What Does the Prayer Really Say? 1st Sunday of Lent – Station: St. John Lateran
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2005
The season of Lent and Easter is an important component of our Christian formation and pursuit of holiness. Lent is a mystery which transforms. But the season won’t be effective unless we fully and actively participate in it. This means we must prudently plan our Lenten disciplines and also be opened up to graces by means sacramental confession and Holy Communion. Lenten discipline includes penitential practices and works of mercy which culminate in and find meaning in the Easter or Paschal mystery. During Lent our lives mirror the Lord’s Passion and resurrection.
Each of the days of Lent has its own special Collect and “Station”, though WDTPRS can only follow Sundays. The Roman Stations are an ancient custom. There were Station Masses each day during Lent, on Ember Days, Sundays of Advent and certain other great feasts for a total of 84 days per year. On Station days the clergy and people of Rome would “collect” together at an appointed church. After prayers (including the Collect), they would march in solemn procession to a nearby “standing still” church, the statio, where the Pope or his deputy would say Mass. The names of the Station churches were printed in the Roman Missal and very often the prayers and texts for the daily Mass pertained to the patron saint of the Roman Station church, or to some historical event associated with the place. The custom of Stations was kept all over the world. People could gain special indulgences by visiting churches designated by the bishops where they lived. In fact, the Ordo, a little book containing practical information for the whole liturgy each day published every year, still mentions the practice of the Stations and recommends their observance. In the Latin Missale Romanum of 1970, on the page before the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, it is strongly recommended that this Roman custom be maintained.
COLLECT – LATIN TEXT (2002MR):
Concede nobis, omnipotens Deus,
ut, per annua quadragesimalis exercitia sacramenti,
et ad intellegendum Christi proficiamus arcanum,
et effectus eius digna conversatione sectemur.
ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
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.
Quadragesima is the Latin word for the season of Lent, literally “fortieth” (from quadraginta “forty”) for the fortieth weekday before Easter (Ash Wednesday). In Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin to 600 A.D., we find quadragesimalis is the adjective form for “forty” and means “Lenten”. Pope St. Leo the Great (+461) used the phrase quadragesimale ieiunium, literally “the Forty Fast”, for Lent. In our WDTPRS version let us say “forty-day” together with “Lenten” (“Lent” comes from the Old English lencten for “spring”). Exercitium indicates military and other practices for preparedness, “exercises”. Christians of the Church Militant must exercise the virtues and pious practices to fulfill their mission, the vocation in life. Arcanum means something that is “closed” and thus, “a secret thing or place.” It refers to sacred rites and sanctuaries and “a sacred secret, a mystery”. The always handy Lewis & Short Dictionary reveals that the verb sector is “to follow continually or eagerly, in a good or bad sense” and also “to run after, attend, accompany.” It also can be “imitate.” Effectus is “a doing, effecting” but in respect to the result of an action it means “an operation, effect, tendency, purpose.” We can get at both of those meanings with “consequence.” Conversatio will fool you if you are not careful. It means “conduct, manner of living” and not just “conversation.”
Early Christian writers lacked specialized vocabulary for their new theology and so made up new words or adapted existing words and gave them new meaning. Sacramentum was first used in a Christian context by Tertullian (+ c. 225). In early Christian writings in Latin sacramentum translates Greek mysterion, “mystery”. Its root is sacer, “dedicated or consecrated to a divinity, holy, sacred” (like sacerdos… “priest”). Sacramentum had a legal/juridical meaning as a bond or initiation confirmed by an oath. In the military sacramentum was the initiation into service and the oath taken by a soldier. In the Christian context, sacramentum referred to the pledge and profession of faith made by catechumens when they were baptized and initiated in the Church. Sacramentum pointed to the content of the faith the Christian pledged he accepted. Thus, sacramentum involves 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 themselves (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist). St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) used sacramentum also for marriage, the laying on of hands at ordination, anointing of the sick and reconciliation of penitent sinners. We can say for sacramentum something like “sacramental mystery”, or simply “mystery”. So, in Latin texts, sacramentum can mean more than just the English word “sacrament”.
Grant to us, Almighty God,
that, through the annual exercises of the forty-day Lenten mystery,
we may both make progress in understanding the hidden dimension of Christ
and imitate the consequences by worthy conduct of life.
Even though this is a prayer during Mass sacramentum here refers not just to the sacrament of the Eucharist, but also its ancient meaning: the forty-day long discipline of Lent which mysteriously bonds Christians and Christ more closely together. The whole season of Lent is a transforming mystery, a “sacrament”, during which our practices have consequential effects: they bring us into the mystery of the dying and rising Jesus. This transforming bond with Christ is brought about through denial of self and good works for others, penitential mortification and works of mercy, both spiritual and corporal. In Lent the words of the Baptist must ring in our ears daily, even hourly: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). When He increases in us, we are more who we are supposed to be. Thus, we have to make “room” for Him by our self-denial.
Keep two things about Jesus firmly in mind: He is eternal almighty God and He is fully human. He took our human nature into a bond with His divinity in order to save us from our sins and also to reveal to us who we really are (cf. GS 22). Through His words and deeds in Scripture (and continuing teaching through the Church), Christ reveals us more fully to ourselves while showing us the invisible Father. We some things about Christ (and ourselves) can only be known through an ongoing relationship with Him in which He increases and we decrease. We perhaps might measure the length and breadth and height of the Cross (cf. Ephesians 3:18-19), but part of It is hidden: the part under ground which holds it up. The sensible accidents of the Eucharist can be studied, but the divine reality is hidden from our senses. We pierce through the mystery to the hidden mysteries through faith and penance. As our prayer says, Lent – the quadragesimale sacramentum – is a season during which we learn things about Christ, and therefore about ourselves, we can learn in no other way.
Holy Mass and Christian life cannot be separated. It is no wonder people feel so deeply hurt by liturgical abuses or, on the other hand, attempts to change the Church into something it is not through liturgical experimentation. The Eucharist is the “source and summit” of Christian life. Change the way we say Mass and we change Christian living. This means something for how you participate at Holy Mass, whether it is in Latin or English, whether it is rubrically flawless or laden with abuses. Whatever we might say about the people at Mass, the sacred ministers and so forth, we can never lose sight of the primary focus: Christ the High Priest is the real actor in our Holy Mass. Mass is much more than play or a memorial event. Through the sacramental mystery of Holy Mass we participate in those same mysteries of Christ and in their effects: redemption, sanctification and salvation. Abuses make these harder to see, but they are nonetheless present and we can still actively participate in them. This extends beyond individual Masses to the whole of the liturgical year with its feasts and seasons.
In our Collect, Holy Church calls the season of Lent a sacramentum, a “mystery”. There is an intimate bond between the whole Lenten cycle and the Person of Christ Himself. The Lent and Easter cycles make present for us, in a sacramental way, the reality of the Paschal Mystery, Christ’s life, passion, death and resurrection. Remember! Sacramental reality is no less real than the sensible reality we normally pay attention to. When we participate actively in Lenten practices, God the Father conforms us to His Son who died and rose. During Lent each year the Church conforms herself to the dying and rising Jesus. This is why traditionally the Church stripped the liturgy of its ornaments: music and all decorations such as flowers. On Passion Sunday (the Sunday before Palm Sunday) statues and images would be draped and hidden. Bells would disappear on Good Friday and there was no Mass at all. The Mass experiences a liturgical death so that at Easter, when everything returns ten-fold, our joy can be that much sweeter, the flowers that must more florid, the music more splendid, the church that much brighter. In our Collect today we are humbly asking God to make this annual series of disciplines and exercises effective in our lives so that we can have the joy the deprivations promise.
To be good Catholic Christians our lives must take on the qualities of the mysteries we profess. Our participation in these mysteries is not just in this or that particular Mass, for an hour or so on Sunday. We are asked to participate actively and fully in the whole liturgical year. In church and outside of church this participation does not end. At the conclusion of each Holy Mass the priest or deacon commands, Ite, Missa est. From the verb mitto “to send”, the form missa (for missio) is like that of collecta (for collectio). So Ite, missa est can be translated as “Go! It is the dismissal!” or even, “GO! Dismissed!”, or even “Go out there and get back to work!” This literal version of the dismissal is stern sounding compared to the warm and fuzzy end of Mass we sometimes experience in church, when priests or deacons often say the most absurd things out of a desire to sound relevant or pious. But the starkness and force of the Latin indicates we are being sent out with urgency into the world, back to our Christian work in the world. We are commanded to bring Christ into every corner of the world where we have some presence. He must be present in our words and in our deeds. But we cannot bring or give what we do not have.