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Prayer for the week

29 June 2012

Raymond Chapman analyses the BCP collect provided for Palm Sunday


Almighty and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Sunday Next Before Easter
The Book of Common Prayer (1662)

THIS prayer which, like a number of the collects in the BCP, comes from an early liturgy, is set for the day usually called Palm Sunday, and the days in Holy Week until Good Friday. It is thus associated in our minds with processions, palm crosses, and the dramatic reading of the Passion story, but it is powerful for all seasons, and for personal as well as public devotion.

It opens with a confident asser­tion of God's love towards his creation, so great that the Son came to take our human nature upon him and to experience every aspect of our existence, even to death. Divinity, all-powerful and all-knowing, accepted the extreme humility of a life with­out privilege, often despised, ultimately betrayed and forsaken.

Christians have too often been divided between making much of virtuous living in this world, God's Kingdom on earth, and reflecting too little on the things eternal; or else of focusing on individual salvation at the expense of social duties.

This tension is an example of the "either-or" arguments that have often harmed the proclamation of the gospel and been at the root of many heresies. Was Christ's nature divine or human? Are we saved by faith or works? Such disputes have torn Christians apart, and brought the Church into disrepute.

In this prayer, we can find the "both-and" understanding that is the wholeness of our faith. Christ is our example for life day by day in this world, and also our guide and hope of eternal life after death. In following the example of his humility, we are also to share in his patience.

This is a word that means much more than trying to keep good-tempered while we are waiting for something. It keeps its classical meaning of suffering; it is the achievement of calm acceptance of sadness and injustice - the virtue that we honour when we follow the way of the cross. It is a call humbly to accept the will of God in all things.

There is something more: the challenge and the hope are extended to all people, to "mankind", under­stood in its meaning for the whole human race. This is not a select in­vitation to Christians, but a mes­sage of salvation for humanity, cutting though any idea of spiritual privilege.

We are called to look to the cross, but also to look beyond it, to the resurrection, through which we, too, have been granted eternal life. St Paul reminds us that "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15.22, KJV).

The grace that enables us, how­ever imperfectly, to practise humil­ity also frees us from the burden of our mortality. The prayer ends, as our prayers should, with the ascription of Christ as the Lord who brought salvation through his sacri­ficial love. In praying this prayer, we celebrate the ultimate of love and the ultimate of humility. It confirms our assur­ance that through the in­carna­tion we have a strength that is not our own.

The Revd Dr Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London, and a vice-president of the Prayer Book Society.

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