For the twenty years I have been a practicing Catholic, one glaring feature of liturgical and scriptural language has bugged me: metaphorical prepositional phrases.
What do you mean you don't know what I am talking about? Let's take just one example: the Doxology at Mass. From its name (hello? Dox-ology) one would assume that it is important to understand the precise meaning of the words and phrases that are being said. Not to mention the fact that the immediately following act of assenting to this Doxology is called, not just an Amen, but *the* *Great* Amen. The Doxology has gone like this for as long as I have been around:
Through him, with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.*
I say it this way along with everyone else, of course. If the Church uses that language, I trust that whatever She is trying to express, this is the best way to say it, at least in English. But if I ever stop to think about what I am saying, I am always distracted by wondering:
- What is the difference between "through Him" and "with Him" and "in Him?"
- Since "through" and "in" literally mean spatial relationships, but are obviously not meaningful in that sense, what do they mean?
- Why stop there? Why isn't it "by him" or "for Him"?
And so on and so on.
Yes, I think too much. It is occasionally a liability. But in my defense, it doesn't stop me from saying "Amen."
Ahem. Let's get started.
Clearly the "him" refers to Christ. (For one thing, the priest utters the Doxology while elevating the chalice and Host to show them to us -- and we believe the Host and the contents of the chalice are Christ, so it's as good as pointing to Jesus and saying "Him. This guy.") If you take the sentence apart, then I guess it means something like this:
- All glory and honor is forever and ever yours, through Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
- All glory and honor is forever and ever yours, in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
- All glory and honor is forever and ever yours, with Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
How is it that "all glory and honor" -- which I guess you could paraphrase as "everything good" -- belongs rightfully to the Father "through Christ?"
"In" the unity of the Holy Spirit?
But also "with" and "in" Christ?
This is not everyday language. It is being used metaphorically, that much is obvious -- but it isn't being used in a way such that its plain meaning can be easily worked out. Indeed it does not appear to have a plain meaning at all!
Let's not panic. We have a bunch of prepositions here. What could they mean? Well -- prepositions (like "through" and "with" and "in") relate bits of a sentence to each other -- they relate a person/place/thing, or an action or state of being, to another person/place/thing. They establish relationships in space and in time, for example: in "the car is on the road" the preposition "on" tells you where the car is relative to the road; in "the bell rang during the meeting" the preposition "during" tells you the relationship in time between the action "rang" and the event "meeting."
Here, the state of being which is "belonging to the Father" is said to have a complex, threefold relationship to Christ and a simpler relationship to "the unity of the Holy Spirit."
Whatever it means, it must be saying something about the Trinity. And once you have realized that, well, then, it doesn't seem so problematic that there isn't a plain meaning to the words. It is allowable for statements about the Trinity to be incomprehensible because the Trinity is incomprehensible. I don't have to know exactly what is meant by "through" and how that is distinct from "in" or "with."
I can, however, notice, that "Father" and "him" and "the Holy Spirit" are curiously entangled but are not identified with each other. And that "all glory and honor" -- all the good stuff there is -- belongs by rights to one of them (the Father) but not to the other two. But that all that belonging-to-the-Father relates somehow to those other two. That is, I think, as far as it can be taken without descending into the cloud of mystery. But inside that cloud is something quite fundamental, about the Three Persons in One God, and about all the things that are not God (the good things anyway), and also about time, and about the host and chalice the priest is holding up while he utters these crazy words. No wonder the Amen that follows is not just any old Amen, but *the Great* Amen.
It is weird language. It is not plain language. It is oddly repetitive and redundant. It doesn't sound like ordinary speech. It is incomprehensible to the average person. It makes no sense.
This is, it seems, why we use it.
Such odd prepositional phrases are everywhere, of course, and they are not always referring to mysteries as deep as the Trinity. We had one in the second reading for yesterday, Christ the King Sunday:
For just as in Adam all die,
so too in Christ shall all be brought to life...
Why "in?" I think it isn't a coincidence that the words form an analogy. Because we know something about how we die, and something about Adam, we can (for want of a better word) intuit a kind of relationship between dying and Adam. We may not be able to describe the relationship, but maybe we can feel what it means in some deep part of our psyche or some ancient, wordless part of our brain. Then perhaps we can transfer that deep knowledge, the connection between dying and Adam, to grasp somehow the link between "being brought to life" and "Christ."
(It is worth considering the reading as a whole; "through" makes an appearance too, in a similar analogy. Gotta love that Hebrew poetry -- the remarkable utility of redundancy and repetitiveness, of saying the same thing slightly differently.)
+ + +
More on prepositional phrases later, I hope, this time in Montfortian spirituality.
*Per ipsum et cum ipso et in ipso est Deo Patri omnipotenti, in unitate Spiritus Sancti, omnis honor et gloria, per omnia saecula saeculorum. The words will change only slightly next week -- most of today's argument will still stand.