Monday, January 31, 2011

For Signs and Seasons


And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. (Genesis 1: 14-15)

Easter this year will be on April 24. This is one day short of the latest it can be. Easter’s date is based on an ancient calculation, based in turn on the date of the full moon in relation to the spring (vernal) equinox. It is one of the few remaining remnants of the Lunar Calendar (dating things in relationship to the cycles of the moon) in our society, which is largely governed by a Solar Calendar (dating things in relationship to the earth’s annual pilgrimage around the sun).

The liturgical year is dominated by two major “cycles.” One of them—the Incarnation Cycle—is based on the Solar Year, Christmas always falling on a fixed date in the calendar. This cycle begins with the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 (celebrating the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement of God’s Incarnation in Christ), continues through Christmas and Epiphany, and concludes with the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple (Candlemas) on February 2.  So, for much of the year, we are thinking about a “fixed” event in the calendar, connecting us solidly to history, fact, and the “groundedness” of the Christian faith. The Incarnation of Christ is very much about humility—a word coming from the same root as humus: earth or soil. One can say that the Incarnation cycle is always calling us to the “rootedness-in-reality” aspect of the Christian life.

The other major cycle in the Christian Year…and the most important part of our Calendar…is the Easter cycle. This date constantly shifts with each year, falling somewhere between March 22 and April 25 (inclusive). The cycle officially begins (in the Episcopal Church) with Ash Wednesday and concludes with Pentecost.* Its mobility reminds us that movement and fluidity are part of our life as disciples, and that we must keep our eyes fixed on Christ, who is the “Light of Life” for us, and who alone determines the “signs and seasons” in a world of constant change. As we are reminded in the Letter to the Hebrews: For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (13:14).

Easter will not come this late again for a very long while. This means we will have an extremely long Epiphanytide, a Lent accompanied by the full energy of spring, and that we won’t be taking our annual parish photograph on Pentecost Sunday until nearly the middle of June! Such a long season after Epiphany will allow us to spend a great deal of time thinking about what it means to follow Christ as his disciples and to prepare for Lent. But there is another, more subtle meaning we can glean from this calendar eccentricity.

The Christian life is always marked by holding seemingly opposite things in tension. We believe in a God who is all-powerful, and yet who has come into our midst as one of us—vulnerable and contending with the limits and struggles of our mortal life. We know God to be loving and merciful, but we also know that sin is incompatible with God and we must be shorn of it if we are to achieve union with the divine. Likewise, the Church Calendar teaches us that we must be fixed, solid, and grounded in the eternal truth of God as revealed in Scripture and Apostolic teaching—while at the same time being open and flexible so as to respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to become more and more like Christ through learning, renewal, and growth.

Some people—and some churches—tend to pick one or the other of these directions, mistakenly believing that by simplifying the mystery of faith, we can “get it right” and arrive in heaven without depending all that much on God. Such “pseudo-faith” distorts our relationship with God and each other. It also disfigures the Church’s witness in the world, often projecting a horrifying caricature of the Gospel that is either rigidly condemning or vapidly permissive. Often, the two things merge, creating a mock-Christianity with neither mercy nor truth. God deliver us from such delusion!

We are blessed as Anglicans and as members of St. Timothy’s to be the stewards of a whole or catholic faith, asserting both the groundedness and the livingness of the Gospel.

This is the kind of Christianity the contemporary scene around us needs. It is an eternally-relevant Christianity. It is the gift we bear. But, it will be seen only if we live it out ourselves, by living lives grounded in the unchanging truth of God, yet always growing into the opportunities God gives us in the present moment. Like the Liturgical Calendar itself, we are a people connected to earth, sun, moon, and heaven itself. By God’s grace, we share in his light, becoming stars and guides, by which others may be guided to that city which is to come: the Kingdom of God. So may it be.

Day by day we praise you: an introduction to the Daily Office


7. “…Read, Mark, Learn…”

Once a person learns how to say the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer, the process of getting ready for each service becomes pretty clear (it was meant to be rich, but fairly simple). However, getting to that point can seem a bit circuitous to beginners. There is a certain amount of page-flipping involved because the BCP is really a collection of books, each contributing to the vision of a guide to daily, weekly, and lifetime worship. The Daily Office draws from several parts of the Prayer Book each time it is said, and so one has to learn how to negotiate these various sections—the ones that change from day to day, and the ones that stay the same.

There are a couple of ways to deal with this. One is just to use a computer. Using a web site where the Daily Office is posted makes it very easy to begin at the beginning and follow things right through to the end. There are some drawbacks, though:

  • Constraint. A desktop or laptop computer limit, to one degree or another, the way in which one says prayers. If, like me, one wishes to observe the various postures associated with praying the Office, a computer can make this nearly impossible. Forcing one’s prayers to assume the character of another day in the cubicle or watching a video seems both unwise and ultimately counter-productive. Newer tablet-style computers may change this; but they still require wireless connection and sufficient power. I’ve said the Office on the beach or by a river many times because books are portable and dependable. Computers are tremendous tools (obviously), but they are not perfect for everything…thank heavens.
  • Filtering. When the Prayer Book offers choices or options in the Daily Office, most on-line sites end up making a choice for us, eliminating some of the richness of the original. On-line versions of the Office tend to have a “filter,” if you will; they would like us to adopt a particular “way” of saying the Office rather than just giving us the essential resources and trusting us (and God!) to work things out over time and use. Of course, one could say that this blog has a filter of sorts, but here the goal is to help people learn to say the Office “pure and simple,” then suggesting various additions.

When using the BCP for the Office, it is helpful to have a number of bookmarks/ribbons in place. Here are some good places to mark and why:

The Calendar (beginning on p. 19): It is good to see where we are in the liturgical year. The dates in this section of the Calendar are those of the fixed days, such as Major Holy Days (printed in bold). On such days, special prayers and readings from scripture are available elsewhere in the book. Before starting out to say a particular Office, first we need to know what lessons and prayers will be used. If your parish offers liturgical calendars (where each day’s special commemoration is shown) that can be a great help. You can also purchase a calendar with the proper lessons for the Daily Office through the Episcopal Church’s in-house publisher here (in the 2011 edition). While a little expensive, this is a great tool for beginners, as it spells the Psalms and other lessons out very clearly both for the Daily Office and the Eucharist.
The Daily Office itself: Place a ribbon or other marker at the start of whichever service you will be using. The Table of Contents at the front of the Book of Common Prayer will show you the page number. Remember: Rite I is the older style English service; Rite II the newer. (When saying Noonday or Compline, you likely will only need this particular marker.) This marker will be “home base” for your use of the BCP when saying Office. As you progress through the service, keep moving the marker along, returning to your place when coming back from some other part of the Prayer Book.
Table of Suggested Canticles (p. 144): These are the "songs"from Holy Scripture used as responses to the lesson(s) from Scripture used at Morning and Evening Prayer. This table helps one move in a balanced and seasonal way through the various canticles.
The Collects (for Rite I, beginning on p. 159; for Rite II, beginning on p. 211): A Collect is a prayer setting the theme for a particular service, day, week, or season in our worship. As we progress through the church year, this ribbon moves along, too.
The Psalter (a name for a collection of Psalms): The Psalms are essential for the Daily Office. They formed the Church’s first hymnal, and Christians from the beginning have found them a compendium of teaching and guidance, as well as a commentary on the rest of Scripture. At Morning and Evening Prayer, special Psalms are “appointed” by the Prayer Book to be read, usually over a six-week cycle. Sometimes only one Psalm is offered at a particular service; at other times, a number of shorter ones are selected. If multiple Psalms are prayed, they might be in sequential order… or they may be widely separated. You may end up wanting two markers for the Psalms, depending on your own preferences.
Prayers and Thanksgivings (beginning on p. 810): Here is a rich treasury of prayers for various occasions, augmenting those found in the final section of Morning and Evening Prayer, as well as for use at other times in your day and life.
The Lectionary (beginning on p. 934): This is a very important section, as it gives the Psalms and other readings needed at either Morning or Evening Prayer (Noonday and Compline are essentially self-contained services). The Lectionary Calendar (mentioned above) takes the place of using the Lectionary section of the Prayer Book, but the calendar is bulky and when traveling it could be difficult to take along. Ultimately, it is best if people learn to use the BCP Lectionary. Put the marker in the appropriate place in the Church Year where you find yourself. Again, you might want a second marker for those Holy Days that pop up over the course of the year and preempt the flow of readings during the seasons (The Holy Day Lectionary section begins on p. 921). You can usually learn where you are in the Liturgical Year from the Sunday bulletin of your parish, as well as from an on-line resource such as The Lectionary Page.

To get started, the essential markers are at these points:
The Daily Office (Rite I or Rite II Morning or Evening Prayer, or at the Noonday or Compline services)
Table of Canticles
The Psalter
The Lectionary (if you are not using a separate resource such as a lectionary calendar or an on-line resource)
The other bookmarks can be added as you grow in confidence and begin to want a richer experience of praying the Office.

[Here is a blog that gives detailed instruction for how to put plenty of ribbons into your prayer book for use in marking the Daily Office.]

We are now ready to begin going step-by-step through Morning Prayer, the first Office we will study in detail.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Humility unlocks our innate potential


At the heart of Christian anthropology is the conviction of a deep affinity between human nature and spiritual life. The difficulties of living spiritually do not come from our nature, as such, but from the deformation of our nature through selfishness and pride. Humility aims to eliminate the phony aspects of our life and to help us live in truth. Part of the truth of human existence is that we are called to live for God. Humility, oddly enough, leads us to recognize our human dignity. It reminds us that we are created for God and that we will be profoundly miserable until we devote the substance of our energies to the realization of this innate potential. 
From “Living in the Truth,” by Michael Casey

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Epiphanytide


This time of the Liturgical Year is usually referred to as “the Season after Epiphany,” or Epiphanytide for short. It is part of the Ordinary Time of the Church Year, those Sundays ordered (numbered) after a feast (as opposed to being a Sunday of or in a season). Thus, the Season after Pentecost has numbered Sundays that stretch around to Advent, and this is true of the Sundays following Epiphany. The color for both seasons is green – a color of growth and renewal.

The Epiphany
The feast that stands at the head of this season is the Epiphany, with its familiar story of the arrival of the Wise Men. This feast (occupying much more significance in the Western Christian tradition than in the Christian East) emphasizes a variety of sacred truths.

The first is Christ’s nature as human and divine. The gifts given by the Magi indicate both Christ’s divinity (the frankincense) and his humanity (the myrrh for his burial); the gold connects them together in that he is shown to be the King of Glory, who will restore God and humanity to peace through the Divine Love made known on the Throne of Glory, the Cross.

The Epiphany also tells us that all human knowledge is made complete in faith. The Magi were early scientists. They sought knowledge at great personal cost. But the end of that knowledge was not just more knowledge: their journey was crowned by worship. Modern humans tend to place data and technology in the place of wisdom and faith. This leads to fragmentation in our culture and alienation between peoples and their God. The Epiphany shows us that while using our minds is both good and necessary, we must be guided by a deeper obedience

The Baptism of Christ
On the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we recall Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan at the hands of St. John the Forerunner. This is called the Theophany (manifestation of God) in the Eastern Christian tradition, for this is when the Trinity is first shown and made explicit in the New Testament.

The voice of the Father pronounces: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) In this moment, we are given the glorious gift of God’s self-revelation, seeing there the mystery of Divine Love and interrelationship, into which we are baptized as followers of Christ. We share in God’s loving approval through Christ and our response to the gift of new life in him. This Sunday is both a showing forth of the Divine life of the Holy Trinity and a recollection of our own share in that life through Holy Baptism. This is emphasized by a re-affirmation of baptism in the liturgy. Following this, holy water is sprinkled on all present. The sign of the cross is made when the water reaches us as a personal acknowledgment of the gift of new life in Holy Baptism, and the call to live that new life out in our daily lives as disciples. And yet there is more!

Miracle at Cana
In Year C of the three-year cycle of Sunday readings (we are in Year A), the Wedding Feast at Cana is the Gospel lesson for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany. This, the first of Christ’s miracles, is another “showing forth” of his Divinity. It also tells us that God is able to transform that which is ordinary into that which is extraordinary. Another part of this mystery is that other than Jesus and his mother Mary, we are told the only people who understood what had happened were “those who served” at the wedding feast. In other words, only if we adopt a servant’s humility and role as disciples will we ever gain an understanding of the Gospel and the great mysteries of the Faith. This challenge stands before us each day, especially when we share in the Holy Eucharist. We take into our very selves the Holy Mysteries of Christ, and are called to service in the world as Christ’s agents of grace. Only in this way can we enter into the true knowledge of God.

Feast of the Presentation (a.k.a. Candlemas)
On February 2, the Calendar commemorates the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (also known as the Purification of the Virgin Mary, Candlemas, and Fortieth Day). This feast brings us to the Temple, when St. Mary and St. Joseph, in accordance with the Mosaic Law, presented the infant Jesus forty days after his birth. It concludes the Incarnation cycle of feasts that began with the Annunciation in March. In this feast we recall St. Simeon’s words (in Luke 2), “Lord, you now have set your servant free….” Once again, Jesus is revealed to be the God-Man, the Incarnate Savior in our midst.

The Transfiguration
Finally, Epiphanytide culminates in the Sunday before Lent, when we celebrate the final Theophany before Jesus’ going to Jerusalem to be offered upon the Cross – the Transfiguration. This great day, with its solemn retelling of the great mystery of Christ’s appearing on the Holy Mountain with Moses and Elijah (symbolizing the Law and Prophets, the Living and the Dead – of which Christ is the Fulfillment and over which he is Lord), is celebrated with great richness. The Uncreated Light of God shines from the Savior, and those privileged few with him are stunned by their encounter with the glory of the Son. We see on this day a foretaste of the Holy Resurrection, giving us strength and grace as we undertake the ascetic journey of a Holy Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Day by day we praise you: an introduction to the Daily Office

The Love of the Holy Three must be
at the center of all our prayer.

6. Morning and Evening Prayer: The Backbone of the Prayer Book Office

Morning and Evening Prayer are the two historic Anglican daily prayer services. They each were crafted in the sixteenth century from many earlier sources and have stood the test of time. They are very similar in structure… in fact, identical. They differ in content, of course, but they reveal the “inner logic” of the Office (purgation-illumination-union) in the same manner. Morning and Evening Prayer both follow this basic outline:

  • Opening sentence of Scripture (to set the theme or focus our mind on prayer)
  • Confession of Sin (followed by an assurance of pardon in Christ)
  • Invitatory (opening address to God and a psalm or hymn inviting us into prayer and praise)
  • Psalmody (particular Psalms, as appointed in the Lectionary, always ending with praise to the Holy Trinity)
  • Scripture Lesson (as appointed in the Lectionary)
  • Canticle (a “song” or prayer from Scripture or ancient Church sources, as a response to the Lesson)
  • [Second Lesson and Canticle—some services may have only one set]
  • Apostles’ Creed (reaffirming the central teachings of the Christian faith)
  • The Lord’s Prayer (the prayer Jesus taught, and the model for all Christian prayer)
  • Suffrages (short intercessory prayers in verse-and-response form)
  • Collects (prayers for the particular day in the Church calendar, the day of the week, or other commemoration)
  • [Hymn or anthem—for sung services]
  • Intercessions (using some official form for public services; using one’s own intercessory prayers and/or list for personal recitation)
  • General Thanksgiving and/or A Prayer of St. Chrysostom (giving thanks is an essential part of a full life of prayer)
  • Concluding grace (providing a clear conclusion and turning our focus to living out our prayer)

Now, that may seem like a lot. You might be thinking: “How can anyone other than a monk or nun do this?” The answer is that most people can—if our prayer is offered in love for God and as part of the whole Church’s continuous liturgy of throughout the world and the ages. We don’t do this alone; we do it as part of a universal offering. The Office is fairly simple to learn; but it continues to reveal its meaning over a lifetime. We need to start simply, then let God lead us to the form of Office best suited to our situation.

The basic Office, with one lesson, takes about fifteen minutes to pray. That’s all. Fifteen minutes: about the time it takes to make up a fancy coffee drink. Is time with God worth this? But using such scarcity-based thinking is not how I have come to think of it. Such earthly logic will never, never be truly convincing. Viewing prayer as an “extra” or a luxury is rather like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Today, I look at the Office as the pattern for “normal” life; the rest of life is gradually coming to resemble what I encounter in prayer: the potential and restored self I meet, the God I worship, the restored relationship between God, myself, my neighbor, and the Creation I experience. Viewed this way, daily prayer has become for me—with very real ups and downs—the work-bench, the operating table, the potter’s wheel upon which Christ is re-fashioning me into something truly alive, receptive, and loving.

In helping to teach people to pray over the years I have found that we must begin as we mean to go on: we must begin with the love of the Holy Three as our starting point. It is a sharing in that love, that peace, which is our “goal.” It is not a mere duty or a set of rules to be followed. Saying Office is not a magic formula leading to hair-growth or a bigger income or magical powers. It—along with the Eucharist, works of mercy, other forms of prayer, personal ascesis, &c.—leads to the Holy Trinity in whose Image we were made. It took me some time to gain an intellectual understanding of this in praying the Office, though my heart had begun there.

As we begin to walk step-by-step through Morning Prayer (the first Office we will explore in detail), let the counsel of this old prayer said before beginning any Daily Office service guide us:

Open my mouth, O Lord, to bless your holy name: cleanse my heart from all vain, evil and wandering thoughts; enlighten my understanding, kindle my will, that I may worthily recite this Office with attention and devotion, and deserve to be heard in the presence of thy divine Majesty. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
O Lord, in union with that divine intention with which you praised God on while on earth, I offer to you this Office.

Let us consciously offer to God the Daily Office as a means to grow in his knowledge and love.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The 12th Day of Christmas

Let us mark the end of Christmastide with these wise words of St. Maximus the Confessor [obit. 662], wherein he reminds us of the infinite tenderness of God in coming to be with us and the essential ingredient of faith to receive that mystery.

That Incarnation at Bethlehem is one birth; another is a spiritual birth in us. But note: St. Maximus reminds us that the degree of that “incarnation” in our life is related not only to our capacity, but our will. And this, in turn, is deeply connected to our desire for God and our willingness to love and be loved.

Now it is time to put away the decorations of this holy season (one of my favorite being the "Christmas Pyramid" from Germany), but it is always time to contemplate the mystery of the Word made flesh.

            The Word of God, born once in the flesh (such is his kindness and his goodness), is always willing to be born spiritually in those who desire him. In them he is born as an infant, as he fashions himself in them by means of their virtues. He reveals himself to the extent that he knows someone is capable of receiving him. He diminishes the revelation of his glory not out of selfishness but because he recognizes the capacity and resources of those who desire to see him. Yet, in the transcendence of mystery, he always remains invisible to all.
            Christ is God, for he has given all things their being out of nothing. Yet he is born as one of us by taking to himself our nature, flesh endowed with intelligent spirit. A star glitters by day in the East and leads the wise men to the place where the incarnate Word lies, to show that the Word, contained in the Law and the Prophets, surpasses in a mystical way the knowledge derived from the senses, and to lead the Gentiles to the full light of knowledge.
            The great mystery of the divine incarnation remains a mystery forever. How can the Word made flesh be essentially the same person that is wholly with the Father? How can he who is by nature God become by nature entirely human without lacking either nature, neither the divine nature by which he is God nor the human by which be became one of us?
            Faith alone grasps these mysteries. Faith alone is truly the substance and foundation of all that exceeds knowledge and understanding. 
from the Five Hundred Chapters, Chapter 1

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Day by day we praise you: an introduction to the Daily Office


5. The “Logic” of the Daily Office

The Daily Office is built on an underlying foundation of spiritual logic. If we know this, the various prayers, options, and traditions found in these services are much less confusing and dizzying. Anyone undertaking the Office needs to keep this underlying logic in mind as he or she learns it.

It has long been observed that the life of prayer passes through three general stages: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. Each of these stages is found in the Daily Office to one degree or another. Thus, when we pray the Office, we are being tutored in the full life of prayer, receiving (if you will) a “balanced spiritual diet,” leading to a whole and nourishing prayer life that can grow in the knowledge and love of God. Let’s examine these three stages in a little detail:

Purgative Prayer: the way of repentance
The opening message of Christ in the Gospel according to Mark can be summed up in one word: “Repent!” To change direction, reverse course, “go full steam in reverse” because the current direction leads to disaster—this is always essential in the Christian life, but it is usually a dominant element of the beginning levels of discipleship. For a long while—until we learn to put Christ at the center of our life rather than at the periphery—the Christian life contains many repentances! This is reflected in the Office by a general confession of sin found at the beginning of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline (prayer at the end of the day), as well as a number of lesser acknowledgements of our sinfulness and the brokenness of the world in later parts of these services.

Some people find all of this talk about sin to be overly-negative and a general “downer.” The rubrics (directions for conducting services in the Prayer Book, printed in smaller-font italics) acknowledge that the confession of sin may at times be omitted, but on the whole, the Office maintains a regular dialogue about this matter. Why? Because sin is more than just a “downer:” it is a complete disruption of our communion with the Holy Trinity and cannot co-exist with God. Christ Jesus was like us in every way except for sin—because sin was not God’s will for us from the beginning. So, the Daily Office keeps this “inconvenient truth” before us honestly, but without excess. The point is found in a growing humility, being rooted in reality rather than delusion. As we progress in the spiritual life we become more accustomed to repenting, gradually understanding it as the means of accepting our freedom in Christ; the Purgative elements in the Office helps us measure this with objectivity and clarity.

Illuminative Prayer: the way of wisdom
God desires so much more for us than simply repenting. While an essential start, we cannot leave matters there. The Gospels themselves, while always showing the centrality of repentance, also are full of teaching, spiritual knowledge and practice, and the wisdom of God. Indeed, one of the names for Christ is the Holy Wisdom of God. After the initial general confession, the Daily Office opens in prayerful acclaim and praise to God… and proceeds immediately to immersion in that Holy Wisdom through an encounter with God in the Scriptures, illuminated by the action of the Holy Spirit.

Anyone who thinks that Anglicans are “soft on Scripture” should look at the Daily Office: Scripture abounds! In addition to an opening verse at the start of most services, we read from the Book of Psalms, from the Old and New Testaments, and respond to each reading with a song (called a Canticle), usually drawn from the Scriptures. Indeed, most of the additional prayers in the Prayer Book are simply a collection of passages of Scripture sewn together into a tapestry or quilt of spiritual meaning and practice.

In reading all of this Scripture over the course of a lifetime, we are illuminated on all levels of our being: our soul, will, intellect, and emotions. We are nourished in that wholeness and integration which is the catholic faith, and gradually go deeper and deeper into the mystery of God. This leads us to the next “stage” of prayer.

Unitive Prayer: the mystical way
Just as purgative prayer is not the end of prayer, neither is illuminative prayer. God created us for more than this. We were created to share in the Divine life itself (2 Peter 1:4). Coming to this experience of God in prayer is the supreme gift of divine love. As we live more and more in the mind of Christ, this state of peaceful communion with God will pervade us.

The latter parts of the Daily Office point to this unitive state of prayer, beginning with the Apostles’ Creed itself, wherein the mystical doctrine of the Christian faith is re-affirmed each Morning and Evening, and continuing on through the Lord’s Prayer, suffrages, collects, and additional prayers on to the end. The Office also permits a variety of options for music, intercession, and thanksgiving, encouraging us to rise further and further into communion with our God. While the Daily Office is no substitute for recollection, meditation, or contemplation, it contributes to our understanding of these types of prayer by bringing us to their very edge each time we say the Office.

I shall always remember an Evensong (sung Evening Prayer) at Westminster Abbey many years ago now. It was a rather dank late fall afternoon, cold and forbidding. Inside that extraordinary place of prayer were gathered “all sorts and conditions” of people from many places in the world. Using the Elizabethan rite, we started out the service together, as one penitent people, on our knees confessing our sins. Receiving the assurance of God’s pardon in Christ, we rose as one person to praise God. The choir sang the Psalms and Canticles, leading us all in the prayerful “beauty of holiness.” One of the lessons from Scripture was read by an Englishman, another by a visiting dignitary from the Ugandan Embassy. As we came to the end of the service, just before the concluding prayers, the choir sang an anthem of such searing beauty that I found myself tearing up. The power, depth, and breadth of the Office was revealed: purgation, illumination, union. 

While I have rarely experienced such beauty in worship since, I have often tasted of that same joy in praying the Office over the years… for that joy is found in the very fabric of these venerable services, no matter where they are said.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Day by day we praise you: an introduction to the Daily Office

4. Which Rite is Right?

The next step in learning to say the Daily Office is deciding which form is best for you. The Book of Common Prayer provides two basic forms and one simplified variation for the Office.

The first form is termed “Rite I,” beginning on page 36. This is Morning and Evening Prayer in Elizabethan English. This was the language of the Prayer Book from 1549 until 1979. It is a rich, valid, lively, and nourishing way to pray. Together with the Authorized Version (sometimes called the King James Version) of the Bible, using Rite I will ground a person in the historic Anglican vision of prayer and practice of the Christian faith. I would recommend it for anyone who grew up with this language or who is completely new to Anglicanism as a way to grow acquainted with classical Anglican spiritual heritage.

The second form of the Daily Office in the Prayer Book is termed “Rite II,” beginning on page 74. This is Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline in contemporary English. I say “contemporary” with some hesitance, as this is hardly “the language of the street.” Rite II throughout the BCP is very conscious of its Elizabethan heritage, and reads aloud (the acid test for liturgical language) quite well in most places. I would recommend this for most people as the normal form of Daily Office to use.

Rite I does not have forms for Noonday and Compline because those services did not exist in earlier editions of the English or American Prayer Books. Rite II, using a wider variety of liturgical resources than was the case in previous Prayer Books, has more basic “material” for the Office. Elizabethan-language versions of those services can be found online, as well as in the Anglican Service Book, which has traditional-language versions of almost everything in the 1979 BCP. This book is now available online.

The 1979 Prayer Book provides a simplified variation on the Rite II Daily Office, entitled “Daily Devotions for Individuals or Families,” beginning on page 136 . These are, in essence, outlines or frameworks for time of prayer through the day. They can be the first place a person goes in order to develop a pattern of prayer in the Anglican tradition, and they offer both brevity and considerable scope for adaptation to personal needs. However, by themselves, they do not offer a great deal of depth and are not representative of the main purposes of the Daily Office.

I would recommend that someone who is just learning to pray at fixed times each day start with these devotions, then move on to the Rite I or Rite II Office. The daily devotions, however, can be memorized with ease by most people, and thus can stand ready for those times when one is unable to say a fuller form of the Office. They are also ideal for use with children, allowing for them to be introduced to the Office in the home setting. Remember: if children never see the adults in their lives pray, they will assume prayer is either an act of "make-believe," or hypocrisy--and who could blame them!

So, now you have some work to do: go through these basic forms of prayer and spend time with them, getting some sense of how the language suits you. Don't worry if you cannot understand all of the details about the service: you likely will not--and no-one expect you to at this point. What is needed now is a heartfelt sense of where God is calling you to begin.

After doing this, we need to undertake a short course in the basic pattern behind the Daily Office as it is found in our tradition. Then we will be able to approach the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer with an over-all view, not getting bogged down in the sometimes complex parts of learning this new language of prayer.

By Blood, Law, and Name


On the Holy Name and Circumcision of Our Lord

Today is the Octave Day of Christmas, and a Feast of Our Lord… the first feast of the civil year, in fact. It commemorates two things in the life of Christ that happened at the same time: his circumcision and his naming. While modern Western people seem to be able to endure any amount of violence and bloodshed depicted in movies and television, we are often strangely squeamish about Jesus being circumcised. Indeed, this discomfort is found just about anytime we hear the word used in readings from Scripture. In part, this is because of the obsessive sexualization of nearly everything in our culture. It also seems to have something to do with a general distaste for anything reminding us of the "earthiness" of our Semitic roots—still a lingering problem for Western Christians, even after the Holocaust.

Historic Christianity—as opposed to today’s marketed, artificial, and fragmented imitations of the faith—did not have such problems. Christ’s circumcision and naming was understood in a variety of ways, all deeply connected to the wholeness of the Gospel.

First of all, the birth and circumcision were seen as distinct parts of the absolute identification of God with humanity in Christ. Jesus was truly born of a human mother, and partook completely of all that is essential for being a human. In his Letter to Epectetus, St. Athanasius (one of the most important early Christian bishops and thinkers) wrote:

[The Incarnation] was not done in outward show only, as some have imagined. This is not so. Our Savior truly became human, and from this has followed the salvation of humanity as a whole. Our salvation is in no way fictitious, nor does it apply only to the body. The salvation of the whole person, that is, of soul and body, has really been achieved in the Word himself.

Christ Jesus was born into a real world, with real flesh and real consequences. His circumcision was the natural consequence of being born a male in a Jewish family. The mystery of God the Son submitting to the covenantal law through this rite is profound. The humility and self-abasement involved is both awe-inspiring and even touching.

Another aspect of this day’s significance has to do with the very thing many “moderns” find most unappealing: the shedding of blood. In a world where unnumbered people are killed all the time in hidden as well as public acts of violence, or who suffer grievous injury in order to fuel economic systems largely benefiting people far, far away, those of us in the “post-industrial” societies find the shedding of blood “unacceptable.” This is odd, because in so many ways we sit atop a pyramid of power built and maintained by the shedding of blood. We seem to feel that a denial of this fact somehow distances us from this reality and relieves us from any participation or guilt.

But we are creatures of blood, which the Scriptures know is that essential and precious fluid without which our life cannot continue. The blood shed at the circumcision is, so early in the story, an earnest on the truth that blood is at the center of human life and human wrong, and that only by the offering of the blood of Christ will the need, the logic, to shed yet more blood ever be discredited. In this way, today looks forward to Good Friday and reveals once more the unitive nature of the Liturgical Year, where all things point to the wholeness of the Gospel and God's loving purposes.

Finally, today celebrates the giving of the name Jesus to the Christ-child. Naming gives definition and relationship to people, especially in pre-modern cultures. Jesus’ mystical name—God saves—fulfills the prophetic language of Emmanuel in an active manner. God is not only “with us” in Jesus: God is saving us from the inside.

This is why the very saying of Jesus' name is marked by a reverence among many ancient (and even some contemporary) Christians, who know that words and especially names matter. I remember hearing about a priest who before ordination served in the US Navy during WWII. The officer over him used much profanity in addressing his subordinates and in giving orders—especially by linking the name of Jesus with various obscene words and phrases. This bothered the young naval rating, but he did not know what to do about it for a while: he just continued the practice he had learned in his childhood as a faithful Anglican in the liturgy—he bowed his head each time Jesus’ name was said. Finally one day, when the foul-mouthed officer had just completed swearing a blue streak with many references to Our Lord, he stopped and addressed the young enlisted man: “why do you keep bowing you head when I am talking you?” The thoughtful rating replied: “I am only doing what I was taught to do, and am reverencing the sacred Name of my Lord when it is spoken.” The officer never used Jesus’ Name blasphemously again in his presence. I think about this story and the treasure of speaking Jesus' Name often and with a loving familiarity, especially when I reverence that Name in the liturgy. At what a cost and with what humility that access and familiarity has been given!

And so we come to the end of the Octave of Christmas, though Christmastide will end only on Epiphany Eve. For those of us who know that time is the very fabric of spiritual contemplation, the remaining hours of the 12 Days of Christmas will be spent focusing on the things today highlights: participation, incarnation, sharing, mutuality, mystery.

Yet, we should also ask ourselves this: how much do we truly accept the reality of the Incarnation on a practical level? How much is our acceptance of God’s direct participation in human life, and thus our invitation to participate in the Divine Life, “for show,” as St. Athanasius puts it? Do we consciously look at our life, our bodies, our relationships, the creation around us, the choices we make and the things we possess as holy points of encounter with God—or do we continue to look at the world through the eyes of alienation from God, believing that by buying things, being busy, thinking along rigid ideological lines, or living out of our own isolated brokenness we can find freedom?

When we grapple with these practical facts of our own incarnate existence, calling on God for both courage to see what is truly there and the strength to respond in faith, then does the Incarnation of God in Christ suddenly leap from the page of a book into our own fleshly hearts. Then comes the Christ anew into the world He loved so much that He would enter it, die for it, restore it, and draw it back into the very heart of the Father.

Almighty God, who caused your blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man; Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, having been cleansed in body and mind from every sinful desire, we may in all things obey your blessed will; through the same your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Eternal Father, who gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.