Friday, October 28, 2011

The New Translation of the Eucharistic Prayer: For Many

If you've read my column at all over the last year or so you know I have little patience for the change in the eucharistic prayer from "for all" to "for many".

And if you're wondering what the heck I'm talking about, it's during the prayer over the cup:
Take this, all of you, and drink from it.
This is my blood, given up for you and for all
so that sins may be forgiven. 
The reason they're changing it: the New Testament text from which it's taken literally says "for many", not "for all".  So, it's a correction.

The problem is, it sounds like we're suddenly rolling back God's plan of salvation. You know how we used to say God loves everybody, is interested in everybody, regardless of what they believe or ever did or what not?  Well, now we're thinking, not so much. He'd settle with a good 30-50%.

Some are arguing that the point of the prayer is actually not God's love but people's receptivity. God came for many and not all because some choose to reject him. And hey, I love a good dose of Catholic guilt and recrimination as much as the next guy. But that's never what "the many" was all about.

So, Fr. Kvetching, what was the point of "the many", you ask? Well, I happened to be in conversation with my liturgy buddies, and they explained that Jesus used the phrase to make clear how expansive was God's circle of interest. Read his words again: Take this, all of you -- i.e. you all gathered here with me at the Last Supper -- and drink of it. This is my blood, given up for you -- again, you all here -- and for many -- that is, for many others who are not here.

"Many" isn't something that limits who this supper is for, but enlarges. Which is why in the 50s and 60s they came to translate it "for all" in the first place.  One of my buddies said the proper translation is "so many more"; the other said it's "the multitudes" (which by the way is the French translation). Either makes clear the broadening sense of "many".

And herein is a real challenge of the new translation. It intends to be very, very literal -- that is, in most respects it avoids any attempt to shift the language of the Latin prayers into our own English, American terms. There's arguments to be made in favor of that approach, many of which I've presented in the past. But one downside is, at times it lacks the nuances that would actually have been clear to the original audience. And now presiders and liturgists and others are going to have to keep explaining that original sense to people, or paradoxically the literal meaning of the words will be lost.

Maybe this sounds like mountains made from mole hills. It's not. We are formed by the rites we practice. Having a fundamental portion of a rite seeming to suggest that God is not interested in all of us  will impact how we think and act as a people down the line. And not for the better.

So I'm going to try to hold onto what I know to be true. This blood, given up for you, and for so many more.

One of my favorite cartoons ever. Note the little space next to Jesus: "A Place For You". 
That's what we're talking about here. 


D'Arcy said...

The Institution Narratives in both Matthew and Mark read as follows:

"This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many [περὶ πολλῶν] for the forgiveness of sins." - Matthew 26:28 (NIV)

"Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many [ὑπὲρ πολλῶν],” he said to them." - Mark 14: 23-24 (NIV)

The words of Institution in the Roman Missal (EP I) are: "qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum."

The “multis” in the Roman Missal translates “πολλῶν” in the biblical Greek. The translation of πολλῶν/multis as “for all” did not appear “in the 50s and 60s,” as you say, but rather in 1973 when the English translation of the 1970 Roman Missal was approved. Yet πολλῶν/mulis doesn’t translate to “all”. The use of “many” in the new English translation is, therefore, a more faithful translation of the passage.

The best model for the words of Institution is the words of the Institution Narrative in the Gospels. It is the surest guarantee that we are praying as Jesus prayed. There is no other, more authoritative source.

Arguing that πολλῶν/mulis should be translated as the more expansive “for all” evidences a fundamental epistemological error. It imposes a theological interpretation on the Gospel, rather than allow the literal words of the Gospel to form the basis for the words of Institution. For this reason, your argument fails.

For those priests who do not care for the new translation, they can always recite the words of Institution over the chalice (not the cup) in Latin. Consider it an exercise in bilingualism.

Anonymous said...

I think your argument is a good one to use "cup" instead of "chalice" since the Scriptures all use "cup" for the institution narrative.

Anonymous said...

Matthew 26:28 and Mark 14: 23-24 both use the word "ποτήριον" (poterion), which most accurately translates as "cup". Indeed, the Gospels do not use the word κύλιξ (kylix).

The Roman Canon says "accipens et hunc praeclarum calicem in sanctas ac venerabiles manus suas." "Calicem" can be translated as "chalice" or "cup".

The Roman Canon is an ancient source in its own right, and some deference can be shown the words of the Canon. This is the ground for use of the word "chalice" in the English translate, though the issue is open to debate. I am willing to concede latitude regarding the translation of ποτήριον/calicem as "cup", as opposed to "chalice".

While it has no bearing on the language of the Canon, the sacred vessel used at Mass to hold the wine for consecration into the Precious Blood is a "chalice".