Saturday, June 18, 2011

On Trinity Sunday

The Sunday after Pentecost is the Church’s annual celebration of the revelation of God as Holy Trinity. This is the essential, bedrock teaching of orthodox Christianity. Without it, there is no authentic Christian life, practice, or transmission of faith.

The Trinity imbues the Scriptures. At moments such as the Baptism of Christ, the Great Commission in Matthew, the High Priestly Prayer in John, or the conclusion of 2 Corinthians, it is quite evident. At many other moments in the New Testament (and foreshadowed by such events as the Creation narrative and Abraham’s visitors at Mamre in the Old Testament), it is less obvious, but no less present.

The Early Church accepted the concept of Trinity implicitly. As time went on, the doctrine’s more subtle points were explored and debated. One thing is consistent, though: false forms of Christianity almost always begin with a rejection of the Trinity, going on to substitute some other (often very unbalanced) teaching that dispels all mystery—asserting either an arrogant intellectual mastery or a destructive hedonism in the place of Revealed Truth.

Trinity Sunday is a profoundly joyful day. In a world so pervaded by lies and distortion, we have been given the Truth—a truth that invites not arrogance or complacency, but humility, awe, reverence, and worship. That is why on this day it is customary to offer that great hymn of praise—the Te deum laudamus—in solemn form at the conclusion to the Eucharist. We sing not because we understand everything, but because we are loved and love in return. That is the knowledge we prize: the love of the Trinity as Trinity, for us, and through us.

Below is a portion of a letter from the great African bishop Athanasius of Alexandria (circa 296-373) on the Trinity. St. Athanasius the Great was one of the decisive figures in Christian history, standing as he did against Imperial power, ecclesiastical convenience, threats of violence, times of exile, betrayal, and many other hardships, so that the orthodox and saving faith would be proclaimed. His words speak about the nature of the Trinity and the way that nature reaches out to us in our own mystical life of communion and service.

A letter by St Athanasius

Light, radiance and grace are in the Trinity and from the Trinity

It will not be out of place to consider the ancient tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church, which was revealed by the Lord, proclaimed by the apostles and guarded by the fathers. For upon this faith the Church is built, and if anyone were to lapse from it, he would no longer be a Christian either in fact or in name.

We acknowledge the Trinity, holy and perfect, to consist of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In this Trinity there is no intrusion of any alien element or of anything from outside, nor is the Trinity a blend of creative and created being. It is a wholly creative and energizing reality, self-consistent and undivided in its active power, for the Father makes all things through the Word and in the Holy Spirit, and in this way the unity of the holy Trinity is preserved. Accordingly, in the Church, one God is preached, one God who is above all things and through all things and in all things. God is above all things as Father, for he is principle and source; he is through all things through the Word; and he is in all things in the Holy Spirit.

Writing to the Corinthians about spiritual matters, Paul traces all reality back to one God, the Father, saying: Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of service but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in everyone.

Even the gifts that the Spirit dispenses to individuals are given by the Father through the Word. For all that belongs to the Father belongs also to the Son, and so the graces given by the Son in the Spirit are true gifts of the Father. Similarly, when the Spirit dwells in us, the Word who bestows the Spirit is in us too, and the Father is present in the Word. This is the meaning of the text: My Father and I will come to him and make our home with him. For where the light is, there also is the radiance; and where the radiance is, there too are its power and its resplendent grace.

This is also Paul’s teaching in his second letter to the Corinthians: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. For grace and the gift of the Trinity are given by the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Just as grace is given from the Father through the Son, so there could be no communication of the gift to us except in the Holy Spirit. But when we share in the Spirit, we possess the love of the Father, the grace of the Son and the fellowship of the Spirit himself.

A Litany to the Trinity

A Litany of the Holy Trinity
For personal devotion on Trinity Sunday, Mondays, and other times.

V. Blessed be the holy Trinity and undivided Unity;
R. We will give glory to Him, because He hath shown His mercy to us.

V. O Lord our Lord, how wonderful is Thy Name in all the earth!
R. O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!

Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy
Blessed Trinity, hear us.
Adorable Unity, graciously hear us.

God the Father of Heaven,  Have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world,  Have mercy on us.
God the Holy Ghost,  Have mercy on us.
Holy Trinity, One God,  Have mercy on us.
Father from Whom are all things,  Have mercy on us.
Son through Whom are all things,  Have mercy on us.
Holy Ghost in Whom are all things,  Have mercy on us.
Holy and undivided Trinity,  Have mercy on us.
Father everlasting,  Have mercy on us.
Only-begotten Son of the Father, Have mercy on us.
Spirit Who preceedeth from the Father and the Son,  Have mercy on us.
Co-eternal Majesty of Three Divine Persons,  Have mercy on us.
Father, the Creator,  Have mercy on us.
Son, the Redeemer,  Have mercy on us.
Holy Ghost, the Comforter,  Have mercy on us.
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts,  Have mercy on us.
Who art, Who was, and Who art to come,  Have mercy on us.
God Most High, Who inhabits eternity,  Have mercy on us.
To Whom alone are due all honor and glory,  Have mercy on us.
Who alone doest great wonders,  Have mercy on us.
Power infinite,  Have mercy on us.
Wisdom, incomprehensible,  Have mercy on us.
Love unspeakable,  Have mercy on us.

Be merciful, Spare us, O Holy Trinity.
Be merciful, Graciously hear us, O Holy Trinity.

From all evil,  Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
From all sin, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
From all pride, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
From all love of riches, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
From all uncleanness, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
From all sloth, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
From all inordinate affection, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
From all envy and malice, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
From all anger and impatience, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
From every thought, word, and deed contrary to Thy holy law, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
From Thine everlasting malediction, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
Through Thy plenteous loving kindness, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
Through the exceeding treasure of Thy goodness and love, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
Through the depths of Thy wisdom and knowledge, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.
Through all Thy unspeakable perfections, Deliver us, O Holy Trinity.

We sinners beseech Thee, hear us.

That we may ever serve Thee alone,  We beseech Thee, hear us.
That we may worship Thee in spirit and in truth,  We beseech Thee, hear us.
That we may love Thee with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength,  We beseech Thee, hear us.
That, for Thy sake, we may love our neighbor as ourselves,  We beseech Thee, hear us.
That we may faithfully keep Thy holy commandments,  We beseech Thee, hear us.
That we may never defile our bodies and souls with sin,  We beseech Thee, hear us.
That we may go from grace to grace, and from virtue to virtue,  We beseech Thee, hear us.
That we may finally enjoy the sight of Thee in glory,  We beseech Thee, hear us.
That Thou wouldst vouchsafe to hear us,  We beseech Thee, hear us.

O Blessed Trinity, We beseech Thee, deliver us.
O Blessed Trinity, We beseech Thee, save us.
O Blessed Trinity, Have mercy on us.
Lord, have mercy,
Christ, have mercy,
Lord, have mercy.

Our Father (silently);

V. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, in the firmament of Heaven,
R. And worthy to be praised, and glorious, and highly exalted forever.

Let us pray.
Almighty and everlasting God, Who hast granted Thy servants in the confession of the True Faith, to acknowledge the glory of an Eternal Trinity, and in the power of Thy majesty to adore a Unity: we beseech Thee that by the strength of this faith we may be defended from all adversity. Through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Because all ministry needs prayer...

The quarterly Embertides are important times of prayer for the whole ministry of the Church, in all its orders (laity, bishops, deacons, and priests). In our day, more attention needs to be given to the importance of a holy, healthy, well-functioning, and humble (in the sense of “grounded in reality”) community of ministry in all parishes and other Church-based organizations. This litany, adapted from the ordination litany in the BCP, is meant to emphasize this vocation for all—lay and ordained—who bear the Royal Image of the Christ into the world.

An Embertide Litany
(Adapted from the Litany for Ordinations in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer)

On Ember Days or other occasions this Litany may be used for the Prayers of the People at the Eucharist or at the Daily Office (following the collects). It may also be used separately.

God the Father,
Have mercy on us.

God the Son,
Have mercy on us.

God the Holy Spirit,
Have mercy on us.

Holy Trinity, one God,
Have mercy on us.

We pray to you, Lord Christ.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For the holy Church of God, that it may be filled with truth and love, and be found without fault at the Day of your Coming,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For all members of your Church in their vocation and ministry, that they may serve you in a true and godly life,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For all bishops, priests, deacons, and the laity, that we may be filled with your love, may hunger for truth, and may thirst after righteousness,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For the ministries of this diocese and parish,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

That, mindful of our covenant with you in Holy Baptism, we may faithfully fulfill the duties of our ministries, build up your Church, and glorify your Name,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

That by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we may be sustained and encouraged to persevere to the end,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For our families and all the members of this community, that they may be adorned with all Christian virtues,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For all who fear God and believe in you, Lord Christ, that our divisions may cease and that all may be one as you and the Father are one,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For the mission of the Church, that in faithful witness it may preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For those who do not yet believe, and for those who have lost their faith, that they may receive the light of the Gospel,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For the peace of the world, that a spirit of respect and forbearance may grow among nations and peoples,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For those in positions of public trust [especially___________], that they may serve justice and promote the dignity and freedom of every person,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For a blessing upon all human labor, and for the right use of the riches of creation, that the world may be freed from poverty, famine, and disaster,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For the poor, the persecuted, the sick, and all who suffer; for refugees, prisoners, and all who are in danger; that they may be relieved and protected,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For ourselves; for the forgiveness of our sins, and for the grace of the Holy Spirit to amend our lives,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For all who have died in the communion of your Church, and those whose faith is known to you alone, that, with all the saints, they may have rest in that place where there is no pain or grief, but life eternal,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

Rejoicing in the fellowship of the everblessed Virgin Mary, (blessed N.) and all the saints, let us commend ourselves, and one another, and all our life to Christ our God.
To you, O Lord our God.

The collect
Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers which we offer before you for all members of your holy Church, that in their vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Prayers for Good Ministry

What follows is an adaptation of a classic prayer for clergy (and, by extension, for other leaders in the Church's ministry) for use at the quarterly Embertides--times of reflection on the state of our ministries. The original, which I have posted elsewhere on this site, may be a bit too 'Victorian' for some. Thus, I have taken the liberty to edit it into more contemporary language while trying to preserve its effectiveness as a tool for self-examination. 

A Modern Adaptation of Bishop Ridding’s “Litany of Remembrance”

Commonly called “The Southwell Litany”


Seeing, my sisters and brothers, that we are weak but entrusted with a great office, and that we cannot but be liable to hinder the work entrusted to us by our infirmities of body, soul, and spirit, both those common to all people and those especially attaching to our office, let us pray God to save us and help us from the weaknesses which beset us, that God will make us know what faults we have not known, and will show us the harm of what we have not cared to control, giving us strength and wisdom to do more perfectly the work to which our lives have been consecrated – for no less service than the honor of God and the building up of God’s Church.

Let us pray:

 Lord, open our minds to see ourselves as you see us, or as others see us and we see others; and from all unwillingness to know our weaknesses;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   O Lord, strengthen our weaknesses, especially those which hinder our ministry beyond our control; forgive our reserve that dulls proclamation of your word, and give us ease for clarity of address; turn us from self-consciousness, that we may think with freedom of what is in our heart, and of the people we serve; and from all hindrances caused by our own physical weakness;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From moral weakness of spirit, from fear of responsibility, strengthen us with courage to speak the truth as our ministry requires, and to speak in love and self control; and from all moral cowardice;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From weakness of judgment, from the indecision that can make no choice, and the irresolution that carries no choice into action, strengthen our eyes to see and our will to choose the right; and from losing opportunities and perplexing the people we serve needlessly with our own uncertainties;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From dullness of conscience, from a feeble sense of our duty, from thoughtless disregard of consequences to others and a low idea of the obligations of our ministry, and from all half-heartedness in our office;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From weariness in our continuing struggles, from despondency in failure and disappointment, from an over-burdened sense of unworthiness, and from a fixation on our failings, raise us to a lively hope and trust in your presence and mercy; and from all exaggerated fears and frustrations;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From self-conceit, boasting, and delight in supposed success and superiority, raise us to the modesty and humility of honesty, and from all self-delusion;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From affectation and untruth, conscious or unconscious, from pretence and acting a part which is hypocrisy, from impulsively seeking to please persons or make circumstances easy, strengthen us to godly simplicity; and from all false appearances;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From love of flattery, from over-ready belief in praise, from dislike of criticism and resentment of reproof; from the comfort of self-deception in persuading ourselves that others think better than the truth of us;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From all love of display and seeking popularity; from thought of ourselves in our ministrations, from forgetting you in our worship and your people in our teaching; hold our minds in spiritual reverence, that if we sing we may sing unto the Lord, and if we preach we may preach as of a gift that God gives not for our glory but for the building up of the faithful; and in all words and works from all self-glorification;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From pride and self will, from desire to have own way in all things, from a focus on our own ideas and blindness to the value of others; enlarge the generosity of our hearts and enlighten the fairness of our judgment; and from all selfish and arbitrary temper;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From all jealousy, whether of the people we serve, our colleagues, or those in authority over us, from grudging others success, from impatience in godly obedience and eagerness for authority; give us the spirit of mutuality to share loyally with fellow workers; and from all misuse of our orders;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From all hasty utterances of impatience, from the retort of irritation and the taunt of sarcasm; from all infirmity of temper in provoking or being provoked, and from love of unkind gossip;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   In all temptations to abandon principle for expediency, to embrace dishonesty or corruption, or to degrade our high calling and forget our holy vows; and in all times of frailty in our flesh;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   In times of ignorance and perplexity as to what is right and best to do in our ministry, O Lord, direct us with wisdom to judge aright, and to seek and trust your will in our lives; and in our mistakes and misunderstandings;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   In times of doubts and questionings, when our belief is perplexed by new learning, new teaching, new thought, when our faith is strained by creeds, by doctrines, by mysteries beyond our understanding, give us the faithfulness of learners and the courage of believers in you; give us boldness to examine and faith to trust all truth; and in times of change, to grasp new knowledge thoroughly and to combine it loyally and honestly with the old; alike from stubborn rejection of new revelations, and from a hasty assurance that we are wiser than our forbearers;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From strife and partisanship and division among us, from magnifying our certainties to condemn all differences of opinion, from all arrogance in our dealings with all people as ministers of Christ;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   Give us knowledge of ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses; teach us by the standard of your Word, by the judgments of others, by examinations of ourselves; give us earnest desire to strengthen ourselves continually by study, prayer and meditation; and from all prejudices which narrow our vision of your work and will;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   Give us true knowledge of the people we serve, in their differences from us and their likeness to us, that we may deal with their real selves, measuring their feelings by our own, and patiently considering their varied lives and circumstances; and in all our ministry to them, from false judgments of our own, from misplaced trust and distrust, misplaced praise and rebuke;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   Chiefly, O Lord, we pray you, give us knowledge of you, to see you in all your works, always to feel your presence near, to hear and know your call.  May your Spirit by our spirit, our words your words, your will our will, that in our ministry we may be true prophets of yours; be in our midst as the point of contact between ourselves and your people; and throughout our lives may we have faith in you;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   Finally, O Lord, we humbly beseech you, blot out our past negligence and offenses, heal the damage done by our past ignorance, make us amend for our past mistakes; uplift our hearts to new love, new energy and devotion, that we may be unburdened from the grief and shame of past faithlessness to go forth in your strength to persevere through success and failure, through good report and evil report, even to the end; and in all time of our tribulation, and in all time of our wealth;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

O, Christ, hear us.
O, Christ, hear us.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Our Father, &c.

he grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Vivat, BCP!

Today is the annual celebration of the First Book of Common Prayer, which was made (by act of Parliament) the liturgy of the English realm on Pentecost, 1549. Much of that era’s history is fraught with painful actions, and no group emerges unsullied from it, but the content of that first Prayer Book—and its subsequent history as a liturgy and a way of church life—continues to amaze and nourish this Anglican.

I join the Church as a whole in giving thanks (though mindful of its flaws and limitations) for this compendium of worship and instruction in the Faith “once delivered to the saints.” As one who uses it daily, and who has experienced various forms of the BCP (as well as having experienced various forms of Christianity taking very different approaches to worship and doctrine), I believe it to be a tremendously wise, grounded, and flexible means of continuing to deliver the “faith that saves.”

In recent years we have seen the Episcopal Church move further and further away from the notion of “one liturgy for one realm” by allowing more variety of liturgical texts in our common worship. Some of this seems very laudable, as the old BCPs were often “unofficially” augmented on the local level in past years due to a paucity of enrichments for the seasons and a lack of various “occasional offices” that are needed to live a fully sacramentalized liturgical life. However, it has become almost universal today in many of our parishes to witness large-scale innovation in Sunday worship, often using materials put together by local clergy and “liturgy committees,” but without either the consent of the local bishop, or any vetting by the wider Church. The results are often idiosyncratic, to say the least.

The dialogue between the local and the universal is an old one in the Church. One could say that in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is keenly aware of the significance of the local origins of the Gospel, but St. Paul was aware of the universality of its message. The conflict between them at some stages represented our first foray into grappling with what it means to live out the tension between the specificity and the global-ness of Incarnation. They both have profound merit. They both have limitations when applied in isolation of the other. We have been living in that tension ever since.

Much the same thing can be said, I believe, for the current era’s uncertainty about how to address the question of a shared liturgy. For centuries the first Act of Uniformity and all that it meant—and was based on—has had a massive impact on global Anglicanism. However, in recent years the issues of diversity, pluralism, and the experience of the marginalized have called into question the notion of a monolithic liturgy—especially when we look at the variety of liturgical forms in the Early Christian period. This has led us to authorize many new services, options, and rites. It has also led to the tacit (or even explicit) license in many dioceses for parishes to “write their own ticket” in terms of public worship.

But, the tension will not be done away with so easily. Many ancient liturgical innovations failed; many new forms of worship tell us more about ourselves than they do about God. Often, the more “relevant” we seek to be, the more dated and shallow we become. The notion of a shared identity starts to look much more valuable when amnesia becomes more common amongst us than does anamnesis.

My sense is that we will eventually find out that, while we don’t need royal warrants or the use of violence to impose the BCP on congregations (things which did accompany the BCP’s birth in 1549), we all need a fairly well-defined (though not anxiously so) “still center” around which to move. That center is in its richest sense, of course, Our Lord—known in the Holy Scriptures, the historic faith, and reason enlightened by divine grace. But in a practical sense, that “still center” in our common life is, and needs to remain, the agreed-upon access to the Holy Mysteries and catholic Faith found in the Book of Common Prayer.

Long live the BCP!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Litany of the Holy Spirit

 A Litany of the Holy Spirit for Pentecost Sunday
Suitable for use on Thursdays at the Daily Office
O Holy Spirit, that your holy Church universal may be led into all truth, and filled with your love, we call to you:
            Hear us, O Holy Spirit.

That by your indwelling we may share in the mystical communion of Christ, keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; we call to you:
            Hear us, O Holy Spirit.

That our Bishop (N.), as well as all other bishops, priests, and deacons, may walk faithfully in the Spirit; we call to you:
            Hear us, O Holy Spirit.

That we may honor our baptismal covenant by renouncing evil, worldliness, and all sinful desires that draw us away from you; we call to you:
            Hear us, O Holy Spirit.

That all your Church, especially the newly-baptized and newly-confirmed, may grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; we call to you:
            Hear us, O Holy Spirit.

That all our vocations may show forth your light in the world [especially _______], and that we may be holy examples to those who do not know you; we call to you:
            Hear us, O Holy Spirit.

That this nation and its authorities may seek you, and that we may show you forth in all the world; we call to you:
            Hear us, O Holy Spirit.

That by your leading we may take our part in the Church’s mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ; we call to you:
            Hear us, O Holy Spirit.

That through your power all those in need will be raised to your presence, especially those we name before you now (add your own petitions at this time); we call to you:
            Hear us, O Holy Spirit.

That all the faithful  departed may receive the gift of eternal life in heaven with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Blessed N., and all the saints, we call to you:
            Hear us, O Holy Spirit.

That we may have grace to persevere faithfully in our confession of the apostolic faith to the end; we call to you:
            Hear us, O Holy Spirit.

Almighty and most merciful God, grant that by the indwelling of your Holy Spirit we may be enlightened and strengthened for your service; 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.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why Pentecost?

            As we prepare for the great Feast of Pentecost, it is important to understand why this conclusion to Eastertide is so significant.
            Western Christianity has often had difficulty articulating the meaning and role of the third Person of the Holy Trinity. This had led to distortions in our faith, particularly those groups that treat the Holy Spirit as either somehow an “independent operator,” essentially outside (or even seemingly opposed to) the Church, or those who call in the Holy Spirit to support any position or trend in church or society they support.
            St. Cyril of Alexandria, writing in the fifth century, grounds his understanding firmly in the Scriptures, and finds there the Spirit’s provision of the means of communion with Christ, and through Christ, the Father. When Christ ascends to the Father, and humanity is brought to the Divine Life, the gift of the Spirit may be given. This leads to our becoming "sharers in the divine nature through the Word." Here is sound, biblical, teaching that is also dynamic, exciting, and mystical.
            The gift of the Holy Spirit provides for an entirely new kind of life. In place of the pagan (and secular) search for autonomy, we are given the life of communion. In place of our own personal limitations, we are given a share in the unending stream of grace—grace which transforms us more into our true selves. This would never be possible without the Spirit received in holy baptism.
            Finally, Pentecost points us to the Church’s mission: to glorify God the Holy Trinity by restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. This mission cannot be served by selfish, death-centered individuals, or a self-serving “institution.” It can only be lived out by those who have traded one form of existence (based in fear and death) for another (based in love and eternal life).

From a commentary on the Gospel of John by St. Cyril of Alexandria, bishop

            After Christ had completed his mission on earth, it still remained necessary for us to become sharers in the divine nature of the Word. We had to give up our own life and be so transformed that we would begin to live an entirely new kind of life that would be pleasing to God. This was something we could do only by sharing in the Holy Spirit.
            It was most fitting that the sending of the Spirit and his descent upon us should take place after the departure of Christ our Saviour. As long as Christ was with them in the flesh, it must have seemed to believers that they possessed every blessing in him; but when the time came for him to ascend to his heavenly Father, it was necessary for him to be united through his Spirit to those who worshipped him, and to dwell in our hearts through faith. Only by his own presence within us in this way could he give us confidence to cry out, Abba, Father, make it easy for us to grow in holiness and, through our possession of the all-powerful Spirit, fortify us invincibly against the wiles of the devil and the assaults of men.
            It can easily be shown from examples both in the Old Testament and the New that the Spirit changes those in whom he comes to dwell; he so transforms them that they begin to live a completely new kind of life. Saul was told by the prophet Samuel: The Spirit of the Lord will take possession of you, and you shall be changed into another man. Saint Paul writes: As we behold the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces, that glory, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit, transforms us all into his own likeness, from one degree of glory to another.
            Does this not show that the Spirit changes those in whom he comes to dwell and alters the whole pattern of their lives? With the Spirit within them it is quite natural for people who had been absorbed by the things of this world to become entirely other-worldly in outlook, and for cowards to become men of great courage. There can be no doubt that this is what happened to the disciples. The strength they received from the Spirit enabled them to hold firmly to the love of Christ, facing the violence of their persecutors unafraid. Very true, then, was our Saviour’s saying that it was to their advantage for him to return to heaven: his return was the time appointed for the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Fast Faith Nation

In recent years quite a bit of attention has been paid to the quality and content of the food we eat, especially with regard to what is commonly called “fast food.” For such “food” to be fast, it has to be, in essence, pre-digested. Ingredients and the food’s form itself must be made so that they can be cooked quickly and appeal to the simplest drives we have. Good nutrition, balance, and savoring the experience of cooking and eating are sacrificed for convenience and immediacy.

The result of all this has been the degradation of food, our health, and the meaning of meal itself (as opposed to simply feeding). Few families eat home-cooked food together with truly wholesome ingredients on a regular basis, as meals are relegated to “food units” in busy lives… much more like stopping by the gas station to “tank up” than a time for conversation, enjoyment, and memory-making.

Much the same thing has happened to Christianity in our nation in recent decades. Just as we have become a “fast food nation,” so we have become a “fast faith nation,” with processed-faith pundits dishing out rigid ideologies, pat answers, and party-lines at the Great American Spiritual Drive-Thru™. All of this seems appropriate, even necessary, because of our unquestioned belief in a world centered on conforming everything—food, family, faith, everything—to the unrelenting beat of consumeristic capitalism.

The problem, of course, is that such spiritual fare cannot nourish the soul. The soul stands outside of consumerism’s grasp, because it cannot be measured or commodified. The soul cannot live on “fast faith.” Eventually, as life proceeds and the going gets tougher, “fast faith” is revealed for what it is: starvation rations. Here are some warning signs that you may be on a “fast faith” diet:

Pre-digested: “Fast faith” comes to us in simple, easily-consumed forms, bearing the trade-mark of someone other than Christ himself. Authentic Christian faith comes to us from the Gospel as something to chew on, not something for sipping only. We cannot exist by living on someone else’s faith, opinions, or experience, no matter how holy or familiar that person may be. That would define the Christian mostly as a consumer. The essentials of the catholic and apostolic Christianity we live are handed on to every generation so that we might each, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, encounter the mystery of faith and thereby join Jacob in receiving a new name—in our case, the name of Disciple.

Artificial: Fast food frequently has a great many artificial ingredients. These usually appeal to the most basic food drives we have: salty, sweet, fatty, etc. Gradually, we lose the taste for what is real and healthy, preferring the fake and the damaging. Over the long haul, this isn’t good for us. When we eat foods containing compounds unknown to nature, our bodies tend to react to them as allergens, and this takes a serious toll on our metabolism. Our faith, too, needs to be natural if it is to be healthy. “Fast faith” often employs lots of buzz-words, short-cuts, and techniques having no root in the Holy Scriptures and apostolic Christianity. These artificial ingredients often appeal to our laziest or most shortsighted selves. Yet, over a matter of years, our spiritual metabolism is thrown off, and when we confront the truth about life, we find our faith to be brittle and anemic.

Convenient: Real faith cannot be packaged up and handed to a parishioner at a drive-thru. True faith is a gift that must be entered into over time, through relationships, and experienced personally. It does not exist simply to be consumed or used and then disposed of. It exists as an eternal truth, something to be explored, deepened, wondered at, and embraced in a never-ending process of growth in knowledge and love. Authentic faith cannot be made to be convenient, for our God is a God of Truth, not of convenience.

Hyper-Individual: “Fast faith,” like fast food, tends to emphasize the individual at the expense of the group. Instead of a home-cooked meal involving the contributions of many and eaten in community, such food is reduced to a privatized “just-the-way-I-like it” experience. Portion control is lost, and food becomes more like a drug than nourishment or a holy experience. The “fast faith” consumer is obsessed with getting what he or she wants NOW, and the community or family becomes largely irrelevant. The learning, sharing, and growing that happen in community is not nourished through individualistic “fast faith.” There can never be peace between such a selfish and degraded sense of faith and the sacred meal of the Holy Eucharist.

At the head of the Season after Pentecost comes Trinity Sunday. This day is a unique celebration of the mystery of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. That mystery cannot be conformed to the diseased thinking of “fast faith.” Instead, on that Sunday we offer the Solemn Te Deum in an action of pure praise and adoration. On Trinity Sunday we come together as a part of Christ’s Body to re-affirm the orthodox, apostolic, and life-giving faith that is at the heart of all authentic Christianity. In a deeply counter-cultural way, we will implicitly reject “fast faith,” and affirm Whole Faith. In that moment, as at every Eucharist, we will join in with the whole chorus of Christians past, present, and future at the holy (and healthy!) Banqueting Table of the Kingdom of God—in which the Liturgy always participates, and of which it is a glorious foretaste.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

St. Augustine on the Ascension

From a sermon by Saint Augustine

“No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven.”

            Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.
            Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear. He showed this when he cried out from above: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? and when he said: I was hungry and you gave me food.
            Why do we on earth not strive to find rest with him in heaven even now, through the faith, hope and love that unites us to him? While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.
            He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.
            These words are explained by our oneness with Christ, for he is our head and we are his body. No one ascended into heaven except Christ because we also are Christ: he is the Son of Man by his union with us, and we by our union with him are the sons of God. So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.
            Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace. Thus, no one but Christ descended and no one but Christ ascended; not because there is no distinction between the head and the body, but because the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head.

St. Augustine teaches us that as disciples of Christ and members of His Body the Church, we may share in his communion with the Father through a union of wills. By the power of the Holy Spirit given to the Church by Christ, and transmitted to each believer in Holy Baptism, we are in Christ, and He in us. Just as Christ never left heaven in order to be Incarnate (for heaven is not so much a “place” as a condition of being in complete conformity to the will of God), so by living “in Christ” and doing His will, we will forever be in His peace, able to know and share his love.

The Ascension

This sermon gives us a window into the thought of one of Western Christianity’s greatest minds. The meaning of the Ascension is considered, and then its implications explored—first by showing how the risen and ascended Lord is now everywhere available to us in a sacramental way (showing that sacramentality is a far greater thing than a mere “rite” of the Church), and then by illustrating how Christ’s ascension draws all Christian life up to heaven with him. This means that all of our life must be congruent with our divine purpose… thus, the sermon becomes quite frank about our need for personal holiness and the conflict with the world this brings (this section, tellingly, is often cut from modern versions of the sermon). Finally, the sermon ends with an exhortation to virtue and a giving of glory to God. It is, in miniature, a perfect example of the Patristic approach to preaching, something which stands behind all Classical Anglican preaching and use of scriptures, as well. May yours be a holy Ascension Day!

A Homily for the Feast of the Ascension
by Saint Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome (c. 400-461)

The mystery of our salvation, which the Creator of the universe valued at the price of His blood, was carried out in humility from the day of His bodily birth until the end of His Passion. And although, even while he was in the form of a slave, many signs of his Divinity shone forth, yet the events of that whole time served particularly to show the reality of His assumed humanity.

But after the Passion, when the chains of death were broken, weakness was turned into power, mortality into eternity, insult into glory.  This the Lord Jesus Christ showed by many clear proofs in the sight of many, until He carried even into heaven the triumphant victory which He had won over death.

At Easter the Lord's Resurrection was the cause of our rejoicing; today the reason for our gladness is His Ascension.  Today we commemorate that day on which our human nature, in all its humility, was in Christ raised above all the host of heaven, over all the ranks of angels, beyond the height of all powers, to sit with God the Father.

Because of the event we commemorate today, God's grace appears even more wonderful. At the Ascension, that which rightfully commanded human awe was removed from human sight.  And yet faith did not fail, hope did not waver, charity did not grow cold. For it is the strength and the light of faithful souls unhesitatingly to believe what is not seen with the bodily sight, and to fix their affections where they cannot direct their gaze.

Whence should godliness spring up in our hearts, or how should we be justified by faith, if our salvation rested on only those things which lie beneath our eyes? Our Lord said to the Apostle Thomas, who seemed to doubt Christ's resurrection until he had tested by sight and touch the traces of His Passion in His very Flesh: “Because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are, they who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Therefore, in order that we may be capable of this blessedness, when all things were fulfilled which concerned the preaching of the Gospel and the mysteries of the New Testament, our Lord Jesus Christ, on the fortieth day after the Resurrection, in the presence of the disciples, was raised into heaven.  He put an end to his presence with us in the body, to abide on the Father's right hand until the time fore-ordained by God has been accomplished, when he shall come again, in the same flesh with which he ascended, to judge both the quick and the dead.

At his Ascension, everything about our Redeemer that had until then been visible was changed into a sacramental presence.  In order that faith might be stronger and more excellent, sight gave way to doctrine, the authority of which was to be accepted by believing hearts enlightened with rays from above.

This Faith, increased by the Lord's Ascension and established by the gift of the Holy Spirit, was not terrified by bonds, imprisonments, or banishments; by hunger, fire, or the attacks of wild beasts; or by the most refined torments of cruel persecutors.  For this Faith, throughout the world, not only men, but also women, not only young boys, but also girls, have contended even to the shedding of their blood. This Faith has cast out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead.

Through this Faith, the Apostles themselves, who, despite being strengthened by so many miracles and instructed by so many discourses, had yet been panic-stricken by the horrors of the Lord's Passion and had not accepted the truth of His resurrection without hesitation, made such progress after the Lord's Ascension that everything which had previously filled them with fear was turned into joy.

After the Ascension, they lifted all of their thoughts to the divinity of Him who sat at the Father's right hand.  No longer obstructed by the barrier of corporeal sight, they were able to direct their minds' gaze to the one who had never left the Father's side by his descending to earth, and who had not forsaken the disciples by his ascending into heaven.

The Son of Man and Son of God, therefore, then attained even greater glory when He returned to the Father's Majesty. In an indescribable manner he became nearer to the Father in respect of His divinity, after having become farther away in respect of His humanity.

A better instructed faith then began to draw closer to a conception of the Son's equality with the Father.  It was no longer necessary to confront the material body, in which Christ is less than the Father, because, while the nature of the glorified body still remained, the faith of believers was called upon to touch the only-begotten Son, who is equal with the Father, not with the hand of flesh, but with spiritual understanding.

That is why the Lord, after His Resurrection, said to Mary Magdalene, who, representing the Church, hastened to approach and touch Him: “Touch Me not, for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” That is, he did not want us to come to him as if to a human body, or to recognize him by the perception of his flesh. He directs us instead to higher things; he prepares greater things for us. He means: “When I have ascended to My Father, then you shall handle me more perfectly and more truly, for then you will grasp what thou cannot touch and believe what you cannot see.”

When the disciples' eyes followed the ascending Lord to heaven with an upward gaze of earnest wonder, two angels stood by them in raiment shining with wondrous brightness, and said, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing into heaven? This Jesus Who was taken up from you into heaven shall so come in like manner as ye saw Him going into heaven.” By these words the whole Church was taught to believe that Jesus Christ will come visibly in the same flesh wherewith He ascended, and not to doubt that all things are subjected to Him.

To him the angels had ministered from the first beginning of His Birth. An angel announced to the blessed Virgin that Christ should be conceived by the Holy Ghost; the voice of heavenly beings sang to the shepherds of His being born of the Virgin; and messengers from above were the first to attest His having risen from the dead.  The service of angels was employed to foretell His coming again in the flesh to judge the world, so that we might understand what great powers will come with Him as Judge, when such great ones ministered to Him even in being judged.

And so, let us rejoice with spiritual joy, and let us with gladness pay God worthy thanks and raise our hearts' eyes unimpeded to those heights where Christ is. Minds that have heard the call to be uplifted must not be pressed down by earthly affections.  Those who are predestined to things eternal must not be taken up with the things that perish. Those who have entered on the way of Truth must not be entangled in treacherous snares. The faithful must so take their course through these temporal things as to remember that they are only sojourners in the vale of this world. Even though we may meet with some attractions in this world, we must not sinfully embrace them, but bravely pass through them.

To this devotion the blessed Apostle Peter arouses us. He begs us with that loving eagerness which he conceived for feeding Christ's sheep by his threefold profession of love for the Lord, and he says, “Dearly beloved, I beseech you, as strangers and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.” But for whom do fleshly pleasures wage war, if not for the devil, whose delight it is to shackle our souls, which strive after things above, by the enticements of corruptible good things, and to draw us away from the heavenly home from which he himself has been banished?  Against his plots every believer must keep careful watch, that he may crush his foe on the side whence the attack is made.

And there is no more powerful weapon against the devil's wiles than kindly mercy and bounteous charity, by which every sin is either escaped or vanquished. But this lofty power is not attained until that which is opposed to it has been overthrown. And what is so hostile to mercy and works of charity as avarice, from the root of which spring all evils? Unless that is destroyed by lack of nourishment, the thorns and briars of vices  must necessarily grow in the soil of any heart in which this evil weed has taken root, rather than any seed of true goodness.

Let us then resist evil and "follow after charity," without which no virtue can flourish, so that by the same path of love whereby Christ came down to us, we too may mount up to Him.  To him, with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.