A Meditation on The Collect for The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers; and
because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace,
that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(BCP, 216)

This ancient prayer dates from at least the late seventh century and, according to Marion Hatchett, was used in several seasons across the various medieval sacramentaries and missals (Hatchett, 172).  According to the Rt. Rev. Dr. Paul V. Marshall, from at least the 1662 English BCP, this Collect was used for the First Sunday after Trinity; in our present BCP, this Collect became the Collect for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (Marshall, Prayer Book Parallels, 2:100-101).  In our 1979 use, the revisers changed from “the weakness of our mortal nature” to simply “our weakness” (Marshall, 2:100-101 and Hatchett, 172).  Our 1979 use has retained Cranmer’s revision of the Latin from “we can do nothing” to “we can do nothing good” (Hatchett, 172).

This Collect, like The Collect for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, does not appear to be summarizing a theme from all three Gospel lessons.

While the Preamble, “O God,” doesn’t provide us with details about to whom we pray, but in the Acknowledgement we profess aspects of who God is to us and in the Petition we confess our dependence upon God. 

The Acknowledgement, “the strength of all who put their trust in you” echoes Psalm 28:7 and Isaiah 12:2 (note:  Isaiah 12:2 is the beginning of Canticle 9, The First Song of Isaiah, which is used in Morning Prayer, BCP 86).  God is described as our strength; God’s strength is in contrast to our weakness, which we confess in the Petition.  God, our strength, is another way of describing God’s abundant response to the petition we pray in The Collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day in which we ask to share in the divine life of Christ who is the Life of the world (John 6:35, John 11:25, and John 14:6).

That God is our strength is relational and experiential—God, our strength, is what we experience as the result of our trusting in God rather than in the things that the world considers to be dependable for our security:  our own understanding apart from God (Proverbs 3:5), weapons of war (Psalm 20:7), or rulers or nations (Psalm 146:3).  Trust is our response to God’s self-revelation as the One who is strong and who shares that strength with those who love God.

The Petition, “Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace,” begins with calling upon another aspect of how God reveals God’s self to us – as the Merciful One. 

As already noted, the translation of what we currently have as “our weakness” was, prior to 1979, translated as “the weakness of our human nature,” providing a poetic contrast between God’s divine nature and our human nature.  While there is much to ponder in this poetic contrast, the struggle live into the transformed people that God is inviting us to become feels like a struggle when we try to become Christ-like in our own power and by our own choices.  Living into the Baptismal Covenant reveals our weakness and our need to abide in Christ.  That is, being able to do anything that is good is the result of abiding in the fullness of our Triune God through Jesus Christ (John 15:4-5).  God alone is good, but through the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we are undergoing transformation so that we are able to imitate God, expressing the character of God in how we live (Galatians 5:22-25; see also The Collect for Proper 17), and shining with the radiance of Christ’s glory (see The Collect for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany).

In the Aspiration, “that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed,” we ask for strength to do what is good not for the sake of doing good alone, but so that we are able to live lives that are pleasing to God.  The desire to please the one whom we love is an act of love.  We seek to will and do what we know our Beloved desires, not to win our Beloved’s love, but because we are already loved (1 John 4:10-13).  In The Collect for Proper 25, we pray for grace to love what God commands through the gifts of faith, hope, and charity.  In The Collect for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, we ask for grace to love God.  This Collect continues this ongoing petition and provides us the reason we need this petition granted, expressed in different ways in different Collects:  we need God as our strength to help us to live lives that, through our desires and our actions, express what God desires, and, in the willing and doing, please God.

The Pleading, “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen,” orients our prayer to address all three persons of the Holy Trinity—God our strength is realized and experienced through being caught up in and living in the power of the Holy Trinity.

The pandemic has provided us an opportunity to evaluate who or what we are trusting in and to discern in what ways we are trusting in our own strength and in what ways we are trusting in God’s strength. 

In what ways has God revealed your weakness during this time?  In what ways has God revealed God’s strength so that you can find new ways to will and do what is good?

In what ways has God revealed our weaknesses as a parish during this time?  In what ways has God revealed God’s strength working in us?  In what new ways are we being invited to will and do what is good and pleasing to God?

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers; and
because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace,
that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

© 2022 Donna Hawk-Reinhard, edited by Kate McCormick
The citations from Marion Hatchett are from his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, HarperOne, 1995

The reference to Paul V. Marshall is to his Prayer Book Parallels:  The public services of the Church arranged for comparative study, Volume II.  Church Publishing, 1990.
Quotations and page references to The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) are from the 1979 standard edition. 
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide

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