We are now in the season of Lent. In the historic Western eucharistic lectionary, the epistles and gospels of the first half of Lent emphasize our struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil, but there is a turn in the Fourth Sunday in Lent. From here on, we are pointing toward the cross. The culmination of this progression in the historic Western eucharistic lectionary was the reading of four Passion accounts in the week before Easter.
This cruciform focus for the second half of Lent can be seen in the collect for the Sunday next before Easter, now usually called Palm Sunday. This collect has remained strikingly consistent from the original Book of Common Prayer in 1549 all the way through late modern prayer books like the 1979 (TEC) and 2019 (ACNA). This collect directs our attention to the cross.
Here is the traditional collect (as it appears in the 1662 BCP International Edition):
Almighty and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This is Archbishop Cranmer’s translation of the Latin, with one telling addition. Cranmer added “of thy tender love towards mankind.” At least one commentator thinks that addition was made with John 3:16 in mind (Stephens-Hodge, The Collects). Whatever the Scriptural source may have been, that phrase makes the cross fundamentally a demonstration of divine love. As the hymn puts it,
My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
In fact, I would venture to say that the author of this hymn, a priest in the Church of England named Samuel Crossman, wrote the first verse of his hymn as a meditation on this very collect. In the collect, that “tender love towards mankind” motivates both the incarnation and the passion: “to take upon him our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross.” And how does the first verse end for “My song is love unknown”?
Oh, who am I,
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die?
The petition asks for two things, which is rare in a collect. The first is that we would “follow the example of his patience,” and the second is that we would “be made partakers of his resurrection.” These two requests go to the heart of the cross: both as a means of our salvation, of our being “partakers of his resurrection”; and of the ethical implications, of the need to follow the example of the suffering Christ (e.g., 1 Peter 2).
Yet the order may seem odd. Why does following the example precede participation in the resurrection? Isn’t this out of keeping with Cranmer’s emphasis on justification first, works second? The answer is likely not theological but stylistic. Cranmer’s collect has a chiastic structure:
A: suffer death upon the cross
B: example of his great humility
B: example of his patience
A: partakers of his resurrection
Thus the collect takes us from death to life, and from seeing the example of Christ to following it.
This collect is brimming with theology and ethics. It does not pit the two against each other (as is sometimes common in discussions of “theories of the atonement”). It presents the cross as the focal point of the incarnation, the result of divine love—love that is not an impersonal force, but “tender love.” In doing so, it perfectly ties in with the prayer of consecration, which begins: “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption…” Both prayers agree in describing the tender love and tender mercy of the Father as the source from which redemption flows.
And how should those who are the objects of this divine love respond? Let’s give Samuel Crossman, author of “My song is love unknown,” the last word:
Here might I stay and sing;
no story so divine,
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like thine.
This is my friend,
in whose sweet praise
I all my days
could gladly spend!