Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Offertory Vir erat from the Book of Job

As noted by our good friends at Canticum Salomonis, the Offertory chant of this past Sunday is taken from the beginning of the book of Job, and presents a very unusual text, inasmuch as it recounts only the beginning of Job’s sufferings.

Off. There was a man in the land (of Hus), Job by name, simple and upright, and fearing God, whom Satan asked to tempt, and power was given to him by the Lord against his possessions and his flesh. And he wasted all his substance and his sons, and he wounded his flesh, too, with a grievous ulcer. (In the video below, the words “of Hus” are omitted, but they are in the printed text of the Tridentine Missal.)

Scenes from the life of Job, by an unknown Flemish Master, ca. 1480-90
Part of the reason for this is that originally, like many Offertories, the text was expanded by the addition of other verses, which in this case, were meant to be sung with the frequent repetition of certain words.

V. Oh that my sins were weighed! Oh that my sins were weighed! whereby I have deserved wrath! whereby I have deserved wrath! And the calamity! And the calamity which I suffer would appear heavier!
V. For what is, for what is, for what is my strength that I should hold out? Or what is mine end, that I should bear patiently?
V. Is my strength the strength of stones? Or is my flesh of bronze? Or is my flesh of bronze?
V. For, for, for mine eye shall not turn back for me to see good things, see good things, see good things, see good things, see good things, see good things, see good things, see good things, see good things.

Writing in the 9th century, the liturgical commenter Amalarius of Metz cleverly explained the significance of these repetitions as follows; later writers on the same subject such as Durandus will repeated his explanation.

“I am reminded of the repetition of words in the verses of the Offertory Vir erat, ... (which) is not in the Offertory itself but in its verses. The words of the historical writer are contained in the Offertory; the words of the ailing and suffering Job in the verses. A sick man whose breathing is weak and unhealthy often repeats broken phrases. In order to create a vivid memory of Job in his sickness, the author of the office repeated certain phrases several times in the manner of sick men. The words are not repeated, as I said, in the Offertory itself, because the historical writer was not sick as he wrote the history.”

(Translations by Notkerus Balbus from Canticum Salomonis, with our thanks.)

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