I realise we are a week off from each other this year, but I’ll still commemorate western Easter with Orthodox prayers! These are some favourites from the book of prayers called the Octoechos. Father Raphael says that the Octoechos contains all the theology of the Orthodox church. Here are three prayers from the Octoechos:
Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad! For the Lord hath shewed strength with his arm, and trampled down death by death. He is become the first-born from the dead. He hath delivered us from the pit of hell, and hath bestowed his great mercy upon the world. -Tone 3 for Sundays
O praise and worship, O ye faithful, the Word, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost together is everlasting, born of the Virgin for our salvation: for he was pleased in flesh to mount the Cross and suffer death, and in his glorious Resurrection to raise the dead. -Tone 5 for Sundays
Thou from on high didst come in tender mercy, and didst endure the three days’ burial to free us from our passions: O Lord, our Resurrection and our life, glory to Thee. -Tone 8 for Sundays
In the thorough Introduction to her translation of St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations, Sr Benedicta Ward discusses the relationship of the liturgy to St Anselm’s works. At one point, she writes:
here … it is impossible to distinguish between the influence of the Bible and that of the liturgy, which after all is composed almost exclusively of biblical material. (p. 34)
This is a noteworthy statement. It is certainly true of the Book of CommonPrayer — as a meme I encountered a while back noted, ‘Ever notice that the Bible quotes the Prayer Book so much?’ Indeed, I have spent a lot of my life happily discovering bits of liturgy hiding away in my Bible readings.
Now, praying a liturgy assembled from bits of Scripture is not the same thing as sustained study of Scripture and meditation upon its application to our own lives. Nonetheless, it strikes me as good practice.
It also reminds of an oft-repeated falsehood. Someone (indeed, employed by an Anglican church) said that neither the BAS nor the BCP would do. I asked what would be better. Answer: the Bible.
Well, pull out BCP! Pull out your Missal! Pull out the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom! Pore through the Liturgy of the Hours. Not only do the services of church contain space for reading Scripture, they are also full of Scripture, as we make the words of God our own.
Anyway, I have little to take away. But if you find yourself praying a traditional liturgy, be aware that you are soaking yourself in Scripture in a particular way. Thank the Holy Spirit for the grace of the liturgists and let the Word dwell in you richly.
For we who pray the Prayer Book Collects, Bible Sunday has come around again. I have no deep meditations on Scripture and its role in our lives this year, so what I do have I offer you — George Herbert:
THE HOLY SCRIPTURES
O Book! infinite sweetness! let my heart
Suck every letter, and a honey gain,
Precious for any grief in any part;
To clear the breast, to mollify any pain.
Thou art all health, health thriving, till it make
A full eternity: thou art a mass
Of strange delights, where we may wish and take.
Ladies, look here; this is the thankful glass,
That mends the looker’s eyes: this is the well
That washes what it shows. Who can endear
Thy praise too much? thou art Heaven’s Lieger here,
Working against the states of death and hell.
Thou art joy’s handsel: heaven lies flat in thee,
Subject to every mounter’s bended knee.
Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine
And the configurations of their glory!
Seeing not only how each verse doth sine,
But all the constellations of the story.
This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie;
Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,
These three make up some Christian’s destiny.
Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,
And comments on thee: for in every thing
Thy words do find me out, and parallels bring,
And in another make me understood.
Stars are poor books, and oftentimes do miss:
This book of stars lights to eternal bliss.
And, in case you need a reminder, the Collect for Advent 2:
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
At the back of my Book of Common Prayer I have this Post-It note:
It says, for those with difficulty reading text of images:
Hope of my heart, strength of my soul, help of my weakness, by your powerful kindness complete what in my powerless weakness I attempt. My life, the end to which I strive, although I have not yet attained to love you as I ought, still let my desire for you be as great as my love ought to be. (trans. Benedicta Ward from The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm)
I cannot tell you where in St Anselm’s prayers and meditations this is to be found. I found it originally for Evensong one year when I was precenting and it was the feast of this Archbishop of Canterbury (although he wrote this when still a monk at Bec).
Nevertheless, it has been a go-to prayer of mine ever since, and I am glad that I stuck this Post-It in the back of my prayer book — the expectation was a single use, but grace decided otherwise. I hope it can similarly inspire you.
Do you have any favourite prayers? I’m thinking of sharing some others here over the coming weeks.
I imagine that in relation to my last post, those of you who may not have spent a lot of time amongst super-high church folks or the Orthodox may be thinking:
WHOA. The Divine Liturgy of St James takes 3 HOURS?
Others of you may wonder if that includes time for prayer ministry at the front while the band plays on endlessly. It doesn’t. 😉
Indeed, when we say that a traditional liturgy takes three hours, that means that just following the actions listed on the page, and praying the prayers written there, will take three hours, and this without a sermon. St Augustine once preached for two hours, and we have a few lengthy sermons from St John Chrysostom.
On the other hand, we all know that a good modern priest like Father Ted can do Mass in, what, five minutes? The church you go to probably has a church service that lasts between one hour and one hour and a half. And I bet that if your minister preaches two minutes longer than usual, people ‘joke’ with him about preaching ‘so long’.
I imagine some clergy take those jokes in good humour; I’m not a clergyman, but I feel offended for all of them at such jokes. (Self-righteousness is easy to come by. You wanna be humble? Look at me.) What is it that we are all rushing away from the assembly of the faithful and the worship of the Holy God that is so important that we can’t stand to hear a person unfolding the Scriptures to us for a few more minutes? Or that we can’t sing those two last verses of ‘Crown Him with Many Crowns’?
Coffee in the hall? Football? Brunch? Our son’s nap? (I’ll give you the last one.)
When my minister was talking about how long the Divine Liturgy of St James would take if done in full, he said something that stuck with me, ‘They were thirsty for God.’
— I guess before I start exhorting us all to be similarly thirsty, I should throw out my historian’s caveats. Indeed, not all Christians were that into liturgy. Indeed, some people were probably late, others may have left early. Indeed, there were worldly Christians in the late third century (well before Constantine ‘corrupted’ things). Indeed, there has never been a golden age. —
But whatever problems ancient Christians may have had, and whatever virtues we may possess:
They were thirsty for God.
Ante-Nicene Christians faced, at various times and in various places, imprisonment, unemployment, torture, death, confiscation of church property, etc., simply for being Christians, whether at the official hands of government or those of an angry mob. Many succumbed (many still do), many others live in glory with Christ as confessors and martyrs.
They were thirsty for God.
After Constantine, when it was safe, even prudent at times and eventually pretty much required to be a Christian, many Christians would still gather on Sundays for hours to hear their beloved bishops preach. While others went to the chariot races or watched the pagan spectacle next door, some Christians (who knows how many?) would still faithfully attend their churches for prayer, preaching, and sacrament, more than willing to stand for three hours in clouds of incense to worship the God who saved them.
They were thirsty for God.
Others at the same time felt the faith in the city was being too watered down, so off they went to the desert places and wrestled with demons and prayed day and night and memorised the Bible.
They were thirsty for God.
What are we thirsty for in the age of social media, in our hyper-real, technologised age? Netflix? Likes on our blog posts? The perfect selfie? A nicely curated library of spiritual books (who knows [cares] if we’ve read even one)? The perfect cup of coffee? A nice, cold beer?
I must confess out front that I am no great friend of liturgical innovation. I realise that much of what we do at Christian gatherings was, at some point, an innovation, such as using a language other than Greek (be it Latin or English or any modern vernacular), or singing hymns, or using an organ, or stained glass windows, etc. Nevertheless, I am not generally interested in the creation of wholly new liturgical developments that do not interact with or grow from the existing traditions.
Indeed, one of the great things about the BCP is the fact that most of it is simply an Englishing of Sarum with a few new prayers, and some collects and other prayers translated from other sources. It is a completely traditional innovation in liturgy. It was an attempt to keep in step with both tradition and scripture, being catholic and reforming.
I can also see circumstances for the creation of new orders of worship, of new prayers, as well as adaptations of old ones.
What I did not say is that we did not use said liturgy precisely as it exists in the editions, translations, and manuscripts.
Well, first of all, the Liturgy of St James takes around three hours. In the economy (oikonomia) of church life, not every congregation can handle that. My church is a diverse group, not all of whom are yet comfortable with any liturgy, let alone three hours of it. Most lack the stamina for these ancient services. So our priest cut it to an hour and a half, mostly by cutting repetitions.
He also made necessary changes because the rubrics require the presence of quite a few clergy, and all we’ve got are a priest and a deacon (so we’re better off than many other congregations!).
A third set of changes was a modification of the wording because a great many people in our congregation are ESL, often from East Asia but also some Europeans. This was a way to make using this ancient form of worship accessible to them.
A fourth set (I imagine) was the cutting of aspects of the text as we have it that would be simply unacceptable to those of evangelical background who attend our church. This I am not sure of, because I’ve never read the entirety of the text. But, given that some invocations of saints slipped through, I bet others were cut. Now, our priest is himself edging ever higher, but in the oikonomia of parish life, clergy have to tread carefully.
These strike me as four acceptable reasons to tinker with an ancient liturgy, for their main purpose is, while maintaining the heart and core of the worship as laid out, to make it more accessible to the congregation at hand. I think this is the sort of thing that must be done carefully and prayerfully, mind you. We live now over fifty years after Vatican II, and all the liturgical churches of the West have suffered through their share of poorly-executed liturgical experiments done, one hopes, with the best of intentions.
But if we tinker and prod and sometimes shorten the ancient texts with care and reverence, doing so as a means of opening them up to others — surely this is no bad thing?
This coming Tuesday is the feast of St James, the brother of our Lord, and first bishop of Jerusalem. To celebrate this feast, my church has decided to worship using the Liturgy of St James! How cool is that? This is precisely the sort of way I would like to celebrate a saint as well — worship God in a way (descended from how) he did!
For example, reading St Anselm’s Meditations on the feast of St Anselm. Using a 1552 BCP to commemorate Cranmer? Using the Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes on his commemoration. Praying the Jesus Prayer to commemorate St Gregory Palamas. Or maybe reading The Triads. I like reading their works — read Ambrose on his feast, Augustine on his own, likewise Basil, the Gregories, Chrysostom. Read about Augustine of Canterbury for his. That sort of thing.
And what is the Divine Liturgy of St James?
It is one of the oldest liturgies of the church, especially when we reduce the body of liturgies examined to those in continual use. Some suspect it is the oldest, but that’s a difficult thing to prove definitively. It is a traditional eucharistic liturgy from the church in Jerusalem, hence its association with St James. The traditional liturgy of a city is often associated with its first bishop, or, at least, a famous one — so, St Mark in Alexandria, but St Ambrose in Milan and St Gregory the Great in Rome.
It is unlikely to have been the actual divine liturgy used by St James, just as the entirety of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is not John Chrysostom’s (the anaphora is, though, as demonstrated by Robert Taft some years ago). From what I gather over at the OrthodoxWiki, the liturgy as we have it is probably a fourth-century version of the traditional Jerusalem liturgy, maybe from the time of St Cyril.
That said, there is definitely a pre-Cyril, indeed Ante-Nicene, substratum to this text. Some claim that you can see elements of Aramaic idiom in some parts of the liturgy. This I cannot say, but I can say that to this day it is the divine liturgy of many Syriac-speaking churches. It includes the ‘lift up your hearts’ (sursum corda) section at the beginning of the anaphora, in common, then, with the third-century Apostolic Tradition (attributed by scholars to Hippolytus), the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the Roman Mass, and the Book of Common Prayer.
It is a beautiful liturgy, full of deep theology — read it here.
What do we gain if, this Tuesday, we celebrate Holy Communion with this liturgy, like the Eastern Orthodox churches (and my church)?
Well, regardless of which liturgy one uses, the mystic union of the sacrament of Holy Communion is always a moment of grace. In less important ways, using this liturgy is a way to connect through time and space with other Christians and honour one of the leading apostles. Praying these prayers joins with many centuries of Christian worship. It joins us with Jerusalem, the Holy City. It cuts through time and space.
That’s pretty cool. It thus serves as a reminder of the ongoing reality of our holy, wholly powerful, God.