By Derek Olsen
The Daily Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, Morning and Evening Prayer—call them what you may, but these liturgies to me are at the heart of the Anglican way. I’ve watched commentators wrangle for months and years now on what a real Anglican is. I’ve seen arguments based on doctrine, arguments based on polity, arguments based on breadth. I have no idea who has the right of it—but I do know that I don’t trust any definition that does not make its way through these liturgies, the liturgies that have been the daily bread of Anglicans since Thomas Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer in 1549.
In a pattern both catholic and evangelical, the reforming archbishop produced two services of liturgical prayer that were, basically—unoriginal. And that was and is their genius. Cranmer’s work is not his own intellectual labor but, rather, the product of centuries of Christian prayer and reflection, formulated by a sixth century Italian monastic here, explicated by an eight-century English deacon there, simplified by a fifteenth century Spanish cardinal, and—finally—translated by a sixteenth century archbishop. But the story doesn’t consist only of these, of course. For through all of these moments sound the countless tongues of countless saints who have murmured, sung, and wept these words. No, the story of these liturgies encompasses all of us who have prayed, who have felt, who have been shaped by their words, their concepts, their cadences.
The soul of the Daily Office is repetition, of living a pattern. It’s a pattern written upon a year, Christ’s year, that draws us into his journey from cradle to crowds to cross that leads us beyond a span of years in Galilee to encompass the all, from creation to new creation. In this repetition and rhythm, two elements circumscribe the center: the songs of Scripture—the psalms and canticles. The psalms wheel around us in cycles of months—following Cranmer’s 30 day calendar still found in our Psalter today—or in the seven or so weeks of our current daily lectionary. But what mark our days, what come without fail as the sun meets each horizon are the canticles. These are the words that shape us; these are the words that form us into their ways. These are the words without which, cries of “true Anglican” ring hollow—to my ears, at least.
The canticles that cleave close to the heart of the Hours are four: the Benedictus, the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis, and the Te Deum. The first three are directly from the words of Scripture, from the opening pages of Luke’s gospel; the fourth, a creedal hymn of the early church. The first three function like overtures to Luke’s gospel—they introduce the themes that will be spun out in the two-volume story of Jesus and the spread of faith in his name across the known world. In common they recall the past history of saving deeds that God performed for the Children of Israel. They focus on the promise of redemption that God has reiterated time and again through the covenants and prophets. And, ultimately, they point to the fulfillment of these saving acts, of the promised redemption, in the person of Jesus—the babe of the manger, Mary’s boy, the true God in our own flesh. As we read and sing these canticles they draw us into their act of praise: we recall the doings of God that are wondrous in our sight, we experience the pregnant pause as we await the final fulfillment of God’s promises while we yet rejoice in the power of the Spirit.
While the songs from Luke hold these themes in common, each one speaks a powerful word of challenge, reflecting variously on the manifold meanings of what God in Christ is doing for us—and to us. The Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, sung by the rejoicing hierarch of Israel underscores the priestly role of all of God’s people. The aim of God’s promise here is safety that the people may—with heart, mind, soul, and strength—worship God in holiness and righteousness. In the words sung to his new-born son we overhear the call to proclaim the redemptive message of Christ to all who sit in darkness, to all who inhabit the shadow of death. In the Magnificat or Song of Mary, the expectant mother consciously recalls the Old Testament Song of Hannah—the words of an earlier mother whose son would hear and obey the words of God, a promise of the Child who was to come. The expectant Mary exults in the radical reversals of God and the words of her song foreshadow and frame the opening words of Christ’s own great sermon in Luke, the Sermon on the Plain. With the Blessed Virgin we contemplate the chaos of God’s expectant order, paradoxes achieved preeminently by He who conquers glorious in a shameful death upon a cross. The Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Simeon, finds the aged friend of God holding in his hands the Light of the Ages, embracing his mortal end confident that he goes not into darkness and shade—for he has beheld the new dawn within the child in his arms. With him we consider our own mortality and the mystery of life in Christ, the promised rest for a pilgrim people.
Truly, if these don’t challenge you, if these don’t push you—you just ain’t paying attention…
Alongside these, the Te Deum renders the creeds in song, calling us to join with the whole host of heaven, the whole company of faithful people, the whole created order in a life ringing—and ringed—with praise. The ancient mysteries of faith: Christ incarnate; Christ crucified; Christ risen and ascended; He before whom all the trees of the wood will clap their hands, all the rivers roar, when he comes again to judge with truth and equity; these are recounted and hymned, both proclaimed for our edification and praised for the glory of God. The canticle dances with Scripture, now lighting on Isaiah, now touching on Paul, the Psalter sounding in our ears all the while, until—at the last—it culminates in a plea. We know the promises. We have sung the promises. Now—by the mercy of Christ—may we claim the promises and share in a life hid in God.
These are the words that circumscribe the Anglican heart. These are the promises that bound and ground our hope and faith. Words of Scripture, words of song, these are the words that lead us into the mind of Christ.
Derek Olsen is a database programmer and adjunct professor at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. He keeps the blog Haligweorc.
For audio visual meditations on the Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis, visit the meditations page and click on Canticle 15: The Song of Mary and Candlemas, respectively.