In the Ordinary Form Collect for the 3rd Sunday of Lent we beg God to pick us up, and help us stay upright for the rest of the hard Lenten march. Do not forget the military imagery of exercises and discipline we had in previous weeks.
Deus, omnium misericordiarum et totius bonitatis auctor,
qui peccatorum remedia
in ieiuniis, orationibus et eleemosynis demonstrasti,
hanc humilitatis nostrae confessionem propitius intuere,
ut, qui inclinamur conscientia nostra,
tua semper misericordia sublevemur.
St. Augustine (+ 430) uses the example of Jesus and the woman who was caught in adultery (John 8) to teach about the mercy of God. He said in a sermon (as if Jesus were talking): “Those others were restrained by conscience (conscientia) from punishing, mercy moves (inclinat misericordia) me to help you” (s. 13.5). Even though in the Collect inclino is paired with conscientia rather than misericordia as it is in the sermon, the vocabulary suggests that this sermon may have been a partial inspiration for this ancient Collect, found in the Gelasian Sacramentary.
Misericordia means “mercy”, though its plural refers to works of mercy. We have both a plural and a singular in today’s prayer. Inclino is, “to cause to lean” and by extension, “to humble”. Sublevo literally means “to lift up from beneath, support” and therefore “assist, console”. Sublevo is in the beautiful 10th century Mozarabic Lenten hymn Attende, Domine:
“Give heed, O Lord, and be merciful, for we have sinned against you.
To you, O high King, Redeemer of all,
we raise up (sublevamus) our eyes weeping:
hear, O Christ, the prayers of those bent down begging.”
Confessio, in the Latin Vulgate (Heb 3:1) and St. Gregory the Great (+ 604 – ep. 7,5) is “a creed, avowal of belief” in the sense of an acknowledgment of Christ. For St. Augustine confessio has three major meanings: profession of faith in God, praise of God, and admission to God of sins.
Our Collect reminds us of the remedies for sin identified by Jesus Himself: prayer, fasting (cf. Matthew 9:14), and almsgiving or works of mercy (cf Matthew 6:1; Luke 12:33). When Jesus cures the epileptic demoniac, He says that that sort of demon is driven out only by both prayer and fasting (Mark 9:27 Vulgate). In Acts 10 an angel tells the centurion Cornelius that his prayers and alms have been seen favorably by God (literally, they ascended as a memorial before God in the manner of a sacrifice).
“Do you wish your prayer to fly toward God? Make for it two wings: fasting and almsgiving” (En. ps. 42, 8).
Conscientia signifies in the first place, “a knowing of a thing together with another person”. Note the unity, of knowledge in the prefix con-. It also means, “conscientiousness” in the sense of knowledge or feelings about a thing. It also has a moral meaning also as, “a consciousness of right or wrong, the moral sense”.
O God, author of all acts of mercy and all goodness,
who in fasts, prayers, and acts of almsgiving indicated the remedies of sins,
look propitiously on this confession of our humility,
so that we who are being humbled in our conscience
may always be consoled by your mercy.
NEW CORRECTED ICEL (2011):
O God, author of every mercy and of all goodness,
who in fasting, prayer and almsgiving
have shown us a remedy for sin,
look graciously on this confession of our lowliness,
that we, who are bowed down by our conscience,
may always be lifted up by your mercy.
OBSOLETE ICEL (1973):
you have taught us to overcome our sins
by prayer, fasting and works of mercy.
When we are discouraged by our weakness,
give us confidence in your love.
An examination of conscience is a humbling experience.
We often find through our examen things which frighten and discourage us. If we are weak in our habits and our faith, that inveterate enemy of ours souls, the Devil, “father of lies”, will rub us raw with our ugliness and tempt us to lose hope about the possibility of living a moral life or, in extreme cases, about our salvation.
On a less dramatic plane, falling down in our Lenten resolve on one day can cause a collapse of our will so that we will “flag” and give up.
This is why the Lenten discipline is so important.
By discipline, sticking to a plan even though it is hard, we learn to govern our appetites, examine our consciences, do penance, and learn the habits which are virtues.
Together with discipline, the recognition of sins and failures will “incline” us to call with humble confidence upon the mercy of Christ who paid the price for our salvation.
Finally… mercy cannot be divorced from the truth. Anyone who suggests that it can be, doesn’t get what mercy is or who Truth is.