A wide tradition

John R. Donahue’s “Cup or Chalice?” (June 1) points out one of many places where the new translation follows the Latin, rather than the underlying Greek or Hebrew. Significant losses have resulted, but in this case there is an arguable gain, at least for Eucharistic Prayer I, which is based on the traditional Roman Canon. Instead of taking the kind of historical view that comes naturally to Bible scholars, the Roman Canon takes what might be called a “transhistorical” view, closely identifying the chalice of the Mass with Jesus’ original cup: “when supper was ended, he took this precious chalice.” Thus the liturgical tradition brings Jesus’ action across the centuries into the present, as powerful and efficacious now as it was then, having lost nothing with the passage of time. At a particularly solemn point in the liturgy—the sacramental words of consecration—a spiritual truth temporarily eclipses historical truth.

Of course, in the Catholic Church, we should not have to choose between the biblical tradition and the liturgical tradition: both are components of Tradition, and the ideal translation would give access to the treasures of both. One of many ways to do this might be to use the word “chalice” in Eucharistic Prayer I, respecting the theology specific to that text, but to use “cup” in Eucharistic Prayer IV, a modern composition informed by ancient Greek texts that say poterion.

Instead of seeing the problem as a vertical opposition between “above” and “below”—lots of Catholics “below” support the more literal translation—I see a more horizontal difference between “narrow” and “wide.” The Catholic tradition, knowing that the full truth is often multidimensional, has always been wide, recognizing four Gospels, multiple exegetical senses, diverse schools of theology and spirituality, many religious orders, large families of Eastern and Western liturgical rites. But our new translation is often narrow, conveying less of the text’s multifaceted richness than would be optimal.

One of the reasons is that it so often ignores the historical and linguistic factors that shaped the Latin. Much of the Latin Ordo Missae, after all, is itself an outright translation from Greek—some of which, in turn, is dependent on a Semitic background. Wider recognition of this could have helped with many issues: “consubstantial” could have been rendered according to Greek homoousion: “of the same nature.” “Lord God of hosts” could have followed Revelation 4:8: “Lord God almighty.”

The medieval Scholastic theologians understood that traditions are diversi, sed non adversi: that one can embrace complexity and plurality without succumbing to adversity, contradiction, or conflict.

Imagine a liturgical translation carried out in that open spirit, with full involvement by the communities of biblical and liturgical scholars who know those traditions best. What a bountiful and profound liturgy we could have!

Peter Jeffery
South Bend, Ind.

The writer is Michael P. Grace II Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Published in the 2012-08-17 issue: 

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