Please read with me from the Great Litany, in the prayer resources shared here and on Facebook:
P: From all sin, from all error, from all evil; from the cunning assaults of the devil; from an unprepared and evil death:
Let us pray.
Almighty God, we pray that you would deliver us from every evil, those known to us, and those we do not see. Help us to know and do your will in all things. Through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Around March 13 it became clear that celebrating Holy Communion in church at all--even distributing only the host, as we had previously indicated we would do--would not be wise or safe under the circumstances. We have a provision for non-Communion liturgy, but simply cutting it out seemed inadequate. It occurred to me that we could do the Great Litany to conclude the service. So we ad-libbed and had everyone present in the sanctuary open their copies of Evangelical Lutheran Worship to that curious, under-used piece of our history and we prayed it together. It was a powerful moment.
I don't know much about the Great Litany itself. I believe I first encountered it when I visited Wicker Park Lutheran Church in Chicago for the first time in 2005 (I wrote about that day, and that church, in an essay several years ago). It was the first Sunday in Lent, and the pastor explained that the Great Litany was traditionally recited on that Sunday as the congregation processed around the sanctuary. It's a powerful text but not easy to chant, for leader or congregation, and over the years it fell out of use even at Wicker Park.
From what I've read, this litany (or some version of it) has always been part of Lutheran liturgy. Litanies of all kinds are a big part of Christian worship (if you pray with us on Wednesday nights you've participated in a briefer, less elaborate litany), a haunting drone of call and response, often chanted in procession, plumbing some very severe depths of human fear and need. But for whatever reasons, it tended to disappear from American Lutheranism.
I wonder if this disappearance had something to do with the severity of its language. Over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, our worship texts became softer and vaguer on the evils we prayed against and the supplications we made to God against them. The historical roots of American Lutheranism are in Europe, among regular folk subject to terrible turns of fate, and among immigrants to America who were largely poor. But by the time we developed the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) and Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), along with a whole warehouse of online supporting material, we were a largely suburban and middle-class denomination. The spiritual battles in our prayers are about apathy and compassion, acquisitiveness and simplicity, altruism and hard-heartedness. The was still a world of plague, famine, and civil strife out there but our role was to be helpful.
As it turns out, being helpful is not enough.
Reflect: What is your or your family's most recent experience of famine, crop failure, or civil unrest? What does that experience mean to you now?
For at least forty years our prayers didn't take much account of the possibility of drought and famine, fire and flood, or an "unprepared and evil death." That's the phrase that stood out to me when I first heard the Great Litany and it's stayed with me ever since. Like it or not, all this stuff is real. It never stopped happening, it happens now, and we should pray about it together.
And while this can be alarming and intense, I've found it oddly comforting as well. You have to face the worst things in order to pray for help with them. You have to acknowledge that the grave sorrows and evils of the world are not just "out there" waiting for our resources and good intentions but very close at hand in order to invoke God's aid in enduring and defeating them. One great gift of our Christian faith (and certainly not just ours) is that it gives us language for fears and dangers that we might otherwise struggle to articulate. One thing we discover in a crisis is the extent to which our world runs on wishful thinking and denial, and how far those things have reached into church itself.
So join me in appealing to God with this words. I can't claim that they will speed the end of this epidemic (though I certainly will not claim that they won't). But they are fitting words. They will help us face our world honestly.
For the sick and those who care for them
for the lonely and isolated
for all pregnant women and new mothers
for those who come before God's throne today
for all who have no one to pray for them
Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Lord, have mercy
Our Father, who art in heaven...
God's Work. Our hands.