New Words in the New Translation and why we need to understand their deeper meaning
Vol. XVIII, No. 7
As we adjust to the new translation of the Mass, we are becoming accustomed to a different sound and style of language. It brings a more reverent way of approaching and addressing God, therefore a new kind of “atmosphere” gradually pervades our churches. At the same time some people are puzzled by unfamiliar expressions and various words that have emerged through accurately translating Latin into English.
Four examples stand out: “this precious chalice”, “poured out for you and for many,” “consubstantial with the Father,” and “oblation.” These expressions need to be “unpacked” so that nuances of doctrine and history may be appreciated. Each phrase and word can take us into the deeper dimensions of the faith and worship of the Church.
1. “This precious chalice”
In the new translation of the First Eucharistic Prayer (Roman Canon) we hear that Jesus “took this precious chalice in His holy and venerable hands.” Noble vessels are used to celebrate the Eucharist, but only a few could really be called “precious.” The word does not make sense if it merely refers to monetary value. Something mysterious lies behind these words.
“Precious chalice” suggests some details of the Last Supper that are not found in the Gospels, likewise the reference to the hands of Christ, which are to be revered or treated with reverence (here “venerable” here does not mean “old”). The word “cup” in the old translation has also been replaced by “chalice” — “calix” in Latin — a word reserved for a sacred cup.
However, it has been argued that a “poor carpenter” would never use a “precious chalice.” That opinion does not take into account Jewish religious culture, where the sacred Passover cups are objects of value. Moreover, those who describe Jesus Christ as a “poor carpenter” ignore subtle questions about His family connections and some of His disciples, which may be inferred from Gospel sources, particularly Saint John’s Gospel. But there is a fascinating theory that may throw light on “this precious chalice.”
According to this theory, “this precious chalice” was the Passover cup used by Our Lord at the Last Supper, that is, it was a sacred relic treasured by the first Christians. If Saint Peter kept this chalice, it would then have passed into the treasury of the Church of Rome. If Peter’s successors, the early popes, used it for Mass they could naturally say “this precious chalice” because this unique historical link with our Lord was there in front of them, on the altar.
This may explain why the words passed into the text of the consecration of the wine in the Roman Canon. They are not found in the earliest text of the prayer, recorded in the fourth century, thanks to Saint Ambrose of Milan. But the origins of this great Eucharistic Prayer may go back earlier, even to Saint Peter and his immediate successors.
This theory leads to another mystery that is wrapped in legend. What became of this “precious chalice,” later known as the “Holy Grail”? Setting aside medieval legends about a knightly quest for the lost Grail and modern variations (Dan Brown, Monty Python, or Indiana Jones), a more plausible historical theory takes us to Spain.
In the third century the Spaniard Saint Lawrence, the pope’s archdeacon, had custody of the treasures of the Roman Church. Before the Valerian persecution, which claimed his own life, Lawrence sent “this precious chalice” to friends for safekeeping in his native Spain. Although there is sparse evidence for it across seven hundred years, scholars can track the whereabouts in Spain of one specific vessel. The whereabouts of this unusual “precious chalice” can be traced from the eleventh century on.
It is a modest cup carved from agate, later set in medieval gold with handles and an alabaster base. Archaeologists date the agate cup from the first century. It seems to have been made in Egypt. This vessel has ended up in Valencia, where it is kept behind the altar of a chapel in the cathedral. During the Spanish Civil War it was saved from desecration by Communists when a devout woman hid it inside the upholstery of her sofa. During the Fifth World Meeting of Families in 2006 I saw Pope Benedict XVI use this relic at Mass. Blessed John Paul II had already used it in 1982.
The agate cup of Valencia is “precious” because it may be what remains of the Passover chalice Our Lord took into “His holy and venerable hands” at the Last Supper. In a lesser sense every chalice should be precious because noble vessels are required for the worthy celebration of the Eucharist. But material value is not the point. In a deeper sense, for believers, any chalice that holds the Blood of Christ may rightly be called “precious.”
2. “Poured out for you and for many”
The words of consecration of the wine affirm that the Blood of Christ is “poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The Latin “pro multis” —“for many” — comes from Greek New Testament texts (Mt 26:28, Lk 21:20). Most eucharistic prayers in the East and West include the words “for many.” But why has “for all” in the old translation been replaced by “for many” in the new? Did not Christ die for all people?
Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote about this interesting nuance in the words of consecration. The meaning of these words was also raised at the time of the Reformation. Therefore, to help clergy explain the Catholic faith in preaching and teaching, the Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) provided this explanation:
The additional words, for you and for many, are taken, some from Matthew, some from Luke, but were joined together by the Catholic Church under the guidance of the Spirit of God. They serve to declare the fruit and advantage of His Passion. For if we look to its value, we must confess that the Redeemer shed His blood for the salvation of all; but if we look to the fruit which mankind has received from it, we shall easily find that it pertains not unto all, but to many of the human race.
The Catechism makes a distinction between the universal value of Christ’s saving death for all and the fruit or effect of His work in the lives of many. The Catechism also maintains this distinction in discussing the meaning of “for you.”
When therefore Our Lord said for you, He meant either those who were present, or those chosen from among the Jewish people, such as were, with the exception of Judas, the disciples with whom He was speaking. When He added And for many, He wished to be understood to mean the remainder of the elect from among the Jews or Gentiles.
The Catechism continues:
With reason, therefore, were the words for all not used, as in the place the fruits of the Passion are alone spoken of, and to the elect only did His Passion bring the fruit of salvation. And this is the purport of the Apostle when he says: Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many; (Heb 9:28) and also of the words of our Lord in John: I pray for them; I pray not for the world, but for those whom you have given me, because they are yours (Jn 17:9).
Given such precedents, why did the former International Commission on the Liturgy (ICEL) translation say that Christ’s blood will be “shed for all”? The Protestant biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias argued that “for many” meant “for all.” His opinion influenced most vernacular translations made just after the Council.
Unfortunately relying on one man’s interpretation triggered off what I call the “traditionalist scruple.” Extreme traditionalists argue that the Mass is invalid unless “for many” is recited in the words of consecration. It is difficult to maintain that view because the essential words of consecration are the denotative clauses “this is my Body” and “this is … my Blood.” These words denote the wondrous change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord, transubstantiation. But the former ICEL text did include a restrictive nuance “so that sins may be forgiven,” implying that not all people gain God’s forgiveness of sins, which is the fruit of His work of Redemption.
To respect tradition and end a divisive debate whipped up by extremists, Pope Benedict XVI has directed that henceforth “for many” replace “for all” in all vernacular translations of pro multis.
Like other phrases in the new translation the words make us stop and think. The evocative “my blood … poured out for you” also helps us reflect prayerfully on what is happening in the Eucharistic sacrifice.
On the cross, once and for all, and through the great Memorial of the cross in the Eucharist, Christ pours out His life Blood for us. If only more people would accept Him as their Savior and claim the healing power of His Blood. This merciful forgiveness is the fruit of His selfless love. Reflecting on this dimension of the Eucharist is another challenge for us to “go forth” and evangelize.
3. “Consubstantial with the Father”
In the Nicene Creed that we profess at Sunday Mass we now come across a new word that is rather challenging: “consubstantial.” This is an indirect translation of the most controversial word in the history of Christianity — the Greek term homoousios.
At the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, after intense debates, the bishops chose to use the word homoousios in their profession of faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Orthodox theologians had proposed that the Son is homoousios tou Patri — “of the same Being” as God the Father. The word homoousios therefore affirms the full divinity of Jesus Christ, His unity and equality with God the Father, as the true and only Son. At the Council of Constantinople (381 AD) the text of the creed was completed with an expanded section “I believe in the Holy Spirit….” The creed affirms the unity and equality of the Three Persons who are One God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
When the creed was translated from Greek into Latin, consubstantialis was found to be the closest word to homoousios. “Consubstantial with the Father” is a translation of the Latin phrase “consubstantialem Patri.”
It is not easy to translate words that reflect Greek or Roman philosophy. There have been various attempts to get across the unity of being between the Divine Persons, particularly between the Son and the Father. “Consubstantialem Patri” in the old ICEL translation was “of one Being with the Father.” That was a good attempt, because it harkened back to the Greek, but it could also be rendered as “one in Being with the Father” or “of the same Being as the Father” or “one in essence with the Father.”
The Anglican Prayer Book translated the Latin literally: “Being of one substance with the Father.” Here we bump into problems with “substance” which today means material stuff. It might be argued that “being” sounds ethereal and “substance” suggests more solidity — as long as we never imagine that God is a material Being. Yet “made of the same stuff” is what the original Greek implies. There is no simple way to translate this phrase, but it does raise a crucial question.
Why was that original word homoousios so important? The identity of the true God revealed in Jesus Christ depends on that word homoousios. If you change a little letter “i” in the middle of the word, a destructive heresy takes over. The changed word homoiousios means that Jesus Christ was “of like being with the Father” or “of a similar being as the Father.” That makes the Father the real God and Jesus Christ becomes just a lesser Son, like some kind of grand angel. Logically the Holy Spirit becomes another semi-divine being. There is no longer a Trinity. This was the heresy of the Egyptian priest Arius.
The Council of Nicaea dealt with the threat of the popular heresy of Arianism, which lingered for some centuries. Today a crude Arianism is found among Jehovah’s Witnesses and takes more subtle forms among some liberal Christians who “nuance,” “demythologize,” or “deconstruct” the divinity of Our Lord.
When we say “consubstantial with the Father” we affirm our Catholic belief, not only in the divinity of Christ but in God the Holy Trinity. This should remind us that orthodoxy is not getting some sums right, but an adventure of faith, accepting and entering the richness and wonder of God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.
“Consubstantial” will require education in our schools. But the liturgy of the Church is an adult activity into which children are gradually initiated. Children like exploring new words and this expression opens up the essential Christian truth of the divine nature of the Lord Jesus.
People whose first language is not English may also be challenged by “consubstantial.” But translations of the liturgy are not to be in a lowest common denominator language. Liturgy in the people’s tongue calls for quality language. Moreover our Roman Missal is derived from the Latin original and the texts should retain some of the flavor and dignity of that great tradition.
The new translation of the Mass is marked by a clearer emphasis on sacrifice. One example would be the word “oblation” that is now found in various prayers. This elegant word is a close English translation of oblatio. An “oblation” refers to a sacrificial offering, a gift that is offered up to God.
However “oblation” can refer to two stages of offering in the Liturgy. In the first stage the word is plural. The oblations or offerings of the people are brought forward in the procession of gifts. The bread and wine (with offerings of money or food for the poor) are brought to the altar at the beginning of the preparation of the gifts or offertory. The priest sets aside this bread and wine “which we offer you.”
Having washed his hands he invites the faithful to join in the great sacrifice that is approaching. Then he says or sings what used to be called The Prayer over the Gifts. This is now The Prayer over the Offerings, a correct translation of Oratio Super Oblata. It could also be called The Prayer over the Oblations. “Gifts” was slightly ambiguous because these holy “gifts” are set aside for God, not for us, at least at this stage of the celebration.
In the Pre-Vatican II Missal The Prayer over the Offerings was called The Secret Prayer. It was “secret” not because it was said silently but because it was when the bread and wine were set apart, or “secreted,” for the consecration. A welcome change in the Missal of Paul VI was praying this prayer out loud, with a dialogue leading into it, “Pray brothers and sisters…May the Lord…” which may now be sung. The Prayer over the Offerings sets the scene for the offering of the Lord’s Sacrifice. We move from our oblations to the great Oblation, the second stage of the sacrificial action.
In the Eucharistic Sacrifice we do not offer bread and wine to God, rather, through the Holy Spirit, we offer Christ to the Father, His true Body and Blood. The language of the Preface and the Eucharistic Prayer therefore changes to express this great Oblation, affirming that Jesus Christ is offering Himself to the Father. The Mass is the sacramental re-presentation of His completed work on the cross.
Eucharistic Prayer I speaks of “this oblation of our service.” In the poetic and scriptural language of Eucharistic Prayer III, “from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice” is offered. After the consecration the Father is asked to look upon “the oblation of your Church.” This is Jesus Himself, “the sacrificial Victim by whose death you willed to reconcile us to yourself”. This part of the prayer is called “the oblation” (General Instruction, 79f).
Self-offering in love is the inner meaning of Christ’s oblation. His personal self-gift should mark the lives of Christians, which is why we also speak of some people who are “oblates,” for example priests and brothers, “The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.” These men offer their whole lives for the mission of the Church under the mantle of Mary.
In medieval times some parents offered their daughters and sons to a convent or monastery as “child oblates.” The practice echoed the Old Testament tradition of the boy Samuel, offered to God by his mother for service in the sanctuary. Here he heard God’s call (I Samuel 3).
However, in every Mass, we can offer ourselves through, with, and in Christ. Therefore Eucharistic Prayer III asks that Christ “may make of us an eternal offering” to the Father. In Eucharistic Prayer IV, the Father is asked that all who share in the sacrament of the Eucharist “may truly become a living sacrifice in Christ to the praise of your glory.”
Through the Eucharist, which is both sacrifice and sacrament, our lives can become an oblation to the Father. Here we receive grace to go forth and live the Gospel of love day by day. Here we are empowered to give ourselves in the service of others.
Bishop Peter Elliott, auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, Australia, since 2007, is director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Melbourne, Delegate for the Anglican Ordinariate for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Australian Bishops Conference, and is a member of the Australian Bishops Commission for Liturgy. He also served as an official of the Pontifical Council for the Family (1987-97). He is the author of several books on the liturgy, including Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (1995/2004), Liturgical Question Box (1998), and Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year (2003), among others. Bishop Elliott has contributed several articles to the Adoremus Bulletin; the most recent,“Why We Need the New Translation of the Mass,” was published in November 2010.