Friday, September 04, 2020

Perpetual Propitiation in the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent (1885)
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent (1885)
“Consider the lilies of the field.” (Matt. 6, 28)
Lost in Translation #15
Mortification of the flesh is not exactly running rampant in the Church these days, and yet St. Paul tells us in this Sunday’s Epistle (Gal. 5, 16-24) that those who belong to Christ “have crucified their flesh with its vices and concupiscences.” The vices that Paul lists (fornication, uncleanness, immodesty, etc.) do not spring from our bodies per se, but from the disordered passions of our soul that lead to bad bodily habits and even addictions. The antidotes to them are the virtues mentioned by the Apostle (charity, joy, peace, etc.), which spring from the Spirit of God.
Living according to the flesh does not lead to pleasure but to endless dissatisfaction and anxiety; hence the Gospel (Matt. 6, 24-33) reminds us to serve the only Master who truly takes care of us, and not be worried about the things of this world. The Gospel, which contains the familiar verse, “Consider the lilies of the field,” ends with the even more famous command, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” As a fervent seeker of God's Kingdom, we become like the author of the Introit, who can sing out with sincerity, “How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! my soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord.” (Ps. 83, 2-3)

The Collect of this Sunday contributes to these sound teachings by offering a clue into how to transition from a carnal-minded soul to someone who longs and faints for the courts of the Lord, and seeks Him and His justice above all else:
Custódi, Dómine, quáesumus, Ecclesiam tuam propitiatióne perpétua: et quia sine te lábitur humána mortálitas; tuis semper auxiliis et abstrahátur a noxiis, et ad salutaria dirigátur. Per Dóminum nostrum.
Which I translate as:
Keep, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy Church in perpetual propitiation; and because without Thee human mortality perishes, by Thy aids may she always be drawn away from things hurtful and led to things salutary. Through our Lord.
Several phrases make this a difficult Collect to translate. Propitiatione perpetua is a rhetorical gem: it has nice alliteration with a prominent “t” sound. [1] But what does it mean? Propitiatio is sometimes used in the Vulgate as a synonym for misericordia, and hence most lay Missals understandably translate it as “mercy” (St. Andrew’s Missal and St. Joseph Daily Missal) or “kindness” (Fr. Lasance Missal).
There may, however, be a secondary meaning at play. As 1 John 2, 2 makes clear, propitiatio also means atonement or appeasement. In ecclesiastical Latin, Jesus Christ is both our propitiation and our propitiator [2] – that is, He is both the means of our reconciliation with God and the agent of that reconciliation. To be kept in perpetual propitiation, then, can also mean to be kept in a state of constant reconciliation with the Father through His Son, the High Priest of an eternal sacrifice of which we partake through this very Mass. This connotation is reinforced in the Secret for the same Mass, which prays that this salutary sacrifice may become a purgation of our sins and a propitiation [appeasement] of God’s power.)
Another tricky phrase is labitur humana mortalitas, which I have translated as “human mortality perishes.” Labor/lapsus is the verb for gliding on a smooth surface or beginning to fall, but it also came to mean perishing or making a mistake or falling away (as in “lapsed Catholics”). Given the context, perishing seems to be what the author had in mind: with God, not even human mortality is mortal, but without God it certainly is. Of course, “fall” could work here, too.
The final petition is almost comical, for instead of asking for protection from harmful things it asks that we be drawn away from them. The image is one of foolish children playing with matches next to a gas station who must be dragged home kicking and screaming for their own good. Or perhaps the image is of soldiers wounded on the battlefield who must be carried off on stretchers. The word for “aids” here is auxilia (pl.), which, since it is in the plural, can mean auxiliary troops or reinforcements. Perhaps personified graces or even angels are acting as medics and doing the hauling.
And actually, it is not the faithful, strewn on the battlefield or not, for which the Collect prays (although they are certainly implied): it is the Church. The Church as a unit must also be constantly dragged away from harmful things, either because she has sinful or foolish pilots at the helm or because the whirlpools of this world are trying to suck her down to the bottom of the sea. Or both. Similarly, keeping the Church in perpetual propitiation has a sacramental overtone. Make sure, we pray to God, that the Church is able to offer always and everywhere the sacrifice of the Holy Mass.
The image of dragging is contrasted neatly with being led to salutary things. Initially, we must be pulled away from what is hurting us, voluntarily or not; then, after we come to our senses, we can be led (freely) to what may heal us. Salutaria is an interesting choice. One other place we see this word is the first sentence of every Preface to the Mass: “It is truly meet and just, right and profitable (salutare) for us everywhere and always to give Thee thanks, O Lord.” The thanksgiving of the Eucharist is salutary, and it is that act of giving thanks in which we are beginning to participate when we pray this Collect. Further, by making the salutary act of thanksgiving everywhere and always, our desires are healed in such a way that they seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice. 

[1] Mary Gonzaga Haessly, Rhetoric in the Sunday Collects of the Roman Missal (Ursuline College for Women, 1938), 102.
[2] Jerome, Ep. 21,2; Ambrose, Commentary on Luke prol. 7.

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