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The Octagon Parish



Hymn Father, hear the prayer we offer.


Speaker  Dr Alan Chesters


‘The texts you have reflected on, taken from the regular round of our worship, have been familiar to me since I was a choir boy and in the case of the canticles have been part of my daily prayer life since I went to theological college at the age of 19. So I know from personal experience that familiarity can lead to a love of the words that express such profound truths about our relationship with God.


They can also be so familiar that as we recite them they become even mundane losing that original emotion and excitement which arose from their author’s response to God’s saving work among us.


Leaving aside for a moment the Old Testament psalm of praise, Ps.150, the way the Gloria in the Eucharist and the canticles from St Luke’s Gospel found their way into the regular round of daily services is lost in the mists of time, or in the history of the early church as it developed its worship and prayer life.


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Based on the verse in the Book of Psalms, ‘Seven times a day will I praise you’ certainly by the 5th century the monks and clergy were engaged in seven daily services from pre dawn to dusk. The Benedictus found its way into the morning office, the Magnificat into evening vespers and the Nunc Dimittis into the night office.


At the Reformation Cranmer not only translated the Latin services into English but skilfully combined the seven daily offices (as they were known) into Morning and Evening Prayer (Matins and Evensong). The BCP required the clergy to ring to church bell and say those offices daily – a requirement that is still laid on the clergy although executed these days in a whole variety of ways.


Part of Bishop Cranmer’s purpose was also to try to engage lay people in the daily round of worship.


Until comparatively recently in the course of morning and evening prayer the whole of the Old Testament was read once a year, the New Testament twice and the psalter monthly, a real diet of Scripture.


The wonderful texts you have been considering during your Lent course have stood the test of time and not least in the translation found in the BCP. People of faith produced these texts to express what God had done for them. We might say the texts arose from their prayer life, not the prayer that is mainly pleading with God for a list of things we wish for others and ourselves, but the prayer that seeks to help us deepen our understanding of his ways.


Four of the texts are connected to Jesus’ birth – the incarnation, the Word being made flesh and dwelling among us. From St Luke we have

  • the Benedictus as Zachariah greets the birth of his son John the Baptist, the one who will go before the face of the Lord to prepare his way
  • the Magnificat, in which the Blessed Virgin Mary rejoices as she visits her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist
  • the Nunc Dimittis as Simeon greets the Christ child in the Temple
  • while the Gloria in Excelsis Deo from the Eucharist begins with the Song of Angels that greeted our Saviour’s birth

All of these, together with Ps.150 in which the Psalmist engages the whole earth, are songs of praise, outburstings of the Spirit in the human heart.


A question. You have considered these as a Lenten exercise or devotion so a question for this last session might be ‘What difference will this make to your life? Perhaps, indeed hopefully, you will have been helped to concentrate better on the words as they are said or sung in church. The words will have deeper meaning for you. that would be a good outcome for your effort and that of those who have lead your thoughts.


But I want to suggest that another way forward might be to use one of all of these texts to help fashion or refresh your own personal prayer.


There is a story about a theological college principal who would ask prospective students at their interview if they said their prayers. Almost without exception all immediately replied, “Yes, Father.” They were not so quick to answer his second question, “When you pray, what do you say?” I suspect, partly because we English are reticent in speaking of such things and partly because, especially if they were grammar school boys, they would believe there was a right answer and they were unsure what that should be.


They might have taken comfort from another spiritual advisor who counselled, “Do not worry too much as to how you pray, the point is to go on praying.” We all speak differently so we shall all address God in different ways, coming from different experiences, even in the course of our one life.


The ingredients of prayer What I want to suggest is that, like the clauses of the Lord’s prayer, the passages you have been considering contain all the essential ingredients of prayer. These basic elements, tested and tried, must be made our own within the greater prayer life of the Church.


  • It does not matter where we begin, but praise will always be a key element. ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.’ ‘Glory to God in the highest’. ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord.’  ‘Praise God in his Holiness’.
  • Then, like Isaiah in the Temple, having seen the glory of God, we realise that we fall short so, in order to recognise that, we go on to sing in the Gloria ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.’ Mary speaks of ‘the lowliness of his handmaiden.’ In the Benedictus, Zechariah realises that God’s people need redemption bringing ‘light to them that sit in darkness.’
  • The assurance of divine forgiveness leads to a sense of thankfulness and  gratitude. The Magnificat is full of that spirit as Mary rehearses what God has done or, as in the Gloria ’ we give thanks to thee for thy great glory.’
  • Three other aspects should feature in prayer. The most obvious is intercession, praying for the needs of others, for the world, as in the Gloria we seek’ peace on earth to men of good will.’
  • We know that Christian prayer is based on a real sense of hope and expectancy, on the firm belief that ‘God is working his purpose out.’ St Luke’s three canticles are full of that spirit. The birth of John the Baptist -  ‘thou child shall go before the face of the Lord to prepare his way.’  Song of Simeon ‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.’
  • And with that sense of hope in the Magnificat we have a reminder that prayer should also challenge us. Prayer is not for the faint hearted. We have to be ready, open to discover God’s way, prepared for our world to be turned upside down. The Magnificat is one of the most radical songs ever written, though it may not always feel like that at Choral Evensong. Our prayer for ourselves should be a challenge towards the poor, the downcast, the needy and to renew our lives in the Spirit.


There is much more that could be said but I hope these few thoughts will help you to take from these inspired passages a deeper desire to respond to god’s love in Christ.


May our prayer and worship help fulfil the hope of the Psalmist that everything that has breath will indeed praise the Lord.’


Organ Recital: Malcom Brinson played Prière de Notre Dame, by L Boellmann


Compline and hymn

Before the ending of the day,

Creator of the world, we pray

your grace and peace to us allow

and be our guard and keeper now.


From all ill dreams defend our eyes,

from nightly fears and fantasies,

tread under foot our ghostly foe,

that no sin we may know.


O Father, that we ask be done

through Jesus Christ your only Son,

who with the Holy Ghost and thee,

lives and reigns eternally. Amen.

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