Friday, February 26, 2021

The Transformative Collect of the Second Sunday of Lent

Giambettino Cignaroli, Transfiguration of Christ (1741)
Lost in Translation #40

The Collect for the Second Sunday of Lent is:

Deus, qui cónspicis omni nos virtúte destítui: interius exteriusque custódi; ut ab ómnibus adversitátibus muniámur in córpore, et a pravis cogitatiónibus mundémur in mente. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O God, who seest that we are bereft of all virtue, guard us inside and out: that we may be defended from all adversities to our bodies and cleansed from all perverse thoughts in our minds. Through our Lord.
The noun virtus is not easy to translate. Although it can mean moral virtue, as we have rendered it here, in the Roman orations it is generally used in reference to God’s supernatural power, especially His power to make man’s cultic act divine. And when it is used in reference to man himself, it is usually as a divinely-infused, superhuman power like the courage of the martyrs. [1] Declaring that man is bereft of all virtus, then, is not an endorsement of the doctrine of total depravity; it is an assertion that holiness is impossible without God.
Those Christians who believe in man’s total depravity also tend to subscribe to a doctrine of “imputed righteousness,” the idea that God does not really transform fallen man, but throws a cloak of justice over him which enables him to enter Heaven, like a blanket of snow on a pile of dung. The Collect, by contrast, presupposes that salvation and holiness thoroughly transform the human person both inside and out. We first want to be protected from bodily adversity, which can disturb our inner peace and strain our trust in God, as it did to Job. Once protected, we ask God to clean out our perverse or crooked thoughts. Cleansing is an important theme of Lent: all of our mortifications are meant to have a purgative value. But cleansing our thoughts is especially difficult. It is easier to control our actions than the promptings and musings of our mind, and therefore even the best of men can be plagued with the worst of thoughts. The difference between a saint and the average man is not that the saint has only pure thoughts, but that he trains his mind to reject, calmly yet firmly, bad thoughts as soon as they arise. And should they persist, he refuses to let them lead him to discouragement but throws himself all the more passionately on the mercy of God. Perverse thoughts are a stubborn, many-headed hydra, yet we are confident that God can cleanse us of even them.
On a linguistic note, there is a pleasing juxtaposition between “defended” and “cleansed”, since there is a slight pun on the words muniamur and mundemur. It is also difficult to express in English the tight contrast between in corpore and in mente.
Body, soul, and holiness are also the subjects of the Sunday readings. In the Epistle from 1 Thessalonians, St Paul reminds us that God does not call us to uncleanness (immunditia is related to the Collect’s mundemur). Rather, He wills our sanctification, and that involves knowing how to possess our vessels (bodies) in honor. The Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Lent, on the other hand, is Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration (17, 1-9), when Jesus is transfigured on (presumably) Mount Tabor as Peter, James, and John look on. The traditional interpretation of this event is that our Lord was preparing these three Princes of the Apostles for the brutal and demoralizing spectacle of the crucifixion by giving them a foreshadowing of His glorious resurrection. (They are the same three Apostles who will be called to witness Christ’s agony in the garden). And similarly, in order to inspire the faithful during the penitential season of Lent, the Church on this Sunday anticipates the glory of Easter by calling to mind Christ’s transfiguration.
But we can also think of the Transfiguration as the goal to which the Collect aspires. Jesus’ glorified, transfigured body is free from bodily adversity, and His soul is either free of perverse thoughts or is constantly being cleansed of them. [2] Romano Guardini once defined a beautiful work of art as one in which “its inner essence and significance find perfect expression in its existence.” The brilliant clothes and face of Jesus Christ during the Transfiguration are the perfect expression of His inner beauty, a beauty we adore, strive to imitate, and God willing, will some day resemble.

[1] Sr. Mary Pierre Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Dekker & Van de Vegt N.V., 1963), 127-9.
[2] I hesitate to say which because it depends on the definition of “perverse thought.” As we know from last week’s Gospel, Jesus was truly tempted in the desert. Does temptation always include a perverse suggestion?

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