February 18th is the commemoration of Martin Luther, the first of the great Protestant Reformers. He was born in 1483, ordained a priest in 1507 at about age 24, began his public protest of ecclesiastical abuses with his 95 Theses in 1517, and was excommunicated by the Pope in 1521, thus kicking off the Protestant Reformation. He died on this day in 1546 at the respectable age of 62.
When examining the history of the English Reformation and the birth of Anglican tradition, more attention is usually paid to the influence of the Calvinist reformers of Geneva than to the German Lutherans. So today let’s take a look at a significant Lutheran feature in Anglican liturgy: the “flood prayer” in the Baptismal service. When Luther was revising the Roman liturgy for the German Protestant churches in the 1520’s he abbreviated the baptism service a couple different times, streamlining its attention upon the baptismal act and the grace of God therein. But one thing he added to the liturgy was this “flood” prayer which carried over into the English Prayer Books a few decades later.
Let’s take a look at this prayer in three versions: the Lutheran Service Book as used by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (which I’m hoping is a close representative of the German original), the 1662 Prayer Book (the Anglican standard), and the most recent draft version I’ve got from the ACNA website.
Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice is the modern love of brevity. The long, eloquent, and often verbose prayers of the 16th and 17th centuries have been eroded through the 20th century for the modern ear.
The next obvious feature is that our new version is missing two sections with biblical references. Before people start complain about the ACNA watering down the baptismal liturgy (if you’ll forgive the wonderful, wonderful pun), it should be pointed out that those omitted references to the crossing of the Red Sea and the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan are found elsewhere in the modern liturgy. Rather than hitting us with all of them at once in one glorious prayer, it’s spread out among a few medium- and short-length prayers.
It’s also interesting to note the theme of the judgment of the wicked – it’s present in each version of the Flood Prayer but ours seems to be less prominent than its Lutheran forebear. We just get a shout-out to God’s wrath in the penultimate section, while the Lutheran version mentions those condemned in the Noahic Flood, hard-hearted Pharaoh, and the inherited sin of Adam. This, perhaps, flies in the face of certain negative stereotypes regarding the Reformed theological camp.
Whateverso, despite its reduction in length, and its spreading out through different parts of our baptismal liturgy today, the Flood Prayer is a beautiful prayer, deeply expressive of our baptismal theology, and we have Martin Luther to thank for writing the original version! If you want to read more about the origin of the Flood Prayer, this article is a nice place to start.
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