ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN THE WANDERER in January 2001
What Does the Prayer Really Say? Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
On Sunday 7 January we celebrated the Epiphany of the Lord, a day traditionally associated with three events in the Lord’s earthly life: the coming of the Magi, His baptism by John in the Jordan, and the changing of water to wine at Cana during the wedding feast. We observed the Baptism of the Lord on Monday the 8th since Epiphany supplanted it from the Sunday. We have the Cana event today.
We have moved into what is called “Ordinary Time”, the Sundays of the Church’s liturgical year that do not have a specific festal or penitential meaning. We wear the green of hope in this season. Each Sunday, however, remains an echo of Easter. Before the reform of the Roman calendar, this time was once called the Season of Epiphany and the Sundays were called the Sundays after Epiphany. It was a cycle of transition toward Lent. Liturgical books once called the Sundays after Epiphany and the Sundays after Pentecost the tempus per annum… the time through the year. This terminology has remained even though both these non-festal seasons form two parts of “Ordinary Time”. So, we enter into that period of the Church’s calendar that stretches from the adoration of kings and shepherds at the feet of the infant King to the end of the year and the solemn feast of Christ the King, the King of fearful majesty who will come as judge and will separate the goats from the sheep and usher in the unending reign of peace.
LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum)Omnipotens sempiterne Deus,
qui caelestia simul et terrena moderaris,
supplicationibus populi tui clementer exaudi,
et pacem tuam nostris concede temporibus.
LITERAL TRANSLATION:Almighty eternal God,
who governs heavenly and earthly things at the same time,
mercifully give ear to the supplications of your people,
and grant your peace in our temporal affairs.
Our wonderful Lewis & Short Dictionary lets us know that simul et is the equivalent of simul etiam and means “and at the same time, and also”. It connects two or more co-ordinate terms or facts and represents them as simultaneous. Moderor, a deponent verb (it has a passive form but an active meaning) means to manage, regulate, rule, guide, govern, direct. The word moderator is what we use in Latin for people like the state governor or the president of the United States: governing officials. (A gubernator was the steersman or pilot of a sailing ship. One thinks of the “ship of state”, but I digress….). When we pray these prayers in Latin we usually ask God to pay attention to us in some way, usually by “hearing” us. Different words are used for this in Latin and though they mean subtly different things, they are all pretty much the same thing. A good example is the beginning of one of the Litanies in Latin. Christe audi nos… Christe exaudi nos… which is often translated as “Christ hear us… Christ graciously hear us.” The choice of one word or another may have as much to do with the sound and rhythm it creates as anything else. Exaudio means “listen to” in the sense of “harken, perceive clearly.” There is a greater urgency to exaudi (an imperative, or command form) than in the simple audi. I like “harken.” Also, we are asking eternal and omnipotent God Creator of the universe to listen to us little finite sinful creatures in a manner that is not only attentive but also patient and indulgent. That word clementer, an adverb from clemens, means among other things, “Mild in respect to the faults and failures of others, i.e. forbearing, indulgent, compassionate, merciful.” (The Lewis & Short Dictionary is truly useful. Everyone should have a copy. You can get it through the WDTPRS BOOKSTORE.) In the religious language of the ancient Romans supplicatio was a public prayer or supplication, a religious solemnity in consequence of certain (fortunate or unfortunate) public events. A supplication was a day set apart for prayer, either by way of thanksgiving or of religious humiliation and genuflection. Supplicatio is a compound of plico, meaning “to bend or fold”. Here the bending refers to the body, head or the knee to the ground in humble petition. So, we have a phrase that runs something like, “in an indulgent manner graciously pay close attention to the humble petitions of your people, bent down in prayer.”
Going on now… if you are like me, when you hear the end of this prayer, and that word temporibus (from tempus; neuter plural: tempora) in this context you think of the famous utterance of M. Tullius Cicero in his first oration against Catilina: O tempora! O mores! Mores comes from mos, and we get our English word “mores”, meaning custom, fashion, modes of behavior, moral attitudes. You could say “What times these are! What a state of affairs!” And we are indeed in quite a state of affairs in this world today, are we not? Tempus is a word with many significations: “time in general, or a season of time; the state of the times, position, state, condition; circumstances.” It can also be “the appointed time, the right season, an opportunity (Greek kairos)”. In the plural tempora gives us the word for the “temples” of sides of our heads. The word “temporal” ultimately derives from tempus and it often indicates worldly or earthly things, material things, as opposed to eternal or spiritual. Clearly, in this prayer we are begging God, in His role as disposer of all things, not merely for peace, but rather His peace in our temporal affairs. We want peace now, not just later. But that peace must come from Him. We have confidence that He will give us this peace, for Christ said that He was giving it to us. In Holy Mass the priest, before the entirely optional sign of peace, repeats the words of Christ, “Pacem relinquo vobis, pacem meam do vobis… Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:26-28).
There is a great difference between the peace in the way that the world can offer, and the peace that God can offer. The former is passing and fragile, always susceptible to loss. The later is lasting, enduring, solid and dependable. God knew each one of us outside of time, before the creation of both the visible and invisible universe. He calls us into being according to His plan at precise moments in time. He gives us talents and work to fulfill with them. He aids us with actual graces. God knows our needs and we turn to Him in this prayer, in our troubled times in this earthly journey asking for the only peace that can make final sense of what we experience here. The peace we ask for, we ask from His mercy. He is the only source of this peace. Our sins lost it for us but it’s possibility has been restored through the merits of Christ. Thus, we ask humbly, begging His patience indulgence with our knees bent, our foreheads to the ground, our bodies together with our wills bent in supplication.
Father of heaven and earth,
hear our prayers, and show us the way
to peace in the world.
Some time ago I made mention of the fact that the ICEL versions of the prayers for the festal seasons of Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter were somewhat better than those of Ordinary Time. We now have the opportunity to explore whether that is true or not. From the onset we notice something fairly significant: the ICEL prayer is shorter than the Latin version. Big deal? Well… it is an hint that something might not be right. Usually when you take a Latin text and put it into English, the English will be considerably longer than the Latin by the time you are done. When you see an English prayer shorter than the Latin red flags and loud alarm bells should go off in your wary minds.
To the prayer… it is a bit terse and not exactly inspiring in its poetic flare. It seems utilitarian. Yes, God the Father, is Father of heaven and earth. That is not, however, what the Latin prayer says, is it? The Latin says, “Almighty eternal God.” God governs and disposes all heavenly and earthly things. We can say “Father,” I guess for this prayer is addressed to the First Person of the Trinity, and understand that God is God of everything. Fine. But that shorthanded saying it seem just a sterile minimalism. Besides: that is not what the Latin prayer really says. I would say the same goes for, “hear our prayers.” This is a serious reduction of even the reduced form I gave in my literal version: “mercifully give ear to the supplications of your people. There is no discernable, or at least clearly expressed, humility. In the Latin, we are cast down, bent in prayer, asking the almighty God, to give a little attention in an indulgent way. There is a recognition of our status in the Latin that the ICEL doesn’t give. This is further evidenced in our request for God simply to “show us the way” to peace. I may be off base here, but what I get from this prayer is that we are asking God to point the way to a peace that is peace of our making in the world. Is that being too hard on the prayer? Clearly in the Latin prayer we are praying for the peace that only God can give. Here I get the sense that we are focused on the peace that we can create in the world and we merely need a little pointer or two from God so we can do it ourselves. I don’t think that the Latin prayer in any way removes from us either hard work or responsibility for bringing about Christ’s peace in the world. But I ask myself if the ICEL version isn’t a bit to self-secure. Perhaps others will hear in the ICEL version more of what the Latin says than I do. I can be teased out, I suppose. But, to be very concrete, I must ask: does it accurately render what the Latin says?
So, the ICEL version in our first taste of a collect in Ordinary Time, isn’t entirely successful. It is not my intention to pick at it too much, of course. My observations urge me to remind you the reader that someday we are going to need new English translations of liturgical texts. This will be the responsibility of the bishops and the Holy See. The task of translating the prayers is not exactly easy. Thus, they need our prayerful support and positive urging and input. Never forget when reading this column to say a prayer for our bishops and ask the Holy Spirit to guide them in their challenging mandate.