Don’t neglect the Litany

The Great Litany was the first liturgy put out by the Church of England, before the Prayer Book as a whole was compiled.  It has undergone little edits since then in just about every edition of the prayer book, yet is arguably the least-changed piece of the prayer book to this day.  I suspect this is due, in part, to the fact that it has been slowly declining in prominence.  The fewer people pray it, the fewer changes people bother to make to it.

You can even trace this decline in prominence from book to book.  In 1662 the Litany was appointed to be read after the three collects in Morning Prayer every Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday.  By the American prayer book of 1928, it was broadened to be after the three collects in either Morning or Evening Prayer, with no directions of how often it was to be used.  The 1979 prayer book broadened the options further by allowing it to be used immediately before the Eucharist (which is probably how it’s best-known in American parishes right now – as a solemn procession maybe once a year if at all).  But in that book, it’s physically located in a very cluttered part of the volume between the Daily Office and the Communion services, physically isolating it, sending the tacit message that it’s just window-dressing and there for the sake of tradition.  They didn’t even bother updating its language to match “Rite II.”

The 2019 Prayer Book, now, keeps the broad options open but provides a little more direction and accessibility.  The Litany begins on page 91, between the Office and Communion liturgies which is not quite so cluttered compared to the 1979 book.  There is also this suggestion on page 99:

It is particularly appropriate to use the Great Litany on the First Sunday of Advent and the First Sunday in Lent.  It is also appropriate for Rogation days, other days of fasting or thanksgiving, and occasions of solemn and comprehensive entreaty.

In one sense this is a “toothless” rubric.  It’s not rule, not even an authorization, but merely a suggestion.  The phrase “it is appropriate” appears in a few such rubrics, and is so gentle that it almost doesn’t count as a real rubric (or rule).  But as a suggestion, it does help point us in the direction of how we might implement the Litany in parish life in accord with some semblance of tradition.  Originally the Litany was supposed to be a thrice-weekly affair at the end of Morning Prayer, so having two Sundays and a short list of other occasions when the Litany is “appropriate” is extremely gentle indeed.  But, as things stand in the American church, once a year is about as often as the Litany is used, if at all, so by making these suggestions explicit in the book, and by making the Litany a bit easier to find (and connect to the primary liturgies) there is a definite intention here to restore this excellent service of prayer.

In your own devotions, I heartily encourage you to pray this Litany often.  Every Sunday, between Morning Prayer and Holy Communion, is a good place to start; or perhaps every Friday as a sort-of-penitential discipline.  It is longer than modern worshipers tend to be used to, so it can be an overwhelming experience for some.

But if you can bring it into your church, definitely start with the rubric’s suggestion: the beginning of Lent and Advent.  From there you can also add it to Epiphany II (when the festive part of the Christimas-Epiphany cycle has ended), Lent V (Passion Sunday, signalling the approach of Holy Week), the Sunday after the Ascension (following the apostolic spirit of prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost), and periodic Sundays after Trinity such as Propers 10 and 20 (even spaced out between Ascension and Advent).  The more, the better, in my opinion, but it’s usually easier to introduce new & different things to people when there’s an easy liturgical explanation.

Anyway, today’s a Wednesday, so how about you give it a go in your own prayers after Morning Prayer?

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.

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.