Friday in the 5th Week of Lent

Absolve, quaesumus,
Domine, tuorum delicta populorum,
ut a peccatorum nexibus,
quae pro nostra fragilitate contraximus,
tua benignitate liberemur.

In the pre-Conciliar Missale Romanum this prayer was the Collect of the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost.  In the ancient Veronese Sacramentary it wAbsolutionas found in the month of September, a fast time, but it was a bit different: Absolue, domine, quaesumus, tuorum delicta populorum, et quod mortalitatis contrahit fragilitate purifica; ut cuncta pericula mentis et corporis te propellente declinans, tua consolatione subsistat, tua graita promissae redemptionis perficiatur hereditas.

A nexus, from necto ("to bind, tie, fasten; to join, bind, or fasten together, connect"), is "a tying or binding together, a fastening, joining, an interlacing, entwining, clasping" and thence, "a personal obligation, an addiction or voluntary assignment of the person for debt, slavery for debt".  Nexus is used to indicate also "a legal obligation of any kind".  It is not uncommon to find somehwere near nexus the word absolvo, which is "to loosen from, to make loose, set free, detach, untie".  In juridical language it means "to absolve from a charge, to acquit, declare innocent".   Here is a truly fascinating piece from the mighty Lewis & Short Dictionary: "to bring a work to a close, to complete, finish (without denoting intrinsic excellence, like perficere; the fig. is prob. derived from detaching a finished web from the loom"

Contraho in this context is "to bring about, carry into effect, accomplish, execute, get, contract, occasion, cause, produce, make".  Blaise/Dumas indicates that contraho means "to commit sin".  

Unloose, O Lord, we implore,
the transgressions of Your peoples,
so that in Your kindness we may be freed
from the bonds of the sins
which we committed on account of our weakness.

WebThink of sin as a web which we both weave and then get caught it.  As Hamlet says the engineer is "hoist with his own petard".  When our First Parents comitted the Original Sin, they contracted (contraho) the guilt and effects for the whole human race.  At that point our race was bound by justice.   To be "justified" again, and to be unbound from our guilt and set to right with God, reparation had to be made.  Thus, the New Adam allowed Himself to be bound by His tormentors, and be bound to the Cross, and then unbind His soul from His Body and die.  

The Sacrifice of the Lord was aimed not just at a few chosen or privileged people.  It was for all peoples.  The Sacrifice was "for all", though "all" will not accept its effects.  Some will refuse what Christ did to free us from our sins and the punishments of eternal hell they deserve.  "Many" will be saved as a result of Christ’s Passion and Death.  Which side of the reckoning will you be on.

Returning to the image of the loom, which is woven into today’s vocabulary, I have in mind the incredible phrase from the Book of Job: "My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to their end without hope.  Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good."

Our days are indeed like a shuttle.  Some years ago I met a women who woven cloth with a large loom.  She showed me how it worked.  In her practiced hands, the shuttle lashed swiftly back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, while the loom packed the threads together.  The cloth "grew" as it was woven, slowly, but surely.  But the shuttle snapped back and forth with increasing speed as she found her rhythm and settled into it. 

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    ICEL version:
    grant us your forgiveness
    and set us free from our enslavement to sin.

    It’s not every day that you get a chance to see said in 14 English words what took 18 carefully crafted Latin words to say (and what it took poor Father Z a total of 33 words to translate with his slavish accuracy). Or is something left out? “You be the judge.” But it seems to me that God’s love for us (or His kindness) in setting us free is important in the original prayer (as well as to us, of course), and might well have been mentioned explicitly.

  2. martin says:

    Yes, Henry, both the cause of sin (our frailty) and the motive for liberation (God’s love) have been suppressed here. I was reflecting on what used to be a commonplace translation of “peccatorum nexus”: “the toils of sin”. The english word “toils” (mostly found in the plural) is connected with the french word “toile” which is just a kind of cloth; the remote derivation is the Latin “tela” or “web”, and toils were a system of nets fixed on posts into which game were driven (wild boar, typically). There was always the word assocation with coils and the statue of Laocoon (in the Pio-Clementine museum, as it happens) which always interrupted my train of thought when thinking about “toils”.

    But as Fr. Z. shows, the legal imagery is strong in this prayer, rather than us as Satan’s quarry. “nexus”, “absolvere”, “contrahere” as well as “delictum” (“tort” in the common law)all have a legal reference. Fr. Z. stopped short in his reading under “absolvo” at the section relating to criminal charges, but it also applies to releasing someone from civil obligations (which is what “nexus” are).

    The verb “absolvo”, however, usually takes as its direct object the person who is released from some entanglement: e.g. “illi vinclis absoluti” (Tacitus Ann.12.37). In this prayer it is the “delicta” which are the direct object of “absolve”, so it must mean “undo” or “unloose”, which seems now (with “libero”) to put the focus back on our being released from physical restraints as opposed to legal obligations.

    The prayers rarely pursue one image single-mindedly, and the ambiguity is intentional, because both sets of ideas of someone enmeshed in a situation which has run out of their control are apt for explaining the predicament of sin from which only God “by His royal favour” (“tua benignitate”) can set us free. As with “benignus” on Wednesday, the operative concept is “grace”. We find the word “gratia” used only 3 times in this series: twice in week 3 (on one occasion linked with “benignus”) and once this week (Monday). Despite this lack of explicit reference, the entire series is pervaded by the idea of God’s grace.

  3. martin says:

    My comment on “nexus” requires expansion: in classical Latin there are 2 nouns: “nexus” (4th declension) meaning plaiting/ entanglement/ bond or joint linking any natural or artificial entities/ personal tie or connection between kin. This is the word taken over bodily into english; the other noun is “nexum” (1st declension) with a legal reference to the obligation contracted between lender and borower. Both share the same form of dative/ ablative plural. Even in the classical era “nexus” came to have a legal reference, but not one as restricted as “nexum”.

    The equivocation between the legal, personal and physical references is captured in english by “bond” (in the singular”), and to a lesser extent “tie(s)”.

  4. martin says:

    No way do “nexus” and “nexum” share the same plural form! Evidently a rush of blood to the head!

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