Thursday after Ash Wednesday

The Collect for this day:

Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name, and finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Until we get to the heresy part, this is a much better beginning to Lent than obsessions over the Ash Wednesday Collect. But in reflecting on that further, for a moment, because I can see it will continue to be a stumbling block for me throughout Lent if I don’t lay it down, I should just say:

I admit I tend to now approach most theological ideas from a position of “trinitarian universalism.” So when something like “eternal life” and “salvation” seems predicated on weak, human fallibility rising above itself to seek God’s forgiveness and then either keep itself in a state of sinlessness until the point of death (uh huh; sure) or, more likely, rest assured and smug by merit of baptism in the faith of Jesus Christ — even when that baptism was performed before my assent was possible — then I start to get suspicious of some theological holes. Or maybe loopholes. We of the infant baptism traditions tend to get around this problem with our own confirmation of our baptism, taken around the age when Baptists baptize and Jews bar/bat mitzvah, so certainly part of the human family’s understanding of coming into personal and corporate relationship with God.

And just to note that I’m all in favor of infant baptism. I’m agnostic on the whole circumcision issue that seems to be roiling the “men’s movement” and other goofy counter-reformations, but just as Judaism has its rites for infants to recognize their participation in the people of Israel, like it or not, I’m all in favor of infant baptism, because it actually makes my point that salvation is freely given of God and nothing we ourselves can do anything to obtain. We cannot even seek it, and may do violence to our own spiritual health by thinking we can and must, or worse and more often, that we’re A-OK, but others can and must.

So I find myself also hearing collects, hymns, and scripture through a subwoofer of this trinitarian universalism. Which threatens to take up all my attention if I let it. Yet, to be honest, in my own jerry-rigged theological framework, I suppose I see it that if we are to partake of that eternal life in this life, even as we see through a glass darkly, then we do have to seek it, we do have to confess our sins, we do have to live in love and charity with our neighbors, we do have to engage in fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. What I want to take off the table is the notion that our loving Father will cast us into hell if we don’t believe rightly, confess completely, and repent thoroughly. So let’s let Lent prepare us for Easter, not for heaven. Let’s let God prepare us for heaven, not so that we can be the only ones who get there. Instead, let us in Lent let God be God and learn to be truly us, a picture taken before the Fall and our own personal poaching of the Tree of Knowledge, and not the picture of us we’d like God and others to see. Then when we reach heaven, we can maybe be allowed this much smugness toward all the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, animists, Arminists, Hittites, Shiites, Sadducees and Samaritans, agnostics, and atheists we find thereupon: “See! We told you it would be wonderful and beyond any space- and time-bound consciousness to describe it truly!”

Which brings me to today’s collect:

“Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help”; As this seems to be the same thing I pray daily — although this is much more mellifluent and succinct than I ever manage in my rambling babbling to God — I’m thinking that perhaps I should memorize this collect. It already looks amazingly applicable year-round, especially for daily use.

“…that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name”: Redundant? If we begin, continue, and end our works in God, wouldn’t that glorify his holy Name? I think perhaps this is a call to to keep us from deceiving ourselves. That “does it glorify God?” becomes the measure against whether we have truly begun, continued, and ended our works in him (or at least truly attempted to, and let God take care of the rest), and not walk in denial of the sinful and self-seeking nature of so much of what we do, shrouding our awareness of our disingenuity and cynicism with the self-assurance that we are doing God’s work. Because that is surely one of the gravest sins facing humanity today and perhaps throughout recorded time: self-justification through faith.

“…and finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life”: This was my only sticking point, my only real problem, and it doesn’t entirely go away even once I’ve taken salvation of the self-elect off the table. For one thing, there’s that “finally” — meaning, I can only see, “upon our death” — and as the sentence is written (without my break for annotation) we’ve got “that in all our works…we may…obtain everlasting life.”

But that one word seems to save salvation: “mercy.” In a more wholistic reading, not line-editing the prayerbook, this prayer seems to ask God’s help in showing us what to do, enabling us to do it, and blessing the results to be to his greater glory. And asking that, once our work is finished, we may enjoy that eternal joy with and “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

For now I’ll leave alone the question of the collect seeming to begin in address to Christ, but ending addressed to the Father. Because, like I said, I’m a trinitarian universalist. So it’s all good.

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