Friday, November 27, 2020

The Tempestuous Collect for the First Sunday of Advent

James Tissot, Jesus Stilling the Tempest (1886-1894)
Lost in Translation #27

The First Sunday of Advent and of the liturgical year begins with the second “Stir up” Collect in a row:

Excita, quǽsumus, Dómine, poténtiam tuam, et veni: ut ab imminéntibus peccatórum nostrórum perículis, te mereámur protegénte éripi, te liberánte salvári: Qui vivis et regnas.
Which I translate as:
Stir up Thy power, we beseech Thee, O Lord, and come: that from the imminent dangers of our sins, we may deserve to be rescued by Thy protection and saved by Thy deliverance: Who livest and reignest. 
Although the Roman orations reflect a Roman rhetorical tradition often distinct in diction and syntax from the Latin translations of the Bible, this Collect draws directly from Psalm 79 (80), 2, “Excita, Dómine, poténtiam tuam et veni, ut salvos fácias nos”,  that is “Stir up, O Lord, Thy might, and come to save us.”
The traditional subtitle for Psalm 79 is “a prayer for the church in tribulation.” As St Robert Bellarmine explains, the psalmist prays for God in this verse to stir up His might because it looks as if His might is buried when God allows us “to be harassed by our unjust persecutors.” Last week, the Church prayed that God stir up our wills to make a good end; this week, she prays that God stir up His power to make a good beginning in the midst of a bad situation.
And not just God in general, but God the Son. Whereas last week’s Collect was addressed to the Father, this week’s is addressed to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity (see the ending “Thou who livest.”) Pleading with the Son to come makes sense during the season of Advent, as we liturgically relive the ages before His Nativity and beg for His arrival in Bethlehem; this “re-enactment,” in turn, helps us prepare for His coming in our hearts and His coming at the end of time. The Collects of Advent reinforce the “B.C.” aspect of the season in a delightfully subtle way. Regardless of whether they address the Father or the Son, all Sunday Advent Collects avoid mentioning the Holy Name of Jesus, even in the conclusion. The Jewish people knew for centuries that the Messiah was coming, but no one knew His proper name until the Angel Gabriel revealed it to the Blessed Virgin Mary. We get a taste of what it was like to live before Christ and not knowing His Holy Name.
And there is another dimension to invoking the Son with excita that brings us back to the psalmist’s plea during a time of tribulation. Excitare is the verb used by St. Mark to describe the Apostles waking up Jesus as He slept in the midst of a storm: “And He was in the hinder part of the ship, sleeping upon a pillow; and they awake Him (et excitant eum), and say to Him: "Master, doth it not concern Thee that we perish?” (4, 38)
The scene is almost comical, with the Apostles’ question coming across as passive aggressive. This Sunday’s Collect is a little more upfront. Wake up, Son of God, it demands, and come! You are sleeping, and the ship that is Your Church is perishing. The Barque of St. Peter, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI remarked a few years ago, “has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.” [2] Of course, we must admit that we deserve all this bilge: the Collect identifies as the chief danger not an external threat but our own sins. Yet that does not make our situation any less tempestuous, and so we pray to be rescued and saved.
The end of the world, which remains on our minds during Advent, will also be a tempestuous time. In this Sunday's Gospel, Our Lord predicts that upon the earth there will be 
distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves: men withering away for fear and expectation of what shall come upon the whole world (Luke 21, 25-26).
And so, in those moments when we are prone to fear and apt to doubt the “sleeping Lord,” let us recall the end of St. Mark's story:
And rising up, He rebuked the wind, and said to the sea: "Peace, be still." And the wind ceased: and there was made a great calm. And He said to them: "Why are you fearful? have you not faith yet?" (4, 39-40)
[1] St. Robert Bellarmine, SJ A Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Preserving Christian Publications, 2008),197.

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