Commentary: Collects for the Third Sunday of Lent

The 1979 BCP collect this week should look familiar — as we discussed last week, previous versions of the prayerbook appointed this collect for the Second Sunday of Lent. I like this collect a lot, especially for Lent. The frank admission that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves is a rather bracing antidote to the relentless positive, self-help spirituality so characteristic of contemporary American religion. But harsh though it may be, it rings undeniably true for me, especially as I have been reflecting upon my own sins and struggling mightily to keep even my rather feeble Lenten commitments over the past weeks.

The collect that it replaces from the ’28 prayerbook dates back at least to the 1662 prayerbook, but due reverence for tradition aside, it does not strike me as a particularly meaty prayer. There’s nothing wrong with it — indeed, the notion of God stretching forth His right hand to defend us against our enemies has some nice resonance with the Gospel reading from the second chapter of Luke appointed for the day, which deals with Jesus as exorcizer of demons. But, especially given the lectionary changes, I don’t think too much is lost by its removal. To the best of my knowledge, this prayer is not reused elsewhere in the prayerbook.

I’m not sure whether I prefer this collect in its current position or in its historic one on the second Sunday of Lent. I have a general preference for following tradition, all else being equal, but I admit that this collect  does work with the readings appointed for this Sunday pretty nicely, at least for Year C (the current year). The language about being protected from evil thoughts which assault the mind relates to the Epistle, in which Paul calls upon the Church to use the example of the ancient Israelites as a textbook example of what not to do: Christians need to resist temptation, to avoid idolatry, putting God to the test, complaining, and so on. Paul reassures the Corinthians (and here is the connection) that God will not tempt them beyond what they can bear, but will ultimately protect them from the evil thoughts that assail them. This is a bit more of a stretch, but there is perhaps a connection between the petition to be protected from bodily harms and the reference in the Gospel reading to the death of the Galileans at Pilate’s hands and the death of those who perished in the collapse of the Tower of Siloam. That said, even if you will grant me that much, the connection is something of a negative one: our petitions notwithstanding, God does not always protect us from bodily harm, and that lack of protection does not have anything to do with our moral worthiness or lack therof. Plenty more to say about the anti-theodicy of sorts which Jesus lays out in this Gospel, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

I should note here, before turning to look at Common Worship or the Lutheran collects, that the Old Testament reading appointed for this Sunday in the Episcopal lectionary differs from that of the Revised Common Lectionary used by the ELCA and by the Church of England. Where the Episcopal church has the theophany in the burning bush from Exodus, the RCL uses the famous passage from Isaiah 55 (“Ho, everyone that thirsts, come to the waters…”). I’m not sure about the reasoning behind that difference, but when we’re connecting the collect to the readings, it’s helpful to keep in mind.

The Common Worship collect for this Sunday should be familiar to anyone who regularly prays the ’79 prayerbook Daily Office; this collect appears in the ’79 BCP in a couple of places, including in Morning Prayer for optional use on Fridays (the other locations, if you’re interested, are as the Collect for Monday in Holy Week and for optional use during the Palm Sunday procession). This collect is actually of American provenance; it was written by the Rev. Dr. William Reed Huntington, who was involved in the revision process which produced the 1892 prayerbook and also formulated the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (it’s in the Historical Documents section of the ’79 prayerbook). It’s a lovely prayer, and works well in Lent. I like the particular resonance of “walking in the way of the cross” for Holy Week, but I suppose appointing it for a Sunday guarantees a wider audience for the prayer than for a Monday, where fewer opportunities for public worship exist in our churches. The postcommunion works well with the Epistle and the Gospel alike; I do not know its provenance. I am surprised that the Common Worship collects have been so different from the 1662 ones in the last two weeks — last week saw the 1662 collect used as the postcommunion rather than as the collect of the day, while this week’s do not refer to the 1662 collect appointed for this Sunday at all. I wonder if that will prove to be a pattern, and if so, why?

To move to the Lutherans, the story in the Missouri Synod is less complicated than the story in the ALC/LCA/ELCA. The 1941 Lutheran Hymnal uses the 1928 prayerbook collect, as it did last week; the 1982 Lutheran Worship uses the 1979 prayerbook collect, as it did last week. The 2006 Lutheran Service Book, as we have seen, restores the ’79 BCP collect to its original position as the Collect for the Second Sunday of Lent, and then replaces it this week with the ’79 BCP collect for the Second Sunday of Lent — that is, it switches their places. I have to say, I like the LSB arrangement here. It preserves the historic location of the “Almighty God, you know we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves” collect as the collect for the second Sunday of Lent, but also does away with the old ’28 collect in favor of the much richer “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy” collect which we talked about last week.

The Evangelical Lutheran Worship collect appointed for this Sunday in Year C is also – with a few changes – the (only) collect appointed for this Sunday in the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship. I do not know the provenance of this collect. It’s clearly unrelated to the other ones we have been looking at, and because of the language of the in-breaking Kingdom of God, I would guess it is quite modern. Modern though it may be, I like it, particularly for this Sunday. The language of God’s kingdom breaking into the world works really nicely with the Isaiah reading, and second part of the the petition, particularly in its ELW form (“bring your saving love to fruition in our lives”), works great with the parable of the fig tree. There’s possibly a nice Dietrich Bonhoeffer (and perhaps before him to Luther — I am not (alas!!) a Lutheran expert, or really a Bonhoeffer one for that matter) reference here; Bonhoeffer talks a lot about the response of obedience to the hearing the Word in The Cost of Discipleship.

So, to summarize: all of the collects in current use* we’ve looked at (the ’79 BCP, Common WorshipLSBELW) are theologically rich prayers which relate quite well to the general Lenten theme of the Sunday and the readings appointed for this day – hurray! The old 1662 collect, which remained in use in the American prayerbook until the most recent revision, has disappeared from the American BCP, Common Worship, and the various Lutheran hymnals, but its erasure is no particularly great loss. For the last two weeks, at least, I like the LSB collect arrangement better than the ’79 prayerbook one because it preserves greater fidelity to church tradition while using the same prayers. The Common Worship collect is actually an American contribution, and a good one. The ELW/LSB collect seems to be of recent composition and it is a good prayer.

*Yes, I know that some Episcopal parishes still use the 1928 BCP and rather more Church of England ones still use 1662. I wonder what lectionary they use. While I don’t love the 1662/1928 collect, there is nothing dramatically wrong with it, and it does fit with the 1662/1928 readings appointed for the day.

Commentary: Collects for the Third Sunday of Lent

Collects for the Third Sunday of Lent

The Collect for the Third Sunday of Lent, from a variety of Anglican and Lutheran sources.

1979 Book of Common Prayer (Rite II):
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

1928 Book of Common Prayer:
We beseech thee, Almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defense against all our enemies, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Common Worship (2000):

Collect:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unit of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:
Lord, we beseech thee, grant the people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow thee, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

1662 Book of Common Prayer:
We beseech thee, Almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of they humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defense against all our enemies, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006):

Year A:
Merciful God, the fountain of living water, you quench our thirst and wash away our sin. Give us this water always. Bring us to drink from the well that flows with the beauty of your truth through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Year B:
Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously. Keep us steadfast in your covenant of grace, and teach us the wisdom that comes only through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Year C:
Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of our Son. Help us to hear your word and obey it, and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship (1978):
Eternal Lord, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your Word and obey it, so that we become instruments of your redeeming love; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Lutheran Service Book (2006):
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy, be gracious to all who have gone astray from Your ways and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of Your Word; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Lutheran Worship (1982):
Almighty God, because you know that we of ourselves have no strength, keep us both outwardly and inwardly that we may be defended from all adversities that may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The Lutheran Hymnal (1941):
We beseech Thee, Almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of Thy humble servants and stretch forth the right hand of Thy majesty to be our defense against all our enemies; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth, etc.

Collects for the Third Sunday of Lent

Commentary: Collects for the Second Sunday of Lent

There are a couple of things worth noting here about the Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent.

First of all, the current (1979) BCP collect is actually a departure from the Anglican tradition.  The 1928 BCP collect is more-or-less identical to the 1662 one, which itself is basically a translation from the Latin of the Sarum missal and the Gregorian sacramentary. The 1979 prayerbook has not done away with this collect entirely; rather, it’s now used for the Third Sunday in Lent.

Now, the 1979 prayerbook collect for this Sunday is actually drawn from a Good Friday solemn collect found in the Missale Gallicanum vetus, the Gelasian sacramentary, and the Gregorian sacramentary (see Marion Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayerbook, 174). Prayers very similar to the 1979 collect were also used as one of the options for the day in the LCA/ALC Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) and as the only collect appointed for the day in the LCMS Lutheran Worship (1982). Indeed, the Missouri Synod (and possibly the ALC/LCA as well; I just don’t have my hands on all the necessary liturgical books) made the same shift that the Episcopal Church did: the collect used in The Lutheran Hymnal and in the 1928 prayerbook was shifted to the Third Sunday in Lent and replaced with the 1979 BCP/Lutheran Worship collect. Based on what I know about the development of the LBW and LW, I am guessing that the immediate source of their collects for this day was in fact the 1979 BCP, then in draft form. Interestingly enough, in the current LCMS hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book, the “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves…” collect is back in its traditional position for the Second Sunday of Lent.

The current Common Worship collect is similar to the 1979 collect; both focus on the correction of error and repentance among Christians. There is, in my reading, at least, a slight difference in emphasis. The petition in 1979 prayerbook collect is that God be gracious to those of us who have fallen away from God’s ways and that God bring us back through penitence to embrace the truth of Jesus, God’s Word. That petition is very similar to the attribution in the Common Worship collect, which describes God as Someone who shows error in order to lead back to truth. The petition proper, then, is that God may grant that Christians may avoid those things which are contrary to Christianity, and follow those things which are Christian. To me at least, there is less of a focus on repentance and return here and more of a focus on acting rightly to begin with. I think I prefer the 79 collect to the Common Worship one, especially for Lent. While it is good and right to pray to avoid heresy and sin, the Lutheran in me wants to stress that we all, in fact, are deeply in captivity to sin and need, all of us, God to inspire in us the penitence and faith to bring us back to right relationship with God and with each other. I should add that the collect traditionally associated with this Sunday has not disappeared entirely in Common Worship; it appears as the post-communion prayer.

One final note: in looking at the collect for this Sunday, particularly as it developed in American Lutheranism, we cannot avoid seeing the impact of move from a single-year to three-year lectionary culminating in the adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary by many mainline Protestant churches, including the Episcopal Church (with some adaptations, I believe), the ELCA, and the PC(USA), whose collects for the day we’ve looked at. I’m less sure about the Presbyterians, but my understanding is that the Lutheran church bodies, the Episcopal Church, and the Roman Catholic Church all used single-year lectionaries for Sunday Scripture readings until late in the twentieth century. The Roman and Episcopal ones also only included two lections, an Epistle reading and a Gospel reading (I’m not sure about the Lutherans). In the wake of Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church switched to the now-familiar three-year system with four readings (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel). In response, many American Protestant churches developed lectionaries based upon the new Roman one — we see one example of this process in the Sunday Eucharistic Lectionary in the ’79 prayerbook. The Common Lectionary was a pan-mainline-Protestant project developed out of the Roman and Episcopal lectionaries; the Revised Common Lectionary was a further revision of the that.

Now, this is important because the collect (and the rest of the Propers, for that matter) is typically related to the Scripture readings appointed for the day. If you have a yearly collect cycle and a yearly lectionary, this is no problem. However, if you try to maintain the traditional yearly collect cycle while switching to a three-year lectionary, things get a little bit trickier; your collect now needs to relate to three different sets of lections.

One solution to this problem is to jettison the traditional system of having only one collect appointed per week of the church year. The LBW begins to offer alternate collects for some Sundays and feasts. For the Second Sunday of Lent, the alternate collect appears to be based upon the Gospel reading from Year A in the LBW lectionary (John 4:5-26). Note, however, that not all of the alternate collects seem to be based on different sets of Sunday lections. The ELW, then, has entirely done away with the traditional one-collect-per-week system; instead, there are three collects for each Sunday of the Church Year, one for each year of the lectionary. While I am leery for a variety of reasons of abandoning the traditional system of collects, this approach does have some clear advantages. The collect for Year C (the current year of the lectionary), weaves together language and themes from the Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel readings in quite a beautiful way. “God of the covenant” refers to the Old Testament, “the mystery of the cross” to the Epistle (a bit of a stretch, but I think it works), and “Gather all people into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy” to the Gospel. It is much easier to craft a collect like this when each collect will only be used with one set of lections; while lovely, this collect wouldn’t quite “work” in the Episcopal system. In Lent, of course, the themes are similar enough across the years that it isn’t such a stretch to find a collect that functions for all three sets of readings; it’ll be interesting to see if that becomes less true once we reach Ordinary Time.

Commentary: Collects for the Second Sunday of Lent

Collects for the Second Sunday of Lent

Below find collects for the Second Sunday in Lent from a variety of Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian sources.

1979 Book of Common Prayer, Rite II:
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

1979 Book of Common Prayer, Rite I
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from they ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of thy Word, Jesus Christ they Son; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

1928 Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Common Worship (2000):

Collect:
Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness: grant to all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion, that they may reject those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:
Almighty God, you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A New Zealand Prayer Book (1989):
Almighty God, give your people the grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only true God; through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

God of the unexpected, when we come to our senses like the prodigal son, give us grace to repent and turn to you again; for where else can we go?

Gentle Father, show us our sins as they really are so that we may truly renounce them and know the depth and richness of your mercy.

1662 Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of our selves to help our selves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006):

Year A:
O God, our leader and guide, in the waters of baptism you bring us to new birth to live as your children. Strengthen our faith in your promises, that by your Spirit we may lift up your life to all the world through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Year B:
O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life. Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Year C:
God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross you promise everlasting life to the world. Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy, that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Lutheran Book of Worship (1978):
Heavenly Father, it is your glory always to have mercy. Bring back all who have erred and strayed from your ways; lead them again to embrace the faith and truth of your Word and to hold it fast; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

God our Father, your Son once welcomed an outcast woman because of her faith. Give us faith like hers, that we also may trust only in your love for us and may accept one another as we have been accepted by you; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Lutheran Service Book (2006):
O God, You see that of ourselves we have no strength. By Your mighty power defend us from all adversities that may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Lutheran Worship (1982):
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy, be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hears and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The Lutheran Hymnal (1941):
O God, who seest that of ourselves we have no strength, keep us both outwardly and inwardly that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth, etc.

Book of Common Worship (1993):
God of mercy, you are full of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in mercy, and always ready to forgive. Grant us grace to renounce all evil and to cling to Christ, that in every way we may prove to be your loving children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

God of all times and places, in Jesus Christ, lifted up on the cross, you opened for us the path to eternal life. Grant that we, being born again of water and the Spirit, may joyfully serve you in newness of life and faithfully walk in your holy ways; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

God of our forebears, as your chosen servant Abraham was given faith to obey your call and go out into the unknown, so may your church be granted such faith that we may follow you with courage for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Collects for the Second Sunday of Lent

Daily Office: Friday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (The Martyrs of Japan)

Morning Prayer: Ps. 69 | Gen. 24:1-27 | John 7:1-13
Evening Prayer: Ps. 73 | Heb. 12:3-11

After listening to the most recent of Derek Olsen’s Psalmcasts (which you can find here!) yesterday, one of the first things which I was struck in this morning’s psalm is the use of quotation marks. As Olsen notes, the Hebrew text that the psalter in the BCP is a translation of does not actually include quotation marks, or any punctuation at all, so the inclusion of particular punctuation marks is always a choice by the translator. Indeed, the RSV version of the psalms does not include any quotation marks at all for Psalm 69. It’s an interesting exercise, when reading a psalm like today’s, to remove or change the placement of the quotation marks and see how that affects the meaning.

This might be a bit of a stretch, but it seems to me like the use of quotation marks in the BCP Psalm 69 serves to distance the imprecatory elements, especially v. 24-30, from prayer to God. By ending the Psalmist’s words in v. 14 “But as for me, this is my prayer to you, at the time you have set, O Lord” end with a colon and then including v. 15-21 in quotes, the translator suggests that those verses specifically, rather than the psalm as a whole, comprise the Psalmist’s prayer. This means that the Psalmist’s call for his enemies’ violent destruction need not be counted as prayer per se. Given the Christian consensus that v. 24-30 is not exactly what Jesus had in mind when he enjoined us to pray for our enemies, this makes it a little bit easier to use this psalm devotionally, although I wonder if it alters the likely original meaning of the psalm in its historical context.

Now, I am not arguing that such an interpretive decision is necessarily wrong — one cannot translate without making interpretive decisions, after all! I also want to stress that this is very much an amateur analysis; the translators may have had something else in mind entirely when making the decision about these quotation marks, though I do believe that the effect I describe is real, whether intended or not. Moreover, even if the translators included the quotation marks specifically to downplay the strength of the imprecatory verses, that is not necessarily a bad decision; the question of how we Christians use difficult bits of Scripture liturgically or devotionally, especially the so-called imprecatory or cursing psalms, is a very real and difficult one. But it is important to know that this particular translation of Psalm 69 (like, again, all translations of Psalm 69), does involve some very real decisions on the part of the translators that meaningfully effect our experience of this psalm.

Daily Office: Friday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (The Martyrs of Japan)

Daily Office: Thursday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (Cornelius the Centurion)

Morning Prayer: Ps. 7o, 71 | Gen. 23:1-20 | John 6:60-71
Evening Prayer: Ps. 74 | Heb. 11:32-12:2

A brief note on the Gospel reading: in his marvelous The Stripping of the Altars, on late medieval and early modern traditional religion in England, Eamon Duffy notes that the liturgical piety of pre-Reformation English Christians was so powerful that it reshaped even how they viewed events in Scripture. Thus, to use a particularly appropriate example given Tuesday’s celebration of the Presentation/Candlemas, images of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple and meeting Simeon and Anna would often be depicted as Candlemas processions: just as late medieval English Christians would process around their churches, candles in hand on Candlemas Day, so too were Simeon and Anna shown carrying candles. For me, growing up in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in a congregation that usually worshiped using Divine Service II  from Lutheran Worship, it’s hard not to hear Peter’s response to Jesus’ question about whether he and the rest of the apostles wish to leave Jesus in the tones of the Alleluia Verse I sang week after week before the Gospel reading was announced: Alleluia. Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia, alleluia. There is something powerful about the way in which liturgy, repeated week after week, sinks into your bones, and the way in which the use of Scripture in liturgy shapes our understanding or experience of Scripture.

The image of the “great cloud of witnesses” from the Letter to the Hebrews is one of my most favorite ones to use to ponder the saints and the Church Triumphant more broadly. Of course, the witnesses to which the letter writer refers are not Christian saints but rather the Old Testament worthies who kept the faith without receiving their reward until the coming of Christ (Heb. 11:39-40). But if you’ll permit me to use the reference to refer to Christians past as well, the letter-writer gives us an important part of a theology of sanctity. Growing up in a more-or-less broad church Lutheran congregation, I didn’t have much exposure to the notion of saints as a child, beyond a vague worry that their excessive veneration by Catholics may have threatened those same Catholics’ eternal salvation (I was both a rather pious and a rather anxious child, as this story suggests). It was through later exposure to Catholicism through the Catholic Worker movement, my discovery of high-church Episcopalianism, and my academic work in monasticism and medieval theology that I found myself encountering these strange creatures and indeed being enjoined to ask for their prayers! I’ve spent some amount of time reflecting on saints and sanctity and would like to spend more; this seems like a good time to do so.

With no further ado: for the letter-writer to the Hebrews, an important function of the “great cloud of witnesses” is to inspire. Now, one need not believe, say, that the saints intercede for us to God to agree: at the most basic level, the examples of the heroes of faith of the Hebrew Bible, of the New Testament, and of the Church challenge us to, like them, “lay aside every weight…and…run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” The letter-writer seems to believe that these examples are helpful in ways that the example of Christ or non-narrative moral or theological commands or injunctions are not. I tend to agree: following the recent retrieval of virtue ethics, I agree that the most compelling account of the moral life is in terms of narrative rather than abstract laws or commands, and saints can seem approachable in ways that the formidable moral perfection of Christ sometimes does not (although, I should add, that in seeking to emulate the saints we really are seeking to emulate Christ, insofar as what we emulate about the saints is indeed their following of, and even union with, God in Christ). More on this to follow.

Daily Office: Thursday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (Cornelius the Centurion)

Daily Office: Wednesday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (Anskar, Archbishop)

Morning Prayer: Ps. 72 | Gen. 22:1-18 | John 6:52-59
Evening Prayer: Ps. 119:73-96 | Heb. 11:23-31

There is something of an embarrassment of riches in today’s lections — it’s all so good!! From the Sacrifice of Isaac to the beautiful eucharistic language in Jesus’ sermon on Himself as the bread of life to the selection from the famous “great cloud of witnesses” passage in the Letters to the Hebrews…it’s rather hard to know what to focus on, or what to say, given the voluminous history of Christian reflection on these very passages.

In light of this, I’ll talk about the saint commemorated today:

Anskar, the Apostle of the North, strikes me as a decidedly important saint for our times. As Holy Women, Holy Men relates, Anskar devoted his life to difficult and dangerous evangelistic work among the pagan Danes and Swedes, but the results during his lifetime were rather unimpressive, frustrated by ecclesiastical and imperial political difficulties, although he was able to consecrate the first Swedish bishop. Yet a few generations later, the first seeds which Anskar planted would bear fruit, and later missionary efforts would yield the Christianization of Scandinavia.

For me, and I think many others in the Church today, especially those in the old mainline denominations, our contemporary moment often feels, to quote the Collect of the Day, like “the day of small things.” So many of our congregations are aging and shrinking. Our seminaries are closing or merging or riled by dispute and discord. I know priests and pastors who have toiled tirelessly for the Gospel with, it seems, little effect. And as I discern a call to the ministry for myself, I worry at times about figuring out how to tame my own urge for accomplishment and cope with feelings of discouragement. St. Anskar reminds us that though we, like him, may not live to see the results of our work for the Gospel, “when [God has] begun a good work [He] will bring it to a fruitful conclusion.” If an apparent failure like Anskar can become the Apostle of the North, let us trust God that even in the moments where the Church feels weak and declining, God will not let it fail and may bring abundant life and grace into being through the work we do in ways we cannot anticipate and indeed may not ourselves see.

I’m reminded of a prayer by the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, which you can find in The Violence of Love:

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Having evaded dealing with the actual lections, let me commend to your listening Benjamin Britten’s Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac. You can find a performance of it on YouTube here.

Daily Office: Wednesday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (Anskar, Archbishop)