Friday, March 26, 2021

The Collect of Palm Sunday

Pietro Lorenzetti, The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem; fresco in the lower basilica of St Francis in Assisi, 1320.
Lost in Translation #44

Palm Sunday in the traditional calendar continues the Passiontide theme of the Cross that began a week ago, inaugurates Holy Week, and looks ahead with hope to Easter Sunday, our light at the end of the Lenten tunnel. All of this is evident in the Collect of the Mass:
Omnípotens sempitérne Deus, qui humáno géneri ad imitándum humilitátis exémplum, Salvatórem nostrum carnem súmere et crucem subíre fecísti: concéde propítius; ut et patiéntiæ ipsíus habére documénta et resurrectiónis consórtia mereámur. Per eúndem Dóminum nostrum.
Which I translate as:
Almighty and everlasting God, who, so that the human race might have an example of humility, hast made our Savior to take our flesh and undergo the Cross; graciously grant that we may deserve to have both the lessons of His patience and the fellowship of His resurrection. Through the same our Lord.
The Collect is an excellent example of what we might call “spiritual eructation.” Debates about the so-called two forms of the Roman Rite often involve a quantitative analysis of how much of the Bible is explicitly included, the assumption being that the more biblical passages there are in a liturgical event, the better. Historically, however, apostolic liturgies developed along a different set of priorities. Obviously, Sacred Scripture is cited in the introit, readings, etc., but in addition to the sacred liturgy proclaiming or chanting biblical passages in order to give us instruction or channel our emotions and cause prayer, the liturgy includes prayers that are the effects of having appropriated Scripture. Psalm 44, 2 in the Douay Rheims translation is “My heart hath uttered a good word,” but a more literal translation is “My heart hath belched [eructavit] a good word.” The idea is that in hearing and keeping the Word of God, we appropriate it (which literally means to make it our own) and, after having properly digested these verbal victuals from above, we release our own good words in life, prayer, or preaching. Saint Augustine writes:
You eat when you hear, you belch forth when you preach, and yet you belch forth what you have eaten. That most eager feaster John, for whom the very table of the Lord was not enough unless he leaned on the Lord’s breast and drank in divine secrets from His hidden [heart]; what did he belch out? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” (John 1, 1 - Enarratio in Psalmum 145.7.9)
Just as the Bible is the product of a good "eating" and "belching" of divine revelation, so too are the prayers of sacred liturgy the product of a good eating and belching of the Bible. We see this principle in action in the Palm Sunday Collect, which appropriates and rearticulates the New Testament teaching on Jesus Christ, especially two verses: “He humbled [humiliavit] Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the Cross (Phil 2, 8)”, and “Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example [exemplum], that you should follow His steps. (1 Pet 2, 21)”
Both allusions also foreshadow future worship: the first verse is used prominently during the Divine Office of the Triduum, and the second appears in the Epistle for the Second Sunday after Easter.
Another “spiritual eructation” occurs in the Collect’s synonym or complement of exemplum, the rather curious documenta, which we have translated as “lessons.” Christ is our Teacher precisely because of His humility: “Learn of Me, because I am meek and humble of heart.” (Matt. 11, 29) And we have His lessons of humility thanks to the documents of the New Testament.
Imitation is critical to Christian life: we imitate our exemplum Jesus Christ, and we imitate those who imitate Him, that is, the Saints. (See 1 Cor 4, 6; 11, 1; Phil. 3,17; 1 Thess. 1, 6; 2, 14.) “The imitation of Christ,” writes St. Basil the Great,
is necessary for the perfection of life, not only in His living example of humility, patience, and freedom from anger, but also in that of His very death. As Paul, the imitator of Christ, says, ‘I am conformed to His death, that I may somehow obtain the resurrection from the dead.’ (Phil 3, 10-11 - On the Holy Spirit 15, 35)
The theme of imitation therefore highlights our part in the drama of the Passion: we too must take up our cross and follow Him in order to complete the sufferings of Christ (see Col 1, 24). It is especially appropriate to recall this aspect of our faith at this moment of the liturgical year, and at this moment on Palm Sunday. Presumably, when the priest prays this oration, he and the faithful have just finished participating in the blessing of palms and the procession that literally imitates Our Lord’s humble entry into Jerusalem, humble because He rode in on a donkey rather than on a horse like a triumphant war king.
The word fecisti, which we have translated as “hast made,” sounds a little strong; it could give the impression that the Father forced the Son to undergo these humiliations. But understood in the right theological framework, the wording is sound. The Preface of the Cross used for this Mass includes the line:
Father almighty and everlasting God, who didst set [constituisti] the salvation of mankind upon the tree of the Cross, so that whence came death, thence life might rise again; and that he who overcame by a tree might be overcome by a tree.
“Making” and “setting” up the Son, however, does not happen without the Son’s full consent and cooperation. As we sing during the Passiontide hymn for Lauds, “Se volente natus ad hoc / Passioni deditus – Of His free choice He goeth / To a death of bitter pain.” (From the original wording of the hymn Pange lingua by Venantius Fortunatus.)
Finally, the Collect is elegantly constructed. Together, the double description of our Savior’s activity and our double petition to the Father form a chiasm, an ABBA pattern:
The Savior taking our [mortal] flesh (A)
The Savior enduring the Cross (B)
Our learning from His endurance (B)
Our fellowship with His risen flesh [His resurrection] (A)
We can imagine this chiasm as a V of descent and ascent. Christ descends first with His Incarnation and then even lower with His humiliating death. We meet Him at the bottom of the V by imitating Him, and hence participating in His Passion (wiping His brow like Veronica and carrying His Cross like Simon of Cyrene) and are thus able to ascend with Him in His Resurrection. We pray that just as art imitates life, our life may imitate this beautiful oration.

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