A Metaphor Rich in Meaning
ROME, 19 NOV 2019 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: What judgment is to be made concerning capricious changes in liturgical texts, for example, seen to visible in the creed. An appalling mistake: the introduction of dewfall instead of falling dew to indicate the narrative rather than the event of salvation history. The liturgy of “Mari” does not include the words of consecration but holds to the narrative of the institution of Eucharist. In other words, salvation is ongoing history toward the Kingdom in which we are inserted, as the Holy Spirit continues like falling dew rather than an event over and done with. As bread is consecrated so we are consecrated to become the presence of Christ in our world now and for the future. “… Christ will come again.” — J.K., Crown Point, Indiana
A: While there is certainly room for legitimate debate regarding the aptness or not of liturgical translations, and I would probably quibble with some of the options made in the current version, I would balk at calling them “capricious.”
The current translation is the fruit of detailed instructions from the Holy See regarding translation from the Latin, years of work by a team of expert scholars, detailed review by the Vatican appointed Vox Clara Commission and the approval of all the English- speaking bishops’ conferences by at least a two-thirds majority. Even those who worked on the reform would not claim that it is perfect, but they would strongly object to arbitrariness.
An example of this is precisely the change from “all things seen and unseen” in the Creed to “visible and invisible.”
In fact, it is a more accurate translation of “visibilium omnium et invisibilium” in the Latin text. This is true, both from the literal viewpoint and from the theological. By using the word invisible, the creed is referring to the spiritual realm as well as the material and affirms God as creator of the angelical order as well as the human. Thus, a person hiding behind a curtain might be unseen but is not intrinsically invisible as are angels.
The second choice of “dewfall” rather than “falling dew” would be more open to debate.
This expression comes above all from the epiclesis of the Second Eucharistic Prayer. The Latin says, “Haec ergo dona, quaesumus, Spiritus tui rore santifica.” The word “rore” corresponds to dew or dewfall.
The previous translation of this text eliminates any reference to dew, saying, “Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy.”
The current version says, “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall.”
Scholars point out that the use of the dew metaphor was not part of the original text of the prayer of Pseudo-Hippolytus on which Eucharistic Prayer II is based. It was first found in the eighth-century Missale Gothicum, a liturgical book from what is now France and was included in the new text.
This was perhaps because of the importance of the dew metaphor in the Old Testament even though it was absent in the New. Dew was essential to summer farming in the Holy Land when rain was scarce. It is thus it is a symbol of blessings from heaven, prosperity, productiveness.
Manna, an image of the Eucharist, is connected with the dewfall as is communion with one’s fellow men in Psalm 133:1-3. There is also a strand of thought that links the dew with the resurrection of the dead (Is 26:19). A study on this text by Jesuit scholar Wilfred Sumani says that “dew in the Bible belongs to at least six semantic fields: blessing (gift), fecundity (fertility/prosperity), revivification, mystery (wonder/marvel), evanescence (impermanence) and discomfort (humiliation).”
Several Fathers comment on scriptural passages in which the image of dew appears, and this might also have influenced the development of prayer texts which included the metaphor, especially when commenting on the episode of Gideon’s fleece. Irenaeus of Lyon, for example, interpreted the dew as the Holy Spirit which descended upon the Lord and was given to the Church (Adversus Haereses III, 17, 3,).
Many other Fathers are examined in Sumani’s work, which is available online (“Metaphor of Dew in the First Epiclesis of the Second Eucharistic Prayer” Hekima Review, No. 48, May 2013). The metaphor was also defended in an address to the U.S. bishops by Bishop Arthur Roach, the current secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, on June 20, 2006.
Sumani concludes that several dimensions of the Eucharist are present in the dew metaphor: the Eucharist is a gift from God. The image of dew highlights the unity between the pre-existent Logos, Jesus of Nazareth (public ministry) and the Christ present in the Eucharist. Dew as a symbol of fertility implies our spiritual fecundity. In this context he states: “David Power’s paraphrase of the first epiclesis of Eucharistic Prayer II is therefore instructive: ‘As the dew rests upon the earth and makes it fertile, so may the Spirit of holiness descend upon the gifts and make them fecund with an abiding holiness .…’ Consequently, those who receive the Eucharist are, in turn, rendered fecund.” Dew as a symbol of resurrection in the Old Testament recalls Jesus’ promise: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
He finally weighs in on the question of translation:
“In view of the theological richness of the image of dew, it can be affirmed that its use in the first epiclesis of the Eucharistic prayer is opportune, for it enriches our understanding of the Eucharist. Its richness notwithstanding, the cultural distance between the Ancient Near East and modern society makes the image perplexing. This might explain why many translations of the Eucharistic Prayer paraphrase, circumvent or silence the word ‘dew’ altogether. The new English translation of the Roman Missal, for example, simply converts the metaphor into a simile (‘like the dewfall’) instead of the more direct ‘the dew of your Spirit.’ Though ‘fall’ is implied in the metaphor ‘the dew of your Spirit,’ the accent in the Latin text seems to be on ‘dew’ (content) rather than on the process of descent. The more direct rendition of the metaphor seems to communicate more powerfully than the simile.”
The adequacy of the current translation, therefore, can be legitimately questioned by scholars even though it must be proclaimed as approved. In the light of other studies it would appear that the choice of “dewfall” rather than “by the dew of your Spirit,” as had been proposed by the translators of International Commission on English in the Liturgy, stemmed from a fear that the word would be confused with “due” or something similar. Some even assert that it was also to avoid confusion with some popular modern beverages. For whatever reasons, the bishops did not approve the ICEL proposal and the current version was preferred.
At the same time, the use of an unusual expression can be both an obstacle and an opportunity: an obstacle to understanding and an opportunity for pastors to open up to the faithful the liturgy’s rich biblical and patristic spiritual tradition through opportune explanations.