Words on the Word
32. Sunday C
2 Macc 7:1-2, 9-14: Ours is the better choice, to meet death at men’s hands.
2 Thess 2:16-3:5: May our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen you.
Luke 20:27-38: Moses himself implies that the dead rise again.
The task of translating the Church’s collects can be arduous. Latin has a pregnancy that is hard to render in modern languages. Often we are faced with two alternatives. One is to convey the essence of the original prayer as concisely and elegantly as possible while, with a sigh of resignation, we accept the loss of subtlety – an option often found in the Norwegian missal. The other alternative is to try to catch nuances by means of paraphrase. This can produce a fairly exact but wordy and intricate result. This tendency is evidenced now and again in the English missal.
Today’s collect reads as follows:
Defend us, Lord, against every distress so that, unencumbered in body and soul, we may devote ourselves to your service in freedom and joy.
A devout prayer, by all means. But what does it mean? I’d like to consider it in a little detail. To do so, we can usefully consider the Latin original:
Omnipotens et misericors Deus, universa nobis adversantia propitiatus exclude, ut, mente et corpore pariter expediti, quæ tua sunt liberis mentibus exsequamur.
There are three parts to this prayer, representing a significant progression. In the first part we ask God, first, to let himself be reconciled (‘propitiatus’) in order, thereafter, to rid us of adversity. The element of reconciliation is important. Spontaneously, we tend to think of ourselves as victims of adversity. Here we’re reminded that obstacles we meet are often of our own making. The first thing we must do is to beg pardon. To say, ‘Forgive me!’, is to to be responsible; it is to show oneself to be an adult, not child. This quality is rarer than one might think. However, only when I assume responsibility for my life the way it has turned out do I take my first tentative steps towards freedom. There is no other way.
In the second part, we ask God to liberate our mind and body. The verb I render ‘liberate’ is expedire in Latin. It’s a carefully chosen word. It literally means to release the foot of someone or something (a grouse, perhaps, or a lynx) from a snare. If you consider it, you’ll see what a powerful image it is. Who has not had the experience of walking into a trap laid by convoluted thoughts or bodily passion? On such occasions we feel like flies caught in a spider’s web. We depend on the hand of God to unpick us and render our agility. When once again we buzz around freely, it matters that we do not let ourselves be re-caught. This presupposes an ability to orient ourselves rightly in time and space.
Thereby we reach the collect’s third part, which prays for grace to ‘seek the things that are yours with liberated minds’. It is a splendid intention.
As you can see, the Church, our Mother, puts before us three stages on the journey that will make us become free Christian men and women: first we must own and accept responsibility for what we have done wrong; then we must ask God for salvation at every level, even the most incarnate, should our bodies be unfree; finally we must acquire a true, just perspective on reality, a perspective that lets us grasp how it all fits together, so that we can make right choices.
Today’s readings focus on this final part: the true perception of reality. They make it clear that life here and now can only be correctly understood in the light of eternity. We must raise our gaze beyond what is temporal, beyond life itself – and beyond death. The call is directed to each one of us: You are called to rise from death, to live eternally embraced by God’s glory! As long as we keep this call before our eyes, we shall know what’s required of us here and now. Dilemmas that, from an earthly point of view, seem unsolvable are dissolved when we look at them on the basis of the call of God and of the divine commandments that set the call’s terms.
We encounter such sublime simplification in the testimony of the martyrs. In their case, the complexity of existence is distilled in a particular situation in which only two responses count: Yes or No. What makes them witnesses is their ability, there and then, to choose rightly, or as the collect expresses it, ‘with liberated minds’, freed from personal ambition and other’s expectations, freed even from the instinct to survive. We don’t reach that point in a jiffy. Careful preparation is called for, often, too, a degree of suffering.
This makes me think of my brothers from Tibhirine, abducted and decapitated in Algeria in 1996. The film Of gods and men credibly portrays the terrible inner battle that preceded their sacrifice. Such a battle is marked, necessarily, by ambiguity, darkness, and mixed motives. It matters to persevere through all this. Paradoxically, we are purified by confronting our inner impurity, as long as we let the Lord speak to us, act in us, transform us. The horizon is enlarged and raised. At once we see anew the sun which we may have thought had set for ever, and we know what we must do. In this way we are educated to heavenly beatitude by learning to let go, by allowing ourselves to be set free.
The story of the Maccabean brothers provides a timeless example of this process. Viewed pragmatically, the story is macabre: seven young lives are brutally wasted. But what an image of human dignity! It shows us that we can peacefully resist the claims of violence and might; that we can say No even when wolves all around us howl Yes; that we can recognise the world’s limitedness by fixing our will in God’s promise and raising our eyes towards his kingdom. The seven brothers had grasped the implication of the revelation Moses received at the burning bush. They had learnt by both faith and experience to trust God’s ‘promise that we shall be raised up by him’, knowing that the only life worth living is life in fullness, in an intensity extending beyond the grave. In the case of the seven brothers, all adversities, all snares laid by human weakness had been cleared aside. Their minds were freed. Even when they had to suffer, they proceeded peacefully through death into life’s resurrection.
We are called to follow the path they cleared. The Lord, as Paul writes, will turn our hearts ‘towards the love of God and the fortitude of Christ’. Let’s pray for one another, brothers and sisters, that we may live up to this high goal and do what we can to help and encourage each other effectively along the way. Amen.
Seven of the monks of Tibhrine were beatified in 2018 alongside 12 other Algerian martyrs.