Time to Turn the Palimpsest on 2020
Jan 15, 2021

Time to Turn the Palimpsest on 2020

The benefits of serving as Adoremus’s editor abound. For one, I get to read—and reread and re-reread—each excellent entry submitted by our fine authors. I’m able to work with a talented and generous team on a constant basis to deliver orthodox, joyful, and practical teaching on things liturgical. My frequent contacts with our readers and donors encourage me that our efforts are hitting home. It is work with many graces attached.

The work is also as informative for me as I hope it is for our readers. For example, one word that entered my lexicon this past year—thanks to our Managing Editor, Joseph O’Brien—is palimpsest. Even though Adoremus doesn’t have a “word of the year” entry, this old-fashioned yet newly-applicable term might be it.

A “palimpsest,” so I’ve learned, refers to a sheaf of writing material which has its text scraped or rubbed clear so that the sheaf can be reused. With the advent of the printing press, the term became largely the domain of archeologists and philologists seeking to discover fragments from yet one more lost work of Homer or Aristotle, for example, whose works were often copied by ancient scribes or medieval monks—only to be scraped (mostly) clean to make room for some more immediate need, such as a monastery’s pantry inventory.

Imagine how time intensive and therefore costly it was to create a piece of parchment: a lamb was born, fed and watered, killed, and flayed. Its skin was then cleaned, soaked, stretched, stored carefully, and then used to inscribe everything from laundry lists to epic poems—and back again. Unlike modern paper that is easily tossed and replaced afresh, a used piece of parchment was effaced and reused, even though past markings still remained. A well-used and well-loved palimpsest thus held signs of its past, even as it was used in the present, for the sake of future generations.

So: what possible application does “palimpsest” have to the Church’s liturgical life as 2020 turns into 2021? I propose that we turn the page—or the palimpsest—on the old year, but not without first considering what we learned from the already-fading text of 2020.

First consider how, figuratively speaking, the pages of the Missal were “scoured clean” of much of their content: Holy Week was cancelled (at least as far as the public was concerned). Palms were eliminated. No washing of the feet. No veneration of the Cross. No Easter fire or Lumen Christi. And then, when Masses did resume on a regular basis, singing was silenced, holy water drained, the sign of peace prohibited. The communion to the faithful hardly resembled what the Missal prescribed: no chalice, no communion on the tongue, and even the dialogue, “The Body of Christ,” followed by the communicants’ “Amen,” was occasionally omitted. In some places, the faithful were even encouraged to depart the building immediately after receiving!

This past year’s COVID restrictions on the Mass—however time will judge them—obscured the “red and the black” texts of the Missal, leaving only traces of its full power and radiance. Instead, liturgical celebrations only dimly revealed the full radiance of the Lamb. In short, this palimpsest-of-a-Missal lost much of the legibility it possessed during pre-pandemic times.

On the other hand—and here is the second reason why we wish to turn the palimpsest on 2020—we are given a kind of subsequent clean slate in 2021 to restore the Missal to its full power (continuing COVID restrictions notwithstanding). The wiping away of much of the Missal’s prescriptions provides the opportunity to restore them appropriately. When singing returns, for example, what ought it sound like? Rubbed clear of insipid and doctrinally questionable hymns, let liturgical music resound with scriptural antiphons—just as the Missal itself desires (see General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) 40-41, 48). When the all-clear sounds to reinstate the sign of peace, how ought it be restored? Not to its former state of meaningless glad-handing, but as a solemn occasion to encounter the peace of the risen Christ—just as the Missal writes (GIRM 82, 154). When the chalice is offered to the people once again, how ought they receive it? Not as the time to “get the wine” or the occasion to once again needlessly multiply extraordinary ministers of holy communion, but as the humble honor to share in the sacrificial banquet of Christ, to consummate the sacrifice that we, the baptized, have in our own proper way helped to offer through the priest’s hands, and to be transformed by entering the very bloodstream of Christ (a kind of “consanguinity,” as Pope Benedict once put it)—just as the pages of the Missal envision (GIRM 85, 162, 281-3).

Recall, a palimpsest has scraped clear undesirable or unnecessary text, but these marks are not altogether lost but survive in faint hints, much like a faded photograph. As far as our Missal and our Mass are concerned, we should be glad to be rid of 2020’s liturgical deformations, even while we carry lessons learned into 2021. And as we do restore the Missal and the Mass to their full form, we do so reading also the marks of tradition. Pope John Paul II offers a remark on the 25th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium about liturgical reform that is applicable to our experience of 2020 and our hopes for 2021. He says, “The seed was sown; it has known the rigors of winter, but the seed has sprouted, and become a tree. It is a matter of the organic growth of a tree becoming ever stronger the deeper it sinks its roots into the soil of tradition” (Vicesimus Quintus Annus, 23).

As our Missal and Mass have known the “rigors” of 2020’s COVID-19, may we turn the page and find 2021’s experience one of sinking “its roots into the soil of tradition” and yielding abundant fruit for years to come.