Wednesday Word: The Great Litany

Every year on the 5th Sunday in Lent we either read (8 am) or sing (10:30) The Great Litany. Due to COVID and restrictions on indoor singing, we will be reading it at the 9:30 service this year.

A litany is a liturgical form of prayer consisting of announced petitions/biddings with formalized, fixed responses from the congregation. You can find a variety of litanies in the BCP – Suffrage B in Evening Prayer; Forms I, IV, and V of Prayers of the People; and Ps. 136 are all good examples. Litanies have been in use in the Church from the time of Pelagius I (492-496), and a litany was the first rite published in English in 1544 as a special supplication when Henry VIII was at war with Scotland and France. This Sunday's Great Litany is called that because this one is much longer than any other litany in the Prayer Book and has five distinct sections.

So as I said, every 5th Sunday in Lent we pray The Great Litany. We should probably pray it more often, as there are a variety of petitions that address our daily lives. And it does seem that, every year, I find something in it that grabs my attention. More often than not, with Palm Sunday and Holy Week on the horizon, the petition to “Remember not, Lord Christ, our offenses . . .” hits home. I also tend to focus on the petition mentioning Christ's “Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion; by the precious Death and Burial . . .” And there are other petitions I focus on at different times.

This past year has been a doozy. We've come yet again face-to-face with racial inequality and injustice in the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, Etonne Tanzymore, and so many others. We have spent a year dealing with a global pandemic which has killed over 2.6 million people worldwide and affects people of color more often in this country. And on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, our country survived an attempted coup led by white supremacists, Nazi sympathizers, neo-fascist Proud Boys, Christian nationalists, and other right wing hate groups.

All of these memories from this past year came flooding back as I proofed the bulletin for Lent 5.

From all false doctrine, heresy, and schism . . . Good Lord, deliver us.

From lightning and tempest . . . from plague, pestilence, and famine, Good Lord, deliver us.

From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion . . . Good Lord, deliver us.

The Church has used a form of these petitions for centuries, and the Litany has been part of the Prayer Book since 1549. Over the years parts of the Litany have had more meaning at certain times than others.

This was a year like none other in our lifetimes, so it just may be that we pray the Great Litany like we have never prayed it before in our lifetimes.



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