Sunday, May 30, 2010

What We Have Lost: The Asperges

I'd like to continue today what was discussed in the previous posting.  God willing, I will make this a regular occurrence.  I would like to talk about the things that I believe Catholics have all but lost in today's modern society that are quite beneficial to the faithful.  In many cases, these rituals and traditions still exist, but they have fallen into disuse (such as the Introit, still on the books but rarely used in most parishes on Sundays.)  Today we will cover the Asperges, yet I would first like to deal with a potential objection.

Many will think that I am no doubt wasting time on these things.  If they are viewed as important at all, it is barely so in their eyes.  Within the context of the liturgy, these were viewed as empty symbolism, mere ritual.  Only in our modern eye, blind to everything but the most apparent before our eyes, would we think this way.  These rituals and symbols convey a far greater meaning to the soul, speaking to the soul in the language only understood by the soul fixated on God.  We have forgotten so many of the "little things" in Catholicism nowadays.  Yet if we expect to be holy and saints of great virtue, should we not "be responsible with little" first, as Our Lord says in the parable?   Let us now move onto the focus of today's issue.

Like the Introit, the Asperges is certainly of ancient patrimony.  We see the prayer in more or less its current form from the 10th century, yet there is good reason to think such a venerable tradition goes back even further.  We do know that as time went on, the Church decided to make the Asperges a frequent occurrence.  Before the reforms of the New Missal, this frequency was every Sunday at the principal Mass of the parish.

Before the Mass starts, the priest enters the sanctuary and intones Psalm 51 (or depending on your translation, Psalm 50).  In the Latin, the first two words are Asperges Me which the priest intones, hence the name Asperges.  The following Psalm is prayed by the congregation as the priest blesses the altar, the servers, and the faithful:

You will sprinkle me, O Lord, with hyssop and I shall be cleansed.  You will wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.  Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy.  Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  (The Psalm is repeated)
In the Ordinary form, this prayer is optional, though stressed during Eastertide.  Psalm 51 is one of several Psalms that may be used, however it occurs during the penitential rite.

Those who favored removing the Asperges (or making it essentially irrelevant through disuse) will typically argue that this prayer, like many others, were "late" additions to the liturgy, and were a break with the ancient and more Scripturally-based liturgy that they were looking to restore.  As on so many other issues of contention, they miss the point.

While certainly a later development, it was a development that grew from the blessing of the water.  We know that Holy Water has a very ancient patrimony in the Church.  Many Churches back then did not have the fonts of water that we have in our churches nowadays.  One of the ways this powerful sacramental was given to the faithful was through this ritual.  In doing so, the Church re-connects anew each time with one of the oldest forms of worship available in salvation history.

Psalm 51 was one of those Psalms which were known as the Penitential Psalms.    These were prayed before the offering of the sacrifice of atonement by the Jewish people.  This Psalm itself comes from King David, after being confronted for his adultery and murder by the prophet Nathan.  Like David, we should recognize the multitude of our sins and our desire for repentance.  According to David, if this attitude is lacking, no sacrifice before God was acceptable. (Psalm 51:18.)  If we are to approach the altar of God as we do every Sunday, should we not likewise show this spirit of repentance?

Notice also the confidence of King David.  Upon this action by God of cleansing, he will be made whiter than snow.  God's grace will completely cleanse him of all stain of sin.  Being cleansed, he will then teach the ungodly of the ways of the Lord. (Verse 15.)  

In the Old Testament, sprinkling denoted sanctification.  The people were set apart by being sprinkled by the blood of the covenant.  When a sacrifice was sprinkled with water, incense and various other measures, it was consecrated for offering to God.  In our sprinkling, we declare ourselves ready for service in Our Lord's name.

Yet today, we have received a gift far greater than David could even imagine!  The water, blessed by God in baptism, fully cleanses us from all sin.  In reception of the Eucharist, our sins are not simply covered up, obscured and hidden, like the Protestants teach.  Not only are we consecrated to be holy, the Sacraments make us holy.  When we say these words during our sprinkling, we say them also in the anticipation of that blessed moment of reception of the Holy Sacrament during communion, and all the sacraments we receive.  Following the sprinkling, the priest returns to the altar and prays the following with the congregation, alternating each verse based off of various Psalms, and then adds a special prayer of his own:

Priest. Show us, O Lord, Thy mercy.
Congregation. And grant us Thy salvation.
Priest. O Lord, hear my prayer.
Congregation. And let my cry come before Thee.
Priest. The Lord be with you.
Congregation. And with thy spirit. 

Priest.  Let us pray. - Hear us, O holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, and vouchsafe to send Thy holy Angel from heaven, to guard, cherish, protect, visit and defend all that are assembled in this place: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

In this special prayer at the end, we are reminded of the danger we are in.  Above all else, the Devil despises the sacrifice of the Mass.  While he is powerless to stop it, he will do everything he can to weaken its effect.  He will attempt to stir in the hearts of the faithful a sense of irreverence or boredom.  He will attempt to implant within the priest and those doing service a spirit of innovation and pride, leading to liturgical abuses, robbing the faithful of an orderly and reverent liturgy that they have by rights as members of Christ's body.  With this in mind, we implore heaven for protection.  We know that angels protect the faithful.  Our Catholic tradition tells us that every Church has an angel appointed by God.  We beseech this angel to defend not only the well-being of those present in and out of Mass, but we implore the angel to protect the integrity of the liturgy.  In today's age of liturgical abuse being almost the norm in many Churches, should we not pray this more often?

As is clearly evident, this is a perfect prayer before Mass.  Nothing better sets our disposition.  For those who have such authority, (be they priests, parish council members, organists) I request you do whatever you can to make sure this is said in your Church.  The evil one does not stop in his attempts to destroy the Sacred Liturgy, even if we pretend he has.

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