Friday, June 9, 2017

The Gift of Embertide for the Whole Church

Four times a year* the Church’s calendar sets aside special days of focus on ministry…our work of sharing, serving, and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These times—called Embertides from the old English word ymbren, probably having to do with course or periodic—are to be marked by prayer, fasting, and a pause in our normal activities to consider what the nature of ministry is and how we are living it out. Whether we are old or young, single or married, parents, employed, retired, in school, ordained, unemployed, in discernment, or any of the myriad other ways we may describe ourselves, if we are members of Christ’s Body the Church we are ministers of the Gospel and must give an account for that ministry given at baptism.

This accounting is not supposed to be an anxious experience but rather an offering of a trained, growing, actively-loving heart, and this means an ongoing practice of reflection, amendment, and renewal. The Embertides provide that practice for Episcopalians—if we are willing to take it up.

Unlike Advent or Lent, the Embertides aren’t a major focus in parish life. You have to know about them to observe them. In recent decades they have drifted to the margins in Church life, like a forgotten life preserver in a lifeboat or a valuable tool lost in the bottom of an old toolbox. Perhaps this is because of a distortion that occurred with the Ember Days long ago.

You see, as the years rolled on the Ember Days (always a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at the start of one of the seasons of the year) came to focus mostly on the ordained orders of the Church…reasonable in a way, but a mistake. While the clergy need particular prayer, support, and accountability (we know how much good or damage can come of spiritually healthy or unhealthy clergy), the renewed focus on the ministry of all God’s people in the late 20th century has been a great blessing.

By re-affirming the centrality of our baptismal identity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit to each of us through that baptism the Church has been prepared to thrive in a post-imperial/colonial world…a world where the steep pyramidal structure the Church adopted long ago makes less sense and serves fewer purposes than it ever did. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer made this baptismal priority a central mission, and in some ways, we are still learning how to live out that mission today. The Embertides are one of the main ways we do this in the Anglican/Episcopal Tradition.

To observe the Ember Days, I suggest some of the following practices…

  • Look at the Baptismal liturgy in the BCP and focus on these parts: the renunciations of evil/affirmations of faith; the Apostles’ Creed, the five baptismal promises following the Creed, and the prayer following baptism (“Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit…”): then prayerfully reflect how you are living out—or failing to live out—these central parts of our faith. Do this with simplicity and openness, calling upon the Holy Spirit to guide you.
  • A review of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew is a highly useful Embertide practice. Taking time to listen to Jesus’s words and the Spirit’s response in us will serve as an ideal form of reflection.
  • If ordained, review the Ordinal, with special focus on the description of the essential characteristics of the ministry given you and those promises you made at that time, as well as the words of the Veni Creator Spiritus and the consecration prayer. In prayer with Jesus, reflect on your giftedness and your poverty in living out these vows and the ministry entrusted to you. Give thanks for the gifts; acknowledge your poverty, and repent of sin.
  • Alternatively, if you have been ordained, consider using the wildly-Victorian yet still amazingly insightful “Litany of Remembrance” (sometimes also known as the Southwell Litany). This prayer serves as a careful and wise self-examination for clergy…with regard both to the inner life and some important aspects of our public ministry. [I hope to get around to posting the lay version of this prayer put out years ago by Forward Movement…it is very good and can make an excellent Lenten series or Quiet Day topic all by itself.]
  • Pray the Litany for Ordinations (BCP p. 548), which has useful petitions for both the lay and ordained orders (I have made a version of this litany for Embertide use here); alternatively, you may want to use the Great Litany (BCP p. 148), which is the traditional intercession at the Embertides.
  • Conclude with the Collects for Embertide found in the Prayer Book (pp. 205 or 256)
  • Include hymns associated with baptism, Christian Responsibility, or ordination. I particularly like St. Patrick’s Breastplate, “Come thou fount of every blessing,” “Lord, whose love through humble service,” “Remember your servants, Lord,” “Where charity and love prevail,” and “Teach me, my God and King.”
  • Fast as part of your Embertide devotion.
  • Make a sacramental confession where your reflection has shown you the need to repent, receive absolution, and be cleansed or healed.

There are many ways, no doubt, of observing the Embertides. The point I wish to make is that this is a gift the Church is giving us, akin to continuing education in any profession…but actually much more than that. The Ember Days are clear and intentional opportunities for direct encounter with Christ who is the model and pattern for all ministry, and the Holy Spirit who activates, guides, and encourages us each in our service.

These days are occasions for exactly the kind of personal and unmediated communion with God we as Christians are privileged to have…but often fail to take up. By making the effort, we are making clear our awareness of how serious the matter of following Christ is, and are reclaiming the truth that we never minister alone, unaided.  This last fact is the essence of sustained, enduring, discipleship.

Come and enjoy the gift prepared for you as a minister of the Gospel wherever you are and whatever you do: observe the Ember Days.

*Those four times are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following: St. Lucy’s Day (December 13), The First Sunday in Lent, Pentecost, and Holy Cross Day (September 14).

Trinity Sunday: Beings-in-Communion

The principle runs through all life from top to bottom, Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for your self, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity.

We live in an era engaged in one of the most stunningly hopeless projects in all human history: the project of trying to find our meaning in life by focusing exclusively on the self. America is convinced that if only we “could be ourselves,” we would be happy and at peace. Gigantic amounts of money are spent each year to do this.

The search for the autonomous, perfected self, when coupled with consumerism, means we labor under a heavy burden of isolating, demanding individualism: “I am what I make myself to be, with reference to nothing except what I purchase or the ideology with which I identify.” For homo americanus, each day brings with it the labor of defining the self vis-à-vis the “other” – and, increasingly, seeing the other as an enemy who must be converted to one’s own point of view or else to be removed from view, so that the autonomous self may reign supreme. This leads to a state of continual struggle, conflict, and antagonism between rival “selves,” resulting in the current embittered state of affairs in our nation. No solution is possible as long as we hold to the Creed of the Supremacy of Self.

Catholic Christianity, of which we are a part, has a completely different understanding of selfhood. Its basis is found in our understanding of God-in-Trinity. In reflecting on the Trinity, we learn, among other things, that the self may only be understood only in relationship with the other, and that “self” is ultimately only meaningful in communion. If God is “one Being in Trinity of Persons” and we are made in the image and likeness of God, then we, too, find ourselves not in competition with others or by negating others, but by entering into fellowship with our neighbor through an ongoing communion in God, the author and fountain of life, love, and relationship.

Years ago I asked my spiritual director – a solitary monastic – about her most important work each day. She said: “My work is prayer – to God the Holy Trinity and in intercession for my neighbor and the world; only then may I be truly me.” By living in communion with God the Holy Trinity, she is able to live as a full and participating member of the Body while remaining solitary. In the process, she lives out her true character and vocation. As Lewis said, when we seek Christ we find not only communion in God, “everything else thrown in.” Indeed, we find our true selves.

On Trinity Sunday (June 11 this year) we will give special thanks for the gift of knowing God-in-Trinity. At the end of St. Timothy’s 10 am liturgy we will sing the solemn Te Deum, one of the Church’s oldest and greatest prayers of praise. We will enter into the mystery of the Trinity through worship and adoration…both as individuals and as a part of the mystical Body of Christ that is His Church. We will offer our entire selves to God, so that we may receive our whole beings back again, restored, renewed, and revealed as “beings-in-communion” eternally sharing in the knowledge and love of the Holy One-in-Three.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Holy Saturday: Waiting on Resurrection

Here are two accounts, one from a medieval English mystic and another from the ancient Church, of the Lord’s activity on this day. Though his body rested in the Tomb, the Son of God in his divinity was already bringing forth resurrection. But, are we ready for this? Do we, in fact, prefer what Dame Julian calls “Adam’s old serving robe” to the baptismal garment granting us entrance into the feast?

And his body being slain and dead, he yielded his soul into the Father’s hands with all mankind for whom he was sent. At this point he began first to show his might, for he went into hell and there uprooted Adam from the bitter valley and rightfully knit him to himself in high heaven. His body was in the grave until Easter morning, but from that time he was never more to be counted among the dead. For then was rightfully ended the struggling and the writhing, the groaning and the moaning. And our foul deadly flesh, which God’s Son took on him – which was Adam’s old serving robe – was then by our Saviour made fair, new, white and bright and of endless cleanness. (Julian of Norwich, XIV Revelation, Chapter 51)

From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday

Something strange is happening -- there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. 

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: 'My Lord be with you all.' Christ answered him: 'And with your spirit.' He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: 'Awake, o sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.' 

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in Hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in Me and I in you; together we form one person and cannot be separated. 

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, Whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden. 

See on My Face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On My back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See My hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree. 

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced My side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in Hell. The sword that pierced Me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you. 

Rise. Let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Holy Week Journal 2017: Maundy Thursday & the Courage to Be Served

One of my favorite recordings of music for Holy Week has on its cover a medieval illumination showing a stunned St. Peter allowing Jesus to wash his feet. These are not soft, cuddly portrayals: the Lord looks tired and intense, and Peter seems dazed and confused. I treasure this picture because it reminds me that we have to be strong enough to be served by Jesus first if we are going to serve others in his Name.

When Jesus washed feet he was performing a task more akin to changing a bedpan than hosting an afternoon at the spa. It meant a complete role-reversal for disciples and their Master. It was shocking and unconscionable. For Peter, it was initially unacceptable. “You will never wash my feet!”

Jesus responds firmly: "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." There is no negotiation, no set of options. It turns out the only way to become a true servant is to be served by the Master of the House.

We hear a lot in the Church about the importance of serving others, of doing works of mercy or justice and not being complacent Christians. I think any honest reading of the Gospel makes clear we are to be servants of our neighbor, to look for those in need and to serve them well.

But why be a Christian in that case? Why wouldn’t serving someone in the Name of Princess Diana, or Bono, or the United Nations be just as good? Perhaps too many of us don’t really know why.

I think Christian service differs from other types in a number of ways, but one of the most important is that Jesus has served us first. He has come into the world, taken a body, lived with us and ministered to us in the most uncomfortably intimate and honest ways we know. He has struggled, suffered, and died for us. He doesn’t ask us to do anything he has not, in effect, already done himself.

This makes being a Christian about a great deal more than claiming an identity or coming to church simply to feel warm and welcomed. To be a Christian is an act of courage: first, to be served by the Lord of all; then, to be a servant to all others in the Lord’s name and strength.

And this brings us to the other way Jesus serves us tonight: in the Holy Eucharist. By promising to be present with us whenever we “do this” in his Name, he is feeding us with his own gift of life, his own strength and encouragement. He is serving the servants.

The two commandments Jesus gave on Maundy Thursday—to love one another as he has loved us, and to share in the Eucharist in remembrance of him—are both about being served, again and again, by the Lord himself. This is why the Eucharist is so much more than a memorial of an event in the dim past or a hospitality occasion to make people feel welcomed and comfortable: it is an encounter where Christ feeds the members of his Body with his very life, his call, his care.

When I take communion as a priest, I normally do the singularly odd thing of serving myself (this is just one part of the strange and at times dangerous spirituality of being ordained). But, when I do this, I say these words in my head: “From your hand, Lord.” I am reminding myself that I, too, am being served by the Host of the Feast. There is no real Christianity apart from receiving care from Christ—for any of us.

When we know this, it becomes much easier to love and have patience with other people. If each day, each new encounter with another person, each opportunity to forgive or reach out is “from your hand, Lord” – then we treat that moment or person very differently from something we are trying to do on our own steam.

And so I ask you tonight, as you watch feet being washed and bread and wine being shared among members of Christ’s Body: do you have courage to be served? Not only now, but in the future; are you willing to join St. Peter and be served by Jesus?

If you aren’t, then you may well find yourself always trying to prove you are worthy. If you are willing, then you may be shocked and a bit embarrassed at times, but your soul will be always be fed and your spirit warmed—and your feet will be clean, too.