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March, 2014


Liturgy month: Have mercy on us

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God’s mercy is something that we seek, often, in our prayers. It is etched within traditional liturgy, between the kyries and the misereres. We seek it when we confess our sins (“have mercy on us”), we rely on it in intercessionary prayers (“in your mercy”).


Photo: Charles Clegg, reused under CC license

These small words of liturgy have always been slightly difficult to me, because they reeked of false humility, and of false repentance. It felt like we were forcing ourselves to feel sorry and small, in that very very short window of time in the service; and that introspection itself was cut short by the prayer of absolution.

Worse than that, it seemed that I was only pretending that God’s mercy was something I didn’t deserve, because I knew that absolution was to come.

And I was doing it all wrong. The fact that the kyries jarred for me is, I believe, down to the wrong perspective I was adopting. That the confession was about me. About my sins.

While it’s not hard to understand why I could think in that way (after all, we are invited to recollect our sins during that confession time); it’s also easy to realise that this perspective is not consistent with our attitude during the rest of the service – of turning to God.

God who knows us (and thereby knows our sins, too), but God who is merciful, too. During the time of confession, we should not as much be focusing on our selves as we should be focusing on God’s mercy. The only point of recollecting our sins is that they are collected, wrapped up in God’s mercy.

Therefore, confession is not as much a matter of purging of sins (against some sort of virtual tally) as it is a matter of adoration and of turning to God. Therefore, it is not about humility, false repentance, or feeling sorry; and the feeling of inadequacy is uncalled for in this particular context.

When you seek God’s mercy, know that God is merciful and that you can expect it. This will change your act of contrition into an act of worship.

Listen to the sermon on the topic here:

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Download link (right click, hit download) – Notes

Liturgy Month: the Prayer of Preparation

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This month, at Ed’s Slipper, we’re celebrating liturgy. This is because it is a rich part of both the Catholic and the Anglican heritage – and probably other denominations too, I’m just not quite as acquainted with them! Liturgy, which means literally “public worship”, refers to the way services are ordered. It includes vestments, structure, but, in a more restricted sense, means the set of prayers we read in worship.


Photo: Charles Clegg, reused under CC License

The first prayer in the Anglican communion service is called the prayer of preparation. It goes like this:

Almighty Father,
to whom all hearts are open, all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit
That we may perfectly love you
and worthily magnify your holy name
through Christ our Lord

This prayer is designed to put us in the right mindset for worship: with clean thoughts in our hearts. But while cleansing is the only petition in this prayer, a lot more happens, especially in the first three lines.

In them, we are coming into the presence of God: we are describing him as almighty – as someone greater than all of us. We are also abandoning all pretense at making ourselves look righteous, because we describe God as all-knowing. Yet this description is not one that is cold and objective: we don’t say “Almighty and all-knowing God”. No, we are saying, in this, that God knows all desires – and through this, that he cares for them. That he cares for us.

In three lines, we have expressed the amazing fact that God who is so powerful, so much greater than all of us, is also someone who cares for us, in whose presence we can enter. We have made this theoretical fact personal – at least if we meant the words behind the prayer and did more than consider them a mere introduction to the apparent meat of the prayer, the petition itself. This is, I believe, one of the purposes of all the liturgy: to help us to make those truths about God and about our relationship with Him deeply personal and heartfelt, rather than just known intellectually.

Therefore, the meat of the prayer of preparation is not the petition. Still, this petition is important too: it is a declaration of our willingness to become pure in our thoughts and a recognition of due reverence to God. More than that, though, it is asking God to cleanse us, recognising that we cannot (or at list will not) do it in our own strength. This completes the revelation from the first three lines that we cannot hide our sinful condition from God.

Finally, the prayer of preparation is completed by looking back up towards God. The aim here is not to be selective in what we are allowed to pray for, but to lift our hearts back up to God. In this, we are truly prepared for worship.

Below, you will find a sermon I preached on the topic.

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Audio download link (right click, hit download) – sermon notes

Other posts on specific pieces of liturgy

For us and for our salvation

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. In the name of Christ, amen!

Purple or sackcloth?

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No, this post is not about a new beverage option at Pop. It is about liturgical colours, and their potential significance.

Lent has just started. Which means it’s the end of ordinary time, and green has stopped adorning our church altars, being replaced by either purple or sackcloth. The question of liturgical colours is arcane, at best, to the outsider. I only recently found out that there were rules about them (in the Church of England). But where there are rules, there – generally – is meaning.


Background photo: Andrew Kelsall, reused under CC license

Let us look at purple first. Now, purple is also used in another season: Advent. A season of anticipation where we prepare both for Christmas (and the celebration of the birth of Jesus) and the Second Coming. Similarly, Lent is a period that leads up to Easter, in which we are preparing for both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In this case, there is nothing to say that purple specifically symbolises anticipation – and it might as well be just another colour

Sackcloth, on the other hand, is only used at Lent. It is a bland colour compared to the other colours used throughout the year. It denotes simplicity, and a form of fasting. Therefore, in using sackcloth as the liturgical colour for Lent, we are insisting on the disciplines associated with the season itself, and on the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness.

Both choices of colour have their implications: one focuses on the ultimate conclusion of Lent, while the other one focuses on Lent itself. Through this, they are indicative of theological positions the incumbent wishes to take for this season: whether they wish to remind the congregation of their salvation that comes from the Cross (purple!) or wish to lead them, through penitence, to have contrite hearts (sackcloth!)*

It is a shame, really, that such a choice needs to be made. Because both elements complement each other fittingly, and actually make little to no sense independently of each other. If the disciplines we take on for Lent are seen as an attempt at self-sanctification, they are doomed to failure and actually not to be recommended. If they are seen as us submitting ourselves to temptation like Jesus did in the wilderness, then, again, we are being very pretentious to think that we can, in our own strength, resist temptation. Sackcloth alone makes no sense, because, knowing that Jesus is the one who brings us sanctification, any effort made independently makes no sense.

But purple alone makes no sense either. In Advent, the countdown to Christmas is more than that: it is also an expression of our anticipation of the Second Coming – a repeat of Christmas. But are we expecting a second Easter? If we were, we’d be saying that the sacrifice on the Cross would need to be repeated – which we obviously aren’t. So the anticipation part of Lent only makes sense if we are looking to Easter as the fulfillment, or the culmination, of what we do during Lent. The purple only makes sense of the sackcloth.

Over Lent, let us not forget this: that through our disciplines (if we follow any), we ought to be looking to Christ and to Easter; and that in looking to Easter, we ought to allow ourselves to be sanctified.

* Or the church does not have sackcloth vestments; or floral arrangements are easier to make with one colour; or the warden simply likes sackcloth better. Sometimes, I can read a bit too much into things…