Family Trees

LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

Family Trees

There's another "bit of history" (like several thousand years worth) involved in Catholic liturgical prayer that plays an important part in the praises at the Field of Cormallen and the annual cycles we find in LotR, as well as other events with liturgical undertones (for example, the celebration with Gildor's company, the sharing of story and song in the Hall of Fire, and the King's coronation). It even gave Tolkien a starting point for the religious observances - or lack thereof - of the descendants of the Númenoreans*.

A few weeks ago, I heard on the radio an interview with a Catholic author about a book he'd written on the Sacraments. We've all had experiences with relatives when we've wanted to nudge people and say, "I'm not really with him" - haven't we? Throughout the interview, I shuddered to think what non-Catholics listening to it would hear. He spent the majority of the time explaining why the Catholic Church insists that grape wine and unleavened bread be used in celebrating the Eucharist. His explanation used some of the most convoluted philosophical and theological arguments I've ever heard. If I hadn't been driving, I'd have thrown my hands in the air. His arguments might be valid, but why complicate something that has clear, simple history behind it? The Catholic Church insists that grape wine and unleavened bread be used to celebrate the Eucharist because that's what Jewish Tradition calls for at the Passover meal - when Jesus gave us that Sacrament he was sharing the Passover meal with his disciples, and he used what was in front of him. As the Gospel of John emphasizes, it wasn't an accident that Jesus' death and Resurrection occurred at the time of Passover; they were the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice. Among the infinite Sacramental layers of the Eucharist, the use of grape wine and unleavened bread reminds us of that fulfillment.

The first part of the Mass follows the pattern of a synagogue service, with Scripture readings and a teaching on them, along with some shared prayer. Following that is what the early Christians called "the breaking of the bread," and when it begins, we're immediately immersed in the Passover. Anyone who's had the good fortune to be invited to share a Seder with a Jewish family at Passover will hear an echo in the prayer said when the priest first holds the bread and wine to be used at Mass: "Blessed are You, Lord, God of all creation..." It's very similar to the prayer used by the father (or other leader) at the Passover meal, thanking God for the gift of bread and the "fruit of the vine."

When it comes right down to it, Catholics have used liturgical prayer for 2000 years because the Jewish religion has used it far longer than that, and everything we have has come from the Jews. Christianity began as a Jewish sect. Those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah didn't stop attending the synagogue or practicing other religious rituals; they only added to them the breaking of the bread, for which they gathered in homes. As mentioned earlier, the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, with prayers for specific times of day, has its roots in Jewish hours of prayer. The Jewish year - which follows its own calendar - is an annual cycle of feasts and commemorations, as is the Catholic liturgical year. Ever wonder why Catholics have "Sunday Mass" on Saturday evening? Because Jewish feast days - including the Sabbath each week - begin the evening before (this plays a part in the Gospel accounts of the burial of Jesus).

Why such a Catholic affinity for Jewish practices? Because it's who we are and where we come from. When the first Christians were no longer welcome in the synagogue, they didn't stop listening to and learning from Scripture; they simply followed the pattern of the synagogue service when they gathered for the Eucharist, before they shared the breaking of the bread. When Paul and others brought Christianity to the Gentiles, it was already joined to the Jewish patterns of worship from the synagogue service and the Passover meal; unlike the worship of pre-Christian Gentiles, Jewish worship was of the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob worshipped by Christians, who added their belief that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Over the centuries, various groups of Gentiles have had an effect on the way Catholics use liturgical prayer. The vestments the priest wears at Mass started as third-century Roman clothing. In France during the time of Charlemagne, more openly symbolic (even theatrical) features were added. Many of these "accretions" were removed when the Liturgy was updated in the 1960's, but these were only window dressing; our Jewish roots have always been just beneath the surface.

My flippant statement in the previous essay that "when there are so many people in so many places praying all at once, we need something to keep us together," probably applies to Jews even more than it does to Catholics. I believe that the shared cycle of annual commemorations and the specific traditions of prayer such as the Kaddish and the Haggada, have been potent forces in keeping the Jewish religion in existence for millennia despite the Diaspora, forced resettlement, pogroms, and the Holocaust.

As groups of Christians founded different denominations, each removal took that group further from Judaism. Catholics are, you might say, first generation descendents - or immigrants - rather than more distant relatives who've assimilated a new culture. Ever since Paul started preaching to the Gentiles, most of us haven't been Jewish by physical heredity. But, as Paul reminds us, we've been grafted onto that vine. Our identity as the people of God comes from those He chose to carry His revelation, from Abraham, through Jesus of Nazareth, to the disciples gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem on Pentecost (which is, by the way, a Jewish feast).  

Reflecting on all of this, and listening to the Jewish echoes at Mass today (it's Pentecost!), I think this is another piece of misunderstanding between Tolkien and some of his Christian readers. The complaint that his stories don't contain anything specifically, exclusively Christian has always been hard for me to understand - they're set in pre-Christian times, so how could they? If we look at Christianity's Jewish roots, we can see that the only element that Christianity can claim exclusively is belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Messiah, which has no place in Middle-earth during the ages Tolkien writes about. That one element, of course, includes Jesus' teachings; it's not surprising, though, that (apart from statements He made specifically about Himself) Jesus' teachings are a continuation and deepening of Jewish teaching, not a break from it - that's who He was. Which makes it pretty difficult to find anything in Christianity that isn't also found in Judaism - except for Him.  

*A couple of these essays have mentioned the parallel Tolkien draws between the Jews after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Númenoreans after the destruction of their place of worship in the downfall of Númenor. Because sacrifice could be offered only in the Temple, destruction of the Temple ended the practice of sacrifice for the Jews. The Númenoreans believed that the mountain in Númenor was the one place they could worship the One. So when Númenor was destroyed and the small group of those faithful to Eru arrived in Middle-earth, they believed that without their place of worship they could only reflect on and remember Eru; they believed they could no longer pray to or worship Him - that is, they could no longer have direct contact with Him.