When you gamble your whole life on an securing an academic career, you sometimes lose everything before you get up from the table. You stumble to the doors, not believing it, but it is true: you have lost. Moral of story: if you are a devout Catholic of traditionalist inclinations, do NOT attempt a career in academic theology unless you are A) a priest or B) extremely mentally tough. If, however, you are a closet skeptic or think Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza is the greatest thing since sliced bread, you can have the mental toughness of a camomile and you will still be okay. You can repent on your deathbed after a wonderful life of colleagues, students, snazzy restaurants and holidays abroad.
Mind you, I loved my M.Div. years. They made me who I am today. I adored my professors. But I should have gone to translation school instead. Wah. Hindsight is 20/20, which is why y'all read my blog.
Still, it could be that I am called to be a mild sort of economic Victim Soul and my job is to wave the flag of orthodox Catholicism even as my toes poke through my Christmas socks. So without any more self-pity, here is the second column I submitted to Prairie Messenger.
Hyssop, Snow and Water
As it takes over an hour to reach my beloved Extraordinary Form of the Mass on Sunday mornings, I am glad that it does not begin at once. Breathless, I need time to calm down and inwardly prepare. Most Sundays our Mass is preceded by the Asperges, the solemn sprinkling with holy water. This is a beautiful ritual recalling our baptism, Jewish purification rituals and Moses sprinkling the Israelites with the blood of sacrifice. Dating from the ninth century at latest, the Asperges was performed before principal Masses on Sundays until 1970.
In the Asperges ceremony, our priest comes into the nave dressed in a cope, but not his chasuble or maniple, as the Asperges is not part of Mass. He follows a thurifer to the altar; the thurifer carries a vessel of holy water and the sprinkler, called an aspergillum. The sanctuary party genuflects while the priest bows low. Then all kneel. The MC takes the aspergillum from the thurifer, dips it in the holy water and gives it to our priest. The priest takes it and, in 13th century plainchant, sings Asperges me (“You will sprinkle me…”).
As he begins to sprinkle the altar and the sanctuary party, the choir and congregation burst into the rest of the verse: … Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor; lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor (“…Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be clean; you will wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”) This is Psalm 51:7; the organist alone sings Psalm 51:1: Miserere mei Deus secundum magnam misericordiam tuam (“Have mercy on me, God, according to your great mercy”). The choir and people then sing a doxology and, as the priest starts down the aisle to sprinkle them, repeat Psalm 51:7. When the priest has finished sprinkling, he returns to the altar.
Ostende nobis, Domine, misericordiam tuam. (“Show us, O Lord, thy mercy”), he prays.
Et salutare tuum da nobis (“And grant us thy salvation”), add the people.
The priest sings, Domine, exaudi orationem meam (“O Lord, hear our prayer”).
We sing, Et clamor meus ad te veniat (“And let my cry come until Thee”).
Dominus vobiscum (“The Lord be with you”), sings the priest.
Et cum spiritu (“And with thy spirit”), we reply.
Oremus (“Let us pray”), directs the priest, and then in Latin sings, “Graciously hear us, O Holy Lord, Father Almighty, Eternal God; and vouchsafe to send down from heaven thy holy angel, that he may watch over, foster, safeguard, abide with and defend all who dwell in this house. Through Christ Our Lord.”
“Amen,” we sing, and then sit as the priest puts on his chasuble and maniple for Mass.
In Eastertide we sing the Vidi Aquam (“I saw water”) instead of the Psalm 51 verses. It derives from Ezekiel 17:1 and alludes both to the water that poured from the wound in the side of our crucified Lord and to our baptism. The music dates from the 10th century.
As we have both Latin and English nicely typed out in the red missals available at the back of the church, the ritual is easy to follow. And I love it for many reasons. It is a way of cleansing the mind and heart before approaching the mystery and awe of Mass. The holy water cleans off the dust, as it were, and the distractions of the world outside. The hyssop of Psalm 51, a forerunner of the aspergillum, was used to sprinkle water in ancient Jewish purification rituals, and so I think of the ancient Hebrew faith. The prayers to be cleaned of and protected from sin remind me both of my failings and of God’s mercy. Finally, as I sing and feel the water on my forehead, I feel a deep connection to all those Catholics who, for over a thousand years, sang and felt the same things.
The Ordinary Form of the Mass contains a Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Water. Although I have never seen this done, the Sacramentary of 1975 allows for its use in lieu of the Penitential Rite. What I have seen in the Ordinary Form is the Easter Sunday sprinkling after we renew our baptismal vows. The priest often uses a pine branch, which strikes me as a fitting, Canadian substitute for hyssop; for us the smell of pine, like the sight of new snow and running water, suggests refreshing cleanliness.
If you would like to see and hear the traditional Asperges, you can find it easily on youtube.com.
The editor cut out that last sentence, but it is both true and the only place most Canadian Catholics born after 1971 will ever see the Asperges. Meanwhile, there is absolutely nothing in my column about social justice, so you can imagine the wailing from Saskatchewan. After my first "Mad Trad" column, I got an impassioned email from an M.Div. schoolmate out West begging me to stay strong. I think he was thinking about what might happen to him if he had written it. I had nothing to lose.