Friday, December 31, 2021

The Mostly Marian Orations of the Christmas Octave

Cosmè Tura, Circumcision, 1474
Lost in Translation #67

Although the official title for the feast on January 1 in the 1962 Missal is the Octave of Christmas, for most of liturgical history it was also called the Feast of the Circumcision. In accordance with the Law, Jesus was circumcised eight days after His birth (see Gospel), and thus, if He was born on December 25, He was circumcised on January 1. Our Lord’s circumcision is an important event to commemorate: 1) It underscores the faithful Jewish piety of the Holy Family; 2) It is the occasion on which the Infant was, again in accordance with the Old Law, formally given the Holy Name of Jesus; and 3) It marks the first time that Our Lord shed His Blood for humanity. The slightly dolorous note of this last fact also ties into the Church’s earliest known observance of January 1 as a day of fasting and penance in opposition to the revelries of the pagans.

The day also has a Marian motif. The station church on January 1 is Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and this location no doubt influenced the choice of the Collect and Postcommunion.
The Collect for the feast, which is at least as old as the late eighth century, is: [1]
Deus, qui salútis aeternae, beátae Maríae virginitáte fœcunda, humáno géneri praemia praestitisti: tríbue, quáesumus; ut ipsam pro nobis intercédere sentiámus, per quam merúimus auctórem vitae suscípere, Dóminum nostrum Jesum Christum Filium tuum: Qui tecum.
Which I translate as:
O God, who through the fruitful virginity of blessed Mary didst bestow upon mankind the rewards of eternal salvation: grant, we beseech, that we may feel interceding for us her through whom we have been made worthy to receive the Author of life, our Lord Jesus Christ Thy Son: Who with Thee.
The protasis or first half of the prayer includes a delightful description of Mary’s virginity as fruitful. In St. Hildegard of Bingen’s Play of the Virtues, the Devil says to the personified virtue of Chastity:
You don’t know what you are nurturing, since your womb is bereft of the beautiful form that is received from a man; therefore you transgress the precept that God commanded in the sweet act of copulation; therefore you don’t know what you are!
To which Chastity replies:
How on earth could this touch me, which your foul suggestion has polluted through its uncleanness? I did bring forth one Man, Who through His Nativity gathers mankind to Himself, against you. [2]
Paradoxically, chastity is indeed a fecund virtue.
The apodosis or second half is a bit of a brain twister, but when the initial confusion gives way to comprehension, there is greater delight. Mary, who has paradoxically authored the Author of life, makes us worthy to receive Him as well through her constant intercession. And we pray not only for this continued intercession but for an awareness of it. We want to feel her intercession, for the experience of Mary watching over us brings with it consolation, hope, and inspiration to do better.
The Secret, on the other hand, has no explicit Marian theme:
Munéribus nostris, quáesumus, Dómine, precibusque susceptis: et caeléstibus nos munda mysteriis, et clementer exaudi. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Having received our offerings and prayers, we beseech Thee, O Lord: cleanse us with these heavenly mysteries and mercifully hear us. Through our Lord.
Curiously, the prayer appears several times elsewhere in the 1962 Missal but only for a martyr: Boniface (May 14), Romanus (August 9), Hadrian (September 8), Menna (November 11), and a martyr outside of Paschaltide. Perhaps on January 1 the Secret pays indirect tribute to Mary as Queen of Martyrs, who on this day felt the pain of true compassion as she saw her Son’s Precious Blood shed. Or perhaps the washing or cleansing with heavenly mysteries calls to mind the Precious Blood itself.
The Postcommunion returns us to Mary as the Mother of God:
Haec nos communio, Dómine, purget a crímine: et, intercedente beáta Vírgine Dei Genitríce María, caelestis remedii faciat esse consortes. Per eundem Dóminum nostrum.
Which I translate as:
May this communion, O Lord, purge us from all guilt, and with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, interceding for us, make us partakers of the heavenly remedy. Through the same our Lord.
The prayer is also used for the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on October 11 and in the Saturday Mass of Our Lady from Christmas until Candlemas (February 2). Aside from these usages, it is, as with the Secret, only used only for martyred Saints. [3]
The prayer has both medical and legal imagery: paired with “remedy,” “purge” (purget) connotes healing, and paired with “guilt” (crimen), it suggests a clearing from accusation or condemnation. [4]
It is noteworthy that we ask to be made partakers of the heavenly remedy after partaking of the heavenly remedy a few moments ago in Holy Communion. The juxtaposition of “communion” and “remedy” is similar to the distinction between the res et virtus (reality and power) and the sacramentum (sacramental symbolism) of the Eucharist that St. Thomas Aquinas makes in his Prayer before Holy Communion. It is one thing to receive Holy Communion sacramentally, that is, on the tongue and under the appearance of bread; it is another to receive the power of its healing and sanctification. Having done the first, we now ask for the second.
And on January 1, we ask for it with the help of Our Blessed Lady. Most of the old hand Missals translate intercedente beáta Vírgine Dei Genitríce María as “through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” but I prefer to translate this ablative absolute in a more dynamic way. The first translation could suggest that Mary intervened at only one point to help us get the medicine we needed, like a helpful nurse who called our pharmacist and got the prescription filled. But I believe that this clause, which is in the present tense, asks for Mary’s ongoing intercession (like the Collect) so that she can advocate for us now, tomorrow, and at the hour of our death. After all, if on this day we celebrate Mary as the mother of Jesus Christ, we implicitly celebrate her as our mother as well. And a good Mom constantly has her children’s back.
[1] Corpus Orationum 3: Orationes 1708-2389 (Brepols, 1993), 2113b, Br 440, p. 182.
[2] Ordo Virtutum 235-241, translation mine.
[3] Eusebius (December 16), Blaise (February 3), Stanislaus (May 7), Gervasius and Protasius (June 19), Januarius and Companions (September 19), Vitalis and Agricola (November 4), Several Martyrs, and a martyred Pontiff. Only once in the 1962 Missal is the prayer used without reference to a Saint’s intercession: the ferial Mass of Monday during the third week of Lent.
[4] Sr. Mary Pierre Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Dekker & Van de Vegt N.V.), 185.  

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