Friday, April 16, 2021

The Freefall Collect of Good Shepherd Sunday

Fresco of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, from the Catacombs of St Callixtus in Rome.
Lost in Translation #48

The Collect for the Second Sunday after Easter, also commonly known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”, is brief but striking:

Deus, qui in Filii tui humilitáte jacentem mundum erexesti, fidélibus tuis perpétuam concéde laetitiam: ut, quos perpétuae mortis eripuisti cásibus, gaudiis facias pérfrui sempiternis. Per eundem Dóminum nostrum.
Which I translate as:
O God, who by the humility of Thy Son hast raised up a falling world, grant to Thy faithful perpetual gladness: that those whom Thou hast delivered from the dangers of perpetual death Thou mayest cause to thoroughly enjoy endless joys. Through the same.
Sr. Mary Haessley uses this Collect as an example of “antithetical chiasm,” that is a chiastic or V-like structure (ABC - CBA) marked by antitheses or contrasts. The statement of fact about God (“O God, who...”) is dominated by the language of descent: the world is not simply fallen but still falling, spiraling downward to Hell. God the Father responds by the humility of His Son, who, we can imagine, humbly races down from Heaven to catch us before we perish. The Son not only stops our fall, but He raises us up, lifting us higher. In the Latin, the verb “raised up – erexisti” is the last word in the phrase, keeping the focus on the sinful descent of man and the saving descent of God until the last moment. It is an apt summary of the Paschal mystery that we continue to celebrate during this season, for Holy Week likewise characterizes salvation in terms of Jesus Christ’s humility (see here).
The petition, on the other hand, is replete with references to eternity: we ask for perpetual gladness, thank God for deliverance from perpetual death, and ask to revel in sempiternal joys. The emphasis underscores why the Paschal mystery – that is, the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ – is so important. It is not just a matter of life and death; it is a matter of eternal life and eternal death. Mentioning the terrors of eternal death also sets into sharp relief, and helps us be all the more grateful for, the joys of eternal life.
More specifically, we thank God for deliverance from the dangers of perpetual death. It is a good reminder, especially in an age that values long life and physical health as much as ours does, that the greatest dangers that man faces on earth concern not temporal death but eternal. “And fear ye not them that kill the body and are not able to kill the soul,” Our Lord commands, “but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10, 28). Finally, the author has chosen the perfect word for “dangers,” for the Latin word “casus” also means a fall, and thus it chiastically echoes the “falling world” mentioned earlier.
Although the imagery of the Collect is not explicitly pastoral or bucolic, it nevertheless contributes to the theme of Good Shepherd Sunday. Christ is the Good Shepherd who strikes with lightning speed at the wolves, saving His flock from the dangers of ravenous predators who wish to drag us down to perpetual death. And Christ strikes with His humility and total self-offering, leaving us an example to follow, as the Epistle reading from 1 Peter 2 attests. We also suspect that humility is another difference between the Good Shepherd and the hireling mentioned in the Gospel (John 10, 11-16). The hireling “hath no care for the sheep,” probably because he cares only about his wages or position. In other words, he is filled with self-regard and self-interest rather than self-emptying humility. May Jesus Christ, the shepherd and bishop of our souls (1 Pet. 2, 25), dive down to save us from both wolves and hirelings and carry us up to eternal joys.

Note: [1] See Sr. Mary Gonzaga Haessly, Rhetoric in the Sunday Collects of the Roman Missal (Ursuline College for Women, 1938), 19.

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