Friday, November 27, 2015
Get a hat, get a head!
I'm very fond of my biretta. There are many Anglicans including in the ACC who would rather that I gave up the biretta on the grounds that it is too Roman and take up the good old Canterbury cap instead. Actually, I do own a Canterbury cap, the trouble is that it doesn't look as respectable on me as it does the noble Archbishop Cranmer. It seems that we've lost the art of making the Canterbury cap. Part of my trouble with it is that it is soft and not as easy to put on or take off as a biretta, and that's important. The biretta is designed to be taken off. Why should this be?
At Mass, the priest (possibly as one of three sacred ministers) enters with head covered, genuflect and in so doing uncover their heads. The reason for this is that the Mass is that one perfect sacrifice made once for all upon the Cross. There may appear to be many Masses in time, yet the fact of the matter is, theologically speaking, there is only one true Mass (namely the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the Cross) and all Masses subsequent to that sacrifice in Time are not re-enactments, nor new sacrifices, but are the same Mass as seen in the forever Now of Eternity drawn together by the presence of the Indivisible Godhead. This is a Mystery.
What's this got to do with birettas? The beginning of the Mass is the beginning of the Mystery and the beginning of the revelation of that Mystery. In removing his biretta, the priest signals the beginning of that revelation in which Man enters into the presence of God. From that moment on, the mystery of the Incarnation unfolds before our very eyes as the angels sing their Gloria in excelsis, as mankind is taught the words of life in the exposition of Holy Scripture, and when the great Salvation of mankind is wrought through the broken body of Christ upon the cross of the paten and through our taking in of His substance so that we can become like Him because we see Him as He really is. Once the revelation is over, the veil falls once more and the biretta is placed upon the priest's head as he returns into the sacristy and Mankind waits for its saviour once more.
Of course, the biretta itself is an academic cap. Its four corners represent the Quadrivium that a priest needs to know: the four disciplines of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy achieved at Masters' level. The three blades represent the three disciplines of the trivium - grammar, logic and rhetoric. A fourth blade is sometimes permitted, but who is allowed to wear one is somewhat debated. Some believe that it is only for Doctors of Divinity, others for Doctors of Canon Law and still others for any holder of a Doctoral degree. I've seen a few four blade birettas among my brethren in the ACC and they seem to hold judicial posts, so I would assume that the ACC position is that the fourth blade is for Doctors of Law, though I suspect that they should seek permission from their bishop first.
However, all this sounds a bit pernickety and pointless. It's just a hat after all. If they must observe the ceremonies used above, can't priests use any old hat, a fedora, baseball cap, or beanie?
We have to remember that the Rituals and Ceremonies in Church are sacred and not secular. It would be wrong for these to be muddled, especially in this day and age. The Traditional Church rejoices in using that which is archaic to promote the idea of eternal truth. The vestments of clergy are based on Roman dress, the dress used at the time of Our Lord's ministry to us. Our language is that, not of the present vernacular, but the vernacular of the past. Just as the Jews use Hebrew rather than Aramaic on account of its pertaining to the sacred, so do we Anglican Catholics use the language of the prayer book to lift our words through time while still being intelligible to those willing to spend a little time thinking about their meaning. For all its bizarre shape and anachronism, the square cap roots us in that time when human beings sought wisdom and knowledge about God.
The biretta is worn at absolution during the sacrament of Confession to show that the priest is in possession of authority from God and not of his own. This is the same reason why a priest wears his biretta during the sermon. The square cap, as a sign of learning, is not grown on our heads but is given to us by another authority and ultimately from God Himself. Just as the four and twenty elders cast their crowns of authority before the throne of God, the removing of the biretta signifies a casting of academic authority before the presence of Divine Knowledge. Whatever we know will vanish away in the presence of God.
There are those who would make the wearing of the mitre optional for bishops and there are many bishops who reject the wearing of the mitre altogether. For Anglican Catholics, this would be seen as a rejection of the reality of the Bishop as successor to the apostles and possessor of the full sacramental ministry ordained by God. These hats are active symbols of reality, not mere tokens of ideas.
Anachronism is important in Traditional Christianity. We are now in the days where only the present is given authority and the ideas of the past rejected for being old hat. Yet, it is the old hat that points us to the richness of the tradition that God has given us. Those who wear old-fashioned dress stand against the tyranny of Modernity. While a priest should perhaps refrain from wearing his biretta to a foot ball match (though it might be a marvellous statement of faith), to see a priest in soutane and biretta will challenge the perceptions of folk. Yes, for the most part it will inspire ridicule, but for others it might just be the catalyst that opens their eyes to the now-ness of the past and the Eternal, timeless presence of Almighty God.