It is not surprising that many Protestants sometimes feel they lack ancient roots. Their movement only goes back to 1517, and their very name shows it started in opposition to something else. This something else is the Catholic church. As a result, Protestants who struggle with this issue and search for ancient roots easily get charmed by the beauty of the Catholic church. Especially if the symbolic rituals and liturgy appeal to them.
I want to explain why I think that’s a mistake.
From a Western Euro-centric perspective, it’s easy to think the Catholic church used to be the only monolithic church, ruling everything, until the Protestants came along and ruined it. And then they split into a million fractions, and it’s all messed up. Bad protestants. A Catholic theologian I heard said that even though the church did grave mistakes, the decision to break from the church was incorrect, because “even if crazy uncle Louie did stupid things, you don’t leave your family.”
First of all, I disagree. If uncle Louie molested you, and the rest of the family defended him, that’s when you need to leave the family. Second of all, the mess and disconnect was not a new thing. It’s in human nature to question things and develop novel ways of thinking. The great schism between the Catholics and Orthodox happened in 1054, but that was just between the Eastern and Western Christianities who ruled the Roman Empire. The Christian churches in Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia, and the East had already left before then. The Catholics ruled Europe, but they were not the only Christianity. The Protestant reformation was not a new or unusual thing. The unusual thing was how it didn’t happen between 1054 to 1517.
The reason it didn’t happen during those centuries was because the Catholic church killed anyone who disagreed with them. One reason Luther was able to get away with it was because of the invention of the printing press. Similar to how internet changed the world in our days, the printing press made it possible to spread ideas much quicker than before. He was able to gather enough adherents before they burned him at the stake.
Even though the Catholic Church can trace its origins back to the first church in Rome under Peter, the gentile and pagan influence went too far as the centuries passed by. After the Great revolt in 70 AD, the early Jewish leadership of the church from Jerusalem was cut off. After the Bar Kochba revolt of 130 AD, Jerusalem was flattened and Aelia Capitolina built on its ruins. With less Nazarene Jews and more gentile Christians, the Jewish influence diminished. Soon, practices intended to make the pagans feel more at home in the church became prevalent. Instead of praying to dead emperors, they prayed to dead saints. Instead of eating and drinking ritual sacrifices, they said about the communion, that it was actual sacrificial flesh and blood. Instead of Hebrew, they prayed in Latin. Instead of the Jewish calendar, they established holidays based on the Roman, Julian, calendar.
Some of these practices were not necessarily bad. Praying in the regular language that people can understand is a good thing. Paul corrected the Galatians when they tried to adopt Jewish customs – they were not Jews and didn’t have to become Jews to be saved. The problem was that these practices set the tone for the monolithic Catholic church which made all the decisions. They prayed in Latin and not Hebrew so that people would understand. But when people stopped understanding Latin, it had been elevated to a holy language, for the initiated only. The very thing they wanted to avoid is what they became. They accepted pagan practices to cater to the pagans who wanted to join, but then those practices became dogmatic, and were forced upon anyone who wanted to join.
If you search for the ancient roots of your faith, they are not within Catholic or Orthodox Christianity. They are in Judaism. If you want to enrich your faith and learn more about what Jesus was about, you will find it in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew language, in the Jewish holidays. Of course, as always, proceed with caution. Rabbinic Judaism is not the right way. It will point you away from Jesus and will elevate human authority just as much as high-church Christianity does. But at least the rituals and prayers within it are things that Jesus would recognize.
So if you feel that your protestant faith doesn’t have enough liturgy and rituals, and you would like more of that nice “high-church feel” of going through the prayers and motions – don’t go to a catholic mass. Start having kiddush instead.
Happy reformation day.
This article originally appeared on Tuvia’s blog, October 31, 2020, and reposted with permission.