The Collect for Grace (Morning)

The Collect for Grace in Morning Prayer, recommended for Wednesdays in the ACNA liturgy, is one of the standard Collects for Morning Prayer in the historic prayer books – where there were always the same two after the Collect of the Day.  Our version of it reads thus:

O Lord, our heavenly Father, almighty and everlasting God, you have brought us safely to the beginning of this day: Defend us by your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin nor run into any danger; and that guided by your Spirit, we may do what is righteous in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This one is rather rich in Scriptural references.  After acknowledging the beginning of the day, we pray as in Psalm 43:1 “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause.”  The Collect expresses a trust in God’s refuge akin to that described in Psalm 62:7 (verse 8 in the Prayer Book numeration) and Psalm 91:2.  We pray this “That we may do what is righteous in your sight” (Deuteronomy 6:18), putting the prayer together in much the same way as part of Zechariah’s Canticle does in Luke 1:74-75.

Note and remember, too, that although our new Prayer Book prints the same seven daily Collects as the 1979 book did, the rubrics identify which two are the traditional two Collects for the Daily Office, so if you want to “roll back” towards traditional Anglican liturgy the option and direction is provided right there!

Still using the Ash Wednesday Collect?

During the seasons of Advent and Lent, in Prayer Books before the 1970’s, there was a special tradition of repeating the first Collect of the season on every day throughout the season.  For example, this is what you find in the 1662 Prayer Book:

The first Day of Lent commonly called Aſh Wedneſday.

The Collect.
ALMIGHTY and everlaſting God, who hateſt nothing that thou haſt made, and doſt forgive all the ſins of thoſe who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our ſins, and acknowledging our wretchedneſs, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remiſſion and forgiveneſs; through Jeſus Chriſt our Lord. Amen.

¶ This Collect is to be read every day in Lent after the Collect appointed for the day.

(I kept the “long s” typeface in for fun this time; usually I edit them to the regular S.)

Anyway, notice the rubric underneath the Collect: it is to be used throughout the Lenten season in addition to whatever the Collect of the Day normally would be.  For example, yesterday was the Second Sunday in Lent, so we could have read that Collect followed by the Ash Wednesday Collect near the beginning of the Communion service.  You could even be using this extra Collect in the Daily Office every morning and evening!

Now, there is no such rubric in the 1979 or 2019 Prayer Books.  But there is no prohibition against reviving this traditional practice either.  I’ve made a practice of retaining the Collect for Ash Wednesday (sometimes nicknaming it the “Collect for Lent” or “for the season”) on each Sunday in my congregation.  Yes, it does make an awkward break in the rhythm of the liturgy: people are used to sitting down after the Collect but suddenly they have to wait through a second one.

But this can be a good kind of awkwardness.  This Collect is one of the great gems of our Prayer Book tradition, capturing the wretchedness of our sin and the great love and mercy of God in one beautiful little prayer.  It’s a good interruption to receive in the ordinary course of worship.  I can’t say that anybody has ever come up to me after the worship service to comment on it before, but I do think it is a subtle-but-meaningful tradition to hang on to.

Know and Obey

When we looked at the logic of the season of Lent last week, as highlighted by the Collects and Gospels for each Sunday, I implied that our Collect for the First Sunday in Lent is the same as in the historic Prayer Books; this is not entirely true.  Our Collect functions the same way as the traditional Collect, and both make reference to the Gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but how exactly that is applied to us has changed.  In the 2019 Prayer Book, the Collect is going to look rather like this:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations, and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ…

The premise of the prayer is temptation of Jesus by the Devil, followed by the reality that we, too, are assaulted with demonic temptation.  God, in his mercy and perfect knowledge, knows our weaknesses and so we pray for experiential knowledge: that God is “mighty to save.”  The historic Collect goes in a very different direction:

O LORD, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights: Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to thy honour and glory, who livest and reignest…

The premise of this prayer is fasting of Jesus during those forty days, followed by a prayer that we would be enriched by our own fast during Lent.  Or rather, our abstinence.  Abstinence is a particular type of fast: to fast from something is to reduce its place in your life or your consumption or participation in something, while to abstain from something is to remove it from your life or to cease consuming or participating in something.  Eating smaller meals and cutting out snacking is fasting; giving up meat or chocolate or alcohol for Lent is abstinence.  Abstinence, in whatever specific form it takes, is one of our chief weapons in the subduing of the flesh to the Spirit, and this Collect prays that we would become more able to obey God’s commands “in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).

Notice the modern Collect is focused more on experiential knowledge – knowing that God is our powerful Savior – while the traditional Collect is focused more on our obedience.  Surely both are necessary, and belong together, for a sincerely Christian life.  As such, I find I can’t make a personal judgment as to which one is “better” than the other.

The traditional Collect, by referencing the spiritual discipline, links back to Ash Wednesday more than the modern Collect does, so if you’re concerned about liturgical coherence from holy day to holy day then the old tradition preferable here.  But, on the other hand, perhaps one would prefer to see a balance: Ash Wednesday delivering the focus on our call to Lenten discipline and the First Sunday pointing us more to the example and power of Jesus rather than reiterating the disciplines we’re undertaking.

It’s all a matter of perspective and emphasis; certainly there is a place for both traditions.  And, as I said at the beginning, both function in the same way: they are making sure we are getting started into Lent on the right foot.

The Logic of Lent

The season of Lent is one of the more topically scripted seasons of the year, due in part to its relative brevity and narrow focus.  As is often the case, the traditional calendar is clearer than the modern calendar in terms of the ebb and flow of the season, the modern calendar losing some of its coherence due to the 3-year cycle of readings.  Nevertheless, a basic contour can still be discerned.  Rather than looking at traditional and modern Lent separately as we did for Epiphanytide, we can consider the tradition both old and new together.

The First Sunday of Lent is about the temptation of Jesus.  This has always been the case, and has not changed in modern practice.  Year B of the modern calendar almost drops the ball on this due to the fact that Mark’s Gospel only mentions the temptation in one sentence, rather than relating the whole story like Matthew and Luke.  The Collect, too, is the same in both traditions, seeking to imitate Christ’s abstinence that we may move towards holiness.  This is a strong “best foot forward” experience for the first Sunday of the season, making sure we’re on the right path with our spiritual disciplines that began on Ash Wednesday, with the right godly goals in mind.

The Second Sunday of Lent is a mixed bag in the modern lectionary.  The three years yield the Gospel sayings of Jesus ranging from “you must be born again,” “take up your cross and follow me”, and his lament over Jerusalem.  The latter two suggest a theme of looking ahead toward the liturgical culmination of Lent in the Passion of Jesus, while the former hangs back with another sort of starting place for the season.  Traditionally, the Gospel lesson was about the Syro-Phoenician (or Canaanite) Woman’s great faith over which Jesus marveled.  The Collect built off that, praying that God would keep us defended in body and soul because we’re defenseless (like that woman).  Although that Collect remains in our Prayer Book, it does not seem to have a strong connection with the modern Gospel readings.

The Third Sunday of Lent traditionally was very similar to the second, pairing another Collect asking God to look upon us and keep us defended with another healing story from the Gospel, this time an exorcism with subsequent teaching about demons.  Our Prayer Book supplies an expanded version of that Collect (first introduced in the 1979 Prayer Book) and pairs with the Gospel stories of the woman at the well, the cleansing the temple, and Jesus’ call to repent followed by the parable of the barren fig tree.  The traditional pairing makes this Sunday much like the previous, while the modern Collect and lessons lean more heavily on our “restless hearts” and “heartfelt desires” that need to be rightened, healed, or cleansed.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent is interesting in that one of the three years in the modern lectionary lines up with the traditional Gospel: the Feeding of the 5,000.  The traditional application of this, in the Collect, was a prayer for relief instead of punishment, marking this Sunday as the lighter and more hope-filled Sunday in the Lenten sequence, visually marked by the wearing of rose vestments instead of violet.  Our modern calendar, however, puts in a Collect about Jesus being our true bread from heaven, emphasizing the original Gospel story but setting it in a different context, especially in years A and C when the Gospel lesson is about the man born blind or the parable of the prodigal son.  In that light, there isn’t as much reason to retain the “Rose Sunday” tradition in the modern Lent.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent, nicknamed Passion Sunday, is an anticipation of Palm Sunday.  A noteworthy feature of the traditional lectionary was that major Sunday commemorations tended to have a follow-up Sunday to further explicate its meaning, but in the case of Palm Sunday, that follow-up had to be a preview Sunday instead.  Originally, the Gospel was Jesus’ speech about “before Abraham was, I am” – asserting his divinity.  This was paired with a lesson from Hebrews about his priestly sacrifice, so the theological import of his death on the Cross would be better appreciated on the following Sunday.  The modern calendar carries out a similar function using the Gospel stories of the resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus’ saying that “the son of man must be lifted up,” and the parable of the wicked tenants.  The traditional Collect was similar to those for the 2nd and 3rd Sundays, with a thematic similarity to the Collect for Good Friday, making it serve as another “preview” of the Passion to come.  The modern Collect, however, is a transfer from what was originally an Eastertide Collect, asking God to fix our hearts where true joy is to be found, despite our unruly wills and affections.  As far as I can see (thus far), this somewhat weakens the traditional Passion Sunday function.

The Sixth Sunday of Lent is usually called Palm Sunday, and it is the day we hear the great Passion Narrative as the Gospel.  The Collect is the same, old and new, drawing upon the Epistle (Philippians 2:5-11, also unchanged) to apply Christ’s passion to us; the only difference is that the historic lectionary sticks with Matthew’s Passion and the modern cycles between Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  We’ll look at this in greater detail when Holy Week draws nigh.

 

Echoes of Lent in Epiphanytide

Traditionally this Sunday is/was Septuagesima, the third Sunday before Lent.  The modern calendar, however, continues the Epiphany season through these final weeks, all the way to Ash Wednesday.  What’s interesting is that some of the Collects for these final Sundays are lifted from the traditional Lent and Pre-Lent observances.  This week’s Collect, for example, Epiphany VI, is as follows:

Almighty God, look mercifully upon your people, that by your great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

Traditionally this was the Collect appointed for Lent V, or Passion Sunday.  Compare this to the Good Friday Collect and you’ll see a very similar prayer: “behold this your people O Lord…”

This was no accident: Passion Sunday (Lent 5) was the beginning of Passiontide, the last two weeks of Lent, which direct our attentions to the suffering and death of Jesus.  Lent 5, being the Sunday immediately before Palm Sunday, provided something of a theological background to prepare the worshiper for Palm Sunday, by exploring the concept of sacrificial atonement such as found in Hebrews chapter 9.  Good Friday, being the intensification of Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Passiontide, naturally brings the some sort of prayerful approach as Lent 5.

But now we have that Collect here on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany.  Although diminished in effect by being so much farther away from Good Friday, it can still be a signal for us that something different is coming.  Instead of hailing the beginning of Passiontide like it did at Lent 5, it now hails the approach of Lent, giving us a foretaste, an echo back in time, of the Good Friday subject: may God graciously look upon his people and govern and preserve us evermore.

The Collect(s) for Epiphany V

Sorry for the late post this time.  Nothing especially ground-breaking was planned for this post, mainly just some observations.  The “Collects for the Christian Year” document for our up-and-coming prayer book has undergone a few subtle changes here and there over the past three or four years, and to be honest this is the part of Texts for Common Prayer that I have monitored the least.  There’s only so much one pair of eyes can keep track of, I guess.

Still, I’ve noticed that this week’s Collect has undergone some interesting little edits over the years.  Here it is in its current form (at least, as of September 2018)…

O Lord, our heavenly Father, keep your household the Church continually in your true religion, that we who trust in the hope of your heavenly grace may always be defended by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord…

Compare that to how it appeared previously in 2016 and/or 2017:

O Lord, our Creator and Redeemer, we ask you to keep your household the Church continually in your true religion; so that we who trust in the hope of your heavenly grace may always be defended by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord…

The address to God has shifted from “Creator and Redeemer” to “our heavenly Father”.
The petition previously was “we ask you to keep” and is now more terse: “keep…”
The purpose clause had the word “so” but has since dropped it.

Before we can make too many inferences about the reasons for these changes, we should consider the original, traditional, collect for Epiphany V:

O LORD, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion; that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Notice that the address here is simply “O Lord”… the question of the modern version seems to be concerning how to expand that.  We can see that “we beseech thee to keep” was initially recast as “we ask you to keep”, and then apparently ruled too clunky for modern English.  Considering the Great Litany still uses the phrase “we beseech you to hear us, O Lord” I’m not sure why this simplification was ruled necessary.  There’s also a style difference – traditional English prayer language tends to use third person (them/those who do lean…) where modern tends to prefer first person (we who trust…).  This is, I’d argue, a good adaptation to current language use; one rarely refers to oneself in the third person anymore 😉

Sometimes it’s just fun to explore how things have developed over time, and discover the strengths and weaknesses of modern language and style.

Pairing: a Collect & a Hymn

Our Collect of the Day from Sunday, the fourth in Epiphanytide, is the first Sunday Collect this season that matches the old Prayer Book tradition.  The first three Sundays have modern Collects to reflect the modern Epiphany emphasis on missions, and now this fourth one takes us back to the original Epiphany tradition.  Here it is:

O God, you know that we are set in the midst of so many and grave dangers that in the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: Grant us your strength and protection to support us in all dangers and carry us through every temptation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

What I thought we’d do with this Collect today, rather than analyze it or link to a Scripture reading, is match it up with a hymn.  And, rather than dig up a lesser-known song as we’ve done a few times already, let’s pair this classic Collect with a classic hymn: O worship the King.

According to hymnary.org this song appears in nearly 1,000 different books, and probably hundreds more that aren’t compiled on that site.  The lyrics were written by Robert Grant in 1833, loosely based on Psalm 104.  It has been set to a couple different tunes, so I’ll let you readers fight over if LYONS or HANOVER is best, or if one should vote third party.

It is the 5th verse that especially links up with the Collect for Epiphany IV.

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
In thee, Lord, we trust, nor find thee to fail;
Thy mercies, how tender! how firm to the end!
Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and friend!

Both the prayer and the hymn consider us in terms of frailty.  We are “set in the midst of so many and grave dangers”, we need God’s “strength and protection” that, unlike us, are “firm to the end!”  It seems appropriate to consider this hymn a sort of response or follow-up to the Collect: we pray for God’s promised protection, and then we sing joyfully of his steadfast love, his covenant faithfulness, by which we know that our maker, defender, and redeemer is also our friend.

 

The Presentation / Purification / Candlemas

February 2nd is the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, also known as The Purification of Mary, or Candlemas for short.  I thought I’d take up some of the liturgical tid-bits that characterize the celebration of that day, and point out something of how they inform us of the Christian Faith, and biblical interpretation.

There are three primary worship services in Western liturgical tradition: Morning Prayer (or Mattins), the Mass (or Communion or Eucharist), and Evening Prayer (or Vespers).  Although they are normally held throughout the day in that order, the Communion service is the “principle” celebration of the day; that means that the scripture readings in that service are usually the most significant ones for the given holiday, and the readings in the Office are supplementary.  Also, what exactly the readings are, and how many of them exist, will vary between different specific traditions.  Older Anglican Prayer Books differ slightly from newer ones, and Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox liturgies also have slightly different choices in many cases, but over all the similarities tend to outweigh the differences.  With that in mind, let’s dive in!

The Collect

The “Collect of the Day” is a prayer that is meant to collect together the theme(s) of the day from the Scripture readings.  Looking at how this is done in a given Collect can reveal the theological, devotional, or practical emphases that the tradition is putting forth.  Here is one Collect for the feast of the Presentation:

Almighty and everlasting God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

This focuses on the historical event (Jesus’ presentation in the Temple) and draws a spiritual analogy to the end product of our salvation: the Day we are all made completely holy in Christ such that he may present us to the Father as adopted members of the household of God.  It also points out that Jesus was in “our flesh,” providing an emphasis on the incarnation and the exchange that takes place: God entered into our humanity so that we can enter into His divinity.

Morning Prayer readings

One Old Testament reading that some of the classic Prayer Books set forth for the Office of Morning Prayer is Exodus 13:1-16.  This makes for a great first reading on this holiday because it gives the Old Testament Law of Moses background for what’s going on with Jesus and his family.  In the wake of the Passover (Exodus 12), God instructs Moses that by destroying all the firstborn males in Egypt except for those households protected by the blood of the Passover Lamb, all firstborn males in Israel now belong to Him.  Therefore they must be redeemed (or bought back) after they are born.  It’s like a first-fruit offering, except because children are not to be sacrificed, they are to be paid for instead.  (Interestingly, it’s the same concept as an indulgence – a debt is owed, but another form of payment is accepted.)

This is what Mary and Joseph were doing in the Temple with 40-day-year-old Jesus; they were obeying this law going back to the time of the Exodus.

Holy Communion readings

Across the board, the Gospel reading for this holiday is Luke 2:22-40, as that is the account of the event on which this holiday is based.  There we find the story of Jesus’ family in the Temple, Simeon recognizing Jesus and singing his prophetic song (or Canticle), and Anna the prophetess recognizing Jesus and sharing the good news of His arrival as well.

The Old Testament reading often included here (including our 2019 Prayer Book) is Malachi 3:1-5.  Much of that passage provides material for the preaching of St. John the Baptist, which inevitably draws the participant in the liturgy back to the season of Advent.  For there we heard for one or two Sundays about John and his preaching, and the accompanying Advent theme of the future return of Christ for the final judgement echoes in this reading too.  But most importantly, the very first verse here says “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.”  Obviously this has multiple fulfillments, as Jesus visits the Temple many times in his life and significant things take place at several of those visits.  But this is his first arrival in the Temple, and there are two people there (Simeon and Anna) who had been seeking him there.

Other readings

An Epistle reading found in some Daily Office lectionaries is Galatians 4:1-7.  There we find a theme mentioned briefly in the Collect – our own becoming sons of God.  It also mentions the dynamic of moving from being bound to the Law to being adopted as sons.  Jesus himself, it says, was “born of a woman, born under law,” which this holiday describes.  So the sharing of Christ in our humanity leads to our sharing in his divinity, because “since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.”

One reading often used at the end of the day is Haggai 2:1-9.  This prophetic writing speaks of the newly-build second temple and its inferiority to the original built under King Solomon.  And yet, God promises that it will be greater in glory, for “in this place I will grant peace.”  This promise is empty and void throughout Old Testament history; it is not until Jesus arrives there that God’s presence actually ever even enters the Temple again!  As the Christian goes through Evening Prayer and sees this promise of peace at the end of the Old Testament lesson, he or she will be drawn back in memory to the Gospel reading earlier, specifically the words of Simeon: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.”  Haggai’s words are directly answered by Simeon in Luke’s Gospel book!

The Canticle of Simeon

Let’s stick with Simeon’s song for a moment here.  It’s Luke 2:29-32, specifically, and is actually used throughout the entire year as a canticle (prayer-song) in the Daily Office.  Traditionally it’s a canticle appointed for Compline, the bedtime office of prayer.  In that context, it is read by Christians sort of in union with Simeon with our approaching bedtime as a picture of our eventual death (as Simeon had been promised that would not die until he’d seen the Savior).  In Anglican practice, the Canticle of Simeon is also used in Evening Prayer, but the end-of-day/end-of-life context and effect is the same.  My point is that a regular participant in the liturgy will be intimately familiar with the Canticle of Simeon.  As a result, hearing it in the liturgy for this particular holiday will have an interesting effect.

Two major promises stand out in the Canticle of Simeon: Christ will be a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and will be a light to be the glory of Israel.  The theme of light coming into the world is echoed throughout the seasons of Advent (Romans 13:12’s armor of light), Christmas (John 1:9’s light coming into the world), and Epiphany (Isaiah 60’s light shining upon the nations).  So as this holiday wraps up the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle, the theme of light is brought to the foreground and celebrated quite visually.

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The Blessing of Candles

This holiday’s nickname is Candlemas, because of the tradition of blessing candles on this day.  All the candles to be used in the Church for the coming year are gathered up to be blessed for their sacred purpose.  Additionally, other candles are blessed and distributed to the people to carry in procession and to take home.  This is a physical enactment of what we learn from Simeon – Christ is the light of the world for all nations, including ourselves!  One can also find in the Gospel books the words of Christ, “you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14 and following).

Light does many things.  It drives out darkness and exposes what’s hidden.  Thus, the blessings spoken over the candles include both penitential aspects as God’s people repent of their sins, and apotropaic aspects as demonic spirits are to flee from the light of Christ.  The Scriptures do attest, after all, that the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).  So, by receiving candles and lighting them, we participants in the liturgy are given physical reinforcement to the words and teachings of Scripture that we are God’s adopted children, receiving Christ the light of the world promised in ages past by the Prophets.  And we receive this not just as some abstract teaching, but as historically linked to real events that actually happened.  Christ the Light of the World is not just a spiritual reality that occurs in our hearts, but is grounded in the real arrival of the real Christ child in the real (though now long-gone) Temple.  And with all that in place we are pointed to look ahead to the Day we each are presented in the heavenly temple to our heavenly Father by our adoptive brother, Christ Himself.

This post, apart some new edits, was originally published on my blog Leorningcnihtes boc, on 3 February 2016.

The Double-Duty Collect

The up-and-coming 2019 Prayer Book appoints this Collect for the third Sunday after the Epiphany, and thus for this week in the Daily Office:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This Collect does double duty; it comes back for “World Mission Sunday,” which the calendar recommends for the penultimate Sunday before Lent (though authorizes for any Sunday in Epiphanytide between the first and last).  I’ve mentioned here before my preference to omit the World Mission Sunday option, but let’s take a look at this Collect.

As far as I’m aware, this Collect originated with the 1979 Prayer Book; it certainly has no previous life in the historic prayer book calendar tradition.  It is one of the several “mission-themed” Collects that comprise the Epiphany season in the modern liturgical calendar.  Arguably it is a favorite of the mission themed Collects, since it was selected for the World Mission Sunday option, too.

It begins with a rare switching of order – the petition precedes the address: “Give us grace” before “O God.”  Some Collects have a longer address than others; this is one of the shortest.  In fact, not only is the address brief, but the petition is brief too.  It is the third part of this collect (the purpose) that occupies the majority of its verbiage.  We pray for grace “to answer readily the call” and to “proclaim to all people”, so that “we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.”

It’s not an unusual thing to pray for the mission of the church.  Making it personal (“give us grace, O God…”) is a good step up from that.  And taking it further to describe the purpose of such missional prayer – that all may glory in the marvelous works of God – sets before us a sort of destination.  We don’t pursue evangelism and missions for the sake of “saving souls”, as it were, but so that all may see God.  One of the challenges of stirring up the call to evangelism and outreach is the trap of self-aggrandizement: “look how successful we are because of all the people we’re reaching for Christ!”  Keeping the purpose of evangelism and mission firmly fixed upon the glory God, not ourselves, is a helpful reminder indeed.

Praying in light of St. Paul’s Conversion

Today is the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, one of the wonderfully-Epiphany-appropriate holy days of the church year.  When you look at our Collect of the Day (yesterday at Evening Prayer and today at both offices, plus the Communion if you’re able to attend one) you’re looking at a prayer that hardly changed a bit in centuries.  Here it is from 1662:

O God, who, through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Saint Paul, hast caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world: Grant, we beseech thee, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may shew forth our thankfulness unto thee for the same, by following the holy doctrine which he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The only changes are of spelling and grammatical construction, such that it flows better for the modern reader.  So today, let’s look at what the Collect says and prays, rather than compare and contrast old and new traditions.

The Address

God has “caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world,” and he has accomplished this “through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Saint Paul.”  In our modern evangelical culture which is very focused on the ongoing work of missions and evangelism it may strike us as a bit odd to see such a triumphalist attitude in our prayers.  But it is a worthwhile reminder: thanks to the efforts of Saint Paul and the other Apostles, the Gospel really has spread all over the world.  It’s also worth noting the method mentioned – preaching.  If the Gospel is to continue to advance around the world, we must continue to preach it.

The Request

This, too, may feel like an odd prayer at first.  It is a prayer that we could “show forth our thankfulness.”  Compare it to the General Thanksgiving in the Daily Office, however… it is a prayer for an active thankfulness.  Our thankfulness is:

  1. rooted in remembering Paul’s conversion,
  2. directed towards God,
  3. and expressed by following Paul’s doctrine or teaching.

The first is in recognition of the holy day.  The second is a reminder that we worship and glorify God alone; we aren’t thanking the departed Saints directly.  The third is a recognition of Paul (and other Saints’) contribution to the present Christian life, namely, their teachings.

The Epiphany

When you read the Scripture lessons for this holy day, multiple epiphany connections can be drawn.  The dazzling appearance of the risen Christ was a literal “light to the world”, or at least to Paul (then Saul).  The prayer of Ananias shed the blinding scales from Paul’s eyes, giving him new vision – literally, an epiphany.  The subsequent Gospel preaching of Paul across the Mediterranean world was a light to the nations.

Happy holy day!