Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Not So Simple Question

At the halfway point in Lent, here is the fundamental question: how will you be a different person on Easter Day as compared to Ash Wednesday?

Holy Lent, Jerry 

(With a nod to Bishop Johnson and his sermon on “radical transformation” this past Sunday.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Great Litany

This past Sunday, most Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches, along with a smattering of other churches, began the liturgy with The Great Litany. One of my “things” is I like to know why we do something and how it started. Here’s the word on The Great Litany.

Litanies, a kind of call and response prayer, is much older than this particular litany. The form is a petition of some kind, followed by a response. Litany comes from the ancient Greek and means supplication. An early one in the Western Church was the Kyrie (Lord have mercy etc). Typically it was chanted over and over in a liturgical processions and became an “official” practice in 529. In the fifth century processions through towns or villages became a popular pious practice and the Kyrie and other prayers were chanted or sung during them.

The Great Litany first appears in 1544 and was written by Thomas Cranmer during the English Reformation. Since all the liturgy was in Latin, Cranmer’s English treatment of the Litany was the first Latin prayer translated into English to be used in worship. He based it on the Sarum Missal which is a version of the Roman Rite, one of the earliest forms of the Divine Liturgy. Cranmer also borrowed from Martin Luther’s litany and because the Roman Rite is very similar to the Byzantine Rite used in the Orthodox Church, some parts of the litany date from the third century. There are even some parts of the prayer that are similar to Solomon’s prayer in I Kings.

Cranmer was following Henry VIII’s orders when he made this translation and revision. Henry noticed that the people were not joining in when the Litany was chanted in Latin. He thought the reason was the people “understode no parte of suche prayers or sufferages as were used to be songe and sayde.” He ordered Cranmer to translate it so there would be “set forthe certayne godly prayers and sufferages in our natyve Englishe tongue.” It is usually sung to the same chant Cranmer wrote for it.

In 1672, Anthony Sparrow wrote regarding the Great Litany: “In the beginning it directs our prayers to the right object, the Glorious TRINITY. For necessary it is, that we should know whom we worship. Then it proceeds to Deprecations, or prayers against evil; lastly, to Petitions for good.” And if you were paying attention last Sunday, you noticed the supplications touch on everything, every part of life.

Most parishes that use it, do so only on the second Sunday in Lent. Others use it on all but the fourth Sunday, so called “refreshment Sunday.” The Orthodox Church uses it every Sunday! Whenever we use it, it reminds us that we long for God’s intervention and involvement in all aspects of our life--aspects that this ancient prayer enumerates.

Holy Lent, Jerry

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

History of Ash Wednesday

Like so many practices in Christianity, pinpointing the exact beginning of the practice can be difficult. Ash Wednesday ashes is one such tradition. We know Ash Wednesday was originally called dies cinerum which means “day of ashes.” And we know the first known mention of dies cinerum is found in a early copy of the Gregorian Sacramentary from at least the 8th century. This is the book used by the priest at the altar which not only contains the words of the liturgy, but notes of various kinds useful to the clergy. Our priests use one each Sunday. 

A mention is one thing, a description is another. The mention in the Sacramentary tells us the custom was well established by the time the book was compiled, which was sometime around 781 and 791. The service book of the Roman Church was the nucleus of this book which was ordered by Charlemagne for his kingdom. Gregory, for whom the book is named, was the first Pope of the Middle Ages whose reign was 590-604. It is a fact that Gregory, one of the few Popes who is called the Great, did a good deal of liturgical reform. Consequently, the practice might be at least a century older than the service book.

Before this time, ashes had been used in a ritual with the Order of Penitents as early as the 6th century. A Spanish rite called for the sign of the cross to be made on a gravely ill person when admitting that person to the Order. The Order of Penitents were laity who had committed grave sins, who confessed their sins to the bishop and were assigned a penance that was to be carried out over time. While they worked out their penance, they had special places in church and wore special clothes to indicate their status of penitent sinners. Likely ashes were used at the beginning of the ritual for more than just the ill.

As I said above, a mention is one thing, but how was the day of ashes observed? The earliest record we have is by an Anglo-Saxon abbot, Aelfric (955-1020). In his Lives of the Saints he wrote, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.” 

We can easily assume Aelfric is describing, not our small sign of the cross in ashes on the forehead, but ashes poured or strewn on the head--which would have been the ancient practice in Judaism. The historical record indicates that originally, only men had ashes poured on their heads while women had the sign of the cross made on theirs. Of course, at some point, this became the universal practice. Ash Wednesday slowly became widespread and by the end of the 11th century, Pope Urban II called for the custom to be practiced throughout Christendom.

The words that are spoken as the ashes are imposed, “dust you are and to dust you shall return” are the words of God spoken to Adam and Eve after they disobeyed. The ashes are to remind us of our sinful tendencies and our need to repent.

You might wonder about the source of the ashes. Tradition requires that the palms from Palm Sunday of the year previous be burned and their ashes used.

Holy Lent, Jerry 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Somewhere in the deep recesses of time, some Christian community decided that setting aside a particular day to celebrate the Resurrection was a good idea. The early Christians considered each Sunday a kind of mini-celebration of the Resurrection, but some group wanted to commemorate the actual anniversary, if you will, of that event. When and where this happened is lost to us, but we know that in the mid-second century the first direct evidence of such a celebration can be found. Since dating it is tied to the Hebrew calendar, it might date back to the earliest period when followers were still largely Jewish. But, as tempting as it is to push the date farther back, there is no solid evidence for it.

As the Church has often done, it reads history with a biased eye, and by the end of the second century was teaching that this custom had been started with the Apostles. What can be proved is that different communities celebrated Easter on different days. The First Council of Nicaea in 325 established the date, which is movable and tied to a full moon, which the Western Church still uses today. The Eastern Church bases its calculations on the Julian Calendar which differs from the western usage and also count the forty days differently. Some parts of the Western Church didn’t follow the practice that Nicaea decreed until the seventh century, particularily Iona in Ireland.

Once Easter became an important celebration, some parish somewhere, began to incorporate the idea of preparation for full participation in the celebration. Evidence suggest it had to do with preparing  people to be baptized and then spread as all Christian in a community were invited to join those to be baptized in this preparation. We know that by the late second century, some Christians set aside various amounts of time to prepare, largely through fasting. As Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon wrote the bishop of Rome in 203, "The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their 'day' last 40 hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers."

In 325, the western Church decreed that the period of preparation would be forty days, counting backwards from Easter and omitting Sundays. The idea of forty was likely tied to Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness after his baptism. The Hebrew number forty was also tied to the days of the flood and the years of the Exodus. Today, Catholics end the period of Preparation on Thursday of Holy Week, making their Lent thirty-eight days. The period was not always called Lent. After 325 it was call Quadragesima [fortieth] in Latin and tessarakoste [fortieth] in Greek. Lent is an Anglo-Saxon, that is, English word which means “lengthen” which is associated with Spring when the days increase in length. 

Whatever the length, the Church has almost always seen the time as one of personal preparation for the experience of Easter. Since the very early Middle Ages, the ingredients of preparation include prayer, repentance, acts of charity, and self-denial. Many believe that a true celebration of Easter and a deep understanding of what happened for us because of the Resurrection requires keeping a Holy Lent--a Lent where the four things mentioned above are taken seriously.

Peace, Jerry