More than Mere Words: A New English Translation of the Mass
October 24, 2011
The following article was written by Fr. Darren Pierre, O.P., Promoter for the Lay and Priestly Fraternities of St. Dominic, Province of St. Joseph. Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., made an interesting analogy between music and language in a wonderful little booklet that Magnificat is putting out about the new translation of the Roman Missal. Just as the same melody may be played on different instruments, the same idea may be convened with very different kinds of language. A melody may be played on grand piano or an accordion, on the organ at a great Basilica or a child’s toy piano. The exact same notes may be played in each case and exactly the same pitches would be produced, but in the end the music will be very different. Our experience of music is determined not only by the notes but also by the instrument on which they are played. And, if the instrument is not fitting for the music, it will lose something and perhaps even sound silly. Twinkle, Twinkle little Star played on the grand organ or a Bach fugue played on the toy piano will simply not sound right. It doesn’t mean that one instrument or piece of music is better, but simply that they must fit each other. The same is true for language. Language is far more than words strung together to convene information. There are deeper levels of meaning that come from the style or genre of everything that we speak or write. Different styles of language are used in different settings: one way of speech in a locker room, another in a court room—one in a cheering crowd, another at the bedside of a dying friend. Imagine writing a note to arrange a meeting between two people. It will be very different note if it is an office memo to arrange a meeting between colleagues rather than a love letter to arrange a secret rendezvous. Both may specify a place and a time to accomplish the same thing, but despite conveying the same factual information they will be very different letters. The language that we use needs to match the setting in which we speak or write. In the Ancient prayer of the Church we refer to the Eucharist as a Sacred Banquet “in which Christ is received, the memory of His Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.” The Mass is far more than a gathering of friends for a meal. It is a banquet that is holy, sacred, set apart because of its connection to God. So our language is not the language of those gathered around the television eating potato chips. It is not even the language of those at a dinner party in formal dress, but it is the language of a holy meal. It is language that is unique and special to remind us that the activity in which we are engaged is far from ordinary. For this reason the new translation will often use elevated language and descriptive words reminding us of the holiness of the Mass. When the priest takes the chalice, he will say: In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands, and once more giving you thanks, he said the blessing and gave the chalice to his disciples… It is not merely a cup, but a precious chalice—precious not because it is composed of gold or silver but because it is used to contain the Precious Blood of Christ. The gold or silver from which it is made is a reminder to us of its exalted use. Jesus’s hands are called holy and venerable, again to remind us that the action that he is now taking is so precious and unique. All three of the synoptic Gospels recount in detail that special preparations are made for the Passover that was to be Jesus’ Last Supper. This is important and indicates that it wasn’t just a haphazard meal. No similar preparations are recorded for any of Jesus’s sermons, healings, or miracles. The Last Supper, even amidst the betrayal of Judas, was celebrated with great precision and care. However, the Mass is more than just the sacred banquet of the Last Supper. It is also the event in which the memory of His Passion is renewed. We do not re-enact the Passion as at a school play nor do we re-sacrifice Christ, a charge frequently leveled against Catholics by Protestants. Rather, Jesus gave us the Mass so that “the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world.” (Trent 1366) The sacrifice of Calvary is made present again. In once sense, the Mass is a kind of time travel, greater than anything sci-fi movies have ever suggested. Our humble celebration in a parish Church is united with Christ Passion nearly 2000 years ago across the world in Jerusalem. At the Mass, we do not merely recall or commemorate what Christ did. Rather, God breaks through time uniting us today with the actual events of his Passion. At the Mass, we are standing before the Cross at Calvary. When we visit the bedside of a dying friend, hopefully all our concern is on them and not ourselves. At Mass we visit a friend who is dying—dying so that we may live. As we speak to him our language reflects this humbling situation. In the current translation, the priest begins the First Eucharistic Prayer by saying: “We come to you, Father, with praise and thanksgiving, through Jesus Christ your Son.” This appears to be all about us. We come. We have praise and thanksgiving. We are the ones who are special. The new translation will say generally the same thing, but with a subtle yet profound difference: “To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.” Now, it begins with God, our most merciful father. We come not with pride but with humble prayer and petition. We come and stand before Christ’s Passion on Calvary not to look at ourselves in celebration of our community or diversity but to behold Christ and his sacrifice for us. Yet, the Mass does not end with Calvary, for it is also the pledge of future glory. The Mass unites us not only with the Last Supper and sacrifice of Cavalry, but also with the eternal liturgy of heaven. And so, we seek to speak in the manner of angels who stand before God’s throne singing: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Is 6:3). At the Mass we watch as “another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne.” (Rev 8:3) We join the angels and saints in heaven as they “sing a new song before the throne.” The song we sing is the song of Christ not one that we write for ourselves. Scripture says: “No one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth.” (Rev 14:3) In the celebration of the Mass we learn the songs of heaven, conforming ourselves to the heavenly liturgy and ultimately to Christ himself.