Cases of Mysterious Gender and Being Worthy in Liturgical Texts

The Apostles’ Creed widely used in the Christian West affirms belief in what it calls the ‘communio sanctorum’. The first word is easily translated ‘communion’, but the gender of the second Latin word is ambiguous, for it could be masculine, in which case it would mean ‘of the saints’, or neuter, which would yield the meaning ‘of holy things’ (i.e. the sacraments). Exactly the same issue occurs at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, with the petition ‘deliver us from…’ The final word in Greek (ponerou)  is ambiguous, for again it could be taken in the masculine gender (hence ‘deliver us from the evil one’) or in the neuter (‘deliver us from evil.’)  The Latin version of the prayer is similarly ambiguous!

Fortunately the nominative and dative plurals of nouns in Greek have clearly marked masculine/feminine and neuter forms, so there is no ambiguity in a passage of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostum where the priest declares ‘The holy things for the holy [people].’ The surprise here, of course, is that the people about to receive the Sacrament are called holy; as early as the time of St John Chrysostum this declaration was making people uneasy. The unexpectedness of these words of the priest call forth what might almost be seen as an immediate clarification from the people: ‘One is holy [Eis hagios], one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of the Father.’  Perhaps it is worth considering that the stage of the Liturgy where this exchange occurs comes after the Lord’s Prayer, introduced by the priest with the words ‘And make us worthy, Master…’ Prayers often said after this contain the words  ‘You are fire burning the unworthy’; ‘It is a burning coal consuming the unworthy’;  and’ Let not these holy gifts be to me for judgment through my unworthiness.’ Worthiness, like holiness, can only be claimed on the understanding that it is something that has been given. ‘I thank you, Lord my God, for not rejecting me a sinner, but making me worthy to be a partaker of your holy things.’

2 comments

  • John,
    This is more to my liking.
    In the Lord’s prayer, the common use is, I think, “deliver us from EVIL”, thus the neuter option. I would be tempted to argue that by analogy, the same may apply to Apostles’ Creed. However, the Hebrew version reads:
    im-khi ha-tzi-lei-nu
    but deliver us
    min ha-ra
    from the evil one
    It sort of makes sense since the Jews of that period relied more on Greek than on Latin. In any case, I sincerely hope that this is not going to lead to another schism.
    Eric

  • Natasha

    It seems not unlikely that the ambiguity was intended as an esoteric tool for those who may seek a deeper meaning

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