Monday, April 16, 2007

Lost in Translation - The Last Word on Divorce

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and the events of Lent are still fresh in our mind. Actually on Guam, if you listen to Catholic Radio, you get to experience Holy Week twice since we are on a one-week delay as regards programs generated in the states and rebroadcast here. And while tuned in to a particular episode of Catholic Answers I heard an interesting discussion on the Seven Last Words of Christ.

I have come to realize as of late the significance of these Last Words. The final words of any dying person always merit grave attention, but how much more so in the case of the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity, particularly since in order to utter those words Jesus had to push himself up on the nails through his feet which surely increased his incomprehensible agony.

Generations upon generations have meditated upon these “seven last words”. Great meditations have been written and momentous musical settings composed. It has been pointed out that the whole of Divine Revelation could be summed up in these Seven Last Words: all that God wants us to know of Himself is revealed in those dying moments.

If it stands to reason that if the Seven Last Words of Christ merit the deepest attention then perhaps the very Last Word would merit it all the more.

“It is finished”, said He…or did He? Most modern translations of Scripture use the word “finished”, but the official Catholic Scripture text does not. The “official Scripture text” (1) of the Catholic Church is the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome.

There are several reasons to give more weight to the Vulgate than to more modern translations:

1. The man who authored the Vulgate translation became a canonized saint. The NAB, RSV, NJB, etc., valid and useful translations though they may be, cannot make the same boast of its authorship.

2. The Vulgate is the only translation to be authorized by the Church with the force of an anathema. (2)

3. St. Jerome was 1600 years closer to the sources than any modern translation. (Jerome lived in the 5th century.)

4. Modern translators had to learn the languages of the original scriptures whereas Jerome actually spoke Greek and was very familiar with Hebrew (though he did need some help with Chaldeic).

The list could go on. But the important thing is that the Church actually says what the Vulgate says and the Vulgate does not say “It is finished”. The Vulgate says “consummatum est”, “It is consummated”.

It is true that the original Greek word (tetelestai) could be translated as “finished”, but there are several Latin words that could mean “finished” including the word “finis” from where we get our English word. It is thought that the ancient dismissal “Ite Missa est” actually included the word “finita” or “Ite, missa est finita” which translates literally “The Mass is ended (finished)” which is what we say in English anyway.

So the question is WHY did Jerome select “consummatum ” and not another word that could clearly mean “finished”?

The Church has always proclaimed the deep and true meaning of “consummatum est”, but in our modern sexually confused times it has take seven years of lectures by Pope John Paul II and another 25 years of reflection and study by the ablest of scholars to once again hand us the deepest meaning of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

The Theology of the Body reminds us that we are created for marriage, the marriage of the Apocalypse, where Christ, looking as a Lamb that was slain, marries his bride, the Church. Earthly marriage is a foreshadowing of that heavenly marriage.

On the cross, Christ initiates the wedding feast of Heaven by bodily giving Himself to His bride, The Church. This is why Paul exhorts husbands to “love your wives as Christ loved the Church”. And this is why in order for a marriage to be valid it must be “consummatum”!

A quick etymological investigation of the word is instructive: “con” = together, “summa” = highest (as in summit). Literal translation: the highest coming together, the pinnacle, the summit of union. There is nothing higher. And indeed, there was nothing higher than the sacrifice of Christ, the consummation of His Body for His Bride. Christ gave His All down to the last drop of blood and water…completely expiated, wrung out, “consumed” by love for us.

It is also instructive to note that the word “consummate” is also used to describe that which is most “exquisite”, “precious”, “wonderful”. (e.g. “He is a consummate violinist..”)

“Consummate” can also be translated as “complete”, which is perhaps closer in some sense to the word “finished”. But “complete” in this sense would not mean “done”, “no more to do”, but “complete” in the sense of “without flaw” or “perfect”.

In any event, the “more relatable” word “finished”, as we can see from the above discussion, is a sad and rather limp expression compared to the full meaning of the word Jerome chose (and which our Church still officially uses).

Once again the riches of our Faith are more impoverished, not because we don’t know Latin, but because translators have chosen their wisdom over Jerome’s and over that of the Church.

The words “It is finished” have caused much confusion and dissension on the apologetic front because our Protestant brethren like to use those words to proclaim the “finished work of Christ” as meaning “no more to do”, or that we can “add nothing”. This is all very ridiculous of course otherwise there would be no need to obey Christ’s instruction to take up your cross and follow Me (Mk. 8:34), or to heed the warning to “persevere to the end” (Mt. 10:22).

When understood in the context of the wedding feast of the Lamb, we see that Christ is just beginning His marriage, just as a couple upon consummating their marriage is beginning theirs.

It’s interesting to speculate how the radical rise in the rate of divorce (amongst other contemporary ills) has coincided with the release of these new translations. Hmmmm.

1 Bible Versions and Commentaries by Colin Donovan STL

2 But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema (Council of Trent - Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures)

Moreover, the same sacred and holy Synod,—considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic,—ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever. (Council of Trent - Decree Concerning the Edition and the Use of the Sacred Books)
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