Seeking Purity in Prayer
Updated: Aug 20, 2019
Trinity III 2019
The Reverend Beau McLaurin Davis, Sr.
If you read the rubrics of the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer (and possibly others), you will see that it is possible to end the Holy Communion service right after the sermon...without any Communion. Read closely, and you will find rules for ending right there, announcing future days which you intend to have Communion, and two extra Exhortations which I can almost guarantee you’ve never heard: one giving you fair warning to examine your conscience, right all the wrongs in your life, and not dare take Communion while in a state of grave sin; and the other which is for all those people who are too scared to take Communion. Once upon a time, it was uncommon in many places of the U.S. to have a regular priest, making the Morning Prayer service primary until the circuit rider priests could come and give Communion. This became so common, that when the priests became more numerous, it felt odd for the people to have Communion more than a few times a year. It is against the rules for a priest to give a sermon in any other service but the Lord’s Supper, so priests would go on through it until right now, give an hour or two of sermon, and then depart (possibly after the Prayers for the Church). The reason for requiring these opening portions is possibly that Catholic priests are not permitted to choose whatever scripture they want to write their sermons on: we have to relate them to the assigned readings for the Sunday (and also formulaic prayer). This first portion of the service is called the Ordinary of the Mass; which consists of the Introduction, the Liturgy of the Word, and a portion of the Liturgy of the Catechumens. It is called ordinary because it follows an ordered formula, but with changing parts called propers (the Introit, Collects, Epistle, Gradual, and Gospel). Contrarily, the second portion of the Mass is called the Canon of the Mass, canon meaning something which is set and unwavering (and you’ll notice that it doesn’t change, except for the post-communion collects which are optional and the dismissal).
In today’s Epistle reading, we heard Saint Peter tell the faithful, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility... for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you.” How appropriate, then, that we begin the service before the altar with the Collect for Purity. The Collect for Purity and the rarely used recitation of the Lord’s Prayer before it are vestiges of the ancient English form of the Mass of the Sarum Rite. These were once said (along with a handful of other prayers) quietly by the priest and his altar servers -while a cantor chanted the Introit- as a way for them to approach the altar with humility. The altar (representing the Holy of Holies of the Temple) is approached with caution, reverence, and a request to be purified from sins; just like the priests of Israel cleansed themselves before entering into the presence of God with animal sacrifice. The complete, modern version of these preparations can be found in the Missal, and the private part ends with the people joining in prayer at the first invitation (that is, “The Lord be with you.”).
All good prayers should begin with the exaltation of God in adoration for his greatness. The Collect for Purity starts by addressing God as Almighty (i.e., he is limitless and all-powerful). We then continue to adore the greatness of God while also acknowledging our brokenness by admitting that our sins are unhideable from him. To him, all hearts are open (sadness, happiness, and sinfulness), all desires known (both good and bad), and secrets cannot be hidden (he knows why we are unworthy to approach him). We then humbly ask him through our feebleness to relieve us with his omnipotence from all those things which cloud our hearts, minds, and souls. This we petition him to do so we can enter into his presence as worthily as we can: to purge ourselves of everything worldly and profane, and to put on holiness through the power of the Holy Ghost.
Outside of translation, the content of the Collect for Purity has not changed in 1000 years; and it is so perfect for humbly approaching God in worship that it is used by all Anglicans, some Methodists and Lutherans, and even unchanged by Roman Catholics in the Divine Worship Missal. Praying it puts into words that humility which we are commanded by God to have and the desire to have our consciences and attention cleansed by the only power that can do so. It thus reminds us that we are not to approach God like he is any other person; but with the awe, fear, and humility; not with the pride and disrespectful casualness which God rejects.