Sunday, March 6, 2022
WHY THE GREAT LITANY?
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450
There are times when world events cause priests, ministers, rabbis and imams to stop and wrestle with how do we connect what we do on Saturday or Sunday with the horrors of our world. This week has been one of those times. Added to the political issues there are underlying tensions between the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox church that go back centuries. Yet here we are in the first Sunday of Lent starting off the season with the Great Litany as if nothing has changed.
So why do we do the Great Litany? Every so often I have someone ask me that question. Well to begin Lent is when the Great Litany is supposed to be read/sung according to the BCP. It can be done at other times of penitence, and I will speak to that in a moment.
Maybe it would be helpful to look at the purpose of Lent. What Lent is about is clearly laid out in the invitation to Lent from the Ash Wednesday service.
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. Thereby, 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 which all Christians continually have to renew their 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 self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
So if Lent is truly about fasting, repentance, examination of our lives and making a change to how we live in our world then maybe the Great Litany begins to make sense. Yes, it is an old piece of liturgy one of the oldest in the prayer book and does seem a little dated in language, but the intent, that still holds true.
I don’t think I really understood the power of the Great Litany until 9/11 when I had just started at Virginia Seminary. Now some of you know this story but I think it is important for all to hear. I started at VTS in September of 2001. Regular classes had just started that incredibly clear and wonderful day of September 11. We were at chapel at 8 and as we came out and went to our mailboxes in Addison Hall the receptionist had her radio on and said a plane had accidentally flown into the World Trade Center. Then the second one hit the other tower. Students who lived in the dorms went to their common rooms and turned on the television. I was sitting in my car listening to NPR when I heard and felt an explosion that shook my car and I was told rattled the windows in the historic buildings. As I headed back to the administration building I met the dean who told me to go to all the dorms and call the students back to the chapel at 10:00 for prayer. The explosion was the plane that hit the Pentagon. Soon we could see the smoke rising in the distance. VTS is only about 5 miles from the Pentagon.
As we knelt in the chapel the dean began the Great Litany. All of a sudden the power of this began to sink in. I cannot read the words.
From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared,
without hearing ambulances coming up Quaker Lane and turning onto Seminary Road on their way to the INOVA Alexandria hospital. Which is the closest hospital to the Pentagon. Just as the dean read those words several fighter jets came screaming over the campus. Violence, battle and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared has an entirely different meaning to me now. That line has also been on my mind for the past two weeks as I watch the situation in Ukraine. The Great Litany is about life, the hard challenging aspects of life in what is a violent world. And all through it we pray spare us and deliver us good Lord.
I suspect that most people can find something in the Great Litany that truly touches them for none of us has lived a life that has not been touched in some way by evil or sin.
Now I do want to remind you of our definition of sin. Anything that breaks relationship with God, with others or with creation. All of the “sins” the behaviors or actions in the Great Litany are all about breaking relationship. However there is more to the Litany than just a really long and interesting list of sins. There are also prayers for those moments in life that are difficult. This is an acknowledgement that the world is a difficult and challenging place and that is certainly true today. The Litany acknowledges that there is evil in the world. The Litany knows that religion is not an insurance policy against bad things happening to us. It’s an acknowledgment that bad things will happen, but that God offers us what we need to handle what the world gives us.
I could do an entire sermon or teaching series on evil. Trust me, there is evil in the world, I have experienced it. We are watching evil unfold in Europe right now. Yes I believe in demons, I’ve encountered what I can only call a demon at least three different times. So while I try to keep a very positive view of the world I can assure you that I also know there is a very dark side to our world. The Great Litany is a chance to be reminded of that very important reality. The Great Litany will not allow us turn away and ignore evil. However, we can only face evil and sin if we acknowledge that it is a very real problem in our world today. I do not know how you can watch current events around the world and not see a very sinful and evil world.
Naming evil is important. Naming sin is important. We cannot do anything about them if we don’t acknowledge that they exist. I think one good thing that is coming out of some of the current mess is evil feels this is the time to come out, but that means evil is no longer hiding under some rock. We can see, name it and fight it.
In the Invitation to Lent, we pray for remission and absolution of our sins. Absolution means setting us free from our sins and remission is the withholding of deserved punishment. Pardon is based on the root word to forgive. Now an important part of this whole concept is that we amend, change our lives and head in a different direction and we certainly need that today.
I showed a video to the vestry last month and again this past Sunday for the adult Sunday School class. The person who made the film was talking about what to give up for Lent. He took a different spin on it and said, “Rather giving up something that we like, how about giving up something that brings us down, causes us or others pain.” He used the example of his wife who gave up shame one year for Lent. So after listening to the Great Litany, what might you be called to give up that pulls you down. Being judgmental, angry, looking at the negative in everything? These are all possibilities. One I like to use and often need to revisit is looking for the best in people rather than expecting the worst. Try looking at people with charity and love. Use love as your lens on the world.
I am going to repeat what I said at the end of the Ash Wednesday service for I believe that we covered almost all of these in the Great Litany. This is a good list of fasts and feats for all of us to consider.
Fast from judgment, Feast on compassion
Fast from greed. Feast on Sharing
Fast from fear. Feast on peace
Fast from lies. Feast on truth
Fast from gossip. Feast on praise
Fast from anxiety. Feast on kindness
Fast from apathy. Feast on engagement
Fast from discontent. Feast on gratitude
Fast from noise. Feast on silence
Fast from discouragement. Feast on hope
Fast from hatred. Feast on love