Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Feast of St. Lucy and Christ's Light in Dark Places

Today we remember and give thanks for the life and witness of St. Lucy (Lucia) of Syracuse, Sicily. She was a martyr during the reign of terror unleashed by the Emperor Diocletian during the year AD 303-4 (one of countless many)—the worst of the ancient Roman persecutions.

Her story had a great attraction and poignancy to the early Christians in the Western Roman Empire. Daughter of noble pagan citizens, she had become a Christian and dedicated her life to Christ, seeking to distribute her sizeable dowry to the poor rather than marry. This illustrates well the direct connection authentic Christianity has with generosity and sacrificial compassion for those in need.

Lucia’s mother Eutychia—now a widow—wanted her daughter to follow the expected course for a woman in Roman society: to marry, have children, and run the domestic side of family life. This was the only real social security most women of that time could have. Lucia had other plans. She wanted to remain a virgin, consecrating (setting apart) her life for Christ’s work exclusively. He would be her suitor and husband, and no other.

Virginity is seen in our society as a kind of tragedy once a person gets beyond a certain point. In an updated version of the past. we see sexual experience and identity as the sine qua non of a meaningful life, the secular equivalent to a sacrament. Lucia saw it otherwise. If sexuality is a gift given by God, then a very profound form of gratitude for that gift is to offer it back to God for his redemptive purposes, opening up the gift of the self beyond the limitations and possessiveness of sexual or romantic relationships and making holy that which is often commodified. And this is what Lucia did.

This gift of celibacy as an offering of love was in Lucia’s time—as in ours—a controversial and disturbing notion to the culture around her. It suggested a reversal of norms, a prioritizing of spiritual things above the physical world, a denial of sexuality as having ultimate significance, and (in her case) a clear stepping outside of cultural controls on women and children. It was a threat that could not be tolerated.

Even though her mother did not desire to hurt her daughter, the man Eutychia had promised her daughter to in marriage did. He denounced Lucia to the local Roman governor and that governor demanded Lucia commit the ultimate sacrilege for a Christian: to worship anyone other than God by burning incense (and act of worship) before and image of the Emperor. When Lucy refused, the full weight of the Roman legal apparatus fell on her; after a series of attempts she was executed by the sword, like St. Paul.

St. Lucia, whose name means “light,” immediately gained great acclaim in the western Mediterranean. Her name was added to the official list of martyrs in Rome and her witness has travelled to the far reaches of Christendom (even becoming a celebrated figure in Sweden, with elaborate traditions to observe the day). In dark places, the light of love and faithfulness she exhibited has long made an impression.

Her story has an added significance today, when the long-term impact of the Gospel’s insistence that men and women are not simply property or the sum of the various “tags” used to describe them in any culture or era: we are all unique children of God and given gifts and a calling by God to live out the Good News of Christ, often in ways challenging the norms and preoccupations of the day.

After so many centuries it might be tempting to relegate St. Lucy (as she is known in English-speaking countries) to the museum of ancient-but-not-very-relevant figures; but that would be wrong. In our sex- and gender-objectifying era we need to celebrate the witness of this courageous young woman who shows the Light of Christ in the world’s dark places—and attitudes—today, and to honor that witness by helping those who suffer such trials to live that Christ’s freedom now.

Collect for the Feast of St. Lucy

Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your love in the heart of your holy martyr Lucy: Grant to us, your humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in her triumph may profit by her example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

“Are You Ready?” -- Advent and Meeting Christ

Advent is a rather curious season. Like a firework with instructions in a foreign language leaving the person setting it off unsure of just what might happen, it can easily go in unexpected directions.

First, there is duration. The four Sundays prior to Christmas—the traditional way of marking the season—can mean a full four weeks, or (as in the year of this writing) three weeks and a day. That’s not a lot of time.

Then, the content. Advent is all of a jumble, containing everything from high drama to subtle intimacy; sublime vistas into eternity to the contemplation of time itself; joyful expectation, awe, wonder, repentance, and a certain very personal reaffirmation of mortality even as we prepare for eternal life. The season ostensibly getting us ready to celebrate Christ’s first coming at Christmas is very much about that same Messiah’s return at the End of the Ages.

All this makes it something of a preacher’s nightmare—so many themes, approaches, insights, and critical aspects of our faith and practice happen in such short order.

For the worshipper (and, I assume, this includes preachers!) Advent is a bonanza of renewing energy. The start of the Church Year, it is both a time of rejoicing in the message of Emmanuel (“God with us”) and also a solemn call to repent and set in order our house to receive that Lord. Sometimes we hear it put rather forcefully that "Advent is not a penitential season“ but this is only partly true. Spiritual preparation always contains repentance, and all repentance is ultimately joyful, in that we have begun the road back to Our Father’s home and his welcome in mercy there. Advent is not another Lent, but neither is it a season of unalloyed jollity.

The first Sunday of Advent, especially in Year B when we read from Mark 13, has an element to it of what the French call “frisson,” or a shiver of excitement. The language is that of Christ’s return…but the emphasis is on suddenness. This is not something you can get ready for at the last minute, like running to the store to get ready for tomorrow’s storm. It is about living a life of readiness, awareness, and peaceable openness to Christ’s return in this moment as well as at the End of the Ages.

Most of us are introduced to this way of living through a serious trial. I remember the period between my first major post-cancer surgery screening for recurrence and the day I heard the results. Those three weeks were probably the most intentional three weeks of my life. Every day, every hour, really, was spent in a very conscious awareness of both its preciousness and its eventual culmination—sooner or later—in the presence of Christ on the Last Day. I have never completely lost this awareness. Christ’s return is not, for us, a purely future event. It is also daily.

This brings me to one of the most important of Advent’s many aspects: being ready to meet Christ. Years ago I was given a bookmark for use in the Advent season. It showed a fiery sunrise with the words “Are you ready?” I had never really thought about it before. Meeting Christ, personally, face-to-face in the Kingdom, and in light of who I was becoming in this life: was I ready for this? The answer was "no."

I’ve lost the bookmark, but the question has never left me. Advent, in its gentle fierceness, keeps posing it, and each year I draw closer and closer to a life I confess with my lips, but only through preparation—in all its forms—do I live with my heart. So be ready: light the match on Advent and let it take you on the wild ride of meeting Christ every day.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Praying Christ's Passion

Below is an excellent example of a classic prayer updated and adapted for modern usage. This litany allows for those praying it time to reflect on the events of Christ's Passion so as to foster loving gratitude and a deeper understanding of both Our Lord's humanity and his complete identification with us in our need.

This litany also challenges us to see where we fall short of honoring Christ in his Passion in our thoughts, words, and deeds -- helping to give our Friday devotion more substance and connection with the rest of our lives.

Use of this litany is one way for us to honor the Church's teaching that each Friday is a "little Good Friday," as each Sunday is a "little Easter."

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A Litany of the Passion (contemporary language form)

This litany may be used as a private devotion on Fridays through the year (especially during mid-day), during Lent as part of a Lenten rule of prayer, as devotions on Good Friday or before/after the Stations of the Cross.

God the Father, maker of heaven and earth,
Have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
Have mercy on us.
God the Holy Spirit, sanctifier of the faithful,
Have mercy on us.
Holy Trinity, One God,
Have mercy on us.

Silence follows each line until the versicle and response.

Jesus, gathering your disciples at the table:
Jesus, washing their feet in humility:
Jesus, offering yourself in bread and wine:
Jesus, going into the garden to pray:
Jesus, whose disciples slept while you grieved:
Jesus, in fear and from a troubled soul, still seeking the Father’s will:
Jesus, whom Judas betrayed with a kiss:

V. We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
R. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Jesus, standing before Annas and Caiaphas:
Jesus, spit upon, blindfolded, and struck:
Jesus, against whom false accusations were made:
Jesus, denied three times by Peter:
Jesus, taken before Pilate:
Jesus, rejected for a murderer:
Jesus, exhibited before the crowds:
Jesus, condemned by Pilate:

V. We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
R. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Jesus, crowned with thorns:
Jesus, mocked by soldiers:
Jesus, sent out carrying the cross:
Jesus, whose cross Simon was made to carry:
Jesus, whom the women mourned:

V. We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
R. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Jesus, nailed to the cross:
Jesus, lifted high upon the cross:
Jesus, praying forgiveness for us all:
Jesus, giving your mother and beloved disciple to each other:
Jesus, granting paradise to the penitent thief:
Jesus, crying out in abandonment:
Jesus, from whose side flowed water and blood:

V. We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
R. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Jesus, taken down from the cross:
Jesus, wrapped in a shroud:
Jesus, buried in a borrowed tomb:

V. We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
R. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

From all evil,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From unbelief and hardness of heart,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From any denial of you,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From sloth and sleep when you call us to watch,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From all false judgments and untrue accusations,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From acts of cowardice and expediency,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From words that mock and scorn,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From cruelty and disregard of injustice,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From all refusal to know our own sins,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From all fear to stand by when another suffers,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Hear our prayer, O Lord, and grand that we may die daily to sin and live in righteousness,
Hear our prayer.
That we may take up our cross daily and follow you,
Hear our prayer.
That we may never deny you,
Hear our prayer.
That we may never falsely accuse or violently attack anyone,
Hear our prayer.
That moved to sorrow by your sufferings, we may work for the relief of others,
Hear our prayer.
That we may receive with gratitude the promise of forgiveness and reconciliation,
Hear our prayer.
That having followed the way of the cross in this life, we may come to the joys of your eternal kingdom,
Hear our prayer.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord, remember us when you come into your kingdom, and teach us to pray:

Our Father…deliver us from evil. Amen.

By his cross and passion, + may our Lord Jesus Christ bring us to the joys of paradise. Amen.

- From The St. Augustine’s Prayer Book,
Forward Movement Publications, 2014

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Of burning scrolls and hopeful hearts…

Leaving the scroll in the chamber of Elishama the secretary, they went to the court of the king; and they reported all the words to the king. Then the king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary; and Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king. Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him. As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier. Yet neither the king, nor any of his servants who heard all these words, was alarmed, nor did they tear their garments. Even when Elnathan and Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them. And the king commanded Jerahmeel the king’s son and Seraiah son of Azriel and Shelemiah son of Abdeel to arrest the secretary Baruch and the prophet Jeremiah. But the Lord hid them.
(Jeremiah 36:20-26, NRSV)

Every other autumn in the Episcopal Church’s two-year survey of the Holy Scriptures, we make our way through the history of Israel, beginning with the story of Samuel and ending with Judas Maccabaeus. Along the way we encounter Saul's abortive monarchy, David’s extraordinary up-close story of triumph and tragedy, Solomon’s glory and failure, the division of Israel into two kingdoms, the Elijah/Elisha cycle, good kings (a few) and bad kings (many more), and the eventual collapse of first the northern and then the southern kingdoms. It is a fascinating, moving, and often horrifying story.

Currently, we are reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah about the last days of the Kingdom of Judah, headed by the feckless Jehoiakim (son of the great-but-too-late King Josiah). After God gave his people’s leaders so many opportunities to repent and return to justice, holiness, and obedience to his revealed will, the sands in the hourglass are about to run out. The promise to David that his line would never lack for an heir (made way back in 2 Samuel 7) is now about to be tested to its limit.

God’s just anger is expressed in Jeremiah’s dictation of a prophesy to his scribe Baruch, who then goes to the Temple and reads it aloud. This prophesy is a “final warning.” Rather like telling a late-stage diabetic to stop drinking sugary sodas, Baruch announces the consequence of the current path taken by the Kingdom of Judah: dismemberment and destruction. The news of this travelled to the palace fast.

On a cold, raw day, the scroll is read to the king and his close advisers.  The heating system is an open fire in a brazier before Jehoiakim. As the prophesy is read, one can imagine the various hearers being filled with many emotions…shock, fear, disgust, anger, doubt. But not Jehoiakim: no, he seems oddly calm. After every few of God’s warnings are read out, the king takes his knife out and cuts a new chunk of parchment for the fire.

Few actions in the annals of history have been more symbolically loaded than this grim BBQ of God’s word. Jehoiakim did what so many leaders (sacred and secular) have done—and continue to do—in the face of God’s judgment: ignore and destroy the evidence, preferring to live in denial of reality, or to believe in the delusion of their own power.

When Jehoiakim starts to burn the scroll, some of those around him know it is a mistake; however much they may resent what it says, they know it has truth in it. Yet, the culture of corruption and dishonesty is rooted too far down for them to act. They keep their cool, they cooperate. The fire consumed each slice of written truth until there was no more.

But, of course, there is always indeed more with God. Jeremiah, now hidden, dictates once more to Baruch the prophesy (and then some!). God’s word is more than words written down; it is truth and indestructibly eternal.

And this is the curious thing about reading this account: we can feel terribly sad as we see, step by step, arrogant, corrupt, and foolish leaders (then and now) make their way to the abyss; yet, we know that even after Babylon takes the city, destroys it, and carts most of the population away, God’s committed promise of love was not broken. Even human folly and cruelty on this scale is not enough to break it.

Eventually, King Cyrus of Persia (called “my anointed” by God!) will release those in Babylon desiring it so they can return to Jerusalem. They will find it a largely empty wreck, but they will begin the process of rebuilding, all the same. Nehemiah and Ezra will urge the people on (in their very different ways), renewing the community in purpose and faithfulness as they overcome one obstacle after another.

Destruction by a new enemy—the Greeks—will be miraculously overcome by a group of zealots who figure out how to beat the enemy at his own game. And, eventually, a country preacher who just happened to be of the lineage of David would come to town and be hailed as king, killed as an outlaw, and then rise again to achieve in humility what was lost by arrogance. Interestingly, a fire burning to keep people warm is mentioned along the way in both stories.

When we read history, we are taking a journey requiring enormous humility on our part—humility in reading, interpreting, and making conclusions. Anyone at Jehoiakim’s “Bonfire of the Prophesies” might have thought the coming end was going to be complete and final, that God had turned his back on his people for good.

This was not the case; rather, the consequences of sin and evil were allowed to be visited upon an unrepentant people…but God’s love and purpose would be waiting for the remnant on the other side of these trials, as it always is.

And it is this knowledge we must bring to our reading of the story of Israel, America, the institutional Church, and our own lives if we are not to join in the old, old story of people trying to master God’s truth by brazier, ballot, or bullet.

Friday, September 8, 2017

A Memorial of the Passion: Praying the Saving Power of Christ

When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all the world to myself.
Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.


We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you;
Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death.  Give mercy and grace to the living; pardon and rest to the dead; to your holy Church peace and concord; and to us sinners everlasting life + and glory; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and for ever.  Amen

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This short prayer form, called a memorial, comes to us from the Holy Week liturgies (especially Good Friday). It is a simple way to keep the cross of Christ before us in all times of need, anxiety, and spiritual oppression. It is also an excellent and easily-memorized form of prayer for use on Fridays, honoring the Episcopal duty to observe Fridays with “special acts of discipline and self-denial” in recalling the crucifixion (BCP, p. 17). In addition to fasting and works of mercy, a form of prayer for Fridays is a key part of this observance.

The prayer at the end of the Memorial is taken from the end of the Good Friday liturgy. It combines intercession for the living and the dead with a petition for our own forgiveness and peace. All of this is based on the fact that Christ’s Passion is the sure and certain sign of God’s love and forgiveness for all people; by contemplating his Passion, we are given the grace to live truly forgiven lives and cooperate with his will.

The time for silence in this prayer may be given to this contemplation, as well as making specific requests to Christ for grace, direction, strength, deliverance, healing, &c. The “+” indicates where to make the sign of the cross as part of this devotion, blessing one’s self with the very sign of God’s forgiving power and assurance. There is nothing “magical” in this, any more than hugging is “magical” when expressing our feelings for a loved-one; this is part of what living a sacramental life means—engaging the total, created self in our response to God.

The Friday observance is yet one more way Anglican spirituality provides practical ways for us to integrate holy living into the daily round of activities—revealing the implicit holiness of the Creation and disclosing the potential of New Life in Christ at every turn in our day and week.

[With gratitude to Forward Movement's St. Augustine's Prayer Book for making this prayer more widely available.]