Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Pretty Good Collect

We complained recently about the translation of a certain medieval collect as it appears in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. In fairness, however, it must also be said that in some cases ELW's translations are pretty good.  One of the better ones is coming up soon.

The first of two collects offered for Reformation Day (ELW #215) comes to us from the 1539 Saxon church order, where it is prescribed for Wednesday at Vespers.  (And how wonderful must it have been to serve a church that needed collects for each day's Office!)  It reads:
Herr gott himlischer vater: wir bitten dich, du woltest deinen heiligen geist in unsere herzen geben, uns in deiner gnade ewig zu erhalten, und in aller anfechtung zu behüten, wöllest auch allen feinden worts umb [sic] deines namens ehre willen wehren und deine arme christenheit allenthalben gnedig [sic] befrieden, durch Jesum Christum deinen lieben son unsern herrn.
A very literal English translation, courtesy of Father Fritz von der Brick-Gothic, is:
Lord God, Heavenly Father, we ask that You would put Your Holy Spirit into our hearts, so that we will remain in Your [grace and] mercy and be safe in all temptation. [We also ask] that for the sake of Your [Holy] Name You would strengthen us against the words of our enemies, and graciously give peace to Your beleaguered Christians everywhere, through Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, our Lord.
The prayer is not found in the 1917 Common Service Book, but does appear in both The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) and the Service Book and Hymnal (1962), in this form:

O Lord God, heavenly Father, pour out, we beseech thee, thy Holy Spirit upon thy faithful people, keep them steadfast in thy grace and truth, protect and comfort them in all temptation, defend them against all enemies of thy Word, and bestow upon Christ’s Church militant thy saving peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth …
A few key changes appear to have taken place at this stage.  Chiefly, the language for those calling upon God has been rendered less idiosyncratic. The intimacy of "our hearts" has been replaced by a more generic appeal on behalf of God's "faithful people," and the somewhat plaintive call to help "your poor Christendom" by a more generic reference to "Christ's Church Militant."  One might call this a "de-pietizing" of the base text, if that were a word.

In addition, the reference to God's Name disappears, and does not return in the successor versions.  Why?  We cannot even hazard a guess; prayers that God will act "for thy name's sake" are not uncommon, and have plenty of Biblical precedent.

The collect was modernized for the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) thus:

Almighty God, gracious Lord, pour out your Holy Spirit upon your faithful people.  Keep them steadfast in your Word, protect and comfort them in all temptations, defend them against all their enemies, and bestow on the Church your saving peace; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Clause by clause, this is the TLH version shorn of its Jacobean trappings, with only two exceptions.  We ask God to keep us steadfast not in "grace and truth" but in his "Word," no doubt in order to remind us of Luther's famous hymn.  This is effective rhetorically, but does have the sad effect of removing from the prayer the word "grace," which is essential to Luther's theology.  And "Christ's Church Militant" is now simply "the Church" -- a reasonable rendering, but sadly without the claim that this church belongs to God.

ELW takes a few more liberties with the underlying text:

Almighty God, gracious Lord, we thank you that your Holy Spirit renews the church in every age. Pour out your Holy Spirit on your faithful people. Keep them steadfast in your word, protect and comfort them in times of trial, defend them against all enemies of the gospel, and bestow on the church your saving peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
It's not a bad rendering.  "Enemies of the gospel" is an improvement over LBW's mere "enemies," which left open the possibility that we wanted God to help us in our sporting events or international affairs.  We still don't know whose church it is, but perhaps we are expected to infer from context.

One clause sticks out.  We do not now merely call for the Spirit to be given us, we are first reminded that this Spirit continually renews the church.  Why is that idea added?  

The most obvious reason is to direct our thoughts to the Reformation itself. If so, this is a better choice than adding, for example, "You gave us Luther, Melanchthon and Chemnitz to purify the doctrine of your hitherto corrupted church," or something just as Missourian.  

Another, less appealing, possibility is that the ELW editors are captive to the proposition that collects have a definite form, and must by nature begin with a recollection of God's mighty deeds.  This proposition is widely promoted by liturgical handbooks, but is a matter of observation rather than prescription.  A quick glance at the medieval sacramentaries reveals that a great many collects do not in fact so begin.

In either case, the added clause demonstrates a singular characteristic of ELW, namely its steadfast refusal to settle for fewer words and images when more will suffice.  In every case we have bothered to examine, the ELW prayers add to their base texts, rather than taking away from them.  (Even Reed's fine Eucharistic Prayer has a mysterium fidei added, Romanizing a text inspired by the East.)  One wonders sometimes whether the editors were closet Mozarabs, so little do they seem interested in Edmund Bishop's "sobreness and sense."

Still. All told, ELW Prayer 215 is neither more nor less apt a rendering of its 1539 original than the parallels in other modern service books.  What they all lack, in our opinion, is the personal and emotive touch of the Reformation original -- our hearts, our beleaguered (or "poor") condition, our sense of belonging to God.

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