minima maxima sunt

The Small things are the Great things; as in a grain of mustard seed.

Archive for the month “February, 2013”


Latin Jesus Prayer

Latin Jesus Prayer with Chi Rho

The Catholic Church is full of prayers. They have prayers before meals, prayers before bedtime, prayers for confession, prayers before Mass and prayers after Mass. And along with these prayers come a variety of devotions which date back to very ancient times. I think that to many people outside of the Catholic Church, it may be our devotion to the Blessed Mother that stands out most. The Rosary and the Catholic Church do go hand in hand and as a religious symbol the Rosary identifies Christianity not only in the church but often in the media as well.

The Rosary itself dates back to the 12th century and by our standards that does seem quite ancient, but the Rosary is a relative late-comer in a long line of devotions which incorporated the counting prayer to pray.

I mentioned in my recent post on the Kyrie,  that the Kyrie Eleison is actually the base of another prayer called the Jesus Prayer, which does have ancient origins within the church. It is one of the oldest types of prayers which were counted.  In this prayer people used knots instead of beads to create a rope and this counting system was used to pray the Jesus Prayer. Still popular and widely used to Eastern Christianity which goes for the Orthodox as well as the Eastern Catholic rites, a variety of different  devotions developed over time. Many of them used 33 beads or knots which stood for the 33 years of Christ life. Others would use sets of 50 keep track of how many of the prayers were being said through the day and the simple Jesus Prayer was used for these. It was a way to continuously pray.Knotted Prayer Ropes

Ropes with knots or beads up to 150 were quite common because the Jesus Prayer was in it’s own way a latecomer too. These traditions of prayer counting come from the early church and the Jewish traditions of praying the Psalms, of which there were 150. Of course the Jesus prayer is a lot easier to learn than 150 psalms and so it was certainly easier to work with. And what was lacking in words would be found in contemplation which is an essential part of these devotions. This of course has carried through to later devotions like the Rosary which has a very developed system of contemplation which accompanies the prayers. When praying the rosary, it is not just a recital of prayers, but a consideration and reflection on several “Mysteries” which are really events in the life of Christ from the perspective of Mary. For instance the Joyful Mysteries focus on The Annunciation, The Visitation, The Birth of Jesus, The Presentation and Finding the Lord in the Temple. It is maybe easier to see how simple prayers, instead of the book of Psalms could still bring to mind a very broad range of praise, worship, petition and adoration, through contemplation.

imagesCABFD2JLThe Lords Prayer, Pater Noster, was another simple prayer that was used in this fashion, using a straight rope of 50 beads or variations depending on who made or how it was used. These were most likely the direct predecessor to the Rosary which in it’s earlier models also used a straight rope instead of one with a loop. Eventually these kinds of prayers developed into the many chaplets and devotions, of which the Rosary is a part, that can be found in the world today.

But do keep in mind when you hear the Kyrie that you are praying a prayer with a lot of history.  You are echoing the contemplation of centuries and reciting a prayer inspired by the words of a man who saw the face of our Lord and found mercy.

The Jesus Prayer has several variations:

  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.[
  • Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
  • Jesus, have mercy.

Missa – Eleison

kyrie-eleisonThe Catholic Church is often associated with the speaking of Latin. This is because Western Empire which was Europe spoke Latin, which was the language of the people; the common tongue. This being the case, the Roman Rite spoke the Mass in Latin up until about a half century ago. Latin is still used, and older liturgies like the Tridentine are still to be found, but in English speaking countries, English is most often used for the liturgy.

In the early church period, even within the Roman Empire, the world in which the church was born was still very much Greek. This is because the Roman Empire grew in the decline of the Macedonian Empire established by Alexander the Great. After Alexander the Empire broke apart but culture in the Mediterranean remained Hellenistic into the time of Christ.

The christian church was born in this culture, and as such its earliest writings, the Gospels, Paul’s letters, the Septuagint and its earliest liturgies were spoken in Greek. Byzantine Catholics still use Greek for their liturgy and for that matter the very word “liturgy” comes from the Greek language.

In the west the use of latin became more prevalent, and is still considered the language of the church. However Greek does occasionally make an appearance in our liturgy today. It can be used in the first part of what is understood as the “Ordinary” or Order of the Mass. These are parts of the mass which are constant, and are contrasted with the “Proper” which tend to focus on the special events in the year. The Order consists of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, and in some fashion these will be a part of every mass. (An example of the “Proper” would be prayers used to remember the Saint of a certain day, or certain hymns and prayers sung during the Introit. The Introit may sing about Christmas, or Easter but the Kyrie, in any language will still be the same.)

The Kyrie is a basic version of one of the most ancient prayers of the church; the Jesus Prayer:

Lord, have mercy

Christ, have mercy

Lord have mercy

or if spoken or sung in Greek:

Kyrie Eleison

Christe Eleison

Kyrie Eleison

In the mass it can be spoken, sung or chanted and for me it is always best when done in Greek. There is something beautiful about the prayer, it is simple and direct and comes from the story of the publican in the gospel. The prayer is trinitarian in its structure and variations keep this focus on the Trinity.untitled

The Kyrie also takes a “next step” in the progression of the liturgy. The Penitential rite is about confession and repentance, and now in the Kyrie, we seek mercy. Like the publican, we see the Lord for who He is, but we also know what He has done and why we are participating in this ancient celebration. We ask for mercy because Christ has forgiven us. This is our reminder of sorts. It reminds us that for all the wrong this world has dealt us, and however much of that wrong we had a part in or caused for others; through mortal or venial sin; by sins of omission or commission; and the temporal effects of those sins which continue to reap a harvest; that the Most High God entered humanity and suffered the weight of this world to save us all.

Missa-Ashes and Asperges

There are times when the Penitential Rite is not used. Well maybe that isn’t the right way to say it. Rather the rite is replaced by another ceremony which fulfils the intent of the rite. This occurs several times during the year, most notably during the Easter season and on Ash Wednesday.

Byzantine Illumination from the book of Job.

Byzantine Illumination from the book of Job.

Ash Wednesday, which is our stepping stone into the season of Lent, is one of the most popular masses outside of the big holidays of Christmas and Easter. It’s significance is about repentance and mourning accompanied by fasting, prayer and alms especially during the Lenten season which follows. What most people come away with on Ash Wednesday is the remnant of what the day is named for, and that is ashes. After the homily, the priest will bless the Ashes, which were prepared from the palms of last years Palm Sunday,  and in a similar fashion to the Communion, the congregation will go forward and receive ashes on the forehead in the shape of a cross, (signum crucis). There is often an exhortation which accompanies this such as the minister saying to “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” or “Repent and believe the Gospel”

Baptism of the Lord from Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry

Baptism of the Lord from Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry

During the Easter Season and on a few other occasions through the year another ceremony will stand in place of the Penitential Rite. This ceremony is the Asperges, or blessing and sprinkling with water. It is a reminder of our baptismal vows.

The priest blesses water, and sprinkles himself and those serving then will move through the congregation and sprinkle holy water on those assembled. Often a hymn will accompany the blessing. The tie in with Baptism is clear with the use of water, but there is also a tie in with older stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Exodus, cleansing rituals for lepers, and even in Psalms the image of being cleansed, or purged with hyssop and blood calls to mind the very precious work Christ undertook to save us all, by the shedding of His Blood. As I take part in this blessing, seeing the flash of water from the priest and feeling the cool shock of its spray on my skin, I have to keep in mind exactly why it is water and no longer the blood of sacrificed animals we use today.

In both cases these alternate ceremonies tell us a different story but keep in with the intention and spirit of penitence, calling us to focus on different aspects of our own lives, through repentance, confession and the forgiveness of sins.

Missa – Peccavimus

untitledThe penitential rite, as mentioned in the former post, has three formulas which may be used. The first made up the content of the former post. The second two will make up this post.

The point of the penitential rite is confession, repentance, and a clearing of the conscience to prepare one for the Mass. Unlike the sacrament of confession, the rite is done as a community, and more importantly, it does not take the place of the sacrament which is done privately.

The second formula that can be used for this rite is a simple prayer which is spoken alternately by the priest and congregation:

Priest: Have mercy on us, Lord
Congregation: For we have sinned against you.
Priest: Show us, O Lord, your mercy.
Congregation: And grant us your salvation.

Like many parts of the mass, this interaction between the one presiding and those attending, is not a matter of separating clergy and laity. Rather it is an example of the body of Christ, the church, praying together. It is one of the very striking differences between the ancient church and many of the modern sects whose “worship” tends to be based on a teacher/classroom or preacher/audience format. The ancient church is more congregational in it’s worship, which is one of the nice results of worship being liturgical. This carries into many of the early protestant sects which also use the liturgical format. In the older “Tridentine” mass, which was used prior to vatican 2, this was even more evident as the priest did not face the congregation. Priest and congregation faced forward together which symbolized this unity in the body. However in the tridentine mass there was no verbal interaction or conversation. Prayers said by the congregation are silent and in communion with the priest who is presiding. It was still communal but more contemplative in nature.

The last of the formulas is also spoken by priest and congregation and when used takes the place of the Kyrie, which is the first part of the “ordinary”. This is because the last formula is the Kyrie with a little bit more.

Minister: You were sent to heal the contrite (or a similar invocation): Lord, have mercy.
Congregation: Lord, have mercy.
Minister: You came to call sinners (or a similar invocation): Christ, have mercy.
Congregation: Christ, have mercy.
Minister: You plead for us at the right hand of the Father (or a similar invocation): Lord, have mercy.
Congregation: Lord, have mercy.

More will be said about the Kyrie, which makes up the response from the congregation, in a later post. Here it is the ministers words that give us the direction of this prayer which professes the ministry of Christ. Healing the contrite, calling the sinner, and pleading to the Father for us. It reminds us of the Incarnation in that it envisions Christ, who is God, in the role of mediator. It is that great bow, as Christ is the humble servant, ministering to the church who he died for. Still calling, healing and pleading. It should also remind us that our own ministry has to follow in his footsteps.

Three different formulas with the same intent and yet with very different takes on penitence. In the next post we will look at some of the alternatives that compensate or replace the penitential rite during certain times of the year.

Missa – Confiteor

770px-StJohnsAshfield_StainedGlass_GoodShepherd_Portrait1-300x233The Penitential Rite follows next in this series on the Catholic Mass. This rite has several different formulas which may be used during the mass. Also the rite may be omitted during certain masses, usually because another ceremony is used which takes care of this part of the process of worship. For instance the Blessing of Ashes on Ash Wednesday or the Rites of Blessing during the Easter season.

Right after the Greeting the priest will begin the rite by calling those gathered to “..acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries”. In a way this is a type of “confession/absolution”, but a general one. It doesn’t replace the sacrament of reconciliation (Confession) or absolve one of a mortal sin.

The first of the formulas in this rite is a prayer of repentance called the “Confiteor” or “I confess”. What you will find with most catholic prayers is that they are usually named after the first words in the prayer. We say the “Glory be”, “Our Father” and “Hail Mary”. The same goes with the Confiteor, in Latin. However this was also known as the “Mea Culpa” which translates as “my fault”, and is a phrase  found further in in the prayer. To be honest, I really don’t know what this prayer is called in English as I’ve never heard anyone say “Let’s pray the “I confess”!”, but what I do know is that it is one of my favorite prayers. It is a prayer of repentance and confession, and what I like about it is that it paints a picture of the mystical body of Christ, which is the church, as something that functions as a community or a communion.

I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

The prayer begins by confessing to God and to the community; as a community. In one stroke it places us all in several places. Confessing to God, confessing to the people who maybe we sinned against and being confessed to. I can look for forgiveness to God, my brothers and sisters and also reflect on my duty to forgive those who have “trespassed against me”.

Next comes some definition about sin. “in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.”. Many people are often concerned with the exterior, the visible actions and transgressions. It is almost a throwback to a kind of gnosticism or variant of platonism, separating the physical from the spiritual. But here there is no separation. Our action, our words and even our thoughts come into play. Our actions are categorized into sins of commission and omission (the guilty bystander), our words and even unspoken words are taken into account. It’s not as if God doesn’t know our deepest thoughts, be they dark or not, but in similar way to the actual sacrament of confession, it can be like taking a load off your chest, and allowing yourself to get back to what matters.untitled

The term Mea Culpa comes from the next part of this prayer. It ties directly into what was previously spoken, and is accompanied by striking the breast 3 times while speaking it. “My fault, my fault, my most grievous fault”. To a person no familiar with the liturgy or this prayer, this may be the first part of the mass where they start to look for the door. After all everyone just started to recite the same prayer, they are talking about sin and fault, and now they are hitting themselves? The striking of the breast is a symbol, a physical idea. It draws from older traditions like tearing robes, and more specifically from the gospel story of the publican in Luke. “And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes toward heaven; but struck his breast saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”.

The prayer continues with the communion of saints, and prayers to them, asking them to pray to the Lord our God. We ask those saints in heaven and on earth to ‘keep us in their prayers’. A very simple idea, which has suffered much criticism and assault in the last several centuries. It probably stems from the creeping in of a dualism during the reformation years, which again draws from older gnostic and platonic extremes. The church believes in the communion of saints which encompasses members of the church on earth and in heaven, as functioning parts of the body of Christ. We can pray(ask) to Mary, Joseph and all the saints just like we can pray(ask) our pastor, spouse and friends to pray to God for us;  like we may keep them in our prayers..when they ask us.

In the next post we will look at the other two formulas used in this rite but for now I will leave with the latin version of the prayer. It’s sometimes interesting to look at the latin and pick up on the roots for words we use today. It also helps when your trying to learn latin to try and translate some of these prayers and creeds as a way of becoming familiar with a language.

Confiteor Deo omnipotenti,
et vobis fratres,
quia peccavi nimis cogitatione,
verbo, opere et omissione:
mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Ideo precor beatam Mariam semper Virginem,
omnes Angelos et Sanctos,
et vos, fratres,
orare pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum.

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