Tuesday 1 June 2010

Ecce qui tollit peccata mundi....

Let us consider for a moment these words from the Mass. These moments between the Consecration and the Communion are filled with the recollection of Christ as the pure and spotless Lamb, and of our own petitions for mercy. The priest at High Mass makes the fraction, commixture and receives Communion before and during the singing of the Agnus Dei. Thereafter, if others are to receive Communion also, he first hears their Confiteor, absolves them and then turns to them holding a Host at eye-level and says :

Ecce Agnus Dei, Ecce qui tollit peccata mundi

Behold the Lamb of God, Behold him who says away the sins of the World.

The image provided by the liturgical action, of the Spotless Lamb on the Altar, comes from the Apocalypse, but the verbal formula used go back to the Gospels, where the Baptist bestows upon Our Lord the title "Agnus Dei", Lamb of God. At the River Jordan, he says "Ecce Agnus Dei qui tollit peccatum mundi", referring in the singular to the sin of the whole world. In the Liturgy, the response of the faithful is "Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof, but speak the word only, and my soul shall be heald". Here, they are echoing the words of the Centurion in Matthew 8 who responds to Jesus' promise to heal with "Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed."

The Gospel texts which have been collated here do not come from one Gospel narrative, but do in fact reflect a common theme: the recognition of man's unworthiness to receive Jesus. The Baptist's words are provoked by his seeing Christ coming towards him, with the crowds of sinners, to be Baptised. These words, these striking images, preface the Baptist's discourse on his unworthiness, and on his role as praecursor. His words are motivated by faith, however, in the fact that Christ's baptism of the Spirit will be the true Baptism, and a true remission of Sins.

The centurion speaks as one who knows his unworthiness before the poor Healer from Gallilee, but also reflect his faith in the healing "word" of Jesus. The liturgical action that accompanies these immortal words skip back to another Gospel story, that of the publican in the Temple who beats his chest and proclaims his unworthiness.

What we have here then is a very small dialogue between the Priest, the People and Christ. While the Priest addresses the faithful in the person of the Praecursor ("Behold..."), the People respond to his declaration by addressing Christ in the Host directly ("Lord, ..."). We have two speech-acts, two voices, and in them, the meeting-place of two themes: unworthiness and faith. This is how tradition has determined that we dispose ourselves before receiving Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

In the reformed rite of Paul VI, however, we find another formula inserted into this simple three-way dialogue : After Ecce Agnus dei, we have Beati qui ad cenam Agni vocati sunt, which is erroneously translated into English as "Happy are those who are called to his supper". The Latin is in more accurately "Blessed are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb".

Now, I'm not sure how I feel about picking on specific minutiae of the reforms in order to criticise them (I often feel the principle of reform has had much more disastrous consequences than most of the details), I do think it's important to interrogate these insertions into the rite, and to ask what they mean. My specific interest is in the analogy of Liturgy with language, and so I would like to ask what is meant by these words; who is speaking them and in what voice? What is the meaning behind them, and where do they fit into the dialogue I described earlier?

Clearly this formula is not entirely inappropriate to the liturgical "Invitation to Communion" as this is often labelled in modern Missals. The cena referred to in the sentence is the "marriage feast of the Lamb" of Revelation 19.9 and certainly describes what we are partaking of. However, it must be pointed out that this leap from the Baptist's words in the Gospel to the mysterical and esoteric disrupts the Communion dialogue by bringing in another voice. Suddenly, to the voice of John the Baptist is added the voice of an Angel saying "write these words : Blessed are those....". From the awe and wonder of Christ's presence amongst men (in both the Baptist's words and those of the centurion), we are taken abruptly to the celestial realm, and asked to ponder not the Human Face of our God, but the mystical wedding feast of the Lamb and His reign in Heaven. The addition of this formula to the Mass is consonant with a general de-emphasis of the Mass as Sacrifice in preference of the Mass as Supper and of course, the Mass is both. However, it does seem to me at least that the insertion of the "Beati qui..." into the Mass is at least a little jarring. The Post-Communion collects of the classical Roman Rite, to my mind, do quite enough to emphasise the Mass as meal "these gifts which we have received..." etc. I would also point out that where the voice of Angels is most prominently echoed, in the Sanctus, the words are padded out with plenty of non-scriptural language, and the Sanctus has an "organising" role in the flow of the liturgy that is quite unique.

In any case, I'd be very interested to hear what other people think about the New Rite Invitation to Communion, and whether the "Beati qui..." is an appropriate interpolation.....


  1. You will doubtless be pleased to know that in the very new translation of the new Missal the translation of the Ecce Agnus Dei is far closer to the Latin 9as you have suggested) V. Behold the Lamb of God; behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb. R. Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word only and my soul shall be healed.

    We have started to use this, and other parts of the new new rite at Staincliffe. The difference is startling.

  2. To me, the ‘Beati qui…’ seems to downplay and distract from the emphasis on the communicant’s appropriate and necessary unworthiness in receiving the Eucharist. This is evident in our act of kneeling – both in adoration and in humbleness – in preparation to take Holy Communion.

    Be it ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’, the awareness of one being uplifted should be stressed after the Eucharist has been received - when the soul then indeed becomes healed - not before. For me, it’s a question of proper context. Hope this makes sense.

    All in all, being a traditionalist, I am wary of innovations to liturgy which has stood the centuries. As the old saying goes – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  3. Roland,

    Yes, that's sort of what I was getting at, in a sense the invitation dialogue consists of two ways of saying the same thing, whereas "beati qui..." seems to belong to a different "moment" liturgically.

    oooh, another post just came to mind

  4. I was about to comment to disagree with this sentiment and thought of what I could supply from Byzantium to counter this. Then I realised that I couldn't find anything, and that the prayers and exclamations before communion in the Byz. Rite very much emphasise our reliance on the Mysteries because of our unworthiness, and that it is only afterwards that we get the acclamations of praise and our worthiness.