Friday, February 16, 2024

Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, Part 4: The Versicles and Dominus vobiscum

St Thomas Aquinas, by the Spanish painter Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra (1616–68); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Lost in Translation #92

Before we leave the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, let us take a look at the versicles and the Dominus vobiscum.

Having finished the Confiteor, Misereatur, and Indulgentiam, the priest and servers bow slightly and say:
℣. Deus, tu conversus vivificábis nos.
℟. Et plebs tua lætábitur in te.
℣. Ostende nobis, Dómine, misericordiam tuam.
℟. Et salutáre tuum da nobis.
℣. Dómine, exaudi oratiónem meam.
℟. Et clamor meus ad te veniat.
℣. Dóminus vobiscum.
℟. Et cum spíritu tuo.
P. Orémus.
Which are usually translated as:
℣. O God, Thou wilt turn again and quicken us.
℟. And Thy people shall rejoice in Thee.
℣. Show us, O Lord, Thy mercy.
℟. And grant us Thy salvation.
℣. O Lord, hear my prayer.
℟. And let my cry come unto Thee.
℣. The Lord be with you.
℟. And with thy spirit.
P. Let us pray.
The slight bow stands in contrast to previous bodily comportments during the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. The priest and server were erect when they recited Psalm 42 (one standing, one kneeling), and they bowed profoundly during their own confessions (the Confiteor) and when they prayed for each other (the Misereatur). They straightened up again when their sins were forgiven (the Indulgentiam), and now, in the final prayers before the priest ascends the altar, they bow slightly as if to suggest that the profound self-abnegation during confession and absolution is over, but the priest and server are still in the mode of plaintive petition, much like the bow in the Gloria during the verse “receive our prayer” (suscipe deprecationem nostram).
Psalm 84, 7-8
The first two rounds of dialogue are taken from Psalm 84, 7-8. Psalm 84 is a psalm of refugees returning home from the Babylonian Exile, and contains beautiful passages such as “Mercy and truth have met each other; justice and peace have kissed.” (vs. 11) The Psalm is also is a popular source for sacred liturgy: verse 5, “Convert us, O God our Saviour, and turn off Thy anger from us”, is used in the Office of Compline.
Knowing the entire Psalm is useful in understanding the role that verses 7 and 8 play here. Ps. 84, 4 is: “Thou hast mitigated all Thy anger: Thou hast turned away from the wrath of Thy indignation.” Having just received absolution, the priest and server are relieved that God’s wrath has been averted. But they are not done petitioning, for the priest has yet to enter the daunting Holy of Holies.
Verse 7 creates an interesting image. The Douay Rheims translates Deus, tu conversus as “O God, Thou wilt turn again,” but since conversus is a past participle, it can also be translated as “being turned toward us,” which is what God did when He forgave us our sins during the absolution. Con-version, which is literally a turning again or turning around, is usually a human activity, for we who have fallen must turn towards the Lord for help by converting. But here, it is God turning toward us, which is what He does in the Mass.
And when God turns towards us, it bestows new life, for “quicken” in this verse does not mean to speed up but to revive or bring back to life. There is also a hint of the Holy Spirit in the passage, for the verb for quickening (vivifico) is used in the Creed to describe the Holy Spirit as the Lord, the Giver of Life (Dominum vivificantem).
God breathes life into Adam: mosaic in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily, 12th cent.
I suspect that like so many Psalm verses, the two statements “O God, Thou wilt turn again and quicken us” and “Thy people shall rejoice in Thee” are simply two ways of saying the same thing, and thus “us” and “Thy people” have the same referent. In the context of the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, however, one can think of “us” as referring to the priest and his ministers and “Thy people” as referring to the laity, for plebs (people) is the traditional way to designate the latter. [1] God will breathe new life into his clergy, and the grateful laity shall rejoice. The whole Church will be happy.
The priest and server then pray verse 8, asking God to show mercy and grant salvation. The priest (and congregation) are wonderfully greedy when it comes to grace. They have just been shown mercy through the absolution, and they are about to ask for more mercy in a few moments with the Kyrie, but they want mercy again right now. This, of course, is an example of a liturgical stammer, but it also reflects the restlessness of our fallen hearts and our constant need for divine assistance.
Psalm 101, 2
The Domine, exaudi orationem appears frequently in the Roman Ritual preceding the Dominus vobiscum (as it does here); and in the Divine Office, when the speaker is a layman or minor cleric, it is used instead of the Dominus vobiscum in front of a collect or prayer.
It is the second verse of Psalm 101, which is described in the Vulgate as the “prayer of a poor person who was in trouble”; in sixth century A.D., Cassiodorus listed it as the fifth of the seven penitential psalms. The intensity of the Latin in this verse is difficult to translate. Audi is “listen,” but adding the prefix ex strengthens the plea, as if to say, “O Lord, really, really listen to my prayer.” And while a “cry” in English can be soft, a clamor in Latin cannot; by definition, it is a loud, noisy sound. “Where charity is cold, the heart is silent,” St. Augustine explains. “Where charity is on fire, the heart is all a clamor (clamor). If charity remains forever, the heart is always clamoring (clamans).” [2] Fr. Nicholas Gihr rightly describes this petition in terms of a “holy vehemence” and a “devout impetuosity.” [3]
The Dominus vobiscum
The expression “The Lord be with you” appears several times in the Bible [4], while the reply “And with thy spirit” echoes St. Paul’s greeting to St. Timothy: “The Lord Jesus Christ be with thy spirit.” [5] Paul appears to be using a Hebraism, substituting “you” with “your spirit,” (see Job 15, 13) but whatever his intentions, the expression in the Roman liturgical tradition is an allusion to the spirit of holy orders conferred upon deacons, priests, and bishops. Laymen and minor clerics, therefore, cannot use the greeting Dominus vobiscum, for the reply it elicits is for those with major orders only. This usage is not an example of clericalism but a recognition of the burden that major orders place upon the recipient. It is as if the people of God are replying, “And may the Lord be with the spirit of holy orders that made you a deacon/priest/bishop, for that spirit may be a privilege and a grace, but it also comes at great personal cost and exposes you to great spiritual dangers.”
The Annunciation, by Leonardo da Vinci
One grammatical curiosity about the greeting is that it lacks a verb: Dominus is “Lord” and vobiscum is “with you.” Context shapes which mood of the verb “to be” should be used. During the Annunciation, St. Gabriel employs the same form of greeting to the Blessed Virgin Mary--Dominus tecum--and the Church wisely interprets the salutation as “The Lord is with thee,” for Mary is full of grace. [6] Here, however, as we begin our entrance into the numinous, it makes more sense to use the subjunctive: “May the Lord be with you.”
St. Thomas Aquinas sees an allegorical significance to the fact that during the Mass of his day, before the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar and the Last Gospel were formally added to the rite, the priest greeted the people seven times, six with the Dominus vobiscum and once with the Pax Domini. This, Aquinas speculates, betokens the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the 1570/1962 Missal, Dominus vobiscum is used eight times, and in the same hermeneutical spirit, we can imagine the number betokening the Resurrection, for Christ rose on the eighth day. Such an interpretation fits in nicely with Aquinas’ observance that the priest turns around to the people five times during this Mass, and this denotes “that our Lord manifested Himself five times on the day of His Resurrection.” [7]

[1] See the prayer Unde et memores in the Canon.
[2] Expos. in Psalm 37, no. 14.
[3] The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically and Ascetically Explained, 6th ed (Herder, 1902), 366.
[4] See Ruth 2, 4; Numbers 14, 42; 2 Chron. 15, 2.
[5] 2 Timothy 4, 22.
[6] Luke 1, 28.
[7] Summa Theologiae III.83.5 ad 6.

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