Wednesday After Ascension Sunday
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In his Collect for the Sunday after the Ascension, Cranmer doubled down on emphasizing the power of the Holy Spirit to bring comfort.
The text of the ancient antiphon reads:
Do not leave us orphans, but send upon us the promise of the Father, even the Spirit of Truth.
But Cranmer’s new collect has the people prayer:
We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send to us thine holy ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our saviour Christ is gone before:
We noted yesterday that Cranmer replaced “orphans” with “comfortless” and then specified the purpose of the Holy Spirit was to give comfort. But notice he went even further in the next clause. Cranmer connects the comfort of the Holy Spirit with its ultimate work, our eternal salvation: “and exalt us unto the same place whither our savior Christ is gone before.” Cranmer wanted to associate Christ, with salvation and comfort because that too was not the case in the medieval church.
Walk into any medieval parish church and above the chancel arch you would find a painting of Jesus as Judge. It dominated the whole interior of the nave. There on high before every parishioner’s eyes Christ sat in judgment at the general resurrection, sending some people to the devils in Hell, while sending others to be welcomed by angelic choirs into Heaven. Moreover, the entire church interior reinforced this message with various scenes reminding people of their duty, their failure to meet it, and the painfully damning consequences as a result. Indeed, according to noted scholar Eamon Duffy, the “whole machinery of late medieval piety was designed to shield the soul from Christ’s doomsday anger.” Little wonder, Duffy had to admit, that the omnipresent threat of terror ‘must have seemed at times oppressive.’
The English reformers, however, rejected such a proclamation of the Gospel as “bad news.” They wanted the English people to know that Christ was first and foremost the Good Shepherd who allured his lost sheep back by the power of his self-sacrificing love. Consequently, Cranmer put at the heart of 1552 Holy Communion service a description of salvation that emphasized the comfort and hope that God’s promise to save makes possible.
Notice that Cranmer’s Comfortable Words do not begin with God’s wrath. In fact, they do not start with God at all. Rather, the first Scripture verse focuses on hurting humanity - with its felt needs, its longing for wholeness.
Come to me all that travail, and are heavy laden, and I shall refresh you (Matt. 11:28)
Human misery caused by captivity to the destructive power of sin was a favorite theme of the English Reformers. Cranmer gave an enduring voice to the spiritual anxieties of the sin-sick soul in his confession in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men, we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness … the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.
Slavery to act out in selfishness and the recognition of the harm we have caused as a result - here were the two fundamental sources for human misery. What could be done about them? For the English Reformers, the answer lay not in self-hatred, but in divine action alone. We can see this in the absolution which followed the confession. The minister asks God to “pardon and deliver” the congregation. Why two verbs instead of merely one? Because Cranmer was making clear that humanity needed to turn to God as the only antidote for both sources of human misery. Only God could heal a conscience wounded by selfish acts. Only God could draw to his purposes a will chained to self-centeredness.
In the 1552 prayer book, Cranmer reinforced these themes by adding a new opening for the Daily Office which compared sin-sodden humanity to helpless sheep:
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways, like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devises and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.
Now both Morning and Evening Prayer began with a confession of humanity’s profound spiritual neediness in the face of its on-going struggle with self-centered waywardness. As a result, Cranmer made turning to God because of sin so as to be turned by God from it the essence of Anglican worship.
Isn’t this a great message for us to recover today? Our self-loathing neither atones for our sins nor empowers change in us. But Jesus comes to do both in us and for us. He freely takes away our guilt and by the Spirit turns us towards him who alone in us is our spiritual healthiness.
Let us renew our minds by praying that the Spirit give us comfort by working eternal salvation in our lives, now and forever.
O God, the king of glory, which hast exalted thine only son Jesus Christ, with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven; we beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send to us thine holy ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our savior Christ is gone before; who liveth and reigneth with thee, and the holy Ghost, one God world without end. Amen.
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