St Gregory of Nyssa

Stand around the Altar in a Circle

Lost in translation, in the Roman Canon (used century upon century upon century and now RC Eucharistic Prayer 1), is that we all stand around the altar. The Roman Canon has:

…Memento, Domine,
famulorum famularumque tuarum N. et N.
et omnium circumstantium,
quorum tibi fides cognita est
et nota devotio,
pro quibus tibi offerimus:
vel qui tibi offerunt
hoc sacrificium laudis,
pro se suisque omnibus…
[my emphasis]

A reasonable translation of the focus for this post is:

Remember, Lord,… all who stand around here,
to you their faith is known …

Circumstantium is clearly not “stand around” in the English sense of being useless or idle. It indicates position and posture. It is circum “around” and stare “to stand”.

It was forgivable that in the earlier, dynamic-equivalent ICEL translation (1973), omnium circumstantium became “all of us gathered here before you”.

But if you claim (as was done in Liturgiam Authenticam) that this 1973 translation isn’t good enough, and you are producing “a translation that is as literal as possible” (Liturgiam Authenticam 56), then conspiracy theorists, knowing that English-speaking Bishops’ Conferences prefer kneeling at this time of the Mass, will have a point that people are being mislead by the certainly-not-literal 2011 rendering: “all gathered here”!

We certainly needn’t be mathematically fundamentalist about circumstantium being a circle. As Jungman noted about this phrase {J.A. Jungmann, Missarum Sollemnia (1955), vol. 2, p166} he envisaged the assembly in a ‘semi-circle’ or an ‘open circle’ around the altar – a ‘sort of circle’.

We may not be able to precisely delineate when the eucharistic meal changed from reclining, but certainly by mid-second century Justin’s description of the Eucharist would be understood as having all standing. Although our own meals are normally seated, standing often happens in larger groups, for a buffet, for example. Increasing numbers, leading to standing in the Early Church, soon found theological justification. By the mid-second century Ignatius of Antioch had begun interpreting the eucharistic table as the Christian ‘altar’ (eg. To the Philadelphians 4:1). Jewish priests stood in the temple for the temple rites. We (1 Peter stresses) all together, in Christ, are the new priesthood, standing, as the temple priests did in the temple, to perform our ministry.

We, the people, all standing around (omnium circumstantium) the altar, are not idle spectators at a presider’s incantation. We, together in Christ, are full participants in a prayer verbalised by the presider, a prayer in which we fully share.

This post arose out of recent conversations, as well as a comment on a post in which I circumvented the tiresome ad orientem (facing east) / versus populum (facing the people) deadlock by coining in circuitu altaris. I had no need to coin this last phrase, as the image was already deep in our western tradition, omnium circumstantium, though continuing to be lost in translation.

Further Reading:
standing at the north side
This post can be seen as another in architecture reflections on this site.

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