Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas Reflections, 2014: Thanksgiving for the Daily Office

Among the welter of thoughts and experiences this Christmas has been a deep appreciation of the Daily Office. As we make our way through this season, with its procession of beautiful and (occasionally) sobering feasts, I feel the need to write these words as a kind of thanksgiving and testimony.

[Unless you like rambling lists of liturgies, I advise you to skip to the end of this. This blog post is more than usually abstruse.]

I’ve been saying Daily Office in one form or another since sometime in 1985. Over the years I have been blessed to experience it in a wide variety of forms. I first learned it using the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, then learned how to offer it using the 1928, 1896, and 1789 American Prayer Books. That took me to the 1662 BCP and then those prior. I gained much knowledge of Anglican history, prayer and practice along thee way.

My wife gave me a copy of The Prayer Book Office in 1986 or so, and that has been my regular form of Office most of the time (when not said in community) since. The variety of antiphons and seasonal enrichments has meant much to me over the years, and while I am at heart a Rite I pray-er (well, one of my majors in college was English literature, emphasizing, the 17th century, and the Bible of my youth was the King James, and my first brush with Anglicanism was the Preces Privatae of Lancelot Andrewes in a translation by Alexander Whyte, so I come by it honestly), this version of the Office has kept me connected to the prayer life of most of the people I serve and the wider Church. I only wish a good update could be had. Copies on the used book market are getting to be very dear, indeed.

For the Hours of Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Compline (when I say them which is not always), I have tended to use the Cuddesdon Office Book, with some additions from the Monastic Diurnal (mostly when wanting to vary the Psalmody). The version of Compline in the Cuddesdon book is still my favorite of the many others I have used.

I have tried using the Office from various contemporary sources, including the New Zealand Prayer Book, that of the Australian Book, South Africa, Scotland, and a few different forms available through the CofE. Being very much a product of the TEC experience, it seems right to try, for a time, the ways other Anglicans pray. While there have been some very interesting and valuable additions to my understanding of the Church’s wider life of prayer, I generally come back to feeling the 1979 BCP was a pretty successful adaptation of the Daily Office. One thing I did learn while wheeling about the Anglican Communion: there is tremendous value, especially in Ordinary Time, found in using the Monthly Psalter. That is really how I learned the Psalms. If you have a real calling to saying the Office, I would strongly recommend this form of Psalmody to others.

I’ve also used the Anglican Service Book when I want the Coverdale Psalter and the Jacobean form of English of older Prayer Books, but still desire to conform to the current 1979 Prayer Book’s liturgical year structure and collects. I do wish the Episcopal Church had done something like this at the official level, rather than leave it for others to do. It would have helped in the transition process from earlier Prayer Books to our own time in so many ways.

In addition to using a Prayer Book or similar text as a basis for Office, I have rotated through several translations of the Bible (currently having a good experience with the New English Bible). In addition, I have enjoyed reading extracts from the Fathers as an additional reading at the Office, often using Fr. Wright’s book through the year. What a wonderful way to grow in a deeper appreciation for the teaching of the Church and what it means to wrestle with faith in our Anglican tradition.

My spiritual director helped me get into the custom of reading a daily segment from the Rule of St. Benedict at the Morning Office. Doing that in conjunction with a commentary has immeasurably enriched my understanding of applied Christian spirituality and ethics. It has also be a great boon to my work as a parish priest.

I’ve said and sung Office in community many times. The first times I experienced this were in a parish church in my home diocese, a sort of home-spun Evensong. But a little later I had a semester abroad in England and there experienced Evensong in many a cathedral, minster, and parish church. That experience largely convinced me that Anglicanism was (and is) the form of Christianity to which I was called.  After that, God gradually revealed His sovereign will for my vocation…but the Daily Office was an essential part of that process.

Participating in a communal Office mostly took place back at General Seminary in the days when that school was committed to a rich use of the Office in particular, and the Prayer Book in, well, general. As a result of all those Mattins and Evensongs, I still chant the Office quite often, especially on Feasts. I also like to add various hymns, particularly the traditional Gregorian ones. Singing the Office is one of the joys of my life, and I learned it in seminary, where it was done with care and considerable authenticity. Even though I rarely get to offer the Office in community now, the experience never has left me, and I am very conscious when praying it that I am part of a symphony of prayer around this world and beyond, all praising God together.

I am deeply thankful for the vast amount of spiritual learning that came through the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General, especially in the daily recitation of Psalms. The Office teaches one to look deeply and honestly into the heart, from which we are to bring “treasures new and old,” but where there may also dwell terrible things that must be acknowledged in order to be released and offered up. Over those years I experienced the power of corporate prayer, the way it works like an anvil on which God uses ever more finely-graded hammers to turn the resistant metal of our will into the supple sculpture of a loving, responsive discipleship. There is no replacement for the kind of learning obtainable by commitment to a community at prayer over the long haul.

In recent years I’ve had occasion to use the Daily Office via my phone or laptop, sometimes using the Mission St. Clare web site or various others, but mostly now using the forms of Office available through the St. Bede Breviary online. It takes a bit of learning for those new to a more complex Office, but is worth it. I am glad there are those who make the sacrifice to answer the call to put some of the Church’s treasury of prayer online, though I personally don’t really like using electronic devices for prayer. I still like the incarnational solidity and ruggedness of a book (or, books, in my case).

I have tried (a few times) the Anglican Breviary, and remain interested in it, but do find it just a bit too complicated and removed from the rest of my liturgical life. I can see the attraction, especially if God grants me a period of retirement. The weekly Psalter sounds splendid.

[Here’s where to pick up if you skipped all the palaver in between…]

All-in-all, I have been blessed with a fairly wide experience of the Office. It took about a decade for me to come to a deeper understanding of why I say it. It is hard to put that into words, but I would say at this juncture that it has much to do with becoming grounded in the Sacred as apposed to the secular.

For me, life has gradually become based in the Liturgical calendar and its meaning for service, relationship, and the ultimate purpose of existence. The Office was very much at the heart of this gradual transformation. Day by day I have prayed the Psalms, prayed the Scriptures, prayed intercessions, thanksgivings, petitions. It has, along with the Holy Eucharist, been the most important and consistent laboratory for my spiritual life.

This Christmas, in amongst the many activities and responsibilities I know as a priest, husband, parent, son, brother, friend, and very wobbly disciple, I kept coming back to the Office in gratitude for its instruction, its peace, and its familiar voice of love, repentance, and hope. I am not always faithful to it, but God has shown such faithfulness to me through it for almost 30 years now.

The roots of the Office are in the Psalms, the offering of praise to God through thick-and-thin, the rhythm of nightfall and sunrise, the cycle of the seasons, and eternity experienced in and through time. In the fatigue and rush of the “holiday season” the services of prayer each morning, noon, and night both ground me in what is eternally true and open for me another room, a new possibility in this often too-worldly life. It is my earnest hope that these years of prayer will form me for better service to Our Lord in this life, and for eternal life with Him and all the saints at the end of the ages.

How the Flesh revealed the Word of God: St. John’s Day & the Third Day of Christmas

Today is the Feast of St. John the Divine, Apostle and Evangelist. The body of works in the New Testament traditionally ascribed to John includes a Gospel, the book of Revelation, and three Epistles or letters. Taken together, this corpus of writing is extremely important for a full understanding of the Christian faith and practice.

The Johannine writings often focus on the meaning of events in ways the other New Testament authors do not. I have sometimes rather lightly called them the “right brain” of the Christian faith—using a faddish way of understanding the mind. But the point of saying this is not faddish. These writings invite us into a world of sign, symbol, and experience often taking us beyond the limits of language and into the Reality above and beyond ordinary “reality.”

The Feast of St. John celebrates his falling asleep in the Lord. In Western Christianity St. John is the only Apostle accorded a non-violent death (though he had to suffer the harsh realities of imprisonment on the prison island of Patmos, making him a Confessor of the Faith in the Church’s reckoning). It also celebrates his unique voice as a witness to Christ, a voice many have found especially helpful in moving deeper into the mystery of salvation.

One of the hallmarks of the Johannine tradition is its emphasis on the personal experience of the believer, often using the language of touch, hearing, seeing, &c. The Semitic origin of this way of believing is very evident here: faith is not just a matter of intellectual assent, but one of physical participation. On St. John’s day we celebrate this very personal—in the full sense of that word—way of being “branches” in living communion with the True Vine.

It is this intimacy of participation that makes the Gospel according to John and all the Johannine writings so deeply important to me. Growing up in an overly-intellectual form of Christianity, where the mystical and emotional was largely absent, I profoundly value the wholeness of Anglican catholic Christianity, with its balanced emphasis on the mind, body, and spirit.

In the Episcopal Church, this is perhaps most fully expressed in the Rite I Eucharist, with its emphasis on mutuality and participation (“…that he may dwell in us, and we in him…”). It is just this immediacy of access and personal experience available freely to all in Christ that never tires me, drawing more and more into the ravishing mystery of the Word made flesh.

St. Augustine, whose writings on the Johnannine corpus are amongst that great and complex theologian’s most beautiful works, delighted in pondering the meaning of the Word coming to dwell with us in the flesh. This aspect of the Christian message never ceased to amaze St. Augustine, and fuels much of his teaching about human nature being capable only of love, whether directed properly to communion with God or improperly to communion with something else (which is sin).

During the Twelve Days of Christmas, and especially on St. John’s Day, it is good to reflect on this teaching, asking one’s self just what and where our search for love and communion is taking us. (This is a central part of a parish’s ministry to its members, and a key part of a parish priest’s pastoral care ministry.)

Below are some of his thoughts about this in the context of a treatise on the First Epistle of John—one of the most significant guides to Christian community life every written, and a powerful, poetic expression of what Christian love in action looks like. (The biblical text St. Augustine is working with is in italics; his commentary is in regular print.)

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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 favored 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 a Treatise on the First Epistle of St. John by St. Augustine of Hippo, Bishop
(AD 354-430, Commemorated August 28)

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The Collect for the Feast of St. John the Divine: Apostle and Evangelist
Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may so walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A Collect for Christmastide
Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Second Day of Christmas – On the Feast of Stephen

You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it. (Acts 7:53)

The second Day of Christmas commemorates the life and witness of St. Stephen, the first martyr for the Christian faith (martyrdom in all its dimensions, including faithfulness unto death at the hands of others). This may seem odd to those whose understanding of Christianity is drawn largely from secular or sentimental sources, but those who live the Gospel with any degree of seriousness will understand its significance with little guidance.

What we know about St. Stephen we know from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. He was likely a Hellenistic Jew who had accepted Jesus as Messiah. He was numbered amongst the first deacons of the Church, and his servant ministry helped heal an early breech in the Christian community (there goes the idea that Christianity is always an untroubled picture of easy-going disciples!).

St. Stephen was also a gifted and fiery speaker. His command of the Biblical narrative, as St. Luke reports it in Acts, was magnificent. He combined this gift with the fearlessness of being a truth-teller for God (not for his own ego’s purposes…a vastly different matter and frankly rather rare amongst many self-appointed truth-tellers in the news). All of this together made him a formidable character and a real threat to the religious status quo.

Stephen’s ministry culminates in a recitation of Salvation history before the Sanhedrin, often sculpted in such a way as to drive home a central charge of unfaithfulness and contempt among the religious leadership specifically, and the Jewish people in general. His denunciation of their culture of sin comes to rest with the above-quoted indictment. Such self-criticism is perhaps the hardest kind to hear, as the usual recourse to “blaming the outsider” becomes impossible. In every age, anyone willing to tell truth this way is liable to rejection and even destruction.

The leadership and commoners join together in an unlawful action of mob “justice,” and after condemning him, stone St. Stephen to death. In the midst of this tumultuous scene, he is granted a vision of the Messiah he loved and served, allowing him to summon the courage and mercy to forgive his killers in the very act of murder. It is a kind of miniature Passion, death, and resurrection (at least in embryonic form) of Christ-applied-to-the-disciple.

Aside from making clear the distinction between true Christian martyrdom (where a righteous person, called by God, lives authentically the Gospel of Christ to the point of being killed for it) and some other false types of “martyrdom” encountered in this world, the story of St. Stephen is an absolute call for us to forgive our persecutors. This marks a decisive difference between Christianity and the world around us, and is only possible if we have deeply internalized the Gospel message and are living more and more “in Christ,” as St. Paul puts it.

St. Stephen’s day is also a day to recommit to telling the “Gospel truth” in life, rather than keep mum, assent, or cooperate with evil and lies. This applies to societal wrongs and personal sinfulness.

Right now in the Episcopal Church, and much American Christianity, there is a tendency to focus on the reform of social structures apart from the reform of the human heart. Our emphasis goes on public ills (and of course it must), but often without the patient and careful teaching about those private ills that make societal injustice not only possible but sustainable.

In St. Stephen we see the pattern for how disciples follow Jesus’ commandment to love God and our neighbor—by telling the truth not from our own anger but from God’s righteousness. That same righteousness must be applied to our own inner life and the world around us. Only when that consistency is applied and observed is the Gospel really being put into action. Without it, we turn a blind eye to some aspect of what God calls us to be or do in bringing forth the Kingdom.

All of this relates to Christmas quite naturally. Christmas is the celebration of Emmanuel—God with us. For God to be with us means to extinguish the culture of sin, a culture we often expect and accept both within and around us. For God to be truly with us means a direct confrontation with that culture, this idolatry. The three Feasts after Christmas Day (St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents) each reflect some aspect of that confrontation.

There is no sentimentality here. The Church’s Calendar was established before sentiment became a valid category for Christians to indulge in with regard to the essentials of faith (thanks be to God). This makes the Calendar both very powerful as a tool for teaching the faith—and at times remote from current consumer culture.

Thankfully, the Truth from Above will long outlast and outshine our current cultural preoccupations. The Grace of God provides both the tenderness and the impulse needed to glorify the Christ-child in our current day, within our hearts and homes as well as the civic forum. The life and words of St. Stephen show us one aspect of what it truly means to celebrate Christmas as a fact of life and not just a fleeting season. So, speak truth in love, and join the great Protomartyr in glorifying the Messiah in every aspect of your life, for God is With Us!

Collect for the Feast of St. Stephen, Protomartyr
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

A Collect for Christmastide

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Monday, December 22, 2014

We are included in these words: On St. Thomas’ Day

Below are extracts from a sermon by St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome (c. 540-604, commemorated March 12) having to do with St. Thomas, whose feast day today.

St. Thomas is found in the Calendar near both Easter and Christmas. The Sunday after Easter Day always includes the account of Christ’s appearing to the disciples following his resurrection, focusing on St. Thomas’ doubt-turned-to-belief. St. Thomas’ Feast Day just precedes Christmas. It is an interesting placement.

The Apostle Thomas is known to many today because of his supposed lack of faith. This is deeply unfair, as what is remarkable and significant in his witness is not so much a lack of faith as a tenacity of faithfulness in the face of opposition. The fact that Thomas returns to be with the disciples in the Upper Room even after hearing their amazing (and credulity-straining) account of the Risen Christ suggests that even if his rational self was not able to accept their testimony, his desire to be with them and his hope for further explanation and experience of Christ following the Crucifixion was more powerful. These are important elements of a living faith.

St. Gregory goes on to note that Thomas did not have faith because of what he saw in that Upper Room: he had knowledge. That knowledge, combined with his own desire and love made for openness to God’s power in his life, and this brought about faith.

It is this two-way nature of faith that is often difficult for people today to understand, fed as we are on ideological one-way freeways. Surprisingly, ancient people were just as skeptical as moderns—in their own way—but they were deeply concerned with levels of relationship and experience that have largely faded from our culture’s screen for the time being.

Pope St. Gregory ends up by drawing attention to the fact that Our Lord promises even greater blessing to those who have come to believe and yet not seen, not had this king of personal knowledge based on physical experience. As St. Gregory points out, that blessing includes all of us who follow after the Apostles.

Christ knew that his work of salvation and redemption would require his physical Ascension into heaven, and that his personal physical presence would no longer by available in the same form. He knew that what would require a different kind of relationship. And it is that kind of living participation in the living Christ—through the power of the Holy Spirit—that would come with the Pentecost.

Yet, because our faith is constantly being renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit placed in us by Baptism in Christ, we are not operating alone. We are living members of Christ’s Living Body: The Church. And this brings us to St. Gregory’s concluding observation.

Just as St. Thomas’ desire for communion with God and the other Apostles brought him back into their company so that he could receive the great blessing of Christ’s presence, so the Holy Spirit implanted in us gives us a desire and need to do the works of the Kingdom of God. The way we are called to live this out may vary, but the need to do so does not. A true faith is not only made of words—even such daring and powerful words as “My Lord and my God!”—but of deeds.

Tradition holds that St. Thomas eventually made his way to India in his ministry. His life was irrevocably changed, and he could never go back to “the way it was before.” His missionary work was his response to his experience. When we are given the experience of Christ in the Church, in the life of another person, in the world around us, what is our response, our way of joining St. Thomas in saying those glorious words: “My Lord and My God!”

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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 cannot 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.
(St. Gregory the Great; from Homily 26)

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The Collect of 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.