Wednesday of Holy Week or Spy Wednesday

Judas seeks a means to betray the LordThe term “Spy” Wednesday probably is an allusion to Christ’s betrayal by Judas.


Deus, qui pro nobis Filium tuum
crucis patibulum subire voluisti,
ut inimici a nobis expelleres potestatem,
concede nobis famulis tuis,
ut resurrectionis gratiam consequamur.

This prayer was the Collect for this same day in the 1962 Missale Romanum.   It was also in the ancient Gregorian Sacramentary in both the Hadrianum and Paduense manuscripts. 

The impressive and informative Lewis & Short Dictionary informs us that patibulum (deriving from pateo) is “a fork-shaped yoke, placed on the necks of criminals, and to which their hands were tied; also, a fork-shaped gibbet”.  In turn, English “gibbet” means “an upright post with a projecting arm for hanging the bodies of executed criminals as a warning”.

The verb subeo in its basic meaning is “to come or go under any thing” and by logical extension “to subject one’s self to, take upon one’s self an evil; to undergo, submit to, sustain, endure, suffer”.  The L&S explains that “The figure taken from stooping under a load, under blows, etc.)”  There are other shades of meaning, including “to come on secretly, to advance or approach stealthily, to steal upon, steal into”.  Keep this one in mind.

SatanConsequor is very interesting.  It signifies “to follow, follow up, press upon, go after, attend, accompany, pursue any person or thing” and then it extends to concepts like “to follow a model, copy, an authority, example, opinion, etc.; to imitate, adopt, obey, etc.” and “to reach, overtake, obtain”.  Going beyond even these definitions, there is this: “to become like or equal to a person or thing in any property or quality, to attain, come up to, to equal (cf. adsequor).”   I know, I know  – mentio non fit expositio.  Still it is interesting to make connections in the words, which often have subtle overlaps.  Remember that interesting meaning of subeo, above?  There is a shade of “pursuit” and “imitation” in the prayer’s vocabulary.

O God, who desired Your Son to undergo
on our behalf the gibbet of the Cross
so that You might drive away from us the power of the enemy,
grant to us Your servants,
that we may attain the grace of the resurrection.

This is an austere prayer, razor like, cutting to the heart of the matter.  By our sins we are in the clutches of the enemy, who mercilessly attacks us.  Christ freed us from dire consequences of slavery to sin by His Passion. 

The ancient Romans would have their conquered foes pass under a yoke (iugum), to show that they were now subjugated.  Their juridical status changed.   Christ went under the Cross in its carrying and then underwent the Cross in its hideous torments.  In his liberating act of salvation, we passed from the servitude of the enemy to the service of the Lord, not as slaves, but as members of a family.  We are not merely household servants (famuli), we are according the status of children of the master of the house, able to inherit what He already has.

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4 Responses to Wednesday of Holy Week or Spy Wednesday

  1. Henry Edwards says:

    ICEL version:
    in your plan of salvation
    your Son Jesus Christ accepted the cross
    and freed us from the power of the enemy.
    May we come to share in the glory of his resurrection

    I wondered at the time why many in official U.S. Catholic positions seemed so cool to Mel Gibson’s movie. Could it have been partly the effect of a generation of prayers so sanitized as no longer to cut razor-like to the heart of the matter? (Does “accepted the cross” almost sound like someone just handed it to him, maybe attached to a dainty necklace? No patibulum on the neck here.)

  2. martin says:

    A couple of random points:

    “gratiam”: “favour” or “bonus” is the meaning, surely (as in a reward which one did nothing to earn)?
    “consequor” also means “win” or “obtain” (the last in your list).
    “attain” derives from “attingere” and to my ear is now welded to certain fixed phrases and situations (e.g. “attain the age of . . “, “attain man’s estate”, “attain first place”), so “receive the reward of the Resurrection” (the theme of the Palm Sunday collect).
    “voluisti”: “desired” has the wrong overtones both in English and, for a different reason, in Latin (where the object is usually a thing or a person rather than an event or an outcome); so “willed” is more to the point, I think.

  3. martin says:

    The usual translation of “Deo volente” confirms the last point in my previous comment, but it wasnt present to my mind then.

    apropos of nothing, “willy nilly” is a corruption of “volens nolens” (corruption is perversely on the brain after reading your text of the Maundy Thursday collect).

  4. martin says:

    The “crucis patibulum” on Wednesday of Holy Week suddenly came to mind while I was meditating on the crucified Lord after today’s solemn liturgy (Good Friday).

    When reading the Wednesday posting, I regarded the proferred “gibbet of the cross” as unsatisfactory partly because it introduces an anachronism, but more radically because the two contraptions are distinct frames for exacting the capital penalty arising from different eras and different cultures, which induce death in radically different ways, are constructed according to different principles and have different shapes (I am speaking here of the english gibbet and roman cross). But, since I had no convincing explanation of the Latin phrase, I passed it over in my comments.

    The ICEL did nothing with the phrase (“the cross”), and other translations I have seen are equally unconvincing (“the ignominy of the cross, for instance).

    The word “patibulum” had three applications in the Roman world according to the OLD: (a) it was a means of restraining criminals (approximating to the stocks rather than to the gibbet, but once immobilised on the patibulum they were liable to be executed by other means: see Tacitus, Annales XIV.33 where we find a list of extreme punishments “caedes, patibula, ignes, cruces” and patibulum appears in a similar list, this time with comic import, in Apuleius, Metamorphoses VI.31); (b) it was a means of fastening a door; and (c) it was a vine prop. Under (a) and (c) the device was Y-shaped, which has as little connection with the cross as does the capital gamma of the gibbet.

    The OLD also cite a fragment of Plautus: “patibulum ferat per urbem, deinde adfigatur cruci”. The later citations show the patibulum as an alternative mode of execution, but the Plautine quote is at least consistent with the fact (although it does not by itself prove) that the criminal bore the patibulum on his back, and at the place of execution, it was adapted to become the horizontal bar of the cross.

    Plautus died 200 years before the events in Palestine which we have been recalling today, and maybe 800 years before the Collect was composed, so it is mere conjecture that the modus operandi described by Plautus was what the writer of the Collect had in mind. In any event, the prayer refers to the death of Our Lord, not the Via Dolorosa He walked in order to reach Golgotha.

    The Y-shape, however, is the precise shape Our Lord’s body assumes as he sags on the cross under His own weight. Gazing on a crucifix which depicts the last moments, we see a Y superimposed on the T of the cross. Now, “subeo” does have “carry” (as well as “endure” and “undergo”) among its meanings, but if that literal sense is to be dominant we must talk about the precise thing which the “patibulum” was. The Gospel accounts, however, give no support to the idea (however probable it might be) that Our Lord carried a “patibulum” rather than the entire cross to Golgotha. That leaves the superimposed Y as the only convincing reference to explain the admittedly unusual phrase used here to evoke Our Lord’s death. .

    How this image might be conveyed in English is a different problem. In “the fork of the cross”, the imagery is clouded by the dominant cutlery reference for “fork” and so becomes merely confusing. It may be that “willed Your Only-Begotten to hang on the Cross” is the only acceptable solution.