Sunday, November 15, 2020
Today, in lieu of a sermon, I’d like to offer an “instructed” service of Morning Prayer. We’ve done this in the past with services of Holy Eucharist, which was our principal act of communal worship before the pandemic moved us online. While we could continue to worship God following our normal Eucharistic service, our inability to share Holy Communion with one another at a distance led me to shift our weekly gathering to the other type of service found in the Book of Common Prayer. This is the service of Morning Prayer, one of two services of what is called the “Daily Office.” Today, we are going to walk through the elements of the service as we engage in them, and I will share a few historical, liturgical, and theological thoughts as we go.
We begin with an opening sentence of greeting, and our chosen one comes from the opening line of St. Paul’s letter to the church of the Philippians (1:2). One thing you’ll notice about Morning Prayer is how much of the service is direct quotations from passages of the Bible, and the beginning is no exception.
>>>CONFESSION AND ABSOLUTION
The confession of sin comes at the beginning of Morning Prayer. We say these words each day to remind us both of our own personal ways we have missed the mark, and also of the ways we are complicit in the big sins of the world; that is, the ways our society distorts and degrades the relationships of people with one another, with God, and with all creation. That’s the reason the confession is plural (“We confess”). We ask for mercy and forgiveness in order that we might walk in God’s ways. God’s mercy allows us to ask this again and again. And God’s forgiveness allows us to keep striving for justice and peace no matter how often we fail.
Also, as an aside, you do not need an ordained person like me in order to share Morning Prayer. The rubric (that is, the italicized directions) make it clear that a lay person can offer the words of the absolution with the change of a couple pronouns. In other words, you don’t need me to have this service.
After the confession, we have our first instance of “call and response” in the service of Morning Prayer. This shows that, while you can pray Morning Prayer alone, the service is designed for two or more people to share in it together. This call and response is our next hidden bit of scripture, this time from Psalm 51, which we read in full on Ash Wednesday. Here it is:
More verses from the Bible come next in the inviting words of Psalm 95 called the “Venite,” which means “Come” in Latin. After the Venite, we read a portion of the book of Psalms. On Sundays, we are reading the psalm appointed for the day, but if you read the Daily Office every day, you would read the entire book of Psalms over the course of seven weeks, and then repeat. I’ll talk a little more about this later when I discuss the origins of the service. After the Psalm, we read our lessons from the Bible. Like I said, but for a few prayers, the raw material of this service comes from Holy Scripture.
>>> FIRST READING
After the first two readings, we say (or sing) a Canticle. These are special prayers from – you guessed it – the Bible. Most of them are pieces of scripture that look an awful lot like songs and in some cases are actually identified as songs in the text. Many of these come from the Gospel According to Luke including the Song of Mary (commonly called the Magnificat) and the Song of Simeon (the Nunc Dimittis). Others come from the prophet Isaiah and the book of Revelation. These prayers are called “canticles” during the Daily Office because “canticle” comes from the Latin “cantus” which means “song.” Our first canticle today is the song of Hannah from the first book of Samuel (2:1-8). Hannah’s song serves as the scriptural inspiration for the Mary’s song. The second canticle is commonly called the Christ hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:6-11). These verses of scripture are the clearest example in Paul’s letters of Paul perhaps borrowing the liturgical songs of the early church and placing them in his letters.
>>> FIRST CANTICLE
>>> SECOND READING
>>> SECOND CANTICLE
>>> THIRD READING
Some of you may be wondering why I’m not reading the Gospel lessons during these services of Morning Prayer. In the context of the Holy Eucharist, it is the role of the clergy (specifically the deacon, if one is available) to proclaim the Gospel in the midst of the people. No such clearly defined role exists in the Daily Office – remember, you don’t need a clergy person to say Morning Prayer. Therefore, I’m enjoying listening to the words of the Gospel coming from the lips of our members.
In this time where we’d normally have the sermon, I’d like to speak for a moment about the history of Morning Prayer. At the time of the separation between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England in the mid-1500s, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer began crafting what became known as the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer took the eight daily services commonly observed in monasteries and reduced them to two services. It was all well and good for monks to come together for prayer every couple of hours (even in the middle of the night), but Cranmer understood that for everyday non-monks such an expectation was unrealistic. So Cranmer took elements of several of the monastic offices and combined them into Morning and Evening Prayer. Twice-daily prayer was a much more realistic schedule for regular people.
Indeed, the morning and evening schedule reached back to a Jewish tradition of reciting the Shema Israel. The book of Deuteronomy says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (6:4-7).
While monks might recite the entire book of Psalms in a week, Cranmer stretched it to a month. The chanting of the Psalms is the highlight of the beautiful service of Evensong, which is Evening Prayer set to music (and also the best moments of my college experience, especially when we sang at Yorkminster and Wells Cathedrals in England).
In the current edition of the Episcopal Prayer book, two more of the monastic offices have been reclaimed – Noonday Prayers and Compline. The latter is especially meaningful to many people, and I invite you to look it up in your Book of Common Prayer. If you don’t have one, I’ve included a link to a PDF in the description below today’s service.
What follows next is the Apostles Creed, the older of the two creeds we say in worship services. You’ll note the major difference between this and the Nicene Creed is the Apostles Creed lacks the long section about how Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. The Nicene Creed includes the section because the nature of the Holy Trinity was in dispute at the council that created the Nicene Creed. The earlier Apostles Creed was not concerned with trying to explain the nature of the Trinity, so it doesn’t.
>>> THE APOSTLES CREED
The next section of the service returns to the call and response nature of the Daily Office. We say the Lord’s Prayer followed by a set of versicles and responses, many of which come directly from scripture. The last one quotes Psalm 51 again, just as the beginning of the service does. This is a lovely bookend of verses from an essential piece of scripture. After the responses, we pray several collects. A collect collects aspects of a theme into a single prayer. One is written for each Sunday, though recent changes in the lectionary (or appointed readings) has jumbled the collects up so they don’t necessarily map very well to the day’s readings. We conclude these prayers with a collect for mission. Today’s is my favorite because it is all about following Jesus’ example in reaching out our hands in love.
>>> THE PRAYERS
We place a song here in order to give you time to place your prayers in the chat box of YouTube Live. Needless to say, Thomas Cranmer never dreamed of this particular scenario when he created this service. But he was an innovator whose fervent goal was to help people pray, so I think he would approve. Please take the time to add your prayers to the chat box now.
The service continues with a closing thanksgiving. While we do not celebrate the “Great Thanksgiving” of the Eucharist in this service, we nevertheless give thanks to God because of God’s constant presence in our lives, spurring us to show forth our praise to God not only with our lips but in our lives. A second prayer follows, one attributed to the fourth century saint John Chrysostom. This prayer reaches again for scripture in quoting Jesus’ words about being present when two or three gather in his name (Matthew 18:20).
>>> THE GENERAL THANKSGIVING
>>> PRAYER OF ST. CHRYSOSTOM
The service concludes with a dismissal and a closing sentence. The closing sentence draws us back to the Bible once last time with the conclusion of St. Paul’s second letter to the church of the Corinthians (13:13). When we say Morning Prayer together, we are steeping ourselves in the words of the Bible, making those ancient words our current prayers. We pray together, back and forth in call and response, and in so doing, we practice our relationship with God, who is always and forever calling out to us.
>>> CLOSING SENTENCE
Click here to download the PDF of the Book of Common Prayer.
Season 3, Episode 5:
Frozen 2: Grow Yourself Into Something New
In Season Three, we are looking at facets of identity, and our fifth episode looks at the songs in Frozen 2, as we talk growing into the people we are meant to be. Plus, in our book club we tackle chapters 14-16 of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.