Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Day Four and a Precious Chalice

Today's talks at the retreat of the New England Bishops include meditations on accipesupplicesfamulis and praeclarum.  Here's my short mediation on "this precious chalice..."

accípiens et hunc præclárum cálicem in sanctas ac venerábiles manus suas

he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands,




One of the most frequently raised objections to the newest translation of the Roman Missal has been the more precise translation of the phrase praeclarum calicem in the Roman Canon.  It conjures, they suggest, images of a bejeweled golden vessel of the high Baroque, when the vessel which the Lord first took into his hands in the upper room was probably a clay cup.  

One internet commentator goes back to the synoptic and Lukan accounts and rightly observes that there is no suggestion [in the scriptural text] that there was anything praeclarus about” the poterion which Jerome would later translate as calix. 

So why, then, did Pope Gelasius I add the adjective praeclarus to the scriptural calix and why, in our own day, was it retained in the Novus Ordo of Pope Paul VI?

The answer lies in our failure to understand what makes this vessel praeclarus.  It is not the gold or the gems or its artistic form.  It is praeclarus because its destiny is to bear the Blood of the Lord to a people he has come to save.

Let me explain.  The word praeclara also occurs in the fifteenth verse of the Stabat Mater:

Virgo, virginum praeclara
Mihi iam non sis amara
Fac me tecum plangere.


Here the Virgin of virgins is described as precious or resplendent, and presumably not because of that really cool dress she’s wearing.  No.  what makes her praeclara is that she, like the chalice, is a vessel of singular devotion: made to bear the Body of the Lord as Theotokos.

Or, again, we have the twelfth century sequence which we still use for the Octave of the Nativity of the Virgin:

Ave, præclara maris stella, in lucem gentium…
The precious or shining star of the sea and light to the Gentiles!

Or this seventeenth century Hymn for Morning Prayer on the Immaculate Conception which we still sing in the Liturgy of the Hours:

Præclara custos virginum,
Intacta Mater Numinis,
Cœlestis aulæ ianua,
Spes nostra, cœli gaudium.


Precious custodian of virgin souls….

What makes her precious is not her physical beauty or her garments or even her virginity.  What makes her praeclara is that the fruit of her womb is blessed and thusly she is the most blessed among women.

Likewise, the Chalice is Precious not because of gems or metals or even the craftsmanship of accomplished hands.  The Calicis is Praeclara because it, like the Blessed Virgin, bears the Body and Blood to the Lord which is the salvation of his holy people.

It is not unlike the Sacred Liturgy itself, which is praeclara, because it too bears the Body and Blood to the Lord which is the salvation of his holy people.  

There were severe problems existing in the Church in France during the lifetime of John Eudes. The Church had been torn by schism and heresy and many abuses had crept in. The physical condition of the church buildings and the lack of respect - even evidence of contempt by the people, grieved St. John very much.  He wrote:

"No longer is there a sanctuary or special place reserved for the sacred ministers in the Holy of Holies. All places are thrown open, not only to lay-men, to worldly women, to evil-living vagrants who enter the holy places only to profane them, but even to dogs that are allowed to roam around and do what they please; the Church is a den of thieves, a lair of wild beasts, a place of profanation. . .. You see lay-folk, men and women, entering the choirs and sanctuary, taking the priests' places, and sometimes seating themselves above them, standing beside the altar and even leaning upon it. . . .”

"That is not all: do you wish to see in what little consideration the majority of Christians hold the house of their God? Go to the houses of the rich and noble: you will see nothing there that is not clean and decent; you will see them adorned with rich tapestries, choice furniture, exquisite linen, vessels of silver often inlaid with gold and enamel. Go to the Churches; you will see many of them in dirty and filthy surroundings; tapestried inside with cobwebs, paved with dust and mud; the roof and windows open to wind, rain, hail, and snow; altars devoid of ornaments and covered with dust, priests offering the dread sacrifice in torn albs and chasubles, corporals and purificators sometimes so dirty that they make one's heart sick; chalices made of tin and begrimed at that; the Most Holy Sacrament in a ciborium of the same material and within a wretched tabernacle covered and filled with dust and dirt, without a lamp, without a light, and without any mark of religion.”

I think Saint John Eudes would have made a good patron Saint of the Church Goods Association.  In any case, he has a point.  Maybe the chalice should be made to look praeclarum because it is praeclarum.  Maybe the Church and the Sacred Liturgy should be adorned with the best we have to give so that it is clear that from there we receive the very best which God has to give.

So let us who take up the precious chalice, become what we offer up, as Saint Paul wrote to the young Bishop Timothy:

“In a large household there are vessels not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for lofty and others for humble use. If anyone cleanses himself…he will become a vessel for lofty use, dedicated, beneficial to the master of the house, [and] ready for every good work.”

May you be a praeclarum calicis!