Missal Moments VIII – restoring an enriching ambiguity

One change in the Missal that has seems to have escaped notice is the endings to the prayers of the proper of the Mass (ie the collect, the offertory, the post-communion).

Previously, these prayers ended “We make this prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who…” etc, or “We make this prayer through Christ our Lord”. Now the respective endings are “Through our Lord Jesus Christ, you Son, who…” or “Through Christ our Lord”. The we make this prayer has been cut.

The simple reason is that this phrase is not in the original Latin of the Missal, nor has it ever been in the Latin of any Roman Missal to the best of my knowledge. It appeared in the post-conciliar English translation, no doubt to smooth the transition from the body of the prayer to its concluding formula. Interestingly, in more than one place I have heard priests recite the body from the new Missal, and then re-insert we make this prayer into the conclusion. It seems they cannot bring themselves to make the adjustment to the seemingly stark Latinate conclusion.

Now it is not something to lose sleep over, but I do think that literally translating the Latin concluding formula, Per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum, filium tuum, qui… etc, and so omitting the supplied transitional phrase, is vastly to be preferred. Why?

Whether it is intended or not, there is in the new, more literal formula a fruitful ambiguity. One half of it is made clear by the now-obsolete expanded conclusion: the prayers we make to God are through the Son. He is the Mediator between God and his people. Yet mediation is a two-way street: the graces God gives in answer to the prayers of his people are likewise mediated through Christ. The now-obsolete formula excluded this rich ambiguity, and to our impoverishment. The new Missal allows the ambiguity to be heard, and to our enrichment.

An example is always helpful – a random choice. Let us take the post-communion prayer for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time:

Grant, we pray, O Lord,
that, having been replenished by such great gifts,
we may gain the prize of salvation
and never cease to praise you.
Through Christ our Lord.

There is a manifold ambiguity here. Our asking is through Christ; but also God’s granting it is through Christ, and the gaining of salvation is through Christ, and our ceaseless praising is through Christ. The old formula would have killed the beautiful ambiguity by restricting Christ’s mediation to the making of the prayer alone.

Of course, ambiguity in this context is not a case of either/or, but of and/and. It reveals the many layers of theological and spiritual meaning in the Missal’s prayers. There must be a more apt word than ambiguity, but it is late and I cannot think of it!

Lest it seem that I am being a little too fanciful about the presence of positive ambiguity or levels of meaning in the Missal’s texts and prayers, we need only look to Eucharistic Prayer III for another example of the new Missal restoring the ambiguity, or many-layered meaning, of a text. In the old Missal we would have found near the beginning of the Prayer:

… so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made…

Now it reads:

… so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice…

The change, faithful to the Latin of course, is not merely a case of adding some poetic élan to the prayer. It is ambiguous: it could refer to geography; it could also refer to chronology – that is, to space or time. In fact, both are envisaged and intended: the pure sacrifice is offered across the world and throughout time. The previous translation, without good reason, restricted it to a geographical reference. We lost something there, and now it is restored. Deo gratias.

8 thoughts on “Missal Moments VIII – restoring an enriching ambiguity

  1. Fr Hugh,
    Good point well and nicely made for which thanks … perhaps you can also reflect for us why further on in the conclusion of each prayer ‘… Deus per omnia saecula saeculorum’ is translated ‘… one God for ever and ever’? Why the ‘one’ when it is not in the Latin and is rather questionable theologically – ‘through our Lord, Jesus Christ (….) one God’? Is Jesus Christ one God?

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    1. Hi Donald! Thank you for your support. Thank you also for spotting another, less desirable, ambiguity in the prayer conclusion.

      I am writing this without having done any research into the issue you raise. So with that caveat in mind, let’s press on. Indeed, “one God” is not in the Latin, just “God”. I suspect that “one” was included to balance the three Persons of the Trinity invoked just before – these three Persons are one God. It is justifiable theologically, obviously.

      However, as you point out, in English it is ambiguous as to what the “God” refers to. Does it refer to the Father, whom we are addressing directly? Does it refer to the Son, about whom the conclusion seems to be talking? (The mention of the Father and the Holy Spirit could be seen as describing the Son, as it were: ie, the Son is He who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and who is [one] God, for ever and ever.) Or does it refer to the Holy Spirit, who is mentioned immediately before Deus?

      To be honest, it is an ambiguity that had never struck me before. I suspect Deus was inserted as a type of summation of the three Persons invoked, and in English “one” has been added to clarify further the unity of the Trinity. Perhaps a better way of dealing with this would be to replace “one God” with “who together are God”.

      But I shall have to go back to my books and see if I can find something more concrete!

      Pax.

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      1. Fr Hugh,
        Thank you for the valiant reply – I wonder though!
        I wonder also if perhaps the translator added the ‘one’ rather inadvertently – and once it was added to prayer 1, it became a copy and paste job for all the rest? I further wonder if it was one of the later additions that Vox Clara is responsible for? (Not that they would finish a sentence with a preposition, I’m sure.)
        You’re proposed (explanatory and better way) ending: ‘who together are God’ will lead to a sleepless night, I fear … ‘who together are God’ as opposed to ‘who together is God’ … !
        Universalis prayers sometimes include the ‘one’ and then drop it for no obvious reason that I can see.
        The Irish texts do have the ‘one God’ expression. It remains to be seen what the Scottish Gaelic version will have – but I’m sure it will head for literal accuracy!
        Oidhche mhath & thanks.
        Donald.

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      2. Hi Donald.

        Your perpetuated-cut-and-paste-error theory is novel, and not outside the realms of possibility. But(and we should not begin sentences with conjunctions…) Vox Clara is innocent on this one. The same device “one God” was in the previous edition of the Missal. I continue to suspect it was included for didactic reasons, bolstering the unity of the Trinity after mention of its three Persons. All the national editions will have it, as it is in the common text approved for all.

        As to the sleeplessness that may be caused by my proposed solution, it will not affect me! “Together” must always take a plural verb. For example, both the RSV and the Douay-Rheims versions translate Jesus’ words in John 10:30 as “I and the Father are one”. 😉

        Universalis is not something that I use, but there issue may well be imperfect scanning and/or editing of their texts. It happens, though for their paid service one might expect better attention to detail. As we know, in liturgical texts especially typos can be trouble indeed.

        Go mbeannaí Dia duit!

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