Sunday, August 30, 2009

Remember Not

Remember not, Lord Christ, our offenses, nor the offenses of our forefathers; neither reward us according to our sins. Spare us, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood, and by thy mercy preserve us for ever. Spare us, good Lord.

The above words follow immediately after the Invocation of the Trinity in the Great Litany. They are what is known as a “obsecration,” or earnest pleading. In it, we pray God not to remember sins, pleading that the consequences of our sins will not be visited on us. Henry Purcell, the great 17th Century Anglican composer, set the 1662 version of the text to music; it is a haunting and profound meditation on this masterpiece of prayer.

This prayer necessarily follows the Invocation, in that once we call to mind the holiness of God, our own sin becomes immediately apparent. How may we proceed in praying for the world when we ourselves are so compromised, so identified with the very brokenness we submit to Christ for healing and redemption? We should instinctively join the Prophet in saying: “Woe is me…for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5)

To remember – to make present – is central to the Christian life. At every Eucharist we remember Christ’s command to “do this” – making Him present by the action of the Holy Spirit in the Holy Mysteries. Each time, the consequences of God’s love in Christ are poured out upon us.

In this portion of the Litany, we in effect ask God to forget. Joining with the Psalmist in Psalm 51, we cry out: “in your compassion, blot out our offenses.” We, who are burdened by the present effects of our sin, our lost opportunities for holiness, plead with God to lift from us all the unbearable horror of this oppressive weight.

“With men it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26) As the Litany is addressed to Christ, so it is through His mercy and grace made known eternally on the Cross that we have access to the Father, and thus the weight of sin, which “clings so closely” (Heb. 12:1) may finally be shed.

Intercession on the world's behalf is senseless without the mercy of the Cross. Our puny attempts to “make a difference” by ourselves would be worse than hopeless. In Christ, though, we have the victory that frees us from despair and helplessness. Sharing as we do with Him in a ministry of reconciliation, it becomes our joy and our mission to bring before the Throne of Grace all those many people and needs which come our way. Indeed, the "fruit of good deeds" done in our own local or personal circumstances require a direct connection to the concerns of the wider world. Through the life-giving Cross, this connection can be made without overwhelming us. Rather, we find added compassion and peace by sharing in Christ's ongoing intercession for the world.

By turning to Christ with contrite hearts in this opening petition of the Litany, we take off our “spiritual shoes” and stand on the holy ground of God’s own redeeming. We are now ready to call upon our God in humility – the prerequisite for true Christian intercession.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Invocation: Beginning Aright

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth, Have mercy upon us.

O God the Son, Redeemer of the world, Have mercy upon us.

O God the Holy Ghost, Sanctifier of the faithful, Have mercy upon us.

O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, one God, Have mercy upon us.

The Litany begins with an Invocation of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. This is as it should and must be, for the revelation of One God in Trinity of Persons is at the core of all Christian prayer, thought, and practice. By locating this fact at the head of this great offering of intercession, we make clear our appeal to the True God. It also reminds us that we are not “making” anything happen in this or any other prayer; we are responding to the work of God in us and through us. This is central to a healthy, scriptural, and balanced understanding of Christian intercession.

It is God who “creates, redeems, and sanctifies.” Christ is the Great High Priest, through whom all our intercessions find their meaning, validity, and power (indeed, the entire Litany is addressed to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity). The Holy Spirit activates our intercession, giving us the intention and words. The Father’s Life passes through the Son by the Spirit into us, bringing us into our appointed place as participants in the Divine Life of prayerful communion – a communion of wills. The final petition of the Invocation, addressed to the “holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, one God” is an explicit affirmation of this implicit understanding of what it means to pray in a deep unity with God “on behalf of all mankind” as a Christian.

How many times are we encouraged to “name it and claim it” in our American Christianity, approaching God as one would anyone else? In so doing, we mistake what is in fact a privilege and gift for a personal right. The gift of knowing God in Trinity is a revelation from the Divine to us. We could never reason our way to it. It is a Holy Mystery. That mystery of the Divine must be at the center of our intercessions. We must not delude ourselves into attempting to “control outcomes” or form a self-concocted picture of what God “must do.” Rather joining Christ at Gethsemane, we must lay all our intercessions, all our prayers and desires at the feet of the Holy God whose “never failing care and love” will do “better things than we can desire or pray for.”

It is precisely for this reason that we begin this and most Litanies with an invocation of God the Holy Trinity.

The Martyrdom of the Holy Forerunner

Today is the commemoration of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. It is a solemn day of fasting in the Orthodox church, and is commemorated in the Roman Catholic calendar, as well as by some Anglicans. For reasons that are hard to explain, it does not appear in the Episcopal Church’s calendar (even with the rather extraordinary additions at the late General Convention). This omission is grievous, in that today’s observance is very much attested in the Holy Scriptures and the ancient witness of the Undivided Church.

So deeply connected are the lives and teachings of Our Lord and the Forerunner that omission of this feast blunts the Calendar’s teaching on the point. His boldness and proclaiming repentance for all as a prelude to receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit in Christianity remains essential. John’s fierce insistence on Divine truth and faithfulness in the face of earthly power is foundation on which the Christian Church’s ministry of prophetic witness was to be based. Because of his utter fidelity to God’s call, he died a martyr’s death – the first of many in the Christian faith.

Let us pray that the Episcopal Church, among many other things, may be led to renew its fidelity to the Baptist’s witness by including this ancient and venerable commemoration to its calendar.

A Collect for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

God our Father, you called John the Baptist to be the herald of your Son's birth and death. As he gave his life in witness to truth and justice, so may we strive to profess our faith in your Gospel. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Further thoughts, from the Orthodox Church of America

The Beheading of the Prophet, Forerunner of the Lord, John the Baptist: The Evangelists Matthew (Mt.14:1-12) and Mark (Mark 6:14-29) provide accounts about the martyric end of John the Baptist in the year 32 after the Birth of Christ.

Following the Baptism of the Lord, St John the Baptist was locked up in prison by Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch (ruler of one fourth of the Holy Land) and governor of Galilee. (After the death of king Herod the Great, the Romans divided the territory of Palestine into four parts, and put a governor in charge of each part. Herod Antipas received Galilee from the emperor Augustus).

The prophet of God John openly denounced Herod for having left his lawful wife, the daughter of the Arabian king Aretas, and then instead cohabiting with Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (Luke 3:19-20). On his birthday, Herod made a feast for dignitaries, the elders and a thousand chief citizens. Salome, the daughter of Herod, danced before the guests and charmed Herod. In gratitude to the girl, he swore to give her whatever she would ask, up to half his kingdom.

The vile girl on the advice of her wicked mother Herodias asked that she be given the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod became apprehensive, for he feared the wrath of God for the murder of a prophet, whom earlier he had heeded. He also feared the people, who loved the holy Forerunner. But because of the guests and his careless oath, he gave orders to cut off the head of St John and to give it to Salome.

According to Tradition, the mouth of the dead preacher of repentance once more opened and proclaimed: "Herod, you should not have the wife of your brother Philip." Salome took the platter with the head of St John and gave it to her mother. The frenzied Herodias repeatedly stabbed the tongue of the prophet with a needle and buried his holy head in a unclean place. But the pious Joanna, wife of Herod's steward Chuza, buried the head of John the Baptist in an earthen vessel on the Mount of Olives, where Herod had a parcel of land. The holy body of John the Baptist was taken that night by his disciples and buried at Sebastia, there where the wicked deed had been done.

After the murder of St John the Baptist, Herod continued to govern for a certain time. Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, later sent Jesus Christ to him, Whom he mocked (Luke 23:7-12)

Tradition says the judgment of God came upon Herod, Herodias and Salome, even during their earthly life. Salome, crossing the River Sikoris in winter, fell through the ice. The ice gave way in such a way that her body was in the water, but her head was trapped above the ice. It was similar to how she once had danced with her feet upon the ground, but now she flailed helplessly in the icy water. Thus she was trapped until that time when the sharp ice cut through her neck.

Her corpse was not found, but they brought the head to Herod and Herodias, as once they had brought them the head of St John the Baptist. The Arab king Aretas, in revenge for the disrespect shown his daughter, made war against Herod. The defeated Herod suffered the wrath of the Roman emperor Caius Caligua (37-41) and was exiled with Herodias first to Gaul, and then to Spain.

The Beheading of St John the Baptist, a Feast day established by the Church, is also a strict fast day because of the grief of Christians at the violent death of the saint. In some Orthodox cultures pious people will not eat food from a flat plate, use a knife, or eat food that is round in shape on this day.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Little Rubrical Archeology…

“To be said or sung, kneeling, standing, or in procession; before the Eucharist or after the Collects of Morning or Evening Prayer; or separately; especially in Lent and on Rogation days.”

The rubrics (ceremonial directions) of the Prayer Book often tell us important things. Those printed at the head of the Litany tell us something of its history and usage in the Church. First, the Litany’s early and normative way of being offered was for it to be sung in procession. Litanies have a certain character of prayer; the fixed or only occasionally-changing response means the participants may enter into a rhythmic relationship with them, rather like the rocking of a child or a person in deep emotional need. Litanies have this very ancient, physical dimension that invites the whole person – body, mind, soul – into God’s presence and power. Experiencing the sung Litany in procession at a parish church or cathedral (especially on a Rogation procession) reveals this unifying characteristic.

The rubic also makes provision for saying the Great Litany standing or kneeling. This is certainly the most common form of using the Litany in the post-reformation Anglican Church, used both liturgically and in personal prayer.

The use of the Litany has varied over the years. Currently it is used as a prelude to the Eucharist (rather like the Great Litany of the Eastern Orthodox churches), seamlessly moving from intercession on behalf of the world before God into the Collect of the Day. In addition to being used after the collects at Morning or Evening Prayer, the rubric notes that the Litany may be used as a separate devotion. It is precisely this aspect which has fallen out of use and which I would submit the Church must recover.

It was once a common devotion among us to offer the Great Litany at noonday, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays, and daily during Lent, the quarterly Embertides, and Rogationtide. Thus, there was a time when people either as a community or in personal prayer would regularly offer this prolonged form of supplication and intercession. It was part of our DNA to intercede in a broad and intentional way for the world well outside the confines of the Sunday liturgies. By doing this, a community is raised from self-consciousness and self-obsession to its true priestly function of offering the world to Christ the Great High Priest.

When the Church regains its proper sense of purpose as the uniquely-called (and uniquely humble!) people of God, the meaning and value of such prayers as the Litany will once again be clear.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Reflections on the Great Litany - a preface

There are few better prayers in our tradition than the Great Litany for breadth and depth. Once, this litany accompanied each Sunday’s transition from Morning Prayer to the Holy Communion. It formed what was sometimes called the “English Introit,” a rich and probing series of petitions, praying for “all sorts and conditions” of humanity as the Church prepared to offer the Holy Mysteries "for the life of the world."

The Litany was also used at the end of Morning and Evening Prayer, to provide an intercessory balance to the Office’s other components of confession, instruction, and praise. In addition, it was also a separate devotion, often at Noonday, especially in Lent and at times of great national or communal upheaval.

Today, it is rarely seen or heard in most Episcopal Churches. Some in our comfort-driven era greet this with joy, fatigued by its length and a perceived “negative” character. Yet, a careful study of this litany yields much treasure in today's era of watered-down or entertainment-focused worship. For the coming weeks, it is my hope to enter into this ancient offering of prayer and come to a renewed understanding of its place in the teaching and practice of a faithful, apostolic Anglicanism of today.

There are many online resources which speak to the history and structure of the Great Litany (and litanies in general). Suffice it to say that the Great Litany actually pre-dates the Book of Common Prayer, and has been revised from time-to-time in the editions of the BCP since. The form used for these reflections will be that of the 1979 BCP of the Episcopal Church.

Of your courtesy, pray God's blessing on this endeavor.