Finding New Meaning in an Ancient Prayer

by Friday, February 19, 2021Clergy Reflection

Good Lord, deliver us.

“Unprecedented” was named “Word of the Year” by last year after its appearance in news media and public discourse skyrocketed amid the pandemic. Linguistic purists, though, rightly question whether we’ve robbed this word of its meaning. In the full sweep of human history, how “unprecedented” is this moment really?

After all, pandemics and related threats were hardly without precedent for our ancestors in the faith – to the contrary, they were ever present realities. The faith of ancient Christians was rooted in their deep awareness of their dependence on God for their daily survival. In our own liturgical tradition, this awareness is nowhere more evident than in the words of the Great Litany, a sweeping intercessory prayer that holds a special place in liturgical history as the oldest English-language rite in existence. With its petitions for God’s deliverance from such threats as “lightning and tempest… earthquake, fire, and flood,” in most years, this prayer sounds like an ancient relic to our ears.

Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer composed the Great Litany in 1544 – even before the first edition of The Book of Common Prayer was introduced a few years later (the full text of that liturgy can be found here). King Henry VIII ordered it to be prayed in parish churches at a time when England was at war with France and Scotland. As one commentator notes, “The Litany is a text forged out of tragedy.”1

This year, we’ll chant the Great Litany on the First Sunday in Lent, a day when many Episcopal faith communities across the church pray this ancient prayer. We will use a version from Enriching Our Worship, a companion to the Prayer Book that offers a version of the Great Litany in more contemporary language.

As 21st century Christians, in most years, the need for God’s protection from “plague, pestilence, and famine” feels outdated to say the least. I trust that when we pray the Great Litany this year, however, it will resonate in a much deeper way for many of us. The pandemic has blessedly stripped away our illusions that we can control our destiny. It has invited us to see with the clarity of our ancestors’ eyes the truth of our dependence upon God for our life, our health, and our salvation. In this fragile moment, the Great Litany beckons us to experience the freedom that comes with acknowledging the limits of our own power and our utter need for God’s grace.

As we enter into the season of Lent, the Great Litany gives us sacred, timeless language to beseech God’s divine protection. As we approach the one-year anniversary of our pandemic-induced separation, as we surpass two million deaths from this disease, the prayer for deliverance is one we can all pray with newfound clarity, as we echo the faithful cries of Christians who came before us, saying: “Good Lord, deliver us.”

[1] Michael, Mark A. “Good Lord, Deliver Us.” The Living Church, The Living Church Foundation, Inc., 3 Feb. 2016,