The January 1st Feast

Happy feast of the Holy Name and Circumcision of Christ!
(What, did you expect to see “happy new year”?  This is a liturgy blog, not a social calendar!)

For many people, today’s commemoration might seem a bit strange.  Why are celebrating the “holy name” of Jesus?  Is this day like those over-emotive worship songs that repeat endlessly about how precious is it to say the name “Jeezus” over and over again for five minutes?  Is this something more “catholicky”, where we silently meditate on the sacred name of Jesus in a mood of affected piety?

First of all, it’s probably helpful to observe that this feast day might better be termed the Naming of Jesus.  The Gospel lesson at today’s Communion service is Luke 2:15-21, in which Jesus is circumcised and given the name Jesus.  This takes place on the eighth day, according to the Law of Moses, which (in case you haven’t noticed yet) is literally today.  On the 8th day of Christmas, Jesus got circumcised and named.

Second of all, it should be further noted that until 1979, the Anglican tradition called this day the Circumcision of Christ – making that rite the primary feature of the day, and his name/naming secondary.  Unlike the 1979 Prayer Book, though, our Collect still acknowledges the old emphasis alongside the new:

Almighty God, your blessed Son fulfilled the covenant of circumcision for our sake, and was given the Name that is above every name: Give us grace faithfully to bear his Name, and to worship him with pure hearts according to the New Covenant; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This double focus, as you can see, is expressed well in our Collect.  To honor and bear the name of Jesus, and to join with Christ in the New Covenant because he has fulfilled the Old, are both concepts close to the heart of the Christian faith.  But it’s also worth looking back at what used to be…. this is the original Prayer Book Collect for today:

Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man: Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Notice, free to be more specific, how this Collect draws us to covenant faithfulness, or obedience.  To worship God “with pure hearts” in the new Collect is an accurate summary, but when you take the time to pray about “being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts”, you get a better picture of what such “pure hearts” actually look like.

All this besides, Jesus’ keeping of the Law is what proves his innocence, his sinlessness, and thus what sets the rest of the Gospel in motion.  If he wasn’t bound to the Law, his obedience to it would not have the significance that it had.

Along those lines, if you deign to pray the Great Litany today, perhaps this is a good opportunity to re-write one phrase back to its original form.  Near the beginning when it says “by your holy nativity and submission to the Law” feel free to pray what this petition originally said: “by your holy nativity and circumcision“.  This may not be the most popular part of the Gospel and Nativity story, but it’s one of the many moments of key importance, hence its place among the great feasts of the church year.

Scripture in the Litany

One of the taglines people like to use today, when describing the Prayer Book, is “The Bible arranged for worship.”  This is, indeed, a fair assessment of the Prayer Book tradition and the specific contents.  And this is accomplished in many ways: praying psalms and canticles, reading scripture lessons, quoting specific verses a particular times throughout the liturgy, as well as a great many references that are not highlighted or specifically cited along the way.

One example of this is in the Great Litany.  If you take a look at the Supplication toward the end of it, you’ll find the dialogue:

O Lord, arise and help us;
And deliver us for your Name’s sake.

O God, we have heard with our ears, and our forebears have declared to us, the noble works that you did in their days, and in the time before them.

O Lord, arise and help us;
and deliver us for your Name’s sake.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

O Lord, arise and help us;
and deliver us for your Name’s sake.

The first, third, and fifth pair of prayers & responses (“O Lord, arise…”) are an antiphon – a repeated verse that provides structure and theme to the contents it surrounds.  The second prayer & response (“O God, we have heard…”) is Psalm 44:1.  The fourth pair is the Gloria Patri.  For the most part this is a very traditional devotional layout: antiphon, psalm, gloria patri, antiphon.  It’s a bit unusual to repeat the antiphon between the psalm and the gloria patri, and I don’t believe the classical Prayer Books did that.  Whateverso, the operating Scriptural text in this section is Psalm 44:1, remembering the great works of God in the past.  This forms the basis of our plea, “help us; and deliver us”.

If you don’t pray the Supplication very often (or the Great Litany at all, for that matter), perhaps the upcoming season of Advent is a good time to start using it regularly for a while.  The classical prayer books ordered for it to be prayed every Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday, so feel free to dive in!

Days of Disciplined Devotion

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.

Forgot the Great Litany?

Don’t forget it’s Friday, one of the traditional days of the week for saying the Great Litany after the Collects in Morning Prayer!

Did you already say Morning Prayer without the Litany?  That’s alright, consider praying the Litany at the end of Midday Prayer instead!  There’s a handy spot near the end of that Office which says “other intercessions and thanksgivings may be offered.”  Why not pray the entire Litany and Supplication at that point?  It could be a great spiritual boost and refocus for the middle of your day.