Ash Wednesday

Ash WednesdayAsh WednesdayToday’s Collect is an ancient prayer and it is in the Gelasian Sacramentary for the Vigil of Pentecost and also among the prayers for the 4th day of the 4th month, which more than likely involved the traditional fast of the fourth month (there were fasts in the 4th, 7th and 10th months).  This prayer is in the Veronese Sacramentary under the title In ieiunio quarti mensis, which pretty much settles it.  This prayer was in the 1962 Missale Romanum but at the end of the section for the blessing of and imposition of ashes, before the Introit of the Mass itself.  Keep this ancient character in mind when hearing the prayer, which I urge you to read aloud.  We are living in squishy feel good days when many people in the Church blow happy gas in every direction so that they will not arouse any suspicion that they might be "mean".  Exaggeration?  Maybe so.  But no one can deny that we could use a bit more clarity in our preaching and a return to some of the practices of yesteryear.   Let’s see what the prayer really says.

COLLECT:
Concede nobis, Domine, praesidia militiae christianae
sanctis inchoare ieiuniis,
ut, contra spiritales nequitias pugnaturi,
continentiae muniamur auxiliis.

Praesidium has a powerfully military connotation.  It means fundamentally "defense, protection, help, aid, assistance" and thus it refers to "soldiers who are to serve as a guard".  Thus, by extension, it comes to mean "any place occupied by troops, as a hill, a camp, etc.; a post, station, entrenchment, fortification, camp".  Munio is equally military: "to build a wall around, to defend with a wall, to fortify, defend, protect, secure, put in a state of defense".  As you can imagine pugno, "to combat, give battle, engage, contend", is a military term.  Are you getting the picture?  Of course auxillium means "help, aid, assistance, support, succor", but when in the plural it is also "auxiliary troops, auxiliaries (mostly composed of allies and light-armed troops; hence opposed to the legions)".  Then there is militia, which is "military service, warfare, war" and also specifically in the genitive militiae "in military service, or on a campaign, in the field".  

LITERAL TRANSLATION:
Grant us, O Lord, to commence the defenses of the Christian field campaign by means of holy fasts,
so that, we who are about to do battle against spiritual negligences,
may be fortified by the support of continence.

This is a mighty prayer.   Several things come to mind.  First, most of us when we were confirmed were reminded in some way that we are soldiers in this pilgrim Church.  We must be ready to suffer for the Faith.  Yes, militaristic imagery informs most of the history of Christian spirituality.  Next, while we are soldiers we are on the march, pilgrim soldiers.  We are on campaign.  When the Roman legions were on the march, they would build a fortified camp when they halted.  They took no chances.  We are on the march in a vale of tears where anything and everything can happen to us and around us.  Thirdly, when we make mistakes, the results can be deadly.  The word nequitia means "bad quality, badness" but that is because it is "bad moral quality, of all degrees, idleness, negligence, worthlessness, vileness".  It usually refers to a lack of attention that duty and prudence require, resulting in negative consequences.  Moreover, the virtue of continence is described with the same word used to describe the auxiliary troops that supported the legion’s regulars.  While it could simply refer to "abstinence", continence is the virtue which restrains the will from consenting to strong impulses of sexual desire.  So, this prayer could have a special focus.  

As we begin our lenten observance, like a soldier on the march, on a mission from you great Captain, be sure that you have your objectives clearly defined and get clearly in your head whatever strategies and tactics will win for you your prize.  What will you want to gain from this Lent? 

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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2 Responses to Ash Wednesday

  1. Don Marco says:

    Yes! Strong imagery indeed! I rendered it thus:

    Grant us, O Lord, to begin
    our defense as soldiers of Christ with holy fasting,
    that, in our struggle against spiritual wickedness,
    we may be safeguarded by the help of self-denial.

  2. Henry Edwards says:

    No such strong, let alone military, imagery in the

    ICEL version:
    Lord, protect us in our struggle against evil.
    As we begin the discipline of Lent,
    make this day holy by our self-denial.