In explaining the choice of “Vita Mutatur Non Tollitur” as the title of this blog, I hope to further clarify the purpose of this work as well as to better define the theological/spiritual/intellectual disposition from which I write.
Let’s begin by seeing the quote in its larger, original context:
Vere dignum et iustum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere, Domine Sancte Pater, omnipotens aeterne Deus, per Christum Dominum nostrum: in quo nobis spes beatae resurrectionis effulsit, ut quos contristat certa moriendi condicio, eosdem consuletur futurae immortalitatis promissio. Tuis enim fidelibus, Domine, vita mutatur, non tollitur, et, dissoluta terrestris huius incolatus domo, aeterna in caelis habitatio comparatur.
and in English:
It is truly right and just, proper and availing unto salvation, that we always and everywhere give thanks to You, O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty and Eternal God: through Christ our Lord: in him the hope of the blessed resurrection has shone to us, so that those saddened by the certain condition of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come. Truly for your faithful, O Lord, life is changed, not taken away, and, when the earthly house of this habitation is dissolved, an eternal dwelling will have been purchased in the heavens. (personal translation, not the 2010 revised improved ICEL translation).
The original Latin text is, obviously, the Eucharistic Preface of the Missa pro Defunctis in both the Extraordinary Form (as the only option) and the Ordinary Form (as the first, traditional option). Firstly, then, this quote deals with the certainty of death, a result of the sin of our first parents, and which afflicts us all. Death has become an indelible part of our condition, testifying to the prevailing power of sin. Mortality confronts us all, and at some point on the road to personal maturity, man must contemplate death’s mystery, which ultimately leads either to a fatalistic unbelief, or to a recognition of our contingent creatureliness, and thus, to a Creator.
In Christ, all things are made new (Rev 21:5), for by descending to the depths of utmost abandonment, he “became sin” (2Cor 5:21) and opened up death, transforming it from a path to perdition into a path to immortality. The joy and inexhaustible hope which flows from the Resurrection runs through the Praefatio pro Defunctis; it is the same joy that caused the Apostle Paul to boast with the words of the prophet Hosea, “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?” (1Cor 15:55; Hos 13:14).
Jesus, through the Cross, transformed death so that we too might share in his triumph after our own mortal ends. But note that the second clause in the preceeding sentence is in the subjunctive; our share in the Lord’s triumph is never a guarantee for all people. In fact, salvation is contingent, not to be taken for granted, and never a foregone conclusion. Going back to the sentence containing our title phrase, we see: Tuis enim fidelibus, Domine, vita mutatur non tollitur… “Truly for Your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not taken away.” Behind the immense sentiment of hope in the preface, there lies the implication that for the unfaithful, life is in fact taken away and not changed, tollitur non mutatur. Faith in the Lord is the sine qua non, the first condition without which none can hope for redemption.
Prayer is the visible manifestation of this faith, and liturgy is the public, corporate manifestation of prayer. The liturgy therefore presupposes faith in the Lord and the faith of the Church, and the Requiem Mass in a particular way presupposes the fullness of this faith. Through it we manifest our hope in the resurrection, but at the same time we are mindful of the power of sin and cognizant of the ultimately uncertain fate of our departed brothers and sisters, and for this reason we implore the Almighty for his mercy. This is why we mourn; this is why the liturgical vestments for funerals are traditionally black; this is why in the Vetus Ordo we sing the Dies Irae, to remind us that when the Lord comes at the end of time, that Rex tremendae maiestatis will separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff, the faithful from the unfaithful.
Thus the phrase “vita mutatur non tollitur” is a rich liturgical allusion to the mystery of our redemption; it points to our common bondage to sin and death, but at the same time it refers to the reward for unfailing faith–that aeterna in caelis habitatio which Christ bought for us by his blood. This blog aims to recall any willing reader toward this life-transforming mystery, so that when the earthly house of this habitation is dissolved, an eternal dwelling in the heavens will have been purchased for them by Christ Jesus, our Lord, who reigns in eternity.