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 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.
Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Father in Heaven,
Protect us in our struggle against evil.
As we begin the discipline of Lent,
make this season holy by our self-denial.