New job, new daily Mass, and the reappearance of an old pet peeve of mine. The priest who most often says the morning Mass substitutes “friends” for “disciples” in the institution narrative. This substitution was not uncommonly heard in my 1980’s childhood — one of the priests of my neighborhood parish would always choose this swap. I would not be surprised if others have experienced a similar phenomenon in the years since the liturgical reform.
I am still quite baffled as to why priests would choose the word “friends” over “disciples”. The word “disciple”, unlike “consubstantial” or “incarnate”, is not an obscure word. “Disciple” is not a gender-exclusive word. Perhaps “friends” offers a more accessible tone to the consecration? “Friends” might impress some persons with the opposite sentiment. When I hear “friends”, I think of an informal gathering such as casual dining. I do not think of an event with the gravity commonly associated with the institution of the Eucharist or its celebration. Given that it is quite possible that the Last Supper did not take place within a seder, it is not impossible that the Last Supper took place within a non-formal meal context. However, the resignification of this scriptural event within liturgical solemnity suggests that “friends” is incongruous.
It is important to consider the specific and deliberate parallelism between the roles of Jesus as teacher and his followers as students in the Greek New Testament as well as the Vulgate Latin translation. The synoptic institution narratives consistently refer to Jesus’s followers as μαθηταὶ, mathētai, “students” (singular nominative μαθητής, mathētēs). The noun forms are derived from the verb μανθάνω, manthanō, “learn”. Throughout the Gospels Jesus, in the role of religious teacher, is addressed simply by the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew, ῥαββί (“rabbi”, the title for a Torah scholar). Jesus is also addressed more generally as διδάσκαλε, didaskale, “teacher”. The relationship between Jesus and his followers within the context of the synoptic institution narratives demonstrates implicit teacher and student interaction and not a collaboration between equals in authority. The institution narratives’ reference to Jesus’ gathered followers as μαθηταὶ necessarily follows from the repeated references to Jesus as ῥαββί and διδάσκαλε throughout the Gospels.
While Jerome similarly transliterated ῥαββί into the Latin alphabet as rabbi and translated διδάσκαλε as magister or “teacher”, he translated μαθηταὶ as discipuli or “students”. The English etymology of “disciple” is quite clear in light of Jerome’s translation. “Friends”, then, is a vague substitute for the very specific English word “disciple”. Furthermore, “friends” destroys the teacher and student dimension integral to the institution narratives.
While one would rightly presume that Jesus’ disciples were his friends, it is probable that Jesus had friends that were not his disciples. What, then, is the profit in the substitution of “friends” for “disciples” in eucharistic prayers? Perhaps philology alone cannot explain this phenomenon.