Behold the Lamb: The Triumph of the New Translation

To mark the implementation of the new English translation yesterday, the First Sunday of Advent, and to and facilitate discussion, we have reposted this piece and George Weigel’s column on the topic.


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The reasons given for the new English translation of the Mass are that:

  1. it is more faithful to the Latin
  2. it restores allusions to Sacred Scripture which had been lost
  3. it heightens the sense of reverence by the use of special ‘sacred’ language and
  4. we needed something to wake up all those dozy Catholics.

One section of the new translation of the Mass which illustrates these points is the invitation to communion. In the 1970 translation the priest said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.” Now the priest says, “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.”

The new translation makes the quotation of John 1:29 clearer. The words matter. With “Behold!” we can better visualize John the Baptist spluttering up from the water after just dunking some fellow and spotting his cousin Jesus, and thundering out in his prophet’s basso, “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold him who takes away the sins of the world!” It is almost Shakespearian in its ominous omniscience, and the somewhat archaic ‘Behold’ makes it so. When the priest says ‘Behold” there is something majestic and monumental and magnificent about it. Like any good allusion, it brings to mind the whole story. We can see John, gaunt from desert asceticism — in his rough camel skin (no that was not a camel’s hair jacket from Brooks Brothers) and then we see his obeisance and obedience as he says, “I am not worthy to untie his sandals. He must increase and I must decrease.”

Furthermore, “Behold” conveys a deeper meaning than the rather flat “Here is.” “Behold” carries a connotation of contemplation and wonder. We say, “That is something to behold!” when confronted with a wonder or some great beauty. “Here is” conveys no depth. Then “Behold” is repeated to bring us to wonder at the truth that the Lamb takes away the sins of the world. The fact that this statement of John the Baptist is so central in the Mass gives the theological balance to those who criticize the replacement of the word “many” for “all” in the words of consecration. Both are true. Christ died for the sins of the world, but not all will receive His love.

Then the priest says, “Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.” He says “Blessed” instead of “Happy.” “Happy is just, well, happy. You can be happy by going to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal. You can be happy because you slept well, or you got a birthday card that day, or you saw a cheerful aphorism on Facebook. Happy is sappy. “Blessed” on the other hand, implies God’s involvement. A Christian person is blessed by God and therefore has a reason to be happy. Deep down happy. Existential Happy. Blessing implies a supernatural grace received. The dumb downers will say, “‘Blessed’ is an archaic word. People don’t know what it means!” Well, teach them. But anyway, at the end of Mass everybody gets a blessing. Of course they know what ‘blessing’ means.

The priest now says, “The supper of the Lamb” instead of “his supper.” “His supper” just sounds like you’ve been invited around to some guy’s house for soup and sandwiches. “Hey, come around for supper on Tuesday! Then we’ll watch the game.” Not really. “The supper of the Lamb” carries much more meaning — meaning which was lost in the old translation. First of all, “the supper of the Lamb” refers to the marriage supper of the Lamb” in the Book of Revelation. (Rev.19:7) This is the consummation of all things, and connects with the nuptial imagery in Ephesians where St Paul describes the church as the Bride of Christ. The Eucharist is therefore an eschatological wedding feast at which the whole church, and we as individuals are joined with Christ the Bridegroom. At the Eucharist we “participate fully” in the union with the Bridegroom. The Eucharist is an ‘even now-not yet’ moment. The marriage is complete through the cosmic event of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but it is also not yet fulfilled completely, for we are not yet in heaven.

The nuptial imagery in Ephesians and Revelation also connect with the passages in the gospels where Christ the Lord speaks in parables of the coming of the bridegroom and refers to Himself as the Bridegroom who has come.

There is more: the “supper of the Lamb” is also a reference back to the Passover Feast — which was not only a type of the sacrifice of Christ, but also a pointer to the Eucharist and the final consummation of the marriage supper of the Lamb. The Jews referred to the Passover Lamb as “the Lamb of God” and so this language “the supper of the Lamb” now carries all these references and meanings. It is good to remember the theological and liturgical significance of these Scriptural allusions. They are not simply there to show how smart the liturgists are, nor are they inserted as some sort of clever literary device.

An allusion is meant to evoke not only the original literary story or text. It is meant to evoke an entire episode or story. The allusions to Scripture in the liturgy are actually allusions to events and images within salvation history. Here the liturgical concept of anamnesis holds hands with the literary term allusion. Anamnesis is the idea that as we remember previous events in a liturgical and ritualistic action we do not only remember them, but we re-live them. Events from the past are brought into the present moment. Liturgy makes time travelers of us all. Thus, when we recall the Passover we re-live and bring into the present moment that saving event. With that we gather up that dark Friday afternoon when the Lamb of God actually took away the sins of the world, and we also bring into the one present liturgical moment Christ’s words about wedding feasts and brides and bridegrooms and foolish virgins and keeping lamps lit and we look forward to that great marriage supper of the Lamb where all things shall be reconciled.

We are all in favor of the people ‘participating fully’ in the liturgy, but does this simply mean that we include the cub scouts and the ushers and the CCD teachers in our procession, or does it actually mean that we take time to inform and educate the faithful about the fullest depth of meaning which is we receive in concentrated form in the words of the liturgy? I don’t mean to be too cynical, but I fear that the trendy priests who get on their soapbox about ‘full participation’ will probably not touch on all these points at all, and so the ‘full participation’ they say they are in favor of will not have much depth.

At the end of the day, do the words matter? You bet they do. Last weekend in the parish I celebrated Mass according to the old translation, but had the people practice their parts from the new. I also started using some of the words which we will shortly be using from the new translation. I was delighted but not surprised to find the father of a five year old boy (who is often quite squirmy in church) say to me after Mass, “Father, Tyler noticed that you said ‘chalice’ instead of ‘cup’ and wanted to know why.” When I told Tyler that it was because the cup of Jesus blood was not just any cup, but was a sacred vessel his eyes lit up with instant understanding and faith.

Tyler understood it. It’s not the children and young people I worry about not understanding the ‘long words’, ‘archaic language’ and ‘theological concepts.’

It’s their parents and grandparents.


tagged as: Church Liturgy

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