Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.
This lovely hymn is a translation by G Moultie of a formula in the Liturgy of S James; which may be the oldest rite still used in Christendom except, of course, for the immemorially ancient Roman Rite. It is indeed a splendid hymn, and the concept of the Lord's eucharistic epiphaneia is beautifully expressed. Generations of Anglican worshippers* have been moved by the picture of the host of heaven spreading its vanguard before the Lord as he descends from the realms of endless day to stand on earth upon the altars of our churches. Long may its use continue.
But it it is fun to look back at the Greek original - where it is not in fact a hymn. It is a priestly proclamation uttered by the celebrant before the Great Entrance; and Moultrie did a bit of a Naughty in his translation, because, instead of speaking of Christ our God to earth descending, what the Greek actually says is: 'Christ our God is going forth to be slain in sacrifice' (proerchetai sphagiasthenai). And that is language which causes problems for some people - unnecessarily. Christ did die but once for all upon the cross, as the Reformers never ceased to declare, but his one sacrifice is beyond time in God's everlasting Now. God's 'Once' is not locked into one moment in one place in History ... it is not imprisoned in 33AD.
God could have chosen to create nothing, but to exist in his own social, Trinal, simplicity. If He did choose to create, He could have elected to create just one moment in one place. We never think about it; but, surely, that is the most obvious, sensible, 'clean-cut', unmessy, thing to do. Yet that isn't what He did. In that tremendous eccentricity which abides in the Divine Act of Creation, He created a multiplicity of times and places. Within that multiplicity, He could have created just one, monic, being to exist; but He chose also to create a multiplicity of beings. And so it is into that complexity that His 'Once for all' is graciously poured. The sacrifice of the Eternal Son is made 'sacramentally' present on earth, in that plurality of the times and places which the Creator God in his fluent generosity has given the innumerable multitudes He has created in which to worship him and to work out their salvation. And whenever it is so made present, Christ our God does "go forth to be slain in sacrifice". Furthermore, each Eucharist, bestowed from Eternity into Time, is not merely the offering of a monic being, but of Christ in his social body, associating with him and in him those who are partaking in that Mass in that new moment, so that the sacrifice of the Mass is ever one and unchanging and rooted in Eternity, and yet for ever here and new.
So I've never had any problems with that offertory prayer in the Sarum Mass, in which the priest referred to hoc sacrificium novum. But, of course, the 'Reformers' did, and the idea of a nova mactatio has been regarded as one of the worst corruptions of medieval Catholicism. It is good to have the Rite of S James to remind us that this way of employing language is not only sound and wholesome but bears the witness of East as well as of West.
*I have in mind Basil Handford, a superb Classicist and a very dear friend; born in 1901 (before Victoria's death); a boy at Lancing from 1913, then, after Oxford, a Master (with a few breaks, including one in America) until his sudden death in 1993. I preached at his Funeral and Solemn Requiem; I took over from him the job of writing Latin memorials and inscriptions for the Chapel, his being the first I wrote. Sadly, since my retirement in 2001, the custom appears to have lapsed, and memorials are in now some debased Teutonic dialect ... CAPD.