Classic Pestilence Prayers & Maundy Thursday

Classic Pestilence Prayers & Maundy Thursday April 9, 2020

Here it is Maundy Thursday and we can’t go to church for Communion!  But we can still celebrate this holiday, this holy day.

The church gathers around Word and Sacrament, Pastor William Cwirla has observed, and the individual Christian has recourse to the Word and Prayer.  Even when the churches are closed due to the coronavirus, we have access to the Word of God through Bible reading, and we can pray any time we want.  Online worship lets us hear the Word of God in preaching  and lets us join with our fellow church members in prayer.

And there is another facet of Maundy Thursday that we often overlook, but that we can now dwell on.  The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning “command,” as in “mandate.”  On the Thursday before His death, Jesus not only instituted the Lord’s Supper, He washed His disciples’ feet and gave His followers a new mandate:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

We can do that even while we are quarantined.  In fact, I am seeing it more and more, as Christians connect with their neighbors and members of their congregation,  check on each other, offer to get supplies for those most at risk for the virus, and in other ways follow Christ’s new commandment despite their forced isolation.  The “mutual consolation” of fellow Christians goes on.  We may not be able to have Communion on Maundy Thursday, but we can still have the Communion of the Saints.  Both of which have to do with Christ’s Body.

We can see some of that even on this blog.  Last week I posted a prayer “In Time of Pestilence” from the 1860 Lutheran Prayer Book by Benjamin Kurtz, which had been forwarded to me by a friend.  In the comments, Setapart shared a prayer on the same subject by C. F. W. Walther, no less, the key founder of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  Then I heard from a reader named Ziggy Rein who went to the trouble of translating a  “Prayer in pandemics, plagues, and fear of death” from a German book published by Concordia Publishing House in 1895.  And also in the comments P. T. McCain recommended a collection of classic Lutheran prayers published by CPH, which I subsequently ordered and am finding to be wonderful.

So, honoring Maundy Thursday as a time of prayer and joining together in Christian love in the shadow of the pestilence, let us pray. . . .

C. F. W. Walther, “Time of Epidemic,” General Prayers #101, in For the Life of the Church — A Practical Edition of Pastor Walther’s Prayers and Addresses,” trans. Rudolph Prange (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011), p. 126:

Almighty, eternal God, Lord of life and death, we thank You that in these evil times You have graciously cared for us. Indeed, You are wielding over us the stern rod of a pestilence that has, sadly, taken many a dear brother and sister out of our midst; but even so You have our welfare at heart.

Through the present epidemic You remind us that we must die, not to frighten us and to drive us to despair, but in order that we may divorce ourselves from this perilous world, be awakened from every sinful slumber into which we may fall, set our house in order, acknowledge our sins, and, above all, through firm faith take refuge in Your dear Son, our only Savior and Conqueror of death.

Grant, we beg of You, that Your call to repent and to prepare for death may be ignored by none of us, but that we may all take refuge in Jesus Christ, cling to Him day and night, and finally depart in peace.

You do not want us to abandon Your work at a time like this, but to ‘work while it is day, for the night is coming, when no one can work’ [John 9:4].

Oh, therefore grant us grace in this evening hour, as at the portals of eternity; to deliberate in Your fear upon those things that are beneficial to Your dear children To that end direct our understanding and our minds and let our efforts be crowned with success according to Your gracious will and for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

This collection includes yet another prayer by Walther for this need, obviously common in the 19th century, “In Time of Epidemic,” General Prayers #20.  You can access it through the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon.

Ziggy Rein, translator, “Prayer in Pandemic, Plagues, and Fear of Death,” from Evang.-Lutherischer Gebets-Schatz. [Ev.-Lutheran Treasury of Prayers]. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House. 1895),  pp. 339–341.  Posted here with the permission of the translator:

Almighty, eternal God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Lord of heaven and of earth! We poor, miserable sinners must confess that we have offended You, O God, with our sinful life and being in the most detestable way. You therefore are pouring out Your wrath upon us justly and You attack us with various plagues, epidemics, and illnesses.
What are we to do now? Should we despair? Far be it from us! We realize indeed that we not only have deserved this prevalent epidemic now as punishment for our various sins, but also doubtlessly greater and worse punishments.
Where shall we flee to then, where shall we turn to, that we may be safe from this and other epidemics and plagues? Alone to You, Lord Jesus Christ. We have no other consolation, neither in heaven nor on earth, without You, You Who have redeemed us.
Indeed, You will not cast away Your creation; therefore, we call out, groan, and shout to You humbly from our whole heart and say: God, have mercy and obliterate all our sin according to Your enormous grace, goodnes,s and mercy. Cease Your disfavor, fury, and wrath over us. Show us again Your grace and spare us graciously from this now prevailing epidemic and horrible illness. Let us entreat You, O Lord, let us entreat You, and spare us. Protect and shield us in a fatherly manner that this epidemic won’t harm or strike, snatch away or carry off anyone.
If it is, however, Your divine will that our life is ended in such an epidemic and we shall depart this life, Your gracious will be done, which is always the best. We commend ourselves with body and soul, with wife and child, and the entire household into Your divine mercy and fatherly hand, ask humbly from our whole heart, if we are thus overtaken by such a last hour and it is now that our body and soul shall part, You would graciously keep us in our right senses that we can commit our soul with a clear mind and grant us a blessed end as well, so that we may thus enter into eternal life through temporal death, which is an end to all affliction and misery and which opens the door to eternal life, the sooner to be with the Savior and to rejoice eternally in heaven with all God’s chosen.
This You would, O faithful God and Father, grant through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, lauded for eternity. Amen.
It turns out, the German prayer book that contains this prayer has been translated in its entirety as the Lutheran Prayer Companion, trans. Matthew Carver (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 2018).  This is the very book that P. T. McCain recommended!
We learn that the above prayer, entitled “Prayer in Contagious Epidemics and Plagues” (#427 on p. 263), is from the Riga Prayer Book of 1719, from what is present-day Latvia.
This collection is indeed a treasury.  It includes 482 prayers like this–tough-minded, passionate, reflecting deep spiritual experience, from a more devout time than our own–drawn from the rich heritage of Lutheran spirituality.  The prayers cover just about any topic you can think of.
For example, there is a whole section on “Vocation,” with 58 prayers on topics such as “Prayer when choosing a vocation,” “Prayer when a person begins a business,”  and “Prayer for comfort in trials related to one’s calling.” Most of these are about the family vocations, with prayers on marriage (including bad and troubled marriages),  having children (including having a stillborn baby and the risk of death in childbirth), and family life (sending one’s children off to school, moving to a new residence, etc.)
There are also prayers for extraordinary situations that most of us hopefully will ever experience but which are fascinating and edifying to read nonetheless.  For example, “Prayer against the fear of strange apparitions” and others involving spiritual warfare against the demonic realm.  And at least five prayers for the use of those who are about to be executed.


Illustration:  “Praying Hands” (1508), by Albrecht Dürer / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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