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.

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Commentary: Collects for the Third Sunday of Lent

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