Friday, March 05, 2021

The Taciturn Collect for the Third Sunday of Lent

Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry
, 15th century
Lost in Translation #41

On the surface, the Collect for the Third Sunday of Lent is about as simple as it gets:

Quáesumus, omnípotens Deus, vota humilium réspice: atque ad defensiónem nostram, déxteram tuæ majestátis extende. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
We beseech Thee, almighty God, look back on the petitions of Thy humble ones, and stretch forth the right hand of Thy majesty to be our defense. Through our Lord.
The Collect is a good example of why Pierre Maranget characterized the Roman orations as “remarkable for their simplicity, gravity, clarity, strength, and conciseness, as well as for the elevation of thought and the abundance and accuracy of their theological teaching.” [1] Most Collects have three parts (not including the conclusion): the address, a statement of fact, and a petition. [2] The address is directed to God, the statement of fact is about Him (“Thou who dost X,Y, and Z”), and the petition is for us. This Sunday’s Collect substitutes a statement of fact for a double petition, giving it a somewhat rushed urgency.
It also finds ways of describing God without a separate statement of fact. “Almighty”, “right hand”, and “majesty” all emphasize divine power. For 90% of the world’s population, the right hand is the stronger and more capable of the two, and in the Psalms, God’s right hand is synonymous with His might. There is also a hint of the Christological in the petition for the Father to extend His right hand, for it is the Son who sits at the right hand of the Father.
“Majesty” also connotes supernatural power. According to Sr. Mary Pierre Ellebracht, the Hebrew Kebod Yahweh (the Glory of God) signifies both God’s power and His luminosity. Early Christians translated the latter with claritas and the former with majestas. [3]
All of this focus on divine power is to muster it for our protection. The Collect prays that God’s capacity for offense will make for us the best defense. Power is also the theme of this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 11, 14-28). When the Jews watching Jesus perform an exorcism accuse Him of having demonic power, He reminds them that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and observes that a strong man is strong only until a stronger man comes, overpowers him, takes away his armor, and distributes his spoils. He then tells the story of a demon who is exorcized and returns with seven spirits more wicked than he to repossess the man. In asking God to protect us with His power, the Collect is asking Him to protect us from the strong man.
And we ask Him to protect us because we know we are weak. The first petition of the Collect is vota humilium réspice. Respicere is the Latin verb that is typically used for “have regard for” or “provide for,” but I have translated it according to its more primitive meaning of looking back or looking again. The Introit for this Sunday begins with the declaration, “My eyes are always on the Lord: for He shall pluck my feet out of the snare: Look back (respice) upon me, and have mercy on me.”

The fact that we are always looking at the Lord indicates that we are suppliant servants, for “As the eyes of the servants are on the hands of their masters, as the eyes of the handmaid are on the hands of her mistress: so are our eyes unto the Lord our God, until he have mercy on us.” (Ps. 122, 2)
And so as we look upon God, we ask Him, both in the Introit and Collect, to look upon us, to turn around, so to speak, notice our lowliness, and take pity on us. And we are clearly lowly because in the Collet we call ourselves humiles, a word that in classical Latin is a term of reproach for the lowly and insignificant, but in ecclesiastical Latin becomes an honest confession of our status.
More specifically, we ask God to look upon the vota of us lowly creatures. which we have translated as “petitions.” Votum has a rich history. The word was used in pagan times to signify a solemn promise made to a deity, a vow. It then came to signify what was being promised and was thus tied to sacrificial offerings. It also came to mean any wish or desire, which is probably why our word “vote” is derived from it, since voting is an act of stating your political preferences. In ecclesiastical Latin, vota are public prayers or desires, sometimes the prayers of the liturgical act that we are celebrating right now.
Lent is a time to cast out those demons in our lives that can only be cast out by prayer and fasting (see Matthew 17, 21). Our petitions (vota) are our prayers, and our fasting makes us aware of our weakness. And perhaps that, too, is another tie-in to the Gospel. Some have speculated that Jesus’ Parable of the Strong Man is an allusion to Isaiah 49, 24-25:
Shall the prey be taken from the strong? Or can that which was taken by the mighty be delivered? For thus saith the Lord: “Yea verily, even the captivity shall be taken away from the strong: and that which was taken by the mighty, shall be delivered. But I will judge those that have judged thee, and thy children I will save.”
In other words, the devil is the strong man who has taken us captive and made us his prey. Deliver us, then, O Lord, from the mighty, and save Thy children.
[1] See Sr. Mary Gonzaga Haessly, Rhetoric in the Sunday Collects of the Roman Missal (Ursuline College for Women, 1938), quoted in front matter.
[2] Haessly, 14.
[3] Sr. Mary Pierre Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Dekker & Van de Vegt N.V.), 40.

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