Saturday, May 12, 2007

New and Old

The New Testament derives its titles for ecclesiastical offices not from the Jewish or Gentile cultic terminology of the time but from the secular realm of the political order. This proven fact, however, in my opinion, does not carry such an obvious significance as is frequently supposed. The intention evidently was to prevent all possibility of confusing the new Christian dispensation with the Mosaic rites of the temple or, even more importantly, with pagan cultic terms. Does not every “first generation” find itself in such a unique situtation, its identity precarious and threatened? I know of a European Catholic missionary, working for decades in India, who had the sacred om of Hinduism (in Bengal script rendered with three letters) engraved on the bse of his chalice as a symbol of the Trinity. Yet for a newly converted Hindu this would be inappropriate. His first and decisive concern has to concentrate on living out and clarifying the radically new demands of his young Christian faith, and so he must first turn away entirely from his “former” ways and avoid confusion between the “new” and the “old”.

The missionary, in contrast, can afford to be open-minded in this respect since his faith is not imperiled here; he is right in emphasizing common ground in spite of all differences. And since in the celebration of the Christian mysteries the rites of the temple and all pagan cults were not only supplanted but at the same time purified, corrected, perfected, and fulfilled, it became possible for later generations in the early Church, rightfully and in all sincerity, to adopt into their own language quite a number of expressions from Jewish as well as pagan rituals, without having to fear confusing misconceptions anymore.

We should point out here, in passing, as it were, that we no longer have any direct knowledge about the “connotations”, the contexts and implications, of those designations taken from the political sphere, or of how they were used in the living language of the first century. Those, however, who nowadays speak of the bishop as the “supervisor”, or the priest as the “presider at the Eucharistic assembly”, are simply using a stylish “jargon” aimed not so much as defining a situation as at hitting an opposing position.

— Josef Pieper, In Search of the Sacred

This is a good explanation of the “lateness” of some “ancient” Christian feasts, as well as a caution against “arguing from history”.


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