On traditional form

The times in which a new form is born are extremely rare in the history of mankind. Great forms are characterized by their ability to outlive the age in which they emerge and to pursue their path through all history’s hiatuses and upheavals. The Greek column with its Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian capitals is such a form, as is the Greek tragedy with its invention of dialogue that still lives on in the silliest soap opera. The Greeks regarded tradition itself as a precious object; it was tradition that created legitimacy. Among the Greeks, tradition stood under collective protection. The violation of tradition was called tyrannis—tyranny is the act of violence that damages a traditional form that has been handed down.

One form that has effortlessly overleaped the constraints of the ages is the Holy Mass of the Roman Church, the parts of which grew organically over centuries and were finally united at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. It was then that the missal of the Roman pope, which since late antiquity had never succumbed to heretical attack, was prescribed for universal use by Catholic Christendom throughout the West. If one considers the course of human history, it is nothing short of remarkable that the Roman Rite has survived the most violent catastrophes unaltered.

Without a doubt, the Roman Rite draws strength and vitality from its origin. It can be traced back to the apostolic age. Its form is intimately connected with the decades in which Christianity was established, the moment in history the Gospel calls the “fullness of time.” Something new had begun, and this newness, the most decisive turning point in world history, was empowered to take shape, take on form. Indeed, this newness came above all in the assumption of form. God the Creator took on the form of man, his creature. This is the faith of Christianity: In Christ all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form, even in that of a dead body. Spirit takes form. From this point on, this form is inseparable from the Spirit; the Risen One and Savior, returning to his Father, retains for all eternity the wounds of his death by torture. The attributes of corporeality assume infinite significance. The Christian Rite, of which the Roman Rite is an ancient part, thus became an incessant repetition of the Incarnation, and just as there is no limb of the human body that can be removed without harm or detriment, the Council of Trent decreed that, with respect to the liturgy of the Church, none of its parts can be neglected as unimportant or inessential without damage to the whole.

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