It is easy to miss the significance of the Great Litany. It comes so early in the Divine Liturgy, immediately after the opening “Blessed is the Kingdom,” that if one is somehow late in getting to church one can miss it entirely. Its true significance can be seen by reflecting upon its original position in the Liturgy and its abiding function. In earlier days, the Great Litany functioned as the prayers of the people. Things have changed since then, and in the service books now what occupies its place, while still sometimes called “the prayers of the people,” is not in fact the people’s intercessory prayers, but the clergy’s prayers of access to the altar. Those intercessory Prayers of the People have now been moved to the beginning of the service.
Its significance was clearer in the old days, because then it was clearer than now who “the People” actually are. The People are the holy laos, the baptized and fully initiated People of God, as distinct from the pagan outsiders and the catechumens. The catechumens may have been at the service, but they were not yet The People. As such, they couldn’t do much of anything in the service—they couldn’t receive Holy Communion and they couldn’t exchange the Holy Kiss (“because their kiss is not yet holy,” explained an early commentator). And they couldn’t offer the intercessory prayers. Those prayers, our present Great Litany, were not just prayers like anybody could pray. They were the effectual intercession of the Body of Christ, the royal priesthood. Baptism transformed the baptized from an outsider to an insider, clothing the candidate in Christ Himself and bestowing all the authority and access to God that comes from being His child. Unbaptized catechumens didn’t have this; the baptized laos did. That was why in those early days the assembled Church waited until the catechumens had been prayed for and dismissed before offering their intercessory prayers.
In those days, catechumens would be present to hear the Scripture readings and the sermon based on them. They would remain to be prayed over under the outstretched hand of the celebrant as they bowed their heads unto the Lord. Then they would leave, and the baptized Church would get down to liturgical business, doing the things only they could do. They would exchange the holy Kiss of Peace. They would receive Holy Communion. And before all that, they would stand before their Father as His royal priesthood and intercede for the world.
The world certainly needed that intercession, as it continues to need it. The world is full of dangers and disasters—there are dangers to travellers, dangers from sickness, dangers from poverty and want and need. There are wars and plagues, earthquakes and crime. This poor old world lies battered and bruised, like the man set upon by thieves in the Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan, sinful, guilty, arrogant and clueless, bleeding from every pore. The world needs someone to help it, some Good Samaritan to intercede on Sunday and give that intercession the charitable legs of action during the week. It needs God’s royal priesthood to lift it up in prayer to the God who is the lover of mankind. That is our task, and it is what we do when we pray the Great Litany.
We seem to be nicer to catechumens now than in the old days. Now catechumens can stay for the whole service, joining in the Prayers of the People and helping to offer the Great Litany. Whether we are truly more exclusive and nice now or whether (as I think) that we have just forgotten who we are and how different a member of the faithful laos is from a catechumen is another question. But at very least we who are baptized members of the royal priesthood need to remember our exalted and privileged status, and reflect on it as we offer these intercessions. These petitions are not simply wishes or prayers that anyone could offer. They are the supplication of the Bride of Christ, beseeching the Bridegroom. They are the cry of the holy nation, calling on its King. And if the Scriptures can be believed in Hebrews 2:11-12, they are even the hymn of Christ Himself, singing to the Father in the midst of the Church.