Collect of the Week - 27
The Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent:
Excita, Domine, corda nostra ad praeparandas Unigeniti tui vias: ut per
ejus adventum purificatis tibi mentibus servire mereamur. Qui tecum vivit
et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus per omnia saecula saeculorum.
My own translation:
Stir up [yes, another Stir Up Sunday] Lord, our hearts to prepare the ways
of your only-begotten [Son]: that through his advent we may merit to serve
you with purified minds. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the
Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever.
The opening petition depends on the beginning of St Mark's Gospel:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is
written in the prophets [so KJV; the more probable reading is 'in Isaiah
Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way
before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way
of the Lord, make his paths straight.
This actually takes two prophecies, one from Malachi, the second from
Isaiah, and applies them to St John the Baptist.
Malachi 3 reads (I'll give it in the Latin):
Ecce ego mitto angelum meum, et praeparabit viam ante faciem meam . . .
Isaiah 40:3 reads:
Vox clamantis in deserto: parate viam Domini, rectas facite in solitudine
semitas Dei nostri.
This lies behind ' ad praeparandas Unigeniti tui vias'.
John the Baptist plays a large part in the Advent liturgy. Some of you may
be familiar with the hymn 'On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry Announces that
the Lord is nigh'. He is seen as the fore-runner, the one who goes before
Jesus to prepare his ways, so naturally he is celebrated before the coming
of Jesus himself.
The Malachi passage continues:
[Malachi 3:2] Et quis poterit cogitare diem adventus eius, et quis stabit ad
videndum eum? Ipse enim quasi ignis conflans, et quasi herba fullonum; et
sedebit conflans, et emundans argentum, et purgabit filios Levi, et colabit
eos quasi aurum et quasi argentum . . .
[KJV] But who may abide the day of his coming? And who may stand when he
appeareth? For he is like a refiner's fire, and like fuller's soap: and he
shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons
of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver . . .
To purify is literally to put something in the fire [Greek 'pur' hence a
funeral 'pyre' and the fireproof glass, Pyrex]. And this is the allusion in
the phrase ' ut per ejus adventum purificatis tibi mentibus servire
mereamur.' Notice the slight opacity which a translation from the Latin
must inevitably introduce: a phrase like 'diem adventus eius', 'the day of
his Advent', is self-evidently a text for Advent; 'the day of his coming'
needs just a word of exegesis.
The reformers did not translate this collect, but composed an entirely new
one, based on 2 Timothy 16 'All scripture is given by inspiration of God,
and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Sriptures to be written for our
learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and
inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may
embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou
hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
This collect is much loved, and excellent in its own way, but it illustrates
neatly the difference in spirit and style between the Latin collects and the
BCP ones. The reformers were much wordier, seldom using one word where two
would do; the very opposite of the Latin, which is pared down to the bones.
So we have a string of near-synonyms - not exact synonyms admittedly, and
working up to a rhetorical climax - where the Latin would search for the
single 'mot juste': 'hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest
them.' We have the advent of what I call the 'Anglican And': 'by patience
AND comfort' - the Latin would settle for one or the other. 'We may embrace
AND ever hold fast' - same thing again. One word, 'purificatis' in the
Latin collect can, in the context of a quotation from Malachi, evoke what
follows in that text. We have a resonant, highly referential style, which
repays much meditation, as opposed to a style which spells out everything in
full. I say this not as a criticism of the BCP; the reformers judged it
necessary to spell things out for the sake of those without the benefit of a
classical education, and I dare say they were right.
It remains a curious paradox, that the reformers, who I think had no
intention to begin with of translating the Latin collects and only began to
do so under pressure of time, and whose literary style, marked by prolixity
and repetition, was exactly the opposite of that of the Latin, nevertheless
produced an infinitely better set of translations of those collects than did
the ICEL whose brief it was to translate them!