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.
Epistle 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8
Gospel S. Matthew 15:21-28
A collect means a gathering and meant a procession or gathering of worshippers, unless one takes it like Archbishop Trench as meaning a gathering together of the Epistle and Gospel. Taken that way the theme this Sunday is that Christ after overcoming Satan in fast and fight, is able to keep us from falling, both in body, the ‘vessel’ of Thessalonians, which we are to fight to keep, with Christ’s help, as a pure bodily temple of the Holy Spirit. And in soul, by the faith of the Saviour who is set before us in the Gospel as rescuing the soul of this poor demon-possessed girl by her Canaanite mother’s faith. We have the same recourses.
The most ancient collects are from Jerome’s collection, but this one is later from the Sacramentary of Gregory of 590 AD. It was put into English in the first Prayer Book of 1549, with some minor changes. The opening was changed from we are destitute of all power, to we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves, and also changed the Latin defended in body…cleansed in mind which is awkward to translate into English. The Reformers added which may assault and hurt the soul.
They are admirably brief, being from Latin, a concise and dignified language, so are unlike the longer and more diffuse Eastern Greek collects. They have four closely related parts: an invocation of God’s name, with a few words containing one of God the Father’s attributes, here ‘almighty’; the Scriptural grounds for asking; the petition we ask; and fourth the plea, such as here: ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’. They have been loved by many generations, having been written in the golden age of English prose, the sixteenth century, by her greatest liturgists, especially Dr. Thomas Cranmer. Dr. Johnson and a host in every age have loved them as jewels to learn by heart as children and treasure throughout life. Poetic prose most nearly describes them. When we say them we are conscious that we are joining myriad saints at rest.
The Alternative Service Book in 1980 changed today’s collect unrecognisably.
What makes the present arrangement of Collect, Epistle and Gospel so clear was that the Reformers cut away all that obscured. These were originally part of the medieval Mass, and started with a scrap of Scripture, here all of Psalm 133, chanted by various choir boys in an acting mode, in vestments. The Reformers also got rid of a couple of extra collects at the end. To today’s they added an eighth verse. Thus Scripture was restored to its rightful place.
Now let us turn to Lent. Has it anything really to commend it? Yes and no: yes, because it was. originally a fast before Easter, as Irenaeus tells us, but we are not sure if he meant it was a forty hour or forty day fast, giving up food until the ninth hour or 3pm at which Christ died. It seems it grew gradually, but was voluntary. Very much later was it connected with Christ’s forty day fasting and temptation. So if used properly it is a season of seeking God’s power to revive us again, not giving up things like cigarettes or sweets.
Has it an interesting history? Yes, fascinating things have happened over the centuries in Lent. In the year 380, the thirty-six-day ‘tithe of the year’, the Lenten fast, became general practice, and no criminal law proceedings could take place by the decree of the Emperor Theodosius, nor were bodily punishments inflicted.
Augustine the Great in a Lenten sermon about the year 395 asked to be excused the bishop’s daily duty of judging between disputants during the Lent season, and to be allowed to be a reconciler, thus preventing litigation.
In Lent 404 John Chrysostom’s enemies in Antioch prevailed on the Emperor to expel him from his church. He replied “Leave it I cannot, for I received it from God, so if I go it must be by force.” On Easter Eve the imperial soldiers attacked the worshippers, driving out the clergy and spilling the blood of the congregation, and then doing the same to nearby churches. Next day, Easter, was one Chrysostom always remembered as a day of supreme happiness. In his sermon he said it was “a festival kept in heaven as well as on earth…a day which the Lord of angels and men was not ashamed Himself to greet with joy.” On such a day, he says, “what reason was left for despondency?” Thus with joy the Christians of Antioch faced persecution head-on.
A few years later in 414 in Alexandria a very different scene was enacted in Lent. Cyril aroused fanatics by his sermons. There was a lady philosopher named Hypatia, who with dignity, courage and skill opposed the Christians with neo-platonism, which she really believed and so swayed the people. A Reader named Peter stirred up his fellow zealots, and, waylaying her chariot they dragged her out into a church and there murdered her, tearing her limb from limb. Cyril was correctly blamed.
Then in 430, the Picts forced their way through the forts along the wall, and harassed the Christian tribes. In Lent they were at their worst whilst the Christians were preparing catechumens for the great annual baptism at Easter. The bishops Germanus and Lupus offered to lead against them. They hid the most able combatants amongst the trees of a valley in the direct path of the invaders. The Picts came down the hill, unsuspecting, when at a signal from Germanus all shouted “Alleluia” as one man, and gradually increased in volume. The Picts fled, throwing away their weapons, fearing they had met a disciplined host. This was called ‘the alleluias battle’, a bloodless victory, and the place is still called ‘Maes Garmon’, after Germanus, in Flintshire.
Lent means the springtime festival, and as we face the general departure of our nation from the faith, let us rejoice that God can keep us faithful, both in body and soul.
Three days last week were called ‘Ember Days’, Imbren being old English for ‘round course’, or four times a year, to consecrate the four seasons. Near the time of the Norman Conquest, Ordinations were ordered to take place at those four times annually. We pray on ember days for men to be called of God for ordination. “The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2).