Friday, August 21, 2020

Heavenly Liturgy and Earthly Compassion: The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

Jan Wynants, Parable of the Good Samaritan (1670)
Lost in Translation #13
The Collect for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost paints an amazing scene, but only after one overcomes a number of linguistic challenges:
Omnípotens et miséricors Deus, de cujus múnere venit, ut tibi a fidélibus tuis digne et laudabíliter serviátur; tríbue, quáesumus, nobis: ut ad promissiónes tuas sine offensióne currámus. Per Dóminum nostrum.
Which I translate as:
Almighty and merciful God, from whose liturgy comes the fact that Thou art worthily and laudably served by Thy faithful ones: grant, we beseech, that we may run without stumbling to Thy promises. Through our Lord.
The Collect contains a grammatical rarity. In the Orations of the Roman Missal, a clause with ut and a verb in the subjunctive mood is almost always a purpose clause: “O God, give us X, Y, or Z so that we can have A, B, or C,” where ut would be translated as “so that” or “in order to.” Here, however, we have a “noun clause,” where the entire clause functions as a noun (specifically, as the object of the verb “to come”), and thus we have translated ut as “the fact that.” [1]

The Collect also contains a verbal rarity. Of the 111 times that the rich and nuanced word munus appears in the Orations of the Roman Missal, over 75% are in a Secret. [2] Munus appears less frequently in the Postcommunion Prayers and the Lenten Prayers over the People and least of all in the Collects. This is one of those outliers.

Most hand Missals translate munus in this Collect as “gift,” and that indeed is how the word is used most of the time in the Roman Rite. In the Secrets, for example, munera are usually the “material gifts destined for the sacrifice.” Every now and then, however, munus can mean “the rite itself which is performed with and over the gifts,” and I believe this to be the meaning that is operative here. [3] For the ancient Roman, a munus was a public, religious service (similar to “the rite itself performed over the gifts”), and that meaning, which ties into the serving mentioned in the noun clause, better fits the context here.

The Collect is essentially stating that God has a service, and from it flows our serving Him “worthily and laudably.” Or to use another word for a public, religious service (this time from Greek), God has a “liturgy” (leitourgia), and it is by virtue of His liturgy, the divine liturgy, that humans are able to worship Him properly. Paradoxically, even our ability to praise God and give Him gifts is a gift from God. The author of the Collect could have put the noun clause in the active voice (“the fact that Thy faithful serve Thee...”), but he instead chose the more unwieldy passive voice, which puts the focus on the action done rather than the faithful who are doing it. Even grammatically, the author of the Collect is emphasizing God and His agency in the liturgy rather than us.

The same truth is expressed in this Sunday’s Epistle, 2 Corinthians 3, 4-9, where St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that the Holy Spirit has made us, through no merits of our own, ministers of the New Covenant. Even though human hands have obviously played a part in its historical development, sacred liturgy, which participates in and anticipates the cosmic liturgy described in the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation, is ultimately not the “work of human hands”, but the product of the Holy Spirit and the ongoing action of Jesus Christ the High Priest. Divorcing the human from the divine in sacred liturgy is a fool’s errand, as foolish as trying to separate the humanly composed from the divinely inspired in the Sacred Scriptures.

The Collect, then, is offering an astonishing metaphysical map. It is not the case that liturgy is a primarily human phenomenon, the concept of which we then apply to what is happening in Heaven, albeit weakly and metaphorically. On the contrary, the realest of real liturgies is what is happening in Heaven at the altar of the Lamb who was slain and is now at His Wedding Feast; what we do on earth in our churches is the derivative act. But since it is derivative, our earthly liturgies are truly partaking of the Heavenly Liturgy right now. So many of the liturgical controversies of the last century could have been avoided if liturgists actually understood and believed the theology brilliantly encapsulated in these thirteen words of the Collect.

The same Collect asks God to enable us to run to His promises. Only two weeks ago we made essentially the same prayer: “Increase Thy mercy upon us, that Thou mayst make us, who are running towards Thy promises, partakers of Thy heavenly goods.” (Collect, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost) Both Collects link participation in the Heavenly with running towards divine promises. Here, however, we add an additional request: to run without stumbling (sine offensione). In the Vulgate, offensio is the word for the famous biblical “stumbling block,” that which causes one to sin or offend (see Ezech. 20, 7; 2 Cor. 6, 3; 1 Pet. 2, 8). May sin not trip us up, we pray, as we race to the prize promised us.

The rather frenetic quality of this Collect also matches the tone of this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 10, 23-37). When one loves the Lord God will all of one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, one is indeed sprinting flawlessly to God. The Good Samaritan in the Parable is not literally described as running, but it is difficult not to picture him hustling, rushing to the man's aid, binding up his wounds, and finding him shelter. And there is an additional dimension as well. The Church Fathers saw in the Good Samaritan a figure for Christ: the oil and wine which he poured into the wounds of the injured man symbolize the sacraments poured into our souls wounded by sin, and the sacraments are, of course, what we receive in the divine liturgy. May the heavenly goods in which we partake endow us with the same compassion for our neighbor as that of the Good Samaritan.

[1] My thanks to Dr. David White for help with this clause and his insight into the use of the passive voice.
[2] Sr. Mary Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Dekker, 1966), 163.
[3] Sr. Mary Ellebracht, 163, 164.

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