What Does the Prayer Really Say? Easter Sunday- Station: St. Mary Major
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2001
At last we come to the culmination of the season of Lent and indeed the Church’s liturgical year. Each year the Church sacramentally re-presents the whole history of our salvation from creation to Second Coming together with the earthly life of the Lord from conception and birth to death, resurrection and ascension. By our baptism we can participate with active receptivity to everything being done for us by Christ, who is the principle actor in the liturgy. The Sacred Triduum was observed. The priesthood was celebrated, Christ was reposed and the altar stripped, the Passion was sung and the Cross kissed. In the evening in some places beginning at midnight, we observe the solemn Vigil. Flowers, instrumental music, white and gold vestments return. The Exsultet is intoned in honor of the Christ-like Paschal candle, burning bright in the shadows. Baptismal water is blessed. Catechumens are received and baptized, some also being confirmed. They are admitted to receive the Real Presence of Jesus Christ for the first time. On Easter during the day we hear the Sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes about Christ the Victor King’s duel with Death. With Easter we say Alleluia again. The Church and her children are renewed in the promise of the resurrection. If Christ has risen, then so may we also.
LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum):
Deus, qui hodierna die, per Unigenitum tuum,
aeternitatis nobis aditum, devicta morte, reserasti,
da nobis, quaesumus,
ut, qui resurrectionis dominicae sollemnia colimus,
per innovationem tui Spiritus in lumine vitae resurgamus.
I like the repeated sounds of the re- as in reserasti…resurrectionis…resurgamus. Also, in the first part of the prayer, there is a repeated -er- sound: hodierna…per…aeternitatis…reserasti. In the second part of the collect there is a very assonantal quality focusing on the vowel i, pronounced like the English double “e” as is see.
O God, who today, now that death has been conquered, unbarred for us the gate of eternity by means of your Only-begotten, grant us, we beg, that we who are reverently observing the solemn annual rites of the Lord’s resurrection, may rise again in the light of life through the renewing of your Spirit.
Today’s collect starts out like the Latin collect in the 1962 Missale Romanum, but it has a different ending: Deus, qui hodierna die, per Unigenitum tuum, aeternitatis nobis aditum, devicta morte, reserasti: vota nostra, quae praeveniendo aspiras, etiam adiuvando prosequere (by giving aid also bring to completion our prayers which you have inspired by anticipating them).
Let’s look at the lexical elements first. Aditus, us is “an approach” or “going to” in the sense of movement. By extension it is also leave or permission to approach as well as the place through which one approaches, an entrance or avenue. Reserasti is a shortened form for reseravisti. That a tells us that this is not resero, sevi (“to sow or plant again”) but is rather from resero, avi, atum meaning “to unlock, open, disclose, reveal”. I got slightly poetic there with the vision of unbarring a gate. I might have said “open the way” but that would be stale and flat in such a solemn context. Colo is a complicated word. It has a range of applications from “to cultivate, till, tend, take care of a field” to “abide, stay in a place, dwell”, “Bestow care upon a thing, take care of” , “to cultivate, attend to, dress, clothe, adorn”, “to cultivate, cherish, seek, practice, devote one’s self to”, “to regard one with care, i.e. to honor, revere, reverence, worship.” This core idea of “taking great care” gives us our of cultivation, in the sense of agricultural care as well as cultural sophistication. This is where we get our Latin word cultus, meaning “worship” as in English cult. Sollemnia is neuter plural of solemne and is the object of colo. This refers to something rare and therefore important. Solemne comes from sollus, that is, totus-annus, something that takes place every year. Its first meaning is thus “yearly, annual”. Hence it means solemn annual religious rites and festivals. Since innovatio looks like an English word, it is best checked out. The precise and handy Lewis & Short Latin Dictionary defines it as “a renewing, an alteration, innovation.” Dominicus, a, um is actually an adjective, “lordly, pertaining to lord”. This is where we get our Latin word for Sunday, dies dominica, “The Lord’s Day”. In Italian we have domenica and in French dimanche. So, literally, we could say that resurrection dominica means “lordly resurrection.” Clearly it means “the Lord’s resurrection.”
God our Father,
by raising Christ your Son
you conquered the power of death
and opened for us the way to eternal life.
Let our celebration today
raise us up and renew our lives
by the Spirit that is within us.
ICEL’s translators clearly didn’t know how to fit that ablative absolute devicta morte comfortably into a smooth English sentence. Also, they extrapolate “the way to eternal life” from aditus aeternitatis: the Latin does not say aditus vitae aeternae. “Celebration” seems a little anti-climactic after these many weeks of Lent on the most solemn day of the year. Also, it is “we” who are celebrating the solemnities in the Latin. We who are celebrating want to be raised up by God, not by the celebration.
We have in the Latin prayer today a very elevated style and vocabulary. These two elements alone tell us that the day is special.
The collect has a Trinitarian dimension, making mention of all three Divine Persons. Also, the collect emphasizes central importance of this day in our lives as Christians. We are shaped by and destined for the resurrection. This is an integral part of the faith we profess every Sunday in the Creed. Since ancient times at Easter we renew our profession of faith as one transformed people. In the ancient Church catechumens had a long period of preparation for their admittance to the sacred mysteries. They were permitted to attend the liturgy of the Word and then sent out of the church for the Eucharistic liturgy. At Easter time, they were required to “give back the faith” by standing before the congregation of the already baptized and recite their profession of faith. At Easter the doors were opened to them and, anointed, baptized and clad in white linen robes and sandals, they beheld the Eucharistic dimension of Mass for the first time. They were permitted to stand within the sanctuary, the cancelli, reserved to the bishop and priests. Using everyday imagery St. Augustine compared that sacred area to a threshing floor. The fatherly Augustine, so concerned about the meanings in the mysteries, urgently pointed out to the newly baptized (in Latin infantes) that not only are the bread and wine transformed, the people are too. Many kernels and grapes are made into one loaf, one wine. Wine and bread are changed. We are changed by what we receive. Using many different agricultural images Augustine would teach these new Christians about mysteries in the period form Easter to Pentecost. He was especially concerned to help them see themselves as a transformed people. As he said in a climactic Pentecost sermon , “Estote quod videtis, et accipite quod estis”… Be what you see and receive what you are (s. 272,1). He would compare them to wheat, prepared for the Eucharist, grown, harvested, ground, formed, baked through the agency of others. Who we are requires a new way of living as well. God planted the new Christians, and us too, to be wheat sprigs (spicas) and not thorns (spinas). Augustine said these newly baptized were now new tender shoots in the fields of God. They were “irrigated by the fountain of Wisdom, drenched with the light of justice.” Our collect today also refers to our future when we will be drenched in the “light of life”, in the very sight of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Do not forget to pray for our bishops and priests. We need a new liturgical catechesis as well as a catechetical liturgy. Mass is not primarily a didactic moment, which in some senses it has become since the Liturgical Movement and then the Council reforms. Nevertheless, we still need urgently to have the liturgy celebrated in such a way that we can sink into it, grow from it, rest in it, be nourished by the mysteries the Church sacramentally re-presents in it for us. This is not just play-acting or remembering. This is about life itself. Everything we do and say in the context of the divine liturgy has significance. Actions shape and teach. The words really do mean things. Thus, what we do and say must conform to the Church’s guidelines, not our own creativity or some isolated local expression. How we pray has a reciprocal relationship with what we believe. So, reading this, say a prayer of gratitude to God for the Church’s liturgy. And pray also for a speedy release of the new Latin edition of the Missal and for exquisite English translations.