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.