Saturday, June 28, 2014

Not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses

My title is taken from the prayer of consecration in the Book of Common Prayer. The context goes like this:

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him. And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice; yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

We are utterly unworthy of all that we have received, whether it be the gift of the Blessed Sacrament or what the Prayer Book elsewhere calls "all the blessings of this life."

We want to be duly grateful, and this raises an interesting dilemma for those of us who are, at the moment, not suffering and for whom things are going fairly well: On the one hand, if one says, "I am so grateful to God for all His many blessings," it could easily sound like one is implying that God has specially endowed one's precious self with good things that He has deliberately withheld from others. If I thank God for blessing me with a wonderful husband, for example, how might this sound to women who have not been blessed in that way? Might it sound proud or smug? It easily could. This is the tension that arises from the "feeling blessed" phrase (accompanied by smiley icon) one sees on Facebook so often. Does it sound smug? Or is it just the temptation to envy that makes one think so?

On the other hand, we must never fail to thank God. Scripture is adamant on this. We are told again and again to receive all things with thanksgiving and in particular to thank God for our earthly blessings. I could scarcely make a dent in all the passages enjoining thankfulness for our blessings if I listed twenty of them. Psalm 100, Psalm 136, I Timothy 4:4, Colossians 3:17, and on and on and on.

We as Christians must acknowledge God as the giver of all good things (James 1:17).

Interestingly, the Book of Common Prayer shows not the slightest squeamishness about thanking God for our material blessings. The general thanksgiving thanks God for "all the blessings of this life," though it adds that "above all" we give thanks for "thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory." In the section of the American Prayer Book called "Thanksgivings," we find the following:

Most gracious God, by whose knowledge the depths are broken up, and the clouds drop down the dew, we yield thee unfeigned thanks and praise for the return of seed-time and harvest, for the increase of the ground and the gathering in of the fruits thereof, and for all the other blessings of thy merciful providence bestowed upon this nation and people....

And this:

We give thee humble thanks for this thy special bounty; beseeching thee to continue thy loving-kindness unto us, that our land may yield us her fruits of increase, to thy glory and our comfort. 

For Rogation days:

Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth; We beseech thee to pour forth thy blessing upon this land, and to give us a fruitful season; that we, constantly receiving thy bounty, may evermore give thanks unto thee in thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

It seems to me that the secret to feeling blessed without feeling smug must lie somewhere in that phrase "humble thanks." If you simply hold the Prayer Book in your hands and flip through it and read at random, the atmosphere of (in the best sense) piety and true humility arises like incense. Most of the prayers in the "Thanksgivings" section are fairly specific: "For a child's recovery from sickness," "For a safe return from a journey," "The thanksgiving of women after childbirth," "For rain," and so forth. The picture is not of ease and comfort but rather of human life, fraught with all its pains and perils. The one who prays these thanksgivings is one who has turned to God in his deepest need and now turns to God with due relief and gratitude in the time of deliverance. And the very next section after the thanksgivings is the Litany:

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth,
Have mercy upon us.
O God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
Have mercy upon us.
O God the Holy Ghost, Sanctifier of the faithful,
Have mercy upon us....
Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers; neither take thou vengeance of ours sins: Spare us, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood, and be not angry with us forever.
Than which nothing less smug can be conceived.

Part of the trouble with conveying due gratitude to God for one's personal blessings lies in the poverty of language, and especially the poverty of personal language. The first person plural is more dignified than the first person singular. To say, especially in the course of corporate or family prayer, that we have been blessed beyond our power to express and far beyond our deserving has a ring of solemnity to it that simply cannot come through if one replaces "we" with "I." And it is difficult, with a straight face, to associate solemnity with Facebook updates. Unless, perhaps, one simply quotes the BCP on one's Facebook status, which isn't such a bad idea.

My life is a gift. It would be a gift, I must acknowledge, even if it were nasty, brutish, and short. For God would still be God in that case and would still love all men, including my unworthy self. But it is much easier as a weak human to see that my life is a gift when it is filled with gifts, with specific gifts.

Somehow, it must be possible to express humble gratitude without being shallow, sentimental, and maudlin. Until we have the power of our own language to do that, we could do far worse than to start with the language of the Prayer Book, which reminds us, in all our gratitude for the blessings of this life, of that which is eternal:

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy; Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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