2nd Sunday of Lent: SUPER OBLATA (1)

What Does the Prayer Really Say?  Second Sunday of Lent – Station: St Mary in Domnica alla Navicella

ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2002

At the time of this writing the Winter Olympics are in full swing.  The schizophrenic but nevertheless spectacular opening night ceremonies included a new “theme” (why do they need a theme?) by the composer John Williams, who did the scores for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, et. al. The music filled my head with visions of whip wielding athletes on skis in spaceships and on flying bicycles chasing the Ark of the Covenant.  Still it was nice to hear some Latin that evening: the motto of the Olympics is Citius – Altius – Fortius… Swifter – Higher – Stronger.  The gold-medalist of Latin dictionaries, our Lewis & Short, tells us that altus derives from the verb alo, “to grow, nourish, raise up.”  Thus, altus (of which altius is a comparative) means “higher.”  It also means “deeper”.  Of the announcers on TV who talked about the Latin words it was easy to tell which were Catholic.  They used the Italianate pronunciation with its soft consonants (chi-tsee-oos) while others (non-Catholics?) used a version of the restored classical pronunciation (kee-tee-oos…etc.). 

This is the XIXth round of the Winter Olympics.  Olympiads were once a unit of measuring time.  The ancient Greeks used to calculate the passage of years according to the four year period between their athletic games, which were highly religious events as well.  We are not sure exactly when these religious games started but by 776 B.C. they were held every four years in Olympia, Greece.  In the beginning, they have just one race, a sprint, for the prize of a laurel or olive wreath – a crown of glory. By 500 B.C. the were more disciplines such as boxing and wrestling as well as races on foot in armor and in chariots drawn by mules.  There was no Gen-Xer snow-boarding, I’m afraid, though I can imagine that the crash and impact potential of a hurtling chariot drawn by one of natures most unpredictable critters might have been a thrill too.  By A.D. 100 A.D. the prizes were richer and thus bribery, corruption and boycotts swiftly followed.   This will sound familiar to anyone who watches the pair’s figure skating events.  In A.D. 393 the Emperor Theodosius banned the ancient Olympic games in order to discourage pagan worship.  Now they are back … and so is paganism, at least in the opening ceremonies this year. 

What does all this have to do with the liturgy?  Each year when you go to church on Christmas Eve you hear a selection sung (hopefully but doubtfully in Latin) from the Roman Martyrology which announces the birth of Christ.  Because in the ancient world dating was not standard, it was necessary to list many different items so that by over lapping enough of them you could get a relatively accurate idea of when something took place.  Thus, dating always included who the consuls were in Rome, the number of years after Rome was founded (ab Urbe cóndita… not condíta), who might have been pro-consul or governor in a province, what event might have taken place that year, and so forth.  In the Roman Martyology we hear that Christ was born during a four year period – Olympiade centesima nonagesima quarta…during the 194th Olympiad.  As I mentioned in a previous WDTPRS, the Martyrologium Romanum is one of the liturgical books that will need an English translation according to the guidelines in the Congregation for Divine Worship’s document Liturgiam authenticam.  The newest edition of the Martyrologium has been released in Latin in a handsome red binding with silk ribbons.  It includes the more recently canonized saints and blessed and thus is a real treasure.


LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum):
Haec hostia, Domine, quaesumus, emundet nostra delicta,
et ad celebranda festa paschalia
fidelium tuorum corpora mentesque sanctificet.

This is a variation of the secret prayer for Quinquagesima Sunday in the 1962 edition of the Missale Romanum:  Haec hostia, Domine, quaesumus: emundet nostra delicta: et ad sacrificium celebrandum, subditorum tibi corpora, mentesque sanctificet.   It strikes me as very odd indeed to lift a secret from a pre-Lenten Sunday and insert it into the texts for the Second Sunday of Lent.  Why not just take the secret for the Second Sunday of Lent? 

Let this sacrificial offering cleanse our sins, we beg, O Lord,
and for celebrating the paschal feasts
let it sanctify the bodies and minds of Thy faithful.

There are different ways to render that gerundive ad celebranda festa paschalia.  There are more than fifteen distinct constructions to purpose in Latin, and this is one of them.  Thus, we could say, “in order to celebrate the paschal feasts”.   We might tease it out a little and says something like, “Sanctify …minds and bodies … unto the paschal feasts that are to be celebrated.”  That retains something of the passive dimension of the gerundive with its characteristic –nd- form.  I prefer the simpler approach, “for celebrating the paschal feast.” 

Perhaps because of the images so fresh in my mind right now, of rocketing luges, the earnest Picabo Street (not exactly a traditional saint’s name, is it), furiously sweeping curlers and zooming speedskaters, this language of this super oblata reminds me of the famous phrase mens sana in corpore sano…a healthy mind in a healthy body.  This phrase comes probably from the Latin writer Juvenal: Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano… “A healthy/sound mind in a healthy/sound body is something to be prayed for.”  There is our –nd- form again.  In turn this may be inspired by Homer’s “A faultless body and a blameless mind” (Odyssey III, 138 – trans. Pope).   This theme was a constant topos among ancient philosophers, such as the Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – A.D. 65): “Hold fast to this sound and wholesome rule of life: that you indulge the body only so far as is needful for good health.  The body should be treated rigorously, that it may not be disobedient to the mind” (Ep. 7, 5 – ad Lucilium).

We humans are persons having both body and soul.  We are not like the angels, persons having only soul.  So great is the bond between body and soul that when the one is separated from the other and we die, the human soul awaits the moment when it will once again (using philosophical language) inform matter and we shall rise from death anew, some to the glorious happiness of heaven and some to eternal separation from God in hell.  It is our state at the time of death that determines our destiny.  If we die in God’s friendship, we enjoy heaven.  If we die separated from God’s friendship….  Thus, the way we live prepares us for the way we die.  If athletes need dedication and discipline to achieve perfection in their fields, how much more is dedication and discipline required in the spiritual struggle?

Because of the fall of our first parents in the Original Sin of rebellion against God, we lost the opportunity not to die.  We are now compelled to pass through the gates of death.  We also have wounds to our intellects and wills.  Our appetites are not easy to control and channel.  It takes great discipline over time to develop virtues and master our passions.  The flesh urges us in directions that are not good for us spiritually.  We long for things that are quite often in themselves good things, but we want them for the wrong reason, at the wrong times, to the wrong extent, in the wrong way.  Thus, it is necessary for us all to exercise self-control – itself a thing that must be learned through self-denial.   This is one of the reasons why Holy Mother Church gives us a law that Catholics must do penance on all Fridays of the year and during the season of Lent.  We use the Lenten season in particular as a way of preparing ourselves to celebrated properly the great feast of Easter and the resurrection.  The period of self-denial helps us to master our faults that hold us back or even damn us spiritually and also, psychologically, makes Easter that much more wonderful.  This Lenten project of ours must involve both physical and spiritual discipline.

make us holy.
May this eucharist take away our sins
that we may be prepared
to celebrate the resurrection.

It is true that the Eucharist is the summit of all the sacraments, even the sacrament by which sins are forgiven.  In the Eucharist we receive forgiveness for venial sins.  However, in my opinion the language of this ICEL version is ambiguous enough that some listeners might be left with the impression that all their sins, mortal sins too, are forgiven simply by receiving Holy Communion.  In the Latin version there is a different quality to the prayer: “Let this sacrificial offering cleanse our sins, we beg, O Lord,…” includes the element of sacrifice, namely Christ’s once-for-all self-offering on the Cross for our sins.  We believe that it was by this Sacrifice that Christ took every sin ever committed or that would ever be committed and in His own self-oblation became the payment and restitution to the Father for those sins.  In the Sacrifice of the Mass we renew this saving event, recognizing it as the source of forgiveness.  At the same time we remain acutely aware that Christ established not only the Eucharist at the Last Supper in the context of His Passion and Calvary, He also established the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation.  Just as He gave the Twelve that those that would succeed and collaborate with them the power to change bread and wine into His Body and Blood, so too He also gave them the power to forgive in His own name the sins that people would confess to them.  Confession of sins to a priest who has faculties from the Church to forgive them is the ordinary way that Jesus Christ wanted us to receive that forgiveness that actually cleanses those sins from our souls.   Confession is an integral part of our Lenten journey.

The blessed apostle Paul describes different aspects of the Christian life using terms directly derived from the Greek sporting events of his time.  Other apostles use this same imagery as well. Is it too hard to imagine from Whom they learned it?   In 1 Peter 5:4 we find: “When the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory.”  The letter of the apostle James says: “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.”  The beloved apostle John writes in his Apocalypse 3:11:  “I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.”  Paul admonishes us in 2 Timothy 4:6-8:

For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

During this Lent we can take to heart the adage that drives athletes today.  In performing spiritual and corporal works of mercy we can be citius…swifter.  In examining our consciences we can be altius… deeper.  In exercising control and watchfulness regarding things of the flesh we can be fortius…stronger and win an unfading crown of glory.     

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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