Wednesday 6 September 2023

The law of praying (6): Negotiating with God

We are looking at a section from the Canon of the Mass each week, to learn what the ‘law of praying’ has to teach us about what we believe. You can find the previous posts in this series in our reflections archive.

Therefore, Lord, we pray:
graciously accept this oblation of our service,
that of your whole family;
order our days in your peace,
and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation
and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Our Roman way of praying draws on very ancient Roman ways of speaking to God. A covenant is a legal contract. The New and Eternal Covenant that the priest is taking part in is a legal exchange between the Church and God — and therefore there are hints of legal terminology as we form our prayer. This ‘therefore’ is not the first we have seen in our prayer so far. We are building an argument. This ‘therefore’ follows on, but from what? We have already seen that because we are in communion with the Pope and the Bishop therefore we are members of the Church founded by Christ. And because we are members of his Church therefore we know we are in communion with the saints in heaven. And because we are in communion with the Church on earth and in heaven therefore we have the confidence to pray…

Therefore, we ask God to accept the offering of our service (an ‘oblation’ is simply an ‘offering’), which is Pope St Leo the Great’s rather fancy way of saying, ‘accept the offering we make of ourselves, your servants’. We unite ourselves to Christ as he offers himself to the Father. We are reminded that the Church is a family. We ask for some rather obviously good things for that family, including that we be numbered among the sheep rather than the goats (Matt. 25). But if anything, this section builds suspense. It’s like the deep breath before plunging underwater, since things are now about to get really serious.

Be pleased, O God, we pray,
to bless, acknowledge,
and approve this offering in every respect;
make it spiritual and acceptable,
so that it may become for us
the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ.

If we really want to get the sense of this section, we might translate the beginning of this paragraph as follows:

Which aforesaid offering, we ask you, O God, in every respect:
deign to make blessed, written-up [adscriptam], ratified [ratam], rational and acceptable…

Just as a legal document covers every base so as to close off every loophole, we leave no room for misunderstanding in what we are asking from God. This is not the first time we have had this kind of repetitive pattern and it certainly won’t be the last. The Canon is filled with them. Here, we insist that God makes note of our sacrifice on a list. He must write it down so that there’s a record that we were here and we fulfilled our duties towards him. We’re not taking any chances! We want it ratified too — we want to make sure that what we do is valid and approved. And we ask him to make it ‘reasonable’ or ‘rational’. We are asking him to make sure our offering has a rational soul — that is, a human soul. This is not the sacrifice of a dead irrational animal like the sacrifices of the Temple. It is not even the offering of Christ’s dead body, separated from his rational soul. Our bread and wine are about to become the living Body and Blood of Christ, united forever with his rational human soul, united forever with the Logos, the eternal Word.

This is not your everyday language of the Roman street. In fact, this use of legalism, repetition and rhetoric is an echo of pre-Christian Roman prayer. It shows us that the first Christians did not in fact speak to God in their normal Latin, but from the earliest centuries knew that they needed a sacred language to remind them they were doing something special. To create this sacred language, they borrowed heavily from even more ancient ways of speaking.

The very ancient Romans thought that the gods were constantly trying to catch them out, much like a genie in a story who finds the loophole in a person’s wish and grants them something they definitely didn’t want. So the Romans were terribly precise and legalistic when they spoke to their gods, and made sure they left nothing out. Now, we do not believe that God deals like that with us. We are talking here to our loving Father, who wants to give us fish, eggs and bread even when we ask for snakes, stones and scorpions (cf. Luke 11). But this way of thinking led to a way of praying that we have inherited. It has become part of our God talk. Just as we don’t think God listens to us more if we call him ‘thou’, and yet we still like to because it’s helpful for us to have a sacred language, so we don’t think that God will catch us out if we forget to ask for the right thing in our prayer. We speak in this way because we find it helpful. It puts us in the right frame of mind for speaking to God, and it means we can be confident that we have asked God for everything that we should.