Friday, January 12, 2024

The Asperges Ritual and the Mystery of Dwelling

Lost in Translation #88

So far, the purpose of the “Lost in Translation” series has been to examine the Propers of the Roman liturgy, especially the Orations, with the goal of unearthing shades of meaning that are usually not, and sometimes cannot be, translated into English. The Orations are particularly good candidates for such an examination, as they are veritable Roman haikus, a unique species of rhetoric that ingeniously combines tight structure, poetic rhythm, literary order, succinct imagery, and a panoply of human experience. The fruit of our inquiry can be found on this website and in my book on the subject.

We may still may return to the Roman Propers now and then, but with today’s installment we turn our attention to a consideration of the Latin used in the Ordinary of the Mass. While the Latin of the Orations is arguably more homogeneous (rules regarding structure and meter tend to be followed regardless of the century in which they were written), the Latin of the Ordo of the Mass is more diverse, betraying the influence of different centuries, different styles, and even different cultures. Our intention is not to offer an exhaustive line-by-line analysis of the Latin from the Ordo but to highlight some of its more interesting aspects.

We begin our examination with the Asperges ritual, which should take before the principal Sunday Mass in all cathedrals and collegiate churches; prior to Vatican II, the English bishops ordered all parish churches to do the same, even if the principal Mass was a Low Mass. [1] The ceremony reconnects us to our baptismal vows, but it also has the quality of an exorcism, driving out the unclean in order to prepare the way for the Holy Sacrifice. And it is further tied to the Sacrifice by metaphor: hyssop, which is mentioned in the antiphon, was the plant used to sprinkle the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts and lintel of the house. (Exodus 12, 22)

The Asperges’ relation to baptism explains why it is only allowed on a Sunday. The “Eighth Day” (Sunday, the day of the Resurrection) is tied to the sacrament of baptism mystically (hence the popularity of octagonal baptismal fonts), and the first sacramental baptisms explicitly mentioned in Scripture are of Saint Peter baptizing 3,000 souls on the first Pentecost Sunday. (see Acts 2, 41)

The Asperges’ relation to exorcism, on the other hand, may explain why it is allowed only once on a Sunday, since once the place (specifically, the altar) has been exorcized it need not be again--at least not until the following Sunday.

And the Asperges’ relation to sacrifice may explain why the priest who performs the Asperges ritual must be the celebrant of the Mass that follows it. Even though the Asperges is not part of the Mass proper (which is why the priest wears a cope and not a chasuble, which is worn only for the Eucharistic sacrifice), it is nevertheless ties to the Mass, and the priest who is in persona Christi during the Mass also represents Christ in distributing the graces of His Precious Blood.

Outside the liturgy, the Asperges is traditionally used every time a priest brings Holy Communion to a sick person or when administering Extreme Unction.

This beautiful sprinkling rite ends with the following oration:

Exaudi nos, Dómine sancte, Pater omnípotens, æterne Deus, et míttere dignéris sanctum Angelum tuum de caelis, qui custodiat, fóveat, prótegat, vísitet, atque defendat omnes habitantes in hoc habitáculo. Per Christum Dóminum nostrum.

Which I translate as:

Hear us, O Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God: and vouchsafe to send Thy holy Angel from Heaven to guard, cherish, protect, visit, and defend all who are dwelling in this dwelling. Through Christ our Lord.

The prayer, to my mind, has two puzzles.

First, who is God’s holy Angel? Some, such as Abbé Claude Barthe in his recent book A Forest of Symbols, claim that it is “Christ Himself, who is asked to come down to this place.” [2] His hypothesis aligns with the speculation that the Angel who is asked to carry the consecrated offerings up to God’s heavenly altar is also the Son of God, and not a celestial spirit (see the Supplices te rogamus in the Canon). This interpretation draws from the fact that “Angel” (angelos) means “messenger” in Greek, and Jesus Christ is certainly the Messenger of God (angelos Theou), as St. Paul calls Him in Galatians 4, 14. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with wanting an Angel to come down and do some purifying in preparation for the sacramental arrival of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, just as there is nothing wrong in believing that an Angel carries our sacrifice to God during the Canon, as some artists have imagined.

The second puzzle arises from the line omnes habitantes in hoc habitaculo, and it is twofold. Most translations use “house” for habitaculum, and that is indeed a valid way to translate the word. I offer the clumsier translation “all who are dwelling in this dwelling” to draw attention to the redundant use of habito in the words habitantes and habitaculum. The twofold puzzle is this: why does the Church refer to this place of worship as a “dwelling-place” rather than use a more religious term such as “church” (ecclesia), “temple” (templum, aedes), or even “tabernacle” (tabernaculum), as she does elsewhere in her liturgical prayers? For that matter, if the Oration is alluding to the church as the House of God (Ps. 26, 4) or a House of Prayer, (Matt. 21, 13) then why does it not use the Latin word domus, as does the Vulgate in both these cases?

Second, why does the prayer ask for a blessing on those who dwell therein, which presumably means us? For although we may long to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our life (see Ps. 26, 4), and although monks and nuns spends several hours a day in church, the fact remains that believers typically visit church rather than dwell in them.

The partial answer to these questions is to remember that this Oration figures prominently in the Rituale Romanum, where it is used in the blessing of homes both in Paschaltide and outside it, in the blessing of a new seminary, and in the more solemn blessing of a school. And, of course, it is used in the two sick calls mentioned above. Presumably, then, the prayer was not written with a consecrated church in mind.

But this answer is not fully satisfying, for it suggests that those who placed the Asperges ritual before the celebration of Sunday Mass were simply too lazy to come up with a more appropriate prayer.

I therefore suggest meditating further on the word habitaculum, dwelling-place. A habitaculum can be any structure or even no even structure, for you can truly dwell in a land without so much as a thin layer of tent or tepee separating you from the wide and starry sky. Moreover, the first dwelling-place of Jesus Christ was the womb of His Mother. The Collect for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary declares that God the Father made Mary’s womb a “worthy dwelling-place” (dignum habitaculum) for His Son. But if the Virgin’s womb is Her Son's habitaculum, it is also the habitaculum of those who are members of His mystical Body.

With these considerations in mind, a generic prayer that can be used for blessing all kinds of buildings becomes a prayer that asks God to bless us who are members of Him who dwelt in His mother’s womb and who are currently dwelling in--or at least near--the womb of the church, that is, the sanctuary, where, like the Virgin’s womb, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. As such, the Oration nods to an imminent Incarnation, the fructification of the elements of bread and wine through the inbreathing of the priest's words of consecration through the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit. And this link between altar/womb, Jesus Christ, and His members is underscored by the sprinkling rite, which blesses only three things: the altar, the clergy, and the people.

The Oration in this prologue to the Mass is also a suitable counterpart to the epilogue of the Mass. The Last Gospel in itself is a meditation on dwelling or the lack thereof: the verse “He came into His own and own received Him not” recalls another: “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air nests, but the Son of Man hath nowhere to lay His head.” (Matt. 8, 20)  And yet despite the world’s rejection of Him, the Last Gospel proclaims, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”--or to translate the Greek in a slavishly literal fashion, He “pitched His tent among us.” And when we hear the news of this dwelling announced, we imitate the motion of the Supernal Son descending to kiss the earth with His Incarnate presence by touching our knees to the ground.

In Holy Communion, we make within the marrow of our being a dwelling for Our Lord who on earth found nowhere to lay His head. In the Asperges ritual, after we are sprinkled with the sacramental reminder of our baptism, we pray to be made worthy dwelling-places of the God-Man in imitation of she who bore Him first.


[1] Rev. Adrian Fortescue, Ceremonies of the Roman Rite (Newman Press, 1962), 98.

[2] Abbé Claude Barthe, A Forest of Symbols: The Traditional Mass and Its Meaning, trans. David J. Critchley (Angelico Press, 2023), 36.

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