Commentary: Collects for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

I want to start things off by making a brief point about last week’s post. It turns out that the old 1662 BCP collect for the Third Sunday of Lent has not totally disappeared from the Episcopal liturgy! It now appears (with slight variation in wording) as the Collect for Monday in the Third Week of Lent in Holy Women, Holy Men (and I believe Lesser Feasts and Fasts as well). So, if its disappearance from the 1979 prayerbook was keeping you up at night, you can rest easy.

Now, you may have noticed that things have gotten a little bit unusual with the Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Lent. First of all, the 1979 prayerbook collect is very different in tone from the collects for the second and third Sundays in Lent we looked at earlier, and it’s also totally different from the 1928/1662 collect. Common Worship, then, actually has two collect + postcommunion sets for this Sunday, one for the Fourth Sunday of Lent and one for optional use for  the observance of something called Mothering Sunday. Moreover, the mirroring we’ve seen quite consistently between the 1979 BCP and Lutheran Worship (and sometimes the Lutheran Book of Worship as well) is totally absent this time. So what’s going on?

The answer has to do with this Sunday’s particular position in Lent. This Sunday is traditionally called Laetere Sunday. The name comes from the beginning of the Introit in the old Roman Rite, which is taken from Isaiah 66:10. It begins as follows: “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice greatly with her, all you who mourn over her…” Beginning a service in Lent with the word “rejoice” seems like a strange choice, but Laetere Sunday, about halfway between the beginning of Lent and Easter, was traditionally a time of the lessening of the Lenten fast. The propers and lessons are more joyful and less penitential in tone, and pink vestments were worn rather than the purple ones worn through the rest of Lent. Note the similarity to Gaudete Sunday here. As Marion Hatchett tells us in the Commentary on the American Prayerbook, this Sunday was also called Mothering Sunday and people would in some areas visit the diocesan cathedral (the mother church of the diocese) on this day. It is also associated with the celebration of one’s human mother; indeed, the U.K. equivalent to the American holiday of Mother’s Day is celebrated on this day (at least according to Wikipedia…).

The 1979 prayerbook celebrates Laetere Sunday by doing away with the old Gregorian collect which was preserved in the 1662 and American 1928 prayerbooks in favor of one composed in the twentieth century by an F.B. McNutt; Hatchett editorializes here that McNutt’s collect is far superior for this day than the dramatically penitential Gregorian collect. Hatchett’s criticism of the old collect is fair, although I would argue that in the old Roman Rite, the more joyful minor propers (the introit, gradual, tract, offertory, and communion) alongside the penitential collect would have conveyed the tone of the day as a lessening (but not total elimination!) of the Lenten fast quite nicely. Of course, the minor propers disappeared from Anglican worship entirely (to the best of my knowledge) from the Reformation until the Oxford Movement, and even today are used mostly if not exclusively in Anglo-Catholic parishes; it’s not like the composers of the 1979 prayerbook were going to bring back the old mass propers as normative for all Episcopalians (although a boy can dream, right?). Given that reality, I do think that the collect probably needed to be changed, although I’m not sure I like the total elimination of a penitential aspect. The collect works all right with RCL readings for this Sunday – for this year, there’s a reference to manna in the Old Testament reading, and of course the famous feast upon the prodigal son’s return in the Gospel. Also, I like that the collect preserves to some extent the old Gospel reading for this day from 1662/1928/the 1951 Roman Missal, namely the feeding of the five thousand in John 6.

To turn to some of the other prayerbooks: I like both sets of Common Worship prayers, especially the one for Mothering Sunday. In particular, the depiction of God as like a mother feeding her children at the breast in the postcommunion is an excellent feminine metaphor for God with a long historical pedigree — think of Julian of Norwich or parts of the monastic tradition here!

Now, with the Lutheran collects, I’m not totally sure what is going on here; I don’t have an equivalent commentary to Hatchett’s for the ’79 prayerbook on hand to explain the source material from which these various collects were made.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship continues, as we have seen, the pattern of drawing the collects quite explicitly from the RCL lections. The collect for Year C is quite lovely although I’m not sure about the line “by our baptism clothe us with the garments of your grace” — the theology here seems to be a little confused, or at least confusing. How exactly is the “by” functioning here? And what exactly does it mean to be “clothe[d]…with the garments of God’s grace”? Are we asking God to “clothe us with the garments of [God’s] grace” in the moment of baptism? That’s a little strange, given that almost everyone praying this prayer is likely to be baptized already. Or are we asking God to “clothe us with the garments of [God’s] grace” because of or in light of our baptism? This seems more likely, but I’m not sure how exactly that fits with Lutheran sacramental theology, given that baptismal regeneration occurs at the moment of baptism in the Lutheran tradition. Or is the collect trying to talk about sanctification here? I’m really not sure.

As for the others, while the Lutheran Hymnal collect, as usual, follows the 1928 prayerbook one, my best guess for the ELW/LSB/LW collects is that they are also attempts (like the collect revision for the 1979 prayerbook) to celebrate Laetere Sunday with collects that are less intensely penitential than the old Gregorian collect we saw in the 1662 and 1928 prayerbook collects. The Lutheran Worship and Lutheran Service Book collects do a good job retaining a sense of God’s grace relieving deserved punishment in a collect that is nonetheless more joyful than the old Gregorian one by shifting the emphasis to our response to God’s mercy.

Commentary: Collects for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

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