Yesterday, our services began with The Great Litany. It has been the custom at St. James, and is the custom in many Episcopal Churches to use The Great Litany on the First Sunday of Lent. It is the first piece of the liturgy translated and published in English, prepared by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in 1544 for use in all English churches at a time when England was at war with France and Scotland. He drew on Medieval litanies as well as on Luther’s litany from 1529 and a Greek Orthodox version. Litanies of this sort were commonly used during public processions from the earliest centuries of Christianity.
The language and the sentiments expressed in it may sometimes seem archaic or alien to us, but the Great Litany with its several sections is more than a catalog of our sins and supplications. It expresses our profound dependence on God for all that we are and reminds us that in the end, everything in our lives and the world lies in the providence of God.
It’s not without its humorous moments, however. The rubrics (instructions) in the Book of Common Prayer tell us that the Great Litany “may be said or sung, kneeling, standing, or in procession.” Whatever the case, when we come to the request that “… it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand, to comfort and help the weak-hearted, and to raise up those who fall,” we are often praying for ourselves.
If you didn’t get enough of it yesterday, there are a number of online versions available, including this one, which comes from St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Falmouth, MA.