One Prayer, Two Languages

St Stephen July 26 1998

Week C17

Gen 18: 20-32

Colossians 2: 12-14

Luke 11: 1-13

If you take up your service sheets you will find the opening prayer which we used few minutes ago. It reads as follows.

"God our Father and protector, without you nothing is holy, nothing has value. Guide us to everlasting life by helping us to use wisely the blessings you have given to the world."

Now keep that in front of you and listen to the opening prayer from another service book.

O God for the protector of all the trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Increase and multiply upon us thy mercies, that thou being are ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal."

The first thing you will notice that they are obviously one ans the same prayer. The next remarkable thing is how different the languages of the two prayers is, even though they are saying much the same thing. And thirdly if you were listening carefully you will have realised that the second version says something very important at the end which the first hardly mentions.

Of that, more in a moment.

The first point, that the prayers are the same, helps to remind us of the fact that almost everything we say and do when worshipping in Church has its roots in history. The prayers we say, the actions we do, the hymns we sing, the readings we hear have been listened to, sung, done and said for hundreds, in many cases thousands, of years.

That's partly what we mean by the word "Catholic". It can mean "universal" in the sense of a "unchanging in its essentials". There are of course, and always have been, people like Bishop Jack Spong of New Jersey and Holloway of Edinburgh who want us to cut our links with the past and discover a new faith based on what the majority of people's idea of truth is today. But in spite of what they say and write, the Catholic Church to which we belong remains steadfastly rooted in the historic past and most importantly in the truth about himself which God has revealed to us in our Lord Jesus Christ.

The second point about the two prayers, the difference in the language they use, helps to reinforce the first point by showing that there are many different ways of saying the same thing. Catholic doesn't just mean a "universal" in the sense of a "unchanging in its essentials". It also means "all-inclusive". The two versions of the collect use very different kinds of language. People may like the older version because they think it's more beautiful, or the modern version because they find it easier to understand. That's largely a matter of taste. The important fact is that either version can be and is, used quite properly in the conduct of divine worship.

It makes you and me no more or less "Catholic to use a translation of a prayer made in the 1960s than one written 400 years previously, because both versions are being used in many different languages both before and since then and they are almost one and the same prayer.

Almost, but not quite the same. Perhaps you spotted the difference. Whilst the modern version reads:

"guide us to everlasting life by helping us to use wisely the blessings you have given to this world".

the older version says:

"increase and multiply upon us thy mercies, that thou being our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal".

There are two very important differences between the versions. One is that, whereas the modern version might be supposed to imply that God is no more than a guide to advise us about the way that leads to eternal life, the older version makes it much more clear that without God's mercies, his free gift of grace and forgiveness, we shall never even begin to enjoy the things eternal for which he has created and designed us.

The second difference is the older collect speaks about "passing through things temporal" that is, the things of this world, the concerns of the present day and moment in such a way that we do not lose the things eternal, the things that really matter. On both these subjects the modern version is curiously silent. Not a hint that we might be in danger, through sin or negligence of losing our eternal heritage; not a murmur about "passing through things temporal" rather than letting ourselves getting bogged down in them.

Think back for a moment to last week's Gospel about the two sisters, Martha and Mary. Mary by all accounts was the sinner whom Jesus helped to save from being bogged down in the things of this world, the things temporal. Martha, the virtuous one, was in every danger of getting stuck into her own virtue in such a way that she lost hold of "the things eternal".

The prayer speaks of "passing through" things temporal, not avoiding them altogether. As Abraham discovered and we heard about in the first reading, being a righteous man doesn't mean that we can avoid having to live alongside and being affected by places like Sodom and Gomorrah and the sins which are typical of those places.

In his letter to the Colossians, St Paul does indeed remind his hearers that they have died to sin through baptism, have been buried with Christ and raised up with him; but much of the rest of his letter to them consists of practical advice on how to avoid occasions of sin, fornication, impurity, guilty passion, evil desires and covertousness which is idolatry.

Nor for a moment does he suggest that becoming a Christian will free us once and for all from such temptations. Indeed in one sense becoming Christian makes it all the harder to avoid them, precisely because it's from that particular moment that we first start becoming aware that the things we once supposed "didn't really matter" because "everyone does that nowadays" really matter intensely, are profoundly displeasing to God, and the fact that "everyone does that nowadays" so far from being an endorsement of their rightness should act as a warning signal at least that they are just as likely to be wrong as they are to be right.

Lastly, and this should clinch the matter for us, the Lord's Prayer itself which we heard in the Gospel and which we say together every time we meet for worship, contains the phrases "give us today our daily bread", "forgive us our sins" and "deliver us from evil".

Yes, being a Christian is about daily bread, and therefore things temporal; it is about avoiding evil and being forgiven, so we need in fact so much more than God's guidance, we need his grace and mercies; but yes, also it is about the "things eternal" which all of us are in daily danger of losing because of our natural and very understandable attachment to the things temporal.

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