Friday, November 30, 2012

The Feast of St. Andrew: Apostle and Model of Christian Discipleship

Today is the feast of St. Andrew, Apostle—and brother of St. Peter. Andrew’s feast usually falls in Advent, but this year it precedes it by two days. 

As we enter into these last days of the Church Year, it is a good time to think about the foundations of that year, especially the mystery of our salvation.

By tradition, Andrew was martyred through crucifixion on an X-shaped cross. What follows is a meditation on that scene, as written by the great preacher, teacher, and biblical scholar Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard recalls it in detail, especially the aspect of the story about St. Andrew going joyfully—and without fear—to his cross. This portion of his sermon is focused on the reason for St. Andrew's attitude toward suffering and death.

Bernard reminds us we are in essence no different from St. Andrew. We must each take up our own cross, not in our own strength, but in the strength of God. When we do this, we find that the cross is not the source of shame and foolishness the world sees, but the unique and holy access point to the unlimited Power of God. In this way, St. Andrew’s story is a constant source of encouragement to us in our own struggles.

From a Sermon by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Andrew. If we attentively meditate upon it, we shall find in it much food for our spirit.

You must have noticed that St. Andrew, when he came to the place where the cross was prepared, was strengthened in the Lord and started uttering fiery words, being inspired by the Spirit whom he had received together with the other apostles, in the form of tongues of fire. His mouth spoke from the abundance of the heart, and the charity that burned in him gave ardor to his voice.

And what did St. Andrew say when he saw the cross that been put up for him? “O cross,” he said, “long desired and now offered to my soul’s desires! I come to you full of joy and assurance. Receive me then with gladness, for I am the disciple of him who hung from your arms.”

Whence then came to that man such astonishing joy and exultation? Where did he, so frail a creature, get so much constancy? Where did he get so spiritual a soul, so fervent a charity, and so strong a will? Let us not imagine he got that great courage from himself. It was the perfect gift issued from the Father of lights, from him who alone produces marvels. It was the Holy Spirit who came to help his weakness and filled his soul with the charity strong as death, and even stronger than death.

May it please God to make us share in that Spirit! For if now the effort of conversion is painful to us, and if we are vexed by watchings, the only reason is our spiritual indigence. If the Spirit were present to us, he surely would come to help our weakness. What he has done for St. Andrew when he faced the cross and death, he would do also for us: removing from the labor of our conversion its painful character, he would render it desirable and even delicious. “My Spirit, says the Lord, “is sweeter than honey,” so much so that the most bitter death could not lessen its sweetness.

We must take up our cross with St. Andrew, or rather with him whom he himself has followed, the Lord, our Savior. The cause of his joy and his exultation was that he died not only with him, but like him, and that he was so intimately united to his death and to his sufferings that he would also reign with him.

Let us too listen, with the ears of our heart, to the voice of the Lord who invites us to share his cross: “If any wish to be my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross, and follow in my steps.” For our salvation is found on the cross, provided we courageously are attached to it. “The message of the cross,” the Apostle [Paul] tells us, “is complete absurdity to those who are headed for ruin, but to us, who are experiencing salvation, it is the power of God.”
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, [1153]
from the Second Sermon for the Feast of St. Andrew

Collect for the Feast of St. Andrew

Almighty God, who gave such grace to your apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of your Son Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give us, who are called by your Holy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us into his gracious presence; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Ordination Anniversary: A Prayer and some Thoughts

A medieval English window depicting an ordination;
not a picture of my own (though some may wonder).

A Prayer for Ordination Anniversaries (to the Sacred Priesthood)

O God, by whose command the order of all time runs its course; look graciously on your servant, whom you have been pleased to ordain to the order of your holy presbyterate; and that my service may be pleasing to you, mercifully preserve me in your gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Adapted from William Bright's translation of the prayer in the Gelasian Sacramentary)

Nineteen years ago this evening, on the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, I was ordained to the Sacred Priesthood. In one sense, it was the culmination of something. A sense of call to this ministry had developed (quite unexpectedly) at the end of college. Leaving law school and an orderly plan for a career at the bar for the unknown territory of vocational discernment almost immediately after marriage, I entered a seven year process of prayer, trial, anxiety, blessing, uncertainty, formation, mentorship, education, and trust in God preparing me for ordination--first to the Sacred Diaconate (on Pentecost), and then some months later to the Priesthood.

Both ordinations were beautiful and holy experiences. As I think about the one to the Priesthood, I always remember the love of family (especially my wife, who had labored so hard to help me come to that day), the support of friends, the solemnity of the sermon and the liturgy, the press of the hands laid upon me at the moment of ordination, and the utter silence and enfolding sense of God's presence when the chasuble was lowered over my head.

Yet, that night was not really a culmination so much as a translation, a movement from one place or role to another in the Church by God's grace and human response. As a follower of Christ, I was not "stopping." Rather, grace was being given, authority deputed, and a new mission being transmitted for the journey ahead.

Ordination is not a "graduation" from the ranks of the laity (the laos, or People of God). It is an intentionalizing, a specifying (and, in a sense, a narrowing) of one's ministry in and with God's People. It points always to the Kingdom of God, wherein it is both completed and dispensed with (there are no clergy in heaven, a fact we all would do well to remember). If lived properly, it never points to itself. And this is what I am thinking of particularly today.

Ordination places a solemn and very real burden on the person being ordained, and on the rest of the Christian community, to recall the wholeness of our identity in Christ. All of us are needed for the work of the Body. Ordination is never an excuse for imperiousness in the clergy or for slackness and indifference in those not ordained; all the baptized are equal in God's sight and all are called to show forth the Kingdom in the way God calls us, with the gifts God gives each of us.

An ordination anniversary is always a good time to review one's vows as a deacon, priest, or bishop. It is also a time to remember that our basic identity as disciple is never superseded, never put into the background by ordination. Our effectiveness as leaders and sacramental ministers of the Gospel is fed and given authenticity only by the state of our discipleship. The current era, in its fascination with a plethora of techniques and its re-definition of vocation into "profession" or "coach" (verging, sadly, on "career") needs to hear this especially.

On this anniversary, I am grateful for all those along the way who have shown me both the potential of ordained ministry and its direct correlation with discipleship in Christ. I continue to feel my utter poverty as a deacon, priest, and disciple--and the unending flow of grace from our merciful God that fills up the lack and speaks through the limitations of the frail person I am. As the prayer says, may I be "preserved in God's gifts"...for it is the only way anything lasting, holy, and truly good will result from my (or any other disciple's) ministry.

Of your charity this day, remember to pray for me, Christ's most imperfect ordained disciple.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Prayers for Priests before and after Hearing Confessions

Below are some traditional prayers to be used by a priest before and after hearing confessions.

While clergy may be asked to hear a confession at any time, in some parishes it is the custom to offer times for parishioners to come to church and make a confession, often on Saturdays, and usually prior to a Principal Feast of the Church. These prayers take the place of the pre- and post-liturgy prayers said by the celebrant at the Eucharist.

“The Reconciliation of a Penitent,” a.k.a. private confession, is one of the great gifts the Church has to offer as medicine to the Christian soul. In the ordination liturgy for a priest, one of the graces conferred is the power “to declare God’s forgiveness,” perhaps nowhere seen more clearly or powerfully than in this rite.

But the ministry of hearing confessions must, like all other aspects of being ordained, never be taken lightly. To do so is to participate in the pernicious sin of “the contempt for the holy.” This aspect of ordained ministry is a precious gift, not a personal possession. We are stewards of something profound and holy, and must receive and share this gift in this manner—always. To fail to do so, though understandable on the purely human plane, is a sin that must be repented of. It is too important a matter to be trivialized.

Those of us who are privileged to minister this sacrament should not only be making regular confessions ourselves, but need to undertake prayer before and afterwards. There are many ways we can sully and undermine this ministry if we are not careful, prepared, and reverent.

These prayers are fairly antique, and are cast in “traditional” language representing one particular theological point-of-view around this sacrament. This will likely bother some people. My response is that there is essentially a complete want of new forms available that have spiritual integrity and compositional skill. I think this sums up this era in our Church. With some notable exceptions, it is (as the French say) malheur for one seeking newly-minted riches in this area.

Hearing confessions well, like giving good sermons, leading liturgy effectively, or providing skilled pastoral care, is more a matter of gift than technique. Such gifts are given by God in the course of a life of prayerful and sacrificial service. These prayers are part of that sort of life. Perhaps, when we have exhausted our current preoccupation with slogans, -isms, identity politics, fads, and marketing, we can return to the rather humble life of prayer, self-awareness, and sacrifice these prayers represent. Then we will be in a position to write worthy successors, if needed.

Prayers Before Hearing Confessions

These may be said according to the opportunity of the Priest

O God, who by thy Holy Spirit perfectest the elect, pour thy heavenly light into the hearts of these thy penitent servants, that they may know and acknowledge all their sins against thee, and, confessing and forsaking them, may obtain mercy. And upon me, thy ministering servant, bestow thy grace, that I may rightly heal that which is broken, and bind up that which is wounded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

O LORD Jesus, I desire to administer this Sacrament of Penance with that same surpassing love with which thou didst hallow this ordinance, when with most earnest desire for our salvation thou didst institute it, to be administered by the Apostles and their successors, to the praise of God the Father, and the salvation of all mankind: I beseech thee that it may profit me, and all and each unto whom I shall minster it, in union with that love of thine, to the increase of our salvation, and of our everlasting happiness. Let the grace of the Holy spirit so enlighten and kindle my senses and my heart, that according to thy good pleasure I may fulfill the ministry laid upon me, and mat be counted worthy to be defended and preserved from every assault of temptation; In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

O LORD Jesus Christ, who didst say to thine Apostles, Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain they are retained: look mercifully upon me thy servant; enlighten my understanding, give me a right judgment in all things, fill my heart with divine love. Grant me so to minister this thy gift of Absolution, that the hearts of these thy children mat be truly turned to thee, that together with them I may attain to everlasting life. Who livest and reignest, world without end. Amen.

GRANT me, O Lord, the wisdom that sitteth at thy right hand, that I may judge thy people according to the right, and the poor with equity. Grant that I may so wild the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, that I may open to none to whom it should be shut, nor shut it to any to whom it should be opened. Give purity to my intention, sincerity to my zeal, patience to my charity, and fruit to my labors. Grant that I may be mild, yet not remiss, stern, yet not cruel. Let me neither despise the poor nor flatter the rich. Give me gentleness to draw sinners unto thee, prudence in examination, wisdom in instruction. Grant me, I pray thee, skill to turn men aside from evil, perseverance to confirm them in good, zeal to persuade them to better things: give wisdom to my answers, rightness to my counsels: give me light in darkness, a good understanding in confusion, victory in difficulties. Let no vain conversations entangle me, nor evil defile me: let me save others and not myself be cast away. Amen.

Prayers after hearing Confessions

O Lord God, who willest not the death of a sinner, but that he should be converted and live, have regard to the sacrifice of a troubled spirit, a broken and contrite heart, offered to thee by this penitent, promising to keep hereafter the judgments of thy righteousness. Strengthen that which thou has wrought in us, loosing in heaven what in thy Name we have loosed on earth, and perfecting more and more in the fear and love of thee the sanctification of him whom the Good Shepherd hath sought in his wanderings, and laid on his shoulders, and brought back rejoicing. Let not his last state, through the return of the devil, be worse than the first, but make him to walk henceforth in newness of life. Forgive me also, O Lord, all the failings and imperfections of guilt which I have now been guilty. Grant that what I have heard may not be to me the occasion of sin, but that considering myself, seeing that I am compassed with infirmity, I may ever watch unto prayer, that I fall not into temptation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

O LORD Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, accept this my ministry and service, with that exceeding love wherewith thou didst absolve blessed Mary Magdalene, and all sinners who fled unto thee. And whatsoever I have done carelessly or unworthily in the administration of this Sacrament, do thou be pleased to supply and to make satisfaction for by thyself. I commend to thy most loving Heart all and each who have now confessed unto me, beseeching thee to keep them, to preserve them from backsliding, and after the trials of this life to lead them to everlasting gladness with thee. Amen.

Be present, O Lord, with our supplications, and graciously hear me, who am the first to need thy mercy; and also grant unto me, whom not for mine own merit, but of thy grace, thou hast appointed minister of this work, faithfulness in executing my commission; and do thou through my ministry perform that which cometh only of thy goodness; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayers from "The Priest's Book of Private Devotion"
Originally Compiled and Arranged by 
J. Oldknow, D.D. and A.D. Crake
Newly Revised by the Rev'd
John Stobbart
A.R. Mowbray & Co., London

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Willing Subjects of His Most Gracious Rule

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."
John 18:33-37

Many American Christians are—and have good reason to be—uncomfortable with the popular name of this commemoration. I say popular, because in our Calendar this day has only one official name: “The Last Sunday after Pentecost.” It is not, in and of itself, a special feast day or commemoration above and beyond that of every Sunday: a celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But the Collect for this Sunday alludes to another name for this day: the Feast of Christ-the-King. This prayer speaks of Christ as “King of kings and Lord of lords,” being exquisitely careful of capitalization in doing so. The Feast of Christ the King (coming to us from the Roman Catholic communion in the earlier twentieth century) has not been officially adopted by the Episcopal Church, but has been adopted by popular acclamation in most parishes, replete with white vestments, the Gloria in excelsis, and many hymns speaking of Christ in royal terms.

Our discomfort with the Feast of Christ the King on an “official” level probably has something to do with our ongoing American dislike of monarchy as an institution, as well as a concern (in some corners) about the overtly "male" quality of its focus. But the Collect tells us something extremely important about this matter, about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, in essence.

Christ’s kingship is utterly unlike any earthly kingship. It relies not on force but love. Its glory comes not from earth but heaven. Its power is found not in ruling but in service. It reigns supreme, but through humility. Only this Kingship—and not all the earthly substitutes devised in the past or today—can free us from our bondage to sin. This is the pattern for all true Kingship today and in the future: Christ’s “most gracious rule.”

The last Sunday of the Liturgical Year looks out from the edge of time and history into Eternity, and sees not the bleak vacuum of space, the black abyss of human wrong, or the bitter finality of nuclear destruction and ecological disaster: it sees a final victory of love over hate, faith over fear. Together with Christ, we live in the light of that victory already won on the Cross. We are a people of present hope in the midst of ongoing struggle, and this Sunday explains why.

Christ is our king. He does not require flattery or abject groveling. He requires we become like him. To be his “subjects” means treating every person as the subject of God’s immense outpouring of love in Christ, not as mere objects to be manipulated for the benefit of a system or ideology. Anything--anything--that takes us away from this truth must be rebuked as a temptation to abandon our King for another.

The Gospel reading today is extremely important in this context. Pilate tries to get Jesus to call himself a king. Jesus responds that his kingdom is “not of this world.” It is a defining moment for authentic Christianity—though it has often been ignored by those who follow Christ. For, in saying this, Our Lord has rendered impossible all attempts to conform his rule to the world as it is. He has shown us forever that all he taught in the Sermon on the Mount, all he did in eating with sinners, was true. He meant to live and die by it. So must we.

The Kingdom of God will never be found in resorting to the methods—acknowledged or not—of human kingship. It will only be experienced when those who follow Christ are willing to lay hold of his unique Victory of Love and its extraordinary strength.  Every sharing in the Holy Eucharist is a participation and nourishing in that Victory, as well as a trumpet call to return to it if we have wavered.

Those who have ears to hear will understand and lay hold upon this truth. For us, though still imperfect in our understanding, this Feast is a celebration of something beautiful and not the least bit monarchist in the conventional sense of that word. We rejoice in this sort of kingship, and are challenged to be loyal to it by living lives that, like a compass needle, point for all to see to Christ our King.

Indeed, in a world dominated by various people and movements striving to occupy the same place as the kings and queens of old—now armed with more insidious forms of weaponry and manipulation than ever before—this celebration of the unique and merciful Kingship of Christ is an act of counter-cultural affirmation that this kingship alone is worthy of our efforts, our loyalty, our lives.

Collect for the Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ-the-King
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Thanksgiving at the Heart of Faith

The Book of Common Prayer is never simply a guide to the details of worship. It always points to the wholeness of the Christian life, the restored and integrated vision with which the Christian looks at the world and sees the Kingdom of God very near: indeed, here in our very midst, though disguised and often ignored.

In some ways each feast in the liturgical year is really just a different example of what is always present in the Eucharist whenever it is celebrated. This is particularly true of Thanksgiving Day, where the Greek word for Thanksgiving is “Eucharist.”

If each Eucharist is a time for thanksgiving—not only for specific gifts, but for the whole gift of life, creation, being made in the Image of God—whenever it is offered by God’s people, then each day has a clear Eucharistic “basis.” For, each day of our life as disciples of the Lord Christ is lived in the light of his presence through the Eucharist we have shared, are sharing, or will share together.

This, in turn, means that our daily prayers always have something of the Eucharist implicit within them. Yes, our daily prayers, whether offered in community or individually, are always “Eucharistic." They are part of the whole offering of prayer made by the Church throughout the world and through all ages, and are a grateful response to the gift of the Holy Spirit who calls forth prayer in us.

And so the Prayer Book gives us many ways to live this Eucharistic vision out, not only in the formal Eucharistic Liturgy, but in other prayers as well.

Perhaps one of the most concrete and helpful of these prayers is the General Thanksgiving, which comes at the end of daily Morning and Evening Prayer. It stands as a joyful reminder that we are a people of gratitude: initially for being created and sustained by God, and then for the particular blessings we have received each day. But the prayer continues on, with deeper thanksgiving for the restoration of our being in Jesus Christ. In him we are given the ability to know God directly and intimately. It is this relationship that brings forth in us the state of consciousness of God, of the world, of our neighbor—that recollected state of being before God in all we do—which marks a truly Eucharistic way of life. Only Christians who enter into this deep sharing in Christ can take up their cross and follow their Savior through all of life’s journey.

Each Thanksgiving Day points to the Eucharist; each Eucharist points to fullness of life available in Christ to those who turn to him; each day for the Christian is a renewal in that Eucharistic vision of life, and each true Christian prayer and action is soaked in the power of that vision.

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving‑kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life,
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages.  Amen.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

In the Light of the Cross: On the Friday Observance

What it is…

The spiritual practice of marking Friday as specially consecrated to God in honor of the Crucifixion is very ancient. This practice is often called the Friday Observance, and is specifically enjoined in the Book of Common Prayer, which says:

Fridays throughout the year (except for Fridays in the Christmas and Easter seasons, and any Feasts of our Lord which occur on a Friday) are observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial in commemoration of the Lord’s crucifixion.” (p. 17)

Probably the most familiar tradition associated with a Friday Observance is to abstain from meat.

Sadly in keeping with our consumer culture, many Episcopal churches are silent on this topic (even though it has long been part of our tradition). As a community in the catholic tradition of Anglicanism, St. Timothy’s frequently encourages and references this practice as part of an over-all attitude of applying our faith to daily life. But, one may ask, what does it mean—in practical terms—to keep a Friday Observance?

Perhaps it might be best to begin with what it does not mean:
  • We are not buying God’s love for us by doing spiritual “extra credit.”
  • A Friday Observance is not a form of spiritual anorexia or showmanship
  • The Crucifixion is not, in itself, what we mourn on Fridays: we mourn the sins that made the crucifixion necessary.
  • We don’t feel bad about sin on Fridays so that we can cut ourselves slack at other times.
Instead, a Friday Observance is a positive choice for bringing to mind God’s love for us in Christ, and his complete identification with us through his suffering and death. Each Friday (outside of Feasts) is an opportunity to contemplate this truth, and to give thanks for it.

Being mindful of this helps us learn to live more consciously in the radiant light of the Cross—always for us a sign of God’s victory over sin and death. It also helps us to reject the deceptions of our passions, which seek to convince us that by heeding them we will be able to avoid the reality of our mortality and vulnerability. A Friday Observance is just one more way we learn to live whole and integrated spiritual lives before God and with our neighbor.

How to do it…

Though the Prayer Book tells us of the importance of a Friday Observance, it does not give detailed direction about how to keep it. This is, in itself, a window into the mindset of Anglicanism. Ours is not supposed to be a legalistic form of Christianity. It is meant always to preserve the balance between sacred tradition arising from the ancient Apostolic Church and the liberty of Christians who follow Jesus as Lord and Master today.

The Prayer Book’s language does, however, give us some key points to consider when developing our own Friday Observance practices. It speaks of “special acts of discipline” and of “self-denial.”

Discipline here is directly related to its Latin root: instruction or knowledge. This part of a Friday Observance emphasizes learning through prayer, sacred reading, or service. This might include various acts, such as:
  • Reading one of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion or other passages of Scripture (especially the Psalms), with time for silence, prayer, or journaling.
  • Offering this prayer by Lancelot Andrewes (17th century Anglican bishop), summarizing Christ’s Passion.
  • Saying these prayers through the day on Friday
  • Making Friday a day of special intercession for those in need around the world, and locally, prayed in the light of the Cross of Christ
  • Praying the Great Litany
  • Singing hymns or songs in praise of the Crucifixion
  • Serving in a soup kitchen or other place of outreach to those in need
  • Attending a Friday worship service, where and when possible
  • Going to a church at lunch time and spending the time before the Holy Sacrament
  • Giving alms directly, or setting aside alms on Friday for a particular cause, in thanksgiving for Christ’s love poured out on the Cross
  • Using any of the prayers from this section of the Rector’s blog
The other part of this observance is self-denial. This is not a rejection of good things in order to feel miserable, but an acknowledgement of the greater good of the Cross. As with Lent, we are reminded by our Friday Observance that we do not “live by bread alone” (or by any earthly thing alone). In a society glutted by excess, this is an essential message and practice. Fasting is, let us remember, expected not only by the Church, but by Christ himself. Some practices of self-denial on Fridays might include:
  • Not eating meat
  • Abstaining from one meal (and using the time for prayer, and the money saved for alms)
  • Abstaining from alcohol
  • Fasting from electronic entertainment, dinners out, &c.
All of these are simply suggestions. The important point is to weave a loving consciousness of the Cross into the very fabric of our lives.

The fruit of a Friday Observance is an awareness that the Cross is not a symbol of death, alienation, or shame for the Christian, but a way of life leading to freedom, joy, and union with God.