The Collect for the 3 days before Ash Wednesday, and then for the rest of the week, was created by Archbishop Cranmer, after prolonged meditation upon the Epistle for the day, 1 Corinthians 13.
It replaced the medieval Collect, which related to a custom of receiving absolution (“getting shriven”) on Shrove Tuesday before Lent began. In traditional English it prayed: “O Lord, we beseech thee favorably to hear our prayers, and, having loosed us by absolution from the bonds of our sins, defend us from all adversity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” For many by 1549 Shrove Tuesday had become a day of letting off steam—as now in many Latin American places—before the rigors of Lent ;and so this Collect by 1549 no longer had much relevance.
Here is the Collect that first appeared in the new English Prayer Book of 1549:
O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosever liveth is counted dead before thee: Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
We may observe first of all that to enter the door into the long season of Lent, thinking and praying about the gift of charity in relation to God and man, is an excellent way of going forward into this important penitential season. And in the second place, we note that the cruciality of the word “charity” both in the English Bibles of the sixteenth century and in the Prayer Book. It points to what we would call a real and committed love of human beings as they are in themselves before God and in their need.
The Collect addresses the Lord, who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. And in his presence it recalls—by use of the relative clause—what he has taught us in his written Word, especially in 1 Corinthians 13. And this is that unless we do our good works in the spirit of love for others then as deeds seen by God they are worth nothing; for only what is truly motivated and offered in love has worth in God’s kingdom. So it is not the size or value of any good work that God sees but its quality in terms of its motivation and purpose. We recall the widow’s mite!
Having recalled in his presence what his Word teaches concerning love in action, the Collect is ready to make a major petition: “Send thy Holy Ghost—the Spirit who comes from the Father through the Son—and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity.” In Galatians 5:22 we read that “the fruit of the Spirit is love.” We need to be profoundly and humbly aware that in and of ourselves, try as we may, we cannot produce the love that God approves and accepts.
What he requires of us he alone is only able to give to us—that is, to give when we are ready to receive with penitent heart. And the love that he gives enables us both to love him and, in that love, to love our fellow human beings. But this excellent gift of charity/love is not given at one moment to be there for all time; we need to be receiving this love daily so that our hearts are not governed by our own pride and selfishness.
Then the Collect in the words, “the very bond of peace and of all virtues,” offers an interpretation of the crucial and unifying place of love in the Christian life, based upon (a) Ephesians 4:3—“endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” and (b) Colossians 3:18—“… the bond of perfectness.” The idea is of love being that central way and means by which the various virtues (= doings) and gifts of the Spirit are held together in an orderly and efficient way in the Christian life, in order both to please the Lord and to abound in good works.
And the Collect draws to a close with a further strong statement, that can only be uttered if it is truly grounded in Scripture: “Without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee.” That is, not to have the love of God in the heart is to be as dead before the heavenly Father. The easiest place to look for the grounding is in 1 John 4 where we read, “He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.” But it is also grounded in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “without charity I am nothing”.
It is with one of the great verbs used in prayer, “Grant,” that the final part of the Collect begins. What has been asked thus far is only possible because of the saving and mediatorial work of the Incarnate Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ; and so the Collect arises to the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ.
And God’s people say, Amen!
firstname.lastname@example.org Sexagesima 2008