This Collect sometimes winds up at the end of the liturgical year, depending on when Easter, and therefore Pentecost, falls. This year, because Easter is a little later, we have it before Septuagesima.
Deus, qui nos in tantis periculis constitutos pro humana scis fragilitate non posse subsistere: da nobis salutem mentis et corporis; ut ea, quae pro peccatis nostris patimur, te adiuvante vincamus.
I found this prayer in the Hadrianum, Augustodunensis, and the Liber sacramentorum Romanae ecclesiae ordine excarpsus.
Many prayers in the 1962 Missale Romanum survived the snipping and pasting experts brought in by the Consilium under Cardinal Lercaro and Father Bugnini. Sometimes you can hunt them up pretty easily. Often prayers conspicuous and repeated on certain Sundays for centuries survived but in an altered form or removed to a remote corner, almost never to be seen again unless you are writing columns on what the prayers really say.
Our L&S shows that constituo is quite complex. What interests us is its meaning of “to cause to stand, put or lay down, to set, put, place, fix, station, deposit a person or thing somewhere (esp. firmly or immovably), etc. (the act. corresponding to consistere”). It is thus also a military term, “to station or post troops somewhere, to draw up, set in order”. When the past participle is used as an adjective, it is “constituted, arranged, disposed; fixed, established”.
On the other hand, in Classical usage subsisto means “to take a stand or position, to stand still, remain standing; to stop, halt”. It comes to mean especially in military contexts, “to stand firm, hold out; to withstand, oppose, resist”. In later Latin such as in the Vulgate in the Book of Job it is, “to remain alive”. Also in late Latin, it is “to stand or hold good, to subsist”.
O God, You who know that we, set in such great dangers, are not able to hold out because of human fragility: grant us health of mind and body; so that, You helping us, we may vanquish those things which we suffer on account of our sins
The juxtaposition of “such great dangers” and nos constituti, with the final word vincamus, suggests immediately the military image of us as being “drawn up in ranks”. We are, after all, members of the Church Militant.
I once visited the American Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. In the museum among the displays designed in the modern style so that people, especially children, can have also a “hands on” experience, there was set up a regular Union soldier’s backpack with musket. Anyone could try to lift it, to get a sense of the burden, over 60 pounds, the soldier carried at all times. It was interesting to watch the children, who couldn’t budge it, and the faces of their fathers, trying to conceal effort in front of their children.
The backpack of the ancient Roman legionary, the sárcina, with the usual 17 days of rations, weighed between 95-100 pounds. St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) often referred to the burden of his duties as bishop as his sarcina.
Our Collect gives us the image of the Christian as soldier, weary in mind and body, in danger both from the elements and the enemy. We are drawn up in ranks (constituti) at the moment the prayer is uttered by the priest, standing in the front of the ranks like an officer.
We are drawn up facing our great Captain, our King. Christ the Lord is coming from the liturgical East. His banner is the Cross.
Because of the Fall of the entire human race, which consisted of our First Parents, we all suffer the wounds of Original Sin. We have a weaken mind, our intellect and will being clouded and unsure. Our bodies are subject to disease, age and other difficulties. The world’s environment itself is out of harmony as a result of the fall. It is our lot to toil, not just work, by the sweat of our brow. We are in a world dominated by the Enemy, this world’s “prince” set against us and against the King. The Enemy will attack us relentlessly, both in covert operations through our memories, thoughts and appetites, through other material means, and through more dramatic assaults.
Without God’s help, we would be lost.
We have our Church and the help of grace.
Christ promised He would be with us to the end of the world and that the Church, to whom He gave His own authority to teach, govern and sanctify us, would in the end vanquish the enemy, who will not prevail.
The Introit invokes the image of captivity (Jeremiah 29, Ps 84). In the Epistle for this Mass, Paul, writing to the Romans (13:8-10) speaks of our weaknesses through which the Enemy attacks us from within and the remedy of true charity, love of self and neighbor. In the Gospel (Matthew 8), in the little boat with the terrified apostles Christ calms the storm and waters. The Gradual has us pray about God freeing us from those who hate and afflict us (Ps 43). The Alleluia and Offertory echo our lot: “From the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (Ps 129 – De profundis). The Secret again speaks of “fragilitas nostra” and asks God for protection from evil. The Postcommunio makes reference to the allurements of this world as opposed to heavenly things which are true nourishment.
The texts of the whole Mass present a serious, even stark, image of our situation in this vale of tears.
The Mass goer who is attentive to the texts will more than likely engage in a good examination of conscience, provoked by the texts themselves.
At the same time, the texts tell us that though our lot is a hard one, and we are staring out into it from the soldiers and battle lines arrayed for conflict, at the end we, not the Enemy, will be victorious.
With God, we will vanquish (vincamus) whatever afflicts us.