Sunday, August 13, 2017

Order Our Days in Your Peace

One of the reasons for my long love-affair with the Roman Canon is the fact that every now and then a phrase I’ve heard a thousand times pops out with the singularity of a first hearing.  This time was in the “Hanc igitur.”

Hanc igitur oblationem servitutis nostræ, sed et cunctæ familiæ tuæ, quæsumus, Domine, ut placatus accipias: diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab æterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum iubeas grege numerari.

“Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of Your whole family; order our days in Your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those You have chosen.”

An interesting choice of words.  I have perhaps a too-Kantian (or is it Pelagian?) tendency to imagine that I am responsible for the ordering of my days—and in a sense, I am.  But here, as is so often the case at Mass, we are reminded that the real ability and responsibility for any good human effort lie with God; and so we ask God to order our days.

The manner in which those days are ordered is beyond interesting; indeed, the choice of words is positively curious.  “Order our days in Your peace,” says the official Novus Ordo translation.  But what is God’s peace?  And what does it mean for our days to be contained in that peace, as if peace were a bargain box or a chesterdrawers?

My first association of the phrase hails from medieval history.  “The peace of God” was the periodic fast (if you like) from war and warlike recreations such as jousting; like a New England blue law, “the peace of God” applied only on certain days and during particular seasons—Sundays and Lent were typical.

My second association of the phrase is its magisterial (in the nontechnical sense!) usage in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, when the terrifying character Sunday reveals his true identity as “the Peace of God” (and leaves the mystery of who he is still mysterious!).

Though the associations are accidental and less ancient than the text concerned, both I think shed some light on its meaning.  Both link “the peace of God” to Sunday, to the Sabbath, specifically, as the day to which God’s peace most properly belongs.  The medieval peace, among other things, had the function of insuring that God was properly worshipped on Sunday: if you’re not allowed to engage in your knightly pursuits, the “I’m busy” excuse becomes less tempting.

Come to think of it, perhaps some bishop should
revive “the peace of God” and apply it to soccer?

Chesterton’s character, in addition to calling to mind his namesake day of the week, is also linked to the original day of rest taken by God as a culmination to His creative activity.  Sunday is the ringleader of a group of benevolent spies, an anti-anarchist, a force simultaneously of playful chaotic energy and absolute authority and control.  You could hardly say that Sunday wields his power; he simply has it, and others fall into line accordingly—out of fear, before they really know him, and out of joy and the love of adventure once they do.  The peace of God, in Chesterton’s reading, is a remarkably active and in some sense a perilous matter, like skydiving with a tiller.  And might not the same be said of the Mass?  (I once hear priest giving a talk on the old Mass remark how larded it was throughout with humble pleas not to strike down the celebrant for his audacity in making the sacrifice; and while I had never quite thought of the Kyrie in that light, the description fits.)

One sense, then of “Your peace” might be simply the peace of Sunday, the Sabbath.  The embedding of these words in the key prayer of the Mass further suggests that perhaps this “peace” may be identified with the celebration of the sacred liturgy itself.  But there is another possibility—not an alternate meaning, but an additional one; for “peace” in liturgical language also carries with it a sense of final rest.  RIP, says the tombstone—a terrifying image in popular culture, until one realizes that it is a prayer: Requiescat in pace; “Rest in peace.”  And in the Catholic mind, the rest is not the merely negative rest …

… from which we hope that Carrie doesn’t rise
to wreak her revenge on our hapless selves …

but rather a positive affair, one of those delicate euphemisms by which we veil mysteries too glorious to speak lightly of.  For the Catholic, indeed, “Rest in peace” is a brief optative phrase meant to bring to mind a larger picture:

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
Absolve, O Lord,
the souls of all the faithful departed
from every bond of sin.
And by the help of Thy grace
may they be enabled to escape the avenging judgment.
And enjoy the bliss of everlasting light.
May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord,
with Thy Saints for evermore:
for Thou art gracious.
May the Angels lead thee into paradise:
may the Martyrs receive thee at thy coming,
and lead thee into the holy city of Jerusalem.
May the choir of Angels receive thee,
and mayest thou have eternal rest with Lazarus, who once was poor.

Put simply, “Rest in peace” is another way of saying “Rest in Heaven.”  And as “peace” stands in for Heaven here, I would suggest too that in the Roman canon “peace” has the additional meaning.  “Order our days in your peace” is perhaps first of all a request from the harried Christian that the world not overcome him in daily life.  The second and richer meaning of the phrase seems to be a reminder that all our days and our daily work should be ordered around the Mass: that the Mass, whether we make it daily or weekly, is the pinnacle of that slice of time in which it falls.  And in this sense, the phrase is once again not a command but a comfort: a reminder that the sacred in which we intermittently participate can, if we permit it, permeate all of life, converting chronos to kairos.  In some sense, sacred time contains secular time.  The third and final meaning takes this sense to the next level.  Participation in the Mass is not merely the salvation of our sanity, nor a way of making daily life fancier and finer, or even happier and holier (though it is all these things).  Participation in the Mass is in fact participation in the life of Heaven itself; and through the Mass, then, if our days are ordered in it—defined by and around it, so that its laws and aspirations and language become a lived second nature to us—though this Massedness of daily life, daily life itself becomes a foretaste of Heaven; transpires, in some mysterious sense, inside the life of Heaven.

“Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of Your whole family; order our days in Your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those You have chosen.”

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