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A Prayer for the Long Nights

December 21st, 2009
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Diarmaid MacCulloch

In his magnificently enormous book, A History of Christianity, (over 1,000 pages) Diarmaid MacCulloch makes some interesting observations on Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. Originally written in 1549, it was revised in a more uncompromising Reformed style in 1552, and became the vernacular liturgy for the English Church in its development as “Anglicanism”.

MacCulloch points out that one incomparable aspect of the Book of Common Prayer is its language. He says that even those who distrust its theological content admire its language, and that it is evident that Archbishop Cranmer’s powerful voice lies behind its unity and the phrasing of the text. Cranmer’s genius was his ability to produce prose “which can be spoken generation on generation without seeming trite or tired – words now worn as smooth and strong as a pebble on a beach”. The words of the Prayer Book have been recited by English-speakers far more frequently than the speeches and soliloquies of Shakespeare.

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Archbishop Cranmer

Even unchurched people are familiar with the words which form part of the most significant moments in our lives: “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part” or, even more solemnly,”earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. Cranmer’s words are the common inheritance of all who speak the English language.

One of Cranmer’s liturgical legacies was his aptitude for writing short prayers known as “collects”. These small jewels of prayers are rarely simply his own work, but the construction and careful choice of words is his. One of the Evensong collects used throughout the year, but especially appropriate for these short days and long nights of winter, is the most memorable. It is a translation of an 8th century Latin prayer. Since the service was often taking place during the fading evening light, the prayer uses this metaphor as its basis. MacCulloch points out that it has a perfectly balanced three-fold structure: a petition of two thoughts followed by an appeal to the Trinitarian relationship of Father and Son. Cranmer replaced the Latin word for “snares” with a pairing of words, “perils and dangers”, and crucially at the end, he enriched the Trinitarian idea with the word “love”.

“Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”

On the shortest day of the year, we worship the Lord who has answered our prayer and who, in Christ our Lord, has truly “lightened our darkness”. It’s a good prayer to pray.

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