Friday, December 27, 2013

The Fourth Day of Christmas: The Holy Innocents, Then and Now

Giotto, Massacre of the Holy Innocents (detail)
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
            "A voice was heard in Ramah,
                        wailing and loud lamentation,
            Rachel weeping for her children;
                        she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
Matthew 2:16-18

In recent years there has appeared a phenomenon known as the “Blue Christmas.” Sometimes called  "The Longest Night," these services provide an opportunity for those experiencing grief, sorrow, or pain during the festive Christmas season to express these feelings openly and liturgically. Most such services occur in the days surrounding the Winter Solstice, when the nights are longest. Though not hugely attended, they speak of a very real need in an increasingly unreal season.

The reason for such commemorations is that Christmas has become understood as a sort of unrelentingly happy time, with no room for the more painful side of human existence, let alone sin and wickedness. Thus, this season has turned its back on its origins, when God came into a world dominated by various forms of slavery, violence, repression, and brutality in order to redeem it from within. Indeed, for most secular Americans (and, sadly, a lot of religious Americans as well) the very meaning of “God-with-us” and “He-shall-save-us-from-our-sin” has been replaced by “Have a holly, jolly, Christmas.” The "Blue Christmas" service is a kind of antidote to this. But, there is a deeper question about the authentic nature of Christmastide that must be addressed here.

For those of us who practice the Christian Year with some measure of care it is impossible to reduce Christmas to sentimental escapism and denial of human need. The Scriptures simply do not agree with this "24-7 happiness machine" vision of the Nativity. Many of the old Carols—before they were shorn of their uncomfortable lyrics by zealous sentimentalizers—had a distinctly realistic character, with many references to the poor, the cold, the hungry and needy, and our duty to care for each other in the light of the coming Judgment. Dickens’s well-known story “A Christmas Carol,” when read in its entirety, is a scathing indictment of the very consumerism and materialism that fuels our Black Friday culture today. And then there is Holy Innocents’ Day….

The fourth day of Christmas is the annual remembrance, recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew, of Herod’s attempt to destroy a potential rival king by having anyone who might be that rival slaughtered. Though they did not know it, all those little boys were the first to suffer for Christ. They—and their horrified and weeping mothers—fell at the head of a bloody river of martyrs for the Gospel. Their innocence only highlights how lethal the confrontation between a world based on death and the Gospel of Life really is.

The Slaughter of the Innocents is frequently rejected my modern historians, who want to put it into the realm of propaganda and fairy-tale. They point out that no contemporary account—other than the Bible itself—mentions anything about this event. This is proof enough for those who will not see with the eyes of compassion.

Yet, as with our own day, one suspects that such events were hardly unusual in the first century; the world into which Christ came then—as now—was brimming with horrors and violence perpetrated by fearful and arrogant brutes retaining earthly power. Now, as then, it is also filled with more ordinary people who commit various atrocities to others with little or no thought to the consequences, disposing of their victims as mere inconveniences on the way to self-fulfillment, thinking (in the words of Scripture) that “they are no more” – out of sight, out of mind.

But, the message of this day includes the absolute assurance that the Holy Innocents of every age are not forgotten. The Church has been remembering these lost children for nearly 2000 years. Their worldly insignificance is outshone by their utter preciousness before God and those of us who—like Christ—value the “little ones” of this planet. In our prayers today, we hold all the Innocents of every age and place before God in honor and intercession. It is worthwhile to think about who the voiceless, helpless victims are in our own society, and what we are doing about their plight.

Beyond that, the Holy Innocents remind us that the Church and all its members must stand and work for God’s justice and reconciliation, never accepting cruelty or disposability as the status quoIt is worthwhile to think about who the voiceless, helpless victims are in our own society, and what we are doing about their plight.

There are still so very many who die in the hidden recesses of the world for no other reason than that they don’t fit into our plans, or stand in the way, or present a rival to our obsessions. Like the Holy Innocents of old, they suffer because they thwart some king or dictator or ideology or our own pursuit of an agenda.

Today is the Church’s original Blue Christmas. It is a rightful and necessary part of the Christmas story,  and its honesty frees us to be involved in the struggle for justice and the consolation of those who, like Rachel weeping for her children, have suffered deeply at the hands of all the Herods—great and small—still out there in the dark of this world.

Collect for the Holy Innocents

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

“Our Message is the Word of Life” – The Feast of St. John

St. John on the Isle of Patmos, dictating the book of
Revelation to his secretary, Prochorus

The Third Day of Christmas is also the annual commemoration of St. John the Divine, Apostle and Evangelist. Divine here means a theologian in the highest sense: one who experiences and expresses communion with God. He was an Apostle (one “sent”), chosen by Christ to share in ministry with him and then to share the Gospel throughout the world. He was also an evangelist: the fourth Gospel is credited to him. Tradition has also credited at least the first of the three Letters of John to him, as well as the book of Revelation.

St. John is the Theologian of the Word-made-flesh, a theme that runs in all of the literature attributed to him. It is this teaching—called the Incarnation—that we celebrate during Christmas and Epiphany, and on which the passage from St. Augustine found below focuses.

The Incarnation means, among other things, that we are all given the opportunity to experience the Word directly; first by his dwelling with us in time and space in Jesus, and then—through the operation of the Holy Spirit—by sharing in the Apostolic Faith. That faith is a gift to us, something to be entered into and nourished by over a lifetime. It is not a personal possession, nor is it a kind of mental puzzle we master some day. It is a loving, trusting, growing relationship of mutuality, service, hope, and response that builds a way of life filled with dignity, purpose, and joy.

St. John’s Day, placed in the midst of Christmastide, expresses the centrality of a mystical theology, Apostolic community, and personal experience to the Christian Faith. With these gifts, we are able, as 1 John 1:3 says, to have fellowship with the Apostles, and through that True and Life-Giving Faith, with Christ himself.

Our message is the Word of life.  We announce what existed from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have touched with our own hands. Who could touch the Word with his hands unless the Word was made flesh and lived among us? 

Now this Word, whose flesh was so real that he could be touched by human hands, began to be flesh in the Virgin Mary’s womb; but he did not begin to exist at that moment. We know this from what John says: What existed from the beginning. Notice how John’s letter bears witness to his Gospel, which you just heard a moment ago: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. 

Someone might interpret the phrase the Word of life to mean a word about Christ, rather than Christ’s body itself which was touched by human hands. But consider what comes next: and life itself was revealed. Christ therefore is himself the Word of life. 

And how was this life revealed? It existed from the beginning, but was not revealed to men, only to angels, who looked upon it and feasted upon it as their own spiritual bread. But what does Scripture say? Mankind ate the bread of angels. 

Life itself was therefore revealed in the flesh. In this way what was visible to the heart alone could become visible also to the eye, and so heal men’s hearts. For the Word is visible to the heart alone, while flesh is visible to bodily eyes as well. We already possessed the means to see the flesh, but we had no means of seeing the Word. The Word was made flesh so that we could see it, to heal the part of us by which we could see the Word. 

John continues: And we are witnesses and we proclaim to you that eternal life which was with the Father and has been revealed among us – one might say more simply “revealed to us”. 
We proclaim to you what we have heard and seen. Make sure that you grasp the meaning of these words. The disciples saw our Lord in the flesh, face to face; they heard the words he spoke, and in turn they proclaimed the message to us. So we also have heard, although we have not seen. 

Are we then less favoured than those who both saw and heard? If that were so, why should John add: so that you too may have fellowship with us? They saw, and we have not seen; yet we have fellowship with them, because we and they share the same faith. 
And our fellowship is with God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son. And we write this to you to make your joy complete – complete in that fellowship, in that love and in that unity. 
- from the tractitates on the first letter of John by St. Augustine
(Tract 1, 1.3: PL 35, 1978, 1980)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Feast of St. Thomas: Belief, Doubt, Knowledge, Love and Power

As we do the Sunday after celebrating Christ’s Resurrection at Easter, so a few days prior to our celebration of his nativity at Christmas the Church remembers St. Thomas the Apostle on December 21. This is significant in more than one way…and far more than coincidental. It is a recurring message about what it means to be a Christian disciple.

St. Thomas is presented to us in the Gospel according to John as both an impetuous man of zeal (“Let us go with him, that we may die with him!”), and a man of limited faith and understanding when in the Upper Room he doubts the reports of Jesus’ resurrection. In this, he very much reflects the character of our own hot-and-cold belief.

However, Thomas is uniquely give na direct and physical encounter with the Risen Christ. There, his doubts are confronted with knowledge based on experience. At that moment, he could have continued to doubt—laying the experience up to some kind of delusion or ghost or hysteria. But instead, he confesses Christ as Savior, in the famous words “My Lord and my God!” From that moment on, Thomas becomes an Apostle in the fullest sense. He is sent by God’s power—and in that power—to proclaim a message and reality greater than himself or his limitations. This is the story of Christian mission and witness, all in one person.

The obvious question for many today is: Why do we find it so hard to do this? Some will say it is because we no longer live in an age of belief or faith; rather, we live in a scientific era, a time of facts and data. But, do world events truly support this? Does the experience of day-to-day life and interaction actually demonstrate we live in some sort of logical, rational world of more highly-evolved beings? I would say this is essentially ridiculous and self-deluding.

I find we are no different from Thomas. We are people on the one hand of tremendous credulity—who hasn’t thrown him or herself in the service of an idea, a movement, a cause, a personality, or an identity at one time or another?—and yet also of doubt, skepticism, and careful avoidance of commitment to anything outside of our own limited experience and opinions. We, too, run hot-and-cold. Times may have changed, and the tools and fashions and the manner of access to knowledge may have changed, but the essence of the human person has remained completely the same.

What separates us from Thomas—far more than years—is the problem of what T.S. Eliot referred to as the “dissociation of sensibility.” This means a break on the deepest level of our being between our intellect and experience. In our day, it simply is much harder to have a unified experience of reality than it was in ages past. We are fragmented, shattered beings, in ways unimaginable to that Apostle. An artificial wall between ourselves and others, between ourselves and our senses, between our selves and the Creation exists—leading to a wall between our improvised “self” and the self-in-communion where we meet God. This wall has served to isolate us from everyone and everything. Consumerism is an outward manifestation of this wall, but its foundations go much deeper into our souls and higher into or intellect, restricting our already limited view of life and reality even further.

This condition convinces us that we are each uniquely able to abstract ourselves from our body and era and see things “as they really are,” while at the same time isolating us utterly in our own narrowness. When we do seek others, we typically do so today in order to have mere confirmation of our own views, surrounding ourselves with like-minded practitioners rather than immersing ourselves in a world of difference united by a common humanity and an experience of God’s presence. This is one of the ways, St. Paul might observe, that the principle of Death operates in us, fueling our increasing need to seek false communion in drugs, money, sex, and all the myriad paths of our passions. Like Thomas, we are absent precisely when we should be present…and miss the blessing of God present to us in community and trial.

This isolation, so well portrayed in Thomas’s absence from the other disciples when Christ manifested himself to them in the Upper Room on the day of Resurrection, impoverishes us deeply, robbing us of the fellowship of faith that allows us to experience the power of God when we ourselves have no power in us.

This is one of the main reasons certain church communities languish in our day: they have absented themselves (for whatever reason) from the fellowship of faith, and rely on their own energy to get them through a dark time. It cannot work, and is being judged by a loving and always truthful God even now.

What Thomas shows is more than human failing, however. He shows that when we decide to “come in from the cold” and rejoin the fellowship of faith, our God is able to reach through the barriers we have erected and open the prison-doors of our hearts. God, who is Love, has placed the desire for love within us, and when we finally open our hearts to this love, we find that we were bathing in a sea of Divine Love all along. We had simply learned to ignore it.

St. Thomas exemplifies both the risks and the possibilities of Christian discipleship. That discipleship cannot exist without the active presence of God in it, and that presence is sustained by Love—God’s love for us, and our love for God, neighbor, and Creation. The goal is not doctrinal smugness or intellectual mastery, but a love so total that it opens the doors of our hearts to the Mystery around us, resulting in works of mercy and compassion that are the sign of a living faith. The measure of this will then be found by the stories of humans who meet the Risen Lord and find ourselves joining Thomas by saying “My Lord and my God!”

Here is a passage from a sermon by St. Gregory the Great on the subject of St. Thomas. I pray that you may find it as helpful and meaningful as I have.

      Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. He was the only disciple absent; on his return he heard what had happened but refused to believe it. The Lord came a second time; he offered his side for the disbelieving disciple to touch, held out his hands, and showing the scars of his wounds, healed the wound of his disbelief. 
     Dearly beloved, what do you see in these events? Do you really believe that it was by chance that this chosen disciple was absent, then came and heard, heard and doubted, doubted and touched, touched and believed? It was not by chance but in God’s providence. In a marvelous way God’s mercy arranged that the disbelieving disciple, in touching the wounds of his master’s body, should heal our wounds of disbelief. The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As he touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside and our faith is strengthened. So the disciple who doubted, then felt Christ’s wounds, becomes a witness to the reality of the resurrection.  
     Touching Christ, he cried out: My Lord and my God. Jesus said to him: Because you have seen me, Thomas, you have believed. Paul said: Faith is the guarantee of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. It is clear, then, that faith is the proof of what can not be seen. What is seen gives knowledge, not faith. When Thomas saw and touched, why was he told: You have believed because you have seen me? Because what he saw and what he believed were different things. God cannot be seen by mortal man. Thomas saw a human being, whom he acknowledged to be God, and said: My Lord and my God. Seeing, he believed; looking at one who was true man, he cried out that this was God, the God he could not see. 
            What follows is reason for great joy: Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed. There is here a particular reference to ourselves; we hold in our hearts one we have not seen in the flesh. We are included in these words, but only if we follow up our faith with good works. The true believer practices what he believes. But of those who pay only lip service to faith, Paul has this to say: They profess to know God, but they deny him in their works. Therefore James says: Faith without works is dead.

Collect for the Feast of St. Thomas

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son's resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Taking Time to Remember one's Vows

The Right Reverend
George Ridding, First Bishop
of Southwell

At roughly the turn of each season, the Church sets aside a series of days (called Ember Days) to pray for its ministry. These prayers are not limited to the ordained, but prayer for those who have taken the vows of ordination is a longstanding part of this season, and for very good reason.

The ordained have a power and influence in the Church that can be used for good, or for much ill; they can be icons of Christ for many to see, or can obscure Christ for that same multitude. It is a daunting and humbling calling, and all of us who are ordained must take those vows very seriously, reflecting on the state of our vocation on a regular basis. But how?

One way is to review the vows made at the time of ordination. This sets the context and recalls the expectations placed upon us. Ordination vows, in turn, are based on our vows in Confirmation and Holy Baptism. All of these should be borne in mind as we prayerfully come before God to see the truth of our journey thus far.

But more is needed for this examination to be substantial. It is easy to run through the Ordination liturgy  and perform a kind of checklist, rather than to consider the complex spiritual terrain of being under orders in the Church. This is where some other tool comes in.

For Anglicans, one of the most effective such tools ever produced was the "Litany of Remembrance" by George Ridding, first Bishop of Southwell in nineteenth-century England. This litany (sometimes referred to as the "Southwell Litany") allows for a subtle, considered, compassionate-without-delusion analysis of one's life in Holy Orders. While some parts are rather dated (and the language is, at times, deliciously Victorian), the litany as a whole is still remarkably perceptive, insightful, and bracing.

I commend this tool to all who are ordained. It addresses many of the problems that dog clergy in every era. It may prompt one to seek the benefit of confession or spiritual counsel. It may also give the reader hope in God's renewing grace, for it acknowledges from the start that we are weak, sinful, and by ourselves unable to fulfill the ministry we have been given…but that the God who called us most assuredly can (and will) make up the lack if we but turn to him in humility and faithfulness.

This is the message that all clergy, in all ages, need to hear and live by at Embertide and always!

A blessed Advent Embertide to you all!

Litany of Remembrance

Commonly called “The Southwell Litany”

[Dr. George Ridding, first Bishop of Southwell, who composed this Litany for use at meetings of his clergy, was accustomed to introduce it with the following words:

Seeing, brethren, that we are weak men but entrusted with a great office, and that we cannot but be liable to hinder the work entrusted to us by our infirmities of body, soul, and spirit, both those common to all men and those specially attaching to our office, let us pray God to save us and help us from the several weaknesses which beset us severally, that he will make us know what faults we have not known, that he will shew us the harm of what we have not cared to control, that he will give us strength and wisdom to do more perfectly the work to which our lives have been consecrated--for no less service than the honor of God and the edifying of his Church. I will ask you to let me first say the suffrage to each petition, and then all join in repeating it together; after which a short pause shall be made.

Let us pray.]

O Lord, open our minds to see ourselves as Thou seest us, or even as others see us and we see others, and from all unwillingness to know our infirmities,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

From moral weakness of spirit; from timidity; from hesitation; from fear of men and dread of responsibility, strengthen us with courage to speak the truth in love and self-control; and alike from the weakness of hasty violence and weakness of moral cowardice,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

From weakness of judgment; from the indecision that can make no choice; from the irresolution that carries no choice into act; and from losing opportunities to serve Thee,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

From infirmity of purpose; from want of earnest care and interest; from the sluggishness of indolence, and the slackness of indifference; and from all spiritual deadness of heart,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

From dullness of conscience; from feeble sense of duty; from thoughtless disregard of consequences to others; from a low idea of the obligations of our Christian calling; and from all half-heartedness in our service for Thee,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

From weariness in continuing struggles; from despondency in failure and disappointment; from overburdened sense of unworthiness; from morbid fancies of imaginary backslidings, raise us to a lively hope and trust in Thy presence and mercy, in the power of faith and prayer; and from all exaggerated fears and vexations,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

From self-conceit, vanity and boasting; from delight in supposed success and superiority, raise us to the modesty and humility of true sense and taste and reality; and from all harms and hindrances of offensive manners and self-assertion,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

From affectation and untruth, conscious or unconscious; from pretence and acting a part, which is hypocrisy; from impulsive self-adaptation to the moment in unreality to please persons or make circumstances easy, strengthen us to manly simplicity; and from all false appearances,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

From love of flattery; from over-ready belief in praise; from dislike of criticism; from the comfort of self-deception in persuading ourselves that others think better than the truth of us,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

From all love of display and sacrifice to popularity; from thought of ourselves in forgetfulness of Thee in our worship; hold our minds in spiritual reverence; and in all our words and works from all self-glorification,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

From pride and self-will; from desire to have our own way in all things; from overweening love of our own ideas and blindness to the value of others; from resentment against opposition and contempt for the claims of others; enlarge the generosity of our hearts and enlighten the fairness of our judgments; and from all selfish arbitrariness of temper,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

From all jealousy, whether of equals or superiors; from grudging others success; from impatience of submission and eagerness for authority; give us the spirit of brotherhood to share loyally with fellow-workers in all true proportions; and from all insubordination to law, order and authority,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

From all hasty utterances of impatience; from the retort of irritation and the taunt of sarcasm; from all infirmity of temper in provoking or being provoked; from love of unkind gossip, and from all idle words that may do hurt,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

In all times of temptation to follow pleasure, to leave duty for amusement, to indulge in distraction and dissipation, in dishonesty and debt, to degrade our high calling and forget our Christian vows, and in all times of frailty in our flesh,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

In all times of ignorance and perplexity as to what is right and best to do, do Thou, O Lord, direct us with wisdom to judge aright, order our ways and overrule our circumstances as Thou canst in Thy good Providence; and in our mistakes and misunderstandings,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

In times of doubts and questionings, when our belief is perplexed by new learning, new thought, when our faith is strained by creeds, by doctrines, by mysteries beyond our understanding, give us the faithfulness of learners and the courage of believers in Thee; alike from stubborn rejection of new revelations, and from hasty assurance that we are wiser than our fathers,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

From strife and partisanship and division among the brethren, from magnifying our certainties to condemn all differences from all arrogance in our dealings with all men,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

Give us knowledge of ourselves, our powers and weaknesses, our spirit, our sympathy, our imagination, our knowledge, our truth; teach us by the standard of Thy Word, by the judgments of others, by examinations of ourselves; give us earnest desire to strengthen ourselves continually by study, by diligence, by prayer and meditation; and from all fancies, delusions, and prejudices of habit, or temper, or society,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

Give us true knowledge of our brethren in their differences from us and in their likenesses to us, that we may deal with their real selves, not measuring their feelings by our own, but patiently considering their varied lives and thoughts and circumstances; and in all our relations to them, from false judgments of our own, from misplaced trust and distrust, from misplaced giving and refusing, from misplaced praise and rebuke,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

Chiefly, O Lord, we pray Thee, give us knowledge of Thee, to see Thee in all Thy works, always to feel Thy presence near, to hear and know Thy call. May Thy Spirit be our will, and in all our shortcomings and infirmities may we have sure faith in Thee,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

Finally, O Lord, we humbly beseech Thee, blot out our past transgressions, heal the evils of our past negligences and ignorances, make us amend our past mistakes and misunderstandings; uplift our hearts to new love, new energy and devotion, that we may be unburdened from the grief and shame of past faithlessness to go forth in Thy strength to persevere through success and failure, through good report and evil report, even to the end; and in all time of our tribulation, in all time of our prosperity,

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

O Christ, hear us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.

Our Father…

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with us all forever. Amen.

Detail of the monument to Dr. Ridding
in prayer at
Southwell Minster