As someone who was received into the Catholic Church less than a year ago, the new translation of the Mass comes as a surprise and as a gift.
Before I was received, I attended Mass often and from the start the language of the liturgy impressed me and continues to impress me as a bit too casual and kind of flimsy. Parts of it have the same feel as the Good News translation of the Bible—a relic from the same era. “Dynamic equivalent” translation sounded like a good idea at the time, but has proved more dynamic than equivalent.
Translation theories aside, the new Mass should be welcomed because for humans, language is of utmost importance and the new Mass reflects that truth.
The Bible is a collection of books in which truth is communicated by words. Those words tell us that Creation happened because God spoke. We read that when the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him two tablets inscribed by the finger of God. Jesus the Redeemer is called the Word who tells his followers that his words “are spirit and they are life.”
“Seeing is believing” is not a biblical idea. People saw the signs performed by Moses. While they watched the fire and cloud over Mount Sinai where Moses went to receive the Law they built the golden calf. Jesus’ miracles were seen by multitudes, but multitudes deserted him. Rather than sight, “Faith comes from hearing the message,” St. Paul reminds us in Romans 10:17, “and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” Language is central to Christianity.
“Language,” Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio notes, “is the means by which our rationality and our relationality are enabled simultaneously.”
Rationality: We know things by naming them. We have all had thoughts that seemed brilliant and coherent until we tried to speak them or put them on paper. That’s the reason teachers assign essays and executives write business plans. It’s the risk we accept when we beginning to write anything. As someone quipped, “Thoughts are formed as they travel over the lips or through the fingertips.” Without words spoken or written, most of us don’t know what we think or how well are reasoning. Language enables rationality.
Relationality: Language allows us to relate to one another in a common culture. As humans we don’t simply name things, we name things for other people. We use words to understand reality and convey that understanding. Good relationships and strong cultures depend a mastery of language.
Language is embedded into the deepest part of our human nature because we are made in the image of God. That is, in our ability to use language, we most resemble God because rationality and relationality are embedded in the deepest part of God’s nature.
Before anything is created—before angels, archangels, galaxies, planets, birds, fish, or humans— God is rational and relational. We believe that the one true God exists eternally as Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Within the being of God, there is relationality as the Persons of the Trinity converse together and love one another. This relational God makes it self known in rationally. God speaks a rational universe into being and endows the crown of that creation, humans, with his own relational and rational image. We use of language.
That use of language is central to our sense of belonging. We know we are among “our people” because our people speak “our language.” They understand our ideas (rationality) and they respond to us in kind (relationality).
My grandparents emigrated from Russia. Once they arrived, they lived in Russian neighborhoods, attended Russian churches, and were most comfortable speaking Russian with Russian friends. My parents grew up speaking Russian and English and maintained some ties to the old neighborhoods and friends. My brother and I studied Russian in high school and forgot it in college. As a result, we have very little Russian identity. An entire way of thinking and relating was supported by the Russian language.
Regarding the Church, Robert Louis Wilken has written, “the sentiments, thoughts, and feelings of a Christian culture are formed and carried by the language of the Scriptures,” what St. Augustine called “the Lord’s style of language” and Wilkin calls “the Church’s way of speaking.”
The Church has its own vocabulary, drawn from the Scriptures and carried over into the Mass. Others may use the same words, but our meanings are distinctly Christian: Father, Son, Spirit, Word, flesh, blood, sin, forgiveness, atonement, justification, holy, redemption, adoption, witness, servant, lord, and (gasp) consubstantial. Bishops, pastors, catechists, parents, and teachers must take the time to explain what the Church means by her language lest our Christian rationality break down and with it our relationality.
Whether it is ethnic culture or Church culture, when “our language” falls out of use, the culture it supported erodes, and “our people” are our people no more.
Language is God’s great gift to us reflecting his image in us. Through it we share in his rationality and relationality and share in the rationality and relationality of a common culture. Language makes us human and beyond simple humanity, it is by language that we hear the truth about life and God and so become free-born heirs to eternal life with God.
Which brings me back to the new translation of the Mass.
A T-shirt reads, “Theology is the part of religion that requires brains.” And our brains thrive on precise, thoughtful language. Careful language about God strengthens our understanding of God (rationality) and our love for him, for each other, and for our neighbors (relationality) As Josef Pieper wrote, “The dignity of the word, to be sure, consists in this: through the word is accomplished what no other means can accomplish, namely, communication based on reality.”
Having come into the Catholic Church believing that it is here that I can more fully and fundamentally understand and live Christian truth, I look forward to the new era of worship that begins November 27.