What Does the Prayer Really Say? Third Sunday of Lent – Station: St. Lawrence outside the walls
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2002
Today’s prayer seems to be of new composition. Let us plunge directly into it.
LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum):
His sacrificiis, Domine, concede placatus,
ut, qui propriis oramus absolvi delictis,
fraterna dimittere studeamus.
Having been appeased by means of these sacrifices, O Lord, grant
that we who pray to be absolved from our own sins
may be diligent in forgiving the transgressions of our brothers and sisters.
The mighty Lewis & Short Dictionary lets us in on the fact that studeo means “to be eager or zealous, to take pains about, be diligent in, anxious about, busy one’s self with, strive after, to apply one’s self to or pursue some course of action, etc.; to desire, wish,” etc. Post-Augustinian Latin it is also “to apply one’s self to learning, to study, be diligent.”
A delictum is “a falling short of the standard of law (hence esp. a transgression against positive law; cf. peccatum, usu. against natural law; a fault, offence, crime, transgression, wrong.”
Notice the distinction in classical Latin: a delictum concerns positive law and peccatum concerns natural law. Positive law is law given by a proper authority. The Ten Commandments would be a good example of divine positive law. The 1983 Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church is also positive law, as are civil laws passed by a legislator. Natural law is what is writen into our very beings by the Creator. In this prayer, however, I don’t think that we need to put to fine a point on this distinction. I think that “transgression” can cover both dimensions. Try plugging one of the alternatives into the translation to see how that changes your perception of the prayer. This is why I provide several meanings of these Latin words in each article. On the other hand it is worth considering the distinction of natural law and positive law when listening to this super oblata. It is a common thing to use the Ten Commandments when making a regular or daily examen, the examination of conscience. Of course, the divine positive law in the Decalogue is not to be contrasted sharply with natural law, as if the two were in conflict. The Decalogue codifies what God placed in our hearts. His laws are sure guidelines by which He helps us not to hurt ourselves and others by violating the image of God in each one of us.
The word delictum brings to mind also the Lenten hymn which many of you might know, Attende Domine.
Refrain: Attende Domine, et miserere, quia peccavimus tibi.
Ad te Rex summe, omnium redemptor, oculos nostros sublevamus flentes: exaudi, Christe, supplicantum preces. Refrain….
Dextera Patris, lapis angularis, via salutis, ianua caelestis, ablue nostri maculas delicti. Refrain….
Hearken, O Lord, and have mercy, for we have sinned against Thee.
Weeping, we lift our eyes to Thee, king most high, redeemer of all. Listen, O Christ, to the prayers of the supplicants.
Thou right Hand of the Father, the keystone, the way of salvation, gate of heaven, cleanse the stains of our sin.
Instantly you recognize the word dimitto from the Latin version of the Lord’s Prayer: dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris… forgive our trespasses, just as we forgive our debtors (who trespasse against us). In the L&S we discover that dimitto means primarily “to send different ways, to send apart; send forth” and by extension it means “to send different ways, to send apart” as well as “to renounce, give up, abandon, forego, forsake.” The concept is that of “putting aside” something over which one has power or a right. When we commit a sin, we must make restitution according to justice. It is as if by harming another person, which is what we do when we sin against someone, that person suddenly has our IOU. They have a legitimate claim against us. Think of the parable in Matthew 18 by which Jesus tells of the king who calls in his markers. The king summons a man who owes him an impossible sum to pay back, many lifetimes worth of wages. When the man begs for mercy the king forsakes his legitimate claim and sets it aside. That ungrateful wretch does not do the same for a poor fellow servant who owes him far less. Thus the one who had previously obtained astonishing mercy is now forced bitterly to pay his debt. In our own doing we must always see to it that “mercy seasons justice”. When Christ taught his disciples how to pray (the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:7-15) the only thing He took the time to explain… twice… was the need to be forgiving. No forgiveness for others means no forgiveness for you.
A word or two about fraterna is in order, I believe. This adjective fraternus, a, um derives from frater, “brother” and means “brotherly, fraternal” as well as “Of or belonging to a relative or kinsman.” There does not seem to be an adjectival form for the Latin word for “sister” (soror)…”sisterly” in contrast to “brotherly”. In Latin masculine nouns and adjectives do double duty very often, especially when they are in a plural form. FraternÃ„Æ’ is a neuter plural and it agrees with an invisible delicta. You are expected to pick up, or rather hold in your mind, the word delicti from the line before so that we have a contrast between propria delicita … fraterna delicta. Because in the first case we are being absolved or loosed from our sins, we have the ablative case. Because in the next line we are forsaking or forgoing sins, which are the object of dimitto and thus need the accusative. For a nice Latin style we simply leave off saying delicta in the second part because it is understood by the attentive. You lovers of inclusive language will notice that I chosen to translate this fraternal as “of our brothers and sisters” (much less clunky than “brotherly sins”, which would sound a bit odd). There is no problem using inclusive language in this case and we do not violate in any way what the prayer really says by including the concept “sisters”.
by the grace of this sacrifice
may we who ask forgiveness
be ready to forgive one another.
I am very pleased to see that the word “sacrifice” appears in the ICEL rendition of our super oblata today. That said, I am not quite sure why it is not considered possible simply to translate the other things that are included as well. I think there is a difference between “we who ask forgiveness” and “we who pray to be absolved of our own sins.” Similarly, it seems to me that that construction with fraterna, which actually makes you think and make the rapid mental connections mentioned above, is far more concrete than the sterile “one another.” One need consider the simple fact of the common experience of married couples, or siblings in families and how very much they are obliged to forgive just as they need to be forgiven for things that they have done.
Today’s super oblata brings the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and our daily Examen to the altar, where the sacrifice of Calvary is about to be renewed. This prayer sharply reminds us what Christ warned about in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:23-24: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Here “brother” clearly means more than “male biological sibling”, too). What we are involved in at Holy Mass is so important that we must be willing to be squared away ahead of time, to the best of our ability, with God, with the Church and with our neighbor.
On a liturgical note, there has been discussion in many circles of the issue of the so-called “sign of peace” during Mass. In the internet Forum which I moderate there are from time to time heated debates about this. Given what I offer above, it seems to me that if there is going to be a sign of peace at all, it is best that it should be done before the offertory prayers of the Mass. After all, the offertory, with its super oblata prayer, is when you are “offering your gift at the altar” to use the RSV translation of Jesus’ words. It strikes me that before Mass begins it might be a good idea to make sure you are right with your neighbor. If some gesture needs to be used in the context of Mass, that would seem to be a good time.
There is practical dimension to this as well. The sign of peace is handled in so many places with an egregious carelessness, disrespect and irreverence. Not only are is the Real Presence of Christ upon the altar at the moment when people start slapping each other on the back, walking around and chatting, but some people don’t want to have the back slapped, people milling around about them and inane chatter in their ears. They want to PRAY and adore Christ, the God/man for whose coming in Communion they are readying themselves. This is not to say that the sign of peace cannot be a dignified gesture. The Roman sign of peace is what the rubrics intended. This involves an elegant and subtle gesture of very gently placing one’s hands on the arms of the other and, leaning forward, bring one’s left cheek near to the left cheek of the other. When I was in China, I saw at the time of the sign of peace the subtle and noble gesture of slightly turning to each side and bowing, as the priest and people did also to each other. This can be done well, but it usually isn’t. I have seen disasters tantamount to rowdy free-for-alls. Furthermore, and this is something that not many people know, it is in no way obligatory to have a sign of peace at all at Mass. It is completely optional and up to the priest/celebrant. The rubric before the sign of peace says pro opportunitate: in so far as it is opportune or appropriate. The sign of peace is done at the discretion of the priest at that Mass.
Our participation at Holy Mass is for our good. Mass is all about what God does for us. Thus, we participate on His terms, not ours. These terms are communicated to us by God through His Holy Church. The Church has taught that we are to be properly disposed to receive the graces God offers us. We have divine positive law, the precepts of the Church, Christ’s own admonishments in Scriptures and the urgings of our consciences to guide us in our preparation to place our own sacrifices together with those of the priest on the altar during Mass.