The Collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day

O God,
who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature:
Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity,
your Son Jesus Christ;
who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.
(BCP 214)

Historical Introduction

This Collect from the oldest Roman sacramentary, the 7th-century Verona Sacramentary, was included in the 1928 revised edition of the English Book of Common Prayer that was not approved by the House of Commons for use in England.[1]  In our 1979 BCP, this ancient Collect is finally restored into Anglican prayer life.  In the Verona Sacramentary, the Collect was used as the first Collect of Christmas.[2] 

The Preamble

The Preamble:  “O God” doesn’t give us much information but seems to be a simple address to move us quickly into the mystery of the Incarnation and how it is central to our salvation.  The Acknowledgement and the Petition move rapidly through the three deep, interrelated mysteries of our faith, each building upon the mystery before and pointing to the final mystery that we pray in the Petition.

The Acknowledgement

The Acknowledgement:  “who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature,” begins with the first mystery:  we were wonderfully created by God (see Genesis 1:16-31 and 2:4-24 and Psalm 139:13-16).  The end of the Acknowledgement “the dignity of human nature” invites us to linger over the first mystery – our creation is wonderful like the creation of everything else, but humanity was created with a particular dignity that is unique to it. In Genesis 1:26-7, we hear that God created humanity in God’s image and likeness.  God’s delight in creating us as God’s own image-bearers in and for creation is indicated by the short bit of poetry used in Genesis 1:27 (when poetry is used in biblical texts, it is a call for us to pay extra attention by lingering over the poetry).  Hatchett notes that we also pray this Collect in the Great Vigil of Easter after the required first lesson of the service, which is the story of Creation.[3]

The Collect next moves to the second mystery, acknowledging that the restoration of our dignity as humans is even more wonderful than our creation.  In this Collect, we don’t linger over how or why our dignity as human persons was damaged; instead our hearts and minds are focused on God’s wonderful restoration of our dignity through the mystery of the Incarnation.  Through the Incarnation, he became what we are, human.  He is like us in every way except sin (Hebrews 2:14-18).  When the Son took on human nature, the dignity of human nature was restored—this is why we vow to respect the dignity of every human being (Baptismal Covenant, BCP 305).  This is why we can look for and serve Christ in all persons—because through the Incarnation of the Son, the life of Christ is available to all persons (John 1:4).

The Petition

The Petition:  “Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ” moves us into the third mystery, our salvation, and completes an allusion to a theologically-rich couplet.  That is, the Petition of this Collect “echoes a sentence attributed to Saint Leo the Great (401-474):  ‘The Son of God became the Son of Man that the sons of men might become the sons of God.’”[4]  This quotation is an elegant summary of Leo the Great’s theology regarding the Incarnation that he preached in his Christmas sermons; it is also a beautiful expression of what was taught from the very beginnings of the Church, both east and west. 

This theology of why the fully divine Son became fully human—to save us by becoming one of us (human) so that we can participate in the divine life of the Trinity—is found in early Christian teachings.  This concept—called divinization, deification, or theōsis—is foundational to Christian theology even if we don’t talk about it much.  But even if we don’t talk about this theological concept by its name, we pray it regularly.  This theology undergirds the Collects; it is most clearly prayed in the Nicene Creed (See Note 1 below). 

The articulation of the third mystery, sharing in Christ’s divine life (that is, participating in his divine nature, 2 Peter 1:4) through Baptism and Eucharist, is how we Episcopalians talk about this ancient and awesome third mystery (see also The Collect for Proper 21).  So while we don’t typically use the technical terms for the concept (deification, divinization, or theōsis), this concept is part of our theology (see Note 2 below).

The Pleading

In the Pleading, “who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen,” we call upon the other mystery of our faith, the Trinity, to make real in us and to us the rest of the mysteries of our faith:  that through the Incarnation of the Son we are caught up into the divine life not just of the Son, but of the Father and the Spirit as well.

While the concept of divinization may seem strange at first, consider the mystery of the Holy Eucharist in which we are invited to become what we eat (“Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; Therefore let us keep the feast,” BCP 337, 364).  In the Holy Eucharist we are invited, empowered, and sanctified to become the Body of Christ, the Church, and to participate in God’s redemptive work in the world (Catechism, “The Church,” BCP 854-5).  This is a deep mystery, one to be embraced, loved, and lived out rather than to be merely understood with our minds.

For your consideration

As we ponder and pray that this wonderous mystery becomes ever more a part of who we are, how have you experienced the respect of your dignity as a human person through the parish’s ministry of hospitality and welcome?   How are we, as a parish, as a diocese, and as a denomination, demonstrating to each other and to those around us that we respect the dignity of everyone? 

Sharing in the divine life of Christ is how we are transformed by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.  As you think back over the last year, how have you experienced transformation?  How have we, as a parish, been transformed through our sharing in the divine life?

Note 1:  In the Creeds, just as in the Prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18) and in Philippians 2:6-11, we begin with the Son’s divinity and then we describe the humanity that he took on because of our great need.  Our salvation depends upon the Son becoming what we are; theologians of the Early Church taught that whatever he did not assume was not saved.  This is why the theologians of the 4th century spent so many words in the Nicene Creed describing Jesus as having two natures (that he is fully all that it means to be divine as well as all that it means to be human).

In the Nicene Creed (adopted in its expanded form that we presently use at the Council of Constantinople in 381), the Incarnation is described more expansively since this was the theology that was at stake in the controversies at the time this Creed was formulated:  “Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.  Through him all things were made.  For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven:  by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man” (Holy Eucharist, BCP 327-8, 358-9).  The phrase “For us and for our salvation” moves us from a statement about the Incarnation to why he became Incarnate – that is, he became what we are in order to save us.

In the Apostles’ Creed (a 5th-century refinement of 4th-century uses), the Incarnation of Christ is described with “Jesus Christ his only Son … conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” (Easter Vigil:  BCP 292-3; Holy Baptism:  304; Morning Prayer:  BCP 53, 93; Evening Prayer:  BCP 66, 120).

Note 2:  The Roman Rite continues to use an excerpt from this Collect as a silent prayer by the priest or deacon when the water is mixed with the wine in the chalice at the Eucharist:  “O God, Who hast established human nature in wondrous dignity and even more wondrously hast renewed it; grant through this mystery of water and wine, that we may become partakers of His divinity, who humbled himself to partake of our humanity, Jesus Christ…”[5]  The water is associated simultaneously with Christ’s humanity and the Church while the wine is associated with his divinity.  The Scottish Episcopal Church, from whom we received our eucharistic theology, recovered the practice of mixing water with the wine before the contents of the chalice are consecrated.[6]  

O God,
who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature:
Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ;
who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.

[1] Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, (New York:  Harper Collins, 1995), 170.

[2] Hatchett, 170.

[3] Hatchett, 170.

[4] Hatchett. 170.

[5] See Adrian Fortescue, The Mass:  A Study of the Roman Liturgy.  (Westminster:  Longmans, Green & Co., 1912), 306.

[6] See Donna R. Hawk-Reinhard, “Thomas Rattray (1684-1743):  Divinization as the Foundational Doctrine for Sacramental Theology” in A Eucharist-shaped Church:  Prayer, Theology, and Mission (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022), 97-98, 101-3.

© 2022 Donna Hawk-Reinhard, edited by Kate McCormick

Want to know more about the Collect format or this series of meditations?  You can find that information here.

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