Friday, August 26, 2016

Praying for the Dead: A Devotion for Saturdays and Beyond...

As each Friday recalls Christ’s death upon the holy cross, and each Sunday is a direct participation in his resurrection, so Saturday recalls Our Lord’s burial in the holy sepulcher and his descent to the dead. On this day, we turn to Christ's sharing in death and his rescuing souls lost in death. Thus, it has long been a custom for Christians to remember and pray for those who have died, with a particular remembrance on Saturdays.

Praying for the dead is a perfectly natural practice for Christians and goes back to the early Church’s normative worship life. It is an affirmation that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), and shares in Jesus’ words about the dead being alive before God (Luke 20:38). It is also is a direct participation in the triumph of Christ over death, by which the living and the dead are shown to be members of the same Body (the Church) in heaven and earth. Like the photos we display of cherished loved ones who have died, our prayers for the dead in Christ reaffirm that death has no final power over us now. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55)

Prayer for the dead, which is enjoined by the Episcopal Church in its public worship, is not only a matter of doctrine; it is also an important part of the pastoral life and ministry of the Church’s members. Prayer, by its very nature, connects us to God and each other. Just as the Church on earth prays for its members “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” so the Church in heaven is still accessible to us through the unique high priestly work of our Lord. Such prayer provides succor, strength, assurance, and communion.

It can also be an important part of how we allow God to heal our broken relationships that could not find peace before death. I have often found, personally and pastorally, that recognizing Christ’s salvific power through the Communion of Saints (and sinners, let us remember) opens us to forgiving others and seeking forgiveness ourselves. While this practice has at times been misused (like everything else in Christian life at one time or another), it remains a vital part of spiritual healing and reconciliation in the Body.

There are many resources for the right and healing practice of prayer for those who have died. The Book of Common Prayer provides several. One is an adaptation of the Litany at the Time of Death (BCP p. 462 and following). This litany, along with prayers from the Burial Service or other resources (such as The St. Augustine’s Prayer Book published by Forward Movement), offered on a Saturday with the name or names of those you desire to pray for, can be an excellent weekly practice. 

May such prayer be a means of healing, affirmation of faith, and personal experience that our God “is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Saturday Prayers for the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer

God the Father,
Have mercy on your servant(s).

God the Son,
Have mercy on your servant(s).

God the Holy Spirit,
Have mercy on your servant(s).

Holy Trinity, one God,
Have mercy on your servant(s).

From all evil, from all sin, from all tribulation,
Good Lord, deliver him.

By your holy Incarnation, by your Cross and Passion, by your precious Death and Burial,
Good Lord, deliver him.

By your glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and by the Coming of the Holy Spirit,
Good Lord, deliver him.

We sinners beseech you to hear us, Lord Christ: That it may please you to deliver the soul of your servant(s) from the power of evil, and from eternal death,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please you mercifully to pardon all his sins,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please you to grant him a place of refreshment and everlasting blessedness,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please you to give him joy and gladness in your kingdom, with your saints in light,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.

Jesus, Lamb of God:
Have mercy on him.

Jesus, bearer of our sins:
Have mercy on him.

Jesus, redeemer of the world:
Give him your peace.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Our Father, &c.

Let us pray.

Deliver your servant, N., O Sovereign Lord Christ, from all evil, and set him free from every bond; that he may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations; where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant N. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.  Amen.

Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord;
And let light perpetual shine upon him.

+ May his soul, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Blessed in Keeping God’s Word

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.
(Collect for the Feast of the Visitation, BCP)

When we come to the month of August we prepare for one of the great Holy Days of the Church Year—the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin on the fifteenth.

This day commemorates St. Mary’s passing from this life to the next and is called various things by various parts of the Church. Roman Catholic Church call it the Feast of the Assumption, as they teach that on this day the Blessed Virgin was carried up—assumed—into heaven body and soul. The Eastern Orthodox Communion call this day the Dormition of the Theotokos, commemorating when the God-bearer (Theotokos in Greek) “fell asleep” in the Lord. The holy icons for this feast show Christ holding the Blessed Virgin’s swaddled soul new-born into heaven, recalling her holding his tiny swaddled body new-born on earth at the Nativity.

Anglicans put a somewhat different focus on this day. We call it the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord because for us St. Mary's primary identity is found in her unique relationship with her son. At every turn in her witness, she points to Christ; in this, she teaches us how we ourselves are to be living "God-bearers" in the world through our witness.

The Collect for this feast recalls that God took St. Mary “unto himself.” This points both to her calling to be the Mother of the Incarnate One at the Annunciation and in her joining the company of heaven at her passing—emphasizing the special character of Mary as the highest of all the saints with a unique relationship to Christ. Indeed, she receives the highest form of praise for a mortal in our liturgies, always being named first among the saints and having a number of Holy Days throughout the year (Annunciation, Visitation, Purification, &c.).

Yet Anglicanism is also very concerned to show that Our Lady is the model for the life of the Church and a pattern for our own discipleship. The Collect of the Feast of the Visitation (reprinted above) well expresses our approach to The Blessed Virgin: she is praised as the one who bore the Word Incarnate into the world (providing him his human nature), yet she is exalted even more because she kept God’s Word all her life.

When we gather on the Feast of St. Mary, we are praising God for her witness and recounting the wonder of her ministry—the longest and most intimate of all those near Jesus—recorded in Scripture to have stretched from the Annunciation all the way through Pentecost.

We are also gazing upon her as a model, a pattern, a guide for what it means to follow Christ through thick and thin, through joy and sorrow, when we understand and when we do not. After Our Lord, she is the person who most powerfully embodies faithfulness in the New Testament, and we know that we may derive great benefit from joining her in always pointing to Christ by our actions and prayers, thereby “keeping God’s word” along with her. May we be found so at the end of the ages!

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Transfiguration: “With Unveiled Faces”

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ towards God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, 18, NRSV

The Feast of the Transfiguration is a celebration not only of one of the most significant events in Christ’s ministry, but our own share in that event…and through it, all of the rich life of God available through this communion of love.

Christ’s Transfiguration on the Holy Mountain is one of the most important manifestations of Christ’s divine nature and mission mentioned in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell of it, and it is referred to in 2 Peter 1. The experience builds directly on a number of Old Testament accounts, notably the story of Moses’ “shining countenance” when descending from Mt. Sinai in Exodus 34, and Elijah’s encounter with God on Mt. Horeb in 1 Kings 19, where he finds the Lord not in earthquake, fire, or tempest…but in a “still, small voice.”

St. Leo the Great in writing about the Transfiguration sees it as having a number of purposes: first, to remove the utter shame and scandal that could utterly crush the faith of the disciples when they were to see Jesus suffer death through crucifixion. Here, we see the kindness of God through the times he “paves the way” for us by showing us things that give hope and purpose to life before we will need them.

This is one reason an active life of worship, daily times of prayer, study of the scriptures, and the practice of consciously living in God’s presence day-by-day is so important: it is through the eyes accustomed to seeing God’s active hand in life that we are able to “tune in” to divine communication in ways other than the proverbial baseball bat. Becoming sensitive to the many Transfigurations in faith always points us back to the Great Transfiguration of Christ, the one that assures us that no matter how much we suffer, Christ’s love for us will see us through and the glory promised to us in baptism will be ours at the end of our earthly journey. Our life, as St. Paul says, is “hidden with God” now, and each of us has a transfigured reality shared with our Risen Head. No one can take this away from us.

St. Leo also identifies this day with the teaching in the Law of Moses that “before two or three witnesses every word is ratified.” Moses and Elijah…the Law and the Prophets, the living (Elijah, who was swept up into heaven bodily) and the dead (Moses, whose death is recorded in the Pentateuch), are the chosen witnesses whose presence ratifies the Gospel message. Thus, the Feast of the Transfiguration is for St. Leo a strengthening of our trust and faith in Christ, just as it was for those chosen disciples he invited along with him for that journey.

Here we see that Christ doesn’t give each believer the same experience; not all of the disciples were present for his Transfiguration. Christ is the wise judge who knows what each one of us needs and can share wisely with others. We need to beware of any kind of spiritual envy for those who have been granted spiritual experiences or gifts we have not—just as those who have been given such gifts must guard against arrogance about something not of their own making or merit. The gifts God gives to each of us are for our benefit and to be shared with others only in so far as they benefit them. It is worth noting that Christ orders the disciples to keep “mum” about this event to others until the right time, and that when St. Peter in his second epistle does speak of it, it with profound reverence and humility—not pride or even curiosity.

At the first Evensong for this Holy Day we read from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, and there we encounter the words quoted at the head of this post. The Blessed Apostle is telling us that the spiritual life is always initiated by God (something so central to St. Augustine’s teaching later on and essential to all healthy Christian life in general). The Transfiguration makes this manifest. Jesus calls disciples, and he calls some of them up with him to the Holy Mountain in order to give them not a sermon or instruction but a direct experience of divine presence without the usual filters. Moving from “letter” (the filtered experience of written or a third party transmission) to “spirit” (the direct encounter) is the natural condition of the Christian.

It is a regular sign of spiritual progress to go from a faith based on what others have written or told us to a direct experience of God ourselves. There is nothing remotely “wrong” with the former—to say so would be to dishonor the Holy Scriptures, the saints and great Christian thinkers and poets through the ages. What we are speaking of here is not a choice between, but a deeper appropriation of and (ultimately) a moving into the reality that these things and people themselves communicate. That “reality” as St. Paul tells us is life in the Spirit itself…the self-same Spirit who inspires the Holy Scriptures, shines through the saints, and brings us the communion with God found in all the sacraments.

The Transfiguration is an image of the destiny of each person in Christ: to partake of the Uncreated Light of God available through Christ in the Holy Spirit. By “seeing the glory of the Lord” through our lives of worship, prayer, study, and service (we must never try to sever these things in the life of faith), we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” This, as all things in our faith, comes “from the Lord, the Spirit.”

The Transfiguration is far more than some kind of “mystical event” remote from human experience. Each time we enter into worship, especially joining with the whole Church all ages and places in the Eucharist, we are experiencing transfiguration. I have seen it myself, for I have seen people beaten down with sorrow and care at the start of the Liturgy changed in spirit and countenance by its conclusion. I have seen recipients of prayer overcome not with psychological “self-delusion,” but an awareness they are loved, forgiven, healed, welcomed into a kind of Life by its nature death-proof and glorious.

One of the very dissatisfying aspects of much American and Western Christianity is how far apart God and humanity still seem to be in actual practice. Anglicanism, with its deep sacramentality, its practice of the “three-fold rule” of Eucharist—Daily Office—Personal devotion, and its refusal to divide “religious” from “secular” life (as made very clear in the Book of Common Prayer), cannot (or, if it is tempted to do so, cannot for long) fall into this error. What we have is not a theory or an ideology, but a life, a practice, an experience of being made one with Christ.

It is this sort of life made manifest in Christ’s Transfiguration, a life of change into an eternal thing even as it makes its way through a mortal journey. In this, we follow Our Lord’s pattern. Even though he was the God in the flesh, his desire to bring all of us to salvation meant he bowed his head to human mortality and died before he triumphed over death in the Resurrection. Yet, even as he “set his face toward Jerusalem” and all that would mean, he showed to those he chose the incomprehensible truth and promise of a life beyond death—a life he and he alone was—in the NRSV’s language above—“competent” to share. That competence he has given to us, allowing us to more than gaze upon him with unveiled faces, but to live in him now and forever; for this we are immeasurably grateful.

The Collect for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.