Friday, August 14, 2020

God Has Piety? The Collect for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Michel Corneille l’Ancien, La Résurrection (1640-1650)
Lost in Translation #12

In the Epistle for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (1 Cor. 15, 1-10), St. Paul goes to great lengths to establish the historical facticity of the Resurrection, for without it Christianity is an illusion. The Gospel (Mark 7, 31-37), on the other hand, recalls the cure of the deaf and dumb man from Decapolis whom Our Lord healed by moistening his finger and touching him. The Church Fathers saw in this miracle an allegory for baptism, and indeed the ‘Ephphetha’ ritual remains part of the traditional Roman rite of Baptism. Today’s Mass therefore reminds us of the application of Christ’s victorious resurrection to the people of God through baptism.
Extending Christ’s grace is also a priority of the Collect:
Omnípotens sempiterne Deus, qui abundantia pietátis tuae et mérita súpplicum excédis et vota: effunde super nos misericordiam tuam; ut dimittas quae conscientia métuit, et adjicias quod oratio non praesúmit. Per Dóminum nostrum.
Which I translate as:
Almighty and eternal God, who in the abundance of Thy loving kindness goest beyond the merits and desires of the suppliant, pour out Thy mercy upon us, that Thou mayst forgive what our conscience fears and add onto what our prayer does not dare [ask]. Through our Lord.
“Pour out” (effunde) is a liquid metaphor, a possible tie-in to the waters of baptism and the very earthy way that Jesus cured the deaf and dumb man. Mercy is what led Jesus to cure the man, and mercy is what we ask for in the Collect. 
The word pietas appears in this prayer, which I have translated as “loving kindness.” In classical Latin, pietas is a human virtue betokening loyalty to the gods, one’s country, one’s family, etc. If we trust Vergil’s Aeneid, it is the signature virtue of the hero Aeneas, and by extension of the Roman people, the one thing that makes them superior to those impressive but sneaky Greeks. In Christian Latin, pietas is a proper respect or attitude that the believer has towards God; it is both a moral virtue and one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
But Christianity also added a new and revolutionary meaning to the word by turning the tables and applying it to God’s attitude to man. And what is that attitude? Thankfully, one of loving kindness. When ascribed to the divine, pietas is essentially a synonym for mercy or clemency. And thankfully, according to this Collect, God has plenty of it.
There is one more twist. Whereas most Christian literature favors the “human” meaning over the “divine,” the orations of the Roman Missal are the opposite. In the sermons of Pope St. Leo the Great, for example, pietas is used 53 times as a human attitude or habit and only 7 times as a divine quality. In the orations, by contrast, pietas is used 27 times in reference to God and only 3 times in reference to man. [1] The Collect for this Sunday is one of those 27 times.
The purpose clause is especially beautiful: forgive what our conscience is afraid of, and add on(to) what our prayer does not dare ask for. The use of “increase” or “add onto” (adjicias) rather than “give” or “bestow” is interesting, for it implies that God is already giving us blessings that exceed our prayers’ wildest dreams; we just want more. On and off for the past several weeks the Collects have been conditioning us to desire big and pray big; here we are told that God will outdo even the greatest of our yearnings and petitions.
Finally, to speak of what we dare not wish for acknowledges the possibility of a lingering despondency or despair about our spiritual condition. Like the Publican in the Gospel from last Sunday, when our conscience is working properly, it gives us enough self-knowledge to see the enormity of our sins; as a result, we do not even feel like looking up to heaven (see Luke 8, 13). Be of good heart, the Collect is telling us: although your conscience is right about your sins, God’s pietas will nonetheless deliver handsomely. For as St. Paul writes in this Sunday’s Epistle, "His grace in me hath not been void."
[1] Sr. Mary Pierre Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Dekker, 1966), 53.

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