REPARATION for the solemn reading of the Gospel in the Roman Rite is a liturgical unit that includes a panoply of ceremonies: a blessing, a worthiness prayer, a chant, an approach of the altar, a procession, bows, lighted candles, a special liturgical book, and the offering of incense. Within this complex of ritual, there is one spoken portion—common to both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms—that runs the risk of being overlooked by the faithful, since it is part of a quiet exchange between the bishop (or priest) and deacon. I have in mind the deacon’s request for a blessing: Iube, domne, benedicere. What is the significance of this short sentence?
The literal meaning of these words will be addressed below. It will be worthwhile, first, to point out that these three words appear in the Ordo Romanus primus (ORP), though not as part of preparations for the Gospel and not on the lips of a deacon. Rather, in this late-seventh-century description of a papal Mass in Rome, the line is uttered by bishops following the concluding Ite, missa est and as the return procession to the sacristy begins. This is the way ORP describes it:
Discendente autem ad presbiterium, episcopi primum dicunt: ‘Iube, domne, benedicere.’ Respondit: ‘Benedicat nos dominus.’ Respondunt: ‘Amen.’
As he [the pope] goes down towards the presbyteral area, the bishops first say: ‘Master, give a blessing.’ He replies: ‘May the Lord bless us.’ They reply: ‘Amen.’ 1
Before the Gospel, in the ORP, the deacon is described as kissing the pontiff’s feet and receiving a blessing in response.
Nor is this sentence entirely peculiar to the Roman Rite. It is comparable, for example, to the first words spoken aloud in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: Благослови, владыко, “Master, give the blessing.” 2
Jungmann references Amalar (c. 775–c. 850) as having remarked that “the deacon who is about to scatter the seed of the Gospel stands in need of a major benedictio.” 3 Jungmann also offers a definition of the word iube:
Iube = dignare = “deign”; it is a courteous formula which implies that great lords do not themselves act but charge servants with the task. The domnus here used is also customary in other cases to distinguish earthly masters from the heavenly Dominus. 4
A brief, but illuminating study of these three words as they pertain to the Divine Office appeared in the Spring 1931 edition of The Monican, a former publication of the college-level Augustinian seminarians at Villanova University. The short article, attributed to R. M. Plunkett, OSA, is reprinted here in full:
The custom of asking a blessing before reading or chanting the lessons in the Divine Office was observed as early as the fourth century. This formal request, prescribed by the rubrics, consists of the words “Jube, domne, benedicere,” accompanied by a profound bow. In many English versions of this form, “Jube” is freely translated, as pray, please, or grant. Not only are these meanings for jubeo not found in Latin lexicons, but they fail to bring out the origin and significance of this formal request for a blessing.
St. Peter Damian gives a short and plausible explanation of these words, without, however, presuming that it is authoritative, and with the saving phrase “salva fide.” His interpretation is that the lector does not ask the officiating priest to bless him, but out of humility, asks the priest to commission whomsoever he will for the task. As a fitting recompense for such humility, the priest renders a like act of humility; for he neither delegates anyone beneath him, nor does he presume to give the blessing himself, but entreats that the blessing be given by the Lord of all.
In the mind of the Church, expressed in the rubrics of the Breviary and in the decrees of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, the blessing that precedes the gospel, lesson, or chapter, is a species of mission. The “lectiones” are read for the instruction of those present. And, as St. Paul says (Rom. x, 15), “How shall they preach unless they be sent?” The hebdomadarian, then, delegates the lector to read the instruction. This puts the words of the request in a new light and gives them a significance deeper and strictly literal. For “Jube, domne,” means “Order, sir”; and “benedicere” (bene-dicere) means “to speak well”; “Jube, domne, benedicere,” then, literally means “Order, sir, to speak well.” Words more apt than these could scarcely be found, considering the purpose and import of the request.
If a bishop is to read the ninth lesson and no superior is present, he says “Jube, Domine, benedicere,” addressing the Lord. Now the bishop, in virtue of his power, needs no further commission and, in acknowledgment of this, the blessing is omitted. His divine commission to teach, received at his consecration, is recognized by the Choir’s immediate answer, “Amen,” to his request.
When the ruler of the Choir asks for the blessing before the ninth lesson, he addresses the one immediately beneath him in rank, who reads the blessing. In private recitation, “Domine” is substituted for “domne,” and the blessing is then recited by the individual. There is nothing incongruous either in asking to be delegated by one inferior in rank, or in requesting a commission to instruct oneself privately. The Divine Office is the official prayer of the Church in which all her members participate, either directly, by reciting it, or indirectly, by partaking of the fruits thereof. The blessing is always asked in the name of the Church, and the commission being given in the name of the Church, is always official.
It is worthy of not that, however else they differ, St. Peter Damian and the liturgists agree that “juge” means “order.” English words whose meaning is foreign to this fail to convey the true significance of this time-honored ceremony.
The request, Iube, domne, benedicere, does not draw attention to itself. Like so many of the inaudible prayers of the Mass, however, this short statement is quite rich in significance.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Latin original and English translation from Alan Griffiths, Ordo Romanus Primus: Latin Text and Translation with Introduction and Notes, Joint Liturgical Studies 73 (Chippenham, UK: Alcuin Club, 2012), 58-59.
2 The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (Ontario: Basilian Press, 1988), 12-13.
3 Joseph A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (Missarum Sollemnia), trans. Francis Brunner, vol. 1 (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1951), 454.
4 Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite, 1:455, footnote 94.