“Next to the Lords prayer the very best that had come to earth is the Litany”. So said Martin Luther. When concerns arose as the Turks fought their way to the gates of Vienna, Luther told pastors they might want to think about using the Litany every Sunday and at Vespers, to ask for God’s protection in troubled times.
“From all sin, from all error, from all evil; from the crafts and assaults of the devil; from sudden and evil death; from pestilence and famine; from war and bloodshed, from sedition and from rebellion; from lightning and tempest, from all calamity by fire and water; and from everlasting death: Good Lord, deliver us”. This wonderful compendium of trial and tribulation has always struck me as being almost perfect in it’s recitation of terror. An older iteration of the Litany includes this marvelous petition that recalls the breathless invocation of children hiding under a blanket – “from Ghoulies and Ghosties and long legged Beasties, good Lord deliver us”.
Prayers for deliverance are of course good right and salutary and yet they often bring us right up to paradox. Of course the proper place to go for delivery is to the Lord, and yet it is our Lord himself who explains to us that the delivery comes at the end of all things and in the meantime there will be much tribulation before we enter the kingdom of heaven. Yet the Kingdom is here and among us as God works His way in the world.
The church being present at the death of cultures, or presiding over the birth of new cultures offer an opportunity for historical study, but from a theological perspective the language is couched in interesting images.
As Stanley Hauerwas observed,” There is a kind of madness commensurate with being a disciple of Jesus. To see the world, to understand that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, requires a people who refuse to be hurried. The parables that follow the parable of the sower and the parable the wheat and tares serve as commentaries on the way that disciples must endure in a world that refuses to acknowledge its true nature. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed or yeast because to be drawn into the kingdom of heaven is to participate in God’s patience toward his creation. Jesus is teaching us to see the significance of the insignificant. Jesus, after all, at this point in his ministry is not even commanding the attention of the Roman authorities. From the perspective of those in power, Jesus is no more than a confusing prophet to a defeated people in a backwater of the Roman Empire. We must be careful, however, in drawing attention to the “smallness” of Jesus’s beginnings, because such attention can be used to suggest that Jesus’s proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom is justified because we now know its power in Western civilization. So our willingness to begin small is legitimated because we now think that everything worked out the way Jesus said it would. Accordingly, these parables are not apocalyptically understood, but rather they are interpreted as exemplification of the modern belief in progress. Such interpretations of the parables as well as justifications for “starting small,” however, cannot help but distort the character of the kingdom. We dare not forget that the parables’ apocalyptic character has not changed. By our fruits we will be known; the fruits remain those blessed by the Beatitudes. Whatever worldly success Christians may have had, those so-called successes have too often distracted the church from its task to be no more than a place for nesting birds.”Brazil’s Commentary on Matthew, Stanley Haurwas, 2006.
“There is something to be said for the view that the Church began by providing deliverance from the disasters that attended the collapse of Roman rule in the West, but ended by becoming the basis for a new order of society. A pattern that can be discerned in the first centuries of the Church’s existence, leading to the new order of the Christian Empire, seems to repeat itself when we examine the end of late antiquity and the birth of the new order of the Middle Ages. Is this a way of looking at our own times? And are we living in the midst of the death of an old culture in which Christ brings us not so much an ordering of society as a deliverance from it?” Greer, Rowan. 1997. Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. (Greer 1997, 206)