Friday, October 02, 2020

An Exchange to Remember: The Secret of the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Willem Reuter, A Roman Market, 1669
Lost in Translation #19
You could say that the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost marks the beginning of the ending. According to Ildefonso Schuster, "The Introit, instead of being taken from the Psalms, is from Ecclesiasticus (xxxvi, 18) and begins a series of Antiphons for the Introit, altogether peculiar to these last Sundays after Pentecost." [1] Schuster does not elaborate, but he seems to be pointing to how the remaining Sundays form a kind of mini-season characterized (with the help of other features) by a heightened awareness of the Parousia and Last Judgment.
The Secret for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost is also distinctive: [2]
Deus, qui nos, per hujus sacrificii veneranda commercia, uníus summæ divinitátis partícipes éfficis: praesta, quáesu­mus: ut, sicut tuam cognósci­mus veritátem, sic eam dignis móribus assequámur. Per Dóminum.

 Which I translate as:

O God who, through the venerable commercia of this sacrifice dost cause us to be partakers of the one supreme Godhead: grant, we beseech Thee, that as we come to know Thy Truth, so too may we attain it by worthy lives. Through our Lord.

In Latin, commercium (from which we derive the words “commerce, commercial,” etc.) can refer to a trade or transaction, the location of trading (e.g., a marketplace), or even the articles of trade themselves. Commercium came to have a technical, legal meaning for a merchant’s right to trade, but it could also signify a non-mercantile exchange of goods, such as the strenae or gifts that the Romans would offer each other on New Year’s Day. [3]

Commercium does not appear in the Vulgate Bible, but the word is no stranger to Patristic literature. St. Augustine uses it to describe the Atonement, the salvation of sinners in exchange for the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ. In Rome’s sacred liturgy, commercium can refer to the Incarnation, the exchange of humanity and divinity in which, to paraphrase Saint Athanasius, God became man so that men could become gods. The first Antiphon during Vespers for the Feast of the Circumcision/Octave Day of Christmas on January 1 (channeling and surpassing the old Roman strenae?) proclaims:

O admirábile commercium! Creátor géneris humáni, animátum corpus sumens, de Vírgine nasci dignátus est: et procédens homo sine sémine, largítus est nobis suam Deitátem.

O admirable interchange! The Creator of the human race, assuming a living body, deigns to be born of a Virgin: and becoming man, from no human generation, hath bestowed upon us His divinity.

Commercium appears five times in the 1962 Roman Missal (four times in a Secret and once in a Postcommunion Prayer) and always in the plural. During the Offertory Rite, there are several exchanges: in exchange for God’s Body and Blood and a participation in His divinity, there is an offering of bread, an offering of wine, and an offering of self. Not a bad deal, that. These ritual exchanges, of course, have their efficacy because they are grounded in the exchange that took place in the Incarnation and the exchange that took place during the Atonement. Indeed, the offering of the wine includes a beautiful description of the former in ways that evokes a sense of exchange: 

O God, who in creating human nature didst wonderfully dignify it, and still more wonderfully restore it, grant that, by the Mystery of this water and wine, may we be made partakers of His divinity who deigned to be made partaker of our humanity, Jesus Christ our Lord, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, forever and ever. Amen.

Because commercium is an important notion, one that unites the mysteries of Jesus Christ with the mystery of the Eucharist, it was something of a surprise to see how preconciliar lay Missals translated the term. The St. Andrew’s Missal has “adorable communion” while the Father Lasance Missal has “august communication.” The St. Joseph Daily Missal simply skips the word altogether: “O God, Who by means of this adorable sacrifice...”

In the new Missal, this oration appears as the Prayer over the Offerings for the Wednesday after Divine Mercy Sunday. In the 2011 U.S. edition, veneranda commercia is translated as “wonderful exchange.” They got the commercia right (albeit in the singular), but veneranda connotes respect or veneration rather than wonder.

Unfortunately, perhaps the best English word for commercium is one that can be used only with a certain risk. “Intercourse” implies any kind of exchange that brings about a union or intimacy between two parties and would be ideal, were it not for the fact that the term was applied so often in the mid-twentieth century to copulation that the sexual meaning is now foremost. A century ago, it was not uncommon to see the Christmastide O admirabile commercium translated as “O wonderful intercourse!” No more.

For the Secret’s veneranda commercia, the Baronius Missal has “by Thy venerable intercourse with us in this Sacrifice.” Besides the jarring phrasing, the addition of “Thy” and the use of the singular for commercia overshadow the numerous exchanges taking place in the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Finally, an appreciation of the ritual, sacrificial exchanges of the Mass helps us understand the Secret's petition: “grant, we beseech Thee, that as we come to know Thy Truth, so too may we attain it by worthy lives.” It can be said of well-catechized and practicing Catholics that they have come to know God’s truth, but knowing a truth (even the Truth that is Jesus Christ) and instantiating the truth in a life worthy of the name Christian are two different things. To move from a noetic assent to a saintly way of life, we need the “venerable exchanges” that bring about, as Eastern Christians would put it, our divinization. And surely, getting divinized as much as possible is an excellent way to prepare for the Parousia.

[1] The Sacramentary, vol. 3 (Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1927), 167.

[2] It is also the Secret for the Fourth Sunday after Easter.

[3] See Suetonius, Tiberius 34.

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