Friday, January 29, 2021

The Exilic Collect of Septuagesima Sunday

Evelyn de Morgan, By the Waters of Babylon, 1882-83
Lost in Translation #36

Pre-Lent or Septuagesima (the roughly seventieth day before Easter) begins tomorrow evening at First Vespers. This fascinating season, which lasts two and a half weeks, acts as a bridge between the jubilance of the Christmas cycle and the austerity of Lent. Violet vestments are worn and the Gloria and Alleluia are suppressed, but there is no mandatory fasting; indeed, the old custom of finishing off foods forbidden during Lent has led to the excesses of Carnival.

The propers for Septuagesima serve as a perfect primer on how to approach the Lent-Easter cycle. During Matins of this season, the Church contemplates the fall of Adam, that fateful act which, as we will hear during the Exultet on Holy Saturday, is a felix culpa that precipitates our redemption through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Collect for Septuagesima Sunday is likewise instructive:
Preces pópuli tui, quáesumus, Dómine, clementer exaudi: ut, qui juste pro peccátis nostris afflígimur, pro tui nóminis gloria misericórditer liberémur. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Graciously hear, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the prayers of Thy people: that we who are justly afflicted for our sins, may be mercifully delivered for the glory of Thy name. Through our Lord.

Just as Lent recalls the forty years that the Hebrews spent in the wilderness, Septuagesima recalls the seventy years of the Babylonian Exile, when the Chosen People were so homesick that they could not sing a song of Zion (see Ps. 136, 3-4). [1] Septuagesima and Lent are sober reminders of our status as wayfarers living east of Eden, “justly afflicted for our sins” in a valley of tears. [2]

But even though we are afflicted justly, we pray that God may “graciously hear” our prayers. The plea clementer exaudi, which occurs three times in the Roman orations, is somewhat difficult to translate. Audi means to hear and ex-audi means to hear clearly, to heed or grant, even to obey. Clementer is the adverbial form of clemens, from which derives clementia or clemency. In both Latin and English, clementia has a juridical ring to it, as when a judge shows clemency in sentencing; and one of the titles of the Roman Emperors was Clementia tua or “Your Grace.” Through this Collect we are essentially acknowledging that we are guilty but begging for clemency nonetheless.

Why would God the Supreme Judge show clemency to miserable sinners such as us? Because, the Collect states, it will give glory to His name. Perhaps it is the people who, delivered from their sins, will give God glory, or perhaps the act of clemency itself counts as a glorious act. Either way, the petitioner's hope is that God will be incentivized to action by the glory of His name. That hope, which is an echo of Psalm 78:9, [3] is present at every Mass in the Suscipiat, when the faithful pray that God will accept this Eucharistic sacrifice for the praise and glory of His name.

But in the Old Testament the glory of YHWH (Kebod Jahweh) is also an actual “physical phenomenon indicative of the divine presence” that appeared on Mount Sinai, in the Tabernacle, and in the Temple, and that often manifested itself as some form of brightness. [4] The Church's Easter prayers apply this brightness to the glory of the Resurrection, and so when the Septuagesima Collect prays for deliverance for the glory of God's name, it is already looking ahead to the Light at the end of the penitential tunnel into which we are now entering, giving us hope that our mortifications will meet with a happy result.


[1] The suppression of the word “Alleluia” during Septuagesima and Lent is an apt imitation of the Hebrews refusing to sing by the rivers of Babylon, for Alleluia is the song on the lips of the angels and saints in our true home of Heaven.

[2] This phrase is absent in the new Missal. Its closest counterpart may be found in one optional postcommunion prayer in the Votive Mass In Quacumque Necessitate: “Tribulatiónem nostram, quáesumus, Dómine, propitius réspice, et iram tuæ indignatiónis, quam pro peccátis nostris iuste merémur, per passiónem Filii tui, propitiátus avarte. Per Christum.”

[3] Adjuva nos, Deus, salutaris noster; et propter gloriam nominis tui, Domine, libera nos.
[4] Sr. Mary Pierre Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Dekker & Van de Vegt N.V.), 32-33.

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