These Pre-Lenten Sundays have unusually distinctive Collects. And in case you are not familiar with the term Collect, this word is the name for brief prayers which sum up or “collect” the private petitions of God's people; that is why there is or should be a slight pause between “Let us pray” and the Collect itself, to allow for the people to pray silently for a moment.
On Septuagesima and Sexagesima, the proper collects strike a solemn, almost sad, tone. Today we pray to be “defended from all adversity.” Last Sunday, we acknowledged that such “adversity” sometimes comes as the “just punishment for our offences.” These two prayers (BCP pages 118 and 120) might well be read together as examples of authentic Christian prayer. Those who learn to pray this way are not instructing God, giving Him good advice, sharing information, or even telling Him how they feel or what they want. They are simply asking to be defended against all adversity and mercifully delivered by God's goodness.
These two collects are among the most ancient prayers in the Prayer Book. They seem to have been composed in the Sixth Century A. D., just after the fall of the Roman empire, at the time when heathen barbarians from northern Europe were moving aggressively into Italy, leaving disaster and destruction in their wake. Whereas the Church had enjoyed a measure of safety and security in the last days of the Roman empire, now the world seemed to be collapsing. It was a perilous time, marked by pestilence, famine and earthquake. “Adversity” was not just a word.
The parallels between that period and our own are striking. Like the Roman Christians of the Sixth Century, we also perceive that our inherited world order may well be slipping away. But here is the great difference: whereas the Christian community of the early Dark Ages understood matters in solidly Biblical terms of God's just judgment on a sinful world, modern Christians seem to have a knack for making excuses and finding others to blame. We point to the liberals (both religious and political), we denounce the secular culture, we find fault with almost everyone and everything other than ourselves.
The Scriptures tells us that Divine judgment begins with the house of God. We are not here to play; the service of God is serious business. We know what God will do with the wicked, but what is in store for the shallow and superficial? Are you ready for Lent?
Today's first reading begins with words of heavy sarcasm, “Ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.” A modern translation is quite helpful here, “How gladly you put up with fools, being yourselves so wise.” Paul was not paying any compliment to his Corinthian readers. When he called them wise, he meant the very opposite.
These new Christians, not rooted and well-grounded in the Faith, were in danger of being seduced by a substitute Gospel, a false Christianity. In contrast to our easy-going tolerant sort of religion, this for Paul was no small matter. A few verses before our reading begins, Paul had compared them to Eve in the Garden of Eden. “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). When the immature Christians in Corinth cheerfully put up with “fools” in the form of false teachers, they were like Eve, falling for the lies of the devil.
Our world, and along with it, the Christian community of our time, have listened to many false teachers. Like the Corinthians, we have “suffered fools gladly,” but we have only proved ourselves to be fools ourselves. We have not been wise.
The doctrinal and moral errors which trouble us are not simple mistakes which we can solve by debate, argument and controversy. They point to something deeply wrong in our fallen human nature. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools....” (Rom 1:21-22).
Ash Wednesday is at hand, when we are solemnly reminded, “Remember, man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” Those terrifying words are reinforced with a grim ceremony, when our foreheads are disfigured with ashes. But almost always, someone will get the giggles seeing the entire congregation looking so funny. That is not altogether wrong or inappropriate. As we recall our mortality and the shortness of our earthly life, we should know ourselves to be the victims of a dirty trick, a horrible cosmic joke, in which we have been robbed by Satan of our original righteousness, our communion with our Creator, and the gift of eternal life. Our disfigured faces will remind us that the Image of God has been disfigured almost beyond recognition. Ash Wednesday sets us on the process of restoration for that Image.
Satan himself is the ultimate fool, because he wanted to be more powerful than God. In our unregenerate life we indeed put up with him and become foolish like him. May we turn more and more to Christ, who is our wisdom, our righteousness and our peace. LKW