Friday, January 28, 2022

The Stormy Orations of the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

James Tissot, Jesus Stilling the Tempest, 1886-1894
Lost in Translation #69

In today’s Gospel, our Lord manifests His divinity by commanding the angry sea and the raging wind, for the Creator of nature has complete power over it. The Church Fathers saw more to the story: the raging wind is a type for the devils whose pride stirs up waves of persecutions against God’s people, and the sea becomes troubled by the passions and malice of men which, as Dom Gaspar Lefebvre, OSB, puts it, is “the great source of disobedience to authority and of fraternal strife.” In the Church (the ship), Lefebvre continues:

The great law of charity prevails, for while in the first three commandments the duty of loving God is laid upon us, by the remaining seven we are bound, as a natural consequence, to the love of our neighbor (Epistle). Herein is the whole mystery of the Epiphany. Our Lord manifests Himself as the Son of God, and all those who acknowledge Him as such, and accept Him as their Leader and Head, become members of His mystical body. Being one in Christ, all Christians should love one another. [1]
The Collect fits the violent image of a storm hand-in-glove:
Deus, qui nos in tantis perículis constitútos, pro humána scis fragilitáte non posse subsístere: da nobis salútem mentis et córporis; ut ea quae pro peccátis nostris pátimur, te adjuvante, vincámus. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O God, who knowest us to be placed in dangers so great that, on account of human frailty, we cannot withstand them; grant to us health of mind and body: that those things which we suffer on account of our sins we may conquer with Thy help. Through our Lord.
In the prelude (the protasis), we are surrounded by dangers that we are incapable of withstanding because of our frailty or fragility. “Of all the things that breathe and move upon it,” Odysseus laments in the Odyssey, “Earth nurtures nothing feebler than man.” [2] “Man’s days are as grass, as the flower of the field so shall he flourish,” chants the psalmist. “For the spirit shall pass in him, and he shall not be: and he shall know his place no more.” (Ps. 102, 15-16) “Man is nothing but a reed, the feeblest thing in nature.” Pascal adds. “…It is not necessary for the whole universe to arm itself in order to crush him; a vapor, a drop of water, is enough to kill him.” [3]
The solution to weakness is strength, and so we pray for health or vitality in both body and soul. It is good to have both: when the spirit is strong but the flesh is weak, we are at a disadvantage. The image of being weak in both body and soul on a ship during a storm calls to my mind the beginning of the Aeneid. Caught in a terrible storm designed by the gods to capsize the Trojan fleet, Aeneas loses heart and buckles. Vergil describes the pious hero’s limbs growing slack as he wishes in prayer, Job-like, that he had been killed at Troy with his fallen comrades. [4]
The verb subsistere (“withstand”) is an interesting choice. Again with the Gospel story in mind, the verb can take on two other meanings. Subsistere literally means to “remain standing,” which is difficult to do when a ship is pitching and rolling. But it also means to “stop,” as in Jesus immediately stopping the storm in order to bring a “great calm.” Man in his frailty cannot do that.
The petition (apodosis) adds another consideration: our frailty is caused or at least compounded by our sins. And yet despite our feeble, sinful condition, we dare to think that we can prevail with God’s help. The strong verb used for “overcome” (vincere) makes me hear the cry of “Vincerò!” (I will conquer) in the aria “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s opera Turandot.
The Secret also speaks of frailty:
Concéde, quáesumus, omnípotens Deus: ut hujus sacrificii munus oblatum, fragilitátem nostram ab omni malo purget semper, et muniat. Per Dóminum nostrum.
Which I translate as:
Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that the oblation of this sacrifice may ever purify and protect our frailty from all evil. Through our Lord.
Finally, in the Postcommunion we pray:
Múnera tua nos, Deus, a dilectiónibus terrénis expediant: et caeléstibus semper instaurent alimentis. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
May Thy gifts, O God, set us free us from earthly delights, and ever restore us with heavenly nourishments. Through our Lord.
Munus (gift, offering) connects us to the Secret, and the prayer for restoration (instaurare) connects us to the Collect. We need to be restored in order to be strengthened, and the means of our restoration is the heavenly nourishment of the Eucharist. Expedio (set us free) literally refers to the foot being set free from a snare, and that brings us back to standing straight despite the ship’s destabilizing movements. But it also reminds us what the snares in this life are. Earthly delights are not evil per se, but the Evil One can use them to ensnare us and make us beholden to what is lowest in us rather than what is highest in us. May Christ the skipper bring calm to the Barque of Peter and help us stand straight and free as His dignified disciples.
[1] Dom Gaspar Lefebvre, OSB, Saint Andrew Daily Missal (Saint Paul, Minnesota: E.M. Lohmann Co., 1953), p. 156.
[2] Homer, Odyssey 18.138-39. Translated by Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett, 2000), p. 280.
[3] Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Paris: Georges Crès et Cie, 1919), p. 147, trans. mine.
[4] See Vergil, Aeneid I.91ff.

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