Why I Love the Great Litany

(This is a repost from last year.)

On the first Sunday of Lent, we traditionally process solemnly around the church behind the cross while a cantor (and I've been the cantor a couple of times) chants The Great Litany and we the people chant our own responses.

Not everyone likes the Great Litany.  I know folks who find excuses to stay away from church on the First Sunday of Lent because of it.  (Oh, God, it's the Great Litany again.  Time to go to the beach or skiing on Spring Break.  Or time to forget to set my clock so I'll accidentally on purpose miss church!)  I know folks who dislike the idea of calling ourselves sinners in such dramatic and pointed fashion.  They say it makes the world sound bad and there's too much stuff about demons and all.

In the Great Litany, the cantor calls upon the triune God to overlook our sins and offenses and to save us from all of the things that beset us, from fire and pestilence to pride and envy to violence and sudden death.  Our responses to those petitions are "Have mercy upon us" and "Good Lord, deliver us."  The cantor goes on to beseech God to end wars and bring peace, to bless women in childbirth, to inspire us to work for the common good, to not only forgive but turn the hearts of our enemies.  (And we respond, "We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.")

Despite all the "good Lords" that can easily be heard as an ejaculation of shock or surprise ("Good Lord, man, what have you done?!"), the Great Litany more than anything reminds us all that God is good, that God wants for there to be peace, for people to be safe, for the earth to be cared for and for people to forgive one another.  These are all positives.

But more than that, in this lengthy prayer we bring everything and every kind of thing before God - natural disasters, spiritual forces, community issues, relational issues, justice, caring, kindness, forgiveness, family, babies, people who are lonely - all of the things that are (and are often broken) before God and say, this is all in your hands, God.  We cannot save ourselves.  We cannot save ourselves from flood or famine or from our own hardheartedness, from our own physical frailty, from our own imprisonment by all sorts of captors.  We acknowledge that today on this first Sunday of Lent, that we cannot save ourselves and that we can't compartmentalize our lives so that some of it has to do with our faith and our salvation while other parts of it don't.

This is not a popular idea, especially in American culture in which we extoll those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, where we believe that if one just works harder and tries harder, one can overcome just about anything.  (And frequently without any help.)  The Lone Ranger, the self-sufficient pioneer, the romantic man in his cabin in the woods - these are our heroes.  But the Great Litany says, we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, we acknowledge our dependence upon God's grace and bounty (which is plenteous, for this is the Good Lord who delivers us).

I need to hear this every year.  I need to walk around the church saying this out loud in front of God and everybody.  I need to hear that it's not all up to me, that I am not God, that I don't have to do it all myself.  I need to remember that my whole life, not just some parts of it, is bound up in God's life.

And so, this is why I love the Great Litany.


Unknown said…
It's weird, I don't know why I havent paid much attention to it before (I've only been episcopalian for a few years) but this time I really loved it. I think especially because our church's worship isn't particularly high church it's nice to have those times when we use liturgy to say "Stop and think! this is important!"
I'm glad you had that experience today, Glenn! It is one of the beauties of being part of a liturgical tradition - and you are right that The Great Litany is even more emphatic because it is rare.
Perpetua said…
The Litany is part of the liturgy for Ash Wednesday here in the UK, Penny, but I can see that it would work well on the first Sunday of Lent for larger congregations. I'm a litany fan too. :-)
I didn't realize that it was used there on Ash Wednesday, Perpetua. Thanks for the info. Our church here only has a center aisle and so we don't do much of a procession here, but at my home parish with side aisles, the acolytes, priests, and choir do process around the church up and down all the aisles while chanting The Great Litany.