What Does the Prayer Really Say? First Sunday of Lent – Station: St. John Lateran
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2001
Each of the days of Lent has its own special collect and “station.” Sometime ago I mentioned the station Masses and promised to return to them. The Roman stations are an ancient custom, whereby each day during Lent, on Ember Days, Sundays in Advent and certain other great feasts for a total of 84 days, the clergy and people of Rome would “collect” together at an appointed church and, after prayers (including the collecta), would then march in solemn procession to a nearby station church where the Bishop of Rome or his deputy would say Mass. This custom is still maintained in Rome, especially through the efforts of a distinguished confraternity dedicated to the veneration of martyrs (often these station churches are dedicated to a Roman martyr). The names of the station churches for each day were printed in the Roman Missal and very often the prayers and texts for the daily Mass pertained to the patron saint of the church where they were said, or to some historical event associated with the place. The name of the station of the day still appears on the calendars that hang in the offices of the Vatican. The custom of the stations would be kept all over the world and people could gain indulgences by visiting churches appointed by their own bishops where they lived. In fact, the little book called the Ordo published every year and containing practical information for the whole liturgy each day still mentions the practice of the stations and recommends their observance. In the Latin Roman Missal of 1970 we clearly read on the page directly before the liturgy for Ash Wednesday that it is strongly recommended that this Roman custom be maintained. In the ICEL Sacramentary I have there is a comment about visiting churches on the introductory page for the Lenten Season. In a very interesting phrase, the Sacramentary says: “The Roman Missal strongly encourages…” Apparently, those preparing the English Sacramentary self-consciously were making something other than a translation of the Roman Missal if they refer to the Roman Missal like that.
LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum):
Concede nobis, omnipotens Deus,
ut, per annua quadragesimalis exercitia sacramenti,
et ad intellegendum Christi proficiamus arcanum,
et effectus eius digna conversatione sectemur.
Almighty God, grant us
that, by means of the annual exercises of the forty-day mystery,
we may both make progress in understanding the mystery of Christ
and by worthy conduct of life imitate its consequences.
We have to dig into our dictionaries when we look at these subtle prayers. Sometimes Latin words look like familiar words in English and we can be fooled by them if we are not alert. I provide vocabulary so that you can see my reasons for picking the English words I do and the other possibilities too. In my literal version of the collect, for quadragesimalis I chose to say “forty-day” rather than “lenten” (which comes from the Old English for “spring”) in order to get at the root meaning of the word. Again there seems to be military vocabulary in our prayer, reminding us that we belong to the Church militant. Exercitium has a reference to military and other kinds of exercises. It is not hard to leap from those practices that soldiers use to remain fit and coordinated to the disciplines of the Christian life whereby we advance in sanctity. Sacramentum is pretty complicated. First used by Tertullian (who probably died in the second quarter of the 3rd century), in the early Latin Christian writings sacramentum translates Greek mysterion. Its root sacer indicates a religious overtone (like sacerdos… “priest”). It eventually took on a legal meaning and came to indicate a bond or initiation confirmed by an oath. As such it referred to initiation into military service and the oath taken by the soldier. Early Christian writers lacked specialized vocabulary for their new theology. Thus, they were forced either to adapt existing words and give them new meaning or simply create new words. The previously existing word sacramentum was adapted by Latin writers. It came to have two streams of connotation. First, sacramentum had baptismal overtones as the pledge and profession of faith made by catechumens when they were baptized and initiated in the Church. Second, it carried nuances of the content of the faith that had been pledged in regard to the mysteries of our salvation, the meaning of the words and deeds of Christ explained in a liturgical context, the liturgical feasts themselves, and the rites of initiation (baptism, confirmation, eucharist). St. Augustine (+430) used sacramentum also for marriage, the laying on of hands at ordination, anointing of the sick and reconciliation of penitent sinners. In our collect, sacramentum refers not just to the sacrament of the Eucharist (used as it is in a prayer for Mass). It seems to have its more ancient meaning in this collect: the forty-day long disciplines of Lent are a mysterious affirmation of the sacred bond between us and Christ. Lent is seen as a mystery that transforms. It is a season during which our practices conform us more closely to the mystery of the dying and rising Jesus.
Back to vocabulary: arcanum means something that is “closed” and thus means, “a secret thing or place.” It refers to sacred rites and sanctuaries. We find by means of the handy Lewis & Short Dictionary that sector can indicate “to follow continually or eagerly, in a good or bad sense” and also “to run after, attend, accompany.” It also can be “imitate.” Trickier is effectus. This word means “a doing, effecting”. In respect to a the result of an action it means “an operation, effect, tendency, purpose.” I try to get at both of those meanings with the word “consequence.” Conversatio, on the other hand, is very often in Christian contexts “conduct, manner of living” and not just “conversation.” Now we must draw this all together and conclude.
Christ is the real actor in the liturgy. He is the High Priest. Our liturgical celebrations are so much more than plays or memorials. In a sacramental way we are able to participate in those same mysteries of Christ and in their effects: redemption, sanctification and salvation. In our prayer, we are humbly asking God to make effective in our lives this annual series of disciplines and exercises. There is a very close connection in the collect between the whole of the Lenten cycle and Christ Himself. The Lenten cycle reflects the Paschal Mystery. As a result, through our active participation in Lenten practices, God the Father conforms us to more to the image of His Son who died and rose. If we are to rise to new life, we must endure the Cross. Each year the Church conforms herself to the Cross in the liturgy of Lent. This is why traditionally the Church stripped the liturgy of its ornaments: music and decorations such as flowers. On Passion Sunday statues and images would be draped and hidden. Bells would disappear on Good Friday and there was no Mass. It is as if the Church experiences liturgical death so that when everything returns ten-fold at Easter, our joy can be that much sweeter, the music that much more beautiful and the church that much brighter and florid.
Lent is that special time of penitential preparation that culminates and finds its meaning in the Easter mystery of the resurrection. Easter is particularly connected to the sacrament of baptism, when initiates descend into the tomb of the water, like the People of Israel fleeing death and Pharaoh and emerging from the sea in freedom, like Christ going into the earth and coming forth again, the first fruits of a new creation. This Paschal Mystery, mirrored in the lives of the baptized, is renewed in us when we participate fully and actively in the Church’s liturgy which each year re-represents the mystery of our salvation, the cycle of the life, death, resurrection, ascension and return of the Lord as King. Our participation is not just in this or that particular Mass. We are asked to participate actively and fully in the whole liturgical year. Our lives must take on the qualities of the entire presentation of the mysteries of our salvation, from Creation to Second Coming. In other words, we are not to be active participants at Sunday Mass only. At the end of Mass the priest or deacon commands, Ite, Missa est… “GO! You are dismissed!” This is stern sounding compared to the warm and fuzzy end of Mass we sometimes experience. But the starkness and force of the Latin indicates we are being sent out with urgency into the world, back to our Christian work.
The season of Lent and Easter is a profound component of our Christian formation. It is a mystery that transforms. But it won’t be effective unless we fully and actively participate. Lent is hard work, too. This means we must prudently plan our Lenten disciplines and also be opened up to grace once again by means sacramental confession and Holy Communion.
through our observance of Lent,
help us to understand the meaning
of your Son’s death and resurrection,
and teach us to reflect it in our lives.