Saturday, December 14, 2013

Catechumenal Formation Meets Cosmic Invitation: On the Use of a Litany of Saints at the Great Vigil of Easter

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” – Hebrews 12:1

The corners of the worship space are dark, but the nave is brilliant with light from the handheld candles of a hundred worshippers. A large octagonal baptismal font occupies most of the floor space in the apse. In a few moments, the first of several adult catechumens will kneel in the water of the font to be showered with several gallons of additional water, soaking her three times in her clothes. Afterward, at the Passing of the Peace, white bathrobes and fuzzy slippers await the newly baptized in the sacristy. But first, even before the candidates are presented, two singers lead the congregation in chanting a Litany of Saints. They chant, “Elizabeth and Simeon, Joseph, Monica and Helen, exemplars in the love and care of children,” and the congregation sings in response, “Stand here beside us!” They chant, “John the Baptizer, mapmaker of the Lord’s coming,” and again the congregation responds, “Stand here beside us!”[1] This goes on for nine minutes … yet it is not mentioned in The Book of Common Prayer. The ancient practice of calling on saints throughout history to be present with today’s worshippers, while retained and used periodically in other denominations, has only recently begun to reappear in Episcopal churches. When done well, the use of a Litany of Saints in the Great Vigil of Easter need not burden the liturgy, can be adjusted easily to fit local and theological exigencies, provides a logical flow from readings to baptisms, is justifiable within the existing rubrics of the prayer book, and undergirds the training of catechumens and the formation of the entire congregation.
The celebration of a paschal feast may date all the way back to the first decades of Christianity,[2] but the Litany of Saints may have appeared no earlier than the seventh century. The Catholic Encyclopedia cites its early use in the rogation days, Holy Saturday, penitential seasons, and various other occasions, including “times of drought, famine, earthquake, and other calamities.” A litany of saints is used at the Easter Vigil in the Sarum Rite during the procession to the font.[3] The Protestant Reformers, “espousing a strong belief in justification by faith, rejected the mediatory and intercessory role of the saints and therefore purged the Reformation liturgies of any invocation of the saints.” [4] In England, Thomas Cranmer kept the Litany of Saints in his early revisions but did eventually remove it.[5]
The Great Vigil of Easter is usually the longest-running liturgy of the year. From the lighting of the new Paschal flame through the lengthy Exsultet, multiple Scripture readings, musical responses and prayers, baptisms, the “alleluias” and return of the light, and finally the Liturgy of the Table, those worshippers hearty enough to attend might well feel as if they had run a liturgical marathon. While many come away feeling incredibly uplifted, others, especially little ones brought by their parents in pajamas, may grow weary and need to be tempted by chocolate and strawberries at a post-Vigil reception. Why make the service any longer? Still, as a pamphlet printed by the Church of England points out, “Traditionally this was a service that began after sundown on Saturday and ran through to after dawn on Sunday. Such a long service is a challenge for modern churchgoers to attend.”[6] Even a full-service Easter Vigil is a compromise compared to the practice of the Middle Ages. Could one choose a Litany of Saints that would keep the congregation engaged? Another consideration is that of efficacy. Does not the Great Vigil, in current common practice, do all that it sets out to do? What might a litany of saints add to the Paschal liturgy without detracting from its focus on Jesus’ passing over from death into life? More specifically, how might a litany of saints change the focus of Vigil baptisms?
With these questions in mind, we turn to the content of various litanies of saints in current use in several denominations in close liturgical proximity to the Episcopal Church. Roman Catholic practice is not strictly uniform: one litany used in the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, provides some background on the variety, naming three forms: “(a) the complete (solemn) text, used principally in the rogation processions and public intercessions; (b) abbreviated texts, based on the first and used in the Easter Vigil and in the revised rites of the Roman Pontifical incorporated in a Mass; and (c) a short form used in the rites with the dying.”[7] This particular litany is typical in that it divides the saints into categories: Prophets and Fathers of Our Faith, Apostles and Followers of Christ, Martyrs, Bishops and Doctors, Priests and Religious, and a few Lay saints. Some of the names listed may not be commonly known even in Roman Catholic circles, including such martyrs as Isaac Jogues, Peter Chanel, and Maria Goretti. Special instructions show that “the names of other saints may be added in the appropriate place in the Litany.”[8] So even in Roman Catholic practice, variety is generously permitted. The common response to the invocation of these saints is, “Pray for us.”
            Some may be surprised to learn that Evangelical Lutheran Worship contains a Litany of the Saints, but each of these saints appears in Scripture, and the word “saint” is not employed in the chanted text itself. The Lutheran version begins not with the saints of the early Christian church, but with Abraham and Sarah. As many women as men are named throughout salvation history, from Deborah and Esther to Martha and Phoebe. In the portion of the litany in which specific saints are named, the congregational response is, “Thanks be to God.”[9] Meanwhile, the Church of England’s “Thanksgiving for the Holy Ones of God” is recommended especially for use “at Morning or Evening Prayer at All Saints’ tide. It may also be used at services of Christian initiation in procession to or from the font.”[10] This relatively brief litany, like the Lutheran litany, begins with Abraham and Sarah, but it continues through the Bible and into the history of the church, naming in quick succession Ambrose, the Cappadocian Fathers, Julian of Norwich, and many others. Perhaps most notable is its juxtaposition of “Thomas Cranmer and all who reform the Church of God” with “Thomas More and all who hold firm to its continuing faith.”[11]
With a litany of saints approved for use in neighboring denominations and even by the Church of England, it is surprising that no such thing exists even for optional use in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer or in any supplement approved by General Convention. Yet some Episcopal churches have gone out of their way to adapt litanies of saints to their local purposes. One such litany is available from, a website for “traditional Episcopalianism in the 21st century.” A hub for resources such as the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and The Hymnal 1940, this site also provides a litany of saints clearly based on Roman Catholic tradition, complete with the congregational response, “Pray for us.”[12] Socially progressive congregations might find this particular litany difficult to justify due to its traditional language (“thees” and “thous”) and lack of gender-inclusive forms. But other creative litanies have sprung up in recent years. The Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, D.C., uses a litany first composed by William MacKaye, former religion editor of the Washington Post. This litany borrows images from other sources and has been edited for local use in various other ways. It employs a congregational response that avoids any accusation of saint worship but goes far beyond mere remembrance: “Stand here beside us!”[13] It is unclear whether this congregation uses the litany at the Easter Vigil. But at the Feast of All Saints, “the litany is chanted in procession. The procession moves from station to station around the church during the singing of the verses of ‘For all the saints.’”[14] Among the saints whose presence is sought are “Catherine of Siena, the scourge of popes … Gandhi the mahatma, reproach to the churches … Das Hammarskjold the bureaucrat … Martin Luther, who could do no other.”[15]
MacKaye’s setting as edited by St. Stephen and the Incarnation is the source for Dent Davidson’s musical setting,[16] though Davidson has reduced the number of names somewhat. A male and female singer alternate lines of the chant, which begins a cappella. The choir begins to hum a drone at “Peter of the keys, denier of the Lord,” and at “Bach and Mozart, Britten and Duke Ellington,” a steady drumbeat begins. As the chant progresses, the choir adds more and more harmony to the congregational response, and the rhythms of the chant become jazzier. The section devoted to martyrs is extensive and dramatic, and space is provided for a reading, over the choir’s drone, for the church’s annual necrology at the Feast of All Saints. This leads into the final section, in which the choir’s rhythms grow even more complex. The chanters invoke “Holy Mary, unmarried mother” and, finally, Jesus himself. All told, Davidson’s litany runs about nine minutes in length.[17] A congregation that appreciates the power of this setting may well find it to be nine minutes well spent in the course of two and a half to three hours.
The decision of which litany to use, and whether and how to adapt it, is very important and must rely at least partially on parish and diocesan customs, priorities, and theological distinctions. The Episcopal Church is not subject to the limitations of the Lutherans to saints in scripture or to the Roman Catholics’ use only of saints formally canonized by the magisterium. But neither is it advisable to use every name in Holy Women, Holy Men, and many liturgists may feel that it is inappropriate to include faithful non-Christians such as Gandhi. Therefore a liturgist must decide which names to include and why, feeling free to alter existing litanies or to compose something new.
Can a Litany of Saints be used at the Great Vigil of Easter without flouting the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer? At least two options for placement are clear. In either place, the Litany of Saints can assist a seamless liturgical flow and even an amplification of the theology of the Pasch. The choice between these two options may depend on the architecture of the worship space, specifically hinging on the question of whether a procession to the font is desired.
If there is to be no procession to the font, the Litany of Saints can serve as a musical response to the final reading in the Liturgy of the Word, from Zephaniah (3:12-20): “And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home … for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.”[18] The Litany of Saints can serve thus not only as a “suitable psalm, canticle or hymn,”[19] but also as a bridge to the baptisms. Following the litany, the presider can still use the appointed collect responding to Zephaniah: “O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery …”[20] The same collect is used on Good Friday to conclude the solemn collects. The gathering to which Zephaniah refers now stands alongside the gathering of a great cloud of witnesses at the font, saints who have gone ahead with Jesus into death, including martyrs who have shared in Christ’s suffering in an explicit way. The Litany of Saints can also be seen as a musical response to the entire set of readings: the Evangelical Lutheran version recaps the highlights of salvation history, from creation to the exodus to the prophets to the coming of Jesus. After the collect, the presider may immediately go on to say, “The candidates for Holy Baptism will now be presented.”[21] A Vigil congregation with no baptisms may also consider using the Litany of Saints at this point, immediately prior to the renewal of baptismal vows.
According to one rubric, “If the Presentation of the Candidates does not take place at the font, then before or during the petitions (page 305), the ministers, candidates, and sponsors go to the font for the Thanksgiving over the Water. If the movement to the font is a formal procession, a suitable psalm … or a hymn or anthem, may be sung.”[22] The Litany of Saints can be used as a suitable anthem: indeed, this is its recommended use in the Church of England.[23] In this case, the petitions, which would otherwise be sung in procession, can take place upon the candidates’ arrival at the font. In this way, we are asking the saints to pray for the candidates along with us. One consideration in this case is the length of the Litany of Saints: it must be understood that no procession to the font will take nearly as much time as the litany does.
Having assessed the content of various litanies of saints and options for placement, we can assess their use theologically in the context of the Vigil. Liturgist Derek Olsen writes that the Litany of Saints, “while not sanctioned by the prayer book, reflects an organic understanding and application of the baptismal covenant, and makes a crucial move towards communicating our baptismal ecclesiology.”[24] The catechumens are connected not just to a group of people who have died, but also to the lives they led as Christians. Olsen continues:
The inclusion of the litany of saints directly after the baptismal vows holds up before the eyes of the whole community fellow baptized believers recognized not for their ordination status or because of their historical importance but because they offer us examples of a life lived in conformity to the vows that we have just taken once again upon ourselves. They give us concrete, incarnate pictures of the goal of baptized life … When we ask for the prayers of the saints, we make a strong statement about the nature of baptism and the life-in-Christ into which we are subsequently drawn: we affirm that the company of the baptized still includes those who have gone before and that they continue to share the same life-in-Christ and participate in the continuing ministry of the church as the baptized whom we see around us.[25]
This speaks to the possibility of using such a litany at the Feast of All Saints, as St. Stephen and the Incarnation does, but why the Easter Vigil? In an email to me on November 14, 2013, the Rev. Poulson Reed, rector of All Saints Church in Phoenix, wrote:
The Vigil’s theology is rich with the sense of the great cloud of witnesses, that ‘this is the night’ when the Church around the world and through all time gathers to tell the stories of our salvation and rejoice in Christ’s resurrection. It is a night in which we recall ‘that wonderful and sacred mystery’ the Church, in heaven and on earth. Particularly at a parish called ‘All Saints,’ the Litany of Saints reminds us in the most important service of the whole year that we are always supported by the communion of saints, this fellowship of love and prayer. It is into that fellowship and communion that we have been baptized, as members of Christ’s Body.

To say that the saints are joining us at the font is an exercise in what Adam Seligman and colleagues call “ritual as a subjunctive.” [26] For them, ritual is “an endless work of creating a subjunctive world in overt tension with the world of lived experience.”[27] In Christianity, this world is the Kingdom of God, and in the sacraments of communion and baptism, we imagine a world in which the saints join with us in celebration. The use of a litany of saints can be a powerful imaginative tool in helping reveal the Kingdom not only to those about to be baptized, but also to the entire congregation.
Another lesson this reveals is the inability of Christians to separate themselves from the world around them. Gail Ramshaw outlines twelve proposals demonstrating the effect that Christian worship can have, through its worshippers, on the rest of the world. Her Proposal #3 reads: “Participation in a weekly gathering reminds us that the individual does not, cannot, ought not, exist alone.”[28] Evelyn Underhill puts it this way: “It is plain that the living experience of this whole Church, visible and invisible, past and present, stretched out in history and yet poised on God, must set the scene for Christian worship; not the poor little scrap of which any one soul, or any sectional group, is capable.”[29] This is an antidote to Western culture’s radical overemphasis on individuality. According to Alexander Schmemann:
The purpose of worship is to constitute the Church, precisely to bring what is ‘private’ into the new life, to transform it into what belongs to the Church, i.e., shared with all in Christ. In addition its purpose is always to express the Church as the unity of that Body whose Head is Christ. And, finally, its purpose is that we should always ‘with one mouth and one heart’ serve God, since it was only such worship which God commanded the Church to offer.[30]
            At the same time, the Litany of Saints stresses the “in but not of” nature of Christian community. Richard Norris, in reflecting on the writings of Clement, concludes that Christianity “is another society, living a new and different sort of life, which one enters only through a personal revolution … and which for that reason is inevitably set apart in its world.”[31] Through the church, God calls people into a life lived in tension between immersion and separation. J. Neil Alexander explores this tension:
We have rediscovered that becoming a Christian is less something one does than it is something one survives and reckons with on a daily basis throughout our life … The exigencies of the end of the twentieth century have called us, indeed forced us, to rediscover what it means to be the Church, to offer a living witness to Jesus Christ, and to embrace life in response to the Gospel in a context that is largely hostile to the Gospel’s demands for justice and mercy.[32]
The saints, in their varied stories and legends, offer endless witness to the life into which baptism calls every one of us. Derek Olsen writes, “The saints then are not mediators through whom prayers must be channeled in order to reach God; they’re fellow voices just as my priest, parish, and family pray for me and I for them. In naming the saints, though, I align my prayers with theirs, and reinforce my own commitment to live a life like theirs which is marked by service in the image of Christ.”[33]
In its use at the Great Vigil of Easter, the Litany of Saints teaches catechumens and the entire congregation about the life of the baptized while simultaneously amplifying the theology of the entire Triduum. It demonstrates our ancestors’ dedication to Christian service as exemplified on Maundy Thursday. The invocation of the martyrs, accompanied by the use of a collect most recently heard on Good Friday, underscores the indivisibility of death and resurrection while reminding Easter worshippers of the saints’ acts of service to the world around them, strengthening the connection between the mission of Christ and the mission of the Church. The newly baptized have become a part of the family of those who take up their cross for the sake of the world, just as Jesus did. Finally, the saints also exemplify the eschatological gathering together of all the faithful through the Paschal mystery of the Resurrection. Far from diluting or distracting from the common theology of the three parts of the Triduum, the Litany of Saints strengthens and upholds all of them.[34] In their baptismal vows, the catechumens take hold of the dedication of the saints and make it their own. From their baptism, they go on the Eucharistic table and bring all of us with them. Presumably, the saints we have invited to our celebration join us there as well.
End Notes

[1] This practice reflects my experience of Dent Davidson’s A Litany of All the Saints at St. Thomas Church in Medina, WA, at the Great Vigil of Easter in the years 2006-2008.
[2] James W. Farwell, This Is the Night: Suffering, Salvation, and the Liturgies of Holy Week (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 39.
[3] Frederick E. Warren, trans., The Sarum Missal in English, Part I (London: A.R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1913), 277-280.
[4] Berard L. Marthaler, exec. ed., New Catholic Encyclopedia, Second Edition, Vol. 8 (Washington, D.C.: Thomson Gale, 2003), 601.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Phillip Tovey, ed., Introducing Times and Seasons 2: The Easter Cycle (Cambridge, England: Grove Books Limited, 2007), 17.
[7] “Litany of the Saints for Solemn Intercessions,” accessed November 20, 2013,
[8] Ibid.
[9] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #237.
[10] Church of England, All Saints to Advent, 558-560, accessed November 20, 2013,
[11] Ibid.
[12] “Litany of the Saints,” accessed November 20, 2013,
[13] “For the Feast of All Saints,” accessed November 21, 2013,
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Dent Davidson, A Litany of All the Saints, score in PDF form, emailed to me directly by the composer in 2011.
[17] Ibid.
[18] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 291.
[19] Ibid., 288.
[20] Ibid., 291.
[21] Ibid., 301.
[22] Ibid., 312.
[23] Church of England, All Saints to Advent, 558, accessed November 20, 2013,
[24] Derek Olsen, “More on the Baptismal Litany of the Saints,” haligweorc, December 20, 2012,
[25] Ibid.
[26] Adam B. Seligman, Robert P. Weller, Michael J. Puett, and Bennett Simon, Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2008) 20.
[27] Seligman et al., 28.
[28] Gail Ramshaw, Christian Worship: 100,000 Sundays of Symbols and Rituals (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 203.
[29] Evelyn Underhill, Worship (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 85.
[30] Alexander Schmemann, “The Task and Method of Liturgical Theology,” in Dwight Vogel, Primary Sources of Liturgical Theology: A Reader (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 60.
[31] Richard Norris, “The Result of the Loss of Baptismal Discipline,” in Michael W. Merriman, ed., The Baptismal Mystery and the Catechumenate (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1990), 29.
[32] J. Neil Alexander, “Christian Initiation: Ritual Patterns and the Future Shape of Revision,” in Ruth A. Meyers, ed., A Prayer Book for the 21st Century (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation), 18-19.
[33] Olsen.
[34] For more specifics on the “lateral juxtaposition of the Triduum liturgies,” see Farwell, 51-61.

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