Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Collect for the Sunday Next Before Advent

Latin original

Excita, quaesumus, Domine, tuorum fidelium viluntates, it divini operis fructum propensius exsequentes pietatis tuae remedia majora percipiant. (This collect is appointed in the Tridentine Missal for Last after Pentecost.)

1549 BCP

STIERE up we beseche thee, O Lord, the wylles of thy faythfull people, that they, plenteously bringing furth the fruite of good workes; may of thee, be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christe our Lorde. Amen.

1662 BCP

STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Explanatory Note

The meditation below is intended to double as a sermon after an adult + infant baptism this Sunday. This fact and the presence of associated visitors with varying levels of ecclesial commitment is the reason that what follows may be more milk than meat to our regular readers.


Stir up! What a wonderful way to begin a liturgical prayer. When Archbishop Cranmer translated the original Latin verb “excita” into English all those centuries ago, he did a good job. When I say these words I cannot help thinking of a similar phrase: “Wake up!” The beginning of this prayer should act like a splash of fresh water to the face.

To stir up or to excite is to make something that is already there, but is presently quiescent or still, become ACTIVE. In baptism we have been given the gift of new life, but there is always the risk that a gift will remain unopened, or be opened but soon stored away to gather dust, or even abused and thrown away. We can do this with baptismal grace. Some receive baptism as infants but never activate its potential through faith in Christ and love for God and neighbour. Others begin to walk the way of Life but give up through carelessness, distraction or a deliberate refusal to continue in righteousness. (It is no accident that the ancient Church saw great significance in the water for baptism being in motion, that is, “living water”. Water that moves is less likely to be stagnant. Jesus taught that, for the one who believes in Him, “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7.38).)

So, the Collect for today does not ask that God give us a new will, a new ability to make good choices. It asks that “the wills of [his] faithful people” be stirred up. In other words, we already have the new will through baptism and faith, but this will needs to be doing something. Doing what? The Collect answers very clearly: good works. As St James teaches, faith without works is dead. And what are these good works? Well, of course they are manifold, but they include devoted prayer, giving to the poor, comforting the afflicted, dealing honestly with others (even to our disadvantage), contributing to the Church’s work of saving souls, and, perhaps hardest of all, forgiving those who harm us.

Now, the prayer asks God to stir up our wills, so one might be tempted to leave the matter to Him and not think about it further: “If God wants it done, He’ll do it for me!” But this would be to miss the point. After all, it is we who are praying that God stir us up, so we are not merely waiting for Him to energize us, but co-operating with Him. “God helps those who help themselves” has an element of truth to it. Also, the Bible explicitly tells us to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” in Hebrews 10.24.

But, despite the fact that we do have a responsibility in this stirring up, this energizing of the will, it is good to be reminded that we can only do it through God’s grace working before us and in us. The works spoken of in the Collect are called “fruit”, using Biblical language. They are not the seed or the trunk or even the branches of the tree, but the fruit. In other words, they are the effect or result of our salvation, not its cause, for we cannot save ourselves or produce the Christ-life within of ourselves. Our good works must therefore be based on God’s love: gratitude for the love he has already shown us in saving us from sin and death, and reflection of that love to others. In this way they will not merely be outward acts proceeding from empty hearts, but an expression of the Holy Spirit working through us.

And although we cannot earn salvation through these good works, they will be “plenteously rewarded” by God, as both the Collect and the New Testament teach. What is that reward? Fundamentally, it is more of Him, to delve deeper and deeper into the infinite ocean of his goodness for all eternity, for this is our ultimate joy and fulfilment.

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