22 November 2009


The collects we use at the beginning of Mass, and in the Divine Office, quite often have the pattern 'O God, who ...., mercifully grant that...' Thus, in the rather legalistic manner which is characteristic of the ancient Roman rite, some characteristic or deed of the Father is cited as an appropriate precedent for the grace which is now sought of him. Many of Cranmer's collects in the Prayer Book reproduce this style, either because they are translations from collects in the old Roman Sacramentaries (most of his Sunday collects are) or because he was so used to the pattern that he automatically reproduced it in his own compositions.

But the ancient liturgical books of trhe Roman Church often abandon this style during Advent. They replace the sonorous descriptive relative clause ('who......') with an almost breathless opening imperative, demanding of God immediate and decisive action. Many of them take off from a phrase in Psalm 80 (Vulgate 79) ‘Stir up [Excita in Latin] thy power, and come and help us'. (This suits Advent: that psalm calls in the name of oppressed Israel upon her Covenant with God for help against her enemies: why not read it as an Advent devotion!)

In the pre-Reformation service books, Cranmer found four of these Excita collects appointed for Sundays and some more on the weekdays of the Ember Week (Wednesday 16, Friday 18, Saturday 19 this year). He kept two of them.
(1) The collect for the last Sunday and week before Advent - that is, today. Sadly, this collect is rarely heard nowadays on Sundays because it is displaced by the proper collect for Christ the King. It used popularly to be associated by English tradition with the start of work upon the Christmass pudding. The references to stirring and fruit helped here!
(2) Advent 4. Unfortunately (there is evidence that when he did this work in 1548-9 he was working fast and not going back over texts with a revising hand) Cranmer obscured in translation the Biblical origin of the original by writing 'O Lord, raise up...' instead of retaining - as he did for Trinity 25 - the vivid 'Stir up...' And the end misses a point in the Latin, which could literally if nastily be translated ‘..that what our sins get in the way of, the forgiveness of thy mercy may accelerate.’ I suspect that this may go back to an early Christian and Pauline notion that whether the parousia comes later or earlier may to a degree depend upon the actions of Christians.

This collect survived into Common Worship for use on Advent 2. In the revised post-Vatican II Roman rite it is relegated to the relative obscurity of a weekday. Indeed, modern Roman liturgical tinkerers seem even more hostile than do Anglican ones to these superb and virile old collects. They replace them with other collects which may be taken from old Roman sacramentaries, but which are more pedestrian in their syntax and shy away from mention of Sin. The pre-Vatican II liturgy had a fair bit to say about human sinfulness and its disastrous consequences. Post-Vatican II, the ethos seems too often to be 'God, because of your grace, we are not really too bad; a bit more of your grace will make us even better’.

For Advent I, Cranmer composed a stately expression of the Advent themes - indeed, some of its phrases are reminiscent of parts of the post-Conciliar Roman Advent prefaces. When it used to be said at least twice daily all through Advent, it must have provided a superb catechesis of the meaning of the season. Nowadays it usually only gets a showing on the Sunday, and I rather wonder whether it says too much for one collect used once (in the Patrimony, we could use it throughout Advent to conclude the Intercession). The old Roman Sacramentaries, in my view, were right to be terse and thematically tight. Renaissance writers such as Cranmer tended to a greater verbosity, and later practitioners were worse: see, for example the collect for Epiphany 6, where the writer seems actually to forget, by the time he gets to the end of the collect, that he started off by addressing the Father.

Modern Anglican revisers are surely right to transfer Cranmer's (Non-'Excita') collect for Advent 2 to a 'Bible Sunday' outside Advent so that it does not interrupt specifically ‘Advent' themes. They retain his (non-'Excita') Advent 3 collect because it suits the 'John Baptist' themes which the Thee Year Lectionary retains on this Sunday. In my view, this collect, again, is too verbally prolix. Our Lady is the theme of Advent 4; Common Worship offers a Beta Minus composition to reflect this and misses the opportunity, seized by Rome, to use the familiar Angelus collect of which Cranmer provided a superb translation (March 25).

My views will be clear: few people have written better collects than popes Leo, Damasus, Gelasius or Gregory; and if Cranmer has provided an English Version, why look a gift-horse in the mouth. Christian people whose Latin is rusty, whether or not they originate in the Anglican Patrimony, can do worse than to get hold of an English Missal and pray - not only those collects , but also the other Excita collects which Cranmer failed to render.


John Park said...

In the current US Prayer Book, "Stirrup Sunday" is now Advent 2, and the former II Advent collect is now Proper 28, which was last Sunday.

John F H H said...

For an excellent account of the Collects, in particular the Advent Collects, see this short essay

Salutary analysis!

John U.K.

Clavus said...

But in Common Worship the 'Stir up' prayer is the Post Communion for Christ the King, and a rubric says that it may be used as the Collect at Morning and Evening Prayer during this week.

Little Black Sambo said...

Do we have to observe Christ the King? It strikes me as having something made-up about it.

Ttony said...

Why Athelstan Riley? Fr Hunwicke is a becoming name!

rev'd up said...

Fer any boy ‘at’s little as me, er any little girl,
That-un’s the goodest poetry-piece in any book in the worl’!
An’ ef grown-peoples wuz little ag’in I bet they’d say so, too,
Ef they’d go see their ole Gran’ma like our Pa lets us do!

Over the river and through the wood,
Now Grandmother’s cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the puddin' done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin-pie!

-James Whitcomb Riley

Too many kids around our place or ours would be in brandy vs the freezer.

I agree, Father, the Excita collects are hands-down my favorites as well. If I'm planing to "inwardly digest" something, a book's the last thing I'm thinking. Eating books is for goats.

C. Wingate said...

With 1979 we also have a new excite collect on 4 Advent, which acto Hatchett came from a Galesian sacramentary; we have Cramer's 1 Advent in its usual place, and a variant on 1662's 4 Advent at our 2 Advent now.

The "O God, who" form is so ingrained that the 1928 collects for Independence Day and Thanksgiving both use the form, and the 1979 Independence Day collect, which is largely new, retains the form. (The 1979 Thanksgiving collect is regrettable-- not the sentiments, but the writing.)