Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On the meaning and purpose of the Collects, Advent Edition (1)

First-time worshipers, unfamiliar with Anglican tradition, are often confused by the term, "collect." Seeing it in the order of worship, they might tend to think of it in terms of "collection," as in the taking up of the weekly offering. To better understand the meaning of the Collect, and appreciate its place and purpose in worship, here is some helpful background information from C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F.M. Zahl (Forward to The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, Eerdmans Publishing 1999).

What is a Collect? The origin of the term collecta, while rather obscure, refers to the "gathering of the people together" as well as to the "collecting up" of the petitions of individual members of the congregation into one prayer. This at first extemporaneous prayer would later also be connected to the Epistle and Gospel appointed for the day. A Collect is a short prayer that asks "for one thing only" (Fortescue) and is peculiar to the liturgies of the Western Churches, being unknown in the Churches of the East. It is also a literary form (an art comparable to the sonnet) usually, but not always, consisting of five parts. 
I. The Address 
The invocation is to the Father. "And in that day ye shall ask me nothing . . . whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you" (St. John 16:23). The exceptions to this rule are Advent III, Lent I, and St. Stephen's Day, when the Son is addressed directly. Trinity Sunday also stands outside this maxim, since in that case there is no distinction of Persons. 
II. The Acknowledgment 
This gives "the foundation of doctrine upon which our request is made" (Dean Goulburn). It reflects some quality of God related to that which we shall be asking Him in the Petition: His power, His grace, His transcendence, His mercy. In a few cases, however, what is acknowledged is our weakness or frailty or sinfulness. 
III. The Petition 
Here is the actual prayer concerning basic needs: cleansing, forgiveness, protection, guidance, comfort, holiness, love. 
IV. The Aspiration 
Not appearing in all Collects, this is introduced by the conjunction "that." An example is found in Trinity XXI: pardon and peace are desired so that we may be better fitted for God's service. The petition ("pardon and peace") is not an end in itself but claims a higher purpose in the aspiration. 
V. The Pleading 
". . . through Jesus Christ our Lord." Christ is our only mediator and advocate. Through Jesus alone can we draw near to the Father. The pleading historically contained the doxological words, "who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end." This ending was so well-known that Archbishop Cranmer either omitted it or placed "&c" in lieu of it. But this omission led to forgetting, and the full wording was restored to some Collects in 1662 and, finally, to all of them in the 1979 American edition. 
Here is the pattern for the familiar and much-loved Collect for Purity from the service of Holy Communion: 
I. Almighty God,
II. unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid,
III. cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit,
IV. that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name,
V. through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen. 
Another example is that of Trinity XIX: 
I. O God,
II. forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee
III. mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts,
V. through Jesus Christ our Lord. 
The Collects are not only necessary to the liturgy, but also are part of the pastoral tradition of the Church. The Prayer Book Collects are a priceless part of English-speaking Christianity. They are also for the present use of everyday Christians in the trials and testings of life. . . .

The Collect for the First Sunday of Advent is also traditionally prayed each day during the Advent season.

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This Collect, according to Barbee and Zahl, "achieves an astonishing feat. It ties together not only the first coming and the final coming of God -- the two advents of Jesus Christ -- but it binds together our human present with the future, which is even now rushing towards us." Cranmer's purpose in devising this prayer was to emphasize "that our present life is the incubator for our future and enduring life. And every moment of this life is accompanied by Him who visited this planet in great humility." Praying this Collect daily throughout Advent keeps our hearts and minds focused on that promised future which gives meaning and purpose to our life in the present. Christ came first in humility, as one of us. He will come again in glorious majesty and we will share in his ultimate victory, as John assures us in his first epistle, "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).

As the Second Sunday of Advent approaches, the Collect reminds us that repentance, turning away from our sins and turning toward God, is part and parcel to our preparation for the coming of Christ.

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Older editions of the Prayer Book have a different Collect for this week. In later editions, this prayer was moved to the next to last Sunday of the Christian Year, designated "Scripture Sunday."

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.