Friday, February 23, 2024

The First Blessing of Incense

Lost in Translation #92

After the priest kisses the altar at a High Mass, he places three spoonfuls of incense onto the lit coals of a thurible and incenses the altar. Even though the priest has, according to the imagery of the prayer Aufer a nobis, entered into the Holy of Holies, this ceremony is still part of the his preliminary activities, for the original beginning of the Mass in the ancient Roman rite occurs moments later, when the priest makes the sign of the cross and reads the Introit. To put it in architectural terms, if the Introit is the front door of the Mass, the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, the prayers Aufer a nobis and Oramus Te, and the incensation of the altar are the vestibule or front porch. Fr. Nicholas Gihr rightly describes this first incensing as the “solemn conclusion of the preparatory prayers at the foot of the altar.” [1]

Since our focus is on the Latinity of the Mass Ordinary and not the entire breadth and depth of liturgical meaning, we limit our remarks about the use of incense to three:
  1. Incense is a rich part of Old Testament worship, and thus, when it is used in Christian liturgy, it acts as an allegorical or typological fulfillment of the jots and tittles of the Old Law. (see Matt. 5, 17) For the Mass is not simply a representing of the Sacrifice of the Cross but a grand consummation of all the just sacrifices and just acts of worship that were made since the dawn of time.
  2. Because one of the Magi brought frankincense to the newborn King as an acknowledgement of His Divinity, incense can be both a reminder of our adopted Hebrew ancestry (see no. 1 above) and a symbol of the gifts that we Gentiles bring to God and of our belief that Jesus Christ is true God.
  3. And since incense is mentioned in the Book of Revelation, (Rev. 8, 3-4) the act of incensation in sacred liturgy ties together past, present, and future: the Old Testament, the current age of the New Covenant, and the coming glory of the New Jerusalem.
The Benedicite
But let us turn to the petition for the blessing and the blessing itself – neither of which, incidentally, appears in the 1970 Missal. The priest is first asked to give a blessing: if it is a sung Mass or Missa cantata, the MC does the asking; if it is a Solemn High Mass, it is the deacon. Either way, both use the same formula:
Benedícite, Pater reverénde.
Which I translate as:
Bless [this], O most reverend Father.
The odd thing about this blessing is the verb number. In both classical and ecclesiastical Latin, when “commanding” one person to conduct a blessing, one addresses him with the second person singular, Benedic. In the grace before meals, for example, we pray: Bénedic, Dómine, nos et haec tua dona or “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts.” In the Benedicite, however, the verb is in the plural even though it is only one priest being addressed.
The difference can be explained by the rise of the so-called T-V distinction (from the Latin tu and vos), which began to be used in the fifth century (albeit rarely) and was crystallized and made commonplace in most European languages between the 12th and 14th centuries. In languages that observe the T-V distinction, one person addresses another with the second-person plural form in order to show respect or to acknowledge the other's superior rank. Accordingly, a servant would address his master with the vos form while the master would address his servant with the tu form. The Romance languages use the T-V distinction and English once did too: thou was the second-person singular, and you the second-person plural.
Usually, the T-V distinction does not appear in liturgical Latin. An objection in the Summa Theologiae complains about the priest saying to a single server at a private Low Mass, “The Lord be with you [vos]” and “Let us give thanks.” The objection is that “it is out of keeping to address one individual in the plural number, especially an inferior.” The objector is aware of what is fitting in Latin (at least liturgical Latin), and he is also aware of the T-V distinction. The implication is that even with this distinction, of which the objector does not seem to approve, one should never address an inferior in the plural. [2]
Overall the Mass Ordinary supports the objector’s assumptions, for all the other prayers therein follow the older Latin usage rather than the T-V distinction. The Benedicite prayer, then, is an anomaly, and as such, it testifies to a long, bumpy, and not always perfect liturgical history that, like a seasoned ship, picks up nicks and scratches along the way but wears these imperfections like an English veteran from the Battle of Agincourt proudly baring his scars on St. Crispin’s Day. Even if the prayer does not comply with the expected conventions of Latin, it can still be cherished as part of our shared family heritage.
The Ab illo benedicaris
The celebrant responds to the Benedicite petition with an equally noteworthy blessing.
Ab illo benedicáris, in cujus honóre cremáberis. Amen.
Which I translate as:
Be blessed by Him in Whose honor you will be burnt. Amen.
The Latin words of the prayer are rather straightforward and easy to translate; only cremaberis has an added meaning. As one would expect from our word “cremation,” cremo/cremare means to burn to ash, to cremate. But it also has sacrificial connotations. In the Vulgate translation of Leviticus 5, 12, the priest takes a portion of flour for a sin offering and burns it (cremare) “upon the altar for a memorial of him that offered it.” A similar logic is at play in this blessing, the exception being that incense is being offered not in memory of a sinner but in honor of Him who saves us from sin.
The use of the ablative in the phrase in cujus honore also betrays an ecclesiastical bent. While classical Latin leans towards the use of the accusative (in this case, in cujus honorem), “The Vulgate, the ancient liturgies and the entire vulgar-Latin literature construe the proposition (to the question where? or why?) frequently in the ablative.” [3]
There is an elegant parallelism in the two clauses of the prayer, for each clause begins with a preposition, follows with a pronoun or possessive adjective and noun, and ends on with a verb. A close English equivalent is:
By Him may you be blessed, in Whose honor you will be burnt.
The prayer Ab illo benedicaris is the default blessing of incense during Mass except at the Offertory, where a more elaborate formula is used. It is also used during Solemn Vespers and when a bishop consecrates an altar, and it can be used to bless incense when using the Roman Ritual, which sometimes requires both holy water and incense when blessing a person or thing.
Outside the liturgy, the Ab illo plays the role of punchline in at least two amusing anecdotes. According to one yarn, when a visiting group of Anglican bishops asked Pope Bl. Pius IX (1792-1878) for a blessing, he used the Ab illo on them. According to another, Pope Pius XII did the same thing when an impertinent anti-Catholic journalist crashed a papal audience and asked to be blessed.
Pope Blessed Pius IX: “Burn, baby, burn”?
The blessing is not new. A similar version of it appears in the fourteenth-century Ordo Romanus XIV, where it is mentioned in the papal Masses for the Christmas Mass at Dawn and for the feast of St. Stephen (December 26):
Ab ipso sanctificeris, in cujus honore cremaberis.
Which I translate as:
May you be sanctified by the very One in Whose honor you will be burnt.
In this Ordo, the blessing is used during the Offertory rather than at the beginning of Mass. Ordo Romanus XVI is considered to be the precursor of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum or Ceremonial of Bishops. Most editions of the latter have the current formula but place the blessing before the Introit.
The Ab illo is, I believe, the only time in the Ordinary of the Mass when an inanimate object is personalized and addressed. Usually in a blessing, the priest addresses God and asks Him to bless a person or object. Here, the priest addresses the object and expresses the wish that God will bless it. Were it not for the sign of the cross that the priest makes over the incense after he utters the prayer, we might be tempted to doubt the blessing’s efficacy.
There is nothing unusual for a believer to address inanimate objects or irrational creatures: the psalmist tells fire, hail, snow, ice, stormy winds, mountains, hills, fruit trees, cedars, beasts, cattle, serpents, and feathered fowls to praise the Lord, (Ps. 148, 8-10) and the three young men in King Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace (Ananias, Azarias, and Misael) tell dozens of things, from the winds of the sky to the whales of the sea, to bless the Lord. (Dan. 3, 57-88) Here, however, the priest tells incense not to bless the Lord but to be blessed by Him. While the Benedicite is distinctive for the verb number in its address, the Ab illo with which it is paired is distinctive for the object that it addresses. Both are curios from the wonderful bazaar that is our patrimony.
Plate from the illuminated manuscript “The Cloisters Apocalypse,” French, 13th century

[1] Nicholas Gihr, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically and Ascetically Explained, 5th ed. (Herder, 1918), 376.
[2] Summa Theologiae III.83.obj. 12. Aquinas’ reply to this objection is that it is acceptable for the priest to address a single server in this way because at a Low Mass he “takes the place of the whole Catholic people.” Earlier authors, such as St Peter Damian in his highly influential treatise, the Liber Dominus vobiscum, maintain that the liturgy should not be changed to suit the circumstances.
[3] Gihr, 376, no. 1.

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