One of the most fascinating things about the Book of Common Prayer is that its meaning has changed almost as much as the meaning of Scripture itself. Countless Anglicans across the centuries and now across the world, praying the same text, have bound to imagine different meanings to those same words. A case in point is the way Anglo-Catholics are now the effective guardians of Cranmer’s words, employing the Communion Service in ways that Cranmer the Reformer deliberately protested.
The Collect for Palm Sunday, also used from Monday to Wednesday in Holy Week, seems to me another Common Prayer text pulled in different directions. I mean precisely the importance of the word “example” in our Christology and therefore Soteriology. Now, the meaning of the phrase, “example of his great humility” is plain enough to be universally understood, especially in Holy Week. But even the next “example,” that of “patience,” already suffers from our linguistic drift. We immediately think it means the ability to wait for something, or even the experience of us upper middle-class folks waiting out this physical distancing in the comfort of our homes and zoom meetings. This physical distancing is difficult, but for many of us it doesn’t quite get at what the word “patience” meant in the 16th century.
Leo Stephens-Hodge reminds us that the word really means “suffering”: it shares its Latin root with the word “passion,” another word that could get lost in the shuffle. But remember that we’re in Holy Week, when we recite the “Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According To [insert Gospel here].” “Patience” amplifies “humility”; both point to Christ’s looming humiliation, whipping, crucifixion and death. Ok so maybe some people feel that this physical distancing is truly suffering. Be gentle with yourself, and acknowledge your feelings. A striking feature of Christ’s great humility is that the one person in the whole universe the right to “one-up” his suffering over others, the one person with the right to say, “pfft your suffering is nothing compared to what I went through,” patently refuses to do so. In fact, He does the exact opposite.
But what is this opposite thing? Well if we approach the Collect with contemporary eyes, it’ll be hard to see. That’s because we interpret “Jesus as example” in a fundamentally deist and pelagian way, and give that reading pride-of-place in our Christology. It’s deist, because we often see and experience Jesus as just an example, a wise teacher e-mailed to us by a god (small-g) otherwise too distant to bother with us. And it’s pelagian, because he’s just a moral example, and it’s up to us to pattern our lives after whatever moral truths he hands on to us. He’s gentle. He’s loving and accepting. He stands up the man and gets executed for it. His “word” is a bundle of textual contradictions that lets us restrict that messy, bloody bit at the end of the Gospels to a matter solely about political and religious context. It’s up to us to make our lives into whatever sort of vague moralism we can…divine…from his “message.” This Jesus is great, but he isn’t going to change anyone. We’ve gotta change ourselves.
Yeah. Don’t just see Jesus as an example. Don’t miss the more important words in this Collect, words that express the Reformers’ powerful commitment to Salvation by Grace alone. Even though it’s the only word that gets repeated, “example” is secondary, a sanctifying result of saving grace. I suspect the main reason why the Collect merely has us see the “example” of Christ’s suffering was to counter the notion that our own sufferings could add to our merit in Purgatory and at the Last Judgement. The ideas behind penance, flagellation, celibacy/abstinence and fasting that Reformers sought to undercut.
But Cranmer would never see Jesus’ suffering as just an example to pattern our own lives after, and would never give us reason to shy away from suffering when that self-improvement plan turned out to be impossible. The beginning of Cranmer’s Eucharistic Prayer echoes the Collect for Holy Week:
“Blessing and glory and thanksgiving be unto thee Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to take our nature upon him, and to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…”BCP, p. 82
As I mentioned above, it’s fascinating that these words are now most often said by priests seeking to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass. I won’t get into the weeds of that long dispute, especially since Eucharistic Sacrifice still underlies my point: both Cranmer’s receptionism and sola fideism and Tractarians’ recovery of the Mass as part of Christ’s Sacrifice are far beyond any reduction to Christ’s work as mere “example.” The real words you want to look at are “follow,” and “partake.”
Follow Jesus to the Cross. Jesus isn’t just an example, nor does He shame us for our inability to make our lives like His. To follow Jesus means to let Him lead and guide, to be part of that Pilgrim People that He leads with cloud by day and fire by night. To be part of the flock of the Good Shepherd. To surrender the independence of trying to “make life happen” for ourselves, or to valorize our suffering as something we can hold up to God and say, “look, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28) as if that brings God into our debt.
We take up our cross, lose whatever might have counted as a “life” before, in order to be with Jesus, in order to partake in His life. His Cross and Passion have redeemed the world; that “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction” has been fully accepted by the Father, was always going to be accepted by the Father, because the Son is the Father’s gift of His own perfect life, the gift of a perfect sacrifice that restores Creation to Creator. We take up our cross to be with Jesus, so we can be made partakers in His redemption of the world.
We lose our lives to find our lives, to be made partakers of Christ’s resurrection. Because the perfect reunion of the Giver of Life with those who have been given life can only result in resurrection. We follow Jesus, and find our lives are being conformed to His, find a renewed ability to love others, to suffer with them, to encourage and support them and be vulnerable with them, to confront the powers and seek the welfare of all Creation, to see all people with the love and compassion of Jesus (not simply “like Jesus saw them”). And we find hope and joy in the trust that God is making all things new.
We break this bread,
Communion in Christ’s body once broken.
Let your Church be the wheatBook of Alternative Services, Breaking Anthem #7, p. 213.
which bears its fruit in dying.
If we have died with him,
we shall live with him;
if we hold firm,
we shall reign with him.
 L.E.H. Stephens-Hodge, The Collects (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1961), 102.