All I Really Need to Pray I Learned from the Litany

Martin Luther | plugrafico, Pixabay

By Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

The Litany has replaced Holy Communion at my church.

This is not an act of anti-sacramental aggression but, like so many worship matters these days, a practical necessity. Located as our church is in one of the busiest parts of already-busy Tokyo, and sensitive to the Japanese public’s bafflement even under normal circumstances at Christians’ insistence on weekly in-person gatherings, our church council made the hard decision to nix the body and blood of Christ as long as the coronavirus remains a live threat.

But after enjoying weekly communion for so many years, our English-language congregation has been left with a gaping void at the end of our service. I tried a few other options before finally deploying my old friend, the Litany. I think it will be with us for some time. There are worse consolation prizes.

I didn’t even realize when I started us on the Litany that Luther, too, dusted it off and cleaned it up for evangelical use in a time of public emergency (though in his case it was the threat of Ottoman invasion).

All I knew was that the Litany was a standby in midweek Lenten services of my childhood. I remember tracking along as the petitions grew bulkier and bulkier — the one on the bottom of p. 171 in the Lutheran Book of Worship maxes out at 10 straight petitions — and breathing a sigh of relief when we hit the downslope toward the Kyries once again.

But I remember just as powerfully the key change halfway through, as the Litany moves from the deprecations and obsecrations to the intercessions, dropping down to a new note of urgency, gravity, and need.

On and off throughout adulthood, when my own prayers have been empty or weak or distractable, I have turned to the Litany. Now, in this crisis year of 2020, I’ve come to appreciate it afresh. Everything I’ve ever thought I was learning for the first time, every challenge I’ve faced without preparation, turns out to have been there in the Litany all along. It was just waiting for me to notice it.

Sunday liturgy had already trained me well to ask for mercy and to ask it of the Holy Trinity, so the opening call-and-response of the Litany is familiar and unsurprising. Unique to the Litany, though, is the twice-repeated “Be gracious to us; Spare us, good Lord,” which not so subtly suggests the likelihood of its opposite.

From there the Litany moves into more detailed pleas for deliverance: from sin, error, evil, “the cunning assaults of the devil,” and — one that hits close to home in a country still traumatized by the 2011 tsunami  — “from an unprepared and evil death.” War, bloodshed, violence, sedition, and treason were obvious if distant things to ask for deliverance from — and, thank God, still are in my part(s) of the world — but deliverance from “corrupt and unjust government” feels more relevant than ever. Also named here: epidemic. And drought and flood. And earthquake. Was the Litany written for Japan?

Anymore, Barth’s famous dictum about preaching with a newspaper in one hand suggests to me only captivity to the news cycle. But his advice also seems unnecessary for those who pray the Litany, as it casts out each disaster in turn — including one that the newscasters never mention: “…and from everlasting death: Good Lord, deliver us.”

The Litany’s not all so grim. Its obsecrations call upon Christ’s whole lifespan, part by part, to help us. It’s like putting on armor. “Incarnation” and “holy birth” were easy accoutrements for me as a child; “agony and bloody sweat” were a bit alarming, but now I find them welcome allies. “Resurrection and ascension” likewise seemed obvious, but it took friendships with Pentecostals and long struggles with the book of Acts before I really grasped the necessity of “the gift of the Holy Spirit” — as well as the later intercession “to accompany your Word with your Spirit and power.” Working as a pastor now in one of the least-Christian corners of the planet, I find myself drawn to this petition more and more.

The form of the Litany I know from modern Lutheran hymnals follows Luther’s German Litany in content, but it lumps many of the petitions together, each of which used to stand alone. The current arrangement does not result in the most logical categories, hence the aforementioned 10-petition monster. Yet the comprehensiveness and eloquence of the intercessions can scarcely be improved upon.

So we begin by imploring God to govern the Church (imagine that!) and to see to it that the human servants at work in the Church actually “love your Word” and exhibit “holiness of life” in order to be “faithful workers” in “your harvest.” God remains the active agent throughout. Schisms are to be mended by God, “causes of offense” are to be overturned by God, the straying are to be gathered up by God. God is asked to “beat down Satan under our feet,” “raise up those who fall,” “strengthen those who stand,” and “comfort and help the fainthearted and the distressed.” All aspects of civil government are offered up to God’s guidance, as are travelers, women in childbirth, children, the sick, broken families, orphans, widows, and widowers.

Actually, that last term is an addition to modern iterations of the Litany. Its historic omission strikes me as odd, given the high mortality rate of wives in Luther’s time, but presumably widowers were much less vulnerable than widows. Other timely additions are prayers for the unemployed (about 10 percent in the U.S. right now) and the emendation of “captives” to “prisoners,” especially given how prison systems have expanded in the last century, and not often in the service of justice.

I can’t honestly say I’m saddened at dropping the prayer that God “grant to our emperor perpetual victory over all his enemies,” as Luther had it. Frankly, I have a hard time believing Luther really meant it, either, of the very man who set a price on his head. But maybe I underestimate his magnanimity.

Yet the prescience of praying “to help us use wisely the fruits and treasures of the earth, the sea, and the air” continues to astonish me. And it was not until I really grasped St. Paul’s insistence that Christ came for the ungodly that the petition “to forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and to reconcile us to them” unveiled to me the full extent of its gospel logic.

If anything, what I’ve found is that the Litany itself has a strange prescience. More than once I’ve discovered that, by means of the Litany, I’ve been praying for a person or a situation without even knowing it. The “epidemic” is only the most obvious of these. I’m not infrequently startled when one of these long-prayed, barely-noticed words of deprecation, obsecration, or intercession suddenly leaps off the page at me in light of new information. So that’s who I’ve been praying for.

Luther revived the Litany for a time of crisis, but it quickly found a place in the hearts of congregants and stayed the course even as life resumed a somewhat more normal pattern. Everyday life has crisis enough, of course, but there’s no substitute for long training in advance of the decisive battle, whenever and however it comes.

So, I will continue to strap on Christ’s agony and bloody sweat. I’ll keep asking for God’s Word to be accompanied by his Spirit and power. And I’ll certainly go on imploring for deliverance from this epidemic.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Note: Two good studies of the history of the Litany and its present-day use are by Benjamin T. G. Mayes, “Restoring the Great Litany in the Lutheran Church,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 81 (2017): 321–330, and Mark A. Michael, “The Deprecations, Obsecrations, and Other Scattered Treasures of the Litany,” Lutheran Forum 48/1 (2014): 20–24.

The Rev. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is Associate Pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church in Japan, where she lives with her husband and son. She co-hosts the podcast “Queen of the Sciences: Conversations between a Theologian and Her Dad” and is the author of Sermon on the Mount: A Poetic Paraphrase and Pearly Gates: Parables from the Final Threshold.


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