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.
(Sermon for Sunday, January 30, 2011 || Epiphany 4, Year A || Matthew 5:1-12)
I preached this sermon on a Sunday in which the church had Morning Prayer for the first half of the service. We timed the service a little long, so my rector encouraged me to shorten the sermon, hence this 900 word piece rather than my normal 1200-1400 word ones.)
Four hundred and sixty-two years ago, the first edition of a certain book went to the printing press. The year was 1549, the author was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and the book was the Book of Common Prayer. In this original Book of Common Prayer (or BCP for short), Cranmer compiled, crafted, codified, and composed the prayers that became the central structure of a new expression of Christianity known as Anglicanism. A decade and a half before this publication, the King of England, Henry VIII, had officially broken away from the Roman Catholic Church. However, in the years immediately following the split, very little changed about the English church besides the pope no longer being the supreme earthly authority. Two years after Henry’s death, Archbishop Cranmer published the first BCP and ushered in the unique expression of Christianity that we at this church continue to practice today.
This unique expression of following the way of Jesus Christ creates a structure, a framework of prayer, around which we organize our lives. Cranmer borrowed from the monastic example when he created this framework. Benedictine monks framed their days around an eightfold worship cycle; they prayed formally in church with one another about once every three hours. Cranmer wanted all people, not just monks, to frame their days with prayer, so he took the monastic practice and synthesized the eightfold structure into a twofold one. In his new structure, people prayed formally in the morning, then they went to work, and then they prayed formally again in the evening. Thus, the uniquely Anglican worship experience of Morning and Evening Prayer was born.
Every morning and every evening to this very day, Anglicans around the world have gathered to observe these two rituals. During them, we sing psalms and songs of praise to God. We read scripture. We pray and confess our sins. I would be willing to bet that, thanks to time zones, there is a service of Morning or Evening Prayer happening at every hour of every day all year long. When Cranmer developed this dual service, he did so in order to give his flock a method by which to order their lives around prayer and praise to God. This morning, we are participating in a cycle of worship that envelopes the whole world in constant prayer, a prayer that runs all the way back 462 years.
Whether or not we personally practice Morning and Evening prayer ourselves, the example, which Cranmer set, still guides us. Episcopalians prize the order behind our worship because the structure gives us a way to organize our lives around the things that are most important. The framework of prayer allows us to participate in God’s movement not just when we remember to or when we need to, but at all times.
When we adopt this structure and begin to practice our awareness of God’s presence, we can also begin to access another structure, a framework that lies beneath the one we normally witness with our eyes. This deeper structure is the one that Jesus speaks about to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel reading. The beatitudes, or statements of blessing, give us a glimpse of the deeper framework of reality that exists beneath the misplaced priorities and distorted vision of the world at large. This deeper reality is the one that God infused into creation from the beginning, a reality in which communion overrides isolation, peace quells domination, and love bests fear. Of course, humanity has ignored this deeper reality from the word go, preferring instead to set ourselves up as petty lords of our own destinies, oblivious to the fact that we have never really been in control of anything. Humanity’s greatest sin throughout history has always been setting up structures and systems that bury the deeper reality of God’s presence in all and through all. The ordered life of prayer gives us access to this reality.
Jesus’ beatitudes show us how the deeper structure of creation works. The poor in spirit, the grieving, and the persecuted are blessed. The meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and those passionate about peace and righteousness are blessed. These are not mere moral platitudes spoken to console a downtrodden people. They are not future promises that will be fulfilled someday in heaven if you can just endure long enough to get there. They are not hopes for what could be coming down the road. These statements of blessing are ways in which the deeper reality of God’s presence breaks through the distortions of the world – then and there on the mountainside with Jesus and here and now in our midst.
When we participate in an ordered life of prayer like the one that Archbishop Cranmer developed, we practice the presence of God every day, not just when we remember to or need to, but every day. This practice is a spiritual workout, which strengthens not our muscles, but our vision and our ability to respond to God’s call to serve. When we take on the framework of daily prayer, we train ourselves to see the deeper reality of God’s movement, to which the beatitudes point us. And then we leave this room, our spiritual gym, and we go out into the world to begin uncovering that reality and showing that God’s presence is, indeed, here.