Friday, July 17, 2020

Fruit, Free Will, and Providence: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost Collect

Lost in Translation #8
It is tempting to call the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost “Fruit Sunday”, because both the Epistle and the Gospel use fruit as an important metaphor. In the Gospel, Our Lord warns of false prophets and tells us how to recognize these wolves in sheep’s clothing: “By their fruits you shall know them.” In the Epistle, St. Paul speaks to the “infirm” Romans (newly converted and not yet fully formed?) in plain and simple language. When you worshiped idols, he tells them, the effect or fruit was death. When you serve God, the fruit is holiness and everlasting life.
Paul is also ironic to the point of sarcasm when he writes, “When you were the servants of sin, you were free from justice.” Talk about an empty liberty. It reminds one of Psalm 87, 5-6: “I am among the dead, like the slain sleeping in the sepulchres, whom Thou rememberest no more.”
The Collect of the day does not mention either fruit or free will, but its subject provides a fine framework for understanding these two themes: divine providence.
Deus, cujus providentia in sui dispositióne non fállitur: te súpplices exorámus; ut noxia cuncta submóveas, et omnia nobis profutúra con­cédas. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O God, whose providence in its ordering never fails; we humbly beg Thee to put away from us all harmful things and to hand over all those things which are pro­fitable to us. Through our Lord.
In sui dispositione is not easy to translate. In post-classical Latin, dispositio refers to ordering, management, or direction. God’s providence does not fail insofar as God is able to arrange everything to have a providential end; He is able to move the pieces of the cosmic chessboard around, so to speak, to bring about His plan of salvation. God can even use evils providentially despite the fact that He does not cause or will evils, but only allows them to arise. Finally, He is able to do all these things without violating our free will. Indeed, because God knows past, present, and future as present, He is able to take advantage of man’s freely made decisions to bring about a providential end. Rather than providence and free will being antithetical, the Christian notion of providence incorporates or subsumes the free will of men and angels.
And because God’s Church knows these things, she prays on this Sunday that God in His providence will take away all harmful things and give us all helpful things. There is a nice contrast here between noxia (noxious, harmful, criminal, guilty) and profutura (useful, profitable, advantageous beneficial). Profutura was often used to describe medicine, and so it also ties in well with today’s Postcommunion, which refers to the reception of Holy Communion as God’s “medicinal act”, and makes a similar plea to unshackle us from our perversities and to lead to what is right.
The Collect also has an interesting verb for giving, which we have translated as "hand over." Concedere means to concede or relinquish and has an edge to it in a way in which dare, the most common verb for giving, does not. It is as if the author were saying, “Come on, Heavenly Father, don’t hold out on us! Hand over the good stuff!”
And why do we not want our Father to hold out? Because we know that we can only bear good fruit with God’s grace. We want our “wages” to be holiness and eternal life rather than death. We want to be frugiferous, not barren.
Finally, the Collect takes on a new dimension in a time of pandemic, when things harmful to the body float invisibly through the air, threaten our health, and through a vast ripple effect no one could have predicted, bear the fruit of great social and even sacramental disruption. And so we pray: in the midst of uncertainty and chaos, may your Providence bring about a speedy end to this chastisement, for we know that your Providence does not fail in its ordering.

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