holy cross sermon for the twenty-second sunday after Pentecost, year c, october 20, 2013

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

For the past several weeks, I have been discussing the rituals associated with the Collect – the Collect being the concise prayer from the beginning of the liturgy, immediately after the Kyrie and / or the Gloria. Two weeks ago, I talked about how the celebrating priest, at the end of the Gloria, bows down and kisses the altar; how he turns to face the people and says to them, “The Lord be with you,” and they respond, “And also with you.” Last week I talked about the orans position, the ancient posture of prayer that the celebrant assumes as he prays the collect, and at several other points during the liturgy, with his arms outstretched and his hands open. I talked about the antecedents of the orans posture in both Jewish and Pagan cultures – how Sumerian statues have been discovered with supplicants in this attitude, and about how the Bible says that Moses assumed something like the orans position during the battle in which Israel defeated the Amalekites. Lastly I talked about how early commentators noted the likeness of the orans position to the posture assumed by Jesus on the cross, again with arms outstretched and hands open, and how this likeness invites us into the fundamental dynamic of the mass: with the celebrating priest united by similitude to the Crucified, standing before God in the priesthood that belongs by right to Christ alone, and standing before the assembly as God’s minister – in short, how the whole dynamic of salvation in Christ is exemplified and, in a sense, recapitulated in the mass: our union with Jesus in his offering of our humanity, in all its aspects, to God acceptably on the Cross. 

We have dwelt long in the frontier of the Collect, and today we come at last to the Collect itself. What is it? And what are its origins and its meanings? 

As I have said, the Collect is the concise prayer that comes after the Kyrie and / or the Gloria. With the Collect, the preliminary rites of the mass reach a climax and a conclusion. The celebrant and other ministers enter the sanctuary while the entrance hymn is sung. In the Kyrie, the priest and people together pray for God’s mercy; and together again we sing God’s praises in the very ancient hymn, Gloria In Excelsis Deo. Finally, the priest and people greet one another with, “The Lord be with you,” “And also with you,” and the priest prays to God on behalf of the assembly, with his arms outstretched, in imitation of the Crucified Lord. Fr. Joseph Jugmann (The Mass of the Roman Rite p. 359) notes that the Collect is the first place in the liturgy of the mass where the celebrant steps before the assembly to speak on his own. From very ancient times, all of the elements of the mass up to this point have either been sung by the choir, as with the introit, or they are sung by the celebrant and the people together, as with the Kyrie and the Gloria. When the Collect has been sung, the assembly respond, “Amen,” from a Hebrew word which means something like, “Truly,” or “Certainly,” and which is an expression of assent to the foregoing prayer, in essence meaning, “Yes; we agree.” And finally the priest and the people all sit down to listen to the Scripture readings. 

The rhetorical tone of the Collects is typically concise, almost terse. And there is a form to the Collects that varies little among them. They begin by addressing God, almost always God the Father, but very occasionally God the Son. Typically God is addressed in a phrase such as, “Almighty and everlasting God,” (as in today’s Collect), or “God our Father,” or sometimes simply “God.” This invocation is typically followed by the acknowledgement of a divine attribute that corresponds to the forthcoming petition. In today’s Collect, for example, we have, “[Almighty and everlasting God,] in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations…” This acknowledgement of a divine attribute is then followed by a petition, the thing that we are asking God for. In today’s Collect: “Preserve the works of your mercy…” The petition is usually followed by an aspiration, an expression of the desired outcome of the petition, usually introduced by the word “that,” or “so that,” (“ut” in Latin). Again, from today’s collect: “[preserve the words of your mercy] that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name…” The Collect concludes with our acknowledgement that we are asking for these things through the mediation of Jesus, and again today’s Collect is typical: “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” Finally, all say, “Amen,” and the Collect is concluded. 

The concise nature of the Collect points to its ancient origins in the city of Rome. Indeed, if one is wondering about whether a particular Collect is old or new, a good indication that it is very old is if it is very short and concise. The more florid the collect, the more likely it was composed relatively recently. Ancient, native speakers of the Latin language, especially the more educated, appreciated brevity and concision, and the Latin language itself is particularly well-suited to saying a lot with very few words.  

Every Sunday of the year has its own distinct Collect, and likewise every saint’s day has its own. In the very early centuries of the Church, the Collect was extemporized by the celebrating priest – it was made up on the spot, or composed by the celebrant himself for the occasion. We know this, for example, from an extant treatise of St. Augustine of Hippo (De Catechizandis Rudibus) in which he instructs new members of the Church, especially those who were more educated, not to disparage or make fun of a celebrant whose prayers manifested a poor grasp of Latin grammar. But fairly early on, these prayers were written down and compiled into, as it were, anthologies. One of the earliest such collections that has come down to us is in a book called the Leonine Sacramentary, a book of liturgical prayers compiled probably in the late 500’s. Many of the collects that we use on Sundays are also found, pretty much verbatim (though, of course, in Latin) in the Leonine Sacramentary. No one knows for sure who wrote them, but many liturgical scholars think that they were originally composed by Pope Damasus in the middle of the 300’s AD (Adrian Fortescue, citing others (Probst, for example), thinks this). 

In the most ancient extant liturgical books, the word for what we call the Collect is simply “oratio,” – “the prayer,” or “the oration.” But early on the word “collecta” came to be used. The word “collecta” is a late Latin form of the word “collectio,” which simply means “the collection” or “the gathering.” Historically, there are two plausible explanations for the term “collect” in reference to this prayer. 

The first explanation has to do with its ritual origins. In the early centuries of Christianity in the city of Rome we find the practice of the bishop of Rome gathering with the people and going in procession to a designated church, usually called a “station church,” to celebrate the mass. This practice has its origins as far back as the late 100’s AD, and it continues to this day. Apparently, anciently, when the people assembled with the bishop, there was a sequence of prayers and hymns that culminated with the bishop praying a short prayer just before the procession set off. When they all arrived at the church at which the mass was to be celebrated, the bishop repeated the prayer he had prayed at the beginning, and the mass began. This prayer at the beginning and end of the procession was called the oratio ad collectionem populi – or “the prayer at the gathering of the people.” Thence it became the “collectio” prayer, the “collecta,” and finally simply “the collect.” 

The second explanation for the word “collect” with reference to this prayer is compatible with the first: namely, that in praying the collect, the celebrant “collects” the prayers of the people into one petitionary bundle, and presents this collection of aspirations to God with the concise formula of the Collect. This is the explanation one is more apt to hear today, in my experience. But it too has a noble pedigree. We find, for example, pope Innocent III, a thousand years ago, explaining the Collect in these terms in his work, “On the Sacred Mysteries of the Altar.” 

Finally, Father Joseph Jungmann points out the remarkable fact that in the long history of the Latin liturgy, from about the early 300’s down to our own time, for all of their careful composition, the Collects have never been put into verse. They are, and have always been, prose – albeit carefully crafted prose. And the tones to which the Collects are chanted, which are almost as ancient as the Collects themselves, steer a course that is much more somber than, for example, the Gregorian chant tones that have for almost a millennium-and-a-half accompanied the Psalms. The system of notation indicating the various cadences to which the Collects are to be chanted used colons, semi-colons, and periods. And our modern system of sentence punctuation derives from that system of chant notation used for the collects during the Middle Ages. To this day many liturgical books use these marks in the Collects, not as punctuation in the usual sense, but to indicate the cadences to which the phrases are to be chanted by the celebrant. 

This middle-course between ordinary speech and the florid melodies of Gregorian chant, along with the concise economy of the grammar of the Collects, draws our attention to a characteristic of the liturgy broadly considered: before it is florid, before it is artful, before it is aesthetically pleasing, before all else, the liturgy is a SERIOUS business. At the mass we come, as it were, face to face with the Creator of the universe, our Judge, a Force of incomprehensible power and majesty. Thanks be to God that in Christ we have the prerogative of addressing the Divine Majesty, and even addressing Him as Father. But addressing Him at all is a SERIOUS enterprise. And the shucking-down of the Collect to the barest of essentials, musically and grammatically speaking, indicates the psychic disposition towards which we should aspire when we ask God for anything. We ought to come before Him stripped and naked, presuming nothing, and without any pretense whatsoever. And only in such an attitude, duly acknowledging God’s majesty and our own weakness, should we ask Him humbly for the great and heavenly things that he desires to give us in and through his Son, Jesus, who said: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” (Luke 12.32). 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Published by Fr George

Fr George is the priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Dallas

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