Welcome to the First Sunday in Lent! A central component of the Advent, Christmas, and now Lent projects has been the use of the Collects from the Book of Common Prayer. Named Collects because they gathered together the themes of the Bible readings each Sunday for the congregation to pray, the collects were part of the genius of the Book of Common Prayer. More often than not the collect would be saturated with Scripture, and with humble economy, their author Archbishop Thomas Cranmer brought together theological substance with clarity.
We’ve tended to use the Collects as they appear in BCP rather than contemporary formulations of Cranmer’s works. In part this is on account of copyright issues, however we’ve wanted to preserve Cranmer’s genius as much as possible in each of these prayers. According to world-renowned scholar Ashley Null, this genius might be summarized as the finest distillation of Protestant theology:
‘According to Cranmer’s anthropology, what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. The mind doesn’t direct the will. The mind is actually captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants.
The trouble with human nature is that we are born with a heart that loves ourselves over and above everything else in this world, including God. In short, we are born slaves to the lust for self-gratification, i.e., concupiscence. That’s why, if left to ourselves, we will always love those things that make us feel good about ourselves, even as we depart more and more from God and his ways. Therefore, God must intervene in our lives in order to bring salvation.’ (More available here).
Which leads us to the Collect for today* (said alongside the Collect for Ash Wednesday). An original work of Cranmer, what is in mind is the self-control of a person as St. Paul commends it in 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” You have to be free from ungoverned outbreaks of personal need and personal pain if your attempted works of love are not to be marred by self-interest and self-service, even self-sabotage. We cannot obey God in the direction of “righteousness and true holiness” until we are “subdued.” Through the Spirit it becomes natural rather than against nature to restrain the evil impulse for the sake of love. The “godly motion” of the Collect is the spirit of a man or woman that has been aligned into ways of goodness by the virtue of God’s grace preceding. Key to it all is Christ himself, who is not only the exemplar of the Spirit-empowered life of obedience, but the means and the ends, of such a life.
*Written with the aid of C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F. M. Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer.