Tuesday, May 24, 2011

11-05-22: 5th Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts of the Apostles 6:1-7 / Psalm 33 / 1 Peter 2:4-9 / John 14:1-12

One of the wonderful but frustrating things about a good story is the fact that you can interpret it in more than one way; put your own spin on things, so to speak. So, in the reading from Acts today, some may focus on the fact that the diaconate was instituted as a ministry of service to help the nascent Christian community get on its feet. Others might see that the reason for the diaconate grew out of a lot of bad feelings based on class prejudice: Hebrews vs. Hellenists (i.e. Aramaic-speaking Jews vs. Greek-speaking Jews). Although scandalous, it’s somehow reassuring to know that, even from the very beginning of the Church, people weren’t perfect and often fought. Diversity was not always understood as a strength.

As centuries passed things only grew worse. The Great Schism that split the Church in the eleventh century formed along linguistic lines: the Latin-speaking West vs. the Greek-speaking East. The Reformation that would split the Western Church into Catholic and Protestant in the sixteenth century was largely about language, about translating and interpreting the Bible. To a much lesser degree but present, nonetheless, we are beginning to see the emergence of an us vs. them mentality over the new translation of the Roman Missal from Latin into English which will be implemented in churches in the United States this coming Advent. It’s significant, I think, that simultaneous to the disagreements about translations and methods of translations that surrounded this debate, was the motu proprio issued by Pope Benedict allowing priests to celebrate the “Latin Mass” without seeking permission from the local bishop. It seems that for some it is easier to avoid the whole issue of translation and just stick to the original Latin, regardless if intelligible or not.

One of the significant changes in the new translation of the Roman Missal affects the words of institution which the priest says during the consecration when the wine becomes the blood of Christ. In the current translation the priest says “for all”; in the new translation he will say “for many” reflecting the Latin “pro multis” literally. While Pope Benedict has already explained that the use of the word “many” does not take away from the truth that Christ’s sacrifice has indeed redeemed all, there will no doubt be a bit of confusion produced by this literal translation. In the pope’s recent book, Jesus of Nazareth (Part Two), he delves into this question in some detail without clearly explaining, let alone resolving, the difficulty. I was speaking to some priests at a recent meeting and asked them what translation they use when saying Mass in Spanish: one priest from Colombia uses the translation “por muchos” (for many); another uses “por todos los hombres,” (for all men). In an effort to be all inclusive the Spanish here has succeeded in doing just the opposite. The Korean translation says “for all,” as does the Italian and the German. So much for universality. In the attempt to be more literally faithful to the Latin, a Pandora’s box of ambiguity now emerges – and that’s over just one word.

In the gospel today Jesus makes the extraordinary claim: “the Father and I are one.” That notion, at the heart of Christianity, would be understood through Greek philosophical language and translated into Latin as consubstantialis. In the new translation of the Nicene Creed used at Mass, the term “consubstanial with the Father” will replace “one in being with the Father.” Less ambiguous, you think? Or intentionally meant to convey a notion laden with centuries of philosophical argument. Time will tell.

In today’s gospel Jesus also says the now famous phrase “I am the way the truth and the life.” I’m just wondering, since translation has been our theme, whether in the Chinese Bible Jesus says “I am the Tao (Way),” conjuring up that ancient and mysterious philosophy of Taoism (which some missionaries once called devilish superstition). No one claims Jesus knew of Taoism, but language is by necessity fluid and thus ambiguous, inviting us to entertain fanciful notions which, by circuitous route, may bring us to insight and truth. Feng Shui (literally, wind water) – that product of Taoist thought – which seeks harmony among diverse elements of reality may be more than a little helpful when trying to translate. Translation, after all, is but a road, a pathway between different cultures and worldviews, filled with unexpected insights and sometimes not so pleasant surprises. The new Roman Missal in English is just the latest example. It will be interesting to see its affect on the life of the Church in the United States: for better or worse - or not at all.

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