Parsing the Collect
A weekly worship aid from the Interim Rector
The Collect for Proper 19 (aka The Sunday closest to September 14th; in 2017, September 17, and the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
Back to the Gelasian Sacramentary we go (named to honor the 5th century prolific, brilliant, North African, 4 and ½ year reigning Pope Gelasius), for the first publication of what we now call the Collect for Proper 19. Archbishop Cranmer picked this up to make sure it was included in the first English Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and it remained. You know, when I say that Archbishop Cranmer “picked this up” for the first and his successive English Books of Common Prayer, I don’t mean that he did research at his local liturgical library and picked it out because he liked it a lot. I mean that he made the decision to continue the use of a collect by including it in the new Prayer Book because he thought it still appropriate after 1000 years. Moving on, this collect has managed to remain pretty much in the same place during the Church Year for now 1500 years, at the 19th Sunday of the Trinity or Pentecost season. Amazing.
There have only been slight revisions during 15 centuries, with the case to be made of either diluting or enhancing the prayer being made. Using the current version of the collect as printed below for comparison, Marion Hatchett in his commentary says the original Latin might be more literally (and more forthrightly) translated as, “Direct our hearts, O Lord, we beseech you, by the working of your mercy, for without you we are not able to please you.” Cranmer’s 1549 translation is basically what we have as the collect today. You can see the later intertwining that gets laid into the collects. Perhaps that’s the consequence of 16th century English sentence structure and translations from Latin! The only other change from the original and the 1549 version was for the 1662 BCP when the Holy Spirit is specifically named as the agency of God for the delivery of mercy.
Here’s the Collect for the Sunday closest to September 14th, Proper 19:
O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The address to God is a bold statement of powerlessness. For those who have been through a 12-Step program, you will appreciate what that really means. “Without you we are not able to please you.” Still, for 12-Steppers that last part of the phrase, “not able to please you,” with its reference to doing things in ORDER to please, will be looked at with some skepticism. The good news is that when God asks us to please Him, He says it and receives our actions as true actions of love, and not of manipulation or loss of our integrity. This is God, who commands us to love our neighbor as our self. So to please God – who is Holy – is of the highest moral and ethical order. And this points out the problem, as well. We cannot, on our own, fulfill the call nor even our own deep desire, to truly love God. We need His help. And so our petition in the Collect is exactly that: calling on the Lord to help us please Him. And He encourages that prayer on our part. It is an act of humility. It is an act of recognition that there is a power that is greater than ourselves. So obvious, isn’t it? And that is part of our worship of God, to praise Him with statements of His mighty works, His power and glory. When we pray this collect we are in fact doing just that – worshipping the Lord God Almighty. This Collect includes the Person of the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the Giver of Life.” This is very appropriate for this prayer; and, with the calling forth of the Holy Spirit, we are giving permission for the Lord to touch our hearts. We want to stay on the track of pleasing the Lord, and with the Holy Spirit directing and ruling our hearts, we will.