The Great Litany

"Are we singing that thing in procession this Sunday?!”

That thing would be The Great Litany, the oldest piece of extant original-English liturgy we have.

Each week I receive numerous comments and questions about our liturgy and music, and I love this, as I know people in the pews are paying attention to what is going on. And truthfully, 99 percent of the comments I hear are wonderfully encouraging, positive and genuinely inquisitive.

Knowing that the faithful are paying attention to our liturgy and music helps me know that my day-to-day tasks at my desk and in the choir room are appreciated. I know this and I feel this on a regular basis. No one could ask for more validation of vocation than that.

The original Greek meaning of “litany” was “prayer” or “supplication,” but in modern usage “litany” has come to mean a prayer during which the responses are fixed, short biddings or petitions such as “Hear our prayer” or “Lord, have mercy” or “Kyrie eleison.” A number of our Rite Two Prayers of the People forms are in litany form.

Early Christians often used these responsorial forms of prayers and psalms in procession as well as in church worship. The specific litany form of prayer was in use in the church in Rome as early as the 5th century. Pope Pelagius I (d. 561) inaugurated the litany of intercession, known as a deprecatio (“prayer”) at the beginning of Mass.

Pope Gregory I, known as “Gregory the Great” (d. 604), assigned the use of the litany to certain special days and retained the “Kyrie eleison” responses.

The Litany was the first original-English liturgical rite published in 1544. The rubric printed at the top gave the instruction “to be read to the people in every church afore processions.”

The 1544 Litany was constructed by Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), who used as his primary sources the Sarum Litanies for Rogation, Processions and Death; the Litany written by Martin Luther; and the Litany from the liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.

The 1549 First Book of Common Prayer contained the Litany printed as an appendix to the Eucharist. It was to be said or sung kneeling on Wednesdays and Fridays before the liturgy of the word.

The Litany has been contained in each successive Book of Common Prayer, 1662, 1789, throughout the 19th century revisions, 1928, and all the way to 1979, where it was named The Great Litany to differentiate it from a number of other litanies in the book.

This great supplication prays for literally everyone and everything, from Adam and Eve to the president and Congress. And do we think The Great Litany is long? Go to temple with our Jewish neighbors some Friday night; their great prayer is Kaddish, which takes 10-20 minutes as I remember and also covers everyone and everything.

(I loved the two years that I was a temple organist many years ago, and I believe that every Christian organist should play one season in the temple. What we do in worship is based upon what they did and continue to do in worship. It is all a continuum for sure.)

The significance of The Great Litany is deep: It is our oldest original English language rite, it is all-encompassing and focuses our prayers for ourselves and for the world, and it is the strongest way to begin “keeping a Holy Lent.”

Posted by Dr. David Ouzts at 4:57 PM
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