Friday, September 08, 2023

Jots, Tittles, and the Blessing of Seeds and Seedlings on Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Lost in Translation #84

In a previous article, we explained that some of the practices of the Roman liturgical tradition function as a “fulfillment” of the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ who, He asserts, came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it in its most minute details, even its “jots” and “tittles.” (Matt. 5, 17-18)

We do not presume to know the mind of Our Lord as He uttered this statement (which is why we put “fulfillment” in quotes), but it strikes us as reasonable to believe that the customs of the Chosen People of the Old Covenant are somehow still relevant to those chosen to be part of the New. Such a relevance does not entail a literal reenactment or continuation of Hebrew or Jewish practices, but a respect for the spirit that animated them. As such, Christians who look to Old Testament’s practices are not dreaded “Judaizers” of the Gospel (a heated accusation in the Patristic Age), but disciples who wish to live according to the spirit and not the letter. (see 2 Cor. 3, 6)
An excellent example of this attitude is the Blessing of Seeds and Seedlings on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8. But first, a few words on the feast itself.
The Blessed Virgin is one of only three persons whose earthly birthday (as opposed to their heavenly birthday into eternal bliss) is celebrated liturgically by the universal Church—the other two being Saint John the Baptist (June 24) and, of course, Jesus Christ (December 25). All that we know of Mary’s birth comes to us from apocryphal literature, writings that the Church determined were not inerrantly inspired by the Holy Spirit. “Apocryphal,” however, does not mean worthless, and the early Church made good use of these pseudo-Gospels. In one such writing, Saints Anne and Joachim are described as a childless elderly couple who prayed to God for offspring and were rewarded with a daughter whom they named Miriam (Mary).
The Birth of the Virgin Mary, 1305, by Giotto, in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.
A feast in honor of Mary’s birth was first kept in Syria and Palestine in the fifth century, where it was then adopted by the Greeks, and finally by the Latins. It spread slowly in the Western Church, but by the twelfth century it was a major Marian feast, and remained a holy day of obligation until 1918. Some scholars believe that September 8 was chosen as the date because it was the anniversary of the dedication of a Marian church in Jerusalem, a date which also roughly marks the transition from Summer to Fall.
In the wine-making regions of France, Mary’s Nativity is the time for harvest wine festivals. Vine-growers bring their best grapes to church for a blessing and attach some of these first fruits to a statue of the Blessed Virgin. A festive meal is then held during which the grapes are consumed.
In the Alps, the Abtrieb or “down-driving” of cattle and sheep from the summer pastures begins on this day. The lead animals are decorated with flowers in honor of the Virgin as they wind their way down from the high slopes to their winter quarters. And according to the Austrians, the swallows also begin their southern migration on this day.
But the most universal custom on our Lady’s Nativity is the blessing of seeds and seedlings for the autumn planting season. The Roman Ritual contains a beautiful blessing for the occasion, the goal of which is a successful planting for the Fall season.
There are two blessings. [Roman Rituale (Rome: Desclee, 1943), pp. 589-590] The first is as follows:
℣. Adjutórium nostrum in nómine Dómini.
℟. Qui fecit cælum et terram. 
℣. Dóminus vobíscum.
℟. Et cum spíritu tuo.
Orémus. Dómine, sancte Pater, omnípotens sempiterne Deus: pétimus ac rogámus, ut hos fructus ségetum ac séminum tuis serénis óculis hilaríque vultu aspícere dignéris: et sicut testátus es Móysi fámulo tuo in terra Ægypti, dicens: Dic filiis Israël, cum ingressi fúerint terram promissiónis, quam eis dabo, ut primitias fructuum suórum ófferant sacerdótibus, et erunt benedicti; sic et nos rogámus te, Dómine, ut per auxilium misericordiæ tuæ emittas super hunc fructum ségetum déxteræ tuæ benedictiónem, quem ad exhibendum proferre dignéris, ut non subruat grando, nec áëris inundatio extérminet, sed semper incólumis permáneat, propter usum animárum et córporum, et ad bene abundentem et pleníssimam maturitátem perdúcere dignéris: Qui in Trinitáte perfecta vivis et regnas in sǽcula sæculórum. ℟. Amen.
Which I translate as:
℣. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
℟. Who made heaven and earth.
℣. The Lord be with you.
℟. And with thy spirit.
Let us pray. Holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God: we request and we beseech that Thou wouldst deign to look upon these seedling fruits and seeds with merry eyes and a cheerful countenance. And as Thou didst promise to Thy servant Moses, saying, “Say unto the children of Israel, ‘When you shall have entered into the land which I will give you, that they may offer their first fruits to the priests, they will be blessed,’” so too, we beseech Thee, Lord, that through the help of Thy mercy Thou wouldst send upon this seedling fruit, which Thou hast deigned to bring forth for the harvest, the blessing of Thy right hand. May it not be crushed by hail or drowned by a flood of rain, but may it ever remain safe and sound for the use of soul and body, and mayest Thou deign to bring it well to full and abundant maturity. Thou who livest and reignest in the perfect Trinity unto ages of ages. ℟. Amen.
The second blessing is:
Orémus. Omnípotens sempiterne Deus, caelestis verbi seminátor et cultor, qui nostri cordis áream spiritálibus rastris exerces: adesto propitius précibus nostris, et super agros, quibus si fúerint sémina ínsita, tuam largam benedictiónem infunde, ac ab eis omnem vim procellárum gratia tuæ defensiónis averte; ut omnis hic fructus et tua benedictióne repleátur et ad hórrea sine impedimento perveniat. Per Dóminum... ℟. Amen.
Et aspergantur aqua benedicta, et, si fieri pótest, thurificentur.
Which I translate as:
Let us pray. Almighty and everlasting God, sower and cultivator of the heavenly Word, who tillest the topsoil of our hearts with spiritual rakes: kindly be present to our prayers, and pour fourth Thy abundant blessing upon the fields in which these seeds are to be planted, and by the grace of Thy defense turn away from them the violence of storms: that every one of these fruits may be filled with Thy blessing, and may reach the granaries without hindrance. Through our Lord ... ℟. Amen.
And they are sprinkled with holy water, and, if it can be done, incensed.
Offering of First Fruits, Bible Card
The first blessing, which links this practice to the feast of First Fruits (Lev. 23, 10), beseeches God “to look upon these seedling fruits and seeds with merry eyes and a cheerful countenance.” It is a heart-warming image. The pre-conciliar Church is often accused of having Jansenist strains that downplayed the mercy of God and focused, in an almost sadistic way, on His judgment. Although there is some evidence for this claim from a century or more ago, it is hardly the whole story. A close study of the traditional liturgy, for example, reveals a worldview strikingly different from that of the Jansenists. Here, God the Father is approached not as a censorious magistrate but as a kind figure ready to bless us. With His “merry eyes and cheerful countenance,” He resembles Santa Claus far more than He does Javert in Les Miserables, (a Jansenist if ever there was one).
The second blessing artfully correlates the mechanics of agriculture with God’s activity on our souls by addressing Him as the “sower and cultivator of the heavenly Word” who tills “the topsoil of our hearts with spiritual rakes.” Again, it is a beautiful image. The Sacred Scriptures--to say nothing of Christian poetry--look at ordinary things and see spiritual lessons or types in them. The land is good, but it needs to be cultivated; our souls are good (despite the pollution of original sin), but they need a good raking as well. We pray, appropriately, on the holyday honoring the Mother of God as a tiny newborn infant, that Almighty God bless the beginnings of new life in field and garden and bless anew, as He always wants to do, the soil of our souls.

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