Hit by an Unguided Missal

First Advent always seems to catch me wrong-footed, as the Brits say. Its cool, austere, reflective purpleness follows too hard on the heels of Thanksgiving abundance, like the reverse of Hamlet’s observation about the funeral baked meats coldly furnishing forth the wedding banquet. Advent I is a melancholy Dane of a Sunday anyway: all that tryptophan not yet walked off, the Black Friday nonsense still taking us to the roof of the Temple to show us what wonders would be ours if we would just fall down and worship mammon, the train of Christmas with all its boxcars of emotional baggage hurtling at us relentlessly as we struggle against the ropes that bind us to the trestle of not enough time. I always feel as though I’ve started the season several days late and several virtues short. It’s no coincidence, I’m certain, that the one time I was ever held up (at finger-in-the-pocket point, it turns out, rather than the gunpoint that desperate teenager threatened me with, but still) was on the eve of First Advent, as if to underscore the deep unease and sense of being mugged by the universe that these four weeks carry.

So I was not expecting much from the debut of the mandated new English translation of the Roman Missal at today’s Mass. I have attended workshops and done my homework and even found myself uncharacteristically defending this liturgical revision against charges (mostly from 60s-era Catholics–both in their thinking and the age group I share with them) that it’s actually a reversion to some more buttoned up, top down, defeminized, clerical, High Christology era. Of course it is all of those things, as is only to be expected in the pendulum swing that is lex orandi, lex credendi. But it need not have been horrible, even so. Unfortunately, the translation is also just a miserable piece of unliterature, falling on English-accustomed (and even Latin-accustomed, so I’m told) ears as an assault. No matter what our nationality or denomination, it’s a fact that since the Second Vatican Council (and much longer, for Anglicans and English-speaking Protestants) the language and rhythm of English liturgy is overwhelmingly the natural music of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, of the King James Bible, of Shakespeare. This new unguided Missal took none of that tradition into account–indeed, deliberately chose against it at times. It’s as though those in charge used Google Translate to keep things as close to the original Latin, tortured syntax and ornate adjectives and all, as possible.

Fr Tim did his best this morning, and the crowd at the noon Mass (chosen because the music is usually painfully bad, I hate to say, so struggling through the new settings would not be as noticeable a distraction) was gamely willing to use all the provided cheat sheets, but this stuff will not be prayed trippingly on the tongue for a good long while, if ever. Like walking with a stone in your shoe, the differences draw attention to themselves in a way that radiates irritation throughout the whole assembled Body of Christ.

Although maybe, just maybe, that’s the point. There could have been no better object example, on this gray, rainy, almost-winter day, of the truth that when it comes to the worship of the Awesome One, all human language falls miserably short. We are citizens of Babel, not Eden, and when better to be reminded of that cognitive dissonance between where we are and where we long to be than in the season of yearning?

That tension vibrates in the words of today’s readings. Isaiah speaks Israel’s (and our) desperate cry for God to be present to us–even though we know that that presence would be mysterious and terrifying in ways that are beyond the limits of our knowing and describing:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you
As when brushwood is set ablaze,
or fire makes the water boil!
Then your name would be made known to your enemies
and the nations would tremble before you,
While you worked awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as had not been heard of from of old.
No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen,
any God but you
working such deeds for those who wait for him.
(Now there’s poetry–Hebrew and English–for you, and another new dissonance between the language of Scripture and that of the liturgy.) And in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus chides us to stay awake and be ready, because we do not know the day or the hour when our yearning will be fulfilled. No chance that we will stumble sleepily and robotically through the Mass this Advent! Maybe I can take that wakeup call into the rest of my feeble spiritual life, listening anew to old truths and fitting my mouth to unaccustomed syllables of praise.
Maybe the Roman Missal 3.0 is graceless on purpose–so we can seek, and add, and be the grace that’s lacking. Happy New Year, Church!
Deacon Greg Kandra does a particularly brilliant job (which is saying something, because he’s brilliant on most occasions) of easing his congregation and the rest of us into the new translation here.
The redoubtable James Martin, S.J., offers An Elegy for the Sacramentary here.
Download a document prepared by the Diocese of Grand Rapids, comparing collects (opening prayers) from the Sacramentary and the New Roman Missal here.
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