Friday, November 06, 2020

Divine Participation and Human Dangers in the Postcommunion Prayer for the Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost

The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus, by Paolo Veronese, (1540s), the subject of this Sunday’s Gospel.
Lost in Translation #24 

The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost inaugurates, if you will, a season within a season within a season. The main season is the time after Pentecost, which corresponds to that period of human history stretching from the first Pentecost to the Last Day. Within that season, beginning around the Eighteenth Sunday, things take on a more eschatological or apocalyptic note. And within that season, beginning on the Twenty -Third Sunday, the antiphonary of the Mass (Introit, Gradual/Alleluia, Offertory and Communion) is frozen: however many Sundays of the Time after Pentecost remain, the Antiphonary stays the same while the rest of the Propers change.

The effect of this freezing is both reassuring and unsettling: reassuring because, as the Introit states, these selections from the Antiphonary emphasize that the Lord thinks thoughts of peace and not of affliction (Jer. 29, 11); unsettling because their repetition implicitly confirms the threat of a real danger. One does not feel the need to remind oneself of the Lord’s peaceful intentions when the birds are chirping and a warm sun is rising over the serene surface of a lake, but one may feel that need in the midst of a violent storm. And the Offertory, “From the depths I have cried out to Thee, O Lord,” (Ps. 129, 1), would suggest that we are not to imagine ourselves in an ideal situation right now.

Danger is the subject of the Postcommunion Prayer of the Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Quáesumus, omnípotens Deus: ut, quos divína tríbuis participatióne gaudére, humánis non sinas subjacére perículis. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
We beseech Thee, almighty God, that Thou wouldst not permit us, whom Thou givest to rejoice in divine participation, to be subject to human dangers. Through our Lord.
Before the Church pleads for freedom from human dangers, she rejoices in divine participation. Since this is a Postcommunion prayer, “divine participation” first and foremost refers to the reception of Holy Communion, for the faithful have just received the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ--or to put it more simply, human persons have just received within the marrow of their being a Divine Person. That is quite a participation. And yet, divine participation begins not with the Eucharist but with the Incarnation. When the priest mixes water and wine during the Offertory rite he prays:
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.
And it continues to the end of time. “Even at this moment He is, as man, making representation for my salvation, until He makes me divine by the power of His incarnate manhood,” writes St. Gregory of Nazianzus of Jesus Christ sitting at the right hand of God and ever making appeal for us. (Oration 30, 14)
It is therefore appropriate, especially during this apocalyptic leg of the liturgical year, to think of “divine participation” both in terms of the Eucharist as well as of the Resurrection of the dead (which is also the theme of the Gospel reading, Matt. 9, 18-26), when God will be all in all. But in between our current condition and our fully actualized participation in the Godhead lies a host of “human dangers.” In some respects, the expression is a pleonasm: any danger to a human is a human danger, and we are obviously more concerned in this prayer with dangers to us than dangers to, say, armadillos. Still, the addition of the adjective “human” forms a pleasing contrast to the “divine” in “divine participation.” It is an effective rhetorical antithesis.
What is dangerous to humans? We can start with ourselves. In the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent we pray for deliverance from the “imminent dangers of our sins.” Perhaps the old adage exaggerates when it states that we are our own worst enemy, but it is admittedly on to something. And, of course, the snares of the devil (which often exploit our sinful proclivities) would also qualify as dangers to us humans.
Finally, the verb that we have translated as to be “subject to” is subjacere, which literally means “to lie under.” It is a somewhat colorful image. Were we not mindful of liturgical propriety, we might be tempted to translate the petition as “Do not, O Lord, allow us to be thrown under the bus of human dangers.” At the very least it is worth noting that the verb choice is another antithesis; there is an implicit contrast between divine participation, which is a participation in the good that is above, and the perils of being under the thumb of what is bad. May our mingling with the high keep us from succumbing to the low, now and to the very end. Amen.

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