Friday, August 28, 2015

To Tell the Truth: The Martyrdom of the Holy Forerunner

August 29 is the commemoration of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. It is a solemn day of fasting in the Orthodox church, and is commemorated in the Roman Catholic calendar, as well as by many Anglicans (including the Church of England). For reasons that are hard to explain, it is not kept in the Episcopal Church (even though we seem bent on adding everyone possible to our Calendar). This omission is grievous and bizarre, as today’s observance is very much attested by the Holy Scriptures and the ancient witness of the Undivided Church. It is also a telling omission (I’ll get to that later).

So deeply connected are the lives and teachings of Jesus Christ and his Forerunner that the omission of this feast blunts the Calendar’s message on the point. The connection between his nativity on June 24 and Christ's nativity at Christmas is a staple of the Church Year. His role in Christ's baptism is central to Epiphanytide. His boldness and proclaiming preparation and repentance is recalled in Advent and Lent. His promise that the one he heralds will bring the Holy Spirit and fire binds Advent to Pentecost. John’s fierce insistence on Divine truth and faithfulness in the face of earthly power is a foundation on which Jesus built and upon which the Christian Church’s ministry of prophetic witness is based. Because of his utter fidelity to God’s call, he died a martyr’s death – prefiguring Christ's death at the hands of unjust leaders, as well as the countless other who follow in his footsteps to this day.  Indeed, our day has seen the making of a vast number of martyrs, many beheaded in much the same manner as the Blessed Forerunner.

Yet, the Episcopal Church has decided it more important to remember John Bunyan in its Calendar on  this day than to honor the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. Why? Bunyan was not a member of the Anglican Church, and in fact was opposed to it. Would he have wanted a commemoration in our Calendar? One doubts it. Do a great many Episcopalians read Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, or A Pilgrim’s Progress today, thus necessitating his commemoration? I don’t believe so.

Perhaps the rub comes from the fact that John was beheaded for condemning sin that was, well, awfully close to home. When John said to Herod “you cannot have her” with regard to Herod’s liaison with Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip, it was too much. Herodias, tired of Herod’s anxious shilly-shallying, wanted this meddling holy man dead and found a way to achieve it. Using the occasion of a drunken birthday party, she slyly planted her daughter Salome as dancing bait for Herod’s inebriate lust. Wildly making promises of largesse, Herod was in her debt…and Salome took him down like an experienced hustler takes down a green rube just off the bus from Nowheresville. In the time it takes for music to stop, Herod was in over his head, and John was without his. The message was clear: Don’t get in the way of powerful people when sex, politics, and personal gratification are on the line. This is ever the case.

The portrait of arrogance, privilege, decadence, and drunkenness emerging here may be a little too life-like for some Episcopal glitterati. This year’s horror of witnessing a bishop in the Episcopal Church kill a man through a drunken hit-and-run accident—including details which make it hard not to draw the conclusion that the said bishop’s “condition” was likely an open secret for a long while and that the Episcopal church was initially more concerned with Brand Protection than it was with fulfilling its supposed mission to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”—serve only to show that the Bible is hardly an outdated document. Given this side of things, perhaps the events surrounding the commemoration of St. John’s beheading for “speaking truth to [debauched] power” is a wee bit too hot to handle. Better keep it under wraps, sort of like St. John in the dungeon.

The teaching potential of this day, however, remains great. It shows that to confront evil, we need endurance. Sometimes, it seems that evil actually wins; but its victory—like Herodias’—is only apparent. In reality, God’s power and truth is finally completely victorious. What is needed, though, is an ongoing commitment to Gospel justice, even in the face of evil’s awful array of violence, lies, distortion, and corruption. To the last drop, the last moment, the last sentence, St. John the Baptist witnessed to such a commitment. This day celebrates and honors that commitment. It reminds us that by following Jesus Christ as Lord (the One St. John heralded), we share in this revolutionary ministry of truth-telling. If we truly believe that one of the highest measures of Christian authenticity is the ability to stand up to power in the strength of justice, we had better join the marchers in Selma and the great figures of the Civil Rights movement by being deeply rooted in the actual facts of what it costs to take up this struggle. 

If we in the trenches take this vocation seriously, maybe even the Episcopal hierarchy will eventually see fit to honor the Holy Truth-Teller on the day when all lies are exposed and all elites are reminded of their dangerous position. I won’t hold my breath on that, but I’m sure going to keep this Holy Day, even if it is not on our Calendar. It is, after all, in the “Good Book” already.

A Collect for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

God our Father, you called John the Baptist to be the herald of your Son's birth and death. As he gave his life in witness to truth and justice, so may we strive to profess our faith in your Gospel. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Prayer and Beyond Prayer

...In the divine vision of prayer there exist measures and distinction of gifts. Till this point it is still prayer, for the mind has not yet passed to where there is no prayer: that state is above prayer. The movements of the tongue and the heart in prayer are keys; what comes after them, however, is the entrance into secret chambers. Here let every mouth, every tongue become silent, and let the heart (the treasury of the thoughts), and the intellect (the ruler of the senses), and the mind (that swift-winged and most shameless bird), and their every device be still. Here let those who seek tarry, for the Master of the house has come.

-- from Homily 23 of the Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin—An Anglican Consideration

The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin on August 15th has a complex and varied history. Various parts 
of the ancient Church commemorated St. Mary in different ways: some placed the focus on the Feast of the Epiphany, others (such as Rome) marked the Blessed Mother’s life with a commemoration in January. Still others focused on celebrating those events involving St. Mary in the Gospels. However, by the 6th and 7th centuries many parts of the Eastern and Western Church were keeping a special observance on August 15th. This date emerges out of the mists of antiquity. It may have originally been connected with the dedication of a church in St. Mary’s honor. As the years progressed, though, this day was generally associated with legends about St. Mary’s death.
Various traditions grew up over the years around the manner in which St. Mary entered the next life. Some spoke of her dying and burial, followed by a “taking” of her body, with only a sweet scent in her tomb left behind. This early understanding is found in today’s collect: “O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son...” Later on, the tradition of her assumption – body and soul – into heaven developed. This has, in Roman Catholicism, become a dogma of the Faith (though the notion that she never actually experienced physical death was firmly rejected by Pope John Paul II).
In the Eastern Christian Church, and in some parts of the Anglican Communion, this day is known as the “Repose” or the “Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary,” using the Scriptural language of our death as Christians being a “falling asleep” in the Lord (I Corinthians 15:18). Understanding St. Mary’s Day this way focuses on her sharing with us in death, yet being brought before Christ in special honor for her being the birth-giver of the Lord.
The Church of England removed this commemoration from the Calendar at the time of the Reformation as part of a general downplaying of Mary’s significance. For the reformers, St. Mary had become too much of a focus of devotion for the faithful, obscuring Christ’s centrality; indeed, some reformers said she had become “a snare and an idol” to the faithful. Others (Such as Bp. Lancelot Andrewes) were less bombastic in their reaction, noting the Blessed Virgin’s centrality in the story of salvation, in the Scriptural account, and in the devotion of many parts of the Christian Faith from early times. One of the most influential Anglican Divines in previous generations (Bp. Pearson of Chester) taught in his Exposition of the Creed that Mary was conceived without original sin—a teaching very similar to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. His writing on the subject was considered normative in Anglican circles from the late 17th century until the early 20th. Thus, there has always been a strand of Anglican devotion to St. Mary, patiently enduring through the Reformation and reasserting itself in the 19th century.

This feast was official restored to the Calendar with the current revision of the American Prayer Book.  The prayers and lessons used were adapted from the Church of South Africa’s commemoration. It is now listed as a Major Feast, along with those of Apostles, Evangelists, St. Joseph, St. Michael-and-All-Angels, and other like commemorations. Mary’s centrality to the Gospel story, her iconic expression of what Christian discipleship must look like, and the key role accorded to her by the ancient Church as Theotokos (“God-bearer;” see the reprinted part of the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon in the  BCP, p. 864) are all affirmed today. The balance known in Scripture and the Early Church has, thankfully, been restored.
The Collect for the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin
O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen..

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Time for Collecting Ourselves…

I have been thinking about the place of the Collect of the Day in our tradition of worship recently, mostly because I have been on vacation and had the opportunity to share in the worship of God in various locations and communities, as well as hear others preach the Gospel in the liturgy. I have also been thinking of writing about this matter for some time due to the long-term trend in worship and spiritual practice occurring in my home diocese and throughout the Episcopal Church. 

This trend includes a gradual devaluing of the Collects as guides for preaching, liturgical planning, and spiritual reflection. The result has been to detach preaching from a dialog with the greater Christian faith over centuries and across cultures and to put too much emphasis on the preacher's opinion/experience, or the local customs of a particular community. The same trend also seems gradually to be introducing the notion that Monday, not Sunday, is the start to the Christian Week...with significant implications.

The Collect of the Day (either at the Eucharist or the Daily Office) in classical Anglican worship serves to express the focus of that particular service’s intention. Whether it be for a particular Sunday (“The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost”), Holy-Day (“The Feast of St. Mary”), or Special Occasion (“For Peace”), the Collect of the Day puts the theme of that particular occasion into words. In setting the theme, the Collect needs to put forth a clear theological teaching, one that will serve as a faithful guide to an authentic practice of Christianity—preferably with both economy and memorable beauty. The Collect for this Sunday is a fine example:

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy, that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Traditionally, the Collect forms one of the essential parts of the Propers of the Eucharist—those parts of the Liturgy that vary from service to service (appointed in the Lectionary/The Book of Common Prayer or other authoritative liturgical source in the Church) proper to that particular observance. At minimum, the Propers for the Eucharist consist of the Collect of the Day, the Proper Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer, and the appointed passages of Holy Scripture. The Propers form an essential part of the sermon’s basis. By preaching on these prayers and texts, in conjunction with the Creeds, liturgies, and the writings of the Undivided Church, the preacher is assured a foundation both sound and eternally new; unchanging and yet totally revolutionary.

I was taught to use the Collect of the Day as a lens through which to view the particular set of Scriptures for that service in composing a sermon. The Collect of the Day was presented to me as an essential part of the Propers and a valuable way to keep the sermon based on the Christian Faith as Anglicanism has received it, not simply my own opinion. One need not expressly mention the Collect (though often that is helpful, since the best Collects are so effectively written), but it should always be consulted in developing the sermon, being used much like a touchstone to assay the purity and worth of what is being preached.

Yet today I rarely hear the Collect of the Day in any sermon—explicitly or (perhaps more significantly) implicitly. While the scripture readings themselves are usually consulted, their theological context as expressed in the Collect usually is not. This may be part of the reason so many sermons I hear or read in the modern Episcopal Church tend to use the scriptures as a sort of springboard to what the preacher really wants to talk about, rather than as the determining factor in the sermon’s content and trajectory—in other words, what God wants to talk about.

It is fairly common now to get a sermon based on a very small part of one of the readings—say a verse or so—with little exegesis and a lot of political (or, rather, polemical) excurses. I rarely hear sermons today that present an Anglican approach to preaching: one made of a theme, exegesis of the scriptural passage(s) used in service of that theme, coherent theological reflection, contemporary matters, and some practical application of the now clarified-understood-enriched theme. Instead, I have heard quite a bit more personal opinion based on personal experience or ideological adherence to a limited set of bullet points from the pulpit over the last two decades—with all the limitations of that watered-down understanding of preaching.

For Anglicanism to be Anglicanism (and for The Episcopal Church to retain any validity as an expression of Anglican Christianity) a spiritual conversation-in-tension must be practiced: there needs to be an exploration of multiple poles at once in all we do. In practice, this means (for preachers in our tradition) the sermon really must contain elements of tradition and innovation, scholarship and personal experience, application and theological reflection. It won’t do to focus on only one part of the spectrum. Sermons that do this are not sermons (a “word” that builds faith) but dull monologues, vapid spiritual infomercials, or (worse) the latest installment in the preacher’s egocentric ongoing harangue. If that is what is being served up week-by-week, sermon-by-sermon, the spiritually-malnourished plebs sancta Dei will eventually tune out and then vote with their feet.

A full use of the Propers—Collect of the Day included—makes for a more balanced, long-haul healthiness in preaching. When the preacher learns to use the many tools of the faith, sermons become explorations of the vast terra incognita of life and creation and the Divine that we are all on together—yet experience individually. Having the “faith once delivered to the saints” at our side (as embodied in the best of the Collects) gives us useful, profound ways to interpret the Holy Scriptures; it also helps correct the errors and fills in the voids inevitable in any cleric’s preaching.

What got me started with this post was this week’s collect. I have been encountering it from Saturday night at Evensong (when the Christian week begins) through the Sunday Eucharist and all through the week at Morning and Evening Prayer. It is a beautiful, well-composed prayer. In addition, it makes one great point in the context of two affirmations of key Christian teaching.

The first affirmation is that our God is a loving, persistent, present-in-the-midst-of-suffering God: the use of words like protector, mercy, ruler, and guide together contribute to an experiencing anew of the Bible’s regular message of God’s care for those who remain faithful to Him and to His Ways. That is something every preacher needs to remember and to teach again and again in our world of anxiety, betrayals, and uncertainty. Jesus said: “Lo, I will with you always, even unto the end of the world.” There is no stint in his teaching on this. We need to hear it, again and again. Like waves assaulting a sandcastle, this notion of God’s tenacious presence is continuously being eroded in our secular world, mocked by those who have alternative message based on power, fear, lust, or ideological control to sell us. The People of God need to be renewed in this message regularly and it should be a primary obligation of every preacher.

The Collect then goes on to make a second reaffirmation, a development of the first: that God alone brings strength and holiness. Again, preachers need to explore this point in faith regularly. Humans are always prone to attempts to “go it alone,” subtly (or not so subtly) trying to manufacture our own strength or holiness…with disastrous results.

On a smaller scale, this mistake about initiative can pervade our worship in such simple matters as beginning the liturgy with a hearty “good morning” (putting the focus squarely on the “folks” gathered rather than on God who has created us and called us into being). When we begin the liturgy with the familiar words of the Opening Acclamation “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” we are acknowledging from the start what the Collect teaches: holiness and power begin with God, not us. In addition to being true…what a relief! I remember some time ago being at a Eucharist where the Presider prefaced the Opening Acclamation with the reminder that the worship begins “in our hearts.” Ack! This was in direct contradiction to the Collect of the Day (which happened to be the one under consideration here), undercutting the liturgy, the sermon, and the Presider. Ooops!

Having made these important affirmations of what a whole and life-giving faith contains through the classic Anglican notion of “conversation-in-tension” (the first affirmation emphasizing immanence and the second transcendence), the Collect applies—with glorious economy—the teaching to our own lives: that “we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.” Here is a moment of spiritual profundity and great beauty.

The lessons at the Eucharist, when viewed through the prism of this Collect, suddenly leap from the page of antiquity into our lap. The issue of being so caught up in the matters of our own day and time…even if these matters are worthy and important…that we lose an eternal perspective in temporal concerns is an ever-present one. In our own time, with its deeply secular bias, celebrity culture, and social media campaigns, this problem has taken on myriad, insidious forms.

The lessons from Scripture that accompanied this Collect on Sunday gave many opportunities for a preacher to be both grippingly contemporary and at the same time compellingly grounded in the catholic faith. That is what the Collect of the Day can do for us as Anglicans; just as in Jesus’ own teaching, there is a creative tension between the contemporary and the eternal, the local and the global, the individual and the collective. It is sometimes astounding to realize—as with the Scriptures from which most of them come—how much substance such a relatively short prayer can have, and how much it can yield upon further consideration.

And this brings me to one final point about our current practice with the use of the Sunday Propers, the one about how we use the Collect of the Day through the week.

Having the whole week to think about what the Collect of the Day drawn from the preceding Sunday is saying is another benefit of classical Anglicanism. Many contemporary liturgists have recommended dropping this, but I think the old practice very wise and worth continuing. It shows very well the reflective, contemplative side of our tradition, something very attractive to the many victims of consumerized Christianity, with its disposable spirituality.  Perhaps one of the reasons we are less inclined to do this today is that many newer Collects contain much less substance to chew on, often being nothing more than dull restatements or chiding mini-screeds conjured up from one or another trendy attempt at illusory relevance.

Another reason (it seems to me) for the tendency to focus on what is coming, rather than what is currently happening in the Liturgical Calendar is that many of us have become closet secularists. For a great many Episcopalians, the week seems to begin on Monday, not on Sunday. The difference is very significant.

If we believe and practice a Monday-Sunday faith, what we are saying is that the work-week, not the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, is what matters most to us. Business calendars may begin on Monday, but for us the week begins with the New Creation accomplished in Jesus’ triumph over sin and death at the Resurrection. One way we mark this is by using the Collect of the Day for that particular set of Propers at Evensong on Saturday (in most weeks), which really marks the beginning of the Sunday cycle, and continuing to use it (outside of Major Feast Days, which take precedence) until the next Saturday evening. This helps frame our entire week—immersed in secular concerns are we are—within the embrace of Christ’s rising (Sunday), institution of the Eucharist and giving of the New Commandment to “love one another” (Thursday), dying on the Cross (Friday), and resting in the tomb on the Great Sabbath (Saturday), the Collect tying it together in prayerful continuity. The Daily Office in the current Book of Common Prayer makes provision for this through having collects that can be applied to each day of the week, as well as allowing for the use of the Collect of that Sunday. Each week is then a complete unit of spiritual content in the midst of a society of fragmentation, competition, and random “identities.”

Over the years I have seen a lot of parishes adopt the practice of having weekday Scripture study that focuses on the lessons for the coming Sunday, not the one in whose week they find themselves. Occasionally this is used by the clergy as a way to get ideas for the coming Sunday sermon (a venial and “follow the crowd” practice if not carefully watched), but it helps contribute to the perception of a throw-away Christianity, one where there is no time to reflect, consider, apply, or go deeper. I would suggest that congregations used to such a pattern try reversing it: take time during the week to reflect more on the Sunday’s content and apply it more broadly; see the sermon not as the end of the journey, but the beginning; understand the week you are in as being lived in the light of Sunday, not the rat-race of M-F.

I believe it is just this kind of faith Anglicanism can bring to bear on a polarized, reductionist, and ideological American Christianity—if we care to practice it. At this time, so much dismantling has occurred in our part of the Church’s vineyard that we find ourselves in the awkward position of the person trying to fund a car trip by selling the wheels. Instead of using the gifts we have received in our tradition, we seem bent on running after other more “relevant” models that we are not fitted for and that never seem to work out. The promise that by being more “relevant” the Episcopal Church will grow by leaps and bounds never—never—actually works in the long-haul or the bigger picture; it is by authenticity to the Gospel that is happens, every time. By collecting ourselves through a deeper appreciation for the best in our inheritance I believe we will be suited to the true task God has for us, and be found worthy to continue on as a part of Christ’s Body, the Church.