Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Holy Wednesday and Tenebrae

Darkness covered the whole land

when Jesus had been crucified;

and about the ninth hour he cried with a loud voice:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

And he bowed his head and handed over his spirit.

V. Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said:

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

R. And he bowed his head and handed over his spirit.

“Darkness covered the whole land.” The responsory giving Tenebrae its name is apt not only for the spiritual realities to which it speaks, but for the weather this Holy Week. It has been a very dark, rainy, grey and foreboding time these last days. Darkness has indeed covered the whole land with its chill and damp hand.

Like other Episcopal churches, St. Timothy’s offeres the Tenebrae service on Holy Wednesday. This day, sometimes called “Spy Wednesday” in past years because of associations with Judas finalizing his plans to betray Jesus, marks a transition from the first part of Holy Week into the Great Three Days, the Triduum. What we treat as one service today originally formed a portion of the monastic Night Office for the final three days of Holy Week. Such a luxurious use of time! Days and nights of contemplation, reflection, drawing out the implications for each participant. Tenebrae, even in the form most often encountered today, is perhaps the most reflective liturgy in the Church Year. It certainly isn’t for the faint of heart or the wildly extroverted. I remember one parishioner almost going into apoplexy over how long and introspective the service proved to be. However, it always surprises and delights me that a steady and dedicated group of worshippers attend this lengthy and highly poetic service. In it, we burrow deep into the Psalms, and even explore such obscure territory as the Song of Hezekiah from Isaiah, where we hear a man preparing to die saying: “My house is pulled down and I am uncovered, as when a shepherd strikes his tent./My life is rolled up like a bolt of cloth, the threads cut off from the loom.” A king who speaks out of a thousand years’ concentrated observation about life’s fragility! The rich imagery and limpid honesty of it all! This is pure joy for those of us who daily labor under the glare of florescent-lit poetical deserts – and in the contemporary Church’s arid, execrable attempts at “relevant” worship devoid of soul, depth, beauty.

Tenebrae is a time when it is perfectly permissible (and in fact, desired) to let go of normal considerations about time and even liturgical structure. So many Psalms, so much lamentation… and not even the Lord’s Prayer!

It is precisely in the liturgical use of lament I find perhaps the most compelling part of this service. Many great composers have written settings of the portions from the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah used in this liturgy, and I have enjoyed hearing them in churches and on recordings. But, it is the simple setting for one person, chanting these plaintive verses very much as a personal lament with cosmic implications that affect me the most. The simplicity of this ancient language – the bringing of our utter helplessness before God in honesty and yet beauty – gives dignity even to our pain. It teaches me, year after year, that everything, absolutely everything, must be brought before the God who is Life. All must be placed upon the altar. Absolutely nothing held back.

When we do this, we are able to hear something we cannot when we remain “in charge.” We hear the profound and humbling teaching from St. Augustine about learning to forgive: “most of the time, when you think you are hating your enemy, you are hating your brother without knowing it.” Learning this alone would be enough! It is in order to become more like Christ that we walk this Holy Week journey and spend so much time listening, learning, sitting at the Master’s feet.

Tenebrae is not an essential service. Few parishes offer it in any form today. In an already busy time of the year it is in a sense a luxury. It has always seemed to me, though, that American Christianity is long on being busy and short on listening for directions. This tendency is only increasing in our digitized era. The kind of Christianity that results: a faddish, self-certain, proud, nervous, inflexible church, cut off from the ancient and undivided Faith by its own arrogance – precisely the opposite of the Gospel.

It is this sort of “darkness” that “covers the whole land” of the contemporary spiritual landscape. It is just these shadows with which we should struggle. Tonight, we do so by listening to and waiting with a man in the process of being betrayed. We may ask ourselves how we, in our own day, are doing the same thing. Finally, we give God the opportunity, in the words of the Lesson from Hebrews, to purify our conscience “from dead works to serve the living God.”

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Holy Tuesday

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’ For this reason it is through him that we say the ‘Amen’, to the glory of God. – 2 Corinthians 1:19-20

It is always ‘Yes.’ How we need to hear this as Christians: hear and believe it. The message so many take away from contemporary Christian witness is either a firm ‘No – not yet’ or ‘Maybe, but first….’

When we come to Holy Week, we are put in direct touch with the ‘Yes’ of God in Christ. We do this not by ‘re-creating’ what Christ did, but by hearing about it, walking in it, steeping in it. This will lead us through the World’s profound “No” to God on Good Friday to His magnificent, simple, clear, and utterly unexpected answer to us at the Great Vigil of Easter. These simple, quiet services on Monday and Tuesday in Holy Week help us to become receptive to this gift, gradually opening our hearts to a message we desire, and challenging us to be that “Yes” to those with whom we walk.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Holy Monday

With the weather being fairly frightful out today, it has been a good opportunity to take stock of the lessons for Holy Monday in some contemplative silence. In the Gospel lesson from the Daily Office, we read of Jesus finding no fruit when he visits the green fig tree. He curses it. It proceeds to die.

He goes on to the Temple. He finds there the apparatus of religion in full leaf… but not the fruit of holiness that should have been there when the Messiah arrived. The merchants are busy, the authorities are running a successful (and profitable) operation, but it is not the House of Prayer for all nations it was meant to be. Later on, Jesus will proclaim that the day of the Temple is coming to an end. Like the fig tree, it will be destroyed, no one receiving fruit from it again.

Jesus’ prophetic action reminds us that we don’t have all the time in the world. Like the Temple, we were put her to render a fruitful harvest. While there may be seasons in life, seasons in discipleship, there is no time in a Christian’s pilgrimage when they are not to bear fruit – especially that “fruit worthy of repentance.”

Monday and Tuesday in Holy Week have no strong tradition of commemorating special events. Rather, they serve as a rest between the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday and the Great Three Days. The Gospel according to Mark shows Jesus in a final, deep conflict with the authorities during this time. He paints a picture of a brewing storm, a headlong rush into conflict. The Gospel also pushes us to see that it is time: time for decision, time for action, time – ready or not – for the harvest.

Early Christians lived with a keen awareness of their mortality. As with the monastic tradition today, there is a deep sense that only by learning to accept our finitude, our limited time, our death, can we ever learn to truly live. The Gospel reading for this evening makes this very clear by showing us the significance of being ready, being fruitful when Our Lord shows up, hungry for righteousness.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday

“It is written, I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered. But after I have risen again, I will go before you into Galilee.”

– Antiphon on Magnificat for Palm Sunday evening.

The “Great Week” has begun. Christ as entered Jerusalem to the crowd’s fickle acclamation. But, we have already tasted in the Passion Gospel the volatility of popular sentiment, and the relentless search for security by those who already have the power of death on their side.

The Liturgy of the Palms was conducted in our old parish hall, where we once worshipped before the new church was built. For years now, it has been the place where Palm Sunday begins for us, its old linoleum floors scuffed but still shiny, the walls bearing the scars of many decades of various uses, the basketball hoop (put in after it became our parish hall) seeming rather incongruous with the sacred proceedings. This “log cabin” building, as we call it, is our “outside the walls” place of assembly for processions. There we form a circle, the choir chants the ancient refrains about the children of the Hebrews gathering branches of olive to greet their Lord, the story of Christ’s entry is told again, and we ask God’s blessing on the palms to be signs of Christ’s victory. The holy water is sprinkled, the incense is offered, the palms are distributed. Some are waved, some are folded into crosses, a few used as impromptu swords by younger participants (inadvertently recalling the sword mentioned in the Garden of Gethsemane a bit later on). It’s just the normal semi-chaos of a parade.

We move from the parish hall to the church proper on a concrete outdoor path. The Scripture talks of the journey being made on the garments laid down by those lining the way. We didn’t have that, especially on a wet day threatening more rain; instead, many worms were crossing the pathway. Some of them became accidental victims of another fickle crowd’s heedless whim. It was a Pacific Northwest touch, I guess.

Eventually, we arrived at the doors to the nave, our “Jerusalem.” After a joyous organ fanfare, we began to sing the old Palm Sunday favorite “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” Palm Sunday had suddenly coalesced into its full self. This group of 21st century Anglican Oregonians, singing chants, hymns, and prayers from many eras was transformed into that day, that moment when Jesus came in to the Holy City. It was not only holy; it was fun.

But, like the sky in a painting by Constable, the sunlight was not to last long. The Passion Gospel reminded us of the work Christ has to do. Like the above antiphon tonight at Evensong, we are in that part of the journey where sorrow and lament seem in the ascendant, but when we still have the promise of joy’s return, someday.

As we walk this way, we cannot forget that for us, Christ is always risen. Rather than creating a sort of spiritual Williamsburg, where we dress up for a time and pretend we are living in 1st century Jerusalem, we are bringing into sharp relief the eternal truth of the events we experience. Christ’s victory is palpable and our deal with death remains a temptation. The Christian’s life is a conscious choice between the two.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Preface to Holy Week, Chiefly on Time

This year I hope to do some writing about the meaning of Holy Week for the Christian and the potential Christian alike. But before doing so, I want to take some time to reflect on… time.

The 4th dimension always holds much fascination for me. While we can measure it off with clocks and calendars, it is unlike linear, planar, or three-dimensional reality. With these, one can go back and forth or around, surveying something once covered again, or skipping some things in order to move on to something else. With time, we cannot go back and we can only advance (under normal circumstances) at one speed. With time we are, in essence, caught in the Now.

For Christians, though, time has a less concrete character. We all know that, whether one is a believer in God or not, there is a certain elasticity to time: some things seem to go with all the lassitude of the line at the DMV, others hurtle past with the avidity of the time it takes to eat a freshly-baked chocolate chip cookie. Yet for followers of Christ, time not only can bend: it can be pierced and broken entirely, its boundaries rendered non-existent. One such time is at the Holy Eucharist, when Christ’s promise that “whenever you do this,” he will be present with us makes any day Maundy Thursday, any meal the Last Supper (and the Banquet at the consummation of All Things, too). Another such time is Holy Week.

Beginning with the eve of Palm Sunday, Christians of the liturgical sort go into the deepest foundations of time and faith. We set aside large chunks of our usual time-based obligations (work, family, meals, play, hobbies, &c.) so the Holy Spirit can take us from being spectators to participants. During this week, we go from symbolism (the notion that something stands for something else… the “once removed” level of living we so often settle for) to the reality of concrete events themselves. The Palm Sunday procession is not a symbolic event; it doesn’t stand for something else. It is that “something” itself. During the sacred Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, we don’t re-enact ancient magical rites: we enter into the Mystery of an already-accomplished and operative reality of God’s victory over sin and death – and our sharing in that victory. The difference is enormous.

Most people seem to approach spiritual matters from the point of view of magic. The approach taken is that of quid pro quo: I do/pray/give something in order to get something I want. This thinking infects American Christianity in a staggering array of ways, from the “Prosperity Gospel” movement in conservative denominations to “cause Christianity” in many progressive church groups. The “magical Christian” follows some version of the Gospel for the same reason the Wiccan or the superstitious person follows his or her ritual practices: they conjure up a desired result. If that result doesn’t follow, then there must have been something wrong with the ritual, spell, conjurer – or, perhaps the whole “system” is void. Like people who damage their metabolism jumping from one fad diet to the next rather than dealing with underlying emotional/spiritual/life-style issues, such “spirituality surfers” often do much injury to their souls in their sorrowful journey.

During Holy Week the meaning of Liturgical Time is made very clear. In the rites of these liturgies, we are not “making” anything “happen.” No magic is desired or sought.

When walking in the Palm Procession, participating in the dramatic reading of the Passion Gospel, having one’s feet washed at the Maundy, venerating the Cross on Good Friday, sharing in the New Fire or the proclamation of the Resurrection at the Great Vigil, we are re-experiencing what has been done, what is eternally true. It is a spiritual fact we celebrate; there is nothing “symbolic” about it. The distance between Christ’s earthly ministry and our own day collapses to nothing. The underlying unity of these things is revealed. As promised, when we “do this,” Christ is present in the fullness of his love, his redemptive offering, his resurrected power.

Each Sunday, each celebration of the Holy Eucharist, then becomes a sharing in the truth, the event we experience first-hand in Holy Week. All earthly time is then transformed, reshaped into a divine time even as “ordinary” matter has been revealed to be holy and extraordinary through God taking flesh in Christ. The unique flavor of time we as Christians are supposed to have – but which we all too often forget in our secularized form of Church life today – is renewed and restored during Holy Week. This points to the essential nature of the observance of these great days. Without it, we gradually become more and more conformed the world of symbolism, theory, and a weakened “spectator Christianity.”

Since this is not magic, it isn’t enough to know that others are observing the liturgies of this holy season. For this week to be what it can be – what it must be – something other than a calendar’s notation is required. It begins, in a sense, with our decision to participate. Whenever that is, be it on Palm Sunday or at the Vigil itself, when the heart yearning for the Life only God can give joins itself to the message of the Gospel, Holy Week has come and another soul has experienced what St. Paul calls “the fullness of time,” a time that is Now and Forever in Christ and his Church.

(Image: Temporal Paradox by Pat's Pix)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Annunciation, 1.0 and Forever...

Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever Amen.

Ours is an era of fads. It seems we grow very bored very quickly in this choice-filled, leisured culture. Almost as if determined by some ADD-influenced calendar of trendiness, the North American Church of the 21st century surfs from one “must-do” or “revolutionary” project to another. What was essential last year – say, “seeker-services” and other ways to make worship “user friendly” – becomes utterly irrelevant in the new climate of the current focus on “emergent” and “Church 2.0” sensibilities. Out go one set of books, conferences, techniques, web sites, and gurus – in comes another.

This tendency has become more insistent with computers. The speed and fragmentation of our secularizing world only increases with these magic devices. The old irony recurs of how something originally conceived as a tool for unity ends up pushing things in the opposite direction. While we hear much about how the Internet connects people in ways never previously possible, one cannot help but reflect on the strange paradox of the Roman Empire: the creation of a gigantic “meta-culture,” replete with roads, central governance, nice bathing facilities, and all sorts of new information – yet simultaneously the growth of an overwhelming sense of alienation, isolation, and disconnection.

Those of us in the “clergy biz” today are bombarded with all sorts of advertisements, links, and testimonials relating how this technology or that technique will make a “previously-dying church relevant,” rather like those old ads promising how the proverbial 98-pound weakling can become a muscle-bound Adonis through the rigorous use of a set of tensioned springs. All one has to do is, as always, “send away” for what one previously lacked. If that fix doesn’t work, then try something else.

The march of dominant metaphors – each one more vaporous, shimmering, and Chimerical than the last – picks up tempo as well. Anyone familiar with Church history (or who has read Jaroslav Pelikan’s “Jesus through the Centuries”) knows that over the years Christ has been understood in many different ways, often in accord with what that culture or epoch conceives as being the best and highest mark of value or power. Thus, Jesus was early on understood primarily in Jewish terms as Messiah or the Supreme Teacher; then He gradually picked up associations drawn from Greek and Latin culture as Pantocrator or Ruler and Judge of All. This monarchial metaphor was dominant for the Age of Kings, but with the Reformation and the rise of the individual, “science,” and “reason,” (I put these last two in inverted commas because they are so nebulous as categories), things begin to change in the West.

As time went on, we see Christ becoming everything from the great teacher of Morality or Rationality to Christ the upholder of political, economic, and social theories. In North America, the dominant metaphor moved from that of the Church as Body of Christ assembled to proclaim the Gospel and celebrate the Resurrection to Church as Schoolroom of Virtues, then Church as place of “wholesome entertainment,” and then the sadly madrassa-like Church of Shared Ideology and Lifestyle.

Now we are being told that the Church is really much more like a social network site or a computer receiving a download of new software – being “upgraded.” Ah, yes, that’s it: upgraded. At last, we have the solution, and it is being upgraded.

This long rambling introduction is not entirely without point. The Feast of the Annunciation, which for us as Episcopal Anglican Christians is so important that it suspends our Lenten observances, provides a deep well of insight into the way we are to deal with change and new revelations in faith.

When the Angel Gabriel came to Mary, we are told that God was taking the initiative in bringing humanity back to Him. He sought the consent of a young Hebrew woman in doing this. God defied all the expectations to do something both unexpected and essential. This teaches us we can never, never put God in a box. Our 20/20 theological hindsight that wants to say “but, of course, that’s how it had to be” must be laid aside. God in Christ and through Mary was indeed revolutionary in destroying the barriers between Heaven and Earth. It is the fallen human desire to maintain just these barriers – for a host of sad and self-destructive reasons – that makes the notion of God Incarnate in Christ so difficult for human of every age to accept.

But, there is something in this Feast to think about that has a particular message for us of this era today. The story of the Annunciation is not just a story about being “upgraded,” as if God were downloading new software into the world so that it could be cutting-edge. Neither is this a story of the anxious search for the “killer app” that makes God relevant to a fickle humanity. It is the gift of God, poured into the hearts of those who desire it. The collect for the Annunciation, perhaps better known than many prayers because of its long-time association with the Angelus, is not an anxious cry to God – though it certainly may be prayed by a person in great anxiety. Rather, it is a remembrance of the mercy of God, who in that deliciously, masterfully assured and assuring phrase from Galatians: “In the fullness of time” has come to us and reconciled us to Himself. End of story. No gimmicks. No fads, trends or groovy programs necessary or desired.

Yes, we need to respond to that gift in our day, but not in the anxious and often faddish way we do. Each age must apply the Gospel to its own thought-world and context; this is nothing new. What is so tiresome about the chorus of re-interpreters today is that so few of them seem formed in anything deep, transcendent, or even very mature. Those of us who signed on for spiritual authenticity in the Anglican tradition are being told to make do with the pabulum of ever less substantial fare. Instead of a deeper appropriation and practice of truly radical orthodoxy, we get conferences on the latest personality or technique that will somehow "make things better," "more attractive," or (gulp) "relevant." In short, we sell our overwhelmingly beautiful and transformative birthright for a bowl of easily-digestible pottage. Yum.

The constant churning to produce the next “gee-whiz” insight, book, or trend has overwhelmed our ability to cut through the crap and recognize that none of us really knows much about the future and that the vast majority of such attempts appear laughable in retrospect. Jesus calls us to live in the Now of God, not the Then of Romanticism or the Someday of Theory.

From the overall witness of the New Testament, God wants so much less and yet more than what we give: less verbiage, techniques, systems; more prayer, love for God and our fellow human, and acts of humble service. How to get there? By embracing another ecclesiastical "Five Year Plan?" Probably not.

Today is the beginning of the Incarnation Cycle in the Church Calendar. What begins here will be reflected upon further in a succession of feasts from now through February. As we do so, it might be good to examine the manner of our reflections. Do they arise from a solid, deep base of living relationship with the Living God? Or do they spring fitfully from a search for that next gimmick, trend, or quick-fix that allows us to avoid the hard work of discipleship, where we place ourselves in God’s hand and must be satisfied with the kind of peace our God gives: peace which “passes all human understanding,” the peace of the Blessed Virgin. That peace also leaves us utterly vulnerable to God and God’s way of being rather than to the shifting sands of any culture, any era.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Some Prayers upon Arising

In the Name of the Father, X and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer [Our Father, &c.]

The Angelic Greeting [Hail, Mary, &c.]

The Apostles’ Creed [I believe, &c.]

Glory to you Lord, O Lord, glory to you, glory to you who have given me sleep for the refreshing of my weakness, and to restore the labors of this fretful body.

To this day and all days, a perfect, peaceful, healthy, and sinless course:

Grant this, Lord.

An angel of peace, a faithful guide, guardian of soul and body, to pitch a tent around me, and always to prompt what brings salvation:

Grant this, Lord.

Pardon X and remission of all sins and offences:

Grant this, Lord.

To our souls, what is good and convenient, and peace to the world:

Grant this, Lord.

Repentance and discipline for the rest of our life, and health and peace to the end:

Grant this, Lord.

Whatever is true, whatever is honest, whatever is just, whatever pure, whatever lovely, whatever of good report, if there be any virtue, and praise, such thoughts, such deeds:

Grant this, Lord.

A Christian close, without sin, without blame, and if it please you without pain, and a good answer at the awesome and testing judgment-seat of Jesus Christ our Lord:

Grant this, Lord.

O God, you are my God, and you have made me for yourself. O Lord, Heavenly Father, to you I devote my heart, and my entire life. Grant me your grace that this day I may live in your presence, and walk in the path of your commandments, following the example of my Savior Christ, and being made like unto him. Give to me your Holy Spirit that, trusting only in him, I may overcome those sins which beset me. Grant, O gracious God, to me and to [names] such blessings as we need. I ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do, direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let this my prayer, O Lord, come before you in the morning. You took upon yourself our feeble and suffering nature; grant me to pass this day in gladness and peace, without stumbling and without stain; that reaching the eventide without any temptation, I may praise you the eternal King: through your mercy, O our God, who is blessed, living and governing all things, world without end. Amen.

At the prayers of St. Mary (Saint _______) and all the Saints, may the Almighty and merciful Lord: Father X, Son, and Holy Ghost, bless and preserve me, and bring me to life everlasting. Amen.

[The Litany used in these prayers is from David Scott's translation of Bp. Lancelot Andrewes' Preces Privatae, slightly adapted.]

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Learning to Love Again

O God, you so loved the world that you gave your only-begotten Son to reconcile earth with heaven: Grant that we, loving you above all things, may love our friends in you, and our enemies for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for Wednesday in the Second Week of Lent

Once in a while, a collect will strike the heart of the one praying in a new and thought-provoking way. So it was today for me with this prayer. It says, with great care and superb economy, that by recalling the reconciling love of God in Christ, we are given the tools to love properly again. This makes it possible to love for the right reasons and in the right way. No longer do we love our friends or our ideals somehow in a separate category from our love for God, but in and because of that love. This will challenge anything in us that wants to love another apart from God… the beginning of idolatry.

This collect also gives us a limpid lens through which to learn to love our enemies, or those we have come to call “our enemies,” for most of our enemies are really of our own imaginings. We will only be able to do this “for Christ’s sake.” Not as a cry of being fed-up (“now, for Christ’s sake, listen to me!”), but as the way to gain freedom from the prison of our own unforgiveness. This is what is at stake, as the Lord’s Prayer makes perfectly clear, when it reminds us that our being forgiven depends on our being willing to forgive the other. When such forgiveness is truly costly, truly profound, there is but one source big enough to overwhelm our sorrow, our loss and sense of violation: the complete love of God in Christ on the Cross. This collect returns us to this, the Throne of Mercy, the one balm for the broken soul.