Consubstanti-what?? What is the purpose of prayer anyway?

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November 29, 2011 by Nicole

Most of you who read this blog and are regular church going Catholics will probably have already had your first encounter with the new language of mass yesterday, since it was the first Sunday of Advent. Now, I am still young enough that I can’t recall how challenging the shift that occurred after Vatican II must have been for many people  when the mass went from Latin to English, not to mention many of the other significant changes that came along with it.  As I left mass last night, I found myself wondering if these changes in language really do make us stop and think about our worship practices, or if there is something else at work here.

Some people have pointed to the changes in the translation as being a matter of semantics.  To some extent, I suppose that this is true, but as a fairly fluent speaker of a foreign language and a person who fancies herself a “linguistic hobbyist,” I believe that there is a good deal to be said for how and why one translates the text.  For example, there is a big difference between a textual translation that attempts to be as literal as possible and one that strives to be true to the text while capturing the flavor and spirit of it.  It makes sense to me that you ought to say mass in your native vernacular.  And in the case of what’s going on in the Church as it desires to formalize the translation of our ritual prayers at mass so that they align more closely with our older, Latin tradition, I “get it” on an intellectual level.  For instance, responding “And with your spirit” is weird when, for  as long as I can remember, I have said “And also with you” when the priest says “Peace be with you.” And yet, I know that the Latin is something along the lines of Et spiritus tuum.  (I know that I probably just butchered that.  Sorry.)

While I am not adverse to change, I found myself wondering about the purpose of some of these changes.  Now that I am more Biblically literate, I appreciate the change in the prayer that precedes the Eucharist.  We always used to say “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed,” and up until about three years ago, I had no idea where it came from.  I just “said” it.  Now, however, the prayer more accurately reflects Scripture: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and [my soul] will be healed.” (Matthew 8:).  The words of the centurion as he asks Jesus to make his ill servant well again reflect an impressive and powerful statement of faith when you consider that the centurion wholly believes that Jesus can heal just by the power of his spoken word; in fact, the centurion’s faith is so great that he tells Jesus that he doesn’t even need to come to his house.  There is no doubt in the man’s mind nor does he have any hardness of heart (as is so often seen in the disciples) that Jesus’ ability to heal is not confined or limited by any sort of physical distance or obstacles. In my mind, the change is a good one.

Yet, I question whether some of the changes, at least in my mind, really are for the better, or if it really is just a matter of trying to sound more pretentious.  Take for example the new version of the Nicene Creed.  Whereas before, we talked about Jesus as “one in being with the Father.”  Now, we say Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father.”  Part of me wonders why this change is necessary. If you’re curious, the Latin origin is “consubstantialem Patri,” so yes, I guess that this new translation is more closely aligned with the Latin text.

In my mind, there are a few issues here, particularly when you start to think about the ultimate purpose of prayer.  If you want to use the Latin creed as the original standard, then it seems that consubstantial is more literally translated as con, meaning “with” and its Latin root substantia, which is synonymous with words like raw material, essence, or “stuff.” So, a more literal translation would be along the lines of saying that Jesus the Son is made of the same essence or stuff as the Father.  In the previous translation, we professed that Jesus was “one in being with the Father.”  Now, I don’t really care which way you say it, the idea is the same. Jesus is God and God is Jesus, because they are comprised of the same “stuff.” If you want an analogy, water is ice and ice is water; they are both comprised of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

My problem, though, is why use the word consubstantial? It’s a word not familiar to most people; okay, in all fairness, I have a decent vocabulary and I have never seen it before, and the only reason I “know” what it means is because I am, as I said, a word geek.  People can understand what you mean when you say “one in being with” much more easily than using a big word that sounds religiously pretentious.  If the goal of prayer is to enter into a closer, more personal relationship with God, then part of me wonders how a change like this accomplishes this.  People will say it, but most people won’t bother to think about what the word consubstantial means, let alone what it means in terms of their Christian faith.

Now, I won’t go on about how God is still the “Father almighty” and not “omnipotent” (again, that is the Latin word in the creed), or my wondering what inspired re-translating the word “cup” for “chalice” at the consecration of the wine is also a weird decision (If Jesus lived a life of poverty, did he really drink out of a “chalice?” That word carries connotations of wealth. Plus, anyone who has watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade knows that when you drink out of a chalice, your face melts off and you explode into a cloud of ashes!) Why not use the word goblet?

Ultimately, it’s going to take some time to get used to this new way of responding to mass before it feels normal to me.  I just hope that it really does make me feel closer to God.  We’ll see.


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