Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Welcoming the New Translation part 2

Welcoming the New Translation Part Two

                Last week I suggested that the new translation of the Roman Missal offers us a wonderful opportunity to craft a New Year’s resolution to more deeply experience the Mass.  In this series of posts I am attempting to reflect on some of the new translations, drawing from personal reflection (which I attempt to align with the intentions of the bishops) and the work of Dr. Edward Sri.  In this article I want to look at some of the changes that give more precise theological attention to the nature of Christ and the Trinity, particularly in the Gloria and the Creed.  (I have previously reflected on the Trinity in the post The Beauty of Mystery.)

          There are many subtle changes in the Gloria.  Indeed it has been one of the most difficult for me to memorize.  One change that can be easily overlooked, but is important, is the reference to Jesus as the only Begotten Son of God.  The inclusion of the word “begotten” is useful for theological precision. 

          Certainly we are all sons and daughters of God.  By virtue of our Baptism we were incorporated into the Family of God and the Body of Christ.  We are God’s children by Grace, but Jesus is His Son by nature.  A man begets his son because the son comes from him, contains something of him, of his nature.  It is true we have been created by God in His Image and Likeness, but we become partakers of the Divine Nature through Grace, by virtue of our baptism.  Jesus, by contrast, was begotten by God.  He has existed from all eternity as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.  He shares the very same Divine Nature as the Father.  They are distinct as Persons, but one God by nature.  This, of course, is something we can  not say, though we be sons and daughters of God.

          The Nicene Creed brings out the same reality in its use of the term “consubstantial.”  We say Jesus is, “God from God; Light from Light; True God from True God; Begotten, not made; consubstantial with the Father.”  Consubstantial means, quite literally, of the same substance.  These subtle changes give us important instruction as to how Jesus, the Son of God, is truly God, from all eternity.

          Another subtle change in the Creed highlights Jesus’s divinity as well as His humanity.  Rather than saying Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary,” we now say He was “incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”  What’s the difference?  Well, both certainly are true, but the new translation gives important precision.  By saying Jesus was incarnate, we acknowledge two important truths.  First, that Jesus has existed from all eternity as God, but took on our human nature in time approximately two thousand years ago.  Unlike ourselves, who existed nine months before our birth, Christ is eternal and only “became enfleshed” in time. 

          The phrase “was incarnate” is also an important refutation of a heresy that has popped up from time to time stating that Jesus didn’t really become man, but only appeared as a man.  This of course, is not true.  Jesus is fully God and fully human.  By saying He was incarnate we are acknowledging very clearly that Jesus truly did become human.

          On a side note, but related, we will notice some changes to the Apostle’s Creed, as well, which we sometimes say at Mass.  There’s one that I think is important to mention.  We have been saying that after His death, Jesus descended to the dead.  Now we will say He descended into hell.  The Apostle’s Creed, of course, goes back to the Apostles.  One of the great things about the Catholic Church is that it reaches all the way back to Christ and the ancient world.  That means the Church can assist us in our understanding, even when language changes somewhat.

          To understand this phrase in the Creed we have to understand the ancient Jewish notion of hell, or sheol.  It referred to the entire realm of the dead, not just the damned.  When we say in the Creed that Jesus descended into hell, we are not talking about the abode of the damned.  We are speaking of what we might call Abraham’s Bosom or the Limbo of the Fathers.  This is where the righteous dead from before Jesus’s Death and Resurrection dwelt.  They were saved souls who were awaiting the opening of Heaven’s Gate – souls like Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist and St. Joseph.

          It’s also important to understand the ancient Jewish use of the term heaven.  In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he speaks of someone being caught up to the “third heaven” (2Cor 12:2).  What does this mean?  The Mormon church has built a doctrine around this passage stating that there are three separate heavens.  But this is not true.  To an ancient Jew, the term heaven was divided into three.  The first heaven is the firmament of the sky where birds flew and clouds hung.  The second heaven is “the heavens” – outer space – the sun, moon, stars, planets, etc.  The third heaven was what we would call Heaven, where God is.  So St. Paul was making clear that this person was caught up to Heaven, in the presence of God.

          Nuances of language can be very important.  How blessed we are to belong to a Church that has been there through all the linguistic developments of Christian history.  It can provide us a deeper understanding that allows us to enter more deeply into worship, or even evangelize our Mormon brethren.