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.


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.


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.

Book Review: the 1979 BCP

Welcome to Saturday Book Review time!  On most of the Saturdays this year we’re looking at a liturgy-related book noting (as applicable) its accessibility, devotional usefulness, and reference value.  Or, how easy it is to read, the prayer life it engenders, and how much it can teach you.

In 1979, after several years of experimentation and trial-use liturgies, the Episcopal Church (USA) promulgated a revolutionary new Prayer Book.  It was a massive tome, compared to its predecessors, with all sorts of exciting new features.  The Daily Office and Communion services were offered in both traditional and contemporary English.  Multiple rites (especially prayers of consecration) for the Communion service were provided.  The minor offices of Noonday Prayer and Compline were added.  The Imposition of Ashes, the Liturgy of the Palms, a Good Friday liturgy, instructions for a traditional approach to Holy Saturday, and an Easter Vigil liturgy all brought catholic tradition into the Prayer Book (where high church parishes previously had to rely upon supplementary material if they wanted to hold such traditions).  The liturgies for Ministration to the Sick and the Dying were expanded.  A new translation of the Psalter was made.  The additional prayers for the Daily Office turned into a massive compilation of over 100 prayers and thanksgivings, neatly ordered and numbered for ease of use.  New lectionaries were made.  There’s a new (longer) catechism.  Additional “historical documents” were appended to the volume, along with The 39 Articles of Religion.

Pretty much all of these were firsts for the Prayer Book tradition.  It is hard to speak ill of that, especially when much of the expanded content was already in use by many traditionalists, and its inclusion in the Prayer Book enabled further standardization and propagation of said practices, even breaking the highchurch / lowchurch barrier.

But there are a number of issues that have been raised with this book.

The changes in style, order, and content to the primary liturgies (Daily Office and Communion) are major departures from all previous Prayer Books.  Many of the changes to the Roman Rite in the wake of their 2nd Vatican Council were imitated in our changes to the Anglican liturgies, especially in the calendars and the order of the Communion service. Some would describe the 1979 book’s results as a bland and generic western catholicism that is neither Roman nor Anglican.

The Baptism liturgy contains perhaps the most criticized feature of the 1979 book: the “baptismal covenant.”  It takes the biblical and traditional idea of the baptized person(s) committing him/herself to Christ, and expands it into a whole contract – or covenant – by which the individual is united to Christ.  Internet articles abound in picking apart just how poorly this innovation to the Baptism liturgy was devised.  On a related note, some also point out that the way this book emphasizes (and arguably redefines) Holy Baptism, the rite of Confirmation ends up being pushed aside as extraneous – a concern that is further highlighted by the fact that Confirmation was no longer the requirement for entry to Holy Communion.  The liturgies for Holy Matrimony and Ordination have also been somewhat liberalized from previous books.

There is also the question of the contemporary language itself.  This was very strongly desired by many Episcopalians at the time, and very strongly opposed by others.  While that controversy and argument still exists today, I think there is a little more peaceful coexistence between the two views now.  But the quality and precision of the contemporary English is still somewhat up for grabs.  As we’ve seen in the process of creating our 2019 Prayer Book, the delicate interplay between faithfulness to the wording of the Bible, consistency with the wording of previous Prayer Books, and accessibility of style and vocabulary to the modern reader is a difficult game to play.  Our recent examination of the Daily Office “lesser litany” illustrates this well.  Or, more bluntly, a quick reading of the 1979 book’s Eucharistic Prayer C makes it immediately obvious that some of this book is too much a product of its generation and lacks that ‘timeless’ quality that will appeal to the next generation(s) thereafter.  (That prayer is nicknamed the “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” Prayer.)

For better and for worse, this has been the standard Prayer Book for the majority of Anglicans in this country for a few decades now.  It was my first Prayer Book, too, and I used it faithfully and happily for about four years before I began to see just how different it was from the 1662 book.  At that point I started weaning myself off of it, using the new ACNA materials available and drawing from more traditional material to “fill in the gaps” for the time being.  I learned that the Prayer Book tradition’s roots look quite different from the 1979 book… but that isn’t the case for a lot of people; to many this book is the Prayer Book, and (if they’re in the ACNA) the 2019 will be the next Prayer Book.  In a way, I think that perspective is more damaging.  The 1979 book, for all its innovation, still does have a strong “Prayer Book” origin to it, and if you familiarize yourself with classical prayer book tradition then you can find that traditional core to the ’79 pretty easily and use it fruitfully.  But without that second foot in Anglican history, one’s use of the ’79 is going to be rather blind and untethered, tossed on the sea of alternate liturgies and options that transformed a 600-page book into 1,000.

The ratings in short:

Accessibility: 2/5
Due to the multiple versions and options of the primary liturgies, and the fact that most of the pastoral and episcopal liturgies are typically intended to be part of a Communion service, the page-flipping required to hold one worship service directly from this book is terribly excessive.  If you’re a liturgy nerd, or very patient, or have a cheat-sheet-style bookmark with all the page numbers for the service, then you can do it.  But this book doesn’t make it easy.  Also due to the page-flipping required, it’s easy to miss the rubrics at the end of sections which sometimes point to even more options.  Judicious use of “go to page ___” instructions would have mitigated some of these challenges, and I think the 2019 book looks like it’s learning that particular lesson.

Devotional Usefulness: 3/5
If you can get past the accessibility issues, there are plenty of good things in this book to feed the Christian soul.  Despite the changes, the Daily Office and Communion services still contain good, godly, biblical, and even Anglican prayers.  There is a fair bit of chaff to omit here and there, but it’s usually not too intrusive.  The prayers at time of death and anointing of the sick are also handy references for pastoral emergencies.  Though I’m happy to never have to use its baptism, confirmation, matrimony, or ordination services.

Reference Value: 1/5
Honestly, because the 2019 book is looking to be very similar to the 1979 in terms of general content, there’s basically no reason to pull this book off the shelf anymore.  We can trace the historical changes from 1928 to 1979 to 2019, but that’s largely of academic interest, and of little use to the average church-goer or minister.  Furthermore, because most of the changes from the 1979 to the 2019 are “roll-backs” toward classical Anglican content, the 1979 book represents a sort of liturgical dead end: the tradition went too far in one direction, and now we’ve reeled it in somewhat.

So we’re at a point now where I no longer give out copies of the 1979 Prayer Book to anyone.  I’m not an Episcopalian, it’s #notmyprayerbook, and I’d much rather point people to the corrected, more traditional and biblical 2019 material.  That being said, I’m not a hater.  The 1979 is where I first delved into the Anglican tradition, and my extensive study of that book gave me a leg-up in understanding what’s going on with the 2019 book.  The 1979 BCP has served its purpose, done its time, and is now ready to enjoy a (very) quiet retirement.

Last Sunday after Epiphany: liturgical colors

In a couple days it’ll be the last Sunday before Lent begins.  I have seen, and participated in, a couple different conversations about the liturgical color appropriate for that day, and so thought it prudent to compile the different perspectives and their major arguments

Before we begin, though, there’s a prologue question that should be addressed: “Who cares?”  Granted, the Prayer Book tradition has never mandated a particular scheme for liturgical colors, and granted, the Puritan party of Reformers held the day for a while in Anglican practice whereby liturgical colors were not used by the majority of ministers.  If that is the way you like it then there’s not a lot we can do for you here.  The use of liturgical colors is one of the church’s many and ancient practices for providing visual aids to worship and teaching.  As long as the colors are used in a consistent fashion, they can convey different postures and moods befitting different occasions.  Black for mourning, white for joy, purple for penitence, and so on.  But the key here is that these colors have to be used consistently with their use and meaning, otherwise they will only ever be fashion accessories and a frivolous game of ecclesiastical dress-up.  That’s why getting the colors right, if you’re using them in the first place, matters.

The Traditional Option

If you’re using the historic calendar and lectionary, this Sunday is “Quinqagesima” – the last Sunday before Lent – and Western tradition is unanimously clear: the liturgical color is purple.  The Pre-Lent season is nearing its end, Lent is almost here, the Alleluias have already been “buried”, there is no question: it’s purple.  Easy!  Done.

The Modern Calendar

Anglicanism has no history of its own when it comes to the liturgical color tradition; we’re just one of the several pieces of Western Catholicism in this matter.  Therefore, when Anglicans switched to the modern calendar developed in the Roman Catholic Church, the standard color practice was also imitated.  So if catholicity is your primary concern in choosing liturgical colors, or you’re just looking for the quick and easy answer, then do what the majority of Western tradition does in the modern calendar: it’s white.  Done.

But, but, but…

Not everyone’s happy with this idea, though.  Some argue for green, others for purple.  So let’s look at these arguments and compare with them with the reasons for using white.

The argument for green stems largely from a concern for the integrity of the Calendar as a whole and a rejection of the way the Last Sunday after Epiphany is treated.  This Sunday, wrapping up the modern Epiphany season, is always about the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop.  But, Green Advocates point out, the Transfiguration is already a feast day in the calendar: August 6th.  To read it in the Gospel lesson this Sunday and wear white is basically to double that holy day in the calendar.  This is an inappropriate imbalance, they say, and this Sunday should be normalized to green along with the rest of Epiphanytide.

The argument for purple is a sort of hybrid approach to the modern calendar, drawing in some of the mindset of the old. Instead of looking at it as the Last Sunday after Epiphany it’s the Last Sunday before Lent, and the very observance of Christ’s Transfiguration as a prelude to Christ’s Passion supports this case.  This Sunday is basically the Pre-Lent Sunday of the modern calendar, and thus, in line with pre-1970’s liturgical practice, this Sunday is best characterized by purple.

So why does the Roman order (and all standard Protestant recommendations) appoint white for this day?  Part of the answer is a liturgical symmetry: both of the green seasons (after Epiphany, after Trinity) begin and end with a white Sunday (1st after Epiphany, Last after Epiphany, Trinity Sunday, Christ the King Sunday).  This may be rebutted by some: Christ the King Sunday shouldn’t be white either, and like the transfiguration is best left to its “proper” place in the calendar (Transfiguration to its feast on August 6th, Christ the King to its mini-season with Ascension Day and Sunday after).  But, I would point out, these arguments to take white away from these Last Sundays at the end of the green seasons, especially to replace them with green, are also arguments against the very nature of those Sundays in the modern calendar.  In short, a color scheme revision isn’t enough, these objections cut all the way to the lectionary, and will not be solved unless or until the lessons for “transfiguration” and “christ the king” Sundays are also changed.

Even the appeal for purple runs into trouble along similar lines.  The argument for purple has the advantage of befitting the readings – especially now in Year C where the Epistle lesson happens also to be the traditional Epistle for Quinqagesima! – but still requires a slight re-write of the calendar.  We have the Last Sunday after or of Epiphany, but purple requires the name to be Last Last Sunday before Lent.  It is natural, in the liturgical context of the modern calendar, to reconsider this Sunday as a Pre-Lent purple sort of day, but you have to change its name in the Prayer Book in order to justify it fully.

The Saint Aelfric Customary’s Recommendation

I sympathize with all these arguments.  It’s ecumenical to stick with the Roman order and wear white; it’s annoying to double a feast day like the Transfiguration; it would be nice to bring back some of the historic Pre-Lent purple.

The arguments for green, I think, run into too many counter-arguments that create even more tension within the calendar, and ultimately lead in a direction of a complete overhaul.  I’m not opposed to a complete overhaul; for the most part I’d like to see the calendar restored to the way it was before the radical revisions of the 1960’s and 70’s.  But changing this one Sunday from white to green isn’t really going to help us get there.

The idea of using purple in the modern calendar may primarily be my own imagination; I don’t remember if I’ve actually heard anyone else suggest it before.  It’s less disruptive to the calendar’s color scheme as a whole than choosing green, but it’s still clearly against the spirit of the modern calendar.

So, honestly, I still think white is the way to go.  It may not be the best solution, but at least let’s think of it this way: this is our last hurrah before Lent, let’s do our best to enjoy it and sing Alleluia before we bury it for six and half weeks.

The Pre-Lent Mini-Season

This coming Sunday, as some liturgical calendars indicate, is (or was) known as Septuagesima.  This is the beginning of a distinct mini-season in the traditional calendar.  Although the ACNA calendar no longer retains or authorizes these three Sundays, it can be beneficial to know about them.  They are part of the treasure of Church Tradition that reaches back well past a thousand years, and, rightly received, can be of great benefit to our spiritual formation as we work with the Church’s calendar to learn and grow in Christ.

The three Sundays before Ash Wednesday were known as “the -gesima Sundays.”  -gesima is a Latin partial word, from Septuagesima and Sexagesima and Quinquagesima and Quadragesima.  These mean 70 days, 60 days, 50 days, and 40 days, respectively, and they refer to the approximate amount of time remaining until Easter.  Quadragesima is a Latin name for Ash Wednesday, when Lent officially begins, but the three Sundays before it (with increasingly ‘rounded’ approximations of the Easter countdown) form a sort of Pre-Lent season.

These three weeks were a transitional period: the Lenten spiritual disciplines had not yet begun, but some of Lent’s liturgical features were put in place, like the “burial of the alleluia” and the wearing of purple vestments.  Those who practiced especially severe fasting during Lent would use these three weeks to begin the fast in stages, giving their bodies time to adjust safely to the austere self-denial that awaited.

The Gospel lesson on the first Sunday (Septuagesima) was the Gospel of the Landowner paying his workers the same, even to the 11th hour (Matt. 20).  This prepared the Church for the labor of Lenten disciplines.  The second Sunday (Sexagesima) proclaimed the Parable of the Four Soils (Luke 8).  This reminded us of right reception of the Word of God.  The third Sunday (Quinquagesima) recounted Jesus’ announcement that he was going to Jerusalem where he’d be arrested, killed, and rise again (Luke 18:31ff).  This was an apt sort of announcement that the penitential season of Lent was about to begin.

As it happens, our Collect for the “Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany” is essentially the same as the Collect for Sexagesima Sunday, so on the very rare occasion that we get to use that 8th Sunday, we’ll have the historic Pre-Lent Sunday Collect with us, even on the correct date in relation to the beginning of Lent.

Why have the Roman Catholics and most Anglicans abolished this part of the liturgical calendar?  Perhaps some people think it redundant with Lent.  Perhaps others wanted to lengthen the Epiphany season.  Perhaps its function in the larger scheme of the calendar was not properly appreciated by the revisionists.  Whateverso it is a tradition largely gone from the Church today, observed only in the Eastern Orthodox traditions and the relatively few Anglicans who continue to use traditional prayer books.

If you want my personal opinion, which I suppose you probably already tolerate since you’re reading this article, I hold the third theory above: I believe the demise of Pre-Lent was a poorly-considered decision.  Yes, it simplifies the calendar, but I don’t think such simplification was necessary.  Some localities (and even the whole province of the Church of England and those influenced by their liturgical revisions of the past couple decades) have developed a sort of pre-Advent season, sometimes called Kingdomtide.  Why Advent can get a new pre-season and Lent cannot is beyond me, apart from the slightly-cynical observation that modernists don’t like penitential material.

In my own congregation, I had the liberty to use the traditional calendar for three years before the ACNA calendar appeared and we conformed to it.  Some people asked me about the Pre-Lent Sundays: “isn’t it redundant?  If Lent is about preparation for Easter, doesn’t that make Septuagesima (et al) a preparation for the preparation?”  My answer to that is a rejection of the assertion that Lent is primarily about preparation.  It points and leads to Easter, yes, but it is a season in its own right.  Lent focuses on penitence, purification, sin and death.  Only in its final two weeks did it traditionally start sliding toward Easter.  Lent, therefore, understood on its own terms and in relation to the rest of the calendar, is perfectly entitled to a three-week lead-up.  And that practical consideration of having some “warning” before it starts actually helps, too.

Sadly, this probably doesn’t help much with the liturgical planning for your congregation.  But if you have a regular weekday worship service, perhaps there you can make use of the Pre-Lent Sundays.  Or you can always just pray an Antecommunion service with these traditional Sundays!  They may be gone from the general life of the church, but that doesn’t mean that can’t live on in our private devotions.


This article was adapted from “Learning from the Liturgy: The Pre-Lent Sundays” on leorningcnihtes boc, originally posted on 4 February 2018.

Thirsty Thursday

It’s Thirsty Thursday, wooo!
No I’m not rewinding back to my university days… I wasn’t quite that wild anyway.  But we do have good reason, in the church, to think about wine on Thursdays.

Let’s think about the Christian conception of the week.  On one level we received the concept of the seven day week from pre-Christ Judaism.  The sabbath, or seventh, day was a day of rest to complete the week.  It set ordinary life into the context of creation: as God was described to have worked for six days and rested on a seventh, we were to work for six days and rest on the seventh (cf. Genesis 2, Exodus 20).  That sabbath was a day to replace the ordinary with the sacred, to gather with the community of the faithful and worship God.    That sabbath was also forward-looking, anticipating God’s promised “rest” for his people (cf. Psalm 95, Hebrews 3).

In light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, this theological accounting for the week got expanded.  The first day of the week was the day of Christ’s resurrection, and the apostles eventually dubbed it “the Lord’s Day” (cf. Acts 20:7, Revelation 1).  And although that resurrection day, Easter in English, quickly became an annual festival and holiday, it was also the theological raison d’etre of the first day of the week (or Sunday).  Some Christians also called it “the eighth day”, with a forward-looking anticipation of the new creation in Christ (cf. Justin Martyr’s First Apology ch. 67).  Thus every Sunday is a sort of mini-Easter.

Fridays, too, were drawn into this Gospel-centric scheme.  By the end of the first century Fridays were commonly considered a fast day (cf. Didache 8:1).  This tradition, of remembering Good Friday on most Fridays of the year, endures even into the Anglican Prayer Books, which we’ve noted here before.

What does this suggest to us about Thursdays?  Again, looking to the gospel narratives, we have Maundy Thursday, the day on which Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.  Our “Thirsty Thursday” is a weekly remembrance of the institution of the sacrament of the altar!  Now, to be fair, this particular tradition doesn’t have any echo that I’ve noticed in the classical Prayer Book tradition.  The closest we get, these days, is the Collect for the Presence of Christ recommended for Thursdays in the Evening Prayer liturgy:

Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread.  Grant this for the sake of your love.  Amen. 

Apart from that little shout-out, taking on a remembrance of the gift of Holy Communion on Thursdays is entirely up to the individual worshiper or worship planner.  You can keep it in heart and mind during the Office; you could read the Antecommunion service; you could choose Opening Sentences or Canticles that help you to reflect on the Sacrament in the midst of your daily worship.

How did this Maundy Thursday emphasis exist in the liturgical tradition before the Prayer Book?  It was part of the cycle of Daily Mass.  For centuries, every priest was expected or required to celebrate Mass every day.  In cathedrals or other churches with multiple priests available, this meant that there were more masses to be said than there were masses needed for the people to come to attend, and so while one or two priests would celebrate the “public” masses, the rest would have to celebrate a “private” mass – not meaning that nobody else could show up, but just that he would be using a side altar and probably serving the bread and wine to nobody but himself.  As the Western tradition flourished and grew more elaborate, more and more stipulations guided how this worked.  The “mass of the day” was the principle service, but could only be celebrated once or twice, depending upon the number of the congregations attending them.  For the rest of the priests, they’d be saying “votive masses”, that is, other topical devotions mostly divorced from the liturgical calendar.  And part of that tradition included a particular “votive mass” for each day of the week, and for Thursday it was – you guessed it – a mass giving thanks for the gift of Holy Communion, essentially repeating the theological themes of holy days like Maundy Thursday and (later) Corpus Christi.

Obviously, much of that tradition and mentality is incompatible with the Anglican Prayer Book tradition.  But the idea of taking on a different theological theme on different days of the week may well make its echo in our own private devotions, regardless of the potential excesses of medieval tradition.  So perhaps, tonight, you can raise a glass to our Lord Jesus, and give a toast to his saving health!

The Presentation / Purification / Candlemas

February 2nd is the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, also known as The Purification of Mary, or Candlemas for short.  I thought I’d take up some of the liturgical tid-bits that characterize the celebration of that day, and point out something of how they inform us of the Christian Faith, and biblical interpretation.

There are three primary worship services in Western liturgical tradition: Morning Prayer (or Mattins), the Mass (or Communion or Eucharist), and Evening Prayer (or Vespers).  Although they are normally held throughout the day in that order, the Communion service is the “principle” celebration of the day; that means that the scripture readings in that service are usually the most significant ones for the given holiday, and the readings in the Office are supplementary.  Also, what exactly the readings are, and how many of them exist, will vary between different specific traditions.  Older Anglican Prayer Books differ slightly from newer ones, and Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox liturgies also have slightly different choices in many cases, but over all the similarities tend to outweigh the differences.  With that in mind, let’s dive in!

The Collect

The “Collect of the Day” is a prayer that is meant to collect together the theme(s) of the day from the Scripture readings.  Looking at how this is done in a given Collect can reveal the theological, devotional, or practical emphases that the tradition is putting forth.  Here is one Collect for the feast of the Presentation:

Almighty and everlasting God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

This focuses on the historical event (Jesus’ presentation in the Temple) and draws a spiritual analogy to the end product of our salvation: the Day we are all made completely holy in Christ such that he may present us to the Father as adopted members of the household of God.  It also points out that Jesus was in “our flesh,” providing an emphasis on the incarnation and the exchange that takes place: God entered into our humanity so that we can enter into His divinity.

Morning Prayer readings

One Old Testament reading that some of the classic Prayer Books set forth for the Office of Morning Prayer is Exodus 13:1-16.  This makes for a great first reading on this holiday because it gives the Old Testament Law of Moses background for what’s going on with Jesus and his family.  In the wake of the Passover (Exodus 12), God instructs Moses that by destroying all the firstborn males in Egypt except for those households protected by the blood of the Passover Lamb, all firstborn males in Israel now belong to Him.  Therefore they must be redeemed (or bought back) after they are born.  It’s like a first-fruit offering, except because children are not to be sacrificed, they are to be paid for instead.  (Interestingly, it’s the same concept as an indulgence – a debt is owed, but another form of payment is accepted.)

This is what Mary and Joseph were doing in the Temple with 40-day-year-old Jesus; they were obeying this law going back to the time of the Exodus.

Holy Communion readings

Across the board, the Gospel reading for this holiday is Luke 2:22-40, as that is the account of the event on which this holiday is based.  There we find the story of Jesus’ family in the Temple, Simeon recognizing Jesus and singing his prophetic song (or Canticle), and Anna the prophetess recognizing Jesus and sharing the good news of His arrival as well.

The Old Testament reading often included here (including our 2019 Prayer Book) is Malachi 3:1-5.  Much of that passage provides material for the preaching of St. John the Baptist, which inevitably draws the participant in the liturgy back to the season of Advent.  For there we heard for one or two Sundays about John and his preaching, and the accompanying Advent theme of the future return of Christ for the final judgement echoes in this reading too.  But most importantly, the very first verse here says “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.”  Obviously this has multiple fulfillments, as Jesus visits the Temple many times in his life and significant things take place at several of those visits.  But this is his first arrival in the Temple, and there are two people there (Simeon and Anna) who had been seeking him there.

Other readings

An Epistle reading found in some Daily Office lectionaries is Galatians 4:1-7.  There we find a theme mentioned briefly in the Collect – our own becoming sons of God.  It also mentions the dynamic of moving from being bound to the Law to being adopted as sons.  Jesus himself, it says, was “born of a woman, born under law,” which this holiday describes.  So the sharing of Christ in our humanity leads to our sharing in his divinity, because “since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.”

One reading often used at the end of the day is Haggai 2:1-9.  This prophetic writing speaks of the newly-build second temple and its inferiority to the original built under King Solomon.  And yet, God promises that it will be greater in glory, for “in this place I will grant peace.”  This promise is empty and void throughout Old Testament history; it is not until Jesus arrives there that God’s presence actually ever even enters the Temple again!  As the Christian goes through Evening Prayer and sees this promise of peace at the end of the Old Testament lesson, he or she will be drawn back in memory to the Gospel reading earlier, specifically the words of Simeon: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.”  Haggai’s words are directly answered by Simeon in Luke’s Gospel book!

The Canticle of Simeon

Let’s stick with Simeon’s song for a moment here.  It’s Luke 2:29-32, specifically, and is actually used throughout the entire year as a canticle (prayer-song) in the Daily Office.  Traditionally it’s a canticle appointed for Compline, the bedtime office of prayer.  In that context, it is read by Christians sort of in union with Simeon with our approaching bedtime as a picture of our eventual death (as Simeon had been promised that would not die until he’d seen the Savior).  In Anglican practice, the Canticle of Simeon is also used in Evening Prayer, but the end-of-day/end-of-life context and effect is the same.  My point is that a regular participant in the liturgy will be intimately familiar with the Canticle of Simeon.  As a result, hearing it in the liturgy for this particular holiday will have an interesting effect.

Two major promises stand out in the Canticle of Simeon: Christ will be a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and will be a light to be the glory of Israel.  The theme of light coming into the world is echoed throughout the seasons of Advent (Romans 13:12’s armor of light), Christmas (John 1:9’s light coming into the world), and Epiphany (Isaiah 60’s light shining upon the nations).  So as this holiday wraps up the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle, the theme of light is brought to the foreground and celebrated quite visually.


The Blessing of Candles

This holiday’s nickname is Candlemas, because of the tradition of blessing candles on this day.  All the candles to be used in the Church for the coming year are gathered up to be blessed for their sacred purpose.  Additionally, other candles are blessed and distributed to the people to carry in procession and to take home.  This is a physical enactment of what we learn from Simeon – Christ is the light of the world for all nations, including ourselves!  One can also find in the Gospel books the words of Christ, “you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14 and following).

Light does many things.  It drives out darkness and exposes what’s hidden.  Thus, the blessings spoken over the candles include both penitential aspects as God’s people repent of their sins, and apotropaic aspects as demonic spirits are to flee from the light of Christ.  The Scriptures do attest, after all, that the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).  So, by receiving candles and lighting them, we participants in the liturgy are given physical reinforcement to the words and teachings of Scripture that we are God’s adopted children, receiving Christ the light of the world promised in ages past by the Prophets.  And we receive this not just as some abstract teaching, but as historically linked to real events that actually happened.  Christ the Light of the World is not just a spiritual reality that occurs in our hearts, but is grounded in the real arrival of the real Christ child in the real (though now long-gone) Temple.  And with all that in place we are pointed to look ahead to the Day we each are presented in the heavenly temple to our heavenly Father by our adoptive brother, Christ Himself.

This post, apart some new edits, was originally published on my blog Leorningcnihtes boc, on 3 February 2016.

O Sapientia begins

The die-hard liturgy fans out there may already know about this, but others of you may glance at the ACNA calendar this week and mumble in broken Latin “O Sapientia?”  It means “O Wisdom” and it refers to a traditional antiphon that was paired with the Magnificat in Vespers (Evening Prayer).

Let’s back up.

In the final week leading up to Christmas, pre-reformation liturgical tradition spruced up each Evening Prayer service with a different antiphon, meditating on a different aspect of Christ.  Because each of them begin with the expressive word “O”, they’re known as “The O Antiphons.”  How does an antiphon work?  Traditionally they are placed at the beginning of a Psalm or Canticle and repeated at the end, after the “Glory be”.  So the first one, O Sapientia, would work like this:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For he has regarded
the lowliness of his handmaiden.

He, remembering his mercy, has helped his servant Israel,
as he promised to our fathers, Abraham and his seed forever.
Glory 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 Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Each day, at Evening Prayer, this Antiphon would be different, in the final lead-up to Christmas.  For most of Europe there were seven such antiphons:

  • O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • O Adonai (O Lord)
  • O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
  • O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
  • O Emmanuel (O God-with-us)

In England, an eighth was added at the end, moving all the other seven forward a day: O Virgo Virginum (O Virgin of Virgins).

As the discerning reader might now recognize, the classic seven of these comprise the seven verses of O come, O come Emmanuel that we have in our hymnals.  The order is not the same, however, and with good reason: the culmination of these pictures of Jesus is Emmanuel; that is the most profound and clear of all the prophetic images of Christ.  These antiphons, thus, form a progression of growing clarity in our Advent anticipation: we await our Wisdom, our Lord, the Root (or stump) of Jesse, the Key of David, the Dayspring (or Morning Star), the King of the Gentiles, God-himself-with-us!

The medieval English addition of the Marian observance, O Virgo Virginum admittedly interrupts this progression, though its content is just as biblical and pious as the other seven.  I adapted it to verse a couple years ago, for those who care to add it to the hymn.

If you have found Advent to be passing you by, perhaps you can latch on to this final week before Christmas.  These O Antiphons are the stuff of excellent Bible Study, meditation, reflection, prayer, and worship.

Saint Lucia Day

Celebrate Saint Lucia Day, go light your little sister’s hair on fire!  Haha, just kidding… sort of.

Saint Lucia (or Lucy, in English) was a martyr of the Early Church who died in the year 304 during a particularly nasty round of persecution under Emperor Diocletian.  Lucia was betrothed by her mother to be married to a man of some esteem, but Lucia had already pledged herself to virginity and was already beginning to give of her late father’s possessions to the poor.  Discovery of this cause her husband-to-be to scorn her and turn her over to the authorities.  As the story goes, she was sentenced to be defiled in a whorehouse but the soldiers and oxen couldn’t make the cart carrying her to move, and when she was sentenced to be burned to death instead the fire wouldn’t touch her, so the Emperor stabbed her instead.

The candles-on-the-head thing derives from a story that when she carried food to Christians hiding in the catacombs, she wore a wreath with candles on her head so she could carry more food in both hands.  Whether either this or her martyrdom story are accurate reports of history is beyond our ability to know.  But the piety, acts of service, and devotion to Christ displayed in her life are inspirational stories that have endeared Christians the world over, ever since.  Check out the devotion her story can inspire:

Saint Lucia Day, December 13th, is not just any old commemoration in the ACNA calendar.  It also happens to be the anchor date that defines the Advent Ember Days.  You’ll hear more about those next week, but suffice it to note now that the Advent (or Winter) Ember Days are always the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday soonest after St. Lucia Day.  In this year’s case, we’ve got almost a whole week left before the Ember Days begin.