Saturday, December 26, 2015

Observing the Twelve Days of Christmas

The 12 Days of Christmas (from Christmas Day to Epiphany) cover a great deal of spiritual ground. In addition to being an extended meditation on the Incarnation of Christ, the days immediately following Christmas Day visit the issue of witness (the Greek word for this being the same root from which the English word martyr comes) in an almost encyclopedic manner:

  • St. Stephen (Dec. 26) was the first martyr, witnessing to the death both in will and deed.
  • St. John (Dec. 27) was a martyr in will, but not in deed. Tradition says he died of natural causes, but was beaten and exiled for his faith. Thus, he was ready to surrender his life for Christ, but was not ultimately called to do so.
  • The Holy Innocents (Dec. 28) were martyred in deed (mistaken as they were for the Christ-child by Herod’s soldiers) but not by will. They simply might have been Jesus; for this they and their families suffered. The Church still counts them as martyrs, so deeply does it respect their witness.
  • The lesser commemorations of St. Thomas Beckett (Dec. 29), whose witness against a power-hungry monarch ultimately cost him his life (a martyr in will and deed), and St. Sylvester on Dec. 31. He was the Bishop of Rome when Christianity was officially “tolerated” by Constantine the Great, and was faced with the dramatically different mission situation of the Church after the great persecutions. He died a confessor (a faithful witness to Christ who died peacefully, but who had been prepared to die for Christ prior to Constantine).
The 12 Days of Christmas may include, depending on the day of the week upon which it falls, one or two Sundays. These Sundays offer continued reflection on the meaning of Christ's coming into the world. While the culture around us consumes Christmas in one day and moves quickly on to New Year's Eve and beyond, we savor the time and go deeper into the mystery.

On January 1 we come to one of the Feasts of Our Lord: the Feast of the Holy Name, when Jesus was formally named and recognized as a member of the Jewish community in the circumcision ritual eight days after his birth. This commemoration, along with the Feasts of the Presentation in the Temple (Feb. 2) and the Transfiguration (Aug. 6) are so significant that if they fall on a Sunday, they take precedence over that Sunday’s regular readings and prayers.

With Holy Name Day, the Octave (eight day period) of Christmas is completed. The remaining days of Christmastide fill the space leading to the Feast of the Epiphany, which brings to a conclusion this beautiful season, returning us to "Ordinary Time" until we approach Lent.

Episcopalians are bidden to keep the full 12 days of Christmas. This may include:

  • No fasting on Fridays
  • Keeping Christmas decorations up during the season (taken down at Epiphany)
  • Entertaining guests and offering Christmas hospitality
  • Varying one’s life in such a way that the 12 days of Christmas are a time of rest and rejoicing, rather than frantic busyness.
  • Sending out Christmas cards/letters during Christmas rather than ahead of time
  • Here is a good site for learning more about how to keep the 12 Days!
If we have kept Advent as a time of preparation and anticipation, we will not be so tired of feasting and celebrating that we cannot keep Christmas for its full duration.

Together with saying the Daily Office from the Prayer Book and attending Christmas liturgies at church, these patterns can help us experience the richness of this season, bringing us into deep contact with the joy and mystery of the Incarnation. When experienced first-hand, the Anglican way of living Christmastide gives coherence and substance to this season in a fragmented and consumerized world. May you experience the fullness of these 12 Days in worship and contemplation. Merry Christmas!

Stephen: The Crown and Touchstone of Christian Witness

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. 
In the days following Christmas Day, a series of Feasts occur in rapid succession. Each one is, to a certain degree, a commemoration of a different way of witnessing to Christ. The first of these is St. Stephen, whose story is told in the Book of Acts (in chapters 6-7, with chapter 8 flowing from the consequences of Stephen’s stoning).

Stephen was the Proto-Martyr (first martyr, Greek for "witness") of the Christian faith. He was also among the first deacons, a ministry of servant leadership in the Church—indeed, the first-named among the three ordained ministries of Deacon, Priest, and Bishop.

Stephen’s brief ministry, like a shooting star, powerfully affected all those who witnessed it. His speech before the Sanhedrin is a compression of the Old Testament and its fulfillment in Christ that, along with the Epistle to the Hebrews, makes clear how immediate was the Church’s understanding of the unity of all Salvation History. In St. Stephen, we see the Old and New Testaments integrated and understood; we also see both the qualities of humble service and powerful leadership united in one person. So complete is his witness that even his name forms part of it: Stephanos means “Crown” in Greek.

His honesty and fearlessness earned him no respect from the political and religious leadership. Then, as now, those in power wanted to hear affirmation of the status quo rather than focus on the “bigger picture,” of which humans are always servants—not controllers. He was condemned, taken out, and stoned to death.

This, in the world’s eye, was his destruction. For the Church, however, it was his true “crowning.” His martyrdom set the pattern for all authentic Christian martyrdom: it pointed to Christ, not to Stephen. Stephen committed no violence towards others in order to prove a point. The point was “proved” by the Theophany of Christ at God’s right hand as Stephen died. We must at all costs keep this mind when grappling with what martyrdom means in the Christian faith.

The author of Acts ends Stephen’s earthly journey with the simple words: “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.” To the end, Stephen—like all faithful disciples—sought only to be like his Lord in humility and love even as he refused to compromise in matters of faith, truth, and justice. 

It is essential in this era of martyr-terrorism to understand the unique character of Christian witness/martyrdom: it is to be like Jesus Christ. This means any form of pseudo-martyrdom involving violence or manipulation is counterfeit and blasphemous. 

St. Stephen was a witness to the Gospel both in will and deed. He, like all of us, was called to be ready to offer his life as a libation to God and our neighbor. When that call came, he did so. His was a crowning total witness--the first of so many--in the Christian faith. For this we give thanks, as the carol says, “on the Feast of Stephen.”

Friday, December 18, 2015

Embertide: A Moment for God's Counsel in Ministry

The original meaning of "Ember Days" does not refer to the embers of a fire,
but there are some interesting connections between the two
in the practical life of ministry...

We are now in the midst of the Winter Embertide. The term "Ember Day" comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, ymbren, which refers to a circuit or this case, the circuit of the year. The Winter Embertide is one of the quarterly opportunities the Church gives its members to focus deeply on the nature of ministry, that splendid word which denotes Christian service but also personal self-abnegation--the literal "minus-ing" of ourselves so that Christ may work through us (and not quite so much in spite of us).

Ministry--whether lay or ordained--requires a regular recommitment to authentic and deep communion with God the Holy and Undivided Trinity. This is available through the Sacraments and our regular life of daily prayer and study of the Sacred Scripture, wherein the Holy Spirit infuses us with divine truth and wisdom. We also receive nourishment in a loving humility when we reflect prayerfully on our life in God. This makes the Embertides a vital part of each Anglican's spiritual practice, at least potentially. Each Ember-season is a pause in the flow of life, a focused time of counsel, and an opportunity for the spiritual fire in us to be re-stoked, tended to, and re-directed towards its true purpose: the glorification of God and the sanctification of God's people.

Bishop Ridding,
First Bishop of
Though they don't get much attention these days, the Embertides were historically quite important. One expression of this significance is the beautiful "Litany of Remembrance" from Bishop Ridding. This 19th century tool for spiritual self-examination remains one of the finest Embertide devotions ever  penned. While it was written for gatherings of clergy, it has been used (in an edited form) by many laypeople over the decades. Perhaps Forward Movement will again issue this wonderful chestnut someday.

In the meantime, here is the Litany as it was written. While a bit dated in language, perhaps readers will find it as beneficial and searching a tool for reflection as I have over the years. Each time I pray it God speaks to me in new ways...something very common to the best written forms of prayer and akin to the probing manner of the Psalms (indeed, I have often thought that Bishop Ridding's keen insight could only happen by many years of praying the Psalms daily). I have often used the Litany of Remembrance as an independent Embertide devotion, or sometimes in place of the Great Litany at the Daily Office during this season, as I did this evening.

The baptismal font of
St. Thomas, Fifth Ave., NYC.
All ministry begins at the font.
However you use it, remember that the gift of ministry given at baptism (and focused, for the clergy, at ordination) is something requiring great humility and intentionality to exercise wisely. Whether it be with such tools as this Litany, the careful review of the Ordinal, the Sermon on the Mount, the Great Litany, one's Baptismal Vows, the Catechism, or other such resources, use the Embertides as a season of deep listening to the Holy Spirit's counsel  at this moment in your life. May this late-Advent gift help prepare you for Christmastide...stirring the embers of a new season of ministry in the Name of Our Lord, Emmanuel!

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.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, immaculate or otherwise

Today is an old commemoration on the western Christian Church Calendar – though not one found in the official Episcopal Calendar: “The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” A take on its history may be found here. Suffice it to say that this feast – along with most others in the Marian Cycle – shows a strong symmetry with the events of Christ’s life, linking Mary and her son in many ways for theological and poetic reflection.
For the Roman Catholic Church, this is a major day celebrating a key Dogma or teaching for that communion. For the majority of Anglicans, it is at best a minor commemoration. Like most of the Marian Feasts, it was stripped out of the Church's calendar in the Reformation owing to no discussion of this event being found in the New Testament. However, aspects of it continued to be found in our tradition (notably a commemoration of Sts. Anna and Joachim – the traditional names for the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary).
The Anglican Church tradition continues to have different opinions about the exact nature of Mary’s condition vis-à-vis Original Sin. Some commentators are quite clear that Mary was cleansed of that taint in order to be fit to bear the Son of God into the world (thus many Christmas carols and hymns speak of "a virgin most pure" or with some other such language as a way of indicating her unique status). Others have done all in their power to say that Mary was in no way different from any other human being in all but her personal calling and faith. The result is that the Anglican tradition has no one official teaching on the question of the nature of her conception; however, the Episcopal Church is clear in its affirmation of the ancient Church’s practice of according the Blessed Virgin the title Theotokos or “God-bearer,” and thus the highest honor of any saint. As with the Early and Undivided Church, we leave it there, allowing believers to draw their own conclusions.
For those Anglicans who continue to observe this Feast, it is often a time to consider a great mystery beyond complete definition but worthy of reverence and thanksgiving.
On this day we contemplate both St. Mary’s mission as a human being and the fruits of that mission which were already potentially present at the outset of her life. She shares with us the essential qualities of humanity, and would give those qualities to the Son of God whom she would bear. But, she also was in some way set apart for a special service to God – one that astounds when it is contemplated. So, too, is our calling: while we cannot compare our own vocation to hers in some ways, we must never forget that each one of us has been given gifts and capacities for a particular mission as part of God’s Holy People – and we will be called to account for how we have used these gifts in the service of our God who desires all to be brought to its fulfillment in Him. That is a worthy reason to keep this feast, surely.

A Collect for the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

Almighty and everlasting God, who didst stoop to raise our fallen race by the childbearing of blessed Mary; Grant that we who have seen thy glory manifested in our humanity, and thy love perfected in our weakness, may daily be renewed in thine image, and conformed to the likeness of thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Monday, December 7, 2015

St. Ambrose

O God, who gave your servant Ambrose grace eloquently to proclaim your righteousness in the great congregation, and fearlessly to bear reproach for the honor of your Name: Mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellence in preaching and faithfulness in ministering your Word, that your people may be partakers with them of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Today we commemorate the life and witness (and more especially, the ordination to the Holy Episcopate) of St. Ambrose of Milan, one of the greatest of leaders and theologians in the ancient and undivided Church.
Ambrose was an extraordinary person. Born into a powerful Christian family in the early days of the Church’s legal legitimacy, he was not baptized until adulthood. He was allowed to discern whether or not he wished to follow Christ himself. He made his way through the ranks of the Imperial service, likely being rewarded for his personal integrity, as revealed in the next chapter of his life.
After serving as the governor of a province (quite a responsibility, showing superior administrative skills), he found himself in the middle of a conflict over who should be the next bishop of the important city of Milan. The two “parties” of the day (Arian and orthodox) each had candidates, but neither had the capacity to force their person onto the Episcopal throne. In the process of mediating the conflict of a Church in which he was not yet a formal member, he was himself selected by the warring parties as the best candidate! He was baptized very quickly, and consecrated bishop immediately in a rare example of ecclesiastical economy (making a non-precedent setting exception to canonical rules when it is judged truly right and proper by the Church).
During his years as a bishop, Ambrose fulfilled this ministry in an amazingly complete way. He was superb teacher: thoroughly yet creatively orthodox, he wrote a large body of works for new Christians, instructing them in the essentials of the faith while preserving a deep respect for the ultimate mystery of God (these catechetical works are still very useful today). He was a gifted liturgist and hymn-writer, composing hymns to be used through the course of the day (they are part of the Church’s “Little Hours” of prayer at 6 AM, 9 AM, Noon, and 3 PM), and introducing a variety of singing and worship practices that greatly enriched the Western liturgical tradition. He was an inspiring preacher and friend – it was his witness to the faith that probably finally made Augustine realize that one could be a faithful Christian while retaining intellectual depth and curiosity. He served as a skilled pastor, showing by example the quality of a peaceful life of prayer, balance, and concern for the well-being of the poor. Finally, because of his lifetime of working in the higher circles of the State, he could “speak truth to power,” as we would say today: when the Emperor Theodosius had many of the people in the rebellious city of Thessalonica slaughtered, Ambrose forced him to do penance for this ghastly act of violence. For the first time, the Church had been able to demand the Empire to live up to the Gospel’s teachings in such matters.
We who live at the "other end" of the Christian era (if one can speak of "ends" in such a matter) must find all of this in some ways remote and peculiar: but the requirement that bishops be about the fullness of Apostolic witness and teaching – rather than merely ride their own hobby-horses or retire into a life of abstruse or venial comfort – remains the same today as it was then.

Holy Ambrose, pray for us and for our portion of the Church in this day!