Here is a glimpse into the Collect for this upcoming Sunday.
Last week in the Collect we were rushing to meet the Lord who is coming. We merited our reward due to good works because they are made meritorious by Christ. During Advent, as the Baptist warns us, we are to make smooth the path for the coming of the Lord, especially the Second Coming. This week we are again rushing.
Perhaps we are wiser this week.
After the first rush of excitement we are now also wary of obstacles on that path which could impede us, snare our feet. These would be our merely human, simply worldly, works.
Lest any “über-trad” think today’s Collect is insufficiently Catholic because it isn’t old enough, or wasn’t in the 1570 Missale Romanum, it is from 8th century the Gelasian Sacramentary.
Omnipotens et misericors Deus,
in tui occursum Filii festinantes
nulla opera terreni actus impediant,
sed sapientiae caelestis eruditio
nos faciat eius esse consortes.
Actus means, “an act or action” but also, “the moving or driving of an object, impulse.” Impedio (built from the word pes, pedis, “foot”) is “to snare or tangle the feet”. Sapientia means “wisdom”. In Christian contexts, especially of the Early Church, Wisdom is simply loaded with different overtones from theology and philosophy (philosophia, “love of wisdom”). The Bible has a group of writings called “Wisdom literature” which were, according to the Fathers of the Church, filled with foreshadows of Christ who is identified with Wisdom. The phrase faciat eius esse consortes calls to mind both the Collect prayer in Mass for Christmas Day and also the priest’s prayer when preparing the chalice at the offertory. A consors is someone with (cvm) whom you share your lot (sors). This is at the heart of today’s Collect prayer. Remember: Deus, “God”, is declined irregularly and in solemn discourse the nominative is used as the vocative form (e.g. cf. Livy 1, 24, 7). Do not, as the OBSOLETE ICEL translators did, fall into the trap of thinking that Deus is the subject of the verbs. The subjects are plural opera and singular eruditio.
Almighty and merciful God,
let no works of worldly impulse impede
those hurrying to the meeting of Your Son,
but rather let the learning of heavenly wisdom
make us to be His partakers.
OBSOLETE ICEL (1973):
God of power and mercy,
open our hearts in welcome.
Remove the things that hinder us
from receiving Christ with joy,
so that we may share his wisdom
and become one with him
when he comes in glory.
NEW CORRECTED ICEL (2011):
Almighty and merciful God,
may no earthly undertaking hinder those
who set out in haste to meet your Son,
but may our learning of heavenly wisdom
gain us admittance to his company.
Works not performed in Christ are “works of worldly impulse”. They are not meritorious for heaven.
There is a sharp contrast between heavenly Wisdom which liberates and worldly “wisdom” which entangles. The Apostle St. Paul contrasts the wisdom of this world with the Wisdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 1:20; 3:19; 2 Cor 3:19). In Romans 12:2 Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
This is not just a Pauline concept. Compare our Collect also with 2 Peter 1:3-4 (RSV):
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge (cognitio: cf. eruditio) of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature (efficiamini divinae consortes).”
St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) dismantled a Donatist heresy that priests ordained by a sinful bishop would be automatically stained in the same guilt. He used imagery like that of our prayer today (Ad Donatistas post collationem in CSEL 53:19.25, p. 123 my translation):
“The sludge (lutum) their feet are stuck in is so thick and dense that, trying in vain to tear themselves out of it, they get their hands and head stuck in it too, and lingering in that sticky mess they get more tightly enveloped.”
The Donatist argument was based in worldly, not heavenly, wisdom.
Sticky lutum is a metaphor of worldly life.
Neglecting God, who speaks in the Church and our conscience, we weak sinners can convince ourselves of anything, over time: down becomes up, back is made front, black turns into white, and wrong is really right. We justify what we know, or knew, to be sinful. Once this becomes a habit, it is a vice in more than one sense of that word.
Occasionally our consciences will struggle against the grip of self-deception, but quite often the proverbial “Struggle”, Novocain for the conscience, supplies permission: “I really ‘struggled’ with this, … before I did it!”
If we go off the true path into the murky twisted woods, thoroughly mired in sticky error we will not escape the Enemy, the roaring lion seeking whom he might devour (1 Peter 5:8).
Nor will we elude Christ the Judge, who will come through dark woods by straight paths.
Advent reminds us to prepare for the coming of both the Enemy lion and the Lion of Judah who will open the seals and read forth the Book of Life (Rev 5:5).