What Does the Prayer Really Say? Vigil of Ascension Thursday Sunday (7th Sunday of Easter)
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2006
Today’s WDTPRS offering ought to be about the 7th Sunday of Easter. However, in some places the Feast of the Ascension, which falls always on a Thursday, has been transferred to this Sunday. That would make it “Ascension Thursday Sunday”, I suppose. In addition, the third edition of the Missale Romanum issued in 2002 now provides us with a Mass for the Vigil of Ascension, which wasn’t in previous editions of the Novus Ordo. Moreover, the prayers for the new Vigil of Ascension are not the same as those found in the pre-Conciliar Missale for the Vigil. Also, there are now proper Masses for the days after Ascension, most having alternative collects depending on whether or not in that region Ascension is transferred to Sunday. Since many people do not have access to the prayers for the Vigil of Ascension, let’s look at them this week. First, here are the antiphons. Ant. ad introitum: Regna terrae cantata Deo, psallite Domino, qui ascendit super caelum caeli; magnificentia et virtus eius in nubibus, alleluia. (Ps 67:33,35) Ant. ad communionem: Christus, unam pro peccatis offerens hostiam, in sempiterum sedet in dextera Dei, alleluia. (Cf. Heb 10:12)
Deus, cuius Filus hodie in caelos,
Apostolis astantibus, ascendit,
concede nobis, quaesumus,
ut secundum eius promissionem
et ille nobiscum semper in terris
et nos cum eo in caelo vivere mereamur.
This was modified from a prayer in ancient sacramentaries such as the Liber Sacramentorum when it was used on Ascension Thursday having its Station Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Here is some liturgical education for you. The eucological formulas (the prayers), for the Ascension found in what is sometimes called the Leonine Sacramentary surviving in one 7th century manuscript in Verona (the Veronese Sacramentary) are the oldest prayers we have in the Roman liturgy! The Missale Romanum and those ancient collections consist principally in prayers for Masses which in fancy liturgist talk are called “eucological formulas”.
O God, whose Son today ascended
into the heavens as the Apostles were standing close by,
grant us, we beseech You,
that, according to His promise,
we may be worthy both that He lives with us on earth,
and that we live with Him in heaven.
When the Second Person took up our human nature into an indestructible bond with His divinity, indestructible, we were thereby destined to sit at God’s right hand, first in Christ and then on our own. Christ makes us worthy, no one else. Christ alone. It’s all His. And because it’s His, it’s ours. Gratitude then brings us to the altar, confidently but carefully, where we lay our gifts and our selves down, ready to be raised up on high. The priest prays:
Deus, cuius Unigenitus, Pontifex noster,
semper vivens sedet ad dexteram tuam
ad interpellandum pro nobis,
concede nos adire cum fiducia ad thronum gratiae,
ut misericordiam tuam consequamur.
There are phrases drawn from St. Paul in this prayer. In the Apostle’s Letter to the Hebrews we find “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy (adeamus ergo cum fiducia ad thronum gratiae ut misericordiam consequamur) and find grace to help in time of need” (cf. 4:16). We also read, “Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near (accedentes) to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (semper vivens ad interpellandum pro eis)” (cf. 7:25).
The great and always useful Lewis & Short Dictionary helps us with adeo, the basic meaning of which is “to go to or approach a person or thing”. By extension it means, “to approach one for the purpose of addressing, asking aid, consulting, and the like, to address, apply to, consult”. There is an old phrase “accede to the throne” which could express well the force of adeo, though “accede” in this sense means enter into an office. “Approach to” and “accede to”, both require enormous humility.
LITERAL BUT NUANCED METAPHRASE:
O God, whose Only-begotten, our Pontiff,
sits forever living at Your right hand
in order to intercede for us,
grant us to approach with confidence unto the throne of grace,
so that we may obtain Your mercy.
Here we have the image of the Pontiff, literally “bridge builder”, who is the high priestly mediator. Here we have “approach” and “accede”. Here we have the confidence of the redeemed and absolute need for mercy. There are times when the content of the Latin words is so heavily charged that it almost physically hurts me to make a choice between one English possibility and another. Our prayer today presents us with the image of a Christian soul approaching God’s throne where he will with humble confidence and confident humility beg for and claim mercy and rightful inheritance. Because of Christ, he is already a member of a royal priesthood. Because of Christ, our humanity is already sitting at the Father’s right hand, the place of honor. Because of Christ, we already have our reward, but we do not yet possess it fully.
This is how we should approach and accede unto the Eucharistic Lord at the moment Holy Communion. Our bowed heads must be humbly raised with pride as befits petitioning kings. And after the endless king of glory, light from light, the true God from God made man humbly enters our bodies and souls, the priest sings…
Quae ex altari tuo, Domine, dona percepimus,
accendunt in cordibus nostris caelestis patriae desiderium,
et quo praecursor pro nobis introivit Salvator,
faciant nos, eius vestigia sectantes, contendere.
I don’t think this prayer has a precedent in earlier sacramentaries. Many prayers use some combination of the words dona and percipio, as do Patristic authors such as St. Pope Gregory I “the Great” (+604), often in reference to the Holy Spirit. The phrase accendunt… desiderium might have a precedent in some late authors such as Venerable Bede (+735), Ambrosius Autpertus (+784) or Godefridus Admontensis (+1165). They could be drawing from something I didn’t discover given the time I spent looking.
A praecursor is fundamentally, “one who runs before”. In military language a praecursor is “an advanced guard, vanguard”, or sometimes a “scout”.
SLAVISHLY LITERAL RENDERING:
The gifts which we have received from Your altar, O Lord,
are now kindling in our hearts an ardent desire for the heavenly fatherland,
and may they cause us, following in His footsteps, to strive for
the place where the Savior entered in as a forerunner.
Picture a great captain leading the charge through the vicissitudes and perils of marches and battles. What jumps into my mind was a section of a book called The Red Horse by Italian author Eugenio Corti. This volume of fiction presents the story of young Catholic Italians during Word War II based on some of his own experiences. He tells the story of the Italian Alpine forces fighting their way out of Russia through envelopment after envelopment during the deadly winter, trying to get home, to their homeland, their fatherland. All of us have experienced homesickness. We have known conflict. We long for a peaceful place where we belong, of light happiness and peace. St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) described love like a gravitational force which pulls us inexorably toward the place where we belong. Our real homeland awaits us. The risen Christ has gone ahead of us as a scout, as a vanguard, as a great victorious captain.
The knowledge of our humanity now enjoying heaven can work wonders for us in the hour of need. St. Pope Leo I “the Great” (+461), who uttered some of the most beautiful Latin ever spoken in the ancient Constantinian Basilica of St. Peter, gave us a sermon on 1 June 444 (s. 73,4) . From his lips to our hearts:
“Truly it was a great and indescribable source of rejoicing when, in the sight of the heavenly multitudes, the nature of our human race ascended over the dignity of all heavenly creatures, to pass the angelic orders and to be raised beyond the heights of archangels. In its ascension it did not stop at any other height until this same nature was received at the seat of the eternal Father, to be associated on the throne of the glory of that One to whose nature it was joined in the Son.”
This can make our faith firm in the face of any challenge. Again about the Lord’s Ascension Pope Leo says in another sermon of 17 May 445 (s. 74,3):
“This Faith, reinforced by the Ascension of the Lord and strengthened by the gift of the Holy Spirit, has not been terrified by chains, by prison, by exile, by hunger, by fire, by the mangling of wild beasts, nor by sharp suffering from the cruelty of persecutors. Throughout the world, not only men but also women, not just immature boys but also tender virgins, have struggled on behalf of this Faith even to the shedding of their blood. This Faith has cast out demons, driven away sicknesses, and raised the dead.”
The great Pontiff Leo spoke those words on the Vatican Hill 1,561 years ago exactly to this very day I am writing. Leo’s tomb is in the new Basilica upon the Vatican Hill. As I write I can see it now by turning my head and gazing through the window. The evening breezes intertwine for me the Latin with scents of jasmine and the rays of the setting sun.
Let us keep on track with the normal course of these columns, however, which this year focus on the so-called “Prayer over the gifts”. We turn the page of the Missale Romanum to the next day and the Ascension Thursday itself.
SUPER OBLATA (2002 Missale Romanum – Missa in die):
Sacrificium, Domine, pro Filii tui supplices
venerabili nunc ascensione deferimus:
praesta, quaesumus, ut his commerciis sacrosanctis
ad caelestia consurgamus.
This was in the ancient Gelasian Sacramentary.
receive our offering
as we celebrate the ascension of Christ your Son.
May his gifts help us rise with him
to the joys of heaven.
O Lord, we supplicants are bringing the sacrifice
now for the venerable Ascension of your Son:
grant, we beg, that we may rise up unto the heavenly places
by means of these most sacred exchanges.
The fun verb defero is “to bear or bring away a thing from a place; to bear, carry, bring down” and thus also, “to bring, give to one”. It is used in mercantile contexts (as in “conveying to market”) and it has many legal applications (“to bring” someone before a judge; “deliver” a report about finances). For comments on the amazing noun commercium please see my recent WDTPRS for the Super Oblata of the 5th Sunday of Easter.
It is immediately after this prayer that we launch into the Euchrist Prayer beginning with the Preface and Sanctus. You all know the phrase, “Sursum corda! Lift up your hearts!” In 418 St. Augustine (s. 261) declared to his flock:
“The resurrection of the Lord is our hope, the Lord’s ascension our glorification. … So if we are to celebrate the Lord’s ascension in the right way, with faith, with devotion, with reverence as godfearing people, we must ascend with him, and lift up our hearts. In ascending, however, we mustn’t get above ourselves. Yes, we should lift up our hearts, but to the Lord. Hearts, you see, lifted up, not to the Lord – that’s pride; while hearts lifted up to the Lord, that’s called taking refuge. After all, we say to the one who has ascended, Lord, you have become a refuge for us (Ps 90:1).”