Collect for Easter Sunday
The structure of this collect recalls the symbolic universe of the Middle Ages as pictured by Dante; with the unchangeable heavens beyond the moon, and hell in the centre of the earth. But the language of the prayer brings this directly to the individual soul waiting for deliverance. How does this work, bearing in mind that the collect’s most exhilarating image, ‘the gate of everlasting life’, opens up as the second narrative element in the sonorous Cranmerian relative clause (‘hast overcome … and opened’) with which the prayer itself opens? Where do we go, after that, in our comprehension and use of the collect?
The order in which the Persons of the Trinity are invoked is balanced at the opening and the close: the beginning moves ‘down’ from the Father to the incarnate Son; his suffering in time, and his ‘Descent into Hell’ (as recalled in the Apostles’ Creed). Over against this, towards the conclusion, Christ as our means of salvation is mentioned before the final second-person address to the Father, followed in his turn by the Holy Ghost. It seems - superficially - that the Spirit is only incidentally referred to as part of the conventional doxology; but he has already been at the very centre of the prayer, in the form of God’s ‘special grace … put[ting] into our minds good desires’.
The protestant theology of Cranmer makes its own metaphorical use of the great medieval image of the Harrowing of Hell. In the York Mysteries the play of that name has Christ literally beating on the doors of Hell with the great cry heard in Psalm 24: 7 -‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors: and the King of glory shall come in’. Not believing in Purgatory or delivery from the underworld, the Reformation makes this an image of God’s grace breaking into the heart through the power of the Spirit. Melanchthon, the great Lutheran educator and companion of Luther describes the inspired word of preachers ‘beating on the breasts’ of his congregation like hammers on the anvil.
Dwelling on our consciousness of this deliverance, we ask to be ‘continually helped’, grasped by the hand and pulled out of the darkness - just as (in paintings of the Harrowing) Christ at the Gates of Hell leads out Adam and Eve, and all those to whom the Spirit had revealed him before the time of his incarnation. The ‘good effect’ of our ‘good desires’ suggests a life in time restored to the light, and looking ‘up’ towards eternity.