I cringe slightly when a homilist begins to talk about the Early Church—not that, as a Catholic, I feel there’s anything to fear from them; au contraire. I cringe because too often the reason for raising the specter of The Early Church seems to be a way of discrediting it—not exactly as a bogeyman, but as a harmless ghost or gnome: a little old fashioned, but really quite gemütlich in its own preserve.
The most recent case in point involved that curious series of Gospels read in the weekdays between Mary, the Mother of God and the Baptism of the Lord. Despite the intervention of the Three Kings at Epiphany and the proximity of Christmas, these Gospels mostly seem to deal with standard healings and sermons from various points in Jesus’s career. In contrast to the Gospels for much of the remaining year, they are not chronologically arranged (as far as a listener can tell), nor do they have an obvious bearing on the feasts occurring nearby.
The explanation for this oddity, homiletically provided (by the one priest who, to his credit, thought it interesting to offer an explanation), was that The Early Church was full of Early Christians who were generally very poor and very poorly educated. They had heard the Gospel in its simplest form, and their understanding of the life of Christ and indeed of Christology was apt to be fuzzy. Consequently, in the days following the great feast of Christmas, the coming of the Child, the Church took it upon herself to catechize listeners concerning “Who this Child was.”
Such an explanation does present a minor problem of liturgical history. While the Mass itself is ancient, I would be surprised to hear that scholars have been able to determine, with any certainty beyond that generally attaching to the wildest academic conjecture, that we know exactly what Scripture readings were read during what parts of the calendar year. But take it as possible, at least, that Early Christians may have heard something like what we hear during these weeks after Christmas; and take it is probable (if not certain) that many of them were indeed poor and illiterate and in need of catechizing.
Nevertheless, I take umbrage. For as true as all those statements can be, they do not answer the question of why we continue to hear these readings in our current and by implication more enlightened age. Moreover, the introduction of such reasoning concerning the rationale behind the gospels tacitly begs the question: Why do we not change the readings? If these apparently untopical and disorganized snippets were intended to meet a catechetical need which is absent today, then why have they not been reformed? Vatican II reformed enough other things, goodness knows.
The unstated implication of the homily was that these readings were simply outdated. Unstated—because it was in fact never said that they were, any more than Those Early Heretics who spoke of “Mary the Mother of Jesus” made a habit of saying loudly “Mary, NOT the Mother of God.” But the implication there, and here, is clear enough. And in the case of the post-Christmas homily, the idea that the readings are outdated—not in itself an impossibility—was the particularization of a rather more pernicious unstated idea: the principle that when previous ages differ from ours, it is because of their ignorance or bias.
It is a common historical fallacy: this idea that because a thing is old and belongs to people manifestly different from ourselves, it cannot be useful or true. The Early Church needed to hear these stories because they were unlettered and untaught. The medievals believed in astrology because they were superstitious. The Crusaders fought because they were barbaric. Monarchs insisted on religious unity because they were unenlightened despots.
The fallacy is common not only in casual use—amongst homilists, journalists, and men on the street—but even and perhaps especially amongst academics in the humanities, who ought by their profession to know better. But somehow the very depth of an academic’s historical knowledge can lead them deeper into this fallacy than mere casual historical chauvinism does. For the academic knows not just that monarchs insisted on religious unity, and were unenlightened despots, but also knows in great detail what circumstances exactly prompted the desire to preserve religious unity, and what measures were taken to do so: knows, in other words, the rationale behind the despotism. But rather than taking using this knowledge with a measure of understanding and humility, the Academic tends to use it to explain away the actions of earlier individuals and nations. But of course the Tudors insisted on religious conformity: you see, they had inherited a dubious title from Henry VII, were plagued with political dissent and disconcerted by the terrible Wars of Religion taking place right across the channel … But of course their natural bias would be towards having their people conform! And in the midst of it all, the Academic—who has read, but not digested, the words of the Tudor writers themselves—forgets to inquire whether perhaps, under the circumstances, the Tudors were politically wise, and perhaps not wholly evil, in doing what they did. The Academic forgets, in other words, that in such a situation he might have done a similar thing himself.
But of course Montaigne believed in cultural humility …
More perniciously still, the Academic forgets that he probably does do similar things today. He does, in other words, probably do things that would look inexcusable when judged by the standards of another age (past or future) but which, taking our times into consideration, are “politically wise, and perhaps not wholly evil.” Very few of us are good enough and wise enough—in the full sense of that word “wise”—to see and act beyond were we are now. And indeed, that prudence which governs particular situations is so great a virtue that ahistorical actions and judgments such as academics often think themselves capable of are perhaps not to be desired so greatly. Perhaps the Academic not only does but should be a little bit bound by the standards of his own age.
But he should at least know that he is so bound, and use himself accordingly with humility towards those whom he studies. Indeed, it is only by so humbling himself that he might come to understand not only that which he studies, but that wherein he lives and breathes—and ultimately, that which he is. Only the humble academic, humble enough to understand the real attractiveness of religious unity, or the real plausibility of the governance of the stars, has a chance of seeing how his own personal and cultural predilections may mislead—or after all, rightly lead—him. And only a humble Christian, humble enough to appreciate following certain seemingly outdated customs, has a chance of realizing how not only the Ancient Christians but also the Modern would do well to take certain days after Christmas, certain days to reflect on a seemingly eclectic series of readings designed to illuminate the thing we never fully forget, but are perpetually in mortal danger of ignoring: Who this Child Is.