The Great Litany

In The Book of Common Prayer, on page 148 is the Great Litany. The Great Litany, like all Litanies, is a prayer of supplication consisting of several petitions and responses. Interestingly, this particular Litany is the first prayer translated into English by Thomas Cranmer. He would eventually assemble The Book of Common Prayer, most of which is still in use today.

In writing this Litany, Cranmer borrowed from several others, including the Sarum rite and the Litany of Martin Luther. The original 1544 version included invocations to the Saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, but these were omitted in 1549. The Litany was ordered to be used in Church processions by Henry VIII when England was at war with Scotland and France.

The rubrics are quite simple:

To be said or sung, kneeling, standing, or in procession; before the Eucharist or after the Collects of Morning or Evening Prayer; or separately; especially in Lent and on Rogation Days.

The Great Litany strikes a penitential tone and is often used on the First Sunday in Lent. The Litany contains an invocation to the Trinity, several petitions for the deliverance from evil, spiritual harm, and all kinds of “calamities.” The Litany also includes petitions pleading the power of Christ’s Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection asking for deliverance; prayers of general intercession; the Agnus Dei; the Kyrie; the Lord’s Prayer. The Litany ends with a versicle and response based on Ps 33:22; a concluding collect; and the grace.

Most all Christian Churches have some Litany. Although I am not sure it could be considered a litany, one of the most beautiful is the prayer said by Orthodox Christians during the time of Lent called the Prayer of St. Ephraim. This is prayed individually or during worship, and after each verse, one makes a complete prostration. This prayer, like the Great Litany, is penitential.

 O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord, and King grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.

Lent is a time of prayer and repentance, and the prayers of the Church, like the Great Litany, are a reminder of that penitential nature of the Season.

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