Monday, November 19, 2007

Hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them.

The collect for yesterday (and indeed for most of the whole week) was composed for the second Sunday in Advent for first English Prayer Book in 1549:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. (Spelling and punctuation from the English Book of Common Prayer.)

At his sermon blog, Ekklesiastes, Tobias Haller posted a sermon for this Sunday last year. The lessons were different (it was year B: Daniel 12:1-4a[5-13]; Hebrews 10: 31 - 39; Mark 13: 14 - 23) but the sermon makes sense even without having heard (or read) the lessons. Tobias began with a reflection on the perception that Episcopalians don’t generally know the Bible as well as we might. He went on to explicate the famous phrase in this collect, often misstated as “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” but actually “hear ..., read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”

We Episcopalians do get to hear a good deal more Scripture in church than many of our Protestant brothers and sisters. But that is hearing. As for reading, Tobias commends “regular daily Bible reading, especially through the church’s Daily Office, which is laid out in the Book of Common Prayer starting on page 936 — a program of daily prayer and Scripture. The Daily Office will lead you through all the most important parts of the Bible over a two-year period — and not only you, but the thousands of people throughout the church who will be reading the same passages each day — as if we we’re all part of a huge church without walls — which, if you think of it, we are!”

This Collect was somewhat tendentious in its day. Massey H. Shepherd reminds us, in The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, that the refeference to “all holy Scriptures” recalls Archbishop Cranmer’s criticism “in the Preface of the 1549 book that in the old medieval service books all the scriptures were not read.” That preface is reprinted on pages 866-867 of the 1979 American Prayer Book.

Shepherd also points out that “the Prayer Book set forth an orderly schedule for the reading of the entire Bible during the course of every year.” In his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, Marion J. Hatchett says more correctly that the first Prayer Book provided for the reading of “almost the whole of the Scriptures” in a year. In the word of the first Prayer Book itself:

The old Testament is appointed for the first Lesson, at Matins and Evensong, and shall be read through every year once, except certain books and chapters, which be least edifying, and might best be spared, and therefore are left unread.
Similarly,
the new Testament is appointed for the second Lesson, at Matins and Evensong, and shall be read over orderly every year thrice, beside the Epistles and Gospels: except the Apocalypse, out of which there be only certain Lessons appointed upon diverse proper feasts. (Everyman edition, spelling modernized.)

I have to admit that I have not kept up the discipline of reading the Daily Office in recent years. Oremus provides a Daily Office either online or by email and has links to other offices, including one that follows the Episcopal Church’s two year lectionary commended by Tobias.

Today is thirteen days before the start of the new liturgical year and I decided to try again to read the office regularly – particularly so as to read scripture. Perhaps I can keep it up.

I presented the collect above in its “traditional”form because of the phrase “by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word.” Both Massey Shepherd and Marion Hatchett remind us that this 16th century phrase means “by steadfastness and by the encouragement (or strengthening) of the Scriptures.”

Reading and understanding Scripture is hard work, But it is also rewarding work. Reading and understanding 16th century English is also hard work. So hard, in fact, that the talented people on the Standing Liturgical Commission in the 1970's were unable to find a euphonious modernisation of the words "by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word," so they left the phrase out.

In the hymn below, I take Coverdale’s words “comforted me” to mean something like “bucked me up” rather than “soothed me.”

I call on thee, Lord Jesus Christ,
I have none other help but thee.
My heart is never set at rest
till thy sweet word have comforted me.
And steadfast faith grant me therefore,
to hold by thy word evermore,
above all thing,
never resisting
but to increase in faith more and more.

Miles Coverdale
(Hymn 634 in The Hymnal 1982)

This hymn comes from Coverdale's "Ghostly Psalms and Spiritual Songs," published in the late 1530's and is the first verse of what appears to me to be in part a paraphrase of Johann Agricola's 1530 hymn which Bach set as the text of Cantata BWV 177.

5 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

Allen, I say the short form of Morning and Evening Prayer from the BCP, and I read the Scriptures from the Daily Office nearly every day. It's not much, but even that little is quite profitable for me.

I love that many of us around the world read the same words each day.

Tobias' sermons are wonderful, aren't they? He does not talk down, but he's quite accessible.

Choppa said...

(Just a couple of comments from way outside...)

Interesting. The "hear them" implies a much more public, live relationship to the venerable texts aspect of religion.

How could they refer to anything in the Bible as "least edifying"? And wouldn't this just point the people who most need edifying (like, well, me) to all the "naughty" bits? They're explicit about the Apocalypse being off piste, but in that case, where are the direct pointers to the corrupting bits of the OT?

Anonymous said...

Did the revisers of 1979 appreciate the source of "by patience and comfort of the Scriptures" in Romans 15:4, and the significance of the Greek HYPOMONE not just in Romans but in all the Pauline epistles? Excising these words from the collect was a mistake.

Allen said...

Anonymous,
I wish you'ld at least give a nickname.
At best, the 1979 revisers tried to walk a fine line between modernizing language and "dumbing down" language. In this csse, I think they stumbled off the line on to the dumbing down side.

Allen

Frank van Halsema said...

Of the four "Choose an Identity" options, the fourth (Anonymous) was the only one I understood, altho anonymity was no preference. I've been informed now that URL means my email address, so I'll herewith try the third option.