Friday, October 15, 2021

The Final Conflict and the Orations of the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, by Claude Vignon, 1629
Lost in Translation #62

The Sundays near the end of the traditional liturgical year are increasingly concerned with the Last Judgment and the end of time, and increasingly alarmed. Whereas the previous Sunday had a somewhat joyful tone, the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost is more somber. In the background, from the Divine Office during the month of October, is “the astonishing annals of the heroic warriors, the Machabees,” writes Fr. Pius Parsch. “Their deeds, as it were, illustrate the Epistle of the 21st Sunday, which describes the armor needed in the spiritual conflict.” (The Church’s Year of Grace, vol. 5, p. 65; Liturgical Press, 1958) In the foreground of the Mass is an array of different biblical texts involving some kind of conflict between two parties:

  • The Introit is from the Book of Esther, when Mordecai and Esther plead with God to save the Jews from a new Babylonian law decreeing their extermination; 
  • The Alleluia, from Psalm 113, pits the Jews against the “barbarous” Egyptians—apparently, there is more to being civilized than impressive architecture, political stability, and mummification;
  • The Epistle, from Ephesians 6, describes the Christian spiritual warrior and the armor that he needs to defeat the demons, who are especially active during the final days;
  • The Gospel, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18, 23-35), presents Christ the King as the Judge who will not forgive those who do not forgive others;
  • The Offertory Verse presents the miserable figure of Job who is beset with misfortune at the hands of Satan;
  • The Communion Verse, from Psalm 118, turns the fear of judgment, which is evident in the Gospel, into an appeal for judgment against our enemies. A sharp distinction is drawn between wicked persecutors and innocent victims.
The orations for this Sunday shed further light on the conflict that we must win in order to be judged well. The Collect is:
Familiam tuam, quáesumus, Dómine, contínua pietáte custódi: ut a cunctis adversitátibus, te protegente, sit líbera; et in bonis áctibus tuo nómini sit devóta. Per Dóminum nostrum. 
Which I translate as:
Keep, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy household in continual piety; that, with You protecting it, it may be free from all adversities and devoted to the glory of Thy name through good works. Through our Lord.
Pietas, as we have seen elsewhere, can be a difficult word to translate, since it means two different things depending on whether it is used to describe God or man, and it is not entirely clear in this Collect which one it is. I have translated continua pietate as “in [man’s] continual piety” (one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit), but the phrase can also be an ablative of means and thus refer to God’s continual mercy. If it is the latter, the meaning of the petition is, “Guard Thy household with Thy continual lovingkindness.”
The second half of the Collect includes a double petition: to be free from all adversities and to be devoted to good works. The former asks for the bad to be removed, the latter for the good to be added. And the good is devotion to the glory of God’s Holy Name. Glory is what is bestowed on those who have emerged victorious in a conflict. It is God who wins the battle for us; we only ask to participate in the spoils of victory and to have the grace to do our share in the fighting.
The Secret presents a peculiar challenge:
Súscipe, Dómine, propitius hostias: quibus et te placári voluisti, et nobis salútem potenti pietáte restítui. Per Dóminum nostrum.
Which I translate as:
Graciously receive, O Lord, these offerings, by which Thou hast also willed to be appeased: and restore salvation to us through Thy powerful lovingkindness. Through our Lord.
Hostias (“offerings”) refers to sacrificial victims in the plural. But is there not one Victim, offered on the Cross? The reference is, no doubt, to the double offering of Christ’s Body and Blood, which is about to happen. It is through the Sacrifice of the Cross, offered through the different species of bread and wine, that God’s will is appeased, placated. And the petition is bold: to have salvation restored through God’s powerful lovingkindness (pietas). Piety shifts from the loyalty of man to the mercy of God. And the sacrifice of the Eucharist restores our salvation, marred and compromised by sins committed after our cleansing in Baptism.
Finally, the Postcommunion prayer is:
Immortalitátis alimoniam consecúti, quáesumus, Dómine: ut, quod ore percépimus, pura mente sectémur. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as: 
Having snatched up the food of immortality, O Lord: we beseech Thee, that what we have received with our mouth, we may follow with a pure mind. Through our Lord.
“Food of immortality” is a common reference to the Eucharist in the Postcommunion prayers, but in context here (with Doomsday looming nigh), it has the sense of the viaticum, the food that was given to a Roman soldier for his hard campaign and the eternal food that is given to a dying Catholic (his last Holy Communion) before he passes to the next world. We pray fervently, as we enter into the final struggle, for the grace to act with a pure, internal mind the rituals which we perform externally, such as receiving Holy Communion on our tongues. We have been Catholic for so long, going through the motions and doing all the requisite deeds: when will we be Catholics in heart and soul?

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