- By Fr. Peter
- 7 April, 2012
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O mira circa nos tuae pietatis dignatio! O inaestimabilis dilectio caritatis: ut servum reimeres, Filium tradidisti!
O wonder of your humble care for us! O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
(Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.)
Comment: Ecclesiastical Latin is not easy to render into fluid English. ‘Dignatio tuae pietatis’ should mean something like ‘the graciousness/condescension of your kind concern.” “Humble care” isn’t too bad, but the precise impact of the Latin words is something once more almost impossible to craft in English because we simply lack, in the modern world, the sort of social situation in which the kind condescension of a powerful person would be understood as an exercise in solidarity. For us, ‘condescension’ is always a bad thing because it requires differences in rank which are not supposed to exist in modern democracies. When someone is condescending it means that they are assuming themselves to be of higher rank.
But where this is perhaps lacking in our social theory, it is not lacking in our relationship with God, Who really is of a higher rank. His lowering of Himself to be with us is understood as a gesture of ‘pietas’, kindness, compassion, fellow-feeling. The proof of it, in this particular passage is the Father’s willingness to ‘hand over’ (tradidisti—a strong word!) His Son to ransom captive slaves. This word trado is quite a loaded one; it is what Judas does to Jesus in his betrayal. The notion of the Father handing over the Son comes directly from Romans 8: 32, a strong moment of Paul’s hortatory skill: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” We can have total confidence that God sides with us.
O certe necessarium Adae peccatum, quod Christi morte deletem est! O felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!
O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
(O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!)
Comment: The previous translation saw fit to delete the utter ‘deletion’ of sin, happy and necessary though it might have been!
Here is the famed ‘felix culpa’ passage, a truly astonishing bit of theology. Those who know forgiveness understand this; I’m not sure there is another way. Without acceptance of our own share of the blame for the human condition, we can’t understand how sin can be happy at all. That it merited ‘so great, so glorious a Redeemer’ is probably best understood (with a great debt to theologian James Alison) as indicating that the magnitude of salvation could not have been fully appreciated until we came to understand how Christ differs from us in His sinlessness and great glory. We discover that in acknowledging our own sins and placing our faith in God, we can begin to partake of the Christ-life, the life that wells up within those who begin to walk in the gospel. Without knowledge of sin, we easily imagine that we are not in need of a redeemer and remain trapped in a tragically truncated vision of life. This false ‘life’ turns out, after the fact, to be more like death; indeed the death that Christ destroyed when He accepted it.
O vere beata nox, quae sola meruit scire tempus et horam, in qua Christus ab inferis resurrexit!
O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour when Christ rose from the underworld.
(Most blessed of all nights, chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!)
Comment: One major problem of the previous translation of the Roman Missal was its systematic removal of the notion of ‘merit’, particularly from texts used on the feast days of saints. The idea that saints can ‘merit’ anything perhaps smacks of Pelagianism, the heresy that says that we can merit salvation just by deciding to be good. We can prove to God our goodness and force Him, by dint of our ‘merit’, to welcome us into heaven.
Here, consistently enough, the word meruit disappears from the old translation and is replaced with ‘chosen by God’. Perhaps if the translator(s) had thought more carefully about the notion of merit in play here, the apparent stumbling of its use in other areas of the liturgy would have dissolved. To call this night ‘chosen by God’ is not at all theologically inaccurate: indeed, it is this choice of God that gives this night its ‘merit’. We moderns too easily fall into either/or thinking when it comes to things like causes, responsibility and the like. Does not God choose certain saints to merit certain roles within the People of God? Sometimes the fact that seminaries have academic entrance prerequisites strikes people as unfair: aren’t we discriminating against men of lesser intelligence by not letting them be priests? Shouldn’t we choose rather by the moral choices of the men who feel called and not worry about native gifts which aren’t their ‘fault’? Well, this might be to overlook that intelligence is itself a gift from God, and those who have this gift and have cultivated it somewhat might, by this reason, merit to be chosen for the priesthood. This is a slightly different notion that ‘worthiness’, which is the category chosen by the translator of the old Sacramentary. But we saw above that the deacon or priest chanting the Exsultet is ‘unworthy’ to exercise this ministry. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he does not merit it, in the theological sense.
That merit can’t be entirely a moral category is proven by its being predicated of this holy night. A span of time can’t be a moral agent; but God’s free choice of a certain night, by that very choice, merits for the night a particular glory.
Heac nox est, de qua scriptum est: Et nox sicut dies illuminabitur: Et nox illuminatio mea in deliciis meis.
This is the night of which it is written: the night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.
(Of this night scripture says: “The night will be as clear as day; it will become my light, my joy.)
Comment: The reference from scripture is Psalm 138 (139): 12 and 11, translated in the RSV thus: “The night is as bright as the day…let the light around me be night.” This reflects the Hebrew of the verse. Compare the Douay-Rheims translation of the same two passages: “Night shall be light as day…(it shall be) my light in my pleasures.” The D-R translation comes from the Latin Vulgate version, which follows closely the Septuagint. Which tradition we should favor is a question I might take up at a future time; one wonders, however, if we shouldn’t rethink the notion that the best translations of the Old Testament always have to derive from the Hebrew. There were several Hebrew traditions until the early centuries of the common era, and the divergences were eliminated by rabbinical scholars, sometimes consciously aware of the use that Christians were making of some of these texts.
In any case, this is a beautiful prophecy, and indeed the whole of Psalm 138 is a special celebration of the resurrection and the ongoing Incarnation of Christ in the Church.