Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Prayer of the Day -- Now With Extra Clauses!

The Prayer of the Day offered by Evangelical Lutheran Worship for the fourth Sunday in Lent during Year A of the lectionary is as follows:
Bend your ear to our prayers, Lord Christ, and come among us. By your gracious life and death for us, bring light into the darkness of our hearts, and anoint us with your Spirit, for you live and reign with the Father ... 
It's not a terrible prayer.  But doesn't it seem a little cluttered?  Of course it does!  And why?  because, as we never tire of pointing out, the ELW editors never saw a prayer they didn't think could be improved by more words.

The Latin original comes from the Gelasian Sacramentary (#1173), where it reads:
Uoci nostrae quaesumus, Domine, aures tuae pietatis accomoda et cordis nostrae tenebras lumine tuae visitationis inlustra; per … 
Or in rough English:
O Lord, we ask that the ears of your mercy might hear our voices, and the light of your presence brighten the darkness of our hearts; through Jesus Christ, etc.
It is easy enough to see where the ELW team got their extra ideas.  (i) Christ's "coming among us" -- a fair translation of visitatio - is defined here as his life and death. (ii) The Spirit's unction is probably an allusion to Christ's "smearing" mud on the eyes of the Man Born Blind, in the Gospel reading for the day.  (The NRSV's "smeared" is a weak translation of the Greek epichrisen, "anointed," found in the major manuscripts apart from Vaticanus.) But the fact that an addition can be explained does not mean it should have been added in the first place.  The original prayer was noble in its brevity, and surely easier for listeners to follow.

It is also possible that the editors are attempting to conform the original prayer to a common model, according to which the form of a collect requires an invocation, which in turn includes a relative clause identifying God's action -- for instance, "O God, who became incarnate among us."  The problem with conforming ancient prayers to this model, obviously, is that the model is drawn from analysis of the ancient prayers.  If some of them lack the "right" parts, it isn't the prayers that are wrong, it is the model.

The sad thing is that, as we look ever more closely at the ELW collects, we can see just how much labor went into reading a variety of classical prayers and then padding them with unwelcome fluff.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

A Nice Little Post-Communion Prayer

Looking for something to use at our Saturday vigil Mass (you remember, the one our congregation insists on calling its "Contemporary Service"), we stumbled across a nice little post-communion prayer.  The Gelasian Sacramentary prescribes it for certain weekdays in Lent.  In Latin, it reads:
Quaesumus, omnipotens Deus, ut inter eius numeremur membra, cuius corpore communicamus et sanguine; per ....
A straightforward translation is:
We ask, almighty God, to be be counted among the members of Him whose body and blood we share; [even Jesus Christ our Lord.]
This can be prettied up a bit if one wishes -- Count us, almighty God, or we have shared.  But it is admirable in its brevity, and really does not need any decoration.

Please do not rework it in the style of this Roman Catholic resource, which renders it thusly:
Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that having received these helps unto salvation we may everywhere be protected by the patronage of blessed Mary ever Virgin, in veneration of whom we have offered this sacrifice to Thy majesty. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God For ever and ever. 
Seriously, guys?  We are ourselves partial to Baroque prose and stilted syntax, but everything must have its limits. And much as we love the BVM, she seems to have hijacked the prayer.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Keep Christianity Weird

Of late, Father Anonymous has been assembling covers for the worship bulletins at his Saturday night vigil Mass, which the congregation insists upon referring to as its "Contemporary Service." (Let's not open that can of semantic worms.)  To be brutally honest, he doesn't create the images; he steals them, and makes a collage. The arrangement is his own work, but nothing else.

Upon reviewing a few of the said covers, the rotund cleric has has noted that they share a distinctive character. The images and layout may vary a bit, but the aesthetic is consistent from week to week, and it is one that merits consideration.

In a word, our bulletin covers are weird.  Here are a few samples.

We've got a skeleton swinging an axe (an image of autumn, and reminder of John the Baptist); a giant disembodied eye (did it offend somebody and get plucked out?); random dead people on a church sign; a newspaper announcing the Apocalypse; and a virgin learning that she is pregnant with God's baby.

That last one does not seem so weird until you think about it.

In fact, Christianity as a whole doesn't seem so weird ... until you think about it.  But the moment you start thinking about it, our faith starts to sound like a bad acid trip, or a disjointed Italian horror movie.

A baby is born who turns out to be God; he dies and then comes back to life; people are plunged into the water and told they have died and been reborn; then they eat a meal that is supposed to be the flesh and blood of the man-God. Everybody who has ever done this, living or dead, is connected and will get together again when the man-God returns as a judge and, not coincidentally, the world ends.

Yeah, it's weird.  And that's without the medieval "extras" -- relics, purgatory, monasticism, and the whole "is-it-an-apple-or-is-it-a-codeword-for-sex" thing.

This is no new observation. In Irenaeus' Lyons, the early Christians were accused of Thyestean banquets and Oedipean marriages -- cannibal meals and "brothers" marrying "sisters. " Julian the Apostate dismissed churches built over the remains of a saint as "charnel houses."

Nor is it at all novel to represent in art the disorienting strangeness of Christianity. From the Alexamenos graffito to Serrano's "Piss Christ," our imagery has been used with Brechtian power by critics of the faith.  But it has been used to no less disorienting an effect by ardent supporters. Think of Christ as Noah on the catacomb walls, or the profusion of ever-gorier Crucifixes in the later Middle Ages or the entire oeuvre of Hieronymus Bosch. Not to mention reliquaries, ossuaries, or church walls painted with dancing skeletons and tortured souls.

We Christians are the inheritors of a vast treasury of grotesque, macabre, disturbing imagery. Much is symbolic, some is didactic, more than a little is violent, sexual, or frightening.

But come to church most weekends, and what's on the cover of the bulletin?  A butterfly.

Or a flower, or a field of waving grass with a rising sun.  Or a statue of Martin Luther (or your own tradition's favorite saint). Stop by the local Bible Bookstore, and you can find more of the same:  ichthys-fish with clever responses to Darwin, Jesus-bobbleheads, Thomas Kinkade calendars. A shopper drowns in saccharine, suffocates in the atmosphere of phoney comfort.

A large portion of the world, both Christian and otherwise, recognizes the Christian faith not in the blackness of Hell or the red of Christ's blood, but in the cool pastels of a dentist's office. Much of the world, Christian and otherwise, identifies Christianity with images that are tame, domestic, even schmaltzy.

This really has to end. The Goth movement has long since poached passionate, violent, imagery of the Church for its own purposes, which are not infrequently at odds with those of the Church.  Perhaps we should reclaim it for ourselves.  But, for all the Romanticism which inspires the Egg itself, the situation calls for more than medievalist nostalgia -- we tried that in the nineteenth century, and it was good, but not good enough.  No; the present degraded, sentimental, therapeutic representations of Christianity really must be replaced in the popular imagination by something more aesthetically demanding.

How else to put this?  Perhaps with a motto:  If it looks familiar, it isn't the Trinity; if it looks safe, it isn't the Cross; if it looks easy, it isn't really the Church.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Graceless Collect

Many friends of the Egg will have offered the following Prayer of the Day in worship two weeks ago:
Lord God, your lovingkindness always goes before us and follows after us. Summon us into your light, and direct our steps in the ways of goodness that come through the cross of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
This is the collect prescribed by Evangelical Lutheran Worship for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in lectionary Year A.  It is adapted from the Gelasian Sacramentary, where is reads:
Tua nos Domine quaesumus gratia semper et praeveniat et sequator, ac bonus operibus iugiter prestet esse intentos; per Iesum Christum ....
Even a quick glance shows that there are a few notable differences between the original and our rendering.  Here's a somewhat more literal version, from the post-2011 English version of the Roman rite, where it occurs on the 28th Week of Ordinary Time:

May your grace, O Lord, we pray, at all times go before us and follow after and make us always determined to carry out good works. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
The Roman Catholic version suffers from awkward syntax, the natural result of its officially-mandated effort to capture the feel of those opening Latin words.  We would not have done it that way.

But the Lutheran version is strange in its own way.  As is ELW's custom, it adds ideas to the original: (1) "directing our steps," while common enough in old collects (usually phrased dirige nos), is not in this one; and (2) the typical closure (through Jesus Christ ...) is replaced with the idea that goodness comes through the Cross. These modest changes make the prayer a little less sober and sensible than some of us might like, but are not deeply remarkable.

What strikes us most, however, is one pregnant lexical decision: ELW replaces "grace" in the opening clause with "lovingkindness."

This choice of words is not unreasonable.  "Lovingkindness" is an English word invented by Miles Coverdale to translate the Hebrew ch-s-d, chesed.  This rather tricky word, which describes God's disposition toward humanity, has historically been translated into Greek as eleos and into Latin as misericordia.  That is to say, it describes divine mercy.

Luther, however, chose to link chesed with the Greek word charis, and to translate both as Gnade.  Or, as we say in English, grace.  Following that train of thought, "grace" is a word very nicely replaced with "lovingkindness."

But is it really?  The Septuagint uses charis to translate not chesed but chen, a different Hebrew word with a meaning closer to assistance or help. We're certainly in the same semantic area here, but it is by no means certain that the word Coverdale invented specifically to translate chesed should also be used for chen, much less for charis and still less for gratia.

The stakes on this particular question are higher than on most matters of translation, because the words charis and gratia are absolutely central to Christian, and especially Lutheran, theology.  The first is Paul's description of the mechanism of salvation: a gift by which God has reckoned human beings as just.  The second is the Latin word pressed to translate the Greek, and the direct source of our English word "grace."  Both have a root sense having to do  -- like chesed -- with friendship and affection, and a later, more developed sense of free action -- a gift given without obligation is "gratuitous," a dancer's motion is "graceful, and so forth.

Gratia has enough senses and derivatives, in both Latin and English, that it can cause translation problems all by itself.  Just for fun, look at its two uses in Augustana IV.  We are gratis justificentur, which can mean "freely justified" or "justified by grace."  And that becomes true for us when we believe we are in gratiam recipi, "received into grace" or "received into favor."  So, in the fundamental Lutheran confession of faith, grace is both the thing that saves us and the condition of being saved.

Because "grace" is such an essential word, it is used frequently in churches.  You could argue that it is a technical theological term, and therefore might be confusing to outsiders -- and we suspect that the ELW translators did believe something like this.  The problem with this argument is that "lovingkindness," despite its admirable lack of Latin or Greek roots, is an even more technical term. The word was concocted to answer a Bible translator's conundrum, and has no secular currency at all. And the conundrum for which it was concocted is not the one posed by this collect.

Moreover, we dread the thought of a church in which "grace" becomes an exotic word.

So: Is "lovingkindness" a good translation of gratia in the collect?  We answer that it it isn't bad -- but wouldn't "grace" be better?

Friday, January 20, 2017

A River of Joy and Peace

In one of his letters (Epist. 2:1-2,4-5,7: PL edit. [845,] 879, 881), St. Ambrose of Milan writes:
There is a stream which flows down on God's saints like a torrent. There is a rushing river giving joy to the heart that is at peace and makes for peace. Whoever has received from the fullness of this river, like John the Evangelist, like Peter and Paul, lifts up his voice. Just as the apostles lifted up their voices and preached the Gospel throughout the world, so those who drink these waters begin to preach the good news of the Lord Jesus.
May this dreary winter day (at least here in northern Virginia) be one in which you drink from the river and lift up your own voice to preach.