Saturday, March 31, 2012

Holy Week Journal 2012: 2. The Sunday of the Palms

The children of the Hebrews, bearing branches of olive, went out to meet the Lord, crying out and saying: Hosanna in the highest.
Anthem at the Blessing of Palms
Few occasions in the liturgical life of the Church mirror with greater honesty the situation they seek to describe than the Palm Procession on the Sunday of the Passion, commonly called “Palm Sunday.”

The usual pattern of Sunday morning comes crashingly to a halt. The geography of worship is transported from twenty-first century Oregon to first century Roman-occupied Palestine. In place of the nave, we gather in the echoing Parish Hall, forming an uneasy semi-circle of parishioners looking like fish out of water, removed from the familiar, orderly ranks of pews. Instead of the organ prelude, the quiet time of preparatory prayers, the ringing of the service-bell, and all standing in unison to begin the liturgy, there is the murmur of the crowd, the screech of babes in arms, and the occasional burst of energy as a young child bolts from its parent’s restraining embrace, making a break for the wide-open space that denotes the usually un-filled front pews in church. A brief chase ensues. People shift from foot to foot. All is a bit uncertain, not-according-to-schedule, somewhat “un-Anglican.”

Commencing with an exchange of glances between the priest and the music director, the Liturgy suddenly launches into action. The choir announces: Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest! It has begun. The first words are words of blessing and excitement that He—HE—is in our midst.

The story of Palm Sunday is then told once again, chanted slowly, with great dignity—telling us that this semi-organized situation is exactly the environment of Christ’s Triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was a curious mix of improvisation, divine plan, and mistaken identity. It was so human, so true to Jesus.

The palms—with a few branches of olive from the parish’s lone specimen held aloft by members of the choir—are blessed with the sign of the cross, holy water, and incense. Supple greenery, destined to grow brown and stiff, receives the royal treatment in sacramental terms. How much this echoes the day’s events, when a young rural preacher and healer is hailed—for a time—as the solution to Israel’s captivity before being rejected, tossed out of town, and killed with all the reviling scorn disappointed hearts can hurl.

The palms make their way around the assembly (some children immediately realizing their potential as weaponry), the parade forms up and lurches out of the Parish Hall. Some years we step out into sun; most Palm Sundays here are dappled or drenched in some form of rain. But all of them recall with haphazard and stunning honesty that we—like our spiritual predecessors, the “children of the Hebrews” the choir sings of before we parade out—are a changeable people, volatile and in need of a lover of souls who can overcome our chaotic, lost hearts. That is what we journey into as we make our way to the rest of the worship on this day and the whole week to come. We are stepping out into the place where we fall, and God catches us in the most unheard-of embrace ever known.

Liturgy’s gift so often comes to us in the raucous juxtaposition, the unintended moment when this collides with that, and suddenly God’s desire for our healing, our redemption fluoresces brightly before us. Palm Sunday, with its extraordinary pairing of sacred encounter and an admixture of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (complete with the sense that the whole thing might just go off the rails) is a day particularly ripe with this potential.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Friday, March 30, 2012

John Keble and the Character of Lived Anglicanism

Yesterday the Church commemorated John Keble—priest, poet, teacher, preacher, pastor, and unlikely prophet. It was through Keble’s ministry that the Oxford Movement began. More than most involved in this movement, Keble kept grounded and focused, refusing to fall in with any of the various “-isms” arising from the conflicts in the Church of England of his day. When others felt the call to leave for the Roman Catholic communion, he remained faithful to Anglicanism through good times and bad over a long life, demonstrating the gift of stability in a time of tumult.

Though an Oxford academic and leader of an important spiritual movement, Keble had the good sense to know his limits. He was not a master Church politician or innovator. Neither was he a born activist. He was instead a man of faith so deeply grounded in the Gospel that he could see where the culture (and the Church) was heading. His witness of faithfulness, integrity, and deep continuity with the Scriptures and the Fathers was a reproach to the indolent and self-indulgent Regency era in which he had grown up. Holiness of life is always a critique of worldly corruption.

Keble knew that the Church of England, though reformed, was a catholic Faith. He knew that it had been through a period of laxness and decadence. He could also see that the forces of government and economy in his day were aligning themselves to reduce the Church to an utterly “harmless” entity. Those forces wanted the Church to be entirely the lap-dog of the State, devoid of its connection to an ancient, pre-industrial vision for humanity. Keble knew that to accept this would lead to a nation without meaningful foundations for conscience or ideals. His sermon “National Apostasy,” which challenged this decent into secularism, is the usually-accepted beginning of the Oxford Movement.

For me, one of Keble’s best characteristics was integrity. When some began to take the recovery of the catholic dimension of the Church to mean an obsession with ritual and microscopic exactitude in observance, he was clear that “high” Anglicanism was no “knock-off” or wanna-be Roman Catholicism. His was not a “theoretical” catholic Anglicanism: it was the real, lived, vital thing. He did not need to embrace various fads or trends in order to look catholic: his whole life in the Church was the practice of the catholic Faith as an Anglican.

Keble also knew something that many of us today have forgotten: that the soul of the Anglican tradition is pastoral in nature. This means that the parish (or whatever one is going to call the local sacramental faith community gathered in prayer and study for mission) must be a place where human life is deeply interrelated with the Divine Life through all its stages and in all its activities. For Keble, the “cure of souls” was not a burden but a gift, and the parish clergy were to engage in the care and formation of parishioners with eagerness and skill.

During his lifetime, and for many decades after, Keble was best known for his collection of poems entitled “The Christian Year.” This little book, along with his sermons and pastoral work for many long years at Hursley Parish, expresses beautifully Keble’s ideas. In it one finds poem after poem integrating the Scripture lessons and the collects with the feasts and fasts of the Church Year. With this volume (now admittedly dated in many places—but still quite valuable), many average Anglicans began to understand the value and meaning of the Liturgical Year anew. We could use a modern analog in the Episcopal Church today.

In his famous sermon about the spirit of apostasy and our response to it, Keble the professor and poet showed that practical character which was to make him a witness to the enduring qualities of Anglicanism: prayer, faithfulness, constancy:

After all, the surest way to uphold or restore our endangered Church, will be for each of her anxious children, in his own place and station, to resign himself more thoroughly to his God and Saviour in those duties, public and private, which are not immediately affected by the emergencies of the moment: the daily and hourly duties, I mean, of piety, purity, charity, justice. It will be a consolation understood by every thoughtful Churchman, that let his occupation be, apparently, never so remote from such great interests, it is in his power, by doing all as a Christian, to credit and advance the cause he has most at heart; and what is more, to draw down God's blessing upon it.

And elsewhere, he reminds us of the need to remain balanced and whole-minded in the midst of our struggles, not becoming small-minded or resorting to the bald use of power:

As to those who, either by station or temper, feel themselves most deeply interested, they cannot be too careful in reminding themselves, that one chief danger, in times of change and excitement, arises from their tendency to engross the whole mind. Public concerns, ecclesiastical or civil, will prove indeed ruinous to those, who permit them to occupy all their care and thoughts, neglecting or undervaluing ordinary duties, more especially those of a devotional kind.

It is this way of being a catholic Christian—doing all with "piety, purity, charity, and justice"—that continues to draw many to Anglicanism (where it is practiced). We know we fill fail, and we know we may repent and return to Christ when we do. His was a vision that can inspire and not wear out, encourage but not cajole.

But in our day, when the Church’s focus is so often distracted by an anti-intellectual trendiness, fears of becoming “irrelevant,” ideological fixations, and witch-hunts for those not sufficiently “toeing the line,” it is refreshing to be reminded of Keble’s witness for stability, depth of piety, personal integrity, and commitment to the highest and best in the Faith: and Anglicanism still (in some sense) waiting to be born.

Collect for the Commemoration of John Keble, Priest
Grant, O God, that in all time of our testing we may know thy presence and obey thy will; that, following the example of thy servant John Keble, we may accomplish with integrity and courage that which thou givest us to do, and endure that which thou givest us to bear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Holy Week Journal 2012: 1. Why We Do This

Anyone new to the liturgical tradition in Christianity needs to know why the Church engages in such a rich, elaborate, and exhausting offering of worship as Holy Week. This is the single most intricate—demanding, even—time in the Calendar. All of the Church's members are bidden to participate. Schedules are to be re-structured, priorities clarified, loyalties re-affirmed.

But before we plunge into it all, why are we doing this?

The Eastern Christian liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann, in his important book “Introduction to Liturgical Theology,” makes a key point about Christian worship. He noted that under all the successive layers added to the basic structure of Christian liturgy, there is an essential foundation: the re-presentation of, and participation in, the mystery of our salvation in Christ, and a foretaste of the banquet at the end of the ages pictured in Revelation.

Though written for an Eastern Orthodox audience, his point remains true for Anglican Christians. All of our worship, from the simplest mid-week Eucharist through the Great Vigil of Easter, must have about it the urgency of the earliest Christians to be nourished in the saving message that Christ is Lord, that “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” Worship without such authenticity, such focus is increasingly becoming truly irrelevant in our secularizing era.

While this defining characteristic about worship is a fact throughout the year, the liturgies of Holy Week allow us to enter into the Mystery of Faith in a highly physical, experiential way at once deeply personal and communal.  This week is the earliest “layer” of the Liturgical Year, and it contains much of the most poignant and powerful presentation of the “DNA” of Christian belief and practice. It is the fountain from which proceeds everything else in our worship.

It is easy to become fixated on the details, the “exoticism” and “pageantry” of the Holy Week liturgies, much as it is easy to focus exclusively on the brushstrokes of a great painting or the spelling in a play by Shakespeare. Such things do have their meaning. But to approach Holy Week in this manner is to do it (and ourselves) an injustice and limit severely the potential of these rites. Their purpose is to allow us direct access to the realities they speak of. Instead of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection as events exterior to us or locked in a historical past, these truths are shown to be the ever-present “now” for the Christian. When we learn to live in the “now” of God, then we can see the true potential, the true significance of our lives, the lives of others, and of the world around us. We can begin to see with the eyes of Christ.

All of this points to the significance for the Church’s mission found in Holy Week. As Christianity recedes from its cultural position of power and entitlement in our society, Christians (individually and as communities) must learn to embrace the essential Gospel message—the Kerygma—rather than the often culturally-conditioned messages we have put in place of the Gospel. American Christianity is in the midst of a deep humbling, a prolonged sorting out of what is truly about the Gospel, and what is really about consumerism, individualism, or the many other false ideologies and pseudo-gospels internalized over the years.

Only the Gospel’s message, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life,” is truly needed. This message needs regular clarifying, regular cleansing of distortion in our individual and corporate life. What we share as the Faith must be God’s message of Good News, lived by a people for whom it is the word of Life, not a book forgotten on a shelf, a slogan unthinkingly shouted, or a flatbed truck upon which to stack other, more “interesting” freight.

The great liturgies of Holy Week proclaim and make present that saving Message. As rain soaks into dry ground, or heat warms a cold iron, our fragile and weak nature is renewed in the Truth from above. Far from being “empty rituals,” these are days run like a river at flood stage with God’s transformative power in scripture, sacrament, and moments of grace. By the Holy Spirit’s presence, our participation in all these ancient and tangible encounters challenge us to live the words we pray and shine with the light we ourselves have known and received.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Speaking to Angels: The Significance of the Feast of the Annunciation

D.G. Rossetti's 19th century masterpiece
"Ecce Ancilla Domini" -- an interpretation
of the Annunciation

The twenty-fifth of March is the Feast of the Annunciation (some years, when it falls on a Sunday it is observed on Monday). This is a “Feast of Our Lord,” and is (along with Sundays) the only day in Lent when the season’s discipline may be relaxed. All of this means that it is an important day in the Calendar, and this (in turn) means that it has something very significant to say about the Christian Faith.

For those outside liturgical Christianity, or for those new to it, such details can seem at best curious, and at worst legalistic or taking the focus off the Gospel. There are certainly ways to use the liturgical practices of the Church—or anything else in the Christian faith, for that matter—to obscure rather than illuminate. But to suggest that because liturgical or sacramental forms can be misused they should be avoided makes no sense. The same logic would require us to give up on love, as it has been so twisted and abused through the ages.

The rankings of feasts in the liturgical calendar are a kind of shorthand for significance. The most important (called “Principal”) feasts in the Church Year point to the most important elements of the Gospel message—such as Holy Week and Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, &c. Feasts ranking a bit below these—such as the Annunciation—generally focus on some event in the New Testament which is in the service of the Principal feasts.

When the Archangel Gabriel (meaning “God is my strength” in Hebrew) visited Mary, the physical reality of God coming to dwell with humanity in Christ was set in motion. Nine months will pass until we sing of Emmanuel--God with us! This is the first feast in the “Incarnation Cycle” of the year, continuing on with the Visitation in May, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist in June, and on through Christmas and ultimately the Presentation of Christ in the Temple in February. Today God enters into the human experience personally, directly, through the gift of chromosomes, flesh, feelings, and vulnerability from his mother. It is a day of awe and mystery, an opportunity to rejoice and reflect.

Beyond such formal theological significance, the Annunciation presents a remarkable moment: God’s messenger (that is what “angel” means in Hebrew) connects the unseen God with the young woman Mary. In announcing that she has been chosen by God to bring forth the Messiah, Gabriel ends up having a conversation with Mary. As the story of our re-union with God begins, a foretaste of our desired state already commences: open converse with angels. Mary’s deep humility and purity are revealed not only by her being made the vessel of the Incarnation, but by the nature of her dialog with Gabriel.

Mary’s life is the icon of the Church’s ministry in many ways. Here, she accepts a divine commission to live with a holiness and dedication that will allow God to shine forth into the world. Her questions of Gabriel are those of one seeking understanding—not mastery. Ultimately, Mary’s only desire is to be a servant of God. The entire Old Testament sought to bring forth such a response to God. The joy and wonder is that the figure who actually achieves this is a young woman of humble origins. But, given what will happen as the Gospel unfolds, this is not surprising at all, really.

As with all the feasts and fasts of the liturgical year, the Annunciation is part of a beautiful tapestry of meaning. It is both a feast of the Incarnation (“God with us” in human flesh-and-blood) and part of the whole work of salvation that culminates in the mystery of the Cross and the Empty Tomb we are about to experience in Holy Week. The collect for this feast (said as part of the Anglican translation of the Angelus in personal daily devotion) alludes to all of this by bringing these themes together in one poignant prayer:

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

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Praying for others: A Daily Intercession

O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, in your mercy and loving kindness you regard the humble prayers of all who call upon you with their whole heart; incline your ear and hear now my prayer, offered to you in humility:
Grant this, O Lord.

Be mindful, O Lord, of your One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church; confirm and strengthen it, increase it and keep it in peace, and preserve it unconquerable forever.
Grant this, O Lord.

Be mindful, O Lord, of our bishop, N., and of every bishop throughout the Church; the priests and deacons, whom you have set apart to feed the flock of your Word; keep them sound in faith, fervent in prayer, and faithful in witness.
Grant this, O Lord.

Be mindful, O Lord, of all civil authorities (especially_________), of our armed forces, of this city in which we reside, and of every city and the countryside; grant us tranquil times, that we may lead a calm and peaceful life in all godliness, compassion, and sanctity.
Grant this, O Lord.

Be mindful, O Lord, of my parents, (their names), of my brothers and sisters, (their names), of relatives, (their names), and of my friends, (their names); grant that they may have mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, a lively sense of your presence, pardon and remission of their sins; that they may ever praise and glorify your Holy Name.
Grant this, O Lord.

Be mindful, O Lord, of those who travel by land, by sea, and by air; of the old and young, the sick, the suffering, the sorrowing, the afflicted, the captives, those persecuted for your sake, the needy and the poor (especially___________); and upon them all send forth your mercies, 
for you are the giver of all good things.
Grant this, O Lord.

Be mindful, O Lord, of me, your servant born through holy baptism; grant me your grace, that I may be diligent and faithful, avoiding evil company and influence, resisting temptation; that I may lead a godly and righteous life, blameless and peaceful, ever serving you; that I may be accounted worthy of entering the Kingdom of Heaven.
Grant this, O Lord.

Be mindful, 0 Lord, of all those who have fallen asleep in the hope of resurrection unto life eternal (especially_____________); pardon all their transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, whether in word, or deed, or thought. Shelter them in peace, where all sickness, sorrow, and sighing have fled away before your presence. Grant them your heavenly Kingdom, and a portion in your eternal blessings, and the enjoyment of your unending Life. 

Grant this, O Lord.

Hear my prayer, 0 Lord, for you are merciful and compassionate, and you love mankind, and to you are due all glory, honor, and worship: to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and world without end. Amen.

Adapted from Eastern Christian sources

Justice Cannot be Killed

When Archbishop Romero was assassinated while celebrating the Eucharist in 1980, he instantly became known as a martyr, a witness, to the wider Church. This shocking act of violence—one of so many in El Salvador in those days—stands as a sign of the desperation of tyrannical, ideological governments in the face of the Gospel. Using guns, the Government’s henchmen sought to silence the most powerful critic of their wanton brutality. Though they achieved their goal in the short run, they found that their adversary was, in the larger sense, immune to bullets. In killing one man (and in the ensuing massacre at his funeral), they raised up an entirely new kind of resistance; their cowardly acts shined a bright light on the wrongs of the El Salvadorian economy, government, and all who supported them. As Romero himself said: “Justice cannot be killed.”

The daily office lesson from the Old Testament today, though not appointed in the commemoration of Archbishop Romero, is marvelously appropriate. It is the story of Moses and the Burning Bush. In Moses’ encounter with God, a most unlikely candidate is called to proclaim freedom to an oppressed people.

Romero, when appointed to head the Church in El Salvador, seemed a most unlikely choice to confront his country’s institutions of power. His gentleness and conformity to the “mind of the Church” appeared to bode ill for effective protest against the sins of the then-status quo. But it was precisely because of the depth of his commitment to the holiness of the Gospel and the Church as the people of God that he could no longer remain cautious about the wrongs before him. He spoke out, preaching God’s freedom to a repressed people. Once the government knew it could not control him, his earthly fate was sealed.

Some people speak of “the era of the martyrs,” as if it were a long while ago. In fact, it continues today. Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor sentenced to death in Iran, may soon be added to the list of the martyrs of the Faith (pray for him and all Christians in that land). Wherever the Church speaks the Gospel authentically to “the powers of this world,” martyrdom is likely. The modern era continues to see the most martyrs in Christian history. But, “justice cannot be killed,” and (as Tertullian put it so long ago) “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” It is this assurance, this clarity of mission that gives the holy martyrs of all ages their courage.

May we all grow in fidelity to the Gospel and courage to proclaim it in our own day.

Collect for Oscar Romero, Archbishop and Martyr
Almighty God, you called your servant Oscar Romero to be a voice for the voiceless poor, and to give his life as a seed of freedom and a sign of hope: Grant that, inspired by his sacrifice and the example of the martyrs of El Salvador, we may without fear or favor witness to your Word who abides, your Word who is Life, even Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be praise and glory now and for ever. Amen.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Prayers while experiencing illness

When making the Sign of the Cross with holy water before and after prayers

+By this holy water and your Precious Blood, wash away all my sins, O Lord.

Offering one’s suffering to God

Good Jesus, Physician of souls and bodies, make my sickness a healing medicine to my soul; soothe by your presence each ache and pain; hallow all suffering by your all-holy sufferings; and teach your servant and all sufferers to unite our sufferings with yours, to be hallowed by yours and used for your own redemptive purposes. Hear us, O Lord, and have mercy upon us. Amen.

For Trust in God

O God, the source of all health: So fill my heart with faith in your love, that with calm expectancy I may make room for your power to possess me, and gracefully accept your healing; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

In Pain

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to your will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Amen.

For Sleep

O heavenly Father, you give your children sleep for the refreshing of soul and body: Grant me this gift, I pray; keep me in that perfect peace which you have promised to those whose minds are fixed on you; and give me such a sense of your presence, that in the hours of silence I may enjoy the blessed assurance of your love; through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.

In the Morning

This is another day, O Lord.  I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be.  If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.  And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus.  Amen. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

St. Joseph's Day: The Sacredness of Work and Hope

Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
2 Samuel 7:16

Today we commemorate Our Lord’s foster father, St. Joseph. It is common in our time to think of Joseph primarily in terms of the Christmas story, and this is natural because of his significance to that story and because we hear so little about him in the Gospels afterwards. But there is so much more to Joseph than this.

His vocation as a skilled laborer is one matter: Christ Jesus grew up in a home where work was valued as well as practiced. In our day, when so much emphasis is put on leisure, it can be hard to hear of work itself being seen as honorable and sacred. By understanding our labors as holy offerings to God, work becomes much more clearly part of our spiritual life, easily connected to the Eucharist. If we find this difficult to do today, perhaps it is yet another sign that secularism’s dismissal of the holy in life is gradually eroding what it means to live in the fullest sense.

But, there is more to consider about St. Joseph. Scripture records that he is of the lineage of David. He carries with him the promise made by God so long before to David and his successors: “Your throne shall be established forever.” That promise had been through so much over the generations…triumph, failure, collapse, and finally outright abandonment—apparently, it seemed, by God and openly by humans. The throne of David had been destroyed and almost no one thought of its return.

Yet here is Joseph, a man whose significance could not have been understood by purely earthly standards but who would become the care-taker and mentor of David’s greatest successor: Jesus, the Priest-King and Son of God, the Messiah. The earthly lineage of David failed, but God did not. The Divine Promise was never forgotten by the One who made it. What good news this is.

This day is a good day to remember that God does not make idle promises, nor does our Creator trifle with human affection. He may call us to undergo real trials, and we may be the ones asked to witness to the message of salvation in risky ways: but we are never forgotten. We must believe this. The witness of St. Joseph is there to encourage us in this. Throughout the ages, God recalls promises made and brings life out of death, victory out of defeat, joy out of sorrow.

Whenever we are dispirited, whenever we think hope is gone, we need to recall St. Joseph. The flickering candle of David’s line was almost snuffed out and rendered irrelevant. While it was God who brought to fruition what human will could not, in Joseph we see what humility and faithfulness can do to cherish and nurture God’s unfolding work of love—magnifying God’s grace in the world and making us co-heirs of the Kingdom with St. Joseph and all the saints.

Collect for St. Joseph
O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.