I don’t think liturgists intentionally dropped lament from public worship back in the “happy days” of the 1970s. I think we were intentionally trying to recover praise and thanksgiving as core elements pervading Christian liturgy. Our study of Hebrew praise formulas, our return to the psalter as the primary Christian hymnal, our cleansing of the eucharistic celebration of lugubrious medieval penitential speech, our rediscovery of the meal-character of Holy Communion, our renewed paschal piety– all pointed in the direction of maximizing expressions of praise and thanksgiving, especially in the Great Thanksgiving.
I understand from reports and pirated copies of worship folders that even in our synod there are congregations which do not follow Jesus’ instructions to “give thanks” when they take the bread and cup, much less do so with anything approximating the fullness of the eucharistic tradition. For their transgressions,many of these congregations have now been afflicted with endless repetitions of praise choruses. 🙂
One reason we strove hard to recover elements of praise and thanksgiving is that we were recovering typology as a primary biblical hermeneutic. Typology is a way of thinking in which a type of event from the past gets repeated over and over again into the present. Thus, the exodus is a typeof action in salvation history which God uses again and again, right up to our own deliverance from sin and death through water in Holy Baptism.
The use of typology assumes that there is some meaning and purpose to history. People may have found themselves in conditions as harsh as the life of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. But using such imagery assumes hope in a coming redemption. It was no wonder that African American slaves sang “Go down Moses” around the campfire. In Psalm 63, the pain of the psalmist is compared to the days of wilderness wanderings, and the praise of God is cast in images recalling the days of plenty in the land of Canaan.
Within the pattern of grace, recollection of times of want is subsumed under recollection of times of satiety. Typology is the bedrock of anamnesis or remembrance, memory of God’s saving acts is the reason for giving thanks, and the pattern of grace seen in typology elicits the praise of God.
Yet there is in our time, as there has been in all times, a need for communal lament. Colorful balloons, presiders with smiley faces, and cheerful ditties led by the praise band cannot obliterate our actual knowledge of human sin, our experience of death, and our fear of evil. We need to have ways of publicly and corporately lamenting human culpability, holocausts and genocides, human oppression, systemic injustices, and tragic events that occur with no apparent meaning or purpose. And we cannot do justice to lament as something of spiritual value in and of itself if it is only read within a story with a joyful ending. We cannot presume the ending.
That’s a problem if we’re talking about genuine lament. For example, if we lament with Job, it’s hard to bracket the knowledge that there eventually comes to him a return of good fortune. If we lament with the crucified One, we do so as those who confess the resurrection. If “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” on Jesus’ lips on the cross is intended to invoke the whole of Psalm 22,then even our deepest experience of abandonment by God leads to praise in the assembly. Even as we lament senseless acts of terrorism, we still believe that God has the whole world in his hands. In response to the attacks onSeptember 11, 2001, we defiantly sang Psalm 46. We did not get so deeply into lament that we questioned God’s protection or our own innocence in what took place. We did not read the Lamentations of Jeremiah.
To some extent this may be unavoidable. But if we are going to recover a genuine sense of lament we need to grieve in such a way that we do not presume God’s promises. We need to regain a tone in our prayers that truly mourns the state of the world as it is. We need to mourn disease, injustice, sorrow,and meaninglessness. We need to be overwhelmed with a sense of the implacable human conditions that contribute to the deaths of millions in Africa from starvation or AIDS. From such petitions well up our cry, “Lord, have mercy.”
We can recover the use of the Great Litany. It can be used in the Service of Holy Communion on Sundays in place of the Prayer of the Church. Some have used it as the entrance song on the first Sunday in Lent. It may be used as the prayer at Matins or Vespers except on great festivals. It was customarily sung on Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent. It may be used alone on days of humiliation and prayer, although the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) did not provide for such days. Also, in the LBW the Great Litany was shorn of its concluding psalm versicles and collects such as were provided in the ServiceBook and Hymnal (page 161). In fact, most of those collects were not brought along into the LBW. It’s too bad. Some of those prayers in updated language would have served us well in the days after September 11, 2001, and perhaps also in the midst of the present quagmire in the Middle East. Consider this updated version of one of them:
V/ O Lord, do not deal with us according to our sins,
R/ Nor reward us according to our iniquities.
O God, merciful Father,
you despise neither the sighing of a contrite heart
nor the desires of the sorrowful.
Mercifully assist us in our prayers
which we make before you in all our troubles
Graciously hear us,
and bring to naught those evils
which the craft and subtilty of man or the devil
work against us;
so that we your servants, unhurt by terror,
may always give thanks to you in your holy Church;
through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.
Or this one:
V/ O Lord, do not enter into judgment with yourservant.
R/ For in your sight shall no one living bejustified.
you know that we are set in the midst
of many and great dangers.
You know that because of our fallen human state
we cannot always stand upright
Grant us such strength and protection
that may support us in all dangers,
and carry us through all times of trial and temptation;
through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.