Thursday, August 30, 2012

Prayers at Day's End: A "How To" for the service of Compline

Background: The final prayers of the Daily Office as found in The Book of Common Prayer are those of Compline (p. 127). A parishioner once asked me why the name of this service sounded like 'complaining'? Was it, she asked, because people get cranky by the end of the day? I explained that the word compline was actually an old English word for complete. So, these were the prayers to be said at the completion of the day. But, we often do get cranky by the day’s end, so we might want to hold on to that point as we go through the service in detail. At least it explains why there is a confession in this service!

Compline is really a service derived from monastic sources. Its logic is based on the idea that at the of the day, before the Great Silence is begun (which, for monastics, lasts from the end of Compline until the next morning), a time of self-examination, a flourish of praise, and an opportunity for commending ourselves to God is needed and valuable.

The form of Compline in the BCP is quite simple and can be memorized by most people. One of the pleasures of visiting some monastic communities is finding that they don’t even have to use books for this service. Some even offer it in light too dim to read by. Its almost unvarying content is deep in their blood. It can be in ours, too.

Posture: When saying this liturgy, it is customary to remain standing throughout (When the confession is made, kneeling or making a profound bow is traditional). Being seated is a variant in some places, as well.

Through the Service: After whatever pre-service prayers you are accustomed to saying, the liturgy of Compline begins with a simple invocation for peace and protection: “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.” This is traditionally accompanied by blessing one’s self with the sign of the cross.

The verse and response that follow recall our dependence upon God, whose power is manifested in Creation itself.

The rubrics (the “directions” for the service, printed in small italics) then give us the choice of confessing our sins. Compline was—and is still—the time in many monastic communities each day when an examination of conscience takes place and a communal confession of faults is offered. If you have said Evening Prayer already and used the confession there, then it is likely unnecessary to do so again here. However, this is the ideal opportunity to reflect on one’s day, answering these two questions: “O Lord, how have I pleased you, and how have I grieved you this day?” A fruitful confession may then be offered, and some of that crankiness I spoke of earlier exposed and dissipated.

A prayer for pardon and spiritual blessing follows, during which it is traditional to make the sign of the cross (as a reminder that it by the Cross, and through the Spirit’s gift of Baptism in which we were marked with the Cross, that we originally received this pardon and blessing).

The first part of Compline concluded and our hearts cleansed of sin's burden, we call upon God to give us the grace to praise his Name. This may seem odd to “do-it-yourself” Americans, but we are told in the New Testament that even our desire to praise God requires divine assistance. This verse and response (“O God, makes speed to save us; O Lord, make has to help us.”) sets the tone for are praise of God at day’s end: we need God’s protection and assistance at every turn in life. Little children know this, but adults are apt to forget. (If you have omitted the confession above, this is where Compline continues). In all seasons but Lent, it is normal to offer “Alleluia” as a remembrance of the Resurrection. All of this forms a preparation for the Compline Psalms.

The Psalter is the heart of Compline, as it is for all the Daily Office services. At Compline, though, there is a longstanding history of having a fixed set of Psalms to recite. The 1979 BCP gives us the option of using any “suitable selection” of Psalms, but prints several suggested (and traditional) Psalms in the rite: Psalm 4, the first five verses of Psalm 31, Psalm 92, and (the very short, but very ancient Compline-themed) Psalm 134. One or more of the Psalms is said or sung, followed by the “Glory to the Father, &c.”, during which it is customary to bow in honor of the Trinity. These Psalms provide us with poetic and rich insight into the act of commending ourselves over into God’s care.

Following the Psalms, a short lesson from Scripture is read. This, in the Medieval Church, was called the “Chapter” (even though it was usually just one or two verses!). Four options are provided for this lesson (the first and last of which are from the Medieval Compline service), and you may wish to add others appropriate to the season…but the general practice is to keep it simple and stick with the ones provided. Remember: Compline is not a substitute for Evening Prayer. It is a unique liturgy with its own character and content. Trying to turn it into a service with a lot of Scripture lessons, seasonal Psalmody and the like distorts it.

After the Lesson, provision for a hymn is made. This was (and is) one of Compline's treasures. The traditional Gregorian hymn for this Office is Te lucis ante terminum, found in The Hymnal 1982 and other sources. Another appropriate hymn is “God that madest earth and heaven,” to the Welsh tune Ar Hyd y Nos. Singing a short, peaceful hymn at this point in Compline is one of its distinctive, beautiful elements and should not be omitted if at all possible.

The hymn leads us to a short set of verses and responses in which we very actively commend ourselves to God’s care (these verses serve well to be our last thought of the day before going to sleep a bit later). Then comes the Kyries (more calling upon God in childlike simplicity) and the Lord’s Prayer.

Ever since the 1662 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, it has been Anglican custom to omit the doxology (“For thine is the Kingdom, the power…” &c.) from the Lord’s Prayer whenever the Kyries proceed it. The exact reason for this is not clear, but it seems to be connected to the penitential character of the Kyrie eleison.

The Lord’s Prayer is followed by a salutation and response (if you are saying this alone, it makes sense to substitute: “Hear my prayer, O Lord; and let my cry come to you.”) and a Collect. Once again, Compline has a short list of choices for the collect, unlike the many options available at Morning and Evening Prayer. Simply choose one from the list. A special collect is available for use on Saturday nights, in order to help prepare us for the drama and significance of the Holy Eucharist on Sunday.

Two additional collect are printed as prayers of intercession: one commending all those we know into God’s care; another recalling the labors of others while we sleep.

The rubrics then allow for the option of taking time for intercessions or thanksgivings. This is not a requirement, but an option.

The last major—and very ancient—part of Compline is the saying of the Song of Simeon (Nunc dimittis) from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 2. This is the traditional Gospel Canticle of Compline, just as the Song of Zechariah (Benedictus) and the Song of Mary (Magnificat) are the traditional Canticles for Morning and Evening Prayer. As with these other Gospel Canticles, you will see some people bless themselves with the sign of the cross at the start.

The Song of Simeon is prefaced and followed by an antiphon—a short verse that sets the tone for the Canticle. This antiphon asks for God’s grace to “watch with Christ” while awake—a daunting privilege—and to rest in peace while asleep. This reminds us that sleep was seen by all early Christians as a miniature “death” at each day’s end. Thus, it was an opportunity to prepare on a daily basis for our eventual need to surrender our lives to God. Properly understood, there is nothing morbid about this. It really is a way to help us learn to live properly by emerging from the shadow of death’s power as free, forgiven people.

The antiphon is concluded by a triple alleluia during the 50 Days of Eastertide…one of a only a handful of variations to this simple and unvarying liturgy.

As we say the Song of Simeon, we are really truly experiencing completion in its deepest sense. Simeon, holding the infant Jesus in his arms, was beholding the Messiah and at the same time contemplating the completion of his own mission to remain alive until the Messiah’s arrival. It is a poignant and mysterious moment.

Following the repetition of the antiphon (and Alleluias, in Eastertide), the service comes to a quick end: a verse and response forming a dismissal, and a final commendation/praise to the Holy Trinity, our Creator and Redeemer. It is customary to make the sign of the cross at this point. This would be a good time to use holy water as part of one's devotions or in corporate worship. It is often part of monastic practice to receive holy water at this point (via asperges in a public liturgy, or dipping one's hand in holy water and making the sign of the cross in personal recitation of Compline).

With this (and any post-worship prayers you are accustomed to say), the little service of Compline has ended. All our grouchy, complaining self has been overcome in a stream of thanksgiving and praise! You are now ready to end the day, and one of the gems of the Prayer Book is yours for all the nights of your earthly pilgrimage. 

A Glaring Omission in the Episcopal Calendar: The Beheading of St. John the Baptist

Yesterday was the commemoration of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, but one would labor in vain to find this day listed in the Episcopal Church’s sanctoral calendar…even in the ludicrously inflated list of commemorations in “Holy Women, Holy Men.” This ancient and significant day goes unnoticed by our portion of the Church.

This is very odd.

First, the event of the Forerunner’s martyrdom figures prominently in the Gospel—as does so much of his life. Second, the commemoration has a very long history in the Church; in fact, it is one of the earliest commemorations of a saint’s martyrdom in the liturgical year. Third, the death of the Forerunner points out something very powerful about the Christian’s vocation.

St. John’s martyrdom, hidden from public view and the result of a drunken boast, expresses well the fact that a deep devotion to the God’s truth and justice will make us enemies of the world. The cost of living a life of transparency to Christ (“He must increase, I must decrease…”) is a complete openness to where that devotion will take us. This is not for the faint of heart. Countless of our brothers and sisters in Christ know what this means today; for them, it is not history—it is present reality.

In a church which professes all sorts of devotion to “prophetic ministry,” where "the disenfranchised" are supposed to "speak truth to power," why do we not commemorate the Baptist’s death? Are we uncomfortable with its claim on our lives? Do we see how much less our suffering for the Gospel amounts to? Are we uncomfortable with St. John’s death over the effects of sexual sin now that we have largely eradicated the concept? It is hard to explain—especially since the Church of England has long (since the 1662 BCP) had it as part of the calendar. Perhaps we rather feel sorry for Herod, that his cocktail party went so awry just when everyone was having a good time....

In a sense, John is the first martyr of the Faith. Not to commemorate it seems utterly senseless in an era where just about any Episcopalian who ever made the news seems to get a day in the calendar. My prayer is that, following the lead of the Church of England and a number of other sister churches in our Communion, we will put this wrong to right soon.

A Collect for the Commemoration of the Beheading of St. John the Foreunner

O God, you called John the Baptist to be in birth and death the forerunner of your Son:  Grant that as John gave his life in witness to truth and righteousness, so we may fearlessly contend for the right, even unto the end; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why Christianity isn't a made-up faith...

The following excerpt from a homily written by St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407 AD, commemorated on January 27 in the Episcopal Church) contains one of the best responses to the shop-worn argument that Christianity is a fabricated faith, that the Resurrection is a purely "spiritual" event, and that the Gospel is primarily an intellectual phenomenon, not one involving the total person.

This reading is appointed as a non-Scriptural lesson on Eves of Apostles and Evangelists. Tonight is the Eve of St. Bartholomew's Day, and as I read it at Evensong, I thought it would be a good thing to share with all readers of this blog as a reminder of the seriousness of the faith we share, and the fact that Christians have been dealing with both inquiry and criticism of the faith from the beginning. St. John's response is passionate, but not vicious...a good thing to remember when doing this sort of work.

We don’t know much about St. Bartholomew, but as the collect for his feast day reminds us, we share in the faith he proclaimed and for which he died. That faith burns brightly still in the lives of those who have given themselves over to the saving power of the Risen Christ—the True Light of the world.
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It was clear through unlearned men that the cross was persuasive, in fact, it persuaded the whole world. Their discourse was not of unimportant matters but of God and true religion, of the Gospel way of life and future judgement, yet it turned plain, uneducated men into philosophers. How the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and his weakness stronger than men!

In what way is it stronger? It made its way throughout the world and overcame all men; countless men sought to eradicate the very name of the Crucified, but that name flourished and grew ever mightier. Its enemies lost out and perished; the living who waged a war on a dead man proved helpless. Therefore, when a Greek tells me I am dead, he shows only that he is foolish indeed, for I, whom he thinks a fool, turn out to be wiser than those reputed wise. So too, in calling me weak, he but shows that he is weaker still. For the good deeds which tax-collectors and fishermen were able to accomplish by God’s grace, the philosophers, the rulers, the countless multitudes cannot even imagine.

Paul had this in mind when he said: The weakness of God is stronger than men. That the preaching of these men was indeed divine is brought home to us in the same way. For how otherwise could twelve uneducated men, who lived on lakes and rivers and wastelands, get the idea for such an immense enterprise? How could men who perhaps had never been in a city or a public square think of setting out to do battle with the whole world? That they were fearful, timid men, the evangelist makes clear; he did not reject the fact or try to hide their weaknesses. Indeed he turned these into a proof of the truth. What did he say of them? That when Christ was arrested, the others fled, despite all the miracles they had seen, while he who was leader of the others denied him!

How then account for the fact that these men, who in Christ’s lifetime did not stand up to the attacks by the Jews, set forth to do battle with the whole world once Christ was dead - if, as you claim, Christ did not rise and speak to them and rouse their courage? Did they perhaps say to themselves: “What is this? He could not save himself but he will protect us? He did not help himself when he was alive, but now that he is dead he will extend a helping hand to us? In his lifetime he brought no nation under his banner, but by uttering his name we will win over the whole world?” Would it not be wholly irrational even to think such thoughts, much less to act upon them?

It is evident, then, that if they had not seen him risen and had proof of his power, they would not have risked so much.

Collect for the Feast of St. Batholomew, Apostle

Almighty and everlasting God, who gave to your apostle Bartholomew grace truly to believe and to preach your Word: Grant that your Church may love what he believed and preach what he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Notes on beginning a read of the Book of Job

Job 1: 1-22

Today the Daily Office starts a survey of the Book of Job. It is one of the most important, sophisticated, and yet difficult books in the Bible. Here are some opening thoughts on the journey ahead.

The story of Job begins in an almost fairy-tale like way. It unfolds in a near-mythical “land of the East,” a sort of laboratory wherein this strange, frightful experiment may safely take place.

Job’s comfortable perfection is held aloft for us to see and marvel at…but then “The Accuser” (what the word “Satan” means in Hebrew) strides onto the stage. God’s delight in Job’s example is turned around by Satan into a challenge. Just how faithful is Job, really, if everything is going his way? Perhaps his faithfulness is a mirage? What would happen if all the props were taken away? Would God be so pleased with Job when his “true” nature is revealed?

And here is the most frightening part: God agrees to the challenge. Job is sent into the furnace of human suffering without consultation or choice.

Much of American religion seems to be an organized attempt at avoiding the anxiety and horror of life. We gloss over it all with bright, shiny depictions of success and attractiveness...labeled "blessings" and "righteousness," but really more about a comfort and convenience akin to atheism. Who needs a God when our pursuit is not the mystical heart of things but the avoidance of reality?

And yet, isn’t this reading from Job a great deal more honest than the “prosperity Gospel” we hear preached from various pulpits today? Isn’t it a more accurate analysis of our situation than the sorry lie that good people are always rewarded and bad people “get theirs” in this world? Have we come to the point where we no longer are willing to enter into the Truth, preferring our delusions instead?

Job is first tested in this reading by having his possessions and almost all his loved-ones taken from him. His status is destroyed in one fell swoop. His response: “The Lord gives, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”

Job’s first words in his trial are a clear distinction between what he owns and what he is. This is a distinction many in our consumer society probably can no longer make, and something which fewer and fewer preachers are willing to speak about. Our “lifestyles” and “identities” are deeply connected to our possessions and status-symbols. We collect all sorts of “gear” to set us apart and proclaim our identity. Yet, when I visit people in hospital—shorn of all their possessions and clad only in a designed-for-maximum-embarrassment hospital gown, they cannot turn to any external “thing” for identity: it must come from within. So much of the pastoral life is about preparing people for this fact.

The opening of Job takes us the first stage down a road wherein our deepest self, our deepest vulnerability is exposed. It is a difficult read, but an exercise we must undertake. A culture of denial and triviality cannot be the Christian’s preserve. We require more, and the Holy Scriptures provide this spiritual training (ascesis, in Greek). Do we have the courage, the appetite, the capacity for this training today?