The Roman Station for Ash Wednesday is Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill.
The Collect in the 2002 Missale Romanum, is an ancient prayer found in the Gelasian Sacramentary for the Vigil of Pentecost.
It is also among the prayers for the 4th day of the 4th month, which more than likely involved the traditional fast of the fourth month (there were fasts in the 4th, 7th and 10th months). This prayer is in the so-called Veronese Sacramentary under the title In ieiunio quarti mensis.
This prayer was in the 1962 Missale Romanum but at the end of the section for the blessing of and imposition of ashes, before the Introit of the Mass itself.
Let’s see what the prayer really says.
Concede nobis, Domine, praesidia militiae christianae
sanctis inchoare ieiuniis,
ut, contra spiritales nequitias pugnaturi,
continentiae muniamur auxiliis.
Praesidium has a powerfully military connotation. It means fundamentally "defense, protection, help, aid, assistance" and thus it refers to "soldiers who are to serve as a guard". Thus, by extension, it comes to mean "any place occupied by troops, as a hill, a camp, etc.; a post, station, entrenchment, fortification, camp". Munio is equally military: "to build a wall around, to defend with a wall, to fortify, defend, protect, secure, put in a state of defense". As you can imagine pugno, "to combat, give battle, engage, contend", is a military term. Are you getting the picture? Of course auxillium means "help, aid, assistance, support, succor", but when in the plural it is also "auxiliary troops, auxiliaries (mostly composed of allies and light-armed troops; hence opposed to the legions)". Then there is militia, which is "military service, warfare, war" and also specifically in the genitive militiae "in military service, or on a campaign, in the field".
Grant us, O Lord, to commence the defenses of the Christian field campaign by means of holy fasts,
so that, we who are about to do battle against spiritual negligences,
may be fortified by the support of continence.
This is a mighty prayer.
Several things come to mind.
First, most of us when we were confirmed were reminded in some way that we are soldiers in this pilgrim Church. We must be ready to suffer for the Faith.
Militaristic imagery informs much of the history of Christian spirituality.
Next, while we are soldiers we are on the march, pilgrim soldiers. We are on campaign. When the Roman legions were on the march, they would build a fortified camp when they halted. They took no chances. We are on the march in a vale of tears where anything and everything can happen to us and around us.
Thirdly, when we make mistakes, the results can be deadly. The word nequitia means "bad quality, badness" but that is because it is "bad moral quality, of all degrees, idleness, negligence, worthlessness, vileness". It usually refers to a lack of attention that duty and prudence require, resulting in negative consequences. Moreover, the virtue of continence is described with the same word used to describe the auxiliary troops that supported the legion’s regulars. While it could simply refer to "abstinence", continence is the virtue which restrains the will from consenting to strong impulses of sexual desire. So, this prayer could have a special focus.
Sacrificium quadragesimalis initii sollemniter immolamus,
te, Domine, deprecantes,
ut per paenitentiae caritatis labores
a noxiis voluptatibus temperemus,
et, a peccatis mundati,
ad celebrandam Filii tui passionem
mereamur esse devoti.
This prayer also has roots in the ancient Gelasian and the Gregorian Sacramentary. Notice, however, how long, wordy it is. Hardly in the style of the terse prayers of the Romans.
REALLY LITERAL VERSION:
Praying to You, O Lord,
we solemnly raise up the Sacrifice of the beginning of Lent,
so that through the exertions of the charity of penitence
we may abstain from harmful pleasures,
and, cleansed from sins,
we may be worthy to be dedicated
to celebrating the Passion of Your Son.
St. Leo the Great refers to the time of the Lenten fast as a sacramentum, preparing us for the mysterium of the dying and rising of the Lord.
Here at the threshold of Lent, let us make our "Lenten start". In the sacrament of Penance, Christ will cleanse your slate and you may make a renewed beginning.
Percepta nobis, Domine,
praebeant sacramenta subsidium,
ut tibi grata sint nostra ieiunia,
et nobis proficiant ad medelam.
May the sacramental mysteries which we have received, O Lord,
afford us help,
that our fasts may be pleasing to You,
and may be profitable for us unto a remedy.
I am delighted that in the 2002 Missale the tradition of the "Prayer over the people" was revived in Lent. This is an important custom.
The origin of the Oratio super populum is quite complex and hard to pin down. Turning to Fr. Joseph A. Jungmann’s monumental two volume The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development we find a history of this prayer at the beginning of the section concerning the close of the Mass (II, pp. 427ff). Something Jungmann emphasizes that caught my attention is the fact that we are at a “frontier” moment, the threshold of the sacred precinct of the church and the world. When properly formed we want the influence of our intimate contact with the divine to carry over into the outside world. The use of this prayer is very ancient, found in both the Eastern liturgies of Syria and Egypt and in the West.
Unlike the Postcommunio, the object of the prayer is not “us”. Instead, the priest prayers for and over the people, not including himself as he does in the prayer after Communion.
By the time of Pope Gregory the Great this was only in the Lenten season, probably because this is perceived to be a time of greater spiritual combat requiring more blessings. Indeed it was extremely important for those who were not receiving Holy Communion, as was the case of those doing public penance before the Church, the ordo poenitentium.
How important was this prayer to the Romans? In 545, when Pope Vigilius (537-55) was conducting the station Mass at St. Cecilia in Trastevere, troops of the pro-Monophysite Byzantine Emperor Justinian arrived after Communion to take the Pope into custody and conduct him to Constantinople. The people followed them to the ship and demanded “ut orationem ab eo acciperent… the they should receive the blessing prayer from him”. The Pope recited it, the people said “Amen” and off went Vigilius who would return to Rome only after his death.
ORATIO SUPER POPULUM:
Super inclinantes se tuae maiestati, Deus,
spiritum compunctionis propitius effunde,
ut praemia paenitentibus repromissa
misericorditer consequi mereantur.
Who wants to take a crack at it?
As we begin our Lenten observance, like a soldier on the march, on a mission from your great Captain, be sure you have your objectives clearly defined. Get clear in your head whatever strategies and tactics will win for you your prize.