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Start of Vespers of the Dead (Walters 267)

Office of the Dead, Revisited

tl;dr: Experimental Versions of Offices for the Dead for Anglicans:

(But you really should read the whole thing anyway…)

As we close out another week inside, a full month worth of quarantine, I’ve been pondering the Offices of and for the Dead in relations to the times we are living through.

There has a been a resurgence of the Daily Office in my media feeds. Clergy trying to stay connected with their flocks are livestreaming Offices. Too, questions abound regarding how a church that has re-focused itself sacramentally with the ’79 prayer book now conducts virtual worship… Do we do virtual sacraments? (I fervently pray not!) Do we become a Morning Prayer church again? (I love the Offices, including public offices; but I’m Eucharistically-centered myself…)

The current situation has us casting back into our history for models how to proceed. One option is the Morning Prayer experience. Do remember that until recently, the Eucharist would occur once a month or once a quarter in many Anglican and/or Episcopal churches. Weekly Eucharist is our present norm, but not the historic Anglican norm.

Another option is to keep going back further still, past the Reformation Period. In the medieval Western Church ocular or spiritual reception of the Eucharist was the norm for most non-clergy and non-nobles despite the prevalence of the rite on a more than daily basis. Is that something to connect to? Or do we move towards a full-on Eucharistic fast for all? Deeply related is the number of clergy I’ve seen with shiny new monstrances. As our context is jarred out of our customary pattern, we suddenly realize that maybe some of those old practices did have a purpose in their time and place—and may be repurposed for our present…

One of the old practices that I have not seen as much is one that may make a great deal of sense, both liturgically and pastorally: The Offices of the Dead. These are one of the liturgical creations of the early medieval period largely unfamiliar to modern Christians with a Reformation heritage (and indeed, also to the vast majority of modern Roman Catholics…). Like the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Office of the Passion, Office of the Holy Spirit, Office of All Saints, etc, the Office of the Dead is an adaptation of the Daily Office where the changeable texts have been replaced with proper psalms and readings. When and where these arose is complicated by the fragmentary nature of our liturgical sources. It appears that these proliferations of liturgical practice were products of monastic liturgical piety in the seventh and eighth centuries, and we see them mentioned in continental  ordines from that time on. Certainly, these many little offices (and accompanying hours which were shorter forms lacking psalms) including the Offices of the Dead were well-known by Carolingian times and our great liturgical master of the period, Amalarius of Metz, refers to the Office of the Dead in his On The Liturgy 4.42.

It’s worth noting that Amalarius, in his exposition, refers back to one of the seminal patristic writings on why, how, and for what purpose the Church prays for the dead, Augustine’s Letter to Paulinus of Nola, On the Care of the Dead which I commend to you.  Augustine is largely agnostic on how these things work, but emphasizes that the practice of praying for the Christian dead is an important and long-standing one even in his day. He does not believe that prayer for the dead benefits those who were not predispose for it by their manner of life. I.e., no one’s prayers will posthumously save the wicked. He allows that those we did strive for righteousness may be aided but is unclear in how that works. What he does mention more than once is the utility of prayers for the dead to the living—that they give aid, comfort, and help us remember the dead as still part of our ecclesiastical present. I think that’s important—I’ll come back to that point…

The Offices of the Dead as the medieval Church received them became a core component of the Books of Hours. These devotional books for the laity usually contained abridgments of monastic and clerical devotions more suited to the busyness of lay life; the Office of the Dead stands out, however, as being the same texts used by clergy and monastics and the laity would pray alongside clerics and monastics using these texts during the burial observances. It’s a key point of cross-over. They consist of three  offices: Vespers, Matins, and Lauds and the first two are known respectively by the first word of their opening antiphon, both of which have passed into modern parlance: Placebo and Dirige (from which we get the word “dirge”). Lauds followed immediately after Matins and the two should be thought of as a lengthy unit rather than two distinct things.

Usually, a dead body would be carried into a church the day before its burial. The community would gather and begin with Vespers of the Dead. The next morning, they would pray the Matins and Lauds of the Dead, then the Requiem Mass would follow, leading to the funeral procession and the burial proper. The Offices would be repeated again with that individual in mind on the third, seventh, and thirtieth day after their burial, and then on its yearly anniversary. In many intentional liturgical communities, the Offices of the Dead were prayed either weekly or daily regardless of whether there were any deaths in the community: it was part of their duty to the wider dispersed community of the Church  to pray for the souls of the departed, known and unknown.

The texts that have come down to us, then, are venerable and represent a theological perspective in line with Augustine’s musings. They are for the benefit and on behalf of dead Christians who are resident in Purgatory. Since it is only “the pure in heart” who “shall see God” (Matt 5:3), and “they shall go from virtue to virtue: the God of gods shall be seen in Sion” (Ps 83:8, Vulgate) it was understood that even the baptized and saved Christian dead needed a process of purification to become truly pure in heart and see God—these prayers are intend to both call to mind this process and to aid those in the midst of it.  As a result, they tend to be rather individual and focus on hopes for one dead person: freedom from hell and forgiveness of sin.  The classical version of the Offices can be found here in both traditional and contemporary language form: Vespers (trad|cont), Matins (trad|cont), and Lauds (trad|cont).

Based on these texts, a few years ago I put together a form that follows the prayer book’s offices. That’s been up at the St. Bede’s Breviary for a while now in both rites: Morning Prayer for the Dead and Evening Prayer for the Dead.

However, in light of our new developing context, I took a look at these again.

[In this time of pandemic, we are in the midst of communities in grief–grieving a variety of different things, including and especially the loss of human life. I felt the need for a liturgy to speak to that situation using well-worn forms. Hopefully, these will provide a liturgical acknowledgment response, and tool as we think about and pray for both the living and the dead in these days and beyond.] *

I’ve done some fixing and tweaking of items in my original adaptation of the traditional materials. In particular, I’ve made the Evening Psalm antiphons more faithful to the tradition instead of re-using some material from the Morning office.

I’ve also created a new adaptation with a slightly different emphasis. One of my pet peeves about the liturgical work done since the ’79 prayer book—especially with references to the sanctoral kalendar—is the implications of a baptismal ecclesiology have not been completely worked out. In my new revision, Form 2 of the Office of the Dead, I’ve tried to consciously do that. This adaptation still proceeds from traditional sources and materials. But, what I had in mind as I edited the texts was considering departed Christian souls within the context of the baptismal community and remembering—with Augustine—that we are gathering in prayer the living alongside the dead. Given a fuller ecclesial or community setting, specific prayers for those who mourn and the church community still on this side of the vale are not inappropriate.

That having been said, I also—personally—do not see these two forms as an either/or but as a both/and; I still believe the traditional model has a spiritual and theological integrity important for us even as I see places where it can be supplemented. I intend to use both and see how they both wear over time. 

So—in this time of zoom Eucharists with spiritual communion, I offer a first draft of an experimental liturgy. Recognizing the reality of death within our communities as well as our dispersed configuration, I offer a modern Episcopal revisioning of the Office of the Dead as a resource for individuals or groups who might find it useful. As a first draft I’m under no illusions of its quality, and am hoping for suggestions and feedback on it.

Both my Form 1 and Form 2 can be found here. Please note that I’m also experimenting with a new aesthetic; in addition to the new look/feel, I constructed it with a phone/tablet layout in mind thinking that I might package it as an app if there is interest. Thus, it might look a little weird on full-size computer display, and you might want to adjust your browser window so it is taller than it is wide for optimal viewing!

So–without further ado:

Experimental Versions of Episcopal Offices of the Dead:


  • Omitted this intended paragraph the first time through…

Antichrist Morning

I was reminded of Adso this morning.

Adso was a French Benedictine abbot from the end of the 10th century (and a contemporary of Aelfric). He is best remembered for his letter on the Antichrist to Gerberga of Saxony/France (one of the interesting, literate, and powerful women of the period). This letter would become the standard treatment of the Antichrist throughout the medieval period.

The Antichrist is a feature of historic Christian teaching that modern mainline sorts look at askance, largely because of the prominence given the figure in Darbyite constructions of the End of Days popular among certain kinds of fundamentalists. People’s Exhibit A being, naturally, the Left Behind series…

There are two main problems with the figure of “Antichrist” to the modern Christian mind.

The first is that it contorts Christianity into a full-on dualistic position: there are the forces of Good with God, Jesus as main figurehead, and the believers and doers of good on one side arrayed against Satan, the Antichrist as main figurehead, and the workers of evil on the other side. This is a awfully black-and-white construction of reality. It may work well for propaganda purposes (City on a Hill [us and our geo-political allies] vs. the Empire/Axis of Evil [them and their geo-political allies]), but works less well for nuanced theological thought. Clearly this theological construct can and has been marshaled in service of Christian Nationalism which can then get linked to a host of other unsavory notions I need not descend into now but seem pretty obvious in our current context…

The second is its minimal biblical moorings. The term “Antichrist” only shows up in four verses in the Johannine letters, and seems to refer not specifically to one individual but to a class of folks who deny the Incarnation. However, these references were then connected to Paul’s references to “the Lawless One” in 2 Thessalonians (rendered in the Vulgate as homo peccati, filius perditionis [man of sin, son of perdition]) and then to the chief political enemy in the Book of Revelation. From there, a narrative is set up and Adso—among others—connects the dots to come up with a biography of the Antichrist.

Obviously, the image of the Antichrist is not only a dualistic one but apocalyptic. And that’s no surprise as apocalyptic rhetoric generally is strongly dualistic in order to set up an us-vs.-them dynamic. Apocalypticism defined the world that Adso lived in. He was living towards the end of the Viking Age. While this period had begun with Scandinavian attacks on England and Francia, its ending saw vikings as not just raiders but conquerors. It was not hard at all to see the struggle between the kingdoms of England and the Continent as engaged in an eschatological battle with martial implications as the (largely) pagan vikings sacked, looted, burned, and ruled Christian areas.  Adso, Wulfstan, Aelfric and their contemporaries could easily see a viking king on the  throne who would persecute Christians bringing all of the prophecies about the Antichrist together in their lifetime. Nor were they terribly off-base: the Dane Canute would become king of England in 1016. Luckily, Canute’s grandfather—Harald Bluetooth (yes, the guy the short-ranged communication protocol is named for)—had converted to Christianity and was the first Christian king of Denmark.

So—why was I reminded of all of this stuff this morning? Cranmer’s psalm cycle offers us Psalms 9, 10, and 11 this morning.

Psalms 9 and 10 also formed a central point of reference in the early medieval understanding of the Antichrist. Just as they understood the Psalms to speak directly of Christ, so too do these two psalms speak of the Antichrist. Just as the gender-inclusive plural (“Blessed are they…” in Psalm 1) hides from us some of the classical identifications of Christ in the psalter, so too here. While the “ungodly” and “wicked” of Ps 9:15 and 17 are in the plural in the Latin (we’re looking at what Adso was looking at…), the references to the wicked in our Psalm 10 (his second-half of Psalm 9) are in the singular. Hence the “wicked” and “covetous”—rendered by Jerome as impius and peccator—are a singular actor in the psalm, cursing God and acting unjustly towards the poor and innocent. Augustine connects this sinner to the Antichrist in his commentary; Cassiodorus takes this identification and runs with it, solidifying the interpretation of these psalms for Adso to take up and use.

As I frequently remind my church history students, the notion of what is “biblical” is not static. There are a host of things that we look at and wonder how Christians in previous ages could have believed such things—time and again the reason is because they found them in the Scriptures. To them and their reading logics they were clearly and obviously Biblical Truth.

Bottom line—“biblical” is not a simple binary. That doesn’t mean that it’s not useful and we shouldn’t use it, but that we should do so advisedly. What do we do with Antichrist? Well—we keep celebrating the Feast of the Incarnation! And we remember that our tradition has used this language to challenge those in power who act against biblical standards of justice and righteousness.

Presentation on Trinitarian Theology

Back at the beginning of the year, the folks at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore asked me to give them a talk about the Trinity on Trinity Sunday. I said, sure, I’d be happy to—but that Trinity Sunday wasn’t going to work due to a conflict with the Society of Scholar-Priests meeting that I’d already agreed to. So, we agreed that I’d do it on Pentecost instead.

As I was putting together a slide deck for it, it occurred to me that I could do a run-through beforehand, make sure my presentation and slides worked as they should and that it would fall within the forty-five/fifty minute time-slot that I was shooting for. Not only that, I could record my little run-through and be able to upload it to the YouTube channel. Due to life intervening (as it is wont to do…), the recording didn’t happen beforehand. But—I did make a recording of it, and it now up on the channel.

Let me warn you ahead of time: it is 46 minutes long (!).

Long-time readers of the blog may recognize that I recycled my now twelve-year-old (!!) post Revelations of Divine Algebra for the initial section.

So, if you have an interest in boning up on the Trinity ahead of the Feast of the Holy Trinity this coming Sunday, set aside a block of time and give it a view:

Happy Proper 2!

Easter has ended and we have turned the corner into Proper time… As you’ll see from the table on page 884 in the BCP, the first Propered Sunday after the upcoming Feast of the Holy Trinity will be Proper 4, but for we who pray the Office, the Propers begin today with the readings—and collect—for Proper 2.

Thanks to those who alerted me that the breviary had still been showing the collect for the Ascension; that was a manual fix that I’d neglected to correct. Apologies for that, and we’re back on track now…

Also, I’ve been catching up with some of the fixes noted in the comments—which are very helpful, please keep them coming! One attempted fix late last night hung up the data feed for this morning, but it’s restarted now.

So—lots of stuff going on, I’m projecting that the new Liturgical Look Forward will be up a little later today and a bonus video should also be appearing on the feed in the next day or two…

New version of the St. Bede’s Breviary

While I’ve been quiet here for a little bit, it doesn’t mean that nothing’s been happening… There are a number of things in the works and some of them are actually—finally!—coming to fruition. The first of these is a new version of the St. Bede’s Breviary.

There are several changes with the new version…

First, it uses a completely different set of technologies to get and display the Offices. This doesn’t matter for most folks; it’s under-the-hood stuff, but is important for the development of the software generally and for keeping up with where technology’s going.

Second, it integrates directly into a WordPress environment. This is a big deal because so many church websites use WordPress. Once this version matures, it could be integrated into a lot of church websites pretty easily to help promote the spread of the Daily Office and the disciplines of Morning and Evening Prayer.

Third, it gets rid of the cookie system to keep track of options. Instead, the options are available on the page itself. I am working on a way to save your selections as you go, but I’ve not figured out that piece to my satisfaction yet.

Fourth, if you exercise all of the options, you’ll note some blue text in there. There’s a reason for that… I make the claim that this breviary follows the Book of Common Prayer strictly—and it does. But I have had some people challenge that assertion on the grounds that I introduce materials not authorized by the prayer book. This is true. I do include “catholic” options found in the practice of the liturgical West not in the prayerbook itself. In my eyes, these are legitimate private devotions that are not part of our public common prayer, but are part of our classical liturgical spirituality. So—in this version of the breviary, I have identified these by indenting them a bit and making them blue to distinguish them visibly from the text of our common prayer.

Fifth, I am still working out some cosmetic bugs, and some technical issues may also pop up as we move along. clearly, I’ll try and address these as soon as I am able as I become aware of them.

Enough chatter—the link is here and you can also access the page from the “WP Breviary” link in the menu at the top of the page. Let me know what you think!

Not Dead Yet…

I hadn’t intended to do a blog-fast for Lent, but functionally that’s the way it’s worked out…

There’s a lot of stuff going on including some big life stuff that I’ll talk about in a bit.

This is just a quick post to let everybody know that I’ll be appearing tomorrow (March 20th) on the Society of Scholar-Priests Webinar series! It’ll be an hour-long chat and the last 20 minutes or so I’ll be taking audience questions. So—if you’ve got some burning questions you’d like me to answer in front of a lot of priests, tomorrow will be your chance…

It’s a zoom webinar and will be here: at 1 PM Eastern/10 AM Pacific.