In the original Prayer Books (at least through 1662) the Great Litany was appointed to be said at the end of Morning Prayer ever Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday. Sunday perhaps makes the most sense – it is the Lord’s Day, and the largest gathering of God’s people for worship is going to be that morning. But why also Wednesday and Friday?
There is a long-standing Christian tradition of Wednesday and Friday being weekly fast days. Friday is perhaps the better-known day of discipline, even getting a shout-out in the Prayer Book’s introduction to the Calendar. But Wednesday, too, was long considered a fast day. In the Didache (or, “the teaching of the twelve apostles”) written close to the year 100, chapter 8 begins:
1. Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.
It seems that it was Jewish custom to fast on the 2nd and 5th days of the week, and Christians (at least Palestinian Christians, whose early tradition is represented in this document) shifted the fasts to the 4th and 6th days. Friday is likely related to the weekly remembrance of Good Friday (just as Sunday is the weekly remembrance of Easter). Wednesday’s fast could have been observed in commemoration of the Incarnation, or perhaps as a weekly echo of Ash Wednesday… we may never know the ancient rationale.
Regardless, the Prayer Book tradition has maintained this ancient custom in the form of the use of the Great Litany! If you are not a regular pray-er of the Litany, take a few minutes this morning to go through it after the Collects of Morning Prayer. Unlike in the 1979 Prayer Book, we’ve got it “translated” into contemporary English, so it is now just as accessible as the rest of the liturgy! And besides, the more familiar you are with the Litany, the easier it will be for you to share it with others in your congregation.