Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Good News of All Saints'

I heard the voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying: Alleluia, salvation and glory and power belong to our God, alleluia.
Antiphon for the Eve of All Hallows’

The Feast of All the Saints is a deeply communal celebration. It is a constant reminder that our fulfillment is in restored communion with our brother and sister, our neighbor, those far away, our enemies, the stranger, the person who has walked at totally different journey from us, the familiar friend, those separated from us by death, and most significantly, with God the Holy Trinity. There is no private existence, no private salvation. We are utterly dead without communion. A desire for this communion is perhaps the chief characteristic of the holy people of God.

The multitude spoken of in the above antiphon taken from the Book of Revelation is beyond numbering. It is a brief encounter with the mystery of the vastness of God’s mercy and embrace. In our world, we have grown accustomed to conforming everything—even God and God’s own Kingdom—to the narrowness of human measurements. But the Scriptures will not allow us to do this. In place of our own ideological and economic meanness, the Scriptures show us that God’s love is limited not by divine penury, but by human hardness. God desires our complete union and communion and has given all for this purpose…but what do we, his baptized children, desire?

All Saints’ Eve is celebrated by many today in ways that have no regard to the power, the glory, and beauty of this Feast of Faith. We can no longer pretend the culture around us is interested in such arcane and mysterious traditions. Rather, we that are part of Christ’s Body the Church must now embrace the earliest level of All Saints’ significance: All people are called, are begged by a God who has given everything in Christ, to claim their fullest potential selves: holiness, sainthood. This message must be our deepest joy, our earnest desire to live and to share.

If we desire this sanctity as Christians, our lives will become the holy icons, the beautiful colored glass windows through which the light of God—the only giver of holiness—will shine. In so doing, the Church will fulfill its mission in us, and we will join with all the saints before us in their chorus of greatest joy: "Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, alleluia"...and our God has shared holiness with us by making us his saints!"

O God, whose wonderful deeds of old shine forth even to our own day, you once delivered by the power of your mighty arm you chosen people from slavery under Pharaoh, to be a sign for us of the salvation of all nations by the water of Baptism: grant that all the peoples of the earth may be numbered among the offspring of Abraham, and rejoice in the inheritance of Israel; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

On the Communion of Saints and Sinners

The Communion of Saints is so much more than a doctrine...

A sermon by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

The following is a sermon by one of the great spiritual fathers of the 20th century. Metropolitan Anthony (a Russian Orthodox bishop whose ministry began in France but was based mostly in London, England) reposed in the Lord in 2003, but his thoughts about prayer and the life of the Christian continue to be fresh and contemporary precisely because they are grounded in a timeless faith and a complete openness to life as it truly is.

This sermon addresses the way in which our liturgical worship may be kept vital and fresh by connecting it to the Communion of Saints, which we in the Western Church celebrate especially at the Feast of All Saints’. Though written for an Eastern Orthodox congregation, this sermon’s thoughts have a universal significance and application.

In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.

Perhaps in these days that follow the feast of the Resurrection of Christ more than ever can one perceive clearly, passionately, that all the life of the world is one, and all the life of the Church is held in that mysterious communion of saints and sinners, which is the world in becoming. The Liturgy, the common prayers of the Church cannot be understood, apart from this communion of saints and of sinners.

For us who gather week after week in a church, the prayers which we hear appear so often as ready-made prayers: others have composed them, and we have inherited them; but if we give some thought in the way in which they were born, then they are no longer ready-made prayers. Every prayer which you hear was wrought out of a human soul at moments of ecstasy, of distress, at moments of deep repentance, of immense gratitude. Every prayer beginning with those which we have inherited from the Old Testament, with the newest prayers that have come to us from prisons or concentration camps, are born of living souls in their meeting with God, or in their desperate need for a God Whom they grope for, and cannot find.

At times we find it difficult to be at one with the prayers which are sung, recited, with all this flow of prayers. And indeed, it is not surprising, because in one service, in one liturgical sequence, in the simple prayers which we read in the morning and in the evening, the Church has gathered tens of prayers that correspond to the experience, to the life, to the death, to the joy, to the suffering, to the anguish and the gratitude of the saints throughout history. How can we expect that we will receive in our soul, share completely, one after the other, the experience of centuries, of Saint Basil and Saint John, Saint Mark and Saint Symeon? But we could share them in a life-giving way, if we realize that we, small as we are, in the making as we are, groping as we are for a plenitude which is not yet ours, and which they possess to a greater degree than we, that we stand in a vast crowd of men and women at prayer, and that we overhear the great saints of God praying their prayers.

We could stand like children among adults, we could stand in the awareness that here is Saint Basil bringing forth his prayers, from the depth of his experience of God and of life. And here is Saint John, here is another saint, and another again; and we could simply listen attentively, asking ourselves questions at times, say, ‘How is it that he says these words? From what depth of an experience alien, strange to me, do these words come?’ And then of a sudden say with joy, ‘And here I am at one with him, what he says is what I already know or have dimly perceived; oh, how wonderful, I am at one with men who are so great with God!’

And if we treat this way the morning prayers which we read, or the evening prayers, and the various sequences which take place in church, then we would not feel, as we often do, a sense of distress, that all this passes us by, that we do not find ourselves in these words, in the imagery, in these phrases. How could we, in one soul, perceive all the complexity of the Church's two thousand years of divine and human experience? But how easy it would be to stand listening with an open mind, an open heart, ready to respond to what is already ours, ask questions about other things, exclaim in our souls, ‘How could you say that, Father Basil, or, how could you speak these words, John?’ And then we would gradually grow into a much greater understanding, because the seed of prayer, which already is in our souls, the understanding of the saints which we share with them already if we were true, simple, direct, will grow in us; we would be real to the extent to which we are real already and we would grow into a fuller reality than before.

And then we would discover that this communion of saints of which we think as something so invisible and so distant — saints in heaven and we on earth, — is something infinitely more familiar and simple. Then their prayers are in our midst, their experience being shared, in every word of prayer, in every melody of liturgical singing, they are in our midst, not only invisibly praying for us, but making us partakers of their deep, tragic, glorious experience; of God and of the world, of men as much as of God. And then we could turn and see our neighbour also a part of this very mysterious communion of saints and sinners, because our neighbour also partakes, as we do, perhaps by the fringe of his soul, perhaps with the most superficial layers as yet of his heart, in the same mystery for which we grope. We would feel that we are companions, that we are together, on our way, but more than this — that together we drink from the same source, that together we share with greater ones than ourselves, a wider, deeper life-giving life.

Let us try, in liturgical services, in private prayers, to learn to partake in this simple, true and direct way to the experience and the life of those who have proceeded us and who are greater than we are. And the communion of saints will become reality and the communion of sinners will become something meaningful to us, a real brotherhood of people who are, who recognise themselves as sinners and yet feel that God has come to them also, that they have elder brothers and sisters who are concerned with them, at one with them, sharing with them the most precious gifts of their lives. And we will then be able to grow into a brotherhood, into a sisterhood, to become a body, and one life together with them in God. Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Reading for the Dedication Festival of a Church

[What follows is a reading from an Early Church theologian on the nature of the Church as a living temple, and our individual and corporate role as part of that temple. This lesson is used in the Daily Office for the Feast of the Anniversary of the Dedication of a Church at the First Evensong service. It is good example of Origen’s brilliance both as a teacher and as a preacher. Few people in the Church’s history have had as comprehensive a knowledge of the Scriptures.]

A Reading from a homily of Origen, Priest and Theologian (c. 254)

All of us who believe in Christ Jesus are said to be living stones, according to the words of Scripture: But you are living stones, built as a spiritual house in a holy priesthood, that you may offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

When we look at an earthly building, we can see that the larger and stronger stones are the first to be set in place as the foundation, so that the weight of the whole structure may rest on them securely. In the same way understand that some of the living stones become the foundation of the spiritual building. What are these living stones placed in the foundation? They are the apostles and prophets. That is what Paul says when he teaches: We have been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with our Lord Jesus Christ himself as the cornerstone.

You, my hearers, must learn that Christ himself is also the foundation of the building we are now describing, so that you may prepare yourselves more eagerly for the construction of this building and become stones that lie closer to the foundation. As the apostle Paul says: No foundation can be laid other than the one that has been laid already: I mean Christ Jesus. Blessed are those, therefore, who build a religious and holy structure upon such a noble foundation.

In this building of the Church, there must also be an altar. I think that if those of you, disposed and eager for prayer, offer petitions and prayers of supplication to God day and night, you will become the living stones for the altar which Jesus is building.

Consider what praise is ascribed to these stones which make up the altar. All of us who believe in Christ Jesus are said to be living stones, according to the words of Scripture: But you are living stones, built as a spiritual house in a holy priesthood, that you may offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Therefore, these who were able to pray with one mind, one voice and one spirit, are perhaps worthy to form together one altar, where Jesus may offer his sacrifice to the Father.

Let us strive to agree among ourselves and to have one mind and voice. May we never quarrel or act from vainglory. But may we remain united in belief and purpose. Then even we may hope to become stones fit for the altar.

From Homily 9 on Joshua the Son of Nun

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Living Stones in the Temple of God

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)

We come today to a feast, a celebration, that is increasingly important for the Church on earth to mark and reflect upon, for it speaks of a vision, an understanding that is totally revolutionary and overturning for the modern person. This revolution, unlike so many in recent times, is not one that brings bloodshed—in fact, it ends the need for the shedding of blood, the blood upon which the powers of this world continually gorge themselves. But our era is uniquely challenged not to compromise this revolutionary vision. I want to explore this vision with you today.

There was a time when all the world was holy; when it glowed with the presence of the divine. The whole earth was a temple of God. There was no place where one could go that was beyond God, because there was no desire to imagine such a place. This is the original condition of humanity as portrayed in Genesis. It is the condition that was broken when our first parents are shown to choose their own communion with themselves, with creation apart from God, with their own will, rather than the holiness all around them. In doing this, the Temple of God’s Universal Presence was destroyed, and they are revealed to exist in a barren land, a waste that no longer perfectly reflects unity with God, but estrangement, alienation, and bitterness.

But God left the memory of the earth as Temple deep in the human heart. We were hungry for it, though we no longer knew what it was for which we hungered. Humanity’s many attempts to achieve its own holiness—so often characterized by the need to shed human blood—is the record of all the vain attempts at forcing that half-understood memory into reality.

It was God alone who could bring that memory into concrete form. And the first step in this direction was the creation of the Ark of the Covenant, which journeyed with the people in their travels, until finally it came to rest in the Temple at Jerusalem. It was here, we are told, that God chose to place his Name. This very personal point of access between God and his people allowed humans to see that the Creator of all things desired to renew contact with the world that had rejected him.

The Temple became the sign of God’s presence to the Hebrew people, and the prophets spoke of how that presence was not only for this one chosen people: it was for the world’s final redemption and reconciliation with its God. The Temple of God’s Universal Presence was coming.

That true Temple came in a most unexpected way. It arrived in the body of an infant, born of a virgin. Just as the Ten Commandments were inscribed by no human hand upon the stone of the tablets, so the Son of God came into this world “not by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of humans, but of God,” through the body of the Blessed God-Bearer, Mary. Christ Jesus became the fulfillment of the Temple. He became the living Temple who gathered up all people into himself and offered them to the Father in loving compassion. He taught all who would listen that through him, everyone would have access to God. Through Christ Jesus, the long story of alienation and rejection could end: the Temple of God’s  Universal Presence was made real once again, and multitudes came to him. They remembered what had been forgotten, dug up what had been buried, rejoiced in finding what had been lost. His invitation became their freedom.

But that offering of love was accomplished only by his rejection at the hands of humans still drunk with the ambition to justify themselves apart from God. The Passion, Cross, and Tomb of Christ were the very means by which this Temple was brought to its perfection. As St. John says, it was Christ’s enthronement, his glorification. Only through this could the truth be firmly and finally proclaimed. The Temple made with stones had fulfilled its purpose: the Temple made with divine love had come. The first Temple had been a house of prayer for all nations, but the Temple of Christ Jesus was the revealing that all the earth, all the human person, all the Creation is the Temple of God for those who have united their will with Christ’s will.

On the day of Resurrection, the era in which we live—the era of the Church—commenced. Christians may no longer think of holiness as being foreign to the world: it is for us always to be expected, to be looked for, to be experienced. Whenever we see another person, we are called to expect Christ to be there. Wherever we encounter Truth, we are in the presence of God. We are those living stones spoken of by the Apostle Peter, being fashioned into a living Temple that offers spiritual sacrifices—not the blood of others, but the sacrifice of holy lives, lives freely offered to God and to the others around us. This Temple is not built of cold, hard stones; it is formed of compassionate hearts. We are “chosen and precious” to our God when we allow ourselves to be those “living stones.”

But today we face a world in which this forgetting of holiness is almost complete. In spite of two thousand years of the Church, the world has aggressively sought to forget and reject is vocation to holiness. All around us, God is rejected. He has become an outcast. In his own world, he has become homeless. He stands shivering, despised, rejected. Our world today says: “We do not need you; we never knew you.” It denies all sense of holiness, and treats the earth, the skies and seas, the trees and animals with industrial contempt. Most of all, it continues the ancient religion of blood, wherein innocents, children, women and men are fed into the machine of killing and destruction: some in places hidden from view, others in state-sanctioned, public venues. The world's quest for its false imitation of holiness is unrelenting.

All who choose to stand with God must accept that we, too, will be rejected by the world precisely because we have remembered who we are, casting off the lies that surround us. Our vocation, our revolutionary vision at this time, is to remember: to remember that the world was created very good by a God who has never forgotten us. We remember that each particle of Creation reflects that goodness, each human in some way is a holy Temple of God wherein God’s desire for our communion with him may be found. And this brings us to this Feast of Dedication.

The collect for this day reminds us that it is in this place, this consecrated place whose dedication we celebrate today, that God promises to share with us in this alienated world the gift of communion. Our churches are not fortifications but inns, places where humans and God may dine together, where God’s healing—like the Good Samaritan’s loving care administered in an inn—may gradually bring us to health and wholeness. The church buildings are the places where Christians say to God: "If no one else desires you, we do—come here and be with us."

And so we share in this Feast of Dedication knowing that God is here, and that, as when Christ was healing in the Temple, we who are blind and lame—in so many ways—may approach him without fear. This is the homeless shelter for a rejected God and a rejected people, both of whom are precious in each other's sight in this holy place. And, if we are precious to each other here, then we are precious to each other outside this building. But, this is the refuge in our world where the truth about God, the truth about ourselves, and the truth about the Creation is always taught. Each Eucharist is a remembrance, a making present, of that eternal truth in Christ.

It is not the building, of course, but the People gathered in the power of the Holy Spirit that constitute the Church. Yet, the building, the ground, the altar—all these are beachheads in the invasion of this world by the Kingdom of God. They are landing-sites for the triumph of God’s love which reaches out beyond the building, beyond the institutional Church into the world. Through us, God is re-enchanting the world, rebuilding the Universal Temple of God’s Presence one compassionate heart at a time. In this, we are that holy priesthood making spiritual sacrifices acceptable to Christ. Only such worship is truly possible in this Temple.

This being so, we are free to look at the entire world once more as the great Temple of God’s Presence—though it cannot see this for itself. We see it coming, dawning, much as the holy women who came to the Tomb in the near-darkness of Easter morning first saw it. It dazzles, it sometimes frightens, but it tells us that what we remembered and yearned for so dimly is true: God has never forgotten us and is with us always—here, yes, but everywhere, forevermore. 

Now, shining with the radiance of God's holiness as living stones in his Temple, share this vision in actions as well as words.

Collect for the Dedication of a Church
Almighty God, to whose glory we celebrate the dedication of this house of prayer: We give you thanks for the fellowship of those who have worshiped in this place, and we pray that all who seek you here may find you, and be filled with your joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.