A Christmas collect
The Church of Ireland BCP 1926, PECUSA BCP 1928 and Canadian BCP 1962 offer this collect for use on Christmas Day. When there are two celebrations of the Holy Communion, the collect (with accompanying readings) "may be used at the first". The collect is also offered in the English Prayer Book as Proposed in 1928, for Christmas Eve. It was a restoration of the 1549 provision "At the First Communion", the collect itself being that of 1549.
Procter and Frere note that this 1549 collect was a translation of the collect for the Mass of the Vigil in pre-Reformation Latin rites. As with the majority of Prayer Book collects, it is rooted in the ancient prayer of the Latin churches of the West, usually from the Leonine, Gelasian and Gregorian sacramentaries of the 7th-8th centuries: in this case, it is the collect given in the Gelasian Sacramentary for Vigilia Natalis Domini. Offered in resonant, dignified vernacular, within the BCP of national churches, it exemplifies the Anglican tradition as at once Catholic and Reformed.
The collect is a wonderful example of how the Prayer Book tradition could and can renew itself. Elements set aside from within the Prayer Book tradition, or elements which cohere with it, can be grafted on without disordering the rhythms and patterns of Common Prayer.
It also demonstrates how Common Prayer could and can be experienced across provinces and nations, and in different eiterations of the BCP. While there are obvious differences between Ireland's BCP 1926, PECUSA's 1928, and Canada's 1962, the vast majority of texts within each are common, providing a shared experience of Common Prayer in Belfast and New York and Winnipeg, Fermanagh and Maine and Prince Edward Island.
This is a beautifully crafted collect, which - amidst the darkness of a Midnight Eucharist or an early Communion on Christmas morning - draws us into Christmas joy and hope.
That opening phrase, "makest us glad", captures the festivity of Christmas after the solemnity of Advent. It encapsulates the experience of the Christmas season - the Gospel accounts of the Nativity, Christmas Communion, carols, feasting, kith and kin.
We "joyfully receive him for our Redeemer". This reference to "joy", directly following "makest us glad", emphasises the character of the festive season and our experience of it. Christmas joy, gladness, festivity are not banished as 'worldly', but caught up in prayer as an expression of and participation in the redeeming grace of the Incarnation.
What, then, of the closing petition? We are reminded that "he shall come to be our Judge". It echoes the appointed epistle from Titus 2, which holds together "the grace of God that bringeth salvation to all men" and the eschatological "glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ".
In holding together these advents of the Lord, the collect unfolds the fullness of salvation bestowed in the Incarnation of the Word. Thus "we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge". Here is a profound statement of our redemption, echoed in the carols of the season. The joy of Christmas Day is a foretaste of the renewal of all things.
This theological richness has a deeply Augustinian flavour. In Sermo LI, Augustine stated:
Christmas is fast approaching. And now that Christ has aroused our seasonal expectations, He'll soon fulfill them all.
A defining characteristic of the collects of the Prayer Book tradition is the manner in which they gather up patristic teaching to shape the Church's prayer. This is so with the collect for the first Communion of Christmas Day, sharing Augustine's joy and hope in the once and future appearings of our Lord.
As such, the collect also functions as transition from Advent to Christmas. It carries us over from the days of Advent into the festive season, while ensuring that we behold the unity of divine purpose in both advents and manifestations. The collect thus embodies the sanctifying experience of sacred time.
The richness and resonance of this collect contributes to the joy of a Prayer Book Christmas. May it be a prayer which bears fruit in and through our celebration of the festive season.