Today is the first Sunday of the season of Lent. This morning we join in the prayers of the Church using a very ancient form of prayer—the Great Litany. The Great Litany is the real deal; the big time; the major leagues of prayer. This prayer was first assembled in response to a 4th century volcanic eruption. It was further shaped by political uncertainty, war, and medieval outbreaks of the Black Plague in Europe. In 1544, the Great Litany was the first part of the Liturgy to be translated (and heavily edited) into vernacular English by Thomas Cranmer. Five years later Cranmer finished the first Book of Common Prayer, which stands at the fountainhead of our own style of worship. Cranmer’s version of the Litany melded medieval catholic spirituality with the theological concerns of the Reformation. Martin Luther’s hand can still be detected on the version of the Litany that is in our prayer book.
At one time, the Great Litany was prayed by every Anglican parish every Sunday. These days, even though it is included in our version of the prayer book, it has fallen into disuse. This is a real shame. As one scholar writes, the Litany is “a most careful, luminous, and comprehensive collection of the scattered treasures of the Universal Church.” It holds together the reformed and catholic strands of our tradition, and it articulates the needs, anxieties, and suffering of humanity with a power that is rare. More than that, the Litany is a profound reminder that we need to rely on the grace and mercy of God. This is equally true today as it was in the 4th century, or the 14th. Our life depends on God, whether we recognize it or not. And the fact is, we often don’t recognize it. Lent is a good time to correct that, so let’s do it with style.
This morning’s service is going to feel different. We will begin the service by chanting together this ancient, beautiful prayer. The choir is going to march around the church really slow, and any children present might feel like joining in the march, which would be ideal as far as I am concerned. My experience is that children intuitively understand the grandest and most sublime parts of liturgy, even if their response to them don’t always strike us adults as appropriate. It’s going to take some time to chant the Great Litany, which is okay. Don’t be anxious. This is an opportunity to lose yourself in the mystery and the majesty of something bigger than you, something more important (really, it is) than the busyness and anxieties and luxuries of everyday life. I promise it will be worth it. I also promise to keep my sermon short. 🙂
For more on the history and use of the Great Litany see this excellent article from the Living Church magazine.