Friday, February 02, 2024

Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, Part 2: The Divine Courtroom

The Last Judgment, by Michelangelo, 1536-41
Lost in Translation #90

Psalm 42 was an ingenious choice for this part of the Mass, for the psalmist declares that he will: 1) ascend God’s holy mount, 2) approach His holy tabernacles, and 3) go in unto the altar of God. This is precisely what the priest does moments later when he: 1) climbs the steps of the altar (traditionally, there must be at least one), 2) approaches the tabernacle on the altar, and 3) kisses the altar and remains there.

On Trial
The Psalm also begins with a request for divine judgment about a case we have against an unholy nation and an unjust and deceitful man, and that request is soon granted. After reciting Psalm 42 and repeating its hope-filled antiphon, “I will go in unto the altar of God: to God Who giveth joy to my youth,” the priest and server/congregation pray Psalm 123, 8: “℣. Adjutórium nostrum in nómine Dómini. ℟. Qui fecit cælum et terram”, which the Douay Rheims translates as, “℣. Our help is in the name of the Lord. ℟. Who made Heaven and earth.”
The Church uses this verse in the Rituale Romanum to precede a blessing. Here, it is used to steel one’s courage before entering the divine courtroom as we remind ourselves that God is not only our judge but our advocate or defense attorney as well. Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini has no verb, so it can just as accurately be translated in the subjunctive, that is, “May our help be in the name of the Lord.” However, I think the indicative works better here as a sign of holy confidence. It is as if we are saying, “I’m scared, but I know that God is my helper.”
It is when the priest recites the Confiteor that he enters the so-called courtroom.
Confíteor Deo omnipotenti, beátae Maríae semper Vírgini, beáto Michaéli Archángelo, beáto Joanni Baptistæ, sanctis Apóstolis Petro et Paulo, ómnibus Sanctis, et vobis, fratres: quia peccávi nimis cogitatióne, verbo, et ópere (striking breast three times) mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa. Ideo precor beátam Maríam semper Vírginem, beátum Michaélem Archángelum, beátum Joannem Baptistam, sanctos Apóstolos Petrum et Paulum, omnes Sanctos, et vos, fratres, oráre pro me ad Dóminum Deum nostrum.
Which is usually translated as:
I confess to almighty God, to the blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, brethren, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed (striking breast three times) through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech the blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, brethren, to pray for me to the Lord our God.
The Publican and the Pharisee, 1886-94, by James Tissot
Fr. Pius Parsch describes this prayer as “a judicial scene in two parts.” His reflections are worth quoting in full:
When I recite the Confiteor, I imagine myself transported to the court of heaven, where I stand before the judgment seat of God. The eternal Judge is enthroned amid the saints; among these saints I see the Blessed Virgin, Michael the captain of the heavenly host, John the Baptist the precursor of the Lord, and Peter and Paul the princes of the Apostles. Standing thus before this heavenly court, I know they are accusing me because I have been unfaithful to the grace of my baptism, I begin to realize my sinfulness, and I wish that I could sink away into nothingness. “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” Here is the climax of the Confiteor, or rather the profound moment when I descend into that pool into which flow the tears of contrition. There is now a sudden reversal in the scene: these saints who a moment ago were my accusers, are now my defenders and petitioners, turning to the almighty Judge to pray for my forgiveness. Such is the drama of the Confiteor. [1]
And the drama, we may add, is compounded by the irony that it was we who requested judgment in the first place. One of the things that converted Aleksander Solzhenitsyn to Christianity in the gulag camp was the realization that although he was falsely arrested, he was still guilty of many things, that he was a sinner. Similarly, we began the Mass wishing to be exonerated from unholy and unjust persecution, but once on trial, we come to see that we are indeed guilty, perhaps not of the accusations made against us, but of other sins that make us unworthy to participate in the sacred mysteries of the Mass that has just begun. We therefore throw ourselves on the mercy of the court.
Parsch calls the saints our accusers, but it is perhaps more accurate to describe them as a jury or as judges. “Know you not that the saints shall judge this world?” St Paul reminds the Corinthians. (1 Cor. 6, 2-3)
Incidentally, having a judicial motif in the Mass should not be a cause for surprise. In a fascinating article entitled “Courting Reverence,” Father Paul Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, argues that both the Mass and the court deal with forgiveness and punishment, innocence and guilt, life and death, and that the appropriate response to both is a sense of awe and respect. [2]
And the traditional Western courtroom was no doubt inspired by traditional sacred architecture. Public seating in a courtroom gallery, for example, is akin to the pews in the nave of a church; the space for the lawyers and judge is similar to the sanctuary where traditionally only the clergy and their ministers would be allowed; this space is demarcated with a low barrier, the proverbial “bar,” that is analogous to a communion rail; the judge’s bench, elevated and set apart, assumes the same importance as the similarly situated high altar, which only certain members of the clergy are permitted to approach and only at certain times; the jury benches resemble the choir stalls found in many medieval churches; and the personnel who move in and out of the bench area, such as the bailiffs, resemble the acolytes serving the priest. And if the sanctuary inspired the courtroom, we can use the courtroom to remind us of the judicial connotations of the sanctuary.
Courtroom in Nuckolls County Courthouse, Nelson, Nebraska, 1890
Notes on the Language
The Confiteor invokes five saints by name in descending order of their holiness, but it puts them into two categories by virtue of the titles “beatus - Blessed” and “sanctus - Saint”. The Virgin Mary, Michael the Archangel, and John the Baptist are called the former, while Peter, Paul, and the rest of the Saints are called the latter. Today, a Blessed is lower in rank than a Saint, but in the Confiteor, “Blessed” marks off the Mother of God, the Head of the Heavenly Armies, and the Forerunner of the Lord as especially powerful intercessors. All three have lived their lives without sin: the Blessed Virgin was conceived without original sin, and according to tradition, John the Baptist was conceived with original sin but sanctified afterwards while still in the womb, and that he never committed a personal sin. Blessed indeed are the creatures who receive such grace. [3]
Altar piece in Braga Cathedral (Portugal) depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Michael the Archangel, and St. John the Baptist delivering souls out of Purgatory.
The penitent succinctly confesses that he has sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed through his fault, his fault, his most grievous fault. There is a parallel between the three words of thought, word, and deed and the triple use of “fault,” and there is a similar parallel between the amplifying words “exceedingly” and “most grievous.” Maxima, which most translations--including the 2011 English translation of the new Missal--render as “most grievous,” is rather difficult to translate. The most literal (and accurate rendering) would be “through my maximum fault,” but for whatever reason this sounds odd in English. “It was totally my fault” is more readily intelligible as well as accurate, but this expression is too colloquial for liturgical prayer.
Whatever the translation, the key is to recognize that by the phrase maxima culpa, we disavow all rationalizations, evasions, or justifications that would mitigate culpability in the sins that we commit. Adam and Eve compounded their sin by pusillanimously blaming someone else for their fall: Adam went so far as to implicitly blame God. “The woman, whom Thou gavest me to be my companion, gave me of the tree, and I did eat”--as if to say, “If you hadn’t created Eve, none of this would have happened.” In his Retractations, Saint Augustine states that he will be going over all his past writings with a “judicial severity” in the hopes that if he is hard on himself, God will go easy on him. [4] The Confiteor bids us follow examples like Augustine’s rather than our first parents.
Final Observations
Accusing ourselves is one thing; accusing someone else is another. The penitential rite in the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar is a beautiful lesson in humility and in bearing one another’s infirmities. (see Rom. 15, 1) The priest leads by example, confessing his sins by himself, and in his confession he includes the congregation among the saints as his would-be judges and asks for their prayers. But instead of judging the priest, the congregation prays the Misereatur, asking God to be merciful to their flawed leader, their wounded healer. The priest’s confession, in turn, inspires the congregation to make a confession of their own; they likewise include the priest among their would-be judges and ask him to pray for them. The priest gladly does so, praying the Misereatur and then granting them absolution. Instead of pronouncing judgment, he delivers mercy. But to understand the full significance of the Misereatur and absolution, we must wait until next week.
[1] Pius Parsch, The Liturgy of the Mass, trans. Rev. Frederic C. Eckhoff (London: B. Herder Book Co., 1937), 70-71.
[2] Paul Scalia, “Courting Reverence: Why Has the Courtroom Retained the Reverence the Mass has Lost?” Adoremus Bulletin 7:6 (September 2001), p. 3, available here.
[3] In the early centuries of Christianity, it was assumed that John the Baptist was second only to the Blessed Virgin Mary in sanctity. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, several Popes embraced the opinion that Saint Joseph was the second holiest. As a product of an earlier chapter in Church history, the Confiteor reflects the older view.
[4] Two Books of Retractations, trans. Sr. Mary Inez Bogan, R.S.M. (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1968), prol.

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