Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Have mercy upon us miserable offenders

The Collect for Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), which is read every day in Lent after the Collect appointed for the Day:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness. may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our
Lord. Amen. [The Anglican Book of Common Prayer]

Ash WednesdayOne of the advantages of having a written and printed service, is that it enables you to see when people’s feelings and thoughts have changed. When people begin to find the words of our service difficult to join in, that is of course a sign that we do not feel about those things exactly as our ancestors. Many people have, as their immediate reaction to that situation, the simple remedy ‘Well, change the words’ which would be very sensible if you knew that we are right and our ancestors were wrong. it is always at least worth while to find out who it is that is wrong.
    The Lenten season is devoted especially to what theologians call contrition, and so every day in Lent a prayer is said in which we ask God to give us ‘contrite hearts’ [from the Lenten Collect, The Book of Common Prayer]. Contrite, as you know, is a word translated from Latin, meaning crushed or pulverized. Now modern people complain that there is too much of that note in our Prayer Book. They do not wish their hearts to he pulverized, and they do not feel that they can sincerely say that they are ‘miserable offenders’ [from the General Confession at Morning and Evening Prayer, The Book of Common Prayer]…. But [they are] not understanding the words. I think the Prayer Book is very seldom talking primarily about our feelings; that is (I think) the first mistake we’re apt to make about these words ‘we are miserable offenders’. I do not think whether we are feeling miserable or not matters. I think it is using the word miserable in the old sense — meaning an object of pity. That a person can be a proper object of pity when he is not feeling miserable, you can easily understand if you imagine yourself looking down from a height on two crowded express trains that are traveling towards one another along the same line at 60 miles an hour. You can see that in forty seconds there will be a head-on collision. I think it would be very natural to say about the passengers of these trains, that they were objects of pity. This would not mean that they felt miserable themselves; but they would certainly he proper objects of pity. I think that is the sense in which to take the word ‘miserable’. The Prayer Book does not mean that we should feel miserable but that if we could see things from a sufficient height above we should all realize that we are in fact proper objects of pity.

C.S. Lewis, "Miserable Offenders," God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970) 120-121.

1 comment: