Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Using Holy Water in Daily Devotions

Many Episcopal churches now have holy water available, often in, or near, the baptismal font. This ancient practice reminds us that it is by baptism that we are born into the Church.

When entering or leaving, it is customary to dip the fingers of the right hand in the water and make the sign of the cross on one’s self, saying silently “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” These are the words used in the administration of baptism, and serve as both a mental and physical memorial of the gift of New Life in Christ. Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer, strongly advocated the use of Holy Water as both a tool for re-affirming our faith and as a way to arm one’s self against evil’s deceptions and temptations to forget whose we are.

Holy Water may also be used at home. Typically, domestic use involves applying Holy Water (as at church) before and after daily prayers. Some people drink blessed water, especially at times of sickness, as a further way to affirm their total connection with God. Others will place Holy Water near their home’s most-used entrance, for blessing one’s self when leaving home.

When using Holy Water, we must be clear that it is not “magical.” Rather, it is a physical reminder and manifestation of God’s transformative power in all Creation, in the sacraments, and in our lives. We are physical and spiritual beings. Water is essential for life. The Spirit is essential for Christian life. Holy Water brings these two “essentials” together, recalling Baptism, in which they are joined. The Christian life is not about magical talismans for avoiding things; it is about engaging reality in the secure knowledge of God’s power to transform and redeem. All of Creation is holy because God made it. This water, offered to God to be a sign of his desire for all things to be whole and holy in him, is blessed so that we might literally be "in touch" with the truth once more.

Like all such devotional tools in our tradition, there is not requirement that any Anglican use Holy Water. Rather, it is a gift, and gifts are given without requirements. They are offered in love and for the benefit of the recipient. So may it be for us all as we journey more and more into God's redeeming embrace.

Some considerations for domestic use:
  • St. Timothy’s provides ready access to blessed water in the chapel (a dispenser is in the marked cabinet; bottles for taking Holy Water home with you are provided free of charge).
  • At home, water is put in a shallow bowl, or a stoup (a kind of wall-mounted font), near where daily prayers are said. Another place for a stoup is by the main door.
  • Putting a piece of natural sponge in with the water will help keep the water clear longer.
  • Holy Water should not be put down the sink. It should be poured out in the garden, as it has been blessed.

    Sunday, February 20, 2011

    Empty without Love

    What the Church and the Believer contain without Love

    O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.  Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.
    Collect for the Seventh Sunday
    after the Epiphany
    (from The Book of Common Prayer)

    There are few Collects more direct and focused than this one. Love is what animates all Christian life, ministry, and witness. Without the love of the Holy Trinity, we are empty and our works are worth nothing at all.

    Christians are often encouraged to forget this—even by the Church itself. Our parishes and institutions can become so focused on the doing of ministry that we forget the very being of Faith: Love. Over time this absence is revealed by stridency, shrillness, division, power-politics, and a myopic emphasis on “outcomes,” “metrics,” and group-think. What always signals our forgetting of our true purpose and identity is a decline in the Love of the Holy Three, manifested by a lack of peace and virtue—usually first in the leadership, then in the Body a whole.

    The Holy Spirit is God’s greatest gift in the life of the believer. That Spirit is imparted in Baptism, taking up residence (so to speak) in our life and always pointing us back to Christ and his Gospel. The Gospel points to the will of the Father, and through Christ’s unique self-offering on the Cross, we are carried into the life of the Holy Trinity, growing in Divine love and likeness. This is the Good News Jesus came to bring to all humanity.

    As we prepare for the season of Lent, this Collect serves to remind us of the desire for God which marks the authentic Christian life. Where that desire has gone cold, it is time that we turn back to God in love and humility, for he has promised: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James, 4:8).

    Saturday, February 19, 2011

    On Saturday Evening

    In the practice and calendar of the Church, the celebration of Our Lord's resurrection begins not on Sunday morning, but on nightfall the preceding evening. This is a direct inheritance from our Jewish forebears, for whom each day commences with nightfall. Thus, the first liturgical observance of Sunday is on Saturday evening, making Evening Prayer on Saturday a preface to the services of Morning Prayer and Eucharist on Sunday morning.

    When saying Evening Prayer on Saturdays it is important to include not only the Collect of the particular Sunday in the Church Year now begun, but also to offer prayers of preparation for receiving Holy Eucharist. Indeed, one priest long ago remarked that the best way to examine one's conscience was to remember that in a certain number of days or hours, we will receive the Body and Blood of Christ... and to be ready for this sacred gift in all our acts and deeds.

    To prepare for receiving Holy Communion is virtually a lost art in the modern Church. We have come to understand the Eucharist more in terms of "party" or "right" or "habit" than as gift, participation in the Kingdom of God, or entrance into the Divine Worship itself. This has given rise to a "drive-through" mentality in our church, wherein the Eucharist is "fit in" to the rest of our life, rather than for the Holy Mysteries to be the very basis on which our life is founded and understood. Any Christian life, any tradition, for which this is so is not long to prosper.

    At heart, Eucharistic preparation is an opening of the truth of our life to God. It means acknowledging our brokenness, often in considerable particulars. It also means hearing again the message of God's desire for our complete transformation into the fullness of life—something possible only in Jesus Christ, and made available in his sacred Body and Blood. There are many ways to do this. Here are two prayers—one for Saturday night in preparation for worship in the morning, and one ancient prayer of preparation for receiving Holy Communion—which bear saying as part of our Evening or bed-time prayers as we begin the full and rich observance of the Lord's Day each week.

    For Saturday Evening
    O holy and most merciful Father, whose most dear Son Jesus Christ did on this day of the week lie in the grave, all the travail of his soul and the agonies of his body being past, grant that by his blessed ministry and mediation we may become dead unto sin and freed from all its power. Give us grace that we may offer our daily and weekly tasks in this world ever looking forward to that rest which remains for your people. Receive our humble and hearty thanks for all your forbearing goodness to us through this week now drawn to a close. Prepare us for the sacred and holy worship of another of the days of the Son of man. Seeing how short our time is, may we be found diligent in your work, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord. Suffer no stain of unforgiven sin to linger in our hearts, but pardon and accept us for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.

    A Prayer of St. John Chrysostom, before receiving the Holy Mysteries:
    I am not sufficient, O Master and Lord, that you should enter under the roof of my soul; but as the Lover of humanity you will to dwell in me, I dare to approach you. You command it: I shall open the doors which you may enter with your love for all people as is your nature, that you may enter and enlighten my darkened thought. I believe that you will do this, for you did not drive away the sinful woman when she came to you with tears, neither did you reject the publican who repented, nor did you spurn the thief who acknowledged your kingdom, nor didst you leave the repentant persecuter to himself; but all of them that came to you in repentance you numbered among your friends, O you who alone are blessed, always, now, and unto endless ages. Amen.

    Sunday, February 13, 2011


    If anyone is in conflict with another, end the quarrel lest you yourself come to a deadly end. Do not consider this unimportant, my beloved…. We realize that a just person is not without some sins. But there is one remedy which enables us to keep alive. For God, our Master, told us to say in our prayers: “Forgive us the wrong we have done as we forgive those who wrong us.” We have made a contract with God and taken a resolution, adding for safety’s sake the condition that the wrong must be forgiven. This makes us ask with complete confidence to be forgiven provided we too forgive.
    From a sermon by Caesarius, Bishop of Arles [c. 543], 
    and directly related to this Sunday’s 
    Gospel reading from Matthew.

    Let us remember: each time we offer the Lord’s Prayer, we are reaffirming our belief in the centrality of forgiveness.
    Let us also pray this is lived out in the lives of individual Christians and the hierarchies and ecclesiastical bodies representing the Church to the world around us.

    Thursday, February 3, 2011

    Day by day we praise you: an introduction to the Daily Office

    Morning Prayer: Opening Sentence, Confession of Sin

    When beginning the Office, start out with a little silence, just listening and centering yourself before God. It is humbling and glorious to come before God, who really desires to engage with us. By entering into his silence, we are coming into his peace and presence. The Daily Office is not a time for “busy work.” It is a time to rest in God, being nourished in communion with him through purgation, illumination, and union. Some people find it helpful to say the following prayers as a preface to this or any Office:

    Open my mouth, O Lord, to bless your holy Name; cleanse my heart from all vain, evil, and wandering thoughts; enlighten my understanding and kindle my affections, that I may fittingly recite this Office with attention and devotion and so may be fit to be heard before the presence of your divine Majesty. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

    O Lord, in union with that divine intention wherewith you yourself offered your praises to God while upon the earth, I now recite this Office to you [with the special intention for _____________ (here insert any person or concern you wish to offer before God during this Office)].

    Morning Prayer itself begins with one or more short verses (called ‘sentences’ in Anglican parlance) of Scripture. These short passages serve to locate us in the Liturgical Year and in the central themes of the Christian faith. This reminds us that whether said in the company of others in a church or chapel, or said alone in our home or other place, all of our prayer is essentially liturgical: it partakes of the great offering of prayer made by the whole Church throughout all times and places.

    Each season has a group of sentences to choose from, some more appropriate to one part of the season than others. In Easter, the Paschal Greeting (“Alleluia! Christ is risen; The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!) is given as an option. That is a particularly joyful way to begin the Office, even when not praying in a group. The list of sentences ends with the section marked “At any Time.” These are for the many days of Ordinary Time, especially from Pentecost to Advent. Some of these sentences seem especially suited to particular days: the first one for Saturday, the second for Sunday morning (yes, it is wonderful to say Office before coming to the Eucharist… indeed, it is the classic Anglican pattern and expectation to do this), the third for Monday, and so on. Rotating them like this helps establish a rhythm of focus through the week.

    After the Opening Sentence comes the Confession of Sin. Many people today find the idea of confessing sins in the morning to make no sense: “But, I haven’t had time to sin yet!” they might say.

    The BCP makes using Confession here optional, in part because during Eastertide and at major feasts we tend to play down the penitential aspect of our worship and would not want to require its use for that season. But, I would recommend that normally the Confession is said in the morning and at evening. Here is why: The human heart and mind are very complex things. We need to make honesty and humility the bedrock of our prayer life. When we begin the two major Offices of the day, it is important to start with that purgative type of prayer (mentioned earlier on in this series) so that we may proceed from that solid foundation of honesty and integrity.

    When confessing in the morning, it is helpful to focus on one’s besetting sins—our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses that we have come to know over time. By placing these before God at the day’s start, we acknowledge our dependence on God alone for grace and strength. We also are less like to fix on the “speck” in our neighbor’s eye if we are up-front with God about the “plank” in our own.

    Another reason for morning confession is that we may have something serious to consider based on the previous night, its actions, thoughts, or fears. I remember a wise monk telling me years ago that one of the sins many people forget to bring before God is their cooperation in the night with dwelling on fears, anxieties, and grudges. We need to be honest before God about this, as well.

    The Rite One Confession is a marvel of penitential insight and psychology, reflecting both the medieval and reformation mind’s care to examine the conscience in depth. The Rite Two form is shorter and less complex, but draws from a very solid source: The Summary of the Law. Either way (and you could always mix them… it won’t land you in jail), the Confession should be said slowly and with attention to each word, not “tossed off.” It is appropriate to kneel (as the rubric or service direction requires) or bow when saying the Confession in “private recitation” of the Office (remember: “private” is always relative in Christian prayer!).

    The Confession is followed by what might be called the Assurance of Pardon. If said in a public service led by a priest, the priest stands to offer this assurance as part of the Priestly ministry of declaring God’s forgiveness. A deacon or layperson continues kneeling and changes the form from “you” to “us” and “your” to “our” where appropriate. This is how it should be prayed when said alone. It serves to remind us that we are part of a confessing, forgiving, and reconciling community of faith—the Church. The Sign of the Cross (a.k.a. “blessing one’s self”) is traditional here: it is through the power of the Cross that we are forgiven by God. This costly grace needs to be re-affirmed whenever possible, as humans are marvelous for deluding ourselves that we can self-redeem. Thus, we end off this first section of the Office with the universal sign of God’s power to love and save.

    Shorn of delusion and arrogance, we are now ready to stand (if we have been kneeling or bowing) in honesty and purity of heart to raise ourselves in prayer and praise before God.

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    Lord, you now have set your servant free...

    The Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas, in common parlance) has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to themes and imagery. Light, infancy, surprise, fulfillment, Incarnation, the Temple, the Blessed Virgin, old age, freedom, obedience, glory, suffering… this is but a slice of what this Feast deals with.

    Perhaps this multiplicity of meanings is why this day has come to be centered so much on one thing: a burning candle. Nowhere is a candle mentioned in the story of the Presentation, yet this simple image of light in darkness captures so much of what we recall and show forth again each year on this Feast of Our Lord.

    An old man named Simeon is told by God that he will not die until he has beheld the Lord’s Messiah. An old woman named Anna, who has lived as a widow time out of mind at the Temple, awaits God’s word to rejoice. All is poised, attentive.

    Then comes an ordinary-looking family with that most extraordinary of children: Jesus, the Son of God. His mother comes to be purified: she who bore the Prince of Peace must submit to the Law. Jesus comes to be presented: he who is Lord of all, and whose Father's temple it is, yields to the just requirements of the ancient code for the People of God. Another presentation on a nearby hill awaits, dimly, in the future.

    When Jesus enters the Temple, the Light of Life has come home--yet only a select few know or understand. Just as at his birth the promises to Israel for its Messiah were fulfilled, so today the place where God’s Name dwells meets the one who will in flesh and blood fulfill its stone-girt purpose.

    Into the darkness of this world comes the light of divine mercy, compassion, and presence. An elderly woman likely thought without sense dances for joy, and a man so old no one knows how many Sabbaths he has seen can deliver the message he has waited a lifetime of expectation to share: "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too." 

    It is a message for the Mary and Joseph to think over again and again through the swiftly-fleeting years of Jesus' childhood, and one for us to contemplate again today: this child reveals the hidden purposes of creation; this child brings to a head the conflict between the Truth and the Lie; no one can hold this child and not share in the birth-pangs of a New World. 

    To share in this light is to be purified in truth, to be washed in truth, and to be overcome by truth that it may flow through us into the abyss of a world lost to itself and to God.

    We bless and bear candles today because that child and his light have come to reside in us, to be borne out into the world in our lives. That light comes into the homes, hospital rooms, parks, prisons, shelters, offices, and the myriad other places where it is needed. These candles are not empty or quaint symbols: they are signs of what is true, what is actual, what in required. We are presented to Christ on this feast as his followers, each uniquely called and equipped to be his light-bearer.

    In Jesus Christ you have been set free, now share the light within you.

    Through you, others will be visited by the Christ-child; their isolation, fear, anxiety, oppression, and personal darkness will be bathed in the light of Christ. We really are that important. Our witness will be essential to someone in this world who shivers in the darkness of alienation and sin. Hold this candle with resolution today: bear the Light of Christ with intentionality and humility tomorrow and beyond.

    Almighty and ever-living God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts through Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.