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Of collects and Candlemas

02 February 2024

Adrian Leak explores the prayers’ origins and today’s feast


A woman holds a long candle for Candlemas, from the 13th-century Touke Psalter, made in Bruges for a female patron but known to have been in England by the 15th century, when it was extensively used by generations of the Touke family

A woman holds a long candle for Candlemas, from the 13th-century Touke Psalter, made in Bruges for a female patron but known to have been in England b...

THE collects are brief, tightly structured prayers appointed to be read in church each Sunday and holy day throughout the year. Many of those that appear in Common Worship have their origin in the Gregorian Sacramentary of the sixth century — a collection of prayers composed in Latin, and, in the late eighth century, authorised by Charlemagne for use throughout the Frankish Empire. The Gregorian Sacramentary was eventually adopted in the Western Church, and later became one of the foundation texts of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and, in our own generation, of Common Worship.

In the 16th century, an increasingly literate laity called for manuals of private devotion. Cranmer was not the first to produce an English translation of Latin prayers. There were already in circulation printed collections known as “primers”. Cranmer referred to one of these in a letter he wrote to Thomas Cromwell in 1539: “I have overseen [looked at] the Primer which you sent unto me, and therein I have noted and amended such faults as are most worthy of reformation. . . Howbeit, they be not of that importance but that for this time they may be well enough permitted and suffered to be read of the people. And the book itself no doubt is very good and commendable” (quoted by G. Cuming in Godly Order, Alcuin Club no. 65, 1983).

Some years later, however, when Cranmer compiled the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, he applied a higher standard to his own treatment of the medieval Latin collects. His skill was to extend and soften the terse language of the original. One example can be heard in the collect for peace, familiar to those who attend morning prayer wherever the Book of Common Prayer is still in use (Common Worship’s slightly altered version is appointed for use on Thursday morning). He replaced the brief phrase Deus auctor pacis et amator with the more fluent “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord”, and expanded the abrupt quem nosse vivere to the more graceful “in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life”.

Sometimes, Cranmer the translator could not resist the demands of Cranmer the reformer, and there are occasions when he allowed his sympathy with the Continental reformers to intrude. While we should not be surprised by his reforming zeal, what might surprise is the degree to which he preserved the liturgical forms of the Catholic past. Of the 84 seasonal collects in the Book of Common Prayer, by far the majority were translations from the Latin of the Sarum Use. Of the 22 collects provided in Common Worship for the Sundays after Trinity, no fewer than 14 are ultimately derived from the same source.


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Almighty and ever-living God, clothed in majesty, whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple, in substance of our flesh: grant that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.


THE collect appointed by Common Worship for the feast of the Presentation is a modernised version of the collect in the Book of Common Prayer, itself a translation made by Cranmer from the medieval Latin, with origins in the Gregorian Sacramentary.

As is often the case, the collect finds echoes in the biblical texts appointed for the day, including the one from Malachi set for the Principal Service, and the one from Haggai set for the Second Service. Both prophesy the Lord’s purifying of the Temple.


ACCORDING to the Book of Common Prayer, this feast was called the Purification of St Mary the Virgin, to which was added in smaller print “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple”. The additional words were included in the 1662 revision of the Prayer Book at Bishop Cosin’s suggestion. Common Worship has removed the reference to Mary’s purification, which was always misleading. In Luke 2.22-35, the focus is not on Mary, but on her child, Jesus, who was destined “for the falling and rising of many in Israel”.

Cranmer provided the collect and the Gospel for this day (Luke 2.22-27a), but no special epistle. His reticence is odd, but may be explained by the fact that, during the Middle Ages, the Marian accretions had grown to such an extent that 2 February had come to be regarded as a feast of our Lady. Cranmer, who in many respects was a cautious reformer, must have decided to retain the title by which it had come to be known, the Purification of St Mary the Virgin, as a concession to public opinion. It is odd that he did not restore the day to its original status as a feast of our Lord — after all, his familiarity with ancient liturgies would have given him the material to do so — but we had to wait more than 500 years until the Liturgical Commission put things right.


THE other name for this day — Candlemas — is an ancient title restored in Common Worship. The custom of candlelit processions incurred the censure of Cranmer, who believed that it introduced into worship an element of frivolity. The origin of the Candlemas procession is uncertain. It may have been adopted from earlier pagan custom. We do know, however, that, as early as the seventh century, Christians marked the occasion by processing about the town carrying lit torches and singing hymns. Alcuin (c.735-804) refers in one of his homilies to a Candlemas procession: “the whole multitude of the city collecting together . . . bearing a vast number of wax lights, and no one enters any public place in the city without a taper in his hand” (The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, John Henry Blunt, 1866).

Four centuries later, in 1153, St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote: “We go in procession, two by two, carrying candles in our hand, which are lighted not at a common fire, but at a fire first blessed in the church by the Bishop. . . We carry lights in our hands; first, to signify that our light should shine before men; secondly, this we do this day especially in memory of the Wise Virgins (of whom this Blessed Virgin is the chief) that went to meet the Lord with their lamps lit and burning. And from this usage and the many lights set up in the church this day, it is called Candelaria, or Candlemas.”


The Revd Adrian Leak is a retired Anglican priest, whose recent publications include The Golden Calves of Jeroboam and After the Order of Melchizedek.

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