Friday, May 14, 2021

The Contextual Orations of the Sunday after Ascension

The Dome of the Pantheon on Pentecost (Courtesy of Mr John Sonnen, via his blog Orbis Catholicus.)
Lost in Translation #53

The Sunday after Ascension was once known as Dominica de Rosis or “Sunday of the Roses.” It is said that some churches in the Middle Ages strewed roses on the pavement in honor of Christ’s triumphant entry into Heaven. But the epithet probably comes from a Roman custom. The station church of the day is Sancta Maria ad Martyres (Latin) or Santa Maria Rotonda (Italian), better known as the former Pantheon. During the papal Mass--and in order to anticipate the feast of Pentecost--red rose petals symbolizing the tongues of flame that descended upon the disciples were showered onto the people from the central opening in the roof known as the oculus. Today, la pioggia di petali di rose (“the rain of rose petals”) takes place on Pentecost itself (after the 10:30 a.m. Mass) with the help of local firemen who scale the building and release tens of thousands of petals into the interior. [1]

The 1962 Missal’s Sunday after Ascension both celebrates our Lord’s consummation of His earthly ministry (see the first Alleluia and Offertory verse) and eagerly awaits the fulfillment of His promise: to send to His disciples the Holy Ghost, “the Spirit of truth, who proceedeth from the Father” (Second Alleluia and Gospel). It is in expectation of the Paraclete that we are admonished to be vigilant in prayer (Epistle).
The orations of the Sunday, on the other hand, make no mention of either the Ascension or of Pentecost; indeed, they could effortlessly appear anywhere in the liturgical year. But their placement on this Sunday is a good example of the power of context, of how things viewed vis-à-vis several other things appear differently than when they are viewed on their own. This phenomenon is common with colors, but it is also true in literature and liturgy.
In the Secret, for example, the Church prays that these spotless sacrifices may purify us and grant to our minds the vigor of heavenly grace (Sacrificia nos, Dómine, immaculáta puríficent: et méntibus nostris supernae gratiae dent vigórem). The phrase gratia superna, which is commonly translated as “heavenly grace,” literally means “grace from above.” There is, of course, no ontological difference between the two, but the connotation is different. Four days ago, the Apostles looked up to Him who was ascending above them, and next Sunday they will look up to the Spirit descending upon them. Gratia superna, even if unintentionally, puts us in mind of the events we are commemorating.
Similarly, the Postcommunion is:
Repléti, Dómine, munéribus sacris: da, quáesumus: ut in gratiárum semper actióne maneámus.
Which I translate as:
Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that being replenished with sacred offerings, we may ever remain in thanksgiving.
It is a perfectly versatile prayer, but placed after the Communion verse, it is the answer to a question. In the Communion verse (John 17, 12-13 & 15), Jesus prays that His disciples not be taken out of the world but kept from evil, but nothing is said about how the disciples can remain in the world without being contaminated by it. The Postcommunion provides an answer: fed on the Eucharist, we remain in a state of thanksgiving, and as long as our hearts are filled with gratitude to God, evil will not affect our relationship to Him.
But it is that Collect that has the most contextual potential:
Omnípotens sempiterne Deus: fac nos tibi semper et devótam gérere voluntátem: et majestáti tuae sincéro corde servíre. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Almighty and eternal God, grant us always to bear a will devoted to Thee and to serve Thy majesty with a sincere heart. Through our Lord.
On its own, this prayer could be used every day without alteration, but placed after the Ascension, it takes on new meaning. Praying for a sincere heart keeps the Paschal mystery in mind, for on Easter Sunday, we were admonished by St. Paul to feast “not with the old leaven nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor. 5, 8) And the petition for a devoted will foreshadows the Epistle’s admonition to have charity (1 Pet. 4, 8), for as St. Francis de Sales teaches, devotion is “a certain degree of excellent charity.” [2]
The Ascension of Christ in Majesty; mosaic on the façade of the basilica of St Frediano in Lucca, Italy, ca. 1230. (image from Wikimedia Commons by JoJan, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Further, the verb gerere, which I have translated as “to bear,” can also mean “to carry on,” while in the Roman orations God’s majesty (majestas) is usually in reference to His strength. [3] If we picture ourselves as the original Apostles who have recently witnessed Jesus ascending into Heaven, what would we pray? Perhaps it would be to carry on with a will devoted to the God who has just manifested His strength through the Ascension of His Son. The association of majesty and the Ascension is reinforced by Hebrews 1, 3, where the ascended Christ is described as sitting “on the right hand of the majesty on high.” And to my mind at least, “majesty” also evokes a certain awe, which I imagine is the feeling one gets standing in an architectural wonder and watching rose petals rain down from an opening fourteen stories above you. May the external stimuli of sacred liturgy and its internal, supernal graces keep our wills on fire for our Paschal Lamb and Savior and attuned to His majesty.
[1] Alas, in this year of 2021, this public ceremony will not take place for the second year in a row because of COVID-19 restrictions.
[2] Introduction to the Devout Life 1, 1
[3] Sr. Mary Pierre Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Dekker & Van de Vegt N.V.), 40-41.

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