1st Sunday of Advent

What Does the Prayer Really Say? 1st Sunday of Advent

Each year the Church through the liturgy presents the history of our salvation and the mysteries of the life, death, resurrection and the return of the Lord. Each year we are a little different, so these mysteries touch us in a fresh way. The Church shapes us through the prayers of Mass and we in turn shape the word around us. We need to know what the Church is praying so that we can pray with her and through her and thus be formed by her. The Western Church’s liturgy is officially in the Latin language, though we all know how and when we got the vernacular. We also know that the vernacular is here to stay. So, our translations now bear the burden of what the Church desires through divine inspiration and centuries of human wisdom to convey. The translations had better be good. They need to reflect what the Church’s prayers really say with both unswerving accuracy and memorable beauty. But we know that the translations are not yet up to par. They need to be rethought and reworked. In the meantime, we can still carefully explore what the prayer really says. This we have done each week for a year already with the collect, the opening prayer, of the Mass. With the coming of a new liturgical year, we come to examine the next proper prayer of the Mass, the super oblata or, as ICEL calls it, the “Prayer over the gifts.” It can be called the “offertory prayer” also.

Just as in the Mass we have an entrance procession followed by a proper prayer, so to after the procession that brings our sacrifices to the altar and the priest there is a proper prayer. This is the prayer which in the older, traditional, form of the Mass was called the Secret, for it was recited silently. The super oblata prayer concludes the offering of material gifts and their placement on the altar. In the ancient Church, and also today in more solemn liturgy, there was an elaborate procession whereby the subdeacons and deacons would bring forward from the congregation many material sacrificial offerings, including bread, wine, money, other food and objects for the poor, etc. Already by the time of the very early Leonine Sacramentary the prayers contained obvious words for gifts and sacrifices (dona, munera, oblationem). We will see those words all the time in these prayers. The super oblata follow the general structure of a prayer of petition: we offer things up so that God’s grace may come down on us. Another thing, you will see that the prayer is made in the first person plural: we. The whole congregation is speaking in the person of the mediator at the altar, the priest.


LATIN (2002 Missale Romanum):
Suscipe, quaesumus, Domine, munera
quae de tuis offerimus collata beneficiis,
et, quod nostrae devotioni concedis effici temporali,
tuae nobis fiat praemium redemptionis aeternae.

We find here a wonderful scrambling of word order for rhetorical effect. Words that go together are separated and concepts imbedded in between them…. quae de tuis offerimus collata beneficiis…nostrae devotioni concedis effici temporali… tuae nobis fiat praemium redemptionis aeternae. This interlocking of the words reflects how the concepts within are all interconnected. We consider them one at a time, but we can strive to hold them simultaneously as we juggle them in our minds. Latin is wonderful for that… it makes you wait and keep everything in the air while you wait for the concluding word which can change everything!

O Lord, we beg you, take the gifts,
gathered together from your favors, which we are offering,
and, let that which you grant to be done by our temporal focused dedication
become for us the reward of your eternal redemption.

The first meaning of the irregular verb confero, contuli, collatum is “to collect, gather together” and by extension it means “unite, join” and thence “to bring together for comparison” (this is where the abbreviation “cf.” comes from, meaning “compare with”). Beneficium means in the useful Lewis & Short Dictionary “kindness, benefit, favor, service” and so forth. It is rarely used in the plural in classical Latin and is done so usually when it means “military promotions” or privileges or rights such as come from bestowal of land. You will remember from your history of the Church the various controversies over “benefices.” Also, we Catholics often are heard to use a familiar prayer after meals: “We give The thanks, O Lord, for these and all the benefits (pro universis beneficiis tuis) which we have received from Thy bounty.” The word comes from a composite of bene with facere: to do well for/by someone or something. I kindly refer you (“cf.” – confer) past columns of WDTPRS for more on the rich word devotio.

Father, from all you give us
we present this bread and wine.
As we serve you now,
accept our offering
and sustain us with your promise of eternal life.

Perhaps the translators here determined to emphasis the “meal” aspect of the Mass rather than the “sacrificial” dimension. Note their choice of vocabulary – “bread and wine” rather than the original “gifts gathered” from God’s blessings. It seems to me that the Latin text allows us to have an image of more than bread and wine. At the offertory of Mass we can offer may different things to God, material and spiritual. However, if we want to stick to the obvious and have munera oblata simply mean bread and wine (a reasonable assumption given the context, the Latin is still richer. It brings to my mind the image of laborers in the fields and vineyards reaping what their own labor and God’s blessings have produced. Whereas the ICEL version says something that isn’t in the Latin prayer at all, the Latin makes simultaneously a strong distinction and connection of what is temporal and earthly with what is from God. The ICEL prayer uses, in my opinion, “meal” vocabulary by choosing to interpolate the concept “sustain” as in the “sustenance” we need, our daily bread, as it were. In the Latin we have a powerful juxtaposition of what we do and what God does, not to “sustain” us with a “promise” but rather to give back to God what God already gave and have that be entirely transformed (fiat) into the “reward of eternal salvation” itself… or rather Himself. The structure of the prayer itself and the complex way that it weaves the words that go together grammatically in and out of other concepts is a hint at what the prayer is really trying to say.

Remember our context, too. This is the beginning of Advent, the preparation for the coming of the Lord. Advent is back to back with the observance of the Lord’s final coming at the end of the world. Advent is a time of penance before celebration of the anniversary of first coming of the Infant King. Advent is a liminal season that blends the end of the world with its rebirth in the new Adam. It is all about how the Lord comes… in every way. He also comes in actual graces. He comes at the words of the priest…Hoc est enim corpus meum….This is my Body. He comes to us in Holy Communion. He comes to us in the person of the needy. This is a time to make straight His paths, for He is truly coming. He will straighten the paths His own way if we do not take care to straighten them beforehand. Thus, our Super oblata prayer today reminds us that we must give back to Him good things which were already His, transformed also by our focused dedication. He Himself is the reward for our efforts.

Some feedback: In WDTPRS for the 33rd Sunday in reference to the phrase in tua semper devotione gaudere I had mentioned that tua might possibly have been an neuter plural. The vigilant Fr. GW of MN challenged me saying that were it neuter plural it would need to be tuis with the prepositions in taking the ablative. Well, he is right. But so was I. In can be construed with either ablative or accusative. When used with the accusative it can be used for place (into, into the midst of), direction (towards), time (into, for), manner (in, after) and also purpose, as in “about, respecting, with a view to” or simply “for.” So, GW is right and so am I. He is righter, however: in the kind of Latin used in a liturgical prayer, it would have to be tuis.

I would be remiss were I not to mention the recently concluded meeting of the bishops of the United States in their plenary session in Washington, D.C. They discussed at length the issue of liturgical translations and specifically the document from the CDW entitled Liturgiam authenticam (LA). The issue seems to have been settled, at least as far as that meeting is concerned. I think LA will be implemented, in time. There will be lots of whining, but in the end it will happen. Something in our control is when it will be implemented. Cardinal George, during the meeting of bishops, made the point to the grousers that even though LA has some difficult points and drawbacks, that in no way delegitmize the document. The fact is that the document calls for action. So, quipped His Eminence, we need some texts. And, lest it be forgotten, LA applies to more than just the Missale Romanum. It applies also to the Lectionary, the Ceremonial for Bishops, the critically important and highly controverted Rites for Ordination of Bishops, Priests and Deacons and many more besides.. The Mass is the most immediate for most people, but the other texts are also important.

We are coming to a new liturgical season and liturgical year. Let us pray that this upcoming season of preparation for the coming of the Lord at Christmas will bring us and our loved one many blessings.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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