Saturday, May 26, 2012

Saint Irenaeus on the Giving of the Holy Spirit

What follows is a reading especially suited for the Feast of Pentecost from the celebrated church father (recognized spiritual guide from the early period of Christianity) St. Irenaeus. This passage points out a number of important truths.

When the Holy Spirit anointed Jesus at his baptism, it marked the first stage of the Spirit’s coming to be with humanity in an interior, personal manner. It is a solemn reminder that the same Spirit that rested on Christ has been shared with us in baptism.

Irenaeus then reminds us that the gift of the Spirit re-unites humans divided by sin (indirectly recalling the Tower of Babel from Genesis). All true Christian teaching and practice will draw people together to God through living holy lives, not divide us from God and each other in selfishness and sinfulness.

Finally, this great Father of the faith alludes to Christ’s parable of the talents by reminding us that the “coin of the kingdom” we have been given in the Spirit is to be used and increased—not hidden away and ignored.

Our faith is never a knickknack or sentimental memorabilia: it is the active presence of God in us, drawing all things into perfect communion with the Holy Trinity—in whose image all humanity was made.
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hen the Lord told his disciples to go and teach all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, he conferred on them the power of giving men new life in God.

He had promised through the prophets that in these last days he would pour out his Spirit on his servants and handmaids, and that they would prophesy. So when the Son of God became the Son of Man, the Spirit also descended upon him, becoming accustomed in this way to dwelling with the human race, to living in men and to inhabiting God’s creation. The Spirit accomplished the Father’s will in men who had grown old in sin, and gave them new life in Christ.

Luke says that the Spirit came down on the disciples at Pentecost, after the Lord’s ascension, with power to open the gates of life to all nations and to make known to them the new covenant. So it was that men of every language joined in singing one song of praise to God, and scattered tribes, restored to unity by the Spirit, were offered to the Father as the first-fruits of all the nations.

This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of broad, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul.

The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, the devil too had been cast down like lightning.

If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for man, who had fallen into the hands of brigands, having himself bound up his wounds and left for his care two coins bearing the royal image, entrusted him to the Holy Spirit. Now, through the Spirit, the image and inscription of the Father and the Son have been given to us, and it is our duty to use the coin committed to our charge and make it yield a rich profit for the Lord.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons, bishop (died c. 202, commemorated June 28)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

“God has gone up with a shout” -- The Feast of the Ascension

Do you remember ever being left by someone you love? It is a painful experience, hard to get over. It would be easy to read the story of Jesus' Ascension to heaven and think this is how the disciples felt--but that would be wrong.

The Gospel according to Luke says that the disciples returned to Jerusalem not in sorrow but "with great joy" after the Ascension. Why? Perhaps it has something to do with the character of Jesus' presence and what it means to follow him as Lord.

Many earthly leaders work to make their followers deeply dependent. This ensures the leader will remain important through the years. Christ doesn't lead this way. He does not foster a dependence based on manipulation. Rather, Christ Jesus sets people free to become fully alive, fully human as agents of Divine Love.

The Ascension, far from being a tragedy for the Apostles, proved to be a fulfillment of Jesus' own prophesy and the very means by which they could live and bring the news of the Resurrection "to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem."

The excitement in the Ascension is linked directly to the knowledge that the Lord Jesus, no longer physically limited to any one place or time, could now truly be "Lord of All." For that reason, today is one of the Principal Feasts of the Church Year and the cause of such great rejoicing in our common life. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Not Mother's Day Sunday, Deo gratias

Is this the way to honor God or mothers?
Each year on Mother’s Day (and, to a much lesser extent, on Father’s Day), a wave of anxiety grips the Church. On the one hand, we are told that this is the third most well-attended day in the year, just behind Christmas and Easter. On the other, we hear from many that it is a painful annual trial, wherein sentimentality or biological capacity is unduly exalted in worship at the expense of spiritual substance and pastoral wisdom.

I tend to agree with the latter point of view.

Mother’s Day is a great celebration for many. Yet, it is also a massive can of worms. Seasoned clergy have often told me that they greet its approach with trepidation. Many parishes have longstanding customs for this day, and each new cleric is held to those customs with a rigid sense of vigilance. The priest may get away with heresy and administrative incompetence, but Mother’s Day will be observed with all the secular pomp possible. Sentiment, rather than the Gospel, often seems to hold the tiller in parochial life.

Other clergy will secretly admit that this day ends up being the cause of all sorts of pastoral follow-up. So many women (and men) had disastrous relations with their mothers, or lost their mothers. Other women wanted to be mothers but could not, or never wanted to be mothers and don’t like to even hear about motherhood. Some lost children; others have served effectively as mothers, but do not have the official title in law. There are myriad variations. Awkwardness, painful memories, hurt feelings, political agendas, and plain old sorrow abound.

Of course, there are many who find Mother’s Day a time of sweet and joyful gathering—a meal, a family clustering around, gifts of the home-made and the store-bought varieties being offered, memories being made even as others are recalled. It can be a delight.

But why make it such a focus in worship?

I can understand why some traditions do this, to a degree. Bereft of a Liturgical Calendar, each Sunday has to have a “meaning” connected to something—a sermon series, perhaps. Quite often, though, the source is the secular calendar…with all of its assumptions and obsessions, acknowledged or not. Using the Civil Calendar this way shows that there is more than one way for a Church community to become “culturally conditioned.”

The ancient and undivided Church, as well as The Book of Common Prayer nowhere sets apart a Sunday to commemorate Mothers or Fathers as a class of person or a vocation. This is not because we do not honor these ways of life. Indeed, we do. But we do so in the context of a basic Christian vocation that transcends them. We speak of motherhood most in connection with the Theotokos; indeed, the feasts of Our Lady are, for us, the celebration par excellence of motherhood in connection with faith.

We also focus on Jerusalem, the Church, and any number of holy women as mothers in a wide variety of ways. Some of the saints (Dame Julian and St. Gregory Nyssa come to mind) remind us that God can be spoken of in ways that include attributes of motherhood, as well. Then, of course, there is mid-Lent Sunday, one of whose many names is “Mothering Sunday.” Perhaps this might be the best time to bring the subject up in our tradition?

In our parish, the appointed collect and lessons take precedence throughout the year (this is why we still celebrate all of the Principal Feasts in an era when most parishes have dropped anything even slightly "inconvenient"). Mother’s Day is mentioned…usually in the bulletin and as a Mass intention just before we begin the Eucharistic Prayer. Once in a while it will find its way into the sermon, but only as a side-point. 

It has been the wisdom of Holy Church to name no Sunday “Mother’s Day Sunday.” Clergy should think long and hard about surrendering the Liturgy to the vagaries of American culture, wherever it obtrudes. Doing so in one place invites incursions elsewhere. How many would be comfortable with a "Singles Sunday," a "Widows/Widowers Sunday," or a "Celibate Sunday," though these are all perfectly honorable and Scripturally-endorsed states of life? This is not an idle question. It must be justified if it is going to be put front-and-center before the People of God in the Eucharist.

Let us honor mothers, but let us honor the Liturgical Year first. In so doing, we will honor not only mothers, but all vocations in their proper proportion and with due reverence.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Very Personal Rogationtide

A Rogation Cross on Rural Farmland

The Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day form a short “season-within-a-season” in Easter: Rogationtide. These days originated many centuries ago as part of the agricultural cycle in the liturgical year—feasts and fasts connected to seed-time, growing-season, and harvest.

Unlike our modern American era, where children think food is just another industrial product (which, sadly, it often is), our forebears knew that food is both a vital and a risky thing. Among the dangers were drought, plagues, pestilence, fire, hail, flood...the list was endless. The Rogation days meant going into the fields themselves and praying for the upcoming months of growth and harvest. It meant being very clear about our dependence on God for our most basic needs.

Today, people can think of their food as simply “there,” a kind of public utility with no inherent connection to the earth. But then there are things which change that.

When I was in college, I had the good fortune to spend a semester abroad in England. In addition to learning much and deepening my faith in God, I met my wife-to-be. It was a blessed time.

And yet…

Some years later we heard about the horrors of “Mad Cow disease,” and then of a human form of that illness…variant Jakob-Creutzfeldt Disease. It was all very horrifying. We learned that this ghastly, debilitating breakdown of the brain was the result of feeding cows (herbivores) foods derived from the carcasses of cattle and other livestock. A basic rule in nature (herbivores should not be fed meat—especially the brains of other herbivores) had been violated with incalculable consequences for many.

At this point, you might be saying something like “that’s horrible to hear about, but why are you so upset about it still?” The answer would be that I was in England during the period when the infected meat products were being sold and consumed. For all I know, I was exposed. Because of this, I cannot give blood any longer (even though I have a somewhat rare type), and I cannot be sure if I will develop this frightening disease myself (there is no test, and the incubation time is unknown). I live with a fear in the back of my mind about this…all because of the greed and folly of a culture so disconnected from nature that it could ignore its revealed wisdom.

To cap it all off, the most recent lectionary of the Episcopal Church has determinedly removed almost every possible reference to the venerable tradition of Rogationtide just as the need for it in our liturgical life has become so clear.

So, while Earth Day is promoted by some in the Church and others are bent on adding a politically preachy “Creation Season” to the calendar, the very practical and down-to-earth (literally) customs of Holy Church are forgotten.

At St. Timothy’s, though, it is the parish custom to keep Rogationtide. We value the connection between earth and altar, between human ethics and the “other book of scripture” God left us—the Creation. If we were looking at our industry, science, and economy through this lens in the first place, perhaps my haunting about Jakob-Creutzfeldt Disease—and so many other maladies caused by human actions—would not exist.

Keeping Rogation Sunday at St. Timothy’s means, in practical terms, this: After the main liturgy, we will have a formal procession out the doors to “beat the bounds” of the parish grounds. This entails singing the Great Litany (with Rogation petitions added), going to markers at the corners of the property, offering prayers for various concerns common to our neighborhood and community life (with children in the parish “beating” the markers with pool noodles while we use verse 1 of Ps. 68 and ask God’s protection!), planting a tree or bush, blessing the Community Garden on the parish’s property, and finally blessing and distributing rogation crosses made by a parishioner. These crosses are then taken by parishioners to their own gardens and farmlands to be visible signs of the holiness of Creation and our constant intercession for a just, good and safe harvest.

None of this is done because it is “quaint.” It is entirely the result of one thing: a call to know Christ in every aspect of our life, receiving in gratitude and offering in joy to our God. Perhaps the Church will see fit to review its estimable tradition and renew its commitment to Rogationtide as an act of justice, spiritual integrity, and moral leadership. If we do not, there will be an increasing number of us who will feel the results of turning a blind eye to the misuse of the Creation over which we were set as stewards.

Some Rogation Prayers:

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.

IV. For all who farm the earth

Eternal God, creator and sustainer of life, we praise you for the beauty and fertility of the earth. We praise you also for its complexity and mystery, before which we bow in wonder and awe. Bless all farmers everywhere upon whom we depend for the production and provision of our food, bless the management of the countryside and the husbanding of its resources.  Amen.

For more on this subject (from a Church of England source), you may want to go here.