26 April 2020

Ovid a liturgist?

I have remarked before how strange it is that not even a single one of the old Roman collects for the Sundays after Easter survived the post-Conciliar 'reforms' for use on an Eastertide Sunday. This is, surely, a great historical curiosity. (Incidentally, an identical fate befell all the Sunday Collects for Lent and Advent.) Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II had limited change to points where it is truly and certainly clear that the benefit to the Church demands them (23). Another such oddity is the fact that the OF collect for today is a modern composition. Whatever is wrong with an old collect for this Sunday? Can it really be true that no Western Christian knew how to pray to God on a Sunday within Eastertide until 1970?

The Vatican 'reformers' did in fact keep this prayer and re-assign it, ejected from Eastertide, to one of the 'green' Sundays. So, even in their view, it cannot be totally beyond all redemption. But in doing so they (you know what I'm going to say) changed it; out went the reference to 'perpetual death' (replaced by 'slavery of sin') - and since that had to disappear, the parallel reference to 'perpetual joy' had to be changed to 'holy joy'. How exactly does vera et certa utilitas demand (exigat) the excision of the wonderful truth that the Father has rescued us from everlasting death? Or that the 'joy' He promises us will be for ever?

Here is the preconciliar text: Deus qui in Filii tui humilitate iacentem mundum erexisti: fidelibus tuis perpetuam concede laetitiam; ut quos perpetuae mortis eripuisti casibus, gaudiis facias perfrui sempiternis. God, who in the lowliness of thy Son didst make upright a prostrate world: grant to thy faithful people perpetual joy; that to those whom thou hast snatched from the fallings of  perpetual death, thou mightest give the fruition of everlasting joys.

I simply love the sophisticated interplay of words in the opening phrases. Humilitas comes from humus, the ground, and so it has an etymological sense of flat-upon-the-ground (as did the Greek tapeinos). So we are offered the elegant paradox that the lowliness of Christ raised upright, erect, a world which was prostrate or, literally, lying. As a frivolous Classicist, I am reminded of the similar word-play at VIII 526 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, where all Calydon is grieving at the death of Meleager: Alta iacet Calydon, lofty Calydon lies prostrate, where, as the late (and lamented) Adrian Hollis of Keble College in this University pointed out, the 'sportiveness' of this combination of the literal and metaphorical is enhanced by the fact that 'lofty' is a traditional epithet (aipeinei Kaludoni Iliad XIII 217). Hollis rightly described the humour as 'whimsical, almost Callimachean' (it was Callimachus of Cyrene, greatest of all the Hellenistic poets, who elevated verbal fun to be the highest art form). The concept of flat-on-the-ground is neatly taken up yet again in our collect when perpetual death is said to result from falls, casibus, unrepented sins.

And then there are the antitheses and assonances. They raise my spirit in the same sort of way as do the brilliant firework-displays of that great gift of Byzantine Christianity to the Catholic world, the Akathist Hymn. Why do the killjoys, gloomily lugubrious, want to rob the Liturgy of the Latin Church of its sparkle, its fun? Why, after Vatican II, are only Byzantines allowed to enjoy their Faith?

But, underneath the sheer fun of the classical prayers of the old Roman Rite, there is the saving and glorious truth that it is the Lord, weakened by scourging, falling under his Cross deep into the grime and filth of a fallen world, who alone raises up that world and conveys to us an endlessness of joy. Christian euchology renders soteriological the Classical humour.  

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