Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, Part 1: Yearning for the City of God

The New Jerusalem, 1645, by Malnazar and Aghap’ir, two Armenian manuscript illuminators working in Persia. 
Lost in Translations #89

The Prayers at the Foot of the Altar consist of Psalm 42 (43), the Confiteor and absolution, several versicles, and two prayers said by the priest as he approaches the altar. The dominant note of these prayers is plaintive yet hopeful, and thus it stands in contrast to the Byzantine Rite, which begins with a glorious proclamation: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever and forever.” Where the latter begins with a note of arrival, and makes it immediately clear that sacred liturgy is a participation in Heaven, the traditional Roman Rite begins with a note of alienation and exile, dramatizing a different truth, that we are still pilgrims on earth exiled east of Eden and that the Heavenly liturgy is our only source of true joy.

The Prayers at the Foot of the Altar also stand in contrast to the new Roman Rite, which as we will see in a future essay, begins with an abridged penitential rite that is more cheerful, less plaintive, and less efficacious.
Psalm 42 is striking:
Júdica me, Deus, et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta: ab hómine iníquo et dolóso érue me.
Quia tu es, Deus, fortitúdo mea: quare me repulisti, et quare tristis incédo, dum afflígit me inimícus?
Emitte lucem tuam et veritátem tuam: ipsa me deduxérunt et adduxérunt in montem sanctum tuum et in tabernácula tua.
Et introíbo ad altáre Dei: ad Deum qui laetíficat juventútem meam.
Confitébor tibi in cíthara, Deus, Deus meus: quare tristis es, ánima mea, et quare conturbas me?
Spera in Deo, quoniam adhuc confitébor illi: salutáre vultus mei, et Deus meus.
Which the Douay Rheims translates as:
Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the unholy nation: deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man.
For Thou, O God, art my strength: why hast Thou cast me off? and why go I sorrowful whilst the enemy afflicteth me?
Send forth Thy light and Thy truth: they have conducted me and brought me unto Thy holy mount, and into Thy tabernacles.
And I will go in unto the altar of God: to God Who giveth joy to my youth.
I will confess to Thee upon the cithara, O God, my God: why art thou sad, O my soul, and why dost thou disquiet me?
Hope in God, for I will still confess to Him: the salvation of my countenance and my God.
Believed by some to have been written by King David after he had been driven out of Jerusalem by his rebellious son Absalom, the Psalm begins with a plea for a court trial within a political context. [1] (Causa, which the Douay Rheims rightly translates as “cause,” can also refer to a legal case.) The Psalmist is not simply suing or countersuing “the deceitful and unjust man” but the “nation that is not holy.” And if an unholy nation is part of the problem, the solution lies in God’s judgment and in going to His holy place, to His mount and to His tabernacles and to His altar. For there we will be rejuvenated, there we will praise God on a cithara, a musical instrument (in fact the only musical instrument mentioned in the Ordinary of the Mass) that may allegorically refer to a well-tuned heart. [2] To put the lesson of the Psalm in Augustinian terms, if the problem is the earthly city, the solution is the City of God.
David Fleeing from Jerusalem is Cursed by Shimei, by William Hole, 2012
It is noteworthy that the use of Psalm 42 in Mass, which draws such a sharp contrast between the justice of God and the injustice of the political realm, was codified during the age of Christendom. [3] One does not expect to see talk about an “unholy nation” during the days when there was a close alliance between altar and throne, when kings were crowned by popes or bishops and expected to promote the true religion. But this talk alerts us to a profound truth: that not even the rule of Catholic monarchs can compensate for or eradicate the inherent deficiencies of political life, that there are and always have been two mystical “cities,” and that these two cities will exist side-by-side in tension with each other until the end of time. Catholic thought speaks of the “social” kingship of Christ the King, but it does not speak of His “political” kingship to make clear that His reign is not “political” in the sense that it is to be equated with this or that visible polity or constitution. Rather, it should extend to every nation, every culture, every citizen, every law, and all the arts; and this can happen in any number of different regimes, from monarchy to democracy, even though it can never happen in any of them perfectly.
The introductory prayers of the Tridentine rite, therefore, militate against political idolatry on one hand and anti-political irresponsibility on the other.
Maybe, maybe not
Regarding political idolatry, the recitation of Psalm 42 reminds worshippers that the actualization of God’s promises is not to be confused with any one particular political arrangement, not even a Catholic confessional state, and not even the American Founding. Salvation comes from God’s Holy Tabernacles, not from the nation.
On the other hand, Psalm 42 also guards us against an anti-political withdrawal. Christ’s social kingship means that the Catholic religion can never be seen as a purely private matter with no impact on the public forum; it cannot be put under a bushel. [4] Catholics have a duty to improve their country and their government through civic virtue and involvement. Our hope is in God, the joy of our youth, as the Psalmist reminds us (Ps. 42, 4), and with that hope we will try to make the unholy nation in which we live and which we love despite its failings a little less unholy in a prudent and responsible manner.

As the hart panteth after the fountains of water; so my soul panteth after thee, O God.
But as helpful as these political reminders are, they do not constitute the main goal of the Psalm, which is to turn our exhaustion and despair into a lively hope. I have described the Psalm as plaintive, and indeed it is. The speaker is in a “bad place,” as we would say, and He even asks God, somewhat testily, why He is casting him off. But once he remembers that he will go to God’s sanctuary, his attitude changes to one of hope. The next and only other time that he asks a question, it is one of self-approach: “Why are you sad, you silly soul? God has your back. Take heart!” Such hope helps us yearn for the City of God over and above the earthly city, and to enter more deeply into that City’s central liturgical act. The priest and ministers and congregation who recite this Psalm are now more ready to go unto the altar of God, the God who gives joy to our youth.
[1] See Nicholas Gihr, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass Dogmatically, Liturgically And Ascetically Explained (St. Louis, Missouri: Herder, 1902), 353.
[2] Saint Augustine offers a more elaboration interpretation. According to him, a psalterium is a stringed instrument with a drum or shell on its upper parts while a cithara is a stringed instrument with a sounding-board on its lower part. A psalterium, then, signifies obedience to divine commandments from above while a cithara signifies virtuously suffering tribulations, which come to us from below. (See Enarrationes in Psalmos, Psalm 42, par. 5.
[3] Jungmann avers that although Psalm 42 was definitively fixed in current place by the Missal of Pope St. Pius V in 1570, it first began to appear in the Latin rites of the Church around the tenth century. See Josef Jungmann, The Roman Rite, trans. Francis A. Brunner (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1959), 199-201.
[4] James Likoudis, “Social Reign of Christ the King,” in Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy, 987-88.

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