Tuesday, May 31, 2011


The story of the Visitation between Mary and her relative Elizabeth in the Gospel according to Luke is a moment of beauty and of mystery. It is, at heart, the story of an encounter…but what a complex encounter: between a very young mother-to-be and a very old mother-to-be, between the herald of the Word Incarnate and the One he heralds, between the mystery of birth and the mystery of death and resurrection, between the Old and the New in every way.

This encounter points to the potentiality of holiness in all our encounters. The Feast of the Visitation recalls this dimension of our identity to consciousness. What gets lost so often is our intentionality: we forget that we have been given the Holy Spirit in baptism, and that this Spirit reaches out to others—other members of Christ’s Body, and to the Image of God found buried in those who are not yet members of that Mystical Body. It is this intentionality we celebrate today, the intention, the faithfulness that allows both Mary and Elizabeth to transcend their own partial understanding of the sacredness of their encounter. Elizabeth honors Mary as Blessed, and Mary praises God in the words of the Magnificat.

In St. Ambrose’s commentary on Luke, we find these words about the Visitation, and about the power of God working through humans to give glory to God even as we are exalted in him:
Let Mary’s soul be in each of you to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let her spirit be in each to rejoice in the Lord. Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith. Every soul receives the Word of God if only it keeps chaste, remaining pure and free from sin, its modesty undefiled. The soul that succeeds in this proclaims the greatness of the Lord, just as Mary’s soul magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior. In another place we read: Magnify the Lord with me. The Lord is magnified, not because the human voice can add anything to God but because he is magnified within us. Christ is the image of God, and if the soul does what is right and holy, it magnifies that image of God, in whose likeness it was created and, in magnifying the image of God, the soul has a share in its greatness and is exalted.

Collect of the Visitation
Father in heaven, by your grace the virgin mother of your incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping your word: Grant us who honor the exaltation of her lowliness to follow the example of her devotion to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Separation Anxiety: Rogationtide and the Church's Mission

The Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day form what is traditionally known as Rogationtide. This ancient observance (in the Northern Hemisphere) connects the annual cycle of planting-growing-harvesting to the liturgical year. Special Rogation prayers, fasts, processions, and outdoor celebrations of the Holy Eucharist all were once a commonplace in our agrarian past.

A few places continue a limited observance (the making and blessing of Rogation Crosses, some form of “Beating the Bounds,” and perhaps the blessing of gardens or fields), but mostly it has lapsed in our hip, trendy, urban era. The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), from which we must now draw our Sunday scripture lessons, no longer makes any real provision for Rogationtide, and most Church authorities seems to ignore it.

All of this is both a bit ironic and yet fairly predictable.

It is ironic because we hear so many in the contemporary Church speak about the need for a spiritual recovery of environmental consciousness and stewardship, but when there are ways in our own tradition and practice to raise this awareness in our communal life, we ignore them.

This is the predictable part, because so much of the environmental movement in Western Christianity springs from secular sources rather than from an authentically Christian, Trinitarian source. Because of these unacknowledged roots, the tendency is for most of our discourse about the environment to go to various pharisaical projects (“What is my carbon footprint?” “What is yours?” “How do I juggle the numbers so I can appear to be much more environmentally pure while still living pretty much as I have?” and the like).

This misbegotten origin is also revealed in the patchy, often shallow manner we respond to today’s challenges in and through the Institutional Church. Every few years a new set of buzzwords, a new collection of gurus, another round of seminars and books and techniques is unleashed on the Church—each time promising to do what the previous iteration failed to achieve: make us relevant and persuasive in an ever-more secularizing culture. Gradually, the Church comes to appear more like a failing business concern, anxious to sell its product with slick new packaging or a viral ad campaign. The radical nature of authentic Christianity is nowhere to be found in all of this.

The story of our creation in Genesis makes clear that we were made a part of the whole, not apart from it. Created in the Image of God the Holy Trinity, we were meant for dynamic communion with God, the neighbor, and the Creation. This integrated, holistic sense of our being is buried deep within us. Sin, in all its forms, divides and compartmentalizes us. We lose the wholeness in which we were created. The ultimate sign of that loss is Death. Dying places the ultimate “division” into our world, and motivates humans through fear and anxiety to do things that further our alienation from God, each other, and the Creation. This alienation normally takes the form of a continual search for control—at any cost.

In a pre-technological world one of the ways humans tried to have this control was through magic. (Interestingly, this response is seeing a new lease on life in our complex world—see the rise of such groups as Wiccans, &c.) By worshiping certain supposed powers and engaging in various rituals it was thought we could be free from our fears and anxieties for a time. The scriptures record many stories of such activities, from orgies on the hilltops meant to ensure better crops by “communing with Baal,” to sacrificing children as a way of appeasing the fiery god Moloch. Indeed, idolatry in all its forms is really just a massive attempt to overcome the effects of sin and death by furiously seizing whatever means of control seems to be at hand. It only furthers our separation from God, however.

We can think we have “evolved” pretty far from this—but we delude ourselves. A technological society has fashioned new, “demythologized” gods and worships at other, “scientific” (but often more blood-soaked) altars. Alienation from the Trinity continues to drive us to horrific things: drug addiction, consumerist materialism, religious and atheistic extremism, industrialized warfare, sexual delusion, exploitation of weak nations and peoples by strong ones… the list goes on and on. We tend to think of these things as inevitable results of modernity, or as something we can fix through education, but are they? Their origin, the scriptures show us, is much deeper. It comes from a decision we continue to make to live apart from the revealed will of God and the order manifest in his Creation. That separation leads to an anxiety we attempt to “fix” by seeking more and more autonomy, more and more control: in other words, to attempt to be God rather than to live in communion with God.

From genetically-modified foods to genetically-modified relationships and societies, we are living in the Second Great Wave of Eugenics. The first one, espoused by everyone from Henry Ford to Adolph Hitler, proved to be a horror. The second one promises to start out more subtly, but proceed along the same basic course. Forsaking God’s leading and turning away from the other book of scripture God gave us—the Creation—we will continue to delude ourselves into thinking that we are gods, autonomous and free to make up the rules as we go. Like an alcoholic on a binge, we will only learn when we “hit bottom,” whatever that means.

In the midst of this, the Church must struggle to proclaim the Gospel’s message that this “separation anxiety” cannot be overcome in any way save through the union with God, neighbor, and Creation available in Jesus Christ our Lord. Not only must our official documents say this, but our worship itself must show it forth—and it does, if we let it.

At each Eucharist, the Church offers to God the whole of Creation now redeemed in Christ. Through the power of the Holy Spirit Christ has given to his Church, the liturgy reveals the intrinsic holiness of matter by recalling the act of Creation, the Incarnation of God in Christ, and the final restoration of all things through Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and finally at the Parousia. As emblems of this once-and-future unity available to the faithful now in and through the Church, we receive the Holy Mysteries of Christ. The Eucharist is a deeply unifying, revelatory offering of a priestly people.

Rogationtide makes this yet more explicit. We, who cannot live without nourishment both physical and spiritual, annually pray for fruitful seasons, justice in commerce and industry, and for good stewardship of the creation. Crosses are blessed and distributed for the faithful to place in their gardens, farms, and yards to remind us that the mystery of faith connects the heavens and earth, the physical and the spiritual, the life of the Trinity with the life of the Creation.

Perhaps, when this age of willful forgetting has ended, we will remember once more that our faith alone has the capacity to inspire and save—to overcome our “separation anxiety.” Secular movements come and go; ideologies flourish and die; trends peak and sink out of sight: only the Gospel lasts until the End, for only the Gospel recalls us to our true selves in the truth about God.

The following prayers are to be offered during Rogation Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at Morning and Evening Prayer. When parishioners place their Rogation cross for this year’s growing season, one or more of these prayers, together with the Our Father, is suitable.

I. For fruitful seasons

Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth: We humbly pray that your gracious providence may give and preserve to our use the harvests of the land and of the seas, and may prosper all who labor to gather them, that we, who are constantly receiving good things from your hand, may always give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

II. For commerce and industry

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

III. For stewardship of creation

O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Friday, May 27, 2011

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

The Psalms

The next portion of the Daily Office revolves around the reading of Scripture: first from the Book of Psalms (called the Psalter), and then from other parts of the Old Testament, Apocrypha, and New Testament. This section of the Office is the largest in terms of time spent, and focuses on Illuminative prayer wherein we are filled with knowledge about God and the holy life. Through this encounter, we are invited to participate in God’s holiness through the work of the Holy Spirit in us.

The Psalms are an essential part of the Office; indeed, they are really at its core. The Psalter was the Church’s first hymnal and to this day many of our favorite hymns are connected to the Book of Psalms. The Psalms can be difficult, too. They bring the total person before God, even the person we find shocking and primitive. This radical honesty is a necessary part of the Biblical vision for restored life in God. Just as Christ has offered the perfect sacrifice on the altar of the Cross, so we are called to bring the fullness of our life—its joys, sorrows, brokenness—to God in prayer for transformation and renewal. The 150 Psalms have been seen from the start of Christianity as the best tool for this process to proceed and deepen over a lifetime.

At Morning and Evening Prayer there are appointed Psalms for each day of the year, and one of your marker ribbons should be placed at the appropriate Psalm prior to beginning the Office.

There are two BCP-based ways to go about using the Psalter. One (the older Anglican way) is to read it once through each month in order. Starting at Morning Prayer on the first day of the month and beginning with Psalm One, read the appropriate selection of Psalms, as indicated by the small notations in the upper right-hand corner of the Psalter in your Prayer Book. This means (usually) about 3-4 Psalms at each service. This way of reading the Psalms means more of a time commitment at each service (and also means the Psalms are rather arbitrarily divided up), but it is an excellent way to learn the Psalms, and I highly recommend it during the Season after Pentecost.

The other way to read the Psalms as provided in the BCP is to use the Daily Office Lectionary (remember that ribbon?) at the back of the Prayer Book. Each day’s entry has the morning and evening Psalms listed (the morning and evening sets are separated by a small cross made from four dots). This way of praying the Psalms is connected more to the rhythms of morning and evening, the days of the week, and the seasons. It is shorter, too.

When saying the Psalms, it is customary to end each individual Psalm (or the whole set of them) with the Gloria Patri [“Glory be to the Father, &c.”] as a way to offer the experience we have just gone through in this encounter back to God. This is one of the many ways that praying Scripture in the Office differs from reading it for personal or academic study. A Liturgical reading of Scripture is always consciously a prayer and a relationship between ourselves, God, and the whole Church. Traditionally, one bows whenever the Gloria Patri is said in reverence and awe before God in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. As always, our bodies and minds must both be part of or prayer.

Monday, May 16, 2011


Today is the annual commemoration of St. Brendan of Clonfert, whose name (in an anglicized version) I bear. Tomorrow, God willing, we will offer the Holy Eucharist in his honor (this year, Tuesday is our 25th wedding anniversary).

If you did not grow up in a tradition that made much of the saints, or if sanctity is for you something remote and “other-wordly,” the significance of a name-saint may not be clear. Though I grew up in a different branch of Christianity, one which did not keep the “sanctoral calendar,” I had a natural sense of the role and presence of the saints… if only because that language and mind-set flowed through my mother’s Sicilian background into our home life.

I first experienced Anglican worship on the Solemnity of All Saints’ and perceived the palpable presence of the Saints in the liturgy that day. Since then, I have always understood that the Saints are all the members of Christ’s Body, the Church. I have also come to know the power of their witness and their intercession. While not feeling the need to go into the minutia of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, I certainly accept its mystical and practical dimensions, and rejoice in them.

St. Brendan was a great traveler, as well as a monastic. His life was one of moving always toward the Kingdom of God… spiritually and physically. The Navigatio, the great record of his travels, was one of the most popular books during the medieval period. Many of the stories in it are wild and astounding. Many of them teach very subtle lessons about truth, inner conformity to Christ, and the need for a grounded, practical faith rooted in prayer and humility.

When I was in Ireland on pilgrimage, I was not able to go to Clonfert, the site usually associated with St. Brendan. However, I was able to go to Inish Mohr, and there visit one of the monasteries St. Brendan went to in preparation for making his great journey. There, I found a sense of peace and solidarity with one after whom I was named (for no particular reason, it turns out), a person so vastly different—and yet so readily understandable because I share his faith in the Risen Christ. That sense of continuity-in-difference is just one of the great gifts we come to know by learning to “live among the saints,” especially the ones whose names we bear.

A Collect for St. Brendan’s Day
O God, by whose grace your servant Brendan, kindled with the flame of your love, became a burning and a shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Absence of a meaningful cosmos becomes an absence of meaning itself

It is worth reflecting (as is not always done) that... if mankind had to choose between a universe that ignored him and one that noticed him to do him harm, it might well choose the second. Our own age need not begin congratulating itself on its freedom from superstition till it defeats a more dangerous temptation to despair.
E.M.W. Tillyard discussing the place of superstition in Elizabethan England, from "The Elizabethan World Picture" 

In spending time with both the scriptures and contemporary church life, I continue to find that while our current cosmology may be scientifically "correct" (whatever that really means, as we continually learn that previous understandings were erroneous), the great vacuum of space has left a similar vacuum of meaning and substance in post-modern life. Various "revival movements" come and go, but as long as we take our cue from the current cosmology, we will lack both vision and holiness as a people and as disciples. This is, perhaps, the great challenge for coming generations of Western Christians: choosing the radiant holiness and beauty of relationality in the Holy Trinity, or the isolation and despair of a meaningless and random universe.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Friday in Eastertide

   During much of the year, Fridays are set aside in the Church for fasting, prayer, and other acts of self-discipline in honor of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. During Eastertide, however, this discipline is itself set aside as part of the great fifty day celebration of the Resurrection.
   Friday never loses its association with the Cross, however. Our response to the mystery of salvation differs during Eastertide, but it is not undermined or diminished. The collects associated with Fridays during Eastertide all connect with the Cross, but highlight it as viewed through the lens of the Resurrection. This “unitive” understanding of the Paschal Mystery is especially sharp during Easter, but it is true throughout the Liturgical Year, for no part of this journey can be understood if it is cut off from the whole fabric of the story of salvation.
   Below is a portion of an Eastertide sermon by St. Ephrem of Edessa [obit. 373, commemorated on June 10]. He was one of the greatest preachers and hymn writers of the early Church, as well as being a deacon and organizer of relief work. This sermon shows St. Ephrem engaging most profoundly with the significance of the Cross, rich in creative imagery, while at the same time connecting the Paschal Mystery with the rest of Christ’s life and salvation history as a whole. This small selection gives the reader some idea of this great saint’s extraordinary mind and theology, bringing some of the glory of Syrian Christianity (one of the great centers of early Christian thinking and practice) to our modern American ears. Come: Let us glory in the Cross of our Resurrected Lord!

   Death trampled our Lord underfoot, but he in his turn treated death as a highroad for his own feet. He submitted to it, enduring it willingly, because by this means he would be able to destroy death in spite of itself. Death had its own way when our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying his cross; but when by a loud cry from that cross he summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.
Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death. Concealed beneath the cloak of his manhood, his godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying our Lord, death itself was slain. It was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.
Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which he received from the Virgin; in it he invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strong-room and scattered all its treasure.
  At length he came upon Eve, the mother of all the living. She was that vineyard whose enclosure her own hands had enabled death to violate, so that she could taste its fruit; thus the mother of all the living became the source of death for every living creature. But in her stead Mary grew up, a new vine in place of the old. Christ, the new life, dwelt within her. When death, with its customary impudence, came foraging for her mortal fruit, it encountered its own destruction in the hidden life that fruit contained. All unsuspecting, it swallowed him up, and in so doing released life itself and set free a multitude of men.
He who was also the carpenter’s glorious son set up his cross above death’s all-consuming jaws, and led the human race into the dwelling place of life. Since a tree had brought about the downfall of mankind, it was upon a tree that mankind crossed over to the realm of life. Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognise the Lord whom no creature can resist.
  We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. We give glory to you who put on the body of a single mortal man and made it the source of life for every other mortal man. You are incontestably alive. Your murderers sowed your living body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of men raised from the dead.
Come then, my brothers and sisters, let us offer our Lord the great and all-embracing sacrifice of our love, pouring out our treasury of hymns and prayers before him who offered his cross in sacrifice to God for the enrichment of us all.