It is most appropriate that the series of holy days, on which the Church commemorates particular saints, should come to a conclusion and indeed be crowned—near the end of the Church Year of The Book of Common Prayer—with one comprehensive commemoration of all God’s “servants departed this life in his faith and fear” and whose names are written in the “Book of Life” (Philip. 4:3). Many are those who have died, not known to, or forgotten by, us, as faithful servants and witnesses—even martyrs—of the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that they are with Christ in Paradise waiting for the completion of redemption at his return to earth, the resurrection of the dead, the judgment of the nations and the glorious life of the age to come.
Since the Latin collect used in the medieval Church contained doctrines which had been rejected by the Reformed Church of England, it was necessary for a new collect to be composed and what is in The Book of Common Prayer is the collect composed in 1549 by Archbishop Cranmer and his colleagues.
O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In a modern form it could be rendered as:
Almighty God, who have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow your blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which you have prepared for them that sincerely love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let us note that:
(a) God, the Father, is addressed as “Almighty” the Creator and Ruler of heaven and earth, who is all-powerful and who has a rich saving and redeeming purpose for his creation (see Ephesians 1-3).
(b) In his presence, those offering the prayer engage in prayerful meditation to remember a particularly rich truth about what God has done in his saving work of mankind—the sanctification of his elect people. And this is done by means of a relative clause (as in the traditional Latin collects from the fifth century and later).
(c) The petition, which is doctrinally dependent upon what is remembered in (b), is a comprehensive request to be given divine help to follow in the steps of the virtuous and now deceased saints.
(d) The petition is offered to God the Father Almighty in the Name and through the Mediation of his Incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
As the collect was written in English, and the verb “to knit” was specifically chosen by the author(s), we need to recall that this verb referred to the usually womanly work by the use of long needles of causing the union and interlocking of yarn or wool by interlacing in order to make cloth to become a garment. The verb to knit was also used of the fusion of a bone after it had been broken. It would seem that the author(s) probably had this second meaning primarily in mind because they used “knit” rather than “knitted” and “knit” was the usual form used with reference to uniting bones. But we can profitably see both meanings as making fruitful suggestions concerning the relation of believers to Christ and one another.
[Let us note that the verb “to knit” is also used in the King James Version of 1611 and in modern versions. In Colossians 2:19, for example, the ESV follows the KJV to use the verb “knit” with reference to the members of the Body of Christ, who is the Head of the Body: “…the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” Colossians 2:1-2 may also be noted.]
Those whom God has knit together in one Body, the mystical Body of Christ, are his elect, his chosen ones, of whom St Paul speaks eloquently in Ephesians 1 and Romans 8. They were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world to be saved and to glorify the Father through the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. [Article XVII of The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (written by the same bishops who prepared the BCP) carefully presents the doctrine of election.] All those, who believe on the Name of the Lord Jesus, are baptized, are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and made members of the One Body of Christ, are united by the same Holy Spirit into one communion and one fellowship. They all belong to the one Head and are interconnected, knit-together members/parts of his one Body. This communion and fellowship is at once universal and local. Locally it is experienced as Christian fellowship within the congregation of Christ’s flock but universally it exists through the Holy Spirit across space and time for the one omnipresent Spirit is in union with the one Lord Jesus Christ who is in heaven. Further, and very importantly, the communion and fellowship through the one Spirit also crosses the barrier of death and unites the Church militant on earth with the Church expectant in Paradise. Thus pilgrims on earth and united with those who have reached the goal of their pilgrimage.
So, moving on to the petition in this collect, we are invited to focus on the fact that that there is one communion in Christ and by the Spirit, that this fellowship ultimately takes no account of the barrier of death, and that within this communion and fellowship the active relation of baptized believers yet on earth to their brethren in Paradise is that of following in their footsteps in order to join them where they are in Paradise.
But not any kind of following! We are to follow the saints by living in the manner they did in terms of faithfulness, obedience and love. Our living is to be “virtuous and godly”—that is, it is to be according to Christian virtue (moral excellence) and according to godliness (wholly directed to God and his praise). And, as one saint wrote, speaking for all saints, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ!” (1 Cor. 11:1). In following in the steps of all saints, we are recognizing that virtue and godliness can be expressed in many different ways in vastly different situations and contexts. Following one saint may mean being too much influenced by an idiosyncracy in him or her; but following all the saints as they followed Christ cannot be but the very healthiest forms of walking in holiness.
We recognize in practice our communion and fellowship with the departed saints not only by treading in their footsteps (as they trod in those of Christ) but also by looking forward in hope and longing to that true happiness which they now enjoy in Paradise. And this fervent hope and profound desire is expressed so powerfully in the collect: it is that we may come to those unspeakable joys which the Father has prepared for them that sincerely love him, and may do so through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Therefore the Collects for Saints’ Days in the Prayer Book end with a presentation of the clarity of the Christian hope in relation not to one saint but to them all—all those who have been sanctified by the Spirit and are in and with Christ in Paradise. What the perfected saints now enjoy through the grace of God, all faithful followers of the Lord Jesus will also enjoy when they are promoted first to Paradise and then, at the end of the age, with all the saints of the old and new covenants of grace, into the glory of the new Jerusalem in resurrection bodies, like unto Christ’s own glorious body.
The collect that was discarded at the Reformation as translated into traditional English was:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast granted us under one solemnity to show reverence to the merits of all the saints; Pour down upon us, we beseech thee, at the request of these many intercessors, that abundance of mercy which we so much need and desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Here we get in prayer several things rejected by the reformed Church of England—the merits of the saints and the intercession of the saints.
Also the reformed Church of England rejected altogether the calling and use of November 2, the day after All Saints’ Day, as “All Souls’ Day,” for this presupposed the doctrine of purgatory, rejected in Article XXII. In recent times, commemoration of the faithful departed has been allowed in Anglican Provinces through the use of collects provided in the new liturgies. However, the Anglican approach does not require the R.C. doctrine of purgatory.
The Revd Dr Peter Toon October 21, 2006