Friday, February 05, 2021

The Pauline Collect of Sexagesima Sunday

The basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls
Lost in Translation #37

Station churches are an intriguing part of the traditional Missal. For 89 Masses on 86 days of the year, the 1962 Missal mentions a station, the church in Rome to which the Pope and the faithful would process and where he would celebrate Mass that day. Station churches were sometimes chosen to reflect the liturgical occasion (such as the church of the Holy Cross ‘in Jerusalem’ on Good Friday), but they could also influence the liturgy itself. The Collect of the Thursday of the Third Week of Lent, for example, mentions Saints Cosmas and Damien because the station church for the day is named after them.

The Roman custom of station churches explains some of the elements of Sexagesima Sunday. Because the station of this Sunday is St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls, one of the four great basilicas of Rome, the Epistle is 2 Corinthians 11, 19-33 and 12, 1-9, in which Paul recounts his many sufferings as an apostle of Christ. The Collect is likewise noteworthy:
Deus, qui cónspicis, quia ex nulla nostra actióne confídimus: concéde propitius; ut contra adversa omnia, Doctóris gentium protectióne muniámur. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O God, who seest that we put not our trust in anything that we do; mercifully grant that by the protection of the Doctor of the Gentiles we may be defended against all adverse things. Through our Lord.

The prayer is a succinct reflection of Pauline theology. Like Saint Paul, the Doctor of the Gentiles, we should not trust our own ability to act morally, but glory in our infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in us (see the Epistle reading). The Epistle includes a long list of adversities that Paul encountered, and it is from all adverse things that we pray to be protected. 

The verb for defending (munire) is an appropriate choice, for it is a military image. The Collects of the Septuagesima season are concerned with affliction and adversity. We recognize that during Lent, we will be following Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil, and we have enough self-knowledge to know that we cannot survive this struggle alone. We also know that the danger of failure is real, for as the Gospel of the day (the Parable of the Sower) teaches, only a minority of seeds make it to fruition (Luke 18, 31-43). We therefore beg for protection in the conflict.

But there is another reason that munire is an appropriate choice. This verb for defending and protecting literally means to “fortify with a wall.” Did the author of this Collect have this meaning in mind as he contemplated the location of St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls? After all, the walls outside of which the basilica stands are the walls of the city, put there for protection. Perhaps that is why the Secret for Sexagesima Sunday uses munire.

When a liturgy develops organically, it absorbs the local tastes and flavors of the ages through which it passes. Joseph Ratzinger describes his wonder as a boy upon discovering this fact:

It was becoming more and more clear to me that here I was encountering a reality that no one had simply thought up, a reality that no official authority or great individual had created. This mysterious fabric of texts and actions had grown from the faith of the Church over the centuries. It bore the whole weight of history within itself, and yet, at the same time, it was much more than the product of human history. (Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 20.)

Sexagesima Sunday is a good example of Ratzinger’s point. Its fabric was woven in part from the particular history of the Church in the city of Rome, yet its particularity opens up to a greater universal reality to which all are summoned. In that respect, the traditional Roman liturgy is not unlike St. Paul himself, the co-founder of the Church in Rome and yet the Apostle to all the gentile nations, to us goys.

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