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Earthquake, Fire and Flood

  • Posted on Mar 24, 2011

From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared,
Good Lord, deliver us.

The Great Litany, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 149

In 467 c.e., when the city of Vienne was terrorized by earthquakes, Marmetus, the bishop, inaugurated processional litanies on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day. Ever since, litanies have been used in the church to pray in times of disaster. The original meaning of “litany” in Greek was “prayer” or “supplication,” but a modern litany has generally consisted of short biddings and petitions by a cantor or leader followed by a short response by the people. The Great Litany in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer was first published in English in 1544 as a special supplication when Henry VIII was at war with Scotland and France. (For more information on The Great Litany (and the Prayer Book in general), see Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book)

In the Episcopal Church, the Great Litany is generally sung or said at the beginning of one or more Sunday services in Lent. This was my first introduction to the Great Litany. However, as I preached on Sunday, since September 11, 2001, the Great Litany is now forever a part of my prayer life when trials seemingly too great to endure present themselves in my daily life. On that horrific morning of September 11, when I had watched on a gym television the second tower hit and then the Pentegon, when I had rushed to pick up my children at school and then come home to watch the twin towers crumble to the ground, all I knew to do was go to church and pray. And the only prayer that seemed to make any sense was The Great Litany.

Now, this year, it seems that the Great Litany is timely once again. Wars for liberation, wars for oil, wars against terrorism rage around the world. Earthquakes have battered now only Haiti but now Christ Church, New Zealand and Northern Japan–a country that has been devastated by not only conitnued earthquakes but a tsunami. As I read about the recovery effort in Japan and the new fear of radiation in the tap water in Tokyo this morning, I wonder who might be in the need of the Great Litany prayers. There are folks still looking for loved ones. Walls have gone up—just like at Ground Zero—at various locations to post notes asking loved ones to get in touch. Hope continues even in the face of people missing for days on end. 

In the midst of the overwhelming destruction and death in Japan, in the midst of violent war in Libya and Afghanistan, how does one find hope? When one own’s world is rocked by a unexpected death or illness or change, how do we go on?

For me, a simple prayer can reset my spiritual compass for a few hours or for a day. In the spring, the sight of crocuses or daffodils or a flowering tree can do the same. In Northern Japan, I wonder what flowers are blooming (cherry blossoms?) even amidst the destruction that can bring a moment of hope. In Libya, will a cool rain one night give a person that will to rise the next day and face a world at war? Can a kind word to a stranger do the same?

In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our prosperity; in the hour of death…..and in the moments of grace and hope…..Good Lord, deliver us.