Tuesday, March 01, 2022

The Mortifying Orations of Ash Wednesday

Gustav Dore, Jonah Preaches to the Ninevites, 1866
Lost in Translation #71

Ash Wednesday, which inaugurates the sacred season of Lent, is one of the most memorable days of the liturgical year. The four traditional blessings of the ashes along with the antiphons emphasize the need for our repentance and God’s infinite mercy. Blessed by God through the mediation of one of His angels, the ashes become not only a token of our lowliness and mortality but a wholesome and forgiving remedy to all those who are truly contrite and who call upon the name of the Lord. One of the prayers reminds us of the example of the Ninevites, who were told by the prophet Jonah that they would be punished by God for their sins. The heathen Ninevites, it should be recalled, repented in sackcloth and ash and were spared. There is hope for us all.

(A polyphonic setting of the responsory Emendemus in melius by William Byrd.)
The prayers and readings of the Mass likewise stress the importance of fasting and other ascetical practices so long as they are done in the right spirit. Mourn and weep, we are told, but do not be sad; that is, do not make an empty show of external observances but use them as a means of effecting an interior transformation. Lent is traditionally inseparable from the forty-day fast that begins today, and this fast should be kept in order to aid us in our conversion or ‘rending of heart’ (Lesson). The Lenten Preface explains how. By mortifying our appetites, bodily fasting helps curb our vices; by curbing our vices, fasting helps elevate our minds, liberating them from the mire of our disordered desires; and by elevating our minds, fasting helps confer virtue and reward, reinstituting righteous habits and restoring a capacity to do and enjoy the good.
The traditional Missal mentions, explains, and prays for the practice of fasting on every day of Lent prior to Holy Week: the traditional rite’s Preface for Lent, which is used daily from Ash Wednesday until Passiontide, is supplemented almost daily with additional references to fasting in the proper prayers. While the 1969 Missal retains several references to fasting on Ash Wednesday (still a mandatory fast day), there are only two required references to the fasts of the faithful for the rest of the season.[1] Consequently, with the exception of Ash Wednesday, the new Missal offers very little guidance on fasting and almost no prayers for its success.[2] “The practice of penance,” Vatican II's Sacrosanctum Concilium states, “should be fostered” (5.110). But if one wants regular instruction on the nature and meaning of fasting, and if, moreover, one wants priests and congregations daily praying and offering up the Holy Sacrifice for the efficacy of one’s fasts, one is better off turning to the Missal used during Vatican II rather than the one mandated by it. Let us turn, then, to the old rite:
The Collect for Ash Wednesday is:
Praesta, Dómine, fidélibus tuis: ut jejuniórum veneranda solemnia, et cóngrua pietáte suscipiant, et secúra devotióne percurrant. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Grant, O Lord, to Thy faithful ones that they may take up with fitting piety the solemnities of fasting which should be venerated, and race after them with steadfast devotion. Through our Lord.
Fasting is not a cure-all: to be spiritually efficacious, it requires “fitting piety,” the right spirit. Fasting is not private, even though it involves a regulation of one’s private body. It is part of the solemnia, the solemn observances of the Church. And these solemnities “should be venerated,” held in reverence, not as an onerous duty but as a part of one’s office as a priest of the baptized. And we pray to “race after” them with a secure devotion. Curro means to run, and per-curro means to run thoroughly, to travel quickly from to end. Our goal is not to slow down during Lent but to speed up. We are in training!
The Secret is:
Fac nos, quáesumus Dómine, his munéribus offerendis convenienter aptári: quibus ipsíus venerábilis sacramenti celebrámus exordium. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Make us, we beseech Thee, O Lord, to be fittingly adapted to these gifts which are to be offered, by which we celebrate the beginning of this venerable Mystery. Through our Lord.
Liturgical fasting is not about forty days to becoming a thinner, sexier You: it is about becoming adapted, molded, configured, to the Messiah, who emptied Himself to become a slave like us. At the beginning of Lent, we pray to have the right disposition to our fasts, and we do so in the name of the offerings by which we celebrate the beginning of this venerable mystery. “Mystery” is a loaded term: it means both “mystery” and “sacrament.” When we begin the season of the Passion of the Christ, we enter into the Paschal Mystery, which is also the sacrament of our redemption.
The Postcommunion is:
Percepta nobis, Dómine, práebeant sacramenta subsidium: ut tibi grata sint nostra jejunia, et nobis proficiant ad medélam. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
May the Sacraments that we have received, O Lord, provide us help: that our fasts may be acceptable to Thee and profitable unto us for healing. Through our Lord.
Fasting, dieting, etc., are nothing without God. They only become an aid to healing when they are fed (ironically enough) by the Sacraments of the Body and Blood of the Eucharist. We mortify the flesh to heal the spirit, and we heal the spirit only through the Food that is Christ Himself. If we thin ourselves during Lent (and we should), it is only to become fat with the help of the nourishing flesh of the Lamb.
[1] The Collect for the Third Sunday of Lent and the Prayer over Offerings for Saturday in the Fifth Week of Lent. I say “required” because the traditional Preface for Lent was retained in the new Missal as Preface IV but made optional. I also stipulate fasts of the faithful because the new Mass’ First Sunday of Lent refers to Christ’s fast in the desert, but there is no reference to, let alone prayer for, our imitating His action.
[2] See Lauren Pristas, “The Post-Vatican II Revision of the Lenten Collects,” in Ever Directed towards the Lord, ed. Uwe Michael Lang (T&T Clark, 2007), 62 –89; see also Lauren Pristas, The Collects of the Roman Missals (Bloomsbury, 2013), 113-158.

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