The January 1st Feast

Happy feast of the Holy Name and Circumcision of Christ!
(What, did you expect to see “happy new year”?  This is a liturgy blog, not a social calendar!)

For many people, today’s commemoration might seem a bit strange.  Why are celebrating the “holy name” of Jesus?  Is this day like those over-emotive worship songs that repeat endlessly about how precious is it to say the name “Jeezus” over and over again for five minutes?  Is this something more “catholicky”, where we silently meditate on the sacred name of Jesus in a mood of affected piety?

First of all, it’s probably helpful to observe that this feast day might better be termed the Naming of Jesus.  The Gospel lesson at today’s Communion service is Luke 2:15-21, in which Jesus is circumcised and given the name Jesus.  This takes place on the eighth day, according to the Law of Moses, which (in case you haven’t noticed yet) is literally today.  On the 8th day of Christmas, Jesus got circumcised and named.

Second of all, it should be further noted that until 1979, the Anglican tradition called this day the Circumcision of Christ – making that rite the primary feature of the day, and his name/naming secondary.  Unlike the 1979 Prayer Book, though, our Collect still acknowledges the old emphasis alongside the new:

Almighty God, your blessed Son fulfilled the covenant of circumcision for our sake, and was given the Name that is above every name: Give us grace faithfully to bear his Name, and to worship him with pure hearts according to the New Covenant; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This double focus, as you can see, is expressed well in our Collect.  To honor and bear the name of Jesus, and to join with Christ in the New Covenant because he has fulfilled the Old, are both concepts close to the heart of the Christian faith.  But it’s also worth looking back at what used to be…. this is the original Prayer Book Collect for today:

Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man: Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Notice, free to be more specific, how this Collect draws us to covenant faithfulness, or obedience.  To worship God “with pure hearts” in the new Collect is an accurate summary, but when you take the time to pray about “being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts”, you get a better picture of what such “pure hearts” actually look like.

All this besides, Jesus’ keeping of the Law is what proves his innocence, his sinlessness, and thus what sets the rest of the Gospel in motion.  If he wasn’t bound to the Law, his obedience to it would not have the significance that it had.

Along those lines, if you deign to pray the Great Litany today, perhaps this is a good opportunity to re-write one phrase back to its original form.  Near the beginning when it says “by your holy nativity and submission to the Law” feel free to pray what this petition originally said: “by your holy nativity and circumcision“.  This may not be the most popular part of the Gospel and Nativity story, but it’s one of the many moments of key importance, hence its place among the great feasts of the church year.

Christmas Day versus Sunday

Imagine if Easter wasn’t always a Sunday, but sometimes a weekday.  What would we do in church on that following Sunday?  Well, given that the resurrection of our Lord is rather a big deal, it would make sense that we would continue to celebrate that holiday on Sunday, perhaps with slightly different lessons so as not to make Sunday a total re-run for those who showed up on Easter Day itself.  That’s how it is with Christmas Day and the First Sunday after Christmas: the Gospel is the same (John 1:1-18) but the other Scripture readings are different.

The Collect is changed, too.  On Christmas Day it’s much more direct to the event:

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen

Whereas for the Sunday it’s a bit more general:

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

This is consistent with the analogy I began with.  The “primary” Christmas celebration is on the day itself (December 25th), but the Sunday after is a second pass at the holiday so that those who missed Christmas in church will still get the holiday covered, and that those who attend both will have an enriched experience of the season, not simply repeats.

However….  Something that is often overlooked is the fact that the First Sunday after Christmas is expendable.

If that First Sunday is December 26th, 27th, or 28th, then the Major Feast of that particular day is to be observed that Sunday.  That is the traditional way to handle this Sunday and our Calendar for the Christian permits (if sadly doesn’t mandate) this method.

Furthermore, if Christmas Day is itself Sunday, the “First Sunday after Christmas” is to be omitted.  Traditionally, what you do on that Sunday instead is celebrate the major feast of the Circumcision of Christ (now “the Holy Name”) (January 1st).  Our Prayer Book also authorizes use of the Second Sunday after Christmas on that Sunday, but don’t.  Just celebrate the major feast days in our calendar when they land on Sundays like that… most folks in our congregations have sadly lacked such experiences for the majority of their lives!

Anyway, tomorrow is the First Sunday after Christmas.  Enjoy it!

Faith Never Found Wanting

Today would be an Ember Day, but instead, as forewarned, it’s a major feast day – we’re celebrating Saint Thomas the Apostle!  The Collect for this day is:

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Obviously this primarily references St. Thomas’ famed moment of doubt when, like the other Apostles, he refused to believe the resurrection of Christ until he saw with his own eyes.  Jesus’ words at the end of the encounter, “blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed” are implied in the words of this Collect as we pray for a faith never found wanting.

But something that takes this lesson a step further is the fact that the Collect speaks of faith, not in the resurrection, but “in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God.”  It is lifted beyond the Easter context and applied to the fullness of the Gospel.  We are called to believe the words of the Prophets (the Bible), the humanity of our Lord (Christmas), the divinity of our Lord (Epiphany), the passion and death of our Lord (Lent), the resurrection (Easter), the ascension (Ascension), and return of Christ (Advent).  Thus the language of this Collect is such that the feast of Saint Thomas could have been placed into the context of any season of the church year and still “fit”.

Enjoy this feast day, amidst the bustle of Christmas preparations that so easily swamp us at this time of the year.

The Scripture Collect

The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent is sometimes nicknamed “the Scripture Collect” for obvious reasons:

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 by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word 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.

One of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s originals, this Collect has a beautiful and intelligent list of verbs noting a progression of the individual’s interaction with Sacred Scripture: first hear, then read, then mark, then learn, and finally inwardly digest them.  This, I believe, seems to be what most people latch on to when they uplift this Collect as one of their favorites.  But what follows is particularly important; we pray for this venerable interaction with the Bible so that “we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life“.  This may not stick as well in memory, but it’s very important to consider.  As it turns out, that part of the Collect is a paraphrase of Romans 15:4, which says:

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

And this is no random reference; the Epistle lesson for the 2nd Advent Sunday was Romans 15:4-13, until the modern calendars of the 1970’s onward took over.  Though even still, we do have that scripture lesson appointed for the Epistle in Year A of the lectionary’s three-year cycle.  That is why it’s a very good thing that we’ve got this Collect back on Advent II.  I say “back” because the Episcopalian Prayer Book of 1979 (as well as some of the recent calendar revisions in the Church of England) shuffled this Collect off to a spot typically somewhere in November, a couple weeks before Advent begins.  There, it was just a nice prayer.  Here, it is relevant to the season and directly references the Epistle reading (one year out of three).

Unless you attend a traditional parish that uses the historic calendar and lessons and therefore already heard it, take a few minutes to read Romans 15:4-13.  Not only does its first verse echo the Collect, but the rest of the text continues to speak of hope, trust, and peace, as well as make a couple fantastic Old Testament references including “the root of Jesse” – one of the famous Advent & Christmas texts.  It will be well worth your time and devotion!

The Advent Collect: a breakdown

Starting yesterday, this week’s Collect is the great Advent Collect:

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 forever. Amen.

This majestic prayer is, in my opinion, one of the best Collects in our tradition.  In the classical Prayer Book tradition, this Collect was also appointed to be prayed following the Collect of the Day through the entire season of Advent, making it not only the Collect of the Day, and for the week, but for the season itself.  Just looking at it, you can probably see why – it captures the themes of the season so well, it’s hard to improve upon it.

But let’s take a look at this Collect more closely.  Like most collects, this prayer has multiple Scripture references built into it, much of which is not necessarily linked to the official readings of the First Sunday in Advent.

Reference #1: Romans 13:12
Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light

This phrase is straight-up quoted in the Collect; there is nothing subtle about this reference.  It is bolstered further by the fact that Romans 13:8-14 is the traditional Epistle lesson for the first Sunday, though in the modern lectionaries it’s there only on Year A.  (Right now, Year C has just begun, so next year we’ll all be hearing this match-up at last.)

This is the primary exhortation of the season.  Our active preparation for Christ’s arrival is one of cleansing: we put away our evil deeds and pursue the illumination of the light of Christ.

Reference #2: 2 Timothy 4:1
…Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead,
and by his appearing and his kingdom…

This is only a brief quote.  The Collect notes Christ’s role of Judge at the end of the age upon his return.  This is the primary backdrop and context for the exhortation we just received; only in light of Christ’s return and right to judge do we endeavor to be faithful citizens of his kingdom.

Reference #3: Philippians 2:5-8
…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself…

These verses form one of the clearest statements in Scripture that back up this Collect’s claim that Christ formerly “came to visit us in great humility”.  This reference does double duty.  Primarily it adds to the context of this life, in which we receive the exhortation to cease from evil and do good, preparing for the return of Christ.  But by specifically referencing the first, humble, advent of Christ, it gives a nod to the liturgical anticipation of Christmas that the Advent season also provides.

It may be prudent for us to note that the first purpose of Advent is actually to prepare us for the second advent of Christ.  The theme of “getting ready for Christmas” is secondary; the “basic” level that helps us grasp what is primary.

Reference #4: 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.

The return of Christ was already referenced in 2 Timothy; what these verses add is the further point that we will “rise to the life immortal” on that Day.  It is interesting to note that the very words of the Collect “rise to the life immortal” point us in an interpretive direction that rule out the popular teaching of “the rapture”, which uses these verses as a proof-text for the idea that God’s people will literally float away into heaven someday.  Instead, our gathering up into the air will be the beginning of our “life immortal” – the resurrection life on earth, inaugurated by Christ’s return to judge.  The populist rapture teaching separates the resurrection of God’s people from the return of Christ as Judge by 7 years or more… a belief rendered incoherent by this Collect, not to mention the united witness of the Bible.

Stir up, O Lord

The Collect of the Day from Sunday that we’re repeating this week is a classic:

Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people; that they may plenteously bring forth the fruit of good works, as they await the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ to restore all things to their original perfection; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen.

In the classical prayer books, before 1979, this was the Collect for the Last Sunday before Advent, a spot now occupied by “Christ the King Sunday.”  On a cultural level, this Collect earned that Sunday the nickname “Stir Up Sunday”, because, landing just about one month before Christmas, it coincided with the time-frame in which people would “stir up” and bake their Christmas Cakes which would then ripen in the pantry for the following month, periodically re-soaked with brandy.

Curiously, I mentioned this to my parents, and they’d already made our family’s Christmas Cake!  It’s as if they heard the “stir up” collect in its modern week-earlier position 😉

Thematically, this Collect is a sort of wake-up call, heralding the approaching season of Advent: “stir up” is very similar to “keep watch”.  The call to good works as the fruit of faithful Christian living also forms part of the crucial link between Trinitytide and Advent in the historic lectionary and calendar.  In the modern system, it still serves as a pre-Advent Collect, just two weeks ahead instead of one.

Structurally, this Collect is unusual.  The “request” portion of the Collect is tiny: “Stir up … the wills of your faithful people.”  The bulk of the prayer is dwelling on the “reason” portion: good works, as they wait for Jesus’ return, who will restore the perfection of creation.  All sorts of implications could be teased out from this:

  • The “application” of this Collect is kept blatantly simple: we are to be stirred up to active Christian living.
  • As Advent approaches we should first spend more time meditating on the reason for our good works.
  • The “end” of the Christian life ought to loom large in our hearts and minds.

If you have a mid-week service (Communion, Evening Prayer, or otherwise) then perhaps this Collect could be a point of spiritual reflection as you teach, preach, talk with others, or simply pray it again with the congregation.

The Last Epiphany?

The Collect of the Day for this past Sunday, repeated throughout this week, is:

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever  Amen.

In the classical Prayer Books, this was the Collect for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany.  One might ask why this Collect should be re-purposed to almost the opposite part of the year.  What is an Epiphanytide Collect doing in November?  One might also look at the text more carefully, notice the eschatological content (its emphasis on the return of Christ, the last judgment, and our preparation for that), and wonder what it was doing in Epiphanytide in the first place.  Isn’t this more like an Advent theme?

It turns out this Collect did double-duty.  Depending upon the date of Easter, Epiphanytide and Trinitytide vary in length: when Easter is early Epiphany is shorter and Trinity longer; when Easter is late Epiphany is longer and Trinity shorter.  The 6th Epiphany Sunday, in the old calendar, was the last possible Epiphany Sunday before the Pre-Lent Sundays kicked in, meaning it was only rarely used.  And so instead the traditional calendar appointed the 6th and 5th Epiphany Sundays as extra Trinitytide Sundays to insert in November if and when the 24 Trinity Sundays ran out.

And so, very appropriately, this Collect, with its lessons (most noteably Matthew 24:23-31) served both purposes.  The Collect’s eschatological emphasis and Jesus’ discourse of the latter days in Matthew 24 served both as an anticipation of the Advent season at the end of the Trinitytide sequence, and as the “last” Epiphany.  In the historic lectionary, Epiphanytide was not the ‘ordinary time’ we have today; its lessons were not sequential but topical, exploring various epiphanies of the divinity of Christ.  The last of these epiphanies was this one, in Matthew 24, the final revelation of Jesus upon his return in great glory to judge both the living and the dead.

So enjoy this Collect today, and for the rest of the week.  Its connections way back to Epiphany and its anticipation of the coming Advent season serves us well at this time of year.

The Week’s Collect

Now that Saints Simon & Jude’s Day is behind us (assuming you celebrated it yesterday), you might be wondering what to do about the Collect of the Day for the rest of the week?

The custom, as you probably know if you’re following these posts, is to repeat the Collect of the Day from the Sunday Communion service in the Daily Office for the subsequent week.  The custom, as far as I understand it, is that most Major Feast Days, like Sts. Simon & Jude, only impact their day and the evening before.  That means that today, and for the rest of the week, we return to the Collect of the Day for the Sunday that we skipped.

If you’re using the draft Prayer Book of the Anglican Church in North America, then here’s the Collect of the Day for the rest of the week:

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

If a mid-week Communion service is held early this week, it would be advisable to use the omitted Sunday’s lessons to sort of “make up for” what the Saints Day overrode.  Bear in mind, though, that All Saints’ Day is on Thursday, so its Collect will step into the Office on Wednesday evening through Thursday.  More on that later, though…!

A Minor Saint: Alfred the Great

The Prayer Book tradition has always included “black letter days”, that is, commemorations listed in a calendar of various saints of old.  They are distinct from the Major Feast Days: those each have their own Collect and Lessons in the Prayer Book, at least one special reading in the Daily Office, and are expected to be observed by all.  The commemorations in the calendar, variously called “lesser feasts” or “minor saints days”, however, are optional.  The early Prayer Books didn’t even contain resources by which these days could be observed in the liturgy, they were simply points of reference and remembrance.

As time has passed, standard resources for the observance of these lesser feasts have come together.  Typically, the idea is to have a small selection of Collects and Lessons for different types or categories of saints (one for Bishops, one for Martyrs, one for Monastics, etc.).  Over time, however, more and more of the minor saints received unique sets of Collects and Lessons.  The Episcopal Church, USA, ended up with many of these in its volume, Lesser Feasts and Fasts.  So far, it seems that the ACNA is moving back toward the simpler approach by providing 9 thematic Collects and Lessons for these minor saints days.

Let’s say you want to observe today’s commemoration, King Alfred the Great, at a Friday Eucharist service.  He is known for his work in fixing up the church in his realm, and renewing Anglo-Saxon society, so the categories Reformer of the Church and Renewer of Society both fit, as well as the generic “Of Any Commemoration” options.  The Collects are the end of this document, and the Lessons at the end of this.

As an aside, if you want the new Prayer Book to print the Collects and Lessons together to cut down on unnecessary page-flipping, please join my cause and send them an email!

Or, if you want to make use of what the Episcopalians came up with a little over ten years ago:

O Sovereign Lord, you brought your servant Alfred to a troubled throne that he might establish peace in a ravaged land and revive learning and the arts among the people: Awake in us also a keen desire to increase our understanding while we are in this world, and an eager longing to reach that endless life where all will be made clear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Wisdom 6:1–3,9–12,24–25 (wisdom literature about wise kings and rulers)

Psalm 21:1–7 (a king who trusts in God) or 112:1–9 (the blessedness of the righteous)

Luke 6:43–49 (good and evil fruit; wise and foolish builders)

Mindful of death in the evening

One major hallmark of historic Christian piety surrounding eventide is the mindfulness of death.  Going to bed, the lights going out, going to sleep, is both culturally and biblically a metaphor for death.  Countless evening hymns and prayers make reference to death, keeping the singer or pray-er mindful of his or her mortality.

Modern and post-modern culture does not encourage us to be mindful of death, rather, we are told to put death out of our minds entirely.  Don’t worry about it, don’t obsess over it; it is morbid, we are told, to think about death.  As a result, even at Funeral or Burial services we pressure ourselves and one another to think about life instead – it’s  Memorial Service or a Celebration of Life, rather than mourning for the dear departed.

But the Prayer Book tradition continues faithfully on the track of historic Christian awareness of death.  For example, the Wednesday Evening Collect, for Protection, reads thus:

O God, the life of all who live, the light of the faithful, the strength of those who labor, and the repose of the dead: We thank you for the blessings of the day that is past, and humbly ask for your protection through the coming night.  Bring us in safety to the morning hours; through him who died and rose again for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Even though death is not the central theme or subject of this prayer, its reality is present and unavoidable.  God is identified as “the repose of the dead” and Jesus specifically is invoked as the one “who died”.

Don’t breeze past prayers like these.  It is not morbid to reflect upon your future death.  It is wise, it is healthy, it is biblical!  We do not know the day or the hour of Christ’s returning, and we hardly ever get forewarning of the the day or hour we finish this life either.  It is good to be prepared, to have a last will & testament, to have funeral wishes written down, to be at peace with our brethren, to be ready to meet our Maker.  Let these death-aware devotions each evening bring that moment of sobriety into your spiritual life… the world certainly won’t!