Friday, April 02, 2021

The Collect for Easter Sunday

Lost in Translation #45

The Collect for Easter Sunday is:

Deus, qui hodiérna die per Unigénitum tuum æternitátis nobis áditum devícta morte reserásti: vota nostra, quæ præveniéndo aspíras, étiam adjuvándo proséquere. Per eúndem Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O God, who on this [special] day through Thine Only-Begotten has conquered death and opened up for us the gate of eternity; just as you inspire our prayers by coming before them, follow up on them by helping us. Through the same our Lord.
In Latin, the word “day” (dies) has two genders. When it is masculine it is an ordinary day, and when it is feminine it is a special day. In this Collect, dies is feminine, for a man rising from the grave three days after His brutal execution and opening up Heaven is indeed a rather special day. The usage also ties in to the Gradual: “This is the day (dies, feminine) which the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad therein.”
The Collect has two antonomasias, a literary device that substitutes a proper name for a characteristic. Instead of “Jesus Christ,” “Thine Only-Begotten” is used, and instead of “everlasting life” or “everlasting happiness” or “Heaven,” “eternity” is used. [1] In context, it seems to me that these devices imbue the prayer with a certain breathless playfulness or perhaps intimacy, as if the Church is excitedly saying: “We don't need to spell this out, O Lord: You obviously know what we are talking about.”
“Devicta morte”, which we have translated as “conquered death,” is a succinct but powerful ablative absolute. Vinco is to defeat or conquer, and devinco (used here) is to utterly and thoroughly defeat or conquer. Christ did not just win the battle, but the war. O death, where is thy victory now? You are through! The sentiment echoes several other texts, such as the Preface for Easter, “Who by dying destroyed our death and by rising again restored our life,” and the opening stanza of the sequence for the day, the beautiful Victimae Paschali Laudes,
as well as the stirring Paschaltide refrain in the Byzantine liturgy, “Christ is risen from the dead, conquering death by death! And to those in the tomb, He granted life!”

Reserasti, which we have translated as “opened up,” can also mean to unseal or unbar. It appears here in syncopated form--that is, the full word reseravisti has been contracted to reserasti. It is a nice poetic touch. Technically, Christ did not open the gates of eternity on the day that He rose from the dead but on the day that He ascended to Heaven. Still, the Church cannot but think of eternity on this day. To my mind, the image of unbarring also betokens the icon of the Resurrection (see above), which depicts Christ breaking the chains of death and unsealing the coffins of Adam and Eve as the first step to their lives of eternal happiness.

The petition or apodosis is a masterpiece of tight rhetoric. There is a juxtaposition between “following up” and “coming before.” There is an alliteration of praeveniendo and prosequere, and of aspíras (ad-spiras) and adjuvando, and these alliterations are arranged chiastically: praeveniendo (A) aspiras (B), etiam adjuvando (B) prosequere (A). (The Collect of Palm Sunday also has a nice chiasm). There is assonance between praeveniendo and adjuvando, and their arrangement in the same order constitutes an anaphora. [2]

Together, the diction and devices create a memorable image. God comes before our prayers (vota can also mean desires) and inspires them. Aspiras literally means to breathe at, and it is reminiscent of Jesus coming before the Apostles on that first Easter Sunday and breathing the Holy Spirit onto them (see John 20, 22). But aspiro also means to be favorable to or to assist, because it conjures up the image of a fair breeze. [3] In the Aeneid, Vergil uses the verb for Juno creating favorable winds and for Venus breathing “divine love” into her words. [4] In this Collect, the breath of God has put wind in our sails, and so we now ask that He follow up on His initial gust and help us reach the port, or rather the gate, of everlasting happiness.


[1] See Sr. Mary Gonzaga Haessly, Rhetoric in the Sunday Collects of the Roman Missal (Ursuline College for Women, 1938), 59.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See “Aspiro,” def. 2, in Lewis and Short, Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879).

[4] Aeneid 5.607 and 8.373, respectively.

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