An evening prayer for Tuesday

This, with the Collect for Peace, is the other traditional Prayer Book collect for Evening Prayer.  It, too, has origins in Early Church liturgy, variably in Vespers or Compline.  The first American Prayer Book heavily revised the first line of this collect, but it was changed back in 1892.

Lighten our darkness, we beseech you, O Lord;
and by your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night;
for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

This short prayer has stronger impact when paired (as in the classical Prayer Books) with the Collect for Peace.  Our “darkness” and the “perils and dangers of this night” may sound melodramatic to the modern ear, but in the light of spiritual warfare this makes a great deal of sense.  St. Paul wrote, by way of example, “those who get drunk, get drunk at night,” (1 Thess. 5:7) highlighting the analogical connection between nighttime and our sinfulness.  The worshiper is reminded that it is the love of Jesus Christ that is given to us for protection and aid in our most helpless hours.

An evening prayer for Monday

Since the Early Church, this prayer has found several functions: the Collect for a votive mass for Peace, a prayer after the Rogation litany, until Archbishop Cranmer placed it as one of the Evening Prayer collects.  The wording has undergone some slight changes in recent times; it is substantially different in the 1979 Prayer Book but rolled back closer to the original wording here.

O God, the source of all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works: Give to your servants that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey your commandments, and that we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

The world, the flesh, and the devil are forces that turn us away from God; those are the real threats against whom we need protection, and against whom we must fight.  For, as the Daily Office prayers for Peace express, Peace is not found in avoidance of conflict, but in steadfastness despite conflict; God will defend us from fear so that we can “pass our time in rest and quietness.”  With our trust placed in God’s defense and our hearts set to obey his commandments, we find ourselves on the solid ground of God’s Word, in the footsteps of Jesus, in cooperation with the Spirit.  There, we can withstand the wiles of the world, the flesh, and the devil; there can be found peace that cannot be found anywhere else.

An evening prayer on Sunday

This collect is a 1979 revision of a prayer written by William Bright in his 1864 book Ancient Collects.  Its primary biblical allusion is to Revelation 21.

Lord God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ triumphed over the powers of death
and prepared for us our place in the new Jerusalem:
Grant that we, who have this day given thanks for his resurrection,
may praise you in that City of which he is the light,
and where he lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

An excellent blend of biblical theology and liturgical devotion, this prayer gives the worshiper a summary of the significance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day and directs our hearts accordingly.  This is the day Jesus “triumphed over the powers of death” on the Cross, simultaneously preparing a place for us “in the new Jerusalem” – both the past and the future are bound together in this observation.  Our devotion is the same: our praises in the morning now-past are to be consummated in our eternal praises “in that City.”  Thus we find our place firmly between the Cross and the Eschaton.

Bringing Communion to the Sick or Homebound

The contexts in which people are unable to attend church services may have changed somewhat since the early prayer books, but the need remains: sometimes there are those who are sick, elderly, or otherwise incapacitated who need the visitation of their pastor (or other authorized minister) bring the ministry of the church to them. The Communion of the Sick, in the 2019 Prayer Book, is our template for such home or hospital visitations.

If people are unable to attend church due to, say, a global pandemic in progress, elements of this liturgy might help parish priests work out how to make door-to-door Communion visits also!

The full Saint Aelfric Customary entry for this rite can be found here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-the-communion-of-the-sick/

There you will find guidance for selecting Psalm and Scripture according to the situation, notes about the need for recurring visits, and even insight and advice on how to handle preaching and prayers.

Anointing the Sick with Oil

The Customary has been updated with guidance for the Ministry to the Sick!

Those already familiar with modern Prayer Books will find here a very familiar rite; those used to classical Prayer Books may be surprised to find provision for the anointing of the sick with holy oil. This is an ancient practice, stemming all the way back the New Testament (James 5:13-16).

You can read the full entry here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-ministry-to-the-sick/

About Private Confession

Private confession of sin to a priest is a subject of some controversy among Anglicans. Some argue that it has no place in our tradition whatsoever, while others advocate it as a good and proper practice worthy of normalization. A look at the historical Prayer Books reveals something in between: this practice was allowed, but not normal. Two references to private confession stand in the old Prayer Books:

  1. The Communion of the Sick provide an absolution for the Priest to say if the sick person wants to make a confession to him.
  2. The Exhortation at Holy Communion (the one announcing an upcoming celebration of Holy Communion) invites people to make a private confession if their consciences are particularly troubled, “to remove all scruple and doubt” and receive godly counsel.

Thus we find a clear outline of an authentically Anglican approach to private confession: it is a special pastoral ministry whereby a priest can provide more particular spiritual guidance to his flock and bring the benefits and comforts of the regular liturgy to those who are shut up sick at home.

To this end, modern Prayer Books (like our new one) provide an actual form for private confession. In the 2019 Prayer Book, the absolution from the old 1662 Visitation of the Sick is retained for this very purpose! It’s an excellent resource for priestly/pastoral ministry, drawing upon both ancient and specifically-Anglican tradition, in our modern context.

One of the things that people new to the practice often misunderstand is the issue of secrecy. Our Prayer Book notes that “The secrecy of a confession is morally binding for the confessor and is not to be broken” – no exception is provided. As far as the East is from the West, so far has the Lord put away our sins from us.  That established, it must also be noted that a true confession involves contrition.  The penitent concludes “I am truly sorry” and “I firmly intend amendment of life” and “ask for counsel.” The confessional is no more a place for ‘cheap grace’ than the Holy Table or the pulpit. For more specific guidance on how to use this rite, and how to handle the issues of particular sorts of sins that may be confessed, read the full Customary entry here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-reconciliation-of-a-penitent/

A Series of Related Commemorations

The calendar of commemorations in our new Prayer Book today lists three women: Lydia, Dorcus, and Phoebe. Normally, as you may be aware, only one commemoration per day is the norm. Sometimes if a group of people were martyred together they’ll share a date, and sometimes (even more rarely) a few people with similar legacies are remembered together. This “affinity group commemoration” phenomenon is mostly a feature of the Episcopalian calendar since 1979, though some rare examples of these entries have carried over into our calendar and/or can be found in other traditions also.

Just for one example, Lydia has been commemorated as a Saint in many traditions over the years, but her feast day varies widely. The Romans remember her on August 3rd, various Eastern churches commemorate her on March 27th, May 20th, or June 25th. Some Lutherans celebrate her on October 25th. We, with some other Lutherans and the Episcopalians, have her down for January 27th.

What is particularly interesting about this date for commemorating Lydia and Dorcus and Phoebe (since we don’t have clear traditions of when they died, which would be the normal date for a Saint’s Day) is that they are on Day Three of a three-day series of commemorations. January 25th is the Conversion of Saint Paul, January 26th is for Saints Timothy and Titus, and January 27th is for Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe. This string of remembrances is a real “Book of Acts Party”, I once joked, and makes a lot of sense. Together these six people form a sequence both historical and missiological:

  1. God calls Saul (eventually to be known as Paul) to faith in Christ
  2. Paul ordains ministers (Timothy and Titus) to continue his work
  3. More people convert (Lydia, Dorcus, Phoebe) and continue the advance of the kingdom

Thus this trio of celebrations is worth pointing out to our fellow church-goers as a biblical and liturgical reminder of the call of the Church to make disciples and grow. The different roles are important to note, because sometimes we assume that “mission” and “evangelism” is best done by professionals – or least by particular individuals with special zeal and drive. Saint Paul was an extraordinary individual, Timothy and Titus were bishops, they can be most inspiring but also very difficult to relate to. This is where the three women may come in helpful.

Lydia was a wealthy woman, who lived in Thyatira, in Roman Macedonia. She was essentially the first European convert to Christianity. She was already a “worshiper of God”, which means she was probably familiar with basic Jewish teachings and believed in the God of Israel, but (most importantly) “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” and she and her household were subsequently baptized. She heeded the Gospel, brought her family along, and then supported the ministry of Paul and his companions with her considerable means. Believing in the mission of the Gospel and supporting it with hospitality and finances is no small thing!

Dorcas, also named Tabitha, was a devout woman faithful in Christ and abundant in good works. Her ministry of providing for the poor and needy made her most beloved in her community and when she died many people showed St. Peter the clothing she had made for them, beseeching him to pray for her and raise her from the dead, which he did. Her resuscitation “became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” Thus even though she did directly participate in “evangelistic outreach” as we might call it, her good deeds gave her a positive reputation that, when recognized by the Church, brought many to share the faith she proclaimed. The light of her good deeds was seen, and many others came to the Light as a result.

Phoebe, finally, is a person of some controversy in modern Christian circles. She is described as a “διάκονον” from which we have the word Deacon. Some argue she was a Deacon in the formal ordained sense, like the men in Acts 6. Some argue she was a Deaconess in the context of the Early Church’s practice: a non-ordained minister who assisted with the baptism of women and works of mercy in the community. Others take the word in its general sense – a “servant of the Church”. Whatever the precise interpretation of this word, we know that Phoebe was an active member of the Church at Cenchrae (probably a village near Corinth) who traveled to Rome, perhaps along with the letter that St. Paul had written to them. She was to be received “worth of the saints” and to be helped in whatever she might need, because she was a “patron of many” as well as of Paul himself. A patron indicates she probably was rich, like Lydia, and provided financial and/or hospitable support for the traveling apostles and the local church. As a woman of means, perhaps she was able to be active in other ways – supplying the church and the ministers, caring for the sick, bringing alms to the poor, or any number of other services for the cause of the Gospel.

So we remember today the great contribution of these three women; their service to the Gospel and the Church was incalculable and their names endure forever through the Scriptures and the liturgical calendar. It is helpful for us to commemorate people who made a great difference through seemingly “ordinary” means… maybe just maybe we can be inspired to spend and be spent for the cause of Christ, ourselves.

The Nunc Dimittis in the Prayer Book

The use of the Song of Simeon as a daily canticle is as ancient as the other two Gospel Canticles, but its placement in the Anglican tradition is different.  Before the Reformation, the Nunc Dimittis was the canticle for Compline, and when Archbishop Cranmer reduced the several monastic hours to two offices, this canticle found a new home in Evening Prayer, just as various morning offices were combined into Morning Prayer.

Psalm 67 was soon added as an alternative to the Nunc Dimittis, provided it was not the twelfth day of the month (when that Psalm was one of the Psalms Appointed).  The first American Prayer Book replaced the Nunc with either Psalm 67 or 103:1-4,20-22.  The 1892 Prayer Book restored the Nunc Dimittis alongside those psalms, which was maintained in the 1928.  The 1979 and 2019 Prayer Books both present the Nunc Dimittis, with the Magnificat, as the default canticles of Evening Prayer, though other canticles and psalms are permitted in their place.

Like the other two Gospel Canticles, the Nunc Dimittis is from early in St. Luke’s Gospel and looks at the birth of Christ.  This one stands out, however, as it takes place after the birth of Jesus, and beholds the child.  The use of the present tense is no longer prophetic but narrative: God’s promises have been fulfilled, Jesus has been seen.  While the Nunc Dimittis shares the Benedictus’ focus on the Gospel of salvation, it is here applied to the Gentiles, the nations or peoples beyond Israel.  Jesus is Israel’s glory, and the light for the Gentiles.

The wording of this canticle has been substantially edited since its previous modernization in 1979, such that it now more closely resembles the classical Prayer Book language.  God is letting his servant “depart in peace” (correcting the unfortunate connotations of “have set your servant free” ) according to his word. Simeon’s eyes have seen “your salvation” – an important distinction as Jesus is not only “the Savior” but salvation incarnate.  The distinction between “to enlighten” (1979) and “lighten” (classical and 2019) is subtle yet still significant: the light Christ brings is not only the internal wisdom and knowledge of enlightenment but also an external source of light that lightens us from without.  Thus the work and Spirit of God is proclaimed more clearly as a divine work and can not be reduced to a merely human spiritual breakthrough.

Inauguration Day Prayers

Our Archbishop, Foley Beach, sent out a reminder today that we as Christians are called to pray for our leaders. I would add the clarification that we pray for them whether we like them or not, whether we’re happy they’re in office or unhappy; whether we prefer them, “the other guy”, or none of the above.

Here is what he wrote to us:

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, 

As our nation inaugurates a new President and Vice-President, and begins a new session of Congress, let us speak to God on behalf of our nation. I recommend the following prayers from the Book of Common Prayer 2019 as a start.

#37. For the President and All in Civil Authority, p. 657

O Lord our Governor, whose glory fills all the world: We commend this Nation to your merciful care, that we may be guided by your providence, and dwell secure in your peace. Grant to the President of this Nation, the Governor of this State, and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do your will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them continually mindful of their calling to serve this people in reverent obedience to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

#38. For Congress or A State Legislature, p. 657

O God, the fountain of wisdom, whose will is good and gracious, and whose law is truth: So guide and bless our Senators and Representatives assembled in Congress, that they may enact laws pleasing in your sight, to the glory of your Name and the welfare of this people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

#41. For Cities, Towns, and Other Communities, p. 658

Heavenly Father, you sent your Son among us to proclaim the kingdom of God in cities, towns, villages, and lonely places. Behold and visit, we pray, the communities throughout these United States of America. Renew the bonds of charity that uphold our civic life. Send us honest and able leaders. Deliver us from poverty, prejudice, and oppression, that peace may prevail with righteousness, and justice with mercy. And at the last, bring us to your Holy City, the new Jerusalem, where we shall know perfect unity and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

the Magnificat in the Prayer Book

Like the Benedictus, this is a Gospel Canticle drawn from Luke 1.  Where that canticle focuses on the work of salvation by Jesus Christ, especially as to be preached by John, this canticle focuses on the experience of salvation to be wrought by Jesus, particularly in line with the language of the Old Testament prophets.

Comments on the Text

In the text of this canticle, the Blessed Virgin Mary “magnifies” or “proclaims the greatness” of God, rejoicing in a litany of wonderful accomplishments that have been brought about by his hand.  The first five verses (as the Prayer Book prints it) are more personal.  She is a lowly handmaiden, regarded by the Lord, all generations will called her blessed for the great honor bestowed on her in becoming the mother of Jesus, God-in-the-flesh.  This special role granted to her in the course of salvation history magnifies her name, akin to how she magnifies God in her prayer.

Her observation “his mercy is on those who fear him” forms a transition from the first to the second half of the canticle.  With what comes before, she includes herself as one who fears God and been shown great mercy and grace, but her inclusion of “all generations” indicates that the entire world shall be blessed by the Son she then carried.

In the second half, Mary’s several “He has…” statements are easier to pray in the context of the Church’s worship after the fact, but form very much a groundbreaking text.  Worshipers can look back to the Cross and easily proclaim that God has shown his strength, scattered the proud, brought down the mighty, exalted the humble, and so forth.  And, although we can rightly celebrate this through Mary’s Canticle, the placement of these words before the birth of Jesus indicate that there is a Gospel to celebrate even then.  In the incarnation itself, God has begun the several reversals that these verses describe.  As the final verses sums them up, it is a matter of God bringing his ancient promises to fruition.  As far back as Abraham, the course of salvation history has been driving relentlessly toward the appearance of God’s Anointed One (or Messiah, or Christ) who finally appears in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Thus, in the evening, the worshiper celebrates the faithfulness of God who keeps his promises and has initiated a great reversal of worldly values and powers in the provision of his Son.

On a secondary note, this Canticle also provides the worshiper with the primary biblical example of what it is to venerate Mary.  All generations will call her blessed, God has regarded her lowliness, he has magnified her.  And all this is celebrated in the context of her role in God’s work of redemption: his ancient promises see their answer in her womb, in accordance with her faithfulness.  Where, with most Saints, the Church remembers their faith and works that point backwards in time to Christ, Mary’s faith and actions point to a present Christ.  She “received Jesus” in a more literal sense than anyone else – this is a blessed magnification that God has bestowed upon her, and the Church celebrates the work of the Lord in her.

History in the Prayer Books

This canticle has been a part of the Evening Prayer of the Church (or Vespers) at least since the 5th century Rule of Saint Benedict.  The Prayer Book tradition has maintained its position as the first canticle – the one read after the Old Testament lesson – excepting only the first American Prayer Book.  Although the Additional Directions for the Daily Office in the 1979 Book suggested more variable use of it, the primary text of the liturgy still held the Magnificat in its traditional place.

The classical Prayer Books appointed Psalm 98 as an alternative.  The first American Prayer Book appointed Psalm 98 and 92 instead of the Magnificat, and those two Psalms remained as options alongside the Magnificat in the subsequent two Prayer Books.