What Does the Prayer Really Say? 1st Sunday of Lent – Roman Station: Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior – “St. John Lateran”
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2006
Hurtling in its orbit about the Sun the spinning globe of our planet Earth has with its partner the Moon whirled us again in their delicate lavolta to the season of Quadragesima, Lent. Though the world will begin its return to life in the northern climes, in the south it is harder to connect to “Lent” as meaning “spring”, from Old English lencten. Lent is a penitential season. Our altars and our priests have put on their ascetic purple. As the law indicates all instrumental music ought to be suspended except for occasional use in support of congregational singing. Decorations and flowers should be removed. This is a holy time of fast and prayer and almsgiving when we consider our sins, Christ’s Sacrifice, and our judgment.
Each day of Lent has its own prayers for Mass and its own Roman “station.” The stations are an ancient tradition. Every day during Lent, on Ember Days, Advent and pre-Lenten Sundays and great feasts like Pentecost (for a total of 84 days), the clergy and people of Rome would “collect” at an appointed church (which gives us the term for the first prayer of Mass, from ecclesia collecta). They would go in procession to a nearby station church (from Latin statio) where the Bishop of Rome or his deputy would say the Mass. Since many station churches are dedicated to a martyr, this custom is still observed through the efforts of a confraternity dedicated to the cult of martyrs. The names of the station churches were printed in the pre-Conciliar Missale Romanum on their proper day. Quite often the prayers and texts for the Mass subtly referred to the patron saint of the station church or to an event associated with it. The name of the station church of the day is still included on the calendars printed for offices of the Vatican Curia.
The station tradition was once observed throughout the world. People could gain indulgences by visiting churches designated by the bishop of the place where they lived. In the Latin editio typica altera of the Missale Romanum of 1970, on the page preceding Ash Wednesday it is strongly recommended (valde commendatur) that this Roman custom be maintained, at least in larger cities. In the ICEL Sacramentary 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…” Perhaps we can conclude from this that ICEL consciously prepared something other than a translation of the Roman Missal since they referred to the Missale Romanum like that.
Today’s prayer was the Secret of the Mass for Ash Wednesday according to the older, “Tridentine” Missale Romanum. It is also an ancient prayer from the Gelasian Sacramentary. Interestingly, in the Gelasian this prayer comes after a whole series of prayers over penitents in the rites for doing public penance. Here we read how the penitent on Ash Wednesday would dress in cilicium (an amazingly scratchy and uncomfortable garment of goat’s hair). He would go to church, prostrate himself on the ground before the bishop who would pray over him, and he would do penance until Holy Thursday when he would be reconciled.
At any rate, today’s prayer is in the section “In ieiunio prima statione feria IIII … For the fast on the day of the first station, Wednesday”:
SUPER OBLATA (2002MR)
Fac nos, quaesumus, Domine,
his muneribus offerendis convenienter aptari,
quibus ipsius venerabilis sacramenti celebramus exordium.
As we have seen before in WDTPRS, the word sacramentum is complicated. It usually is interchangeable with mysterium. In today’s “Prayer over the gifts”, sacramentum refers not so much to the Eucharist but the forty day Lenten discipline. The fast of Lent was seen by the Fathers of the Church as a participation in a sacred mystery which had the power to transform us because it conforms us more closely to the mystery of the dying and rising Jesus. Pope St. Leo the Great (+461) in his magnificent sermons about the season of Lent refers often to the season as sacramentum. Thus, I choose to say in our WDTPRS version “season of mystery.”
Double-check apto in your handy Lewis & Short Dictionary something. It is also “to prepare, get ready, furnish, put in order” and is constructed with the dative or and find “to fit, adapt, accommodate, apply, put on, adjust,” etc. It is often used with the dative: to make apt or fit for. Sometime the ablative is used to indicate that with which something is fitted, furnished, or provided. Thus, in our prayer we might argue that Fac nos…his muneribus offerendis… aptari means either, “make us apt/suitable/ready to for offering these gifts” or “make us fit through these gifts which are to be offered.” Take note that the examples of its use in the L&S, apto is a fitting word for military contexts: “to be suitable, readied for arms, etc.”
Make us fit, we beg, O Lord,
for offering in a suitable manner these gifts,
by which we celebrate the beginning of this venerable season of mystery.
ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
make us worthy to bring you these gifts.
May this sacrifice
help to change our lives.
How silly. The Latin prayer gives us the first step of a mysterious journey which can transform us. The context of the offering of the gifts of bread and wine to be transformed on the altar seems to bind us closely together with the sacrificial elements. This reinforces in my mind the element of transformation in the Lenten season. This transformation requires self-emptying. It is almost as if we need to pour ourselves out so that we can be filled back up by God. This process of self-emptying is a trial, a running battle. We need armor and arms. The Church is teaching us that we need to be on guard constantly during Lent with the great weapons of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, for which we pray to be made “apt”. The abovementioned St. Leo explained (s. 42 my trans.):
“We must then moderate our freedom of eating food so that our other desires may also be reined in by same rule. This is the time for gentleness and patience, peace and serenity, in which, once all stains of sins are put aside, we must strive to obtain the continuing duration of the virtues. Now the firm resolution of pious souls is accustomed to forgive offenses, pay no heed to insults, and forget past injuries. Now let the faithful soul train itself for the arms of justice, upon both the right hand and upon the left, so that through glory and obscurity, infamy and fame, praises will neither puff up a tranquil conscience with pride, nor abusive taunts wear it down. In the midst of works of mercy (opera misericordiae), be not afraid of any lessening of your earthly faculties. Semper dives est christiana paupertas! Christian poverty is ever rich!”
Leo is talking about how we paradoxically become wealthier in God by divesting ourselves of possessions and food for the sake of the poor and our own souls. God makes one weakened by fasting strong by His grace. The proximity of the words misericordia … dives, and the theme itself, reminds me of the 1980 encyclical of Pope John Paul II Dives in misericordia on the riches of God’s mercy. Dives is an adjective for “rich”, but also “abundant”. God is the “Father of mercies”, the “Creator of mercies” so to speak. We in turn must be “pro-creators” of mercies. In what we sacrifice for mercy, we win back plentifully. Do you remember the present Pope’s magnificent homily at the beginning of his ministry as the Vicar of Christ? Listen to how our Popes, Leo, John Paul, Benedict, separated by over fifteen centuries, make our ears and hearts ring with the same exhortations. Thus, Pope Benedict on 24 April 2005:
“If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again [Pope John Paul] said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.”
Knowing that we will need additional strength and armor during Lent, the third edition of the Missale Romanum of 2002 has restored the ancient “Prayer over the people”… the “Oratio super populum.” At the end of Mass, after the Post communion prayer, the priest exclaims Humiliate capita vestra Deo!… Bow down your heads to God!” and pronounces a blessing. Let’s follow these during Lent, since you will not have them in any ICEL version yet.
ORATIO SUPER POPULUM (2002MR):
Super populum tuum, Domine, quaesumus,
benedictio copiosa descendat,
ut spes in tribulatione succrescat,
virtus in tentatione firmetur,
aeternae redemptio tribuatur.
The attentive among you are surely blinking at that tentatione. Did you expect temptatione? Is this an Italian typo that slithered into the Latin because they rushed to print? Latin tentotempto = which means basically “to handle, touch, feel a thing”. Also, tento/tempto is “to try the strength of, make an attempt upon, i.e. to attack, assail” and then “to try; to prove, put to the test; to attempt, essay a course of action”. Succresco, a rare verb, means “to grow under or from under any thing; to grow up”. Please note that the Oratio super populum was, before the Council, not given on Sundays. It was a weekday practice. Still, I did not find this prayer in the Lenten section in the older Missal. It is, however, in a somewhat different form in the 1962MR on Good Friday in the so-called “Mass of the Pre-sanctified” as the first of three “thanksgiving” prayers.
Upon Thy people, O Lord, we beg Thee,
let a plentiful blessing descend,
so that hope may grow in time of tribulation,
valor may be strengthened in time of temptation,
and eternal redemption may be granted.
I really wish we could say for virtus, “the virtuous strength and courageous fortitude befitting soldiers of Christ in this Church Militant” but this would be over-the-top. I found on the website of the Birmingham Oratory in England, founded by Servant of God John Henry Card. Newman (+1890), a version they prepared for those who attend their Masses. It is very nice! Here it is:
May the fullness of Thy blessing come down upon Thy people, O Lord,
so that their hope may grow amid tribulation, their courage may be strengthened amid temptation, and eternal redemption may be granted to them.
May you have a grace-filled Lent. If you are not already very disciplined in the spiritual life do not take on too much for your Lent, some penance which will overwhelm your resolve so that you fail and quit. Give up something that means something to you and also choose some positive thing to do as well, a work of mercy. Use well this sacramentum, this mysterious season.