Stabat Mater and the Origins of Truth

This evening, I attended this Lent’s first Stations of the Cross at Good Shepherd.  Here, the tradition, long before I came, has been that lay leaders plan and lead the Stations of the Cross. I simply participated as a member of the assembly. It’s nice for a priest to do that now and then. After all, to paraphrase St. Augustine’s famous quote in his homily on the Anniversary of his ordination, “For you I am a priest, [but first] with you I am a Christian” (Sermo 340).

As the procession moved from station to station, the singing of the old, familiar Stabat Mater (“At the Cross her station keeping”) brought back a flood of memories. And so I thought I’d search for a version close to what I remember from ‘way back when. There are a number of Gregorian Chant versions of it, but this is the closest I cold find to match my memories:

After the austerity of the chant, let’s enjoy the still solemn but more opulent Stabat Mater by Rossini, conducted by the incomparable Carlo Maria Giulini.

I’m continuing to watch and listen to this as I write this evening.  Good way to finish up the initial half-week of Lent. (Next week is the “first week.”) Won’t you join me?

I’m still reflection on that unanswerable but essential question, “What is truth?” I thought I’d start where I usually start, but rarely end: Wikipedia. I also like to look at word origins; we learn a lot from discovering where our words came from, and how they got from there to here.

“Truth” is derived from the Old English Germanic word meaning “true”, plus “th” which changes it from an adjective to a noun. I’m not going to attempt to give all the variations of spelling and possible pronunciation, but it’s worth noting that that the Primitive Indo-European root is probably the same as for “tree,” implying a connotation of “steadfast as a tree.” (Remember, old growth forests covered much of the habitable earth in ancient days. Farming only became widely possible by clearing them by cutting a lot of trees down. Nature can be so inconvenient at times.)

In many Germanic languages, including English, true/truth took on a double meaning: true in the sense of faithful and true in the sense of corresponding to reality. That may be worth thinking about and playing with. But now I want to look at the original words in our heritage that were translated in the English “truth.”

Remember that the New Testament was originally written in Greek because its composition followed the proclamation of the Gospel among Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles. The Greek word we translate as truth can tell us a lot: aletheia. Often “a-” (sometimes “an-“) at the beginning of a Greek word means “not,” a negation. “Atheist” is a good example. Another wonderful example is the word for remembrance, anamnesis, which means literally “not forgetting.” (“Amnesia” comes from the root.)

Aletheia means literally “not hidden” or “unconcealed.” I think it’s worth noting that the Greek word carries with a certain dynamism, an act of bring forth something that previously was unknown or hidden. When Jesus speaks of truth, he’s not just speaking about a thing or a concept, but a dynamic activity. When he says, “I am he Way, and the Truth, and the Life,” he’s not just giving a definition, he’s drawing us into his very act of making God alive in our midst.

From the get-go, truth is not a simple as some folks would have us believe. Something to think about . . .

The Stabat Mater just came to an end. And so must I – off to bed.

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Author: tomwelbers

I have been a Catholic priest for nearly fifty years, most of that time serving in parish and college campus ministry. I also have professional degrees in theology and liturgy, as well as institutional management, and continue avidly to explore pastoral theology, Scripture, liturgy, ecumenical and interfaith relations, and spiritual direction. I have a passion for sharing insight into our Christian heritage through teaching, writing, and leading pilgrimages, especially to Early Christian World sites in Turkey. Now actively retired from parish ministry, I live at Nazareth House in Los Angeles.

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