Wednesday, August 14, 2013

St. Mary & the Power of Presence

When we consider St. Mary, mother of Our Lord, we find many things that enrich our own faith. The stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Meeting in the Temple…these all are celebrated by the Church as great Feasts of faith, mysteries of God’s intervention for our salvation. But what of St. Mary herself? How may our own life journey be enriched by her story, her witness?

August 15 is the traditional date when the Church commemorates St. Mary’s repose—her “falling asleep in the Lord,” as the New Testament calls it. It is, for us, a very important feast day, not just a quaint custom. It is a celebration of the fullness of her life, not only her passing from this earth.

St. Mary is the icon of humanity’s personal involvement in the work of bringing about reconciliation with God. She is also an image of how we are being led to do that work in our own day and place.

St. Mary’s life reveals not an institution with objectives and goals: she is a human being with a love for God and a yearning to do his will. She responds to God’s call by giving what she has to offer: her own self. Unlike a complex bureaucratic system that tries to make itself important—thus justifying its existence—she simply says to God: “behold, the handmaid of the Lord.”

The role of Christ’s Body (the Church) in our day and place is much more akin to St. Mary’s manner of living than it is to the large, politicized institution we often see in the news. We are being called by God to serve with an inner simplicity, not seeking recognition or importance, but given the joy of communion with God’s love and presence in the midst of our struggles and efforts.

When we read of the Blessed Virgin in the Sacred Scriptures, we see her staying very close to her son. This paints a picture of our vocation as followers of the Master: rather than getting caught up in the anger and competition surrounding us, we are to keep our gaze firmly fixed on Christ who is Love Incarnate. In so doing, we join St. Mary in pointing to Christ, source of all enduring peace. Only by this will we be able to serve others patiently and in God’s strength and direction, rather than by our own feeble energies.

The icons of the Mother of God almost always show her in direct relationship to Christ, often holding him as an infant (or, in the icon of her Repose, Christ holding her swaddled soul). The point is both beautiful and essential: We are saved by being present to Christ, and the greatest gift we have for others is Christ’s presence in and through ourselves. That is part of what we celebrate on St. Mary’s Day, and it is part-and-parcel of the Christian life each day from now until the end of the ages.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

St. Leo on the Transfiguration

Below are extracts from a sermon on the Transfiguration by St. Leo the Great (c. 400 – 10 November 461). This is a splendid example of the best of Patristic preaching, in which the Sacred Scriptures, the orthodox faith, mission, and discipleship are all interrelated in a holistic and encouraging manner. It is this type of preaching, exegesis, and organicity that marks not only the Early Church Fathers, but Classical Anglicanism as well. May it serve to round out your celebration of the Transfiguration.

The Lord reveals his glory in the presence of chosen witnesses. His body is like that of the rest of mankind, but he makes it shine with such splendor that his face becomes like the sun in glory, and his garments as white as snow.

The great reason for this transfiguration was to remove the scandal of the cross from the hearts of his disciples, and to prevent the humiliation of his voluntary suffering from disturbing the faith of those who had witnessed the surpassing glory that lay concealed.

With no less forethought he was also providing a firm foundation for the hope of holy Church. The whole body of Christ was to understand the kind of transformation that it would receive as his gift. The members of that body were to look forward to a share in that glory which first blazed out in Christ their head.

The Lord had himself spoken of this when he foretold the splendor of his coming: Then the just will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Saint Paul the apostle bore witness to this same truth when he said: I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not to be compared to the future glory that is to be revealed in us. In another place he says: You are dead, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

This marvel of the transfiguration contains another lesson for the apostles, to strengthen them and lead them into the fullness of knowledge. Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, appeared with the Lord in conversation with him. This was in order to fulfill exactly, through the presence of these five men, the text which says: Before two or three witnesses every word is ratified. What word could be more firmly established, more securely based, than the word which is proclaimed by the trumpets of both old and new testaments, sounding in harmony, and by the utterances of ancient prophecy and the teaching of the Gospel, in full agreement with each other?

The writings of the two testaments support each other. The radiance of the transfiguration reveals clearly and unmistakably the one who had been promised by signs foretelling him under the veils of mystery. As Saint John says: The law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. In him the promise made through the shadows of prophecy stands revealed, along with the full meaning of the precepts of the law. He is the one who teaches the truth of the prophecy through his presence, and makes obedience to the commandments possible through grace.

In the preaching of the holy Gospel all should receive a strengthening of their faith. No one should be ashamed of the cross of Christ, through which the world has been redeemed.

No one should fear to suffer for the sake of justice; no one should lose confidence in the reward that has been promised.

The way to rest is through toil, the way to life is through death. Christ has taken on himself the whole weakness of our lowly human nature.

If then we are steadfast in our faith in him and in our love for him, we win the victory that he has won, we receive what he has promised.

When it comes to obeying the commandments or enduring adversity, the words uttered by the Father should always echo in our ears: This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Two Lights on Transfiguration

Like many people my age, I grew up fully expecting the world to be destroyed by a nuclear war. The news was steeped in predictions of it, and the history of the twentieth century to that point (as well as then-current events) confirmed a generally pessimistic view of humanity’s ability to draw back from the brink of self-destruction—fueled by ideology, fear, and hatred as we were. Films showing the effects of nuclear detonation were ubiquitous; the bright nuclear flash etching photographic negatives of vaporized humans, the melting of skin, the carbonization of livestock, the incineration of buildings…a regular man-made apocalypse was presented as quite possible. The fact that I am able to write this now was not something I would have been comfortable wagering money on back then as I looked at the fresh copy of Fallout Protection sent to our house by the US government.

It was many years later, after I became an Anglican, that I learned that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (August 6) took place on the same day as the Feast of the Transfiguration, when Christ’s appearance was changed, and his face shone with a dazzling light. This luminous mystery, marking the transition from Christ’s ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing to his confrontation with evil and death itself on the Cross dazzled me. It confronted my childhood’s radiation-clouded pessimism with an abundant, radiant promise that Christ’s light—not that of Hiroshima—would be the destiny of humanity in God.

Christianity is never about ignoring the reality of human suffering or evil done by humans—sometimes, tragically, in the name of God—to humans. It must acknowledge this evil as surely as Christ experienced it and overcame it by his love and steadfastness. But neither must Christianity allow itself to become conformed to the world’s pessimism or its perversion of nature or science. We are a people of light: the light of Creation, the light of the Transfiguration, and the light of the Resurrection. We share—through grace, sacraments, communion, and promise—in that light. We are called to exhibit that warm, loving, hope-giving light, rather than the searing glare of destruction that mere worldliness projects in a vain effort to blot out God.

The Feast of the Transfiguration is a glorious feast; it is also a solemn feast. On this day we celebrate the opening of a window into the mystery of Christ’s triumphant and beautiful power; but we also take up again our own responsibility to share in that light, to shine with that light, and never to mistake the light of this world—no matter how thrilling, how power-promising—with the light of the Kingdom of God made known to chosen witnesses on the holy mountain, in the holy liturgy, and by holy lives.

The Collect of the Feast of the Transfiguration

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Coming before God in Love and Truth

These are words written as spiritual direction by Thomas Traherne (c. 1637-1674), the English priest, poet, theologian, and visionary, about coming before God in prayer. They are part of a larger series of reflections on the place of the human soul in Creation and in relationship to others.

Traherne wants his reader to understand how important the estimation of our body, soul, and mind-set is when we pray. We are to see ourselves as significant, of infinite value, and called to a profound sharing with God in prayer…not simply to be observers or consumers. He frames his understanding of prayer in the language of the Lover and the Beloved, something known to us from Scripture (especially the Song of Solomon). This is part of a long line of Christian mystics and teachers who have seen prayer in terms of communion, not transaction. Anglican Christianity shares this understanding, though it remains under assault in a world dominated by economic and ideological forces adverse to such organic and spiritual traditions.

Prayer is the context for all Christian life and action. To live or act as a Christian apart from prayer—in its many forms—is to engage in a horrifying hypocrisy. Only communities and individuals grounded in prayer may truly share in the truth, wisdom, peace, and sustaining energies of God.

Since therefore Love does all it is able, to make itself accepted, both in increasing its own vehemence, and in adorning the person of the Lover: as well as in offering up the most choice and perfect gifts, with what care ought you to express your love in beautifying yourself with this wisdom, and in making your person acceptable? Especially since your person is the greatest gift your love can offer up to God Almighty. Clothe yourself with Light as with a garment, when you come before Him: put on the greatness of Heaven and Earth, adorn yourself with the excellencies of God Himself. When you prepare yourself to speak to Him, be all the knowledge and light you are able, as great, as clear, and as perfect as is possible. So at length shall you appear before God in Sion: and as God converse with God for evermore.
(From Centuries of Meditations, the Second Century, no. 86)