Thursday, December 31, 2009

What's in a (Holy) Name?

Eternal Father, you 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.

The Feast of the Holy Name is listed in the Calendar as one of the Feasts of Our Lord (BCP p. 16). When this Feast falls on a Sunday it is given a special privilege: it takes precedence over that Sunday’s readings. This is because the Holy Name (along with the Presentation on February 2nd and the Transfiguration on August 6th) is considered such an important event in the life of Christ that it deserves this honor. This is one of the many times the Prayer Book Calendar helps us understand the key elements of our Faith by ranking and by providing a collect (special prayer for the day) and appropriate lessons from Scripture through which we might learn more about the teaching of the Gospel.

This celebration was called the Feast of the Circumcision in previous Prayer Books. The 1979 BCP adopted the new designation as a way of putting the emphasis on the Name given "by the angel before [Jesus] was conceived in the womb" (Luke 2:21), rather than on the ritual action of circumcision.

This day commemorates the Jewish naming ceremony eight days after the birth of a child. In addition, boys were circumcised (in accordance with the covenant with Abraham found in Genesis 17), thus being subject to the Old Testament Law. As such, it forms the Octave Day (eighth day) of the Feast of the Nativity, eight being a number of Christian perfection (being one more than seven, an Old Testament number of perfection). Many commentators have found the paradox of the Son of God's obedience to the ritual Law a foreshadowing of His complete humility later on the Cross. Thus, like our civil New Year’s celebrations, this day looks back to the past (Christ’s Nativity) and forwards into the yet-to-be of the Church Year. Like Advent, Christmastide has a distinct element of contemplating the mystery of time and eternity.

Today's feast day also reminds us that Jesus' name means "salvation." It is a name of strength, yet also of mercy. The secular year has begun; we in the Catholic Faith commemorate the giving of the Name of Our Lord, a name that puts the focus not on ourselves or on the often wearying cycle of events beginning again each year. The name of Jesus tells us that we are part of a message of salvation, redemption, dignity, compassion, purpose, mercy. For, as many as have been baptized into Christ Jesus, have put on Christ Jesus. We are marked by His Name, washed in His Blood, nourished in His Sacred Mysteries. By His Name we are saved. Let His message be our message – living lives of holiness, joy, strength, and mercy so that every heart may come to know, love, and serve the True and Living God.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The right way to observe Christmas

No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit, there can be no abundance of God.

--Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

In Darkest Night, a New Beginning

The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

The Icon of the Nativity is a treasure of spiritual learning and insight. All around the edges swirl the events surrounding the birth of Christ: St. Joseph wrestling with the temptation to “put Mary away,” the angels adoring, shepherds tending their sheep, the infant Jesus being given his bath, the Magi bringing their gifts… a kaleidoscopic festival of the Incarnation. Yet, at the still center of this storm of holiness is found the reason for it all: the newborn Christ-child attended by the Blessed Virgin, and those most-privileged animals. The cave in which they reside is a silent, inky black.

This shadowy background stands for the darkness cast over humanity by sin and death. It is this fundamental dis-ease Christ comes into the world to heal. He is the Light of God, and that Light shows forth brightly at the first Christmas, and in every Christmas since. In a few days we will once again gather in the darkness of night to sing the praises of “God-with-us,” Emmanuel. From there we will go forth renewed in the Truth about God and ourselves: God has dispelled the darkness of sin and doubt and we are recipients and messengers of this Good News.

The birth of Christ in the night has another meaning to consider: for the Jews (and for the Church, as well), nightfall is not only the ending of one day: it is the beginning of another. When Jesus was born, it marked the ending of one era – that of humanity’s alienation from God – and the beginning of a New Day of reconciliation. The darkness of this world has been shattered by the Light of Christ. That light resides in each of us through Holy Baptism: cherish it, tend it, and share it this Christmastide and always.

* * *

To all who read this blog:

May you dig more deeply into the mystery of the Word-made-flesh this Christmas, and may you find the stillness at the center all the activity; a stillness inviting us into the silence of God's perfect Being-at-Love, shown forth in the Holy Nativity of Christ.

Blessings on this Christmastide,


Saturday, December 19, 2009

O Radix Jesse

O root of Jesse, you stand as an ensign to the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, and nations bow in worship: Come and deliver us, and tarry not.

Some years ago when my wife and I were on pilgrimage to Northumberland, we had a unique privilege. At the tomb of St. Bede (patron of the mission church I then served), we held a service whereby, at the prayers of the Venerable Bede, we asked God’s blessing on the fabric used to make the Processional Banner. At that service was read the passage from Isaiah referred to by part of this evening’s Great O Antiphon: “On that day, the root of Jesse shall stand, as a signal (ensign) to the peoples: The nations shall enquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.” (Isaiah: 11: 10). The direct connection between Jesse, Christ, and us was re-affirmed, as was the direct companionship between an eighth-century monk and those modern-day pilgrims gathered around his tomb.

There, in the midst of that “glorious dwelling,” the Nations – literally, the Gentiles – have bowed in worship, and at least one king (Henry VIII) had to “shut his mouth” and decided not to desecrate St. Cuthbert’s incorrupt body, nor the bones of St. Bede.

The banner made from that fabric is a conscious “ensign” of Christ’s coming to be with us, his triumph on the Cross and through the Empty Tomb, and in the lives of his saints – especially that “winsome example,” Bede.

Tonight’s antiphon was, by the time it had become a Christian liturgical offering, already seen as fulfilled. Yet, it continues to go on being fulfilled. Every time a person hears the Gospel, meets Jesus, and answers the call: “Follow me!,” each time a reconciliation with God and neighbor triumphs over human sin and alienation, whenever failed disciples pick themselves and follow Brother Lawrence-like in the steps of the “Lover of Souls” who bears the burden no one else can – each time, the ensign of God is raised up and his victory signaled.

O Root of Jesse, come to us your frail servants again!

Friday, December 18, 2009

O Adonai!

O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, you appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Strength. When a tiny virus – something too small to see except through the aid of the most advanced microscopes – can lay a person low, it becomes evident that our supposed strength as humans is truly fragile. Yet, we labor so hard to keep the mask of our invulnerability from slipping that we come to believe our own propaganda. When the “crash” comes – in whatever physical, spiritual, or relational form it takes – we often lose our entire sense of faith. This is the final payment on an “Existential Adjustable Rate Mortgage” we should never have entered in the first place.

Today’s “O Antiphon” calls upon God in his strength, as revealed in that burning bush and in the awesome majesty upon Sinai, to come and redeem us. It is an open invitation to us, as individuals and as a Body, to admit our frailty and or absolute dependence on God -- the God who burns with truth, love, energy -- but does not consume in destructive delusions! When we do this, we find that God does not come in punishing wrath, but with “an outstretched arm” of compassion, mercy, and hope. When we make this move from delusion to humility and reality personally, we are then given the capacity to live and share the Gospel with authenticity and lasting strength.

O Adonai, Come!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

O Wisdom!

O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reach from one end of the earth to the other, rightly and sweetly ordering all things: Com and teach us the way of prudence.

Tonight is the first of the “Great O Antiphons.” These are short verses drawn from the prophet Isaiah said before and after the Song of Mary at Evening Prayer the week before Christmas. Each verse uses a different image or name for the Messiah, and each verse calls upon the Messiah to come and dwell with us. This yearning is fulfilled with Christmas.

The Latin version of the first antiphon (“O Sapientia”) is available for solo voice here, and as sung by a choir here. A link to an expanded study of these antiphons from an early 20th century Anglican author may be found here.

The First 'O Antiphon' is sung in praise of Christ as the Wisdom of God. This is often how the Early Church (and Eastern Christianity still) refers to Christ: as God’s Holy Wisdom for the world. Christ is the unique medicine for the illness of sin and alienation.

How much the world needs wisdom, as opposed to only more knowledge or – most especially in our day – more information! The accumulation of data has come to replace the acquisition of wisdom today, resulting in a loss of meaning, context, and coherence in contemporary life. Christ is the Wisdom of God, and by becoming part of his Body and living his Gospel, we enter into that Wisdom and experience his peace.

Try using these antiphons through the coming week as a spiritual preparation for the gift we are to receive at Christmas, and as an opportunity to go more deeply into the Advent season’s rich treasury of resources for prayer and hope.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Christian reason for the "Secular Christmas"

This article was recently posted on another blog, and I have enjoyed reading and thinking about it. I find myself mostly in agreement with its conclusions.

Many in the Church are deeply critical of the craziness which surrounds our cultural practices at this season, yet it is often the case that Christians are in there with everyone else pushing the "Christmas Machine" into overdrive.

One thing I try to do -- difficult as it can be in our age of opulence -- is really observe Advent as a season of few parties and "exterior" events. While I don't get militant about it, it seems to me that this season, for liturgical and catholically-minded Christians, needs to be a fasting season in all of what this means: a fast from business, compulsion, over-filled stomachs and over-filled schedules. In order to be truly expectant -- one of the key parts of Advent's character and thus pointing to the whole of the Christian life -- a soul requires the capacity to hear. This above-linked article speaks to our own share in the creation of this annual spiritual deafness we call the "Holidays."

May our week contain many moments when the conflict between secular consumerism and the Gospel are highlighted; may we reach for the Gospel and not the remote when those conflicts arise!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Thoughts on an Advent Antiphon

Drop down you heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, and let it bring forth salvation.

During Advent, those who use The Prayer Book Office (an expansion of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer's Rite II daily prayer services) by the late Howard Galley will be familiar with this antiphon said before and after the Song of Mary (or Magnificat, from the Gospel according to Luke). Like all antiphons, it sharpens the sense of a biblical text according to the time of year or the particular feast day/commemoration being observed.

This particular antiphon, drawn from the Prophets, is cast in the form of a plea to God -- a plea for righteousness and salvation. The image is that these things will come to us both from heaven and earth. This is, in fact, accomplished in the Song of Mary which the antiphon frames. The righteousness of God is poured into the world through the "overshadowing of the Holy Spirit" at the Annunciation, and salvation wells up into humanity through the Incarnation of God in Christ, made possible equally by the gift of human flesh through the Virgin Mary. In the Nativity, this plea to God is brought to fruition, the "fruit" of the Blessed Virgin's womb St. Elizabeth exalts at the time of the Visitation (when the Magnificat was first uttered by St. Mary).

As with so much of the Catholic and liturgical path in Christianity, we have here a rich and complex meditation on great mysteries of the Faith put forth with splendid economy and using the simplest imagery. It is yet another reason to rejoice in the gift of our Anglican heritage, to practice that heritage that we might be formed into better disciples of Christ through it, and to call on the Church's leadership to make that heritage better-known in its common life.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

An Antiphon in Advent

Drop down you heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, and let it bring forth salvation.
During Advent, those who use The Prayer Book Office (an expansion of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer's Rite II daily prayer services) by the late Howard Galley will be familiar with this antiphon said before and after the Song of Mary (or Magnificat, from the Gospel according to Luke). Like all antiphons, it sharpens the sense of a biblical text according to the time of year or the particular feast day/commemoration being observed.


Monday, December 7, 2009

The Unassimilated Church

Modern man has an obsession for simplicity and authenticity, and can easily be tempted to sacrifice forms, structures, and symbols which he has not taken the time to assimilate. At a time when disputation is sky-rocketing, he may risk throwing out real values without proposing anything to replace them.

- From “Serving God First: Insights on the Rule of St. Benedict” by Dom Sighard Kleiner, translated from the French by James Scharinger (Cistercian Studies Series, 83), 1985

Once in a while I come upon something that neatly and succinctly expresses an idea or sense of things I previously been unable to put into words. Dom Sighard Kleiner’s words in the above passage are an example.

In our part of the Church, we continue to go through a time of intense and often conflicted change. We see it in liturgy, theology, ecclesiology, ethics, demographics, and myriad other areas. Change is a constant in life and in the Church, of course; but ours is an era which wears change on its sleeve much more proudly than most others, making it (in some quarters) the highest good rather than a necessary but ultimately neutral fact. This has resulted in at least these two interesting consequences.

First, “disputation”(as Kleiner calls it) is now a normal way of “doing business” in the Church. We argue about a seemingly endless number of things, but have very little energy or reserve for meaningful mission. This situation is sadly reminiscent of the Jewish leadership at the time of Christ’s earthly ministry.

Second, the high rate of change (and consequent insistence on novelty to keep things interesting to people no longer “formed” in a meaningful tradition) has produced a culture in our church wherein many of both lay and ordained leaders do not have an “assimilated” faith. “Forms, structures, and symbols” are no longer understood within a context or as part of an organic body of meaning experienced over time by a living community of faith: they are seen as discreet parts, mere “techniques” or the residue of another time – all of which is “fair game” for “updating” and being made “relevant” to a consumer mentality where nothing lasts for long and all is disposable.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Authenticity of God

Authenticity is a troubling word. So many people seek this elusive “something” in a commercialized, often deeply impersonal world, yet there is no clear definition of it except that old one about “knowing it when we see it.” Many in the Church keep trying to offer programs, life-styles, purpose-driven worship – the list is endless – to the rapidly growing ranks of unchurched and post-Christian members of our society, thinking that somehow the solution is found in getting people into our institution. We seem implicitly to say: “if only they saw what we do, they’d join up instantly.” But would they? Is that really authentic Christianity

The story of God’s coming to be with us in Christ may be called the beginning of God’s authenticity for us. When Jesus was born, God came to us; He didn’t wait for us to come to Him. That’s the first lesson of authenticity in faith. We must go out to where the people are, where their real lives are, not wait for them to come to us so that they may put on what is for them an utterly foreign way of life. Whenever we say “Emmanuel” in Advent or Christmas hymns and readings, we are saying “God with us,” and it means God and whoever would be His ambassador must go out from the walls of Heaven or the Church into the world and show what it is like to be authentically alive – without props or the security of institutional backing.

But this leads to the next (and truly precarious) lesson for those who would be authentic to the Gospel in our time and place: we must become utterly vulnerable, completely available, deeply open to what the unchurched person says. Just as we cannot demand that others come into the Church first, so we cannot assume that we alone have something to say. When Christ was born, God entered into a profound act of listening, being vulnerable, and openness to humanity; God has never said that period was over.

Each Advent and Christmas we run smack-dab into this fact: in Christ, God has bridged the divide between the Divine and the human. God as become completely authentic to us. Now is the time of our response. Now is the season of our looking beyond the narrow habits of our familiar patterns. Now God is with us, Emmanuel. “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Are we willing to be like God and walk among others, listening to them, serving them – truly dwelling with them not as “the other” but as fellow-heirs of the God who reached out and became, in the deepest sense, authentic?

Faithfully in the Word-made-flesh,


Keep In It.

“It is the right, good, old way you are in; keep in it.”

-- dying words of Nicholas Ferrar (obit 1637)

In the small church of St. John’s in the village of Little Gidding in rural Cambridgeshire, England, there is a window, on which are written the last words of Nicholas Ferrar, commemorated today in the Church's calendar. Ferrar was the founder of a small religious community in England in the early 17th century; a kind of experiment in Christian community life made up of his family and some of his relatives. They lived frugally, structured their day and year in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer’s services and pattern for living, taught the children in the area to read and write, visited the sick, and had a scriptorium in which various books we assembled for educational or spiritual purposes. A place favored by King Charles I, the community was broken up by the Puritans during the English Civil War (c. 1640-49). Yet this brief chapter in Anglican history has had, and continues to have, a remarkable impact on our ideals.

For those who know of it (chiefly through T.S. Elliot’s poem “Little Gidding” from the Four Quartets), the story of Little Gidding is often seen as a romanticized dream: a kind of Little House on he Prairie meets The Mitford books picture of being Anglican. Yet the day-to-day reality in that community, when viewed carefully, suggests a life remarkably familiar to us…one of responsibilities to others, the need to get chores done, the unexpected intruding on plans made…with one significant exception: it was a life founded on, and steeped in prayer. Prayerful communion with God was THE priority.

Just saying that sounds remarkably na├»ve and impractical in our day. How can one possibly base a modern American life on prayer? Isn’t that a luxury? Isn’t exercise, or medication, or even denial more effective? How can we commodify “prayer?” How can something so elusive fit into our "lifestyle?"

Perhaps the answer is simple: we cannot fit prayer into the modern American way of life. We cannot make prayer into a kind of pill we swallow in the morning and then forget about till the next day. Prayer does not cost anything, so it cannot be considered of value in a society that judges most things by their price. In other words, to be a truly prayerful person is to be at odds with our society as it is.

Yet this is true about all aspects of Christian discipleship. No matter how each era and each culture try to domesticate it, the Gospel and the life Jesus sets out for those who would follow Him is so demanding, so difficult, that it is only possible through a radical dependence on God. Usually, good health and favorable circumstances allow us to think we are quiet capable to living on our own terms. But, when our fragility is exposed by trials or loss, we find out just how vulnerable we are. The Christian is called to live in a state of continual dependence on God’s grace. This is the message of the Beatitudes, and a major focus of the Church Year (especially Lent). Our various sins all spring from a fundamental sin: the choice to live apart from God’s will, God’s purpose and love.

Nicholas Ferrar had been a rich man before he founded the community at Little Gidding. He had been a director of the Virginia Company (an early version of today’s multi-national corporations), and had become aware of various abuses in the company and its governance. He helped expose those abuses (one of the first "corporate whistle-blowers"), and after the investigation and dissolution of the company, he decided that the life he had led was no longer of deep meaning to him. He radically simplified his life, took deacon’s orders, and immersed himself in the “right, good, old way” of living found in the Gospels and taught by the Christian Church (in all of its imperfection) since the Apostles. He gave himself to prayer, works of mercy, and a counter-cultural way – yes, even then! – of simple Christian living. To those who would come after him, he had only one piece of advice about this prayer-soaked, Gospel-imbued, Prayer Book-based life: “keep in it.” Much has changed since Blessed Nicholas Ferrar’s time; but the challenge and the key to discipleship remain the same. We have the same tools: the Scriptures, the Sacraments, the Offices in the Prayer Book, silent prayer and contemplation, and the various other tools developed by Christians to carry a conscious sense of God’s presence into each part of their life. When truly lived, they are more radical than any ideology or "-ism."

Living a prayerful life will open our eyes, as it did Nicholas Ferrar’s, to the very real needs in the world around us. We will see with Christ’s eyes (“that awake, we may watch with Christ” from Compline), and will feel a profound tug to be involved in ministering the Gospel. While St. Timothy’s has many limitations, we are a place that teaches the life and art of prayer; let us "keep in it," so that we might see with Christ's eyes and serve as His hands in these confused and troubled times.