Saturday, May 31, 2014

Encounter: The Feast of the Visitation

The story of the Visitation between Mary and her relative Elizabeth in the Gospel according to Luke is a moment of beauty and of mystery. It is, at heart, the story of an encounter… but what a complex encounter: between a very young mother-to-be and a very old mother-to-be, between the herald of the Word Incarnate and the One he heralds, between the mystery of birth and the mystery of death and resurrection, between the Old and the New in every way.

This is a holy encounter in more than one way. It points to the potentiality of holiness in all encounters we may have as Christians. What gets lost so often is our intentionality: we forget that we have been given the Holy Spirit in baptism, and that this Spirit reaches out to others—other members of Christ’s Body, and to the Image of God found buried in those who are not yet members of that Mystical Body. It is this intentionality we celebrate today, the intention, the faithfulness that allows both Mary and Elizabeth to transcend their own partial understanding of the sacredness of their encounter. Elizabeth honors Mary as Blessed, and Mary praises God in the words of the Magnificat.

In St. Ambrose’s commentary on Luke, we find these words about the Visitation, and about the power of God working through humans to give glory to God even as we are exalted in him:

Let Mary’s soul be in each of you to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let her spirit be in each to rejoice in the Lord. Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith. Every soul receives the Word of God if only it keeps chaste, remaining pure and free from sin, its modesty undefiled. The soul that succeeds in this proclaims the greatness of the Lord, just as Mary’s soul magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior. In another place we read: Magnify the Lord with me. The Lord is magnified, not because the human voice can add anything to God but because he is magnified within us. Christ is the image of God, and if the soul does what is right and holy, it magnifies that image of God, in whose likeness it was created and, in magnifying the image of God, the soul has a share in its greatness and is exalted.


Collect of the Visitation
Father in heaven, by your grace the virgin mother of your incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping your word: Grant us who honor the exaltation of her lowliness to follow the example of her devotion to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Faith Summoned to the Heights: Ascension Day

A more mature faith enabled their minds to stretch upward to the Son in his equality with the Father; it no longer needed contact with Christ’s tangible body, in which as a human being he is inferior to the Father. For while his glorified body retained the same nature, the faith of those who believed in him was now summoned to heights where, as the Father’s equal, the only-begotten Son is reached not by physical handling but by spiritual discernment.
From Sermon 2 for the Ascension
Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome, 461 (Commemorated November 10)

The Feast of the Ascension marks a great, joyful event in the story not only of Christ’s work of reconciliation, but of human spiritual maturity as well. St. Leo draws this out in his sermon on the Ascension, from which the above brief extract comes.

Leo, deeply immersed in the Gospel of St. John and its understanding of The Word Made Flesh drawing a redeemed humanity into heaven, views the Ascension not as an absence of Christ from the world but a presence of humankind with God. Through the Ascension, a restoration of perpetual union and communion between God and humanity is completed in a physical and spiritual sense. Using the language of ascent, the Scriptures show how Christ has brought all that was formerly severed back into relationship. He provides for us a pattern for Christian life and witness: those who follow him must be about the ministry of reconciliation, showing forth what he has done for us in our own lives and allowing God to bridge heaven and earth through us.

Beyond this, the Ascension calls believers to a higher form of faith: one not reliant on the purely physical, but on a spiritual communion. By ascending to the Father and leaving this earth, Christ requires us to move beyond a merely local form of faith (needing a single physical person or object to fixate upon) to a global, eternal, and mobile faith, one with an unseverable communion in God attending us wherever we go. St. Leo calls this a “summoning to the heights” along with Christ, a new level of spiritual maturity, made possible by sharing in the Risen Life of our Lord in prayer, sacraments, immersion in the Holy Scriptures, and the community life of Christ’s Body, the Church.

Ascension Day prepares us for the Pentecost by pointing up and beyond our own immediate experience, location, and era. This is Christ’s parting gift to us—something that we may, at times, find hard to see as the gift it is. The tendency to fixate on the immediate, the visible, the well known is natural but ultimately destructive to faith. By removing a simple dependence on his time- and space-limited body and replacing it with personal communion in the completely free (and freeing!) presence of the Holy Spirit, Our Lord has given us the most precious of gifts: an enduring, mature, indestructible bond between ourselves, him, and—through him—our Heavenly Father.

Now, that is something to celebrate! A blessed Ascension Day to you!

A Collect for Ascension Day: 

Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, May 23, 2014

An Inward and Outward Faith: Fridays in Eastertide

Grant, Almighty God, that the commemoration of our Lord's death and resurrection may continually transform our lives and be manifested in our deeds; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Our thoughts in this present life should turn on the praise of God, because it is in praising God that we shall rejoice for ever in the life to come; and no one can be ready for the next life unless he trains himself for it now. So we praise God during our earthly life, and at the same time we make our petitions to him. Our praise is expressed with joy, our petitions with yearning. We have been promised something we do not yet possess, and because the promise was made by one who keeps his word, we trust him and are glad; but insofar as possession is delayed, we can only long and yearn for it. It is good for us to persevere in longing until we receive what was promised, and yearning is over; then praise alone will remain.

Because there are these two periods of time - the one that now is, beset with the trials and troubles of this life, and the other yet to come, a life of everlasting serenity and joy - we are given two liturgical seasons, one before Easter and the other after. The season before Easter signifies the troubles in which we live here and now, while the time after Easter which we are celebrating at present signifies the happiness that will be ours in the future. What we commemorate before Easter is what we experience in this life; what we celebrate after Easter points to something we do not yet possess. This is why we keep the first season with fasting and prayer; but now the fast is over and we devote the present season to praise. Such is the meaning of the Alleluia we sing.

Both these periods are represented and demonstrated for us in Christ our head. The Lord’s passion depicts for us our present life of trial - shows how we must suffer and be afflicted and finally die. The Lord’s resurrection and glorification show us the life that will be given to us in the future.

Now therefore, brethren, we urge you to praise God. That is what we are all telling each other when we say Alleluia. You say to your neighbor, “Praise the Lord!” and he says the same to you. We are all urging one another to praise the Lord, and all thereby doing what each of us urges the other to do. But see that your praise comes from your whole being; in other words, see that you praise God not with your lips and voices alone, but with your minds, your lives and all your actions.

We are praising God now, assembled as we are here in church; but when we go on our various ways again, it seems as if we cease to praise God. But provided we do not cease to live a good life, we shall always be praising God. You cease to praise God only when you swerve from justice and from what is pleasing to God. If you never turn aside from the good life, your tongue may be silent but your actions will cry aloud, and God will perceive your intentions; for as our ears hear each other’s voices, so do God’s ears hear our thoughts.
St. Augustine of Hippo, [430]
From Commentary on Psalm 148

The Collect for this Friday and this passage from St. Augustine’s writings express with great clarity the truth that the Christian praises God both outwardly in words and deeds, and inwardly in thoughts and prayers. The Great 50 Days are marked liturgically with much use of the word “Alleliua!” This ancient praise-shout commands hearers to “Praise God!” But, as the General Thanksgiving tells us, we show forth God’s praise “not only with our lips, but in our lives” by “giving up ourselves” to God’s service…something that requires unanimity of the inner and outer self. That notion of continuity and simplicity is especially lifted up for us today.

As we come to the end of Eastertide, the themes of the season move ineluctably towards the active life of the Holy Spirit and the constant communion of the Christian in God, even as God is revealed to be an eternal communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This mutuality and intercommunion is dynamic, lively. It is not static or monadic. St. Augustine writes that even in the midst of our earthly journey, so fraught by trials and sins, we already breathe the air of the Kingdom, taste of its food, and speak its language. All of this results in a life in transformation, become what we breathe, eat, hear. A real Christian faith is always growing, deepening, and reaching a greater level of communion and simplicity.

Fridays in Eastertide do not include the discipline of fasting as abstinence is dispensed with for this season. But Fridays are always the Day of the Cross, regardless of the season. The Cross in Eastertide is glorious, but it also reveals the costly love of Our Savior—and the costly love of disciples responding to Him. Just as Christ Jesus was fastened to the Cross, forming a unifying bond between his body of Love and this world’s need for that Love, so must our discipleship accept with humility the necessity of a unified life, where our outer praise and practice is evermore unified to our inner thoughts, prayers, and desires. When these two things—our outer and inner selves—become truly conformed to Christ, we will be free indeed. 

Eastertide gives us a foretaste of that joy and unity. When we come to Pentecost, the calendar points us to the place where the triumph must be fashioned: the daily life of discipleship. That is the arena where our laurels will be won, and where the power of the Cross will be known most dearly to us, even as we show it forth to others by living as whole and faithful Christians in private as well as in public. For the grace, strength, and courage to live in Christ this way, we turn to the Cross this (and every) Friday once more.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Christian Case for Leviticus

From the Old Testament lesson for the Daily Office today:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God.
 When you offer a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord, offer it in such a way that it is acceptable in your behalf. It shall be eaten on the same day you offer it, or on the next day; and anything left over until the third day shall be consumed in fire. If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is an abomination; it will not be acceptable. All who eat it shall be subject to punishment, because they have profaned what is holy to the Lord; and any such person shall be cut off from the people.
 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.
 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
 You shall not render an unjust; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
(Leviticus 19:1-18, NRSV)

In the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, it has always been fashionable to denounce and belittle the Book of Leviticus as “un-Christian” and appalling in its violence, its emphasis on “external” purity, and its equating such things as the mixing of fibers in clothing with the holiness of God. So deeply engrained is this bias and arrogance that modern practitioners continue this tradition freely and without censure in most churches today. In the contemporary Episcopal Church this is commonly done from the perspective of sexuality, due to Leviticus’ clarity in proscribing same-sex relations. Each era in Christianity, it seems, has to continue the practice of vilifying our forbearers in faith by reading this book either out of context or without understanding its profound insights through humble, patient study.

But short of an outright prohibition on reading the text, there is no way to avoid seeing the Gospel in today’s reading from Leviticus. The linkage between cultic ritual, moral consciousness, and communal justice/mercy is obvious, down to the very words so familiar to us in Jesus’ teaching: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These eighteen verses present to us the Gospel in miniature. We belittle them at our own expense and to the detriment of our faith.

Beyond this, the Book of Leviticus—meant for the Jewish people, but also Holy Writ and thus God's word and profitable to Christians—speaks to us about one of the great concerns underlying all of Jesus’ ministry: the organic interrelationship between God, neighbor, the true self, and the created world around us. Living in this integrated way is a main thrust of the Mosaic Law and the Gospel; not living in this way is a sign of deep spiritual and societal disorder and illness.

When we live our lives “out of order,” various maladies strike us, and we begin to develop ever-more elaborate systems to justify our sicknesses and injustices…forming our own caricature of the Law. An example of this springs to mind. A friend told me of being in seminary and hearing about a classmate found to be involved in the making of pornography. Once this was revealed, the student in question was not removed from seminary for this obviously disordered action. He was eventually removed—wait for it—for making pornography without using condoms! Gee! Who is getting legalistic and exterior now?!

Whether it be in our political, economic, ethical, or spiritual dimensions, we are called to live a completely whole life before God, in other words “to walk with integrity.” None of us (most especially the present writer) does this on our own. The life of faith is demanding for a very good reason. It requires humility, repentance, and the infusion of God’s grace at every turn. We can only become truly ourselves in a life of total, freeing dependence on the God who made, redeemed, and loved us so much that he gave his only Son for us. That is the message of the Gospel, built squarely on the foundations laid in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Pentateuch. Churches, communities, and traditions in Christianity that cannot take this life and calling seriously or who reduce this vocation to the mere outward observance of some political or socio-economic code will ultimately be destroyed—and deservedly so. As St. Paul reminds us, God is not mocked, and our God asks not for a portion of our lives, but for everything.

What God has ordained is a changed person, not a change of clothes. Leviticus, Christ Jesus our Lord, and all the Holy Scriptures teach us this: we should be less concerned with judging the teacher than receiving the teaching.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Faithfulness amidst the Ruins: Alcuin and Us

The Collect for the Commemoration of St. Alcuin of Tours
Almighty God, in a rude and barbarous age you raised up your deacon Alcuin to rekindle the light of learning: Illumine our minds, we pray, that amid the uncertainties and confusions of our own time we may show forth your eternal truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today is the annual commemoration of that marvel of a dark age: the deacon, teacher, and abbot Alcuin. Hailing from York in England, he eventually became Charlemagne’s “first minister” and a figure of immense importance in the saving of classical knowledge and the spread of Christian teaching and practice.

In so many ways, Alcuin was the flower of the tradition of Bede: learned, genial, tactful, focused, practical and yet grounded in the Gospel’s vision of a world already breathing the air of the Kingdom. Along with all this, Alcuin understood the value of integrating the best of the Classical world’s knowledge with the Church’s life of prayer and service. To him and his disciples we owe much of the work to preserve and disseminate the thought of the ancient Roman world. Thus, Alcuin represents that teaching of Our Lord, wherein wise householders bring forth things “old and new” from the treasure-house of faith.

Perhaps most important to me on this day is Alcuin’s persistence in his ministry while dealing with a world that was violent, crude, carnal, and deeply compromised as it struggled with half-converted leaders, pagan systems of brutality, and inherently unjust ways (often cloaking themselves is supposed sanctity). Then—as now—being faithful to Christ required the careful negotiation of a broken world’s ensnaring traps while working to show forth the Holy Gospel. It means being in, but not of, the world.

At one point in his time at Charlemagne’s court, Alcuin returned to his native England in order to try and convince King Æthelred to manage his affairs in a wiser manner. In a sense, Alcuin never lost sight of his homeland, and remained attached to it not only ecclesiastically but personally until the end. When Æthelred chose not to respond to Alcuin’s urgings, Alcuin left and never returned. There is a limit to what efforts we, with the limited time we are given, must needs expend on those who will not listen. This, too, is an important dimension of what it means to be faithful stewards of the Mysteries of Christ.

Our day, with all of its fancied sophistication and privilege, is ever more revealed as an era of brutality, carnality, and (in the words of the collect) rudeness, a word that comes from the idea of being uncultivated. In so many areas—from our relationship to the Creation, to human trafficking, to consumerism and its opening the door to more human degradation in the name of “choice”—we are living in a culture of barbarism, where ordinary people uncultivated in either philosophy or theology unquestioningly assent to a system based on strength rather than truth. Like the time of Charlemagne, we labor as Christians to bring light into a darkened world. That work is hard and at times we feel completely overwhelmed by the world’s embrace of sin rather than holiness.

People like Alcuin provide a message of hope and determination, however. Their utter single-mindedness about the Gospel is a witness to us all when we grow faint, calling us to put our trust not in the rulers of this world—even such imposing figures as Charles the Great—but in the One Lord who already has the victory. In the light of that victory we labor on, knowing that our vindication and solace is found in faithfulness to the Prince of Peace even as we are called to minister in the haunts of darkness and human ignorance.

Part of the epitaph on Alcuin’s tomb breathes this clear-eyed, sober, and yearning desire to know God with true integrity in the midst of the passing vanity of the world:

Dust, worms, and ashes now ...

Alcuin my name,
wisdom I always loved,

Pray, reader, for my soul.

It can well serve as a motto for each of us who seek and love the true wisdom of God in a “rude and barbarous age.” Like Alcuin, may we be used by God the Holy Trinity for the work of building up a more truly just, holy, and godly world.