Psalter, each Psalm will have its appointed chant. But that’s really another topic for another post.