"Pour thy grace into our hearts": the theological riches of Cranmer's collect for the Annunciation

Cranmer's decision to use the pre-Reformation post-communion prayer for the Annunciation as the collect of the feast bequeathed to Anglicans a prayer of great theological richness.  This post-communion prayer came to the pre-Reformation Latin rites from the 8th century Gregorian Sacramentary.  It was a prayer which shaped over centuries how Latin Christians had celebrated the Annunciation.

In using it as the collect for the feast in the Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer no doubt was attracted by how the emphasis on grace reflected his Reformed theological agenda: "We beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts".  It is the grace of God which is the cause of the Blessed Virgin's fiat.  This also points to Augustine's insight:

Yes, of course, holy Mary did the will of the Father. And therefore it means more for Mary to have been a disciple of Christ than to have been the mother of Christ. It means more for her, an altogether greater blessing, to have been Christ's disciple than to have been Christ's mother. That is why Mary was blessed, because even before she gave him birth, she bore her teacher in her womb ... She kept truth safe in her mind even better than she kept flesh safe in her womb. Christ is truth, Christ is flesh; Christ as truth was in Mary's mind, Christ as flesh in Mary's womb; that which is in the mind is greater than what is carried in the womb. 

The feast of the Annunciation, then, also proclaims our dependence on grace to be those who, like the Blessed Virgin, hear the Word of God and keep it; that is, those who "are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people".

The collect recognises that the Incarnation as ordered to the Passion. In doing so, it coheres with the renewed recovery of this truth in late 20th/early 21st century orthodox theology.  Thus, for example, Balthasar: "he who says Incarnation, also says Cross". More recently, the Orthodox theologian John Behr has said:

the Incarnation is not the beginning of an episode in the biography of the Word which culminates later with his departure or return via the cross, but a movement that pivots upon the cross itself and the identity of the one hanging upon it.

It is difficult here not to think of Cranmer's words at the opening of the Prayer of Consecration: here is our salvation, on the wood of the Cross.  The Incarnation of the Word makes possible the world's salvation through the sacrifice upon the Cross. The collect, in other words, roots our prayer on the feast of the Annunciation in the mystery of our salvation, even as the yearly commemoration of the Cross draws near.

This is also aided by this prayer replacing the pre-Reformation collect, with its reference to the faithful "being helped by her intercession".  The robustly Christocentric nature of Cranmer's Reformed theological convictions ensure that on the feast of the Annunciation the Church's remains firmly centred upon the Cross of the Crucified as the means of our salvation.  Nothing else is required for our salvation but this: "so by his cross and passion we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection".

The fact that Cranmer's collect was previously a post-communion prayer only adds to this emphasis.  Written to guide the faithful to perceive the relationship between the Incarnation and the holy mysteries they had received in memory of the Passion, it was, therefore, particularly appropriate as a collect for the feast, especially at the administration of the Sacrament.  It is the Annunciation, and thus the Incarnation, which makes possible the Lord's saving sacrifice upon the Cross and then our partaking of this sacrifice in the bread and wine of the Supper.  

And so this feast is named by Cranmer 'The Annunciacion of the virgin Marie'.  As in the Creeds, it is the blessed Virgin who safeguards the reality, particularity, and truth of the Incarnation and thus the Passion.  This was also reflected in the second of Cranmer's Forty-Two Articles, maintained in the second of the Thirty-Nine:

The Son, which is the word of the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary from her substance, so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and manhood, were joined together into one person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice for all sin of man, both original and actual.

To name the Blessed Virgin is to come before her Son, the Lamb of God, the Crucified One, the world's Redeemer.  

Now it might be objected that the collect itself does not name the Blessed Virgin.  It does not, however, need to.  Confessing the Incarnation in the Creed at the Eucharist, we know that the Eternal Word "was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary".  Twice daily we confess that Jesus Christ was "Born of the Virgin Mary".  And on this day three months ago we rejoiced that the only-begotten was "born of a pure Virgin" (the collect of Christmas Day), "was made very man of the substance of the Virgin Mary his mother" (the proper preface of Christmas).  The collect of the Annunciation not naming the Blessed Virgin is not to somehow minimise or ignore her: we do not need to name her explicitly in the collect precisely because of the Church's creedal and liturgical recognition of her significance to the Incarnation. 

And so we return to the opening words of Cranmer's collect: "pour thy grace into our hearts".  The grace that brings us to gaze upon the Crucified and see there the world's Redeemer.  The grace to believe in heart and soul what Apostle terms "the preaching of the Cross".  The grace that to be, with Mary, those who hear the Word of God and keep it. The grace to partake of the Crucified, born of the Blessed Virgin, in the holy mysteries.  The grace, poured out through the Cross, that will bring us, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and "the blessed company of all faithful people", "to the glory of his resurrection".


Popular Posts