Friday, April 30, 2010

Good Works, Obedience, Freedom, and Our Reward

For we discover love step by step in the course of our lives, and how to act in love. Certain privileged souls, it is true, awaken very early to a tender love for Jesus or the Father. But more generally, in order to understand charity, we have to fulfill the commandments; this is a basic attitude. We learn the love of God by obeying Him; we show our love for him, and he responds to it. This love grows; then more and more it governs our actions. What we did at first under constraint, afterwards, aided by a good habit and by the attraction of virtue, we do through love…. Now, love bears within itself the promise of eternity; it will never end; it will be consummated in the union with God, in blessedness.

- From “Good Works and Reward” in Serving God First: Insights on the Rule of St. Benedict by Dom Sighard Kleiner, p. 194

Sometimes we lose track of our underlying purpose as Christians. We become consumed with rules, systems, patterns, traditions, or goals rather than growing in the love and knowledge of God. This cannot be allowed to continue. It rots the very fabric of faith, gradually destroying our souls and turning the Gospel of Peace into either just another moral crusade or a hideous, distorted weapon with which to attack those who differ from us. The Holy Obedience of the Christian is an obedience to Christ, who is the perfect servant, completely one in will with the Father. Our obedience must be one based in love, as his obedience to the Father and his self-offering for us is one of love. Understood and practiced from this point of view, our loving obedience becomes the means of our freedom to become more and more like Christ.

A General Pleading

(Especially suitable for Fridays and Fasting Seasons/Days following the Collects in the Daily Office, or as a separate devotion)
We sinners beseech you, hear us.
That it may please you to defend and exalt your Church; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to grant to your Church tranquility and peace; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to put down the enemies of God’s Holy Church; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to defend us from dangerous enemies; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to preserve N., our pastor and chief priest, and the flock committed to him; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to preserve the President and all in authority, that they may do justice and love mercy; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to preserve all orders of the Church, the clergy and laity in their ministries; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to give us celestial armor against all evil; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That you mercy and pity may keep us safe; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That you would give us the will and the power to repent in earnest; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to give us pardon of all sins; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to give us right faith, firm hope in your goodness, perfect love, and constant fear of you; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to remove evil thoughts from us; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to pour into our souls the grace of the Holy Spirit; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to give us perpetual light; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to give us a happy end; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to bring us to everlasting joys; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
That it may please you to hear us; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
Son of God; We beseech you, Lord Jesus, hear us.
O Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world; Spare us.
O Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world; Give us pardon.
O Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world; Hear us.
Give perfection to beginners, give intelligence to the little ones, give aid to those who are running their course. Give compunction to the negligent, give fervor of spirit to the lukewarm, give to the perfect a good consummation. Amen.
- Adapted from a prayer in Ancient Collects, by William Bright (5th ed.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Very Little Church History

I recently encountered this video on the Blog "O God, come to my assistance," and found it an enjoyable diversion. See how many of the names "ring a bell" with you...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Simple Introduction to Prayer

Often when we think about prayer, we think about complex forms, techniques, or traditions. However, this is not what prayer is. These things may be ways we pray as communities, but they in themselves are not prayer. Rather, prayer is a very simple matter, as St. Dimtri of Rostov (17th Century) wrote:

Prayer is turning the mind and thoughts towards God. To pray means to stand before God with the mind, mentally to gaze unswervingly at Him and to converse with Him in reverent fear and hope.

It has been noted that this understanding of prayer can be practiced with or without words, by one’s self or in groups or in the liturgy. It does not need to be limited to a particular time or place, and with patient application, can become a continuous state of being.

The tradition of the Church is to offer certain fixed times of prayer through the day (morning, mid-day, evening, prior to sleeping), but these are not the end of the matter. These “offices” of prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer are rather like the abutments and piers of a bridge: strong bases anchoring us to the solid foundations of Scripture, holy Tradition, and received wisdom upon which to build our life with God. Yet, a bridge only becomes a bridge when one can cross it. Between the piers must be constructed a continuous roadway. In Christian prayer, that roadway is the conscious presence of the human person in communion with God the Holy Trinity. This is what our soul craves. Let us feed it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Thomas Sunday

The Second Sunday of Easter is often called “Low Sunday” in Western Christianity (this could be the result of a corruption of a Latin phrase once used on this day). It has other names, however. My favorite is “Thomas Sunday,” as the passage from the Gospel according to John about Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ is always read on this Sunday.

The lessons from scripture for Thomas Sunday juxtapose the sheer gutsiness and intensity of the Early Church’s passionate witness to the Resurrection of Christ with St. Thomas’ hesitancy to believe in the central reality of the Christian faith. We can draw at least two things from this.

The first point is that the other disciples didn’t turn Thomas away because he was not there in the Upper Room at the right time. Neither did they shun him because he could not accept the Resurrection. This did not in any way diminish the fact of the Resurrection. It only meant that the disciples knew that it had to be experienced to be accepted, and only then through the gift and agency of the Holy Spirit could be it be acted upon. Thomas had neither of these.

The second point is that Thomas did come to believe through personal experience of the Risen Christ, and specifically through his viewing Christ’s wounds. This tells us much about what “proof” of the Resurrection looks like today. It will not be through rational arguments – indeed, it cannot be through these, because resurrection is entirely unnatural and anti-rational in a death-absorbed and death-centered world. What is needed is our own physical and spiritual witness to the Resurrection – those times and places in our life when we have been healed, renewed, raised from death into life. Then – and only then – do we show forth the Resurrected light of Christ, the New Life for which others thirst. No gimmicks, no techniques, no multi-media shenanigans. Just real life Resurrection. Perhaps this is why so much modern Western Christianity is so dormant and sterile: the Resurrection is more of an historical artifact than a living experience in the lives of Christians.

We in the Church must stop demanding those outside to believe in things we have neither personally experienced nor are willing to be at risk of experiencing.

We must come to the Upper Room ourselves in humility; with our doubts ready for encounter and our wounds ready for healing. That is a most potentially holy state, for it was only Thomas, the doubter with integrity enough to persevere, who was to say those radiant words that shine forth from the Gospel’s pages with searing conviction and understanding of what he had learned: “My Lord and my God.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Easter Sacrament

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Collect for Wednesday in Easter Week

As we celebrate the Octave of the Resurrection this year, we reflect on many things. During this week of feasting, we feast on the accounts of Christ’s Resurrection, both in the Eucharist and in the Daily Office. In doing so, we stand with the awe- and fear-struck disciples as they encounter the glorious Mystery of Christ’s Victory over sin and death. In the Daily Office, we reflect on the Passover, reading the story carefully and seeing the many ways it prefigures the sacrifice and deliverance from death found in the True Paschal Lamb, Jesus the Messiah. Finally, we savor St. Paul’s teaching on the Resurrection, largely as recorded in 1 Corinthians 15. As with the Apostles’ gradual realization of the veracity and the overwhelming meaning of what has happened, Easter week is a “crash-course” in the implications of the Resurrection.

Part of this consideration brings us to the Eucharist. Last week, on Maundy Thursday, we celebrated the Institution of the Mystical Supper. This week, we join the Apostolic community in the realization that Our Lord’s gift to us is a very participation in His Resurrected Life, so that each Eucharist is both a sharing in that True Life in the here-and-now, and a sharing in the Final Victory at the end of the ages, the Heavenly Banquet.

St. Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers (d. 367) and a great defender of orthodox Christianity in the face of Imperial and Ecclesiastical forces promoting heresy (ah, there really isn’t anything new under the sun), pondered this mystery in his great work “On the Trinity.” He begins this section by reminding us that by his Incarnation, Christ has transformed our flesh into something new: a union with his divinity:

We believe that the Word became flesh and that we receive his flesh in the Lord’s Supper. How then can we fail to believe that he really dwells within us? When he became man, he actually clothed himself in our flesh, uniting it to himself for ever. In the sacrament of his body he actually gives us his own flesh, which he has united to his divinity. This is why we are all one, because the Father is in Christ, and Christ is in us. He is in us through his flesh and we are in him. With him we form a unity which is in God.

St. Hilary then studies how this has come to be, noting that

this is how he wanted us to understand the perfect unity that is achieved through our Mediator, who lives in the Father while we live in him, and who, while living in the Father, lives also in us. This is how we attain to unity with the Father. Christ is in very truth in the Father by his eternal generation; we are in very truth in Christ, and he likewise is in us.

This, then, brings us to the Eucharist. When we receive of these Sacred Mysteries, we take the very Body and Blood of Christ into ourselves, allowing us to participate directly through Christ in the will and Life of God:

Christ himself bore witness to the reality of this unity when he said: He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I in him. No one will be in Christ unless Christ himself has been in him; Christ will take to himself only the flesh of those who have received his flesh. He had already explained the mystery of this perfect unity when he said: As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so he who eats my flesh will draw life from me. We draw life from his flesh just as he draws life from the Father.
This profoundly Easter understanding of the Eucharist must be underscored. In a society which sees matter as essentially inert, dead, and unspiritual, here we see the truly radical Christian teaching that by taking our matter and becoming human, God in Christ has revealed the true holiness of Creation. In the Holy Eucharist, we our nourished in the resurrection power of Christ which turns the death of this world into the Life of God. This is the hidden power of the Resurrection in the Christian's life. It changes everything.

With the Resurrection vision known in and through the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit given to Christians can open our eyes to see the latent, potential holiness of the world God made, of the True Self liberated by Christ, and of the other person. No longer can we see the other from the merely human perspective of power, passions, and possession; we see each and every person as a potential saint, a holy image-bearer of God in progress. We begin to see the world through the eyes of Christ, the “lover of souls" and thirst for that world by living the Gospel intentionally, challenging sin and injustice, opening the graves of those who are "prematurely buried" by sin.

In all this, we are pointed to the essential nature of the Eucharist. Not only is it the “principal act of Christian worship,” as the Book of Common Prayer terms it; it is the lens through which we see the world aright – as holy offering, loved and redeemed by God, shining with the light of God as all things are brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.

This is the great Easter Gift we contemplate in the above Collect. If the person who allows him or herself to be called a "Christian" is truly seeking to walk the way of a disciple, that person must grow in this way of seeing things, this way of understanding the true nature of the world, for the life of which – the true, full, whole, and holy life – Christ died and rose again.


Monday, April 5, 2010

Some Easter Observances in Daily Life

Christ is risen!

For those desiring to live out the Easter season in their daily life, here are some ways to do so:

· Offer the daily prayers in the Prayer Book (morning and evening), using those options which emphasize the Easter season.

· Take home some of the baptismal water from the font at church for use in your daily prayers. It is holy water and greatly valued.

· Greet fellow-Christians with the words: “Christ is risen.” See what they do!

· Begin your e-mails, notes, letters, &c. with the salutation: “Christ is risen!” during the 50 days of Easter.

· Use a special table grace during the season. One might be: Blessed are you, O Lord our God; you have given us the risen Savior to be the Shepherd of your people: Lead us, by him, to springs of living waters, and feed us with the food that endures to eternal life; where with you, O Father, and with the Holy Spirit, he lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen, Alleluia!

· Have festive decorations at the table, with candles burning for meals

· Make arrangements of flowers and place by icons and crosses.

· Invite Fr. Brandon to bless your home/apartment during Eastertide. This can be a short and simple event, or can be made into a lavish occasion – it’s up to you.

· There is no fasting during the 50 Days of Eastertide. This is not license for gluttony, but an invitation to enjoy food graciously and with a special gratitude. It is also an excellent time of the year to invite people to your home for a meal, especially those you have not invited in the past.

As with all of the Church Year, it is up to Christians truly to live out our faith in daily life. Rather than being a perfunctory “ritual,” the Liturgical Year is a continual opportunity to incarnate the Gospel in our choices, actions, and environment. It is both a gracious invitation and a tremendous challenge in our secularizing age to “come and see” what the Christian life can be about.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


“This Most Holy Night”

For us, Easter Eve is the Great Service of Easter, as Easter is the Great Feast of the Christian Year (my, my… look at all those capitalized words!). The long liturgy, with its many parts and meanings, would take far too long to summarize here, and would inevitably fall too far short of its subject. Perhaps it is proper instead to think about this feast is the words of two passages from the many Scriptures read last night.

From Romans:

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

From the Gospel according to Luke:

Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.

The Resurrection of Christ is God's universal triumph over the power of death – what St. Paul elsewhere calls “the last enemy.” Through dying and rising with Christ in baptism, we share in that triumph. Each Easter is a fresh proclamation of this central truth of the Christian faith. There can be no compromise in this matter. Any form of “Christianity” which seeks to undermine, play down, or relegate to insignificance the Resurrection is a betrayal of all that which is truly “Good News” in the Gospel. Anything less than the Apostolic witness of Resurrection is a horrid clinging to death.

And it is to this which the angels in St. Luke’s account point: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Each time we try to conform the Gospel, the Church, its worship and teaching and practice to anything less than the total triumph of Christ as witnessed in the Gospel, we are “looking for the living among the dead.”

The Resurrection is not merely a “physical” event, like resuscitation. Nor is it a purely “spiritual” event, akin to an intellectual or emotional “epiphany.” It is not “natural” in the terms of our fallen nature, neither is it “supernatural,” in the sense of being a breaking of “rules” of the natural order. It is a supra-natural event, one in which the true nature of humanity is restored and revealed. The joy of Easter comes in large part from this fact: God in Christ has allowed us to assume our true dignity and purpose, making it both a physical and a spiritual event – because the complete human is both a physical and spiritual being in continuous communion with the Holy Trinity, not a partial being yoked to death.

With the Exultet, the Baptisms, the Proclamation of the Resurrection, and the first Eucharist of Easter, we are immersed – quite literally – into this reality. It will be our joy and care to contemplate this Paschal “fact” for the Great 50 Days of Easter. May the Light of the Risen Christ be our guide in this season… and for the rest of our lives.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday

He was offered because he himself willed it; and he himself has borne our sins. – Antiphon on Canticle 14 from Good Friday Morning Prayer.

There is an admirable simplicity to the Good Friday liturgy’s opening. So ancient is its source that it has almost no preface. In early Christian worship, many liturgies began abruptly. The people assembled and the service “began” with the reading of Scripture. That is quite close to what we do this evening.

The Good Friday Liturgy, the middle part of the Triduum, is largely a service of the Cross and is soaked in the Scriptures.

We hear the prophesy of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah 52/53, fulfilled in Christ. We sing again the moving and unutterably exact Passion Psalm (22). Through a reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, we are taught again the effect of the Cross, in which God “forgets” our “sins and lawless deeds” through his mercy. Finally, we participate in the Passion Gospel once more – though on this day, always from the unique and penetrating perspective of St. John. Like someone carefully examining a precious jewel from all sides, we contemplate from many perspectives this “means of shameful death become the means of life” for us.

Then, we move from contemplation to action. That action begins by taking up our priestly ministry, given us by Christ. For, as the Revelation to John so boldly states, Christ the Great High Priest through his death has made us a “kingdom, priests, to serve his God and Father.” We do this by praying for the world, for this intercessory work is at the heart of what it means to be a priest. It was just this priestly identity that Adam and Eve forsook by trading their communion with God for life apart from the Trinity. It was restored to us in Christ. When Jesus “reigned from the tree” of the Cross, he interceded – stood between – God and the world. He entered into full communion with us even as he shared full communion with the Father. He gave us back our priestly nature, and so we exercise it on this day in the Solemn Collects.

The next action we take is to venerate the Cross of Christ. This, too, is a priestly deed. A priest receives from the hand of God and offers “the sacrifice of thanksgiving.” No other sacrifice is needed or, after this day, desired. And so we come before the Cross in profound gratitude for the “love shed abroad to the ends of the cosmos” there, singing hymns of praise even as we lament the sins of humanity that made this awesome sacrifice necessary.

Finally, we receive the Holy Mysteries of Christ in the one time of the year the Mass of the Pre-sanctified is offered. Since every celebration of the Eucharist is a proclamation of the Resurrection, it has long been the tradition of the catholic faith to fast from celebrating this Sacrament on the days commemorating his death through to his Resurrection. However, a tradition arising in the 6th century (originally to counter a heresy about the Divine Nature of Christ at the time of his death) whereby reserved Sacrament was used for communions on this day is allowed. At St. Timothy’s, we offer the Blessed Sacrament on Good Friday as direct participation in the “eternal yes” of God in Christ, even on this most solemn day. For, we know that Christ has the victory over death, and that nothing can take this away from us. We must be reminded that this is a “Good” Friday. As the antiphon at the beginning of this entry soberly reminds us, this is not a day of disaster or failure: it is the day of Christ’s own choosing. He willed it, and from it comes our salvation.

Then, suddenly, the liturgy stops and goes into recess once more. We will gather again on Holy Saturday for the distinctive “Little Tomb Service,” and then go into recess once again until the Great Vigil, keeping in mind that everything we do, everything we witness, is part of one great Mystery of Redemption. Only when we arrive at the dismissal concluding the Easter Vigil will we have come to the end of this Great Day made of three calendar days.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Maundy Thursday

The Power of Perspective

Today we enter the Triduum, the “Great Three Days” that are the most ancient part of the Christian Year, and go to the very DNA of the faith. Time, as we usually reckon it, will be suspended. For these three sunrises are accounted as one “day” in the liturgy, one great, total, and cosmic reality: unified, whole, complete.

This is manifested in worship by the simple fact that the Maundy Thursday liturgy does not “end” in the conventional sense. There is no dismissal of the people, telling them that “the worship is over and the service has begun,” to use the old cliché. Rather, we simply have a prayer over the people and go into “recess” until the Good Friday liturgy resumes the public offering of worship tomorrow. In between, various devotions are offered: the altar is stripped as we witness Christ's betrayal and humiliated; an all-night prayer vigil at the altar of repose will be held; the Way of the Cross on Friday at noon – but the worship from tonight through the end of the Easter Vigil is all understood to be one offering, one liturgy celebrating this one great Mystery of our redemption.

And this is not only true liturgically, as if the liturgy were some sort of performance divorced from the “bigger picture” of the Gospel. This essential and inherent one-ness is true of the Mystery of God's Love we have entered as well. There is a lamentable tendency in Western Christianity to try and chop up the various stages of Holy Week, and especially the Triduum, into bite-sized chunks, individual pieces that we like more or less than others. We see this most acutely with the tendency in many Christian circles to focus primarily on the Last Supper, or the Cross, or the Empty Tomb rather than looking on all of them as a unified action in which the mystery of God’s redemptive love is offered.

Interestingly, few churches put a significant focus on the Liturgy of Holy Thursday. This is, in part, because it is so deeply sacramental. It involves things and actions participating in eternal realities, and cannot be reduced to a purely intellectual “head trip.” The washing of the disciples’ feet and the institution of the Eucharist can only take on their rightful meaning when understood from this sacramental perspective. They are signs by which grace is communicated, not historical rituals in which we look back longingly to a distant past.

And this is one of the most important points about the first of the Great Three Days: how we understand the Eucharist will, in large measure, dictate everything we do from today and through Easter.

If our mindset is that the Eucharist is primarily a looking back, a conjuring up of events lodged in times before us, then this is how we will be “geared” to understand everything in the Triduum. Events such as the foot-washing, the veneration of the cross, the kindling of the New Fire and the proclamation of the Resurrection itself will, like it or not, be viewed and experienced through the lens of historical artifact, not living reality. This is why the decline of Eucharistic theology in the Western tradition – even the Roman Catholic Church reports grave problems in this area – into a mere “memorial” of an incident in Jerusalem centuries ago is so disastrous. It isolates everything truly radical, truly life-giving and life-changing about the Way of Christ in a spiritual museum. Under these circumstances the best we can do is try and whip up some devotional energy around Holy Week, maybe some personal “guilt” over Christ’s Passion, and produce cinematic re-presentations of the events found in the Scriptures. The result, though, is sadly tired and essentially tragic; such a grasp of the events of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection cannot begin to excite genuine joy, the joy that arises when one is freed from imprisonment or healed of a terrible sickness.

If, on the other hand, the Eucharist we celebrate this evening – which Our Lord commanded us to do each time we gather in order that he might be present with us until his return – is an event instituted in the past but essentially oriented towards the future, then everything changes. When we learn to experience the Eucharist, as the 4th century Eucharistic prayer of St. Basil (forming the basis of Prayer D in the Book of Common Prayer) puts it:

Father, we now celebrate this memorial of our redemption. Recalling Christ’s death and his descent among the dead, proclaiming his resurrection and ascension to your right hand, awaiting his coming in glory; and offering to you, from the gifts you have given us, this bread and this cup, we praise you and we bless you. We praise you, we bless you, we give thanks to you, and we pray to your, Lord our God...
we may come to experience the fullness of God’s redemptive plan past, present, and future. If we receive the sacred Mysteries of Christ in the liturgy with this understanding, we are precisely not locked in the past, practicing the "dead faith of a dead people." We are given a foretaste of the Triumphal Supper of the Lamb, the eschatological banquet shown in Revelation. We are truly alive, truly free.

When this is so, when it is vibrantly true and alive in our minds that the Eucharist is each an every time a re-presentation of the Victory of God and his faithful people over the power of death, sin, and alienation, and that by participating in the Eucharist we are made truly alive and capable of Living with a death-proof perspective and love, then the Eucharist stops being a “symbol” of something – it becomes that “something” itself. We are re-made into a Resurrected People, capable of bearing the message of the Gospel in our daily lives. And that is why it was given us.

Tonight the Lord hosts a meal he has “earnestly desired” to share with us. In the context of that meal, he washes the feet of his disciples – an act of the humblest service, almost completely unintelligible to the minds of 1st century hearers of this story as no teacher would imagine lowering himself to such a level in the eyes of his students. But Jesus does this to show them – and us – that we can never have fellowship with him and confess him as Lord without translating that faith and fellowship into real acts of love, service, and compassion done with his humility.

If we have come to understand the Eucharist as the “operational reality” of the Christian life, a sharing in the victory of God through his gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, then we will be able to understand the necessity of living out that gift in love by fulfilling his command to “take up our cross” and follow him. Having received the first-fruits of that New Life by the Spirit in the sacraments of Christ’s Body the Church, and living in the Now of God’s power rather than by trying to resuscitate or manufacture an ancient and remote past, we can enter into the overwhelming mystery of the Cross tomorrow from a position of profound love and gratitude rather than fear and guilt. Such is the power of perspective in the heart of a believer.