Today is the first Sunday of Lent and through this season we understand that we are a people invited to holy journey. A that began on Ash Wednesday when we received a mark of ashes on our foreheads. On our journey together in Lent we are reminded that we are a people struggling- with our mortality, our frailties – our temptations, fears and insecurities- and yes with our sins- and as we journey together we become a people of God.
But there are some practical questions which may pop into our mind. Questions that all of us ask when we are on a trip. Where are we going? How do we know we when we get there? And for our holy journey some of us may ask what makes our journey different from the rest of the world which also travels. And some of us can be like impatient kids in the back seat who ask “Are we there yet?” And with these questions-- scripture can help us.
Through our scripture and through the lectionary readings in Lent and we understand that the story of God’s people is a story of a people who are always on a journey. Adam and Eve moving out of the Garden of Eden into the Wilderness, or Noah traveling through the uncharted oceans to find land or Abraham and Sarah traveling from Ancient Iraq to the land of Caanan. Jacob- traveling alone away from his home and then coming back home with his family. There are times the story involves God’s people traveling to places like Egypt to survive and at other times they journey to escape slavery and captivity as they did in Egypt and Babylon.
The consistent theme is that the people of God are always traveling- where are they going? – most times to the “promised land” a land which means for them- a place of peace, security, hope- a place they could call home. But the truly ironic thing is that the promised land may not be physical destination it may be something altogether different –because-- in the places they end up – all ways fall short of expectations. For there is always trouble brewing in Eden and outside of Eden.
Notice even in the Gospel, the moment Jesus is Baptized, the moment he acknowledges his understanding of his vocation as “Beloved Son of God”- he is driven into the wilderness, he begins a journey that tests his call. But also notice that as he traveled, his sence of security, hope and peace was not some place- Jesus seemed always seemed to be at “home” where ever he went. Maybe because he understood that he was never alone- God was always with him. This is a piece of wisdom that each generation of faithful Israelite eventually learn. It is a lesson that we may learn as we journey with God- if we go with God we are always in the promised land. This makes our journey uniquely holy!
Today in our liturgy- we began by praying the Great Litany. Traditionally, Anglican Churches engage in this liturgy on the first, second, third and fifth Sundays of Lent, although many churches pray this litany on the first Sunday of Lent as we do today. For us, it marks the beginning of the journey of Lent. You might have some questions about this litany.
First off what is a litany – it is a series of petitions that are said in a responsive fashion between a leader and an entire congregation. In the Great Litany, nearly every area of prayer is addressed.. including prayer for the church, the world, the government, and the poor. These petitions are prefaced by a series of requests asking God to deliver us from all manner of afflictions: evil, sin, heresy, schism, natural disasters, political disasters, violence, death, and the list goes on.
For those of us who are new to the Episcopal Church the Great Litany might seem a bit peculiar or awkward. It might seem like we are doing some sort of liturgical aerobics, yes--it is not a something that is done in other religious traditions. Because really-- what church ever begins a service with ten to twelve minutes of a cappella chanting of prayers while a congregation repeats a refrain the entire time. The chanting is done all while the choir, clergy and lay ministers process into the sanctuary and continue to process around the sanctuary until the entire litany is over.
But this litany roots us- to an ancient tradition. The Great Litany is the first piece of liturgy that ever existed in the English language. Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury, compiled this litany from Catholic, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox sources at the request of King Henry the Eight in the 16th century . Prior to this point all church services were in Latin. King Henry VIII commissioned this Litany because at the time it was the practice for litanies to be offered in procession through public neighborhoods. And the King was disappointed that people were not responding and joining in the prayers. He observed that this was because the people “understode no parte of suche prayers or suffrages as were used to be songe and sayde.”
It remains to today almost entirely the same, sung to the same chants Cranmer originally assigned.
Through this procession of community- in prayer we acknowledge several realities. First we understand – that prayer is central to our life together and mission in the world. The Great Litany helps us to see that we need God’s intervention and involvement in all areas of our lives. It also reminds us that we are on a journey with God and with each other. And it is in the midst of this journey that we let go of our illusion of control, and empty ourselves to God. And finally, we understand that regardless of where we are, when we are with God--- we are at home. It may be cliché sounding --but friends wisdom tells us the –the destination is never as important as the journey and who we travel with.
What a wonderful way to begin Lent.