Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Collect - Trinity 16

Latin Original
Ecclesiam tuam, Dimine, miseratio continuata mundet et muniat: et, quia sine te non potest salva consistere, tuo semper munere gubernetur.
This collect is appointed in the Tridentine Missal for 15th after Pentecost.

1549 Version
LORD, we beseche thee, let thy continual pitie clense and defende thy congregacion; and, because it cannot continue in safetie without thy succoure, preserve it evermore by thy helpe and goodnes; through Jesus Christ our Lorde.

1662 Version
O LORD, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without thy succour, preserve it evermore by thy help and goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


The thing that strikes me most about this Collect is its reminder of our helplessness without God and His grace. One of the dangers for the Catholic Christian is to so identify Christ and the Church that he or she forgets that the Church has come into being and retained its essential characteristics of Unity, Universality Holiness and Apostolicity wholly sola gratia. From the earthly side we see a group of humans who must truly appeal to God’s “continual pity”: for are we not often, both individually and corporately, so very pitiful?

We appeal for cleansing of many sins, knowing we have no righteousness of our own. We appeal for defence against temptations and persecutions, knowing our terrible fleshly weakness in the face of both, the enemy without and the enemy within.

But it is not merely the undoing of evil and protection against it that we need. We are incapable even of continuing to exist as Christ’s Body without God’s “help and goodness” “evermore” preserving us. Help AND goodness. Not only does He help us with his powerful, effectual activity, He helps us with His very self, His goodness becoming ours.

Western theologians have thought upon this amazing last fact of our salvation and speculated about what sort of “causality” God exercises in giving us Sanctifying Grace. (Sanctifying Grace is defined as the grace that makes the Christian righteous and holy within, the result of the inner transformation wrought by God.) The most common answer today perhaps is that Sanctifying Grace is the effect of God acting as a “quasi-formal cause”, following the scholastic terminology of Karl Rahner. This sounds ridiculously academic and esoteric, but in fact implies something very powerful.

It means that God does not merely perform some spiritual operation on us as an outside agent. That would mean He was just an “efficient cause”, like the surgeon who cuts out a tumour or the bricklayer who builds a wall. He does not give us a part of Himself, as He has no parts, and so He is not a “material cause”, like the bricks in that wall I just mentioned would be. No, God is to us as shaped seal to wax imprint, which was the analogy used by the ancient Fathers. This analogy is based on the old practice of using, for example, a ring with a family emblem to imprint the image of that emblem upon the molten wax that was used to seal an official document closed and show its provenance. The metaphor is applied in a special way to Christ in Hebrews 1.3, where He is said to be the “express image” (Gk: χαρακτηρ) of God. The Greek word here refers both to the source shape of a seal and the imprint it makes in the wax. Similarly, in Ephesians 1.13 Christians are said to be sealed (Gk: εσφραγίσθητε) by the Holy Spirit.

This makes God more like a “formal cause”, like the set of plans is to a house or a circuit diagram to a computer. Such inadequate comparisons may seem irreverent, but they point to the wonderful truth that we take on, in some mysterious sense, the "pattern" or properties of God's very Being. Our souls are the material cause, the thing given a new spiritual “shape” or quality or activity. But since we do not become God and our finite natures cannot fully or properly take on God’s infinite nature, God is described as a quasi-formal cause to remind us that He remains transcendent and we remain creatures dependent on Him. Interestingly, parents, through their DNA, are to some extent “formal causes” for their children. Truly, we are “sons in the Son”.

And that brings us back to the Collect. For all the wonder and glory of our salvation, what God does in us and to us, the gifts we are given are utterly and perpetually dependent upon His ongoing indwelling, initiative, protection and forgiveness. That is why we should also constantly resort to God in prayer, daily, hourly, consciously dedicating our efforts to Christ and trusting in his might. For all our works are sad and sorry without him. This does not mean God abandons us if we forget to pray or are much distracted. No, we are and remain in grace. But the more we deliberately “sow to the Spirit”, the more we will “reap of the Spirit” (Galatians 6.8). And the more we pray for the Church and for God’s mercy upon it, the more it will become what it is meant to be, the living Temple of His Presence.

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