We’ve come around again to the 1st Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year.
This year, after years and years of waiting and desiring, we have a new, improved, corrected English translation.
The new translation is not perfect, but it is a vast improvement. Happily, most of us will never have to hear the old translation again.
In the newer, post-Conciliar calendar this Sunday is back to back with the Solemnity of Christ the King, honoring the future Second Coming at the end of the world, even while Advent prepares us for celebrating His First Coming at Christmas.
Advent is all about how the Lord comes… in every way. He comes in actual graces. He comes when the priest says, “Hoc est enim corpus meum….This is my Body.” He comes in Holy Communion and in the person of the needy. “Make straight the paths!”, the liturgy of Advent cries out with the words of Isaiah and John the Baptist.
As we begin Advent, perhaps you would do well to remember that when the Lord comes, He is going to come by a straight path whether you have done your best to straighten it ahead of time or not. He will do the straightening for you, one way or another. Better to start doing now, don’t you think?
Let us drill into the very first oration of our liturgical year, according to the Novus Ordo or Ordinary Form
This is a new prayer for the Novus Ordo but based on ancient prayer from the so-called “Gelasian Sacramentary”.
Da, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus,
hanc tuis fidelibus voluntatem,
ut, Christo tuo venienti iustis operibus occurrentes,
eius dextrae sociati, regnum mereantur possidere caeleste.
The prestigious Lewis & Short Dictionary says that voluntas is basically, “will, freewill, wish, choice, desire, inclination”, but in our collect I think it has also the nuance of a “disposition” toward a thing or person. Occurro is, “to run up to, run to meet” and the deponent verb mereor, “to deserve, merit, to be entitled to, be worthy of a thing”. The usually active socio, “to join or unite together, to associate; to do or hold in common, to share a thing with another”, has a “middle” impact in this passive construction with the dative.
SLAVISHLY LITERAL WDTPRS 2000 RENDERING:
Almighty God, we beseech You, grant
to Your faithful this (disposition of) will,
that those rushing with just works to meet Your Christ, now coming,
united at His right hand may merit to possess the heavenly kingdom.
NOW OBSOLETE NEVER-TO-BE-HEARD AGAIN ICEL (1973):
increase our strength of will for doing good
that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming
and call us to his side in the kingdom of heaven.
Sigh…. One. More. Year.
NEW CORRECTED ICEL VERSION (2011):
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that, gathered at his right hand,
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.
It can be hard to get certain constructions from Latin into English. The “Christo tuo venienti” with its present active participle is one of them. The present or, better here, contemporary participle has the time of the verb of the main clause. It describes “Your Christ” in the very act of “coming”. We can do that as “Your Christ who is coming” rather than “Your Christ-right-now-in-the-process-of-coming” or the awkward “Your coming Christ”. We are rushing forward (occurrentes) and smoothing the path for the feet of our King. This requires work, just works, just by their origin, Christ Himself. When even in this life we are united to the right hand of Christ (dextrae sociati) our works are truly ours but also truly His and we merit heaven. The image of the “right hand”, the Biblical place of honor, points to the eternal glory of God and the inauguration of the Messianic kingdom… regnum…celeste to which we look forward even as we look back to His First Coming (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 663-4).
There may be a current of Matthew 25 flowing into this prayer, with its parables of the wise and foolish virgins, waiting for the Bridegroom to come, and image of the Lord’s right hand, where we hope to be gathered after the separation of the goats from the sheep. Both parables have to do with the coming of the Lord, as Bridegroom and as Judge.
A Protestant or fundamentalist Christian would not say this prayer with its “just works”, its “meriting”, its “disposition”. What does “disposition of will” (voluntas) mean for us fallen humans? Protestants think our nature is wholly corrupt and so our disposition must be entirely evil. But we know man is wounded by the Fall, not wholly corrupted. Protestants believe anything good in us must be imposed from outside through the “alien merits” of Christ. Is the voluntas we are begging in the prayer going to be our will or someone else’s will covering us over? The prayer doesn’t say if the voluntas is God’s or ours.
Once we are baptized and live in the state of grace, we are New Creations and God the Holy Trinity is at work in us. Our cooperation with God’s gift of faith through good works saves us, not “faith alone” or a mere “covering over”. A proper interior “disposition of will” is made possible and given by God but after that it is really ours. Our works do not by themselves merit anything, but once we are transformed and renewed by sanctifying grace, “united at His right hand” already in this life, our work on earth merits the increase of grace and the reward of heaven because they are His while they are ours.
Thomas de Vio Card. Caietanus (Cajetan +1534) explained to Martin Luther (+1546) that, when we say that we “merit”, we are saying that Christ merits in us (cf. De fide et operibus, 12). St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) preached that, “When God crowns our merits (merita), He crowns nothing other than His own gifts (munera)” (ep. 194, 5, 19). We merit salvation on the foundation of habitual, sanctifying grace, through the virtuous works which we perform. His will becomes our sole desire.
How rich is this prayer!
This is how we begin our year, suffused with the language of deep humility: “Grant, we beseech You….”