Sunday, November 20, 2011

For you and for all

Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the feast of Christ the King.  The political reasons behind the creation of this feast day kind of annoy me, but at the same time I love Ignatius's meditation on Christ the King that starts the second week of the exercises.  So I'm a bit ambivalent about the feast.

Of course, it is also the last week with the old missal, the only translation of the Mass that I have ever known.  Or the last week with any vestiges of it, really, since we've been slowly moving to the new language over the last month and or two.

Most of the changes don't bother me much.  I mean, it's weird, and it's hard to describe how disconcerting it can be to have unfamiliar words in the place of words I know and love so well.  But most of the changes are merely awkward, uncomfortable and foreign, more ritual and less poetic simplicity.  Yet there are a couple of changes that really bother me, that make me feel somewhat sick.



The first is in the Confiteor--the communal confession of sins and need for forgiveness.  I like the version I grew up with--really, really like it.  I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.  There's a balance to it.  A humility and a simplicity.  It denies nothing, accepts everything.  It fits with the idea of humans as "beloved sinners," imperfect beings loved unconditionally by God.  Saying those words requires me to accept awareness of my imperfection, while still remembering myself beloved of God.  It manages to encompass both my need for forgiveness and the unwavering foundation of love which God invites me to rely on.

The new version... well, now we say: I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.  Which... melodramatic much?  The words feel overdone, too gaudy, almost distracting me from acknowledging my need for forgiveness.  Sincerely asking for forgiveness is always something I have done quietly, never something for which fanfare has felt appropriate.

I fundamentally don't believe that more dramatic words will lead people to feel more contrition.  Contrition has always been something I have found in silence, deep within myself.  It is something for which one must be still, in some sense.  And I also feel like that wording puts too much emphasis on our identities as sinners and not enough on our identities as beloved of God.  Catholicism is famous for its guilt.  If this was an evangelical church we were talking about, I might think a lot more emphasis on humility and recognizing internal sinfulness was appropriate.  But Catholics already expend a lot of energy on being unworthy of God's love, and we've never followed a doctrine that faith alone was the cause of salvation, independent of works (an emphasis which can make it too easy to ignore one's shortcomings).  We also practice the sacrament of reconciliation--rating it with baptism, eucharist, confirmation, marriage, priesthood, and the anointing of the sick.  As we ought to--accepting responsibility and asking for forgiveness are thoroughly underrated in today's world.

But I don't think that making the words more dramatic helps people feel remorse.  Remorse is uncomfortable.  It's something we often come at sideways, because facing it directly is so painful.  We need to be eased into remorse, in our humanity.  And part of that easing is in feeling secure in God's love.  It is, of course, much easier to ask for forgiveness when you can fundamentally believe that you will be forgiven.  So maybe we'd do better to put our time into reminding ourselves of God's love, instead of (literally) beating our chests and bemoaning our faults.  More of the former might help people do the latter more genuinely.


The other change that bothers me is in the eucharistic prayer, the most central part of the liturgy.  When recounting the last supper, in the missal I grew up with the priest says:
TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND DRINK FROM IT: THIS IS THE CUP OF MY BLOOD, THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND EVERLASTING COVENANT. IT WILL BE SHED FOR YOU AND FOR ALL SO THAT SINS MAY BE FORGIVEN. DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.
The new version may be more faithful to the Latin, but is troubling in English:
TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND DRINK FROM IT: FOR THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD, THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT; WHICH WILL BE POURED OUT FOR YOU AND FOR MANY FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS. DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.  
Certainly I am no scholar of Latin, but I have studied it, enough that the next course would have been a translation course (which I didn't take because I realized I didn't enjoy translation--the early end to my young ambition to major in classics).  The Latin of the line that I bolded is qui pro vobis et pro multis effund√©tur.  And yes, the new translation is more literal.  But I have read enough Latin, even if much of it was the simplified Cicero and Catullus presented by Wheelock, to know that "multis" in Latin has a different sense to it than "many" in English.  We mostly use many to constrict or limit--and indeed that's how most people who are not scripture scholars and have not studied Latin will understand the new translation, I assume.  To a native English speaker, "many" often means less than everyone, or even less than a majority.  It's what you say in politics when you know that 20-50% of the country supports your position--a lot, but not enough for a clear majority.  In today's context, that's how we here it.

My understanding of multis (a dative plural adjective being used as a noun, a grammatical construction much more common in Latin than in English) is that it conveys a sense of vastness.  From a strict, literal, grammatical standpoint, "for you and for many" could also be read as "for you and for the multitudes."  Yet in English, the connotations are miles apart.  (Translation is messy.  This should not be a surprise.)

More to the point, Jesus gave his life for all.  Not for the few, not for the chosen, but for all.  For every human being who ever has or ever will walk upon this Earth.  There is really no theological dispute over that, so far as I am aware.  Because God gives to us freely, not because any of us are deserving, but out of great love.  That is the theology which I have learned, the faith in which I believe.

I have a large number of friends who are not religious, who do not go to Church, who would never say that they have a relationship with God.  But they are good people, and I have seen God in them.  They have unwittingly been the hands and feet of Christ, for me and for others.  Because while they may not know God, surely God knows them.  And surely they, like all others, are beloved of God.  Jesus died for them, too, as surely as he died for me.

With the new liturgical year, and all the liturgical years that come after it, I will still go to Mass.  I will still be Catholic, and I will still love my Church.  I will still love the liturgy.  And with time, the new translation will feel less awkward, and inevitably parts of it will start to blur in my mind, so that I stop remembering exactly where they are different.  But there will be an aching part of me, a remnant, an echo of twenty-five years of hearing celebrants say that Christ's blood was shed for all.  Because it was.

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