1st Sunday of Lent
22nd February 2015
Prayer: The Collect of Purity
As I hope you will gather the focus of our Lenten devotions this year is intended to help us explore in a little more depth what prayer is, and how we can engage more deeply with God through prayer. At our morning services we are looking at four broad themes in prayer – contemplation, communion, intercession and scripture – whilst at Evensong we will explore some particular prayers – starting tonight with the Collect for Purity (which you can find in the green prayer books on page XXX). In this brief exploration I will look at the prayer from two particular aspects – firstly, its place in our liturgy, and secondly what it says as a prayer.
The Collect for Purity is one of the first prayers that are used as we start the Eucharist – whether celebrated according to The Book of Common Prayer or Common Worship. But I’d like to start a little further back than that…
Collects are prayers that have a particular shape, and a particular function in our services. Their shape is generally as follows:
(i) A statement about God
(ii) A request of God that is associated with this aspect of what God is
(iii) A result or fruit by which the granting of this request will be seen
(iv) A petition making the prayer not just ours, but one that is made through Christ or in the name of the Trinity.
If you look at the Collect for Purity you will find this pattern followed closely:
(i) The opening states that nothing can be hidden from God
(ii) The prayer goes on to request that God cleanses us
(iii) The fruit of this happening will be that we love God more fully; magnifying his name
(iv) The prayer is made in the name of Christ.
So here we have a classic Collect prayer – one that follows the literary form we would expect. But Collects do not just have an expected shape – but also an expected function. The normal function of a Collect is either to end bring to a close one of the Daily Offices – Morning or Evening Prayer – or to set the theme of a celebration of the Eucharist.
If you cast your mind to the last time you attended a communion service – which may only be this morning – you may remember that though the Collect for Purity is said at the start of the service, the Collect of the Day – the main Collect that sets the theme for the service comes a little later – as the service proper starts and we look to open the scriptures. So the Collect of the Day is the Collect Prayer that belongs in the communion service – and the Collect for Purity seems to be something of an interloper!
The Collect for Purity seems a little out of place – it does not fulfil the classic function of a Collect – which is to introduce the theme of the eucharist, or to bring to a close one of the Daily Offices. And this points to a hidden (or at least long-forgotten) reason for the Collect being here – something we might worthily rediscover to deepen our own devotions.
In the first Book of Common Prayer the priest says the opening Lord’s Prayer and the Collect for Purity alone in front of the altar, while the clerks wing the Introit – it forms a preparation for the priest. This has its origins in the practice of the Church in the centuries that went before, where the Eucharist (then known as the Mass) was celebrated following one of the ‘Lesser Offices’. During this relatively short service, taking place in the chancel, the priest and altar party left to ‘get dressed’ – missing the prayers. To make up for this they then said a shortened version of the prayers as they walked in to their places – ‘catching up’ on what they had missed out by saying the Lord’s Prayer and a suitable Collect – often what became the Collect for Purity. Far from being the beginning of the service of communion – the Collect for Purity is the end of what has gone before – it is the end of the preparation, getting ready for communion.
I think that this is something that is worth us taking note of – for I know that I myself an guilty of spending so much time on the practicalities of getting myself and everything I need ready, of meeting people and talking, that I often do not spend so much time as I might (and probably should) on preparing for the service that lies ahead. The fact that the Collect for Purity is the end of this preparation points us to taking preparation for communion seriously.
So what does the Collect for Purity say that might help us approach God in the right frame?
To answer this, we can turn to the structure of the prayer – for reading and praying the prayer almost answers the question for us.
Firstly, we are reminded that we come before what John Robinson called ‘the searching presence of God’. We are reminded by the opening phrases that nothing can be hidden from God, and that our hearts are an open book before God; that God knows all we know about ourselves – and maybe more. To some this may be a threatening loss of privacy or a challenge to our need to keep some things hidden away (hidden perhaps from ourselves). But though we may perceive it as a threat this is far from the truth – it can be an enormous source of strength if we come before God knowing that all is laid bare – for without having to hide anything and through mutual love we may become better followers of Christ by being honest in a way that we are probably unable to be with anyone else – and this is the challenge that comes before us as we come into God’s presence – to be honest about who we are.
The second part of the prayer builds on this by drawing out the fact that from this honest picture of who we are we need to remain open to God’s searching presence as we learn who we are called to be. Through the love of God we pray that we may be cleansed – that those bits we may wish to remain hidden might be transformed (before God at least), and that we might find strength to grow closer to God through the love that is placed before us in Christ, and that we can touch through the grace of God revealed in the Holy Spirit.
This opening of ourselves, and being open to the transforming effect of God’s love draws out the fruit that we ourselves then become vehicles for the good purposes of God – we become vehicles for perfect love that responds to the love of God and we become participants in the worship that magnifies God in this world.
So far from being a simple prayer that starts our service of Communion, the Collect for Purity should be a reminder to us each time we gather to celebrate Christ’s presence in the Eucharist that we are not passive recipients of God’s love – we are called to active engagement with who we are and what we are called to be before God. Far from being the beginning of the service this short prayer should be a reminder of all that has gone before – of all we are, of all God is, and of what we are called to become in response to his love – a love that can see into the very hearts and minds of those such as us.