9 Months to go…

Are you expecting?
Well you should be; as nine months from now the Church will be celebrating the birthday of her Lord.  Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, as some will point out the “real” feast of the incarnation – when Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  This holy day is placed, quite logically, nine months before Christmas Day.  If you thought radios and shops playing Christmas music in early November is excessive, how about starting the countdown clock nine months early? 😉

Simply realizing that the Annunciation is celebrated at an appropriate time of the year relative to Christmas can give one a newfound appreciation for this holiday.  But there is more.

There was also an ancient belief that great persons died on the same day they were conceived – there was a sort of symmetry to their lives.  (Perhaps this was more of a poetic assertion than an actual biological belief, I don’t know.)  Whateverso, the Annunciation, March 25th, is often very close to Holy Week and Easter, the sequence of days that commemorate Christ’s death and resurrection.  A couple years ago March 25th was Good Friday itself, perfectly lining up our Lord’s conception with his death.

Liturgically, this means we hold off (or transfer) celebrating the Annunciation to the Monday after the Sunday after Easter Day, rather than celebrating it during Holy Week or Easter Week.  But it is worthwhile to note, in those years, the confluence of liturgical events.

This year, with a later Easter, the Annunciation gets to stand on its own date quite unaffected by the Holy Week schedule and goings-on.  The season of Lent is still around us, of course, still giving an ominous sort of context to this celebration.  Just as Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, so is this holy day overshadowed by the Lenten season, reminding us of the dire destiny of Mary’s newly-conceived son.  This, more than Christmas, is perhaps a better time to sing those songs about how Jesus was born in order to die on the Cross.  Christmas is a festal holiday and season in its own right, we don’t need to drown its joy in reminders of Good Friday; the Annunciation however is much more ripe for that combination of moods.

Also, one last reminder: this is a holy day, a Red Letter Day, a major feast day.  And that means your Lenten fasts and disciplines are suspended for the day.  Go and celebrate the obedience of our Lady and the conception of our Lord!

Don’t forget the Great Litany!

It’s a Friday in Lent.  If you haven’t already, you probably should go back and pray the Great Litany today.  Lent is, after all, a season of heightened spiritual discipline, especially in the areas of fasting, alms-giving, and prayer, as we were reminded on Ash Wednesday, and praying the Litany is probably one of the basic-but-important ways we can fulfill the latter discipline.

Besides, in historic prayer books, the Litany was appointed to be said at the end of Morning Prayer on every Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday, regardless of the liturgical season.  So the least we can do is pick it up during Lent if we normally neglect it.

An interesting feature of the Great Litany’s structure, which perhaps originated in the 1979 book, is the separating of its ending (the “Supplication”) into an optional section.  Classical Prayer Books were much simpler, the Litany was one distinct string of prayers to be used wholesale.  The modern distinction of the Supplication in its final section is handy if you want to shorten the Litany a little bit, or evade its particularly “grim” tone toward the end.  It also means that we can draw upon the Supplication portion by itself as an extra devotion “in times of trouble or distress” as the rubrics suggest.

But for Fridays in Lent, we probably should just pray the whole thing and not cut any corners.

Glorious Lent: a hymn for the season

“You’re fasting during Lent?!  What are you, a closet Catholic?”  Alas, these all-too-common accusations are born of great ignorance of Christian history (including Anglicans and Protestants), not to mention ignorance of the Scriptures.  This penitential season is a time, among other things, of fasting.  It simply is a part of the season; to omit fasting is to ignore everything that the Church announces, in her liturgy, on Ash Wednesday.

And this fasting is glorious!

Consider this 6th century hymn that has adorned Anglican hymnals for a while:

The glory of these forty days
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by whom all things were made,
Himself has fasted and has prayed.

Alone and fasting, Moses saw
The loving God who gave the law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came
The steeds and chariots of flame.

So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
Delivered from the lions’ might;
And John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
The herald of Messiah’s name.

Then grant us, Lord, like them, to be
Full oft in fast and pray’r with thee;
Our spirits strengthen with thy grace,
And give us joy to see thy face.

O Father, Son, and Spirit, blest,
To thee be ev’ry pray’r addressed,
Who art in threefold name adored,
From age to age, the only Lord.  Amen.

What a glorious thing it is to observe a holy Lent!  Fasting so often comes with negative baggage; disciplines of self-denial are so easily looked down upon with disdain today.  Yet songs like this capture the glorious end of self-denial such as fasting: strengthening in God’s grace, similitude with great saints of old like Moses, Elijah, Daniel, and John the Baptizer, not to mention our Lord Jesus himself.  It is a curious thing for a Christian to imagine that he or she could aspire to holiness without utilizing even the most basic of tools championed by the great cloud of witnesses that have come before us.

Let hymns like this encourage you and build you up, this Lenten season.  Yes we have great sins to bewail and repent of, but we also have much to celebrate in the healing- and strengthening-power of God!

Still using the Ash Wednesday Collect?

During the seasons of Advent and Lent, in Prayer Books before the 1970’s, there was a special tradition of repeating the first Collect of the season on every day throughout the season.  For example, this is what you find in the 1662 Prayer Book:

The first Day of Lent commonly called Aſh Wedneſday.

The Collect.
ALMIGHTY and everlaſting God, who hateſt nothing that thou haſt made, and doſt forgive all the ſins of thoſe who 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.

¶ This Collect is to be read every day in Lent after the Collect appointed for the day.

(I kept the “long s” typeface in for fun this time; usually I edit them to the regular S.)

Anyway, notice the rubric underneath the Collect: it is to be used throughout the Lenten season in addition to whatever the Collect of the Day normally would be.  For example, yesterday was the Second Sunday in Lent, so we could have read that Collect followed by the Ash Wednesday Collect near the beginning of the Communion service.  You could even be using this extra Collect in the Daily Office every morning and evening!

Now, there is no such rubric in the 1979 or 2019 Prayer Books.  But there is no prohibition against reviving this traditional practice either.  I’ve made a practice of retaining the Collect for Ash Wednesday (sometimes nicknaming it the “Collect for Lent” or “for the season”) on each Sunday in my congregation.  Yes, it does make an awkward break in the rhythm of the liturgy: people are used to sitting down after the Collect but suddenly they have to wait through a second one.

But this can be a good kind of awkwardness.  This Collect is one of the great gems of our Prayer Book tradition, capturing the wretchedness of our sin and the great love and mercy of God in one beautiful little prayer.  It’s a good interruption to receive in the ordinary course of worship.  I can’t say that anybody has ever come up to me after the worship service to comment on it before, but I do think it is a subtle-but-meaningful tradition to hang on to.

Canticles for Lent

One of the fun resources in the 2019 Prayer Book is the collection of Supplemental Canticles for the Daily Office.  As we proceed through this season of Lent, there are two Canticles in particular that stand out as appropriate for regular use at this time.

First is the Benedictus es.  This Canticle is taken from the Greek Old Testament version of Daniel 3, known separately in our Bibles as “The Song of the Three Young Men” – when Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael were in the fiery furnace alongside the fourth man, the pre-incarnate Christ.  There are two hymns in that passage, and this Canticle is a summary of the first one.  Liturgically, this Canticle is offered directly in the Morning Prayer text itself, presented as an option in place of the Te Deum during Lent.  This Customary recommend using it on Ash Wednesday, the First Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday, and on weekdays throughout the season.  (For the 2nd through 5th Sundays, it may be prudent to bring back the Te Deum in recognition that though Lent continues, Sundays are not fast days; and though it is still a penitential season, we are still celebrating the victorious Christ.)

From the Supplemental Canticles,  #3, the Kyrie Pantokrator, may be used in place of the Nunc dimittis (the second Canticle in Evening Prayer) on Ash Wednesday, the First Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday, and every weekday throughout the season.  This Canticle is also from the Greek Old Testament, entitled in English as the Prayer of Manasseh.  It is a prayer of penitence attributed to the wicked King Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:10-20, especially verses 18 & 19).  As with the Benedictus es above, this Canticle is shortened a bit from its original version; also some of its hyperbolic language is toned down so as not to confuse the average reader.  This Canticle, in particular, is a marvelous offering of penitential worship.  In this age where so many of us run fast and loose with sin, the strong language of condemnation and grace in the Kyrie Pantokrator could do us a world of spiritual good.

And it’s got an awesome name, to boot!

Know and Obey

When we looked at the logic of the season of Lent last week, as highlighted by the Collects and Gospels for each Sunday, I implied that our Collect for the First Sunday in Lent is the same as in the historic Prayer Books; this is not entirely true.  Our Collect functions the same way as the traditional Collect, and both make reference to the Gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but how exactly that is applied to us has changed.  In the 2019 Prayer Book, the Collect is going to look rather like this:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations, and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ…

The premise of the prayer is temptation of Jesus by the Devil, followed by the reality that we, too, are assaulted with demonic temptation.  God, in his mercy and perfect knowledge, knows our weaknesses and so we pray for experiential knowledge: that God is “mighty to save.”  The historic Collect goes in a very different direction:

O LORD, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights: Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to thy honour and glory, who livest and reignest…

The premise of this prayer is fasting of Jesus during those forty days, followed by a prayer that we would be enriched by our own fast during Lent.  Or rather, our abstinence.  Abstinence is a particular type of fast: to fast from something is to reduce its place in your life or your consumption or participation in something, while to abstain from something is to remove it from your life or to cease consuming or participating in something.  Eating smaller meals and cutting out snacking is fasting; giving up meat or chocolate or alcohol for Lent is abstinence.  Abstinence, in whatever specific form it takes, is one of our chief weapons in the subduing of the flesh to the Spirit, and this Collect prays that we would become more able to obey God’s commands “in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).

Notice the modern Collect is focused more on experiential knowledge – knowing that God is our powerful Savior – while the traditional Collect is focused more on our obedience.  Surely both are necessary, and belong together, for a sincerely Christian life.  As such, I find I can’t make a personal judgment as to which one is “better” than the other.

The traditional Collect, by referencing the spiritual discipline, links back to Ash Wednesday more than the modern Collect does, so if you’re concerned about liturgical coherence from holy day to holy day then the old tradition preferable here.  But, on the other hand, perhaps one would prefer to see a balance: Ash Wednesday delivering the focus on our call to Lenten discipline and the First Sunday pointing us more to the example and power of Jesus rather than reiterating the disciplines we’re undertaking.

It’s all a matter of perspective and emphasis; certainly there is a place for both traditions.  And, as I said at the beginning, both function in the same way: they are making sure we are getting started into Lent on the right foot.

The Logic of Lent

The season of Lent is one of the more topically scripted seasons of the year, due in part to its relative brevity and narrow focus.  As is often the case, the traditional calendar is clearer than the modern calendar in terms of the ebb and flow of the season, the modern calendar losing some of its coherence due to the 3-year cycle of readings.  Nevertheless, a basic contour can still be discerned.  Rather than looking at traditional and modern Lent separately as we did for Epiphanytide, we can consider the tradition both old and new together.

The First Sunday of Lent is about the temptation of Jesus.  This has always been the case, and has not changed in modern practice.  Year B of the modern calendar almost drops the ball on this due to the fact that Mark’s Gospel only mentions the temptation in one sentence, rather than relating the whole story like Matthew and Luke.  The Collect, too, is the same in both traditions, seeking to imitate Christ’s abstinence that we may move towards holiness.  This is a strong “best foot forward” experience for the first Sunday of the season, making sure we’re on the right path with our spiritual disciplines that began on Ash Wednesday, with the right godly goals in mind.

The Second Sunday of Lent is a mixed bag in the modern lectionary.  The three years yield the Gospel sayings of Jesus ranging from “you must be born again,” “take up your cross and follow me”, and his lament over Jerusalem.  The latter two suggest a theme of looking ahead toward the liturgical culmination of Lent in the Passion of Jesus, while the former hangs back with another sort of starting place for the season.  Traditionally, the Gospel lesson was about the Syro-Phoenician (or Canaanite) Woman’s great faith over which Jesus marveled.  The Collect built off that, praying that God would keep us defended in body and soul because we’re defenseless (like that woman).  Although that Collect remains in our Prayer Book, it does not seem to have a strong connection with the modern Gospel readings.

The Third Sunday of Lent traditionally was very similar to the second, pairing another Collect asking God to look upon us and keep us defended with another healing story from the Gospel, this time an exorcism with subsequent teaching about demons.  Our Prayer Book supplies an expanded version of that Collect (first introduced in the 1979 Prayer Book) and pairs with the Gospel stories of the woman at the well, the cleansing the temple, and Jesus’ call to repent followed by the parable of the barren fig tree.  The traditional pairing makes this Sunday much like the previous, while the modern Collect and lessons lean more heavily on our “restless hearts” and “heartfelt desires” that need to be rightened, healed, or cleansed.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent is interesting in that one of the three years in the modern lectionary lines up with the traditional Gospel: the Feeding of the 5,000.  The traditional application of this, in the Collect, was a prayer for relief instead of punishment, marking this Sunday as the lighter and more hope-filled Sunday in the Lenten sequence, visually marked by the wearing of rose vestments instead of violet.  Our modern calendar, however, puts in a Collect about Jesus being our true bread from heaven, emphasizing the original Gospel story but setting it in a different context, especially in years A and C when the Gospel lesson is about the man born blind or the parable of the prodigal son.  In that light, there isn’t as much reason to retain the “Rose Sunday” tradition in the modern Lent.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent, nicknamed Passion Sunday, is an anticipation of Palm Sunday.  A noteworthy feature of the traditional lectionary was that major Sunday commemorations tended to have a follow-up Sunday to further explicate its meaning, but in the case of Palm Sunday, that follow-up had to be a preview Sunday instead.  Originally, the Gospel was Jesus’ speech about “before Abraham was, I am” – asserting his divinity.  This was paired with a lesson from Hebrews about his priestly sacrifice, so the theological import of his death on the Cross would be better appreciated on the following Sunday.  The modern calendar carries out a similar function using the Gospel stories of the resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus’ saying that “the son of man must be lifted up,” and the parable of the wicked tenants.  The traditional Collect was similar to those for the 2nd and 3rd Sundays, with a thematic similarity to the Collect for Good Friday, making it serve as another “preview” of the Passion to come.  The modern Collect, however, is a transfer from what was originally an Eastertide Collect, asking God to fix our hearts where true joy is to be found, despite our unruly wills and affections.  As far as I can see (thus far), this somewhat weakens the traditional Passion Sunday function.

The Sixth Sunday of Lent is usually called Palm Sunday, and it is the day we hear the great Passion Narrative as the Gospel.  The Collect is the same, old and new, drawing upon the Epistle (Philippians 2:5-11, also unchanged) to apply Christ’s passion to us; the only difference is that the historic lectionary sticks with Matthew’s Passion and the modern cycles between Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  We’ll look at this in greater detail when Holy Week draws nigh.

 

Ash Wednesday

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful, were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. In this manner, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need that all Christians continually have to renew our repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

15

For a modern prayer book service, we still have very deep roots in some old traditions.  In calling the church to prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, we’re standing on a thousand years or more of Christian spirituality, asceticism, and even theological anthropology.  These are not arbitrary spiritual disciplines that happened to be popular at key times in history.  Rather, they are disciplines especially picked to combat our three-fold enemy: the world, the flesh, and the devil.  Prayer is our weapon against the Devil – spiritual enemies can only be fought in spiritual activity.  Fasting is our weapon against the flesh – denying our apparently-natural desires is how we learn to resist such passions.  Alms-giving is our weapon against the world, especially in a consumerist age such as ours where we’re told to spend, spend, spend (on ourselves of course!).

And the liturgy follows this up with the traditional Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday: Matthew 6:1-6,16-18(19-21).  Technically, the traditional Gospel is just verses 16-21, so we recommend you include the verses that the ACNA lectionary considers as optional.  That way, the full reading is basically our Lord’s quick “how-to” guide for Lent.  “When you pray… When you fast… Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…”  So really, the Ash Wednesday liturgy starts with a call to spiritual disciplines, and then in the Scripture lessons explain how we are to pursue them.  It’s all quite neat, really!

Ash Wednesday without ashes?

Did you know that the Book of Common Prayer historically has not authorized the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday?  If you grew up with the 1979 Prayer Book, you’ve probably assumed that we’ve always kept the ashes in Ash Wednesday.

But no, until 1979, we had “the Commination” (this link is the 1662 version, but feel free to look at it in the 1928 book or another if you prefer).  It was a service of serious remonstration and repentance.  Elements of it, such as the congregational praying of Psalm 51, survive in the modern Ash Wednesday service, but on the whole its accusatory character has been lost.  Perhaps modern (or modernist) liturgical revisionists found it too dour and depressing for the contemporary worshiper.  But in these times of blatant and rampant sin in the church, it may be worth drawing upon the old Commination once again.  Check it out!

On Private Confession

So with Lent around the corner, let’s talk about the sacramental rite of Confession and Absolution.  In the upcoming 2019 Prayer Book, this is a simple matter: go to the “Rites of Healing” section and use that brief liturgy with your priest.  A traditional practice is to make a confession on Shrove Tuesday in preparation for Ash Wednesday.  This is part of the genius of Pre-Lent; having three and a half weeks to prepare for Lent meant you had time to prepare your Confession, which you could make on the day before Ash Wednesday, and then Lent would be the season of penitence in light of the confession you already made. Rather than 40 days of self-examination, it was 40 days of spiritual warfare to grow in grace after that confession.

Shrove

Now, one of the big objections raised against confession to a priest is that it’s a “Catholic” practice, and we’re “Protestants.”  While I could quibble with the terminology, I think it’ll be easier simply to argue in favor of the practice of Private Confession – that it is, and always has been, an option in classical Anglicanism.

Consideration #1 – the Exhoration

The Exhortation(s) in the Communion service invite those who are penitent to come to the priest for absolution and counsel. This is a public announcement to a private invitation. Reading this as a public confession is completely against the context, as the public confession follows shortly thereafter. That invitation is meant to eradicate “any scruples or doubt” in the individual conscience.  Even now, that invitation still exists in the Exhortation:

If you have come here today with a troubled conscience, and you need help and counsel, come to me, or to some other priest, and confess your sins; that you may receive godly counsel, direction, and absolution. To do so will both satisfy your conscience and remove any scruples or doubt.

Consideration #2 – Theological Consistency

The theology of priestly absolution is supported in the explicit wording of the Absolution in the Daily Office and in the Words of Ordination in the “Ordering of Priests” liturgy at the very moment of laying-on of hands.  The wording hasn’t really changed since 1662:

Receive the Holy Spirit for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed to you by the Imposition of our Hands. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven. If you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld. Be a faithful minister of God’s holy Word and Sacraments; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The authority of the priest to absolve is further supported in the text of the Daily Office’s words of absolution, again substantially unchanged since the originals:

Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, desires not the death of sinners, but that they may turn from their wickedness and live. He has empowered and commanded his ministers to pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins…

Consideration #3 – a classical prayer book example

Until 1979 the Prayer Books did not provide a liturgy for private confessions, but they did provide a model for how it could be done.  The practical example of this invitation to private confession is modeled in the Ministration of the Sick, in which the sick person is invited to confess to the priest (using very similar phraseology to the Exhortation).  You can see the whole liturgy here, but the specific words are as follows.

Here shall the sick perſon be moved to make a special Confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter.  After which Confession, the Prieſt shall absolve him (if he humbly and heartily desire it) after this sort:

OUR Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The 1662 Prayer Book is anything but a Papist document; it should be noted that the Lutherans also generally maintained a sacramental (or almost-sacramental) status for absolution by a pastor in their theological tradition.

Consideration #4 – why Private Confession was absent from the old Prayer Books

One might question why the old prayer books, if my arguments are correct, didn’t simply provide a liturgy for private confession.  The answer is simple: a private confession is by definition not “common prayer” and therefore didn’t need to be in the Prayer Book itself.  The only part of a private confession that needs (or ought) to be scripted is the priestly absolution, and the minister already has three statements of absolution in the Prayer Book to choose from (Daily Office, Communion, Visitation of the Sick); there need not be any further liturgical form to the saying of a private confession.

That being said, it’s nice to have a brief summary of private confession to a priest in the modern prayer books.  Even though it’s not strictly necessary, having set forms and structure for the confessee can help him or her feel more comfortable in the moment, and cut down on the awkward of feelings of “am I doing this right?”  The only thing that matters is honest contrition about the sins being confessed, so having a liturgical form can help reduce the awkwardness of knowing “how” to say it.