The History of the Lent Collects

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The theme of the Lent collects is human sinfulness and our need for God. We “acknowledge our wretchedness.” We are “tempted,” and our resistance is “weak.” We have “no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” We have “disordered affections” and “unruly wills.” And so, what we need above all is “new and contrite hearts,” for “our hearts are restless until we rest in God.” We need God to settle our hearts in him and his law, where “true joy” can be found.

The Lent Collects are on pages 605-606 of the 2019 Book of Common Prayer. In researching this topic, I especially drew from commentaries by Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr., Marion J. Hatchett, and C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F. M. Zahl.

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What is a collect? A collect is a short, formal prayer written in “collect form,” typically appointed for a particular occasion. The Book of Common Prayer is full of collects—and here at Anglican Compass, we love them! Previously, we have published reflections on many individual collects, and articles on the history of the Advent, Holy Week, and the Easter Week collects.

Ash Wednesday

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Cranmer composed this collect for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, putting a focus on penitence at the beginning of Lent. The medieval collect for Ash Wednesday had emphasized fasting, a Lenten theme Cranmer retained but made secondary. The 1662 Prayer Book appointed this collect for Ash Wednesday for daily reading in Lent, making it the most read of all seasonal collects.

Cranmer’s evident inspiration for the collect is Psalm 51, which recognizes human wickedness, elevates contrition over sacrifice, and emphasizes the heart. Consider especially verses 10—“Create in me a clean heart, O God”—and 17: “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you shall not despise.” The connections resonate especially when we read Psalm 51 during the Ash Wednesday service.

Cranmer’s collect balances the lament and acknowledgment of “sins and… wretchedness” with an opening declaration that God “hates nothing he has made.” In other words, God does not despise us even in our sinfulness. Yes, God hates sin, but we are not identical to our sin. When we recognize God’s fundamental love for us, expressed most powerfully in the gospel of Christ, we can acknowledge and repent of our sins, for we no longer feel the pressure of self-justification.

The First Sunday in Lent

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations, and, as you know the weakness of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who live and reign with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Composed by William Bright, this collect first appeared in the 1979 Prayer Book, replacing an original collect by Cranmer. The focus here is on Satan’s temptation of Jesus and of us, with a request for help on account of our weakness. The striking phrase, “mighty to save,” comes from Isaiah 63:1, in which God comes in righteousness, wearing crimson garments stained with the blood of his enemies.

Cranmer’s collect, written for the 1549 Prayer Book, also draws on Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness but focuses less on temptation and more on Jesus’ fasting:

O Lord, which for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honor and glory, which liveth and reigneth with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

Note how Cranmer connects fasting to the principle of self-control, of the flesh being subdued by the Spirit, reminiscent of Romans 8 and Galatians 5. In other words, fasting is not righteousness itself but rather a kind of training “in righteousness, and true holiness.” Thus, Cranmer correctly identifies both the usefulness and the limits of fasting as a spiritual discipline.

Unfortunately, both the 1979 and 2019 Prayer Books remove Cranmer’s collect completely, leaving the sequence of Lenten collects without any discussion of fasting. In fact, the collects in these modern prayer books never mention fasting at all! Future editors should consider restoring Cranmer’s fine composition to the Lenten collects.

The Second Sunday in Lent

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities that may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This collect was composed in Latin in sixth-century Italy in the time and era of Pope Gregory the Great. Whether or not Gregory himself wrote it, it reflects the adversities of that era, as invasion, plague, and famine led to the collapse of the Roman civil government. Cranmer’s translation of the collect into English exhibits his typical elegance, with a doubling of “ourselves” mirrored by two doublings of “bodies” and “souls.”

That “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves” is also a central truth of Biblical anthropology, which Cranmer emphasized together with other reformers. The theme is prominent in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, which include a similar phrasing: “We have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us” (Article X).

The Third Sunday in Lent

Heavenly Father, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you: Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants, and purify our disordered affections, that we may behold your eternal glory in the face of Christ Jesus; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This collect, new to the 2019 BCP, combines a traditional request with the theology of Saint Augustine. The traditional request asks that God would “Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants.” In this collect, the phrase unites with Saint Augustine’s prayer to God, from the first book of his Confessions, that “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Once these ideas combine, the collect requests that God “purify our disordered affections.” In other words, the heart’s desires are not negated, but neither are they fully affirmed. Rather, the desires of our hearts must be purified, refined, and properly ordered so that we do not fall into idolatry but rather love God above all. Or, as Saint Augustine would put it, we must learn to enjoy God only and to use everything else only insofar as their enjoyment is ultimately directed to God.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

This collect, by Frederick McNutt, was new to the 1979 Prayer Book and is retained here. The theme is Jesus as the bread of heaven, drawn from Jesus’ teaching to the crowd in John 6, “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). The request of the collect repeats the request with which the crowd responds to Jesus, “Sir, give us this bread always” (John 6:34).

The aspiration of the collect, “that he may dwell in us, and we in him,” draws on the language of Cranmer’s prayer of humble access.

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This collect found its way into a medieval manuscript in France around 750AD, just before the era of Charlemagne. Earlier prayer books appointed it for the Fourth Sunday After Easter, but the 1979 Prayer Book relocated it to Lent. This is an appropriate shift given the collect’s opening discussion of the “unruly wills and affections of sinners.”

The request that God help his people love what he commands and desire what he promises is based upon the prior idea that humans are inclined to do that which they love and desire. In other words, it is not sufficient to merely know the law; we must also desire to do it. Similarly, in his version of the decalogue, Cranmer has the people repeat after each commandment the request to “incline our hearts to keep this law.”

Here, the request is that the heart will be fixed on the sure promises of God and not amongst the “swift and varied changes of this world.” Ironically, one of the “swift and varied changes” is the use of the phrase “swift and varied,” a change from the older “sundry and manifold.” Future editors should consider restoring the older vocabulary because of its superior rhythm and deeper meaning. But if they don’t, let us content ourselves that our true joys will be found in God!


Photo by Jorisvo of The Temptation of Christ by the Devil in the cathedral of Strasbourg, France stained glass for iStock, modified by Jacob Davis.

Published on

February 20, 2024

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

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