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What’s in a Prayer?

A mystagogical catechesis of the verbs used in the Christmas season’s collect prayers

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There is an old Latin language maxim, which every student of liturgy learns from the start: Lex orandi, lex credendi.

To this is often added: Lex vivendi.

This is commonly translated as: the law of praying establishes the law of believing and this becomes the law of living. Outlining a simple pattern of Christian discipleship, the maxim contains a profound understanding of the interconnection between liturgy, faith and discipleship.

Inspired by such power of praying, we are summoned to surrender. And, that is what faith is: a trustful surrender to God; becoming flesh in the Body of Christ, bearing fruit that will last. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, can be traced to the writings of St. Prosper of Aquitanus (c. 390-455).

Christmas Mass
Discalced Carmelite Father José Fredi Arteaga Figueroa censes a figurine representing the baby Jesus during Christmas Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in San Salvador, El Salvador, Dec. 25, 2020. CNS photo/Rhina Guidos

Inspired and taking seriously this important maxim, our present meditation will provide a kind of mystagogical catechesis on the collects, the opening prayers, of the major celebrations of the Christmas season, specifically the significant verbs found in the orations of five festivals of these holy days: Christmas Mass during the Night; Holy Family Day; the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God; Epiphany; and the closing feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

Why the verbs? Needless to say, verbs are action words. They move. They are liquid. They pass through time and space. They offer momentum. They drive the meaning and awaken responses to living. Or, as one author put it: Without verbs, you can’t do anything, you can’t feel anything — you can’t even be anything.

One of the divine gifts of human consciousness is our imagination. As Walter Brueggemann, author of “Finally Comes the Poet — Daring Speech for Proclamation” (Fortress, $25), writes, liturgy and preaching and their rich array of metaphors fund the imagination. Notice the verb he chooses: fund. As in a bank account, or a retirement plan, preaching funds our ability to imagine a world where God is all in all. Preaching, and by extension in this context, the entire liturgy, funds imagination with the richness of images and metaphors we have all around us. When the imagination is funded, a rich harvest of love blossoms.

I have always been inspired by the words of Albert Einstein extolling the imagination: “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

It is toward this encircling of the Christian world that I offer select verbs gleaned from liturgical orations of the Christmas season. May they fund imaginations with the incarnate joy. May these verbs crown our hearts with beauty. May they add colors to the word pallets we use to paint the glory of God during this holy time.

Mass during the Night

The collect that is prayed during the night of Christmas Eve is often prayed at midnight. While this is not always the case in many parishes, the nighttime is intended to be the atmosphere of this liturgical gathering.

Collect: O God, who have made this most sacred night / radiant with the splendor of the true light, / grant, we pray, that we, who have known the mysteries of his light on earth, / may also delight in his gladness in heaven.

This collect employs several important verbs:

• Have made radiant.

• Have known the mysteries of light on earth.

• Delight in gladness.

I believe that the verb “to delight,” in Latin perfruor, is the key of our nocturnal praying. In Latin, the verb means to enjoy totally, to delight thoroughly.

Our spirits are created for delighting in wonder, beauty and truth. And, as the community stays awake for the celebration of the mystery of light, we pray to be delighted again by angelic voices.

To delight means to enjoy, take pleasure in, to thrill in, to be enchanted by. It points to a savoring of something that transports us to another dimension of consciousness — a delight that turns the night into day.

Imagine living in an enchanted world. When we do, Christmas appears. For Christmas is the radiance of knowing the splendor of a humble God, becoming an embryo and when full-term placed in a manger.

In each collect prayer, there is a standard verb used: “grant, we pray” — quaesumus, in Latin — give us, or grant us, we plead with you, strongly asking you. Such verbs emphasize the urgent need for wholeness. We are begging. We are seized with the terror of the night. We stand in the paradox of light in the darkness, given.

The strength of this pleading stems from a deep awareness of our need and helplessness. We long for joy, for gladness, and with restless hearts we are aware we cannot offer this to ourselves or one another. No noun satisfies for very long. The delights of time and space are without substance. In the middle of the night, we are offered delight in light, a heavenly savored mystery.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

This feast is celebrated on the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas. If there is no Sunday, the Missal determines that Dec. 30 is the day of commemoration.

This recent feast amplifies the meaning of the Christmas mystery by locating it at the heart of family life.

In most of North America, there is an array of family configurations. As civil laws about marriage and family change, the liturgical assembly reflects these changes. The collect for the feast can hold this variety, while other parts of the liturgy for the day may not. Preaching from this oration may provide a helpful avenue for including all members of the gathered community.

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Glorifying the Lord

The phrase lex orandi, lex credendi (“the law of what is prayed”) can be traced back to the writings of St. Prosper of Aquitanus (c. 390-455), and is sometimes quoted in its original format: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. In this context, the author is speaking about the experience of the apostolic Church setting forth its rich doctrinal truths in the lineage of prayer formulae and liturgical practices.

Therefore, the law and manner of praying, passed down through the early centuries of the Church, is the essential place where the deep faith of the tradition can be experienced and understood. From such a rich source, communities of Christians continue to be formed in the heritage of the saints and the promises of Christ.

In our contemporary understanding, nearly 16 centuries removed from its origin, this maxim encapsulates the understanding that as we celebrate our faith, so our faith takes root in our communities. Justice flourishes as we go out to glorify the Lord with our lives.

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Collect: O God, who were pleased to give us / the shining example of the Holy Family, / graciously grant that we may imitate them / in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity, / and so, in the joy of your house, / delight one day in eternal rewards.

The verbs that give flow to the prayer include:

• Pleased to give.

• Imitate in practicing.

• And, to delight is here again.

Central to the collect is the verb: to imitate. Specifically, the prayers ask God to grant us the necessary strength, courage and wisdom to imitate the Holy Family in the virtues of family life and the bonds — the Latin is vinculis — of charity.

To imitate is a powerful verb. It is said that to imitate someone, like a teacher or a famous person, is a sign of admiration. To imitate is to admire, to cherish and to wish to emulate.

In this collect, we are asked to admire the virtues and the love relationships of this ancient family and to make their way of life our own. We pray that somehow families will all become holy families.

The difficulty is that we know little about the historical Holy Family.

From the infancy narratives of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, we are given brief glimpses into the dynamics of their relationships. When it comes to the virtues of family life they practiced, we can identify only a few: honesty, understanding, perseverance, forgiveness, obedience, and flexibility that allows for rethinking how things ought to be. There are probably more that could be added to this list. For now, this offers some focus to the prayer’s request to imitate the way of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

To imitate these values, to make them familial habits, takes practice and time. For us who pray, the shining example of these virtues is godly given for us to learn. Such values, some of which were listed above, are familial values necessary for family configurations of all kinds.

Moreover, this prayer can be prayed for the whole of the human family, nations among nations, religions among religions and cultures among cultures. It is not too far-fetched to consider the possibility that God is also giving us these familial virtues for us to deepen the bonds of charity with the global and cosmic family in an inter-belongingness of life, an integrated scope. To “family” might be better understood as a verb. “Familying” together may truly be the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation and the foretaste of the joy of God’s house and our eternal rewards. Delighting, again, is our Christmas verb.

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The Power of Words

Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks of the power of words in an essay collection: “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20). He claims, in the ancient rabbinic insight, that the power of words can charge the imagination and move the hearer into action. Words and sounds create the universe. He writes: “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”

Therefore, what starts as praying and praising and processing with candles, and in an array of other symbolic activities, impacts the hearers and becomes the inspiration for a living discipleship. Words have power. And thus we believe that as we do what we do and say what we say in our liturgical assemblies it is the Divine One who is doing and saying the Living Word in us. All of this is for our transformation, our metanoia.

Inspired by such power of praying, we are summoned to surrender. And, that is what faith is: a trustful surrender to God; becoming flesh in the Body of Christ, bearing fruit that will last. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.

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Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

At the center of the Christmas season, the solemnity of the Mother of God celebrates a quaternity of themes.

By the liturgical ordo, it is the festival of the Theotokos, the Mother of God. By the calendar, Jan. 1 is the beginning of the civil year. By the 1967 decree of Pope St. Paul VI, it is the World Daa of Prayer for Peace. And, by the proclamation of the Gospel for the day, it is the octave day of Christmas and the commemoration of the circumcision of the infant and the bestowing of his name, Jesus.

Collect: O God, who through the fruitful virginity of Blessed Mary / bestowed on the human race / the grace of eternal salvation, / grant, we pray, / that we may experience the intercession of her, / through whom we were found worthy / to receive the author of life, / our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.

In the matrix of this fourfold gathering, the collect of the Roman Missal uses several verbs that might pull a golden thread to tie them together:

• To bestow.

• To experience.

• To receive.

Nativity
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It becomes increasingly clear to me, as I age, that the Christian religious experience is one of receptivity. It is all gift, or it is all grace. In other words, Christianity is a mystical religious tradition, wherein Christians are those who allow themselves to be ravished by God. As John Donne so well says at the end of Holy Sonnet XIV: “Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

To experience this is to experience what Mary knew as she surrendered to the invitation of the messenger: Fiat, oui, oui. This overwhelming realization is not popular in modern cultures of sufficiency and self-interest. Somehow, it is commonplace to want to do it all, to be in control. In a sense, it is a culture that wishes to deny our humanity as a “mortal coil,” ending in death.

Some have suggested that this clutching onto a superhuman identity is a posture of denying death. This attempt sets up mechanisms of control that breed violence, war and the destruction of life in all forms.

The verbs of our prayer school us otherwise. At the beginning of a new year, we pray that with Mary we may receive the wisdom gifts that God bestows. In the Son and God and the Son of Mary, we are summoned to experience a mystical dying of such magnitude that our lives are changed. We receive a new way of life, free of the tendency to hold on and grab, free of stuck-ness and fear. In this gift, light appears, and the author of life authors in us that which this world can never give.

Let us be attentive.

Epiphany of the Lord

Traditionally celebrated on Jan. 6, this Epiphany feast is now commemorated, in many parts of the world, on the Sunday between Jan. 2-8. No doubt, the rationale for this move is the need for a more populated observance, especially in places where the Epiphany is not a public holiday.

There is much to be studied about this solemnity: its origins, its baptismal nature, its threefold meaning and, of course, its cultural manifestations. Here, we only focus on the collect. For our purposes, the verbs are essential.

Collect: O God, who on this day / revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations / by the guidance of a star, / grant in your mercy, that we, / who know you already by faith, / may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.

In the collect for the Mass during the Day several verbs are significant:

• To reveal by a star.

• To know you.

• To behold (ad contemplandam) beauty.

In the Orthodox tradition, this day is known as Theophany — that is, the day of the manifestation of God. In the Eastern tradition, this manifestation is threefold: the Magi following the star to the house where the child is, the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan, and the sign of water in wine at the wedding feast of Cana. The accent of these three mysteries on this day in the orthodox tradition is the baptism of the Lord.

In Roman Catholicism, we call it the Epiphany of the Lord, celebrating the manifestation of the God of Israel to the gentile peoples, represented in the astrologers’ visit to the newborn King. It should be noted that the threefold dimension of the eastern observance is given mention in the Magnificat antiphon for second vespers on the solemnity: “Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.”

The verbs of the collect are strong indicators of the significance of this feast. The revelation of Christ is a cosmic event. The star is an ancient symbol that proffers before us the vast nature of God’s desire to communicate with humanity. The entire cosmos evangelizes.

The star is an invitation to be guided to the mystery of God’s willingness to identify with humanity, and in humanity to be identified with all creation. The resonance of the verb “to know you” speaks of more than a cognitive experience. It is more than memorizing answers as an apologetic defense of beliefs. It is a deep knowing, in the intimate biblical way of knowing. The star summons and guides us to a wedding and a plunging in the depths of death, in water and spirit. Such a knowing is more like an unknowing … infinitely comprehensible in love.

This epiphany reveals what we are given to behold, to contemplate: the beauty of God, made manifest; the beauty of the stars and the vastness of what is seen and unseen. In this sublime glory, our humanity, radiant with cosmic life, becomes “one with the divinity of Christ, who humbles himself to become one with us.”

The Baptism of the Lord

As the Christmas season liturgically ends at the close of the second vespers of this feast, what we know as Ordinary Time begins.

It is interesting to note that the Roman Missal offers two orations for this feast, each accenting a different dimension of the celebration.

The Baptism of Jesus Christ
“The Baptism of Jesus Christ” in the baptistery of the Church of St. Francis in Vienna. Renáta Sedmáková/
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The first option points to the declaration by God that in his baptism Christ was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the beloved Son. In the Greek New Testament, the word “Son” can also be translated as “servant.” This option then beseeches God to make all the baptized well-pleasing sons, daughters and servants in the divine realm.

The second option is a bit more mystical, reminiscent of the Epiphany solemnity. It prays that Christians may be inwardly transformed by Christ, as we recognize the humanity of the divine Incarnate One.

Collects: Almighty ever-living God, / who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan / and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him, / solemnly declared him your beloved Son, / grant that your children by adoption, / reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, / may always be well pleasing to you.

Or:

O God, whose Only Begotten Son / has appeared in our very flesh, / grant, we pray, that we may be inwardly transformed / through him whom we recognize as outwardly like ourselves.

The verbs that I find essential here are a blend of both prayers:

• To be baptized.

• To be transformed.

• To recognize.

The ancient practice of Christian baptism, building on other religious forms of washing and bathing, offers a unique twist. In this symbolic washing, the early writers considered the nature of being plunged into water, almost to the point of breathless drowning, as a burying with Christ. Baptism was the mystical death.

The icon of this moment in the life of Jesus portrays John the Baptist with his hands on the head of Christ. When gazing at this image, either Jesus can be seen as standing or, as being placed down into the river, lying down.

Angels are often portrayed on the banks holding white garments. Some claim that these are the baptismal robes and what is portrayed on the icon is indeed the mystical plunging of each Christian believer, soon to be clothed with Christ.

To be baptized is to be transformed by Christ in the Spirit. It is the opportunity of grace offered to those being plunged into the death of the Lord. It is the metanoia, which tugs us beyond the old mind into the mind of Christ.

Now, it is a matter of recognizing what already is happening to us who have been baptized. And, in that recognition, may we become what we already are to be: the image and likeness of God.

Final Verb

To all these Christmas orations, and to the law of praying and believing and living, may we respond sincerely with another great verb: Amen. 

FATHER RICHARD N. FRAGOMENI, Ph.D., is a priest of the Diocese of Albany, New York, and professor of liturgy and preaching and chair of the Department of Word and Worship at Catholic Theological Union.

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Wisdom of a Homiletics Teacher

As a teacher of preaching, I believe the words of St. Prosper of Aquitanus (c. 390-455), whose writings trace the origin of Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, also apply strongly to the power of the liturgical homily. As an essential part of our praying, the homily is more of an incantation of praise than a moral instruction or, at worst, a boisterous harangue. We might riff off of Prosper’s maxim and say that as we preach, so the community believes, and so the community lives. Reading ancient homilies, not unlike the study of ancient ritual prayer texts, is, indeed, a glimpse into the doctrine and the development of doctrine of the Church.

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