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?


Gillian said...

Here's the BCP version. For us it's Proper 23B, not whichever week you used it.
Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Father Anonymous said...

Annnnd ... we have a winner. As usual, the BCP comes through as a model of liturgical English style.