Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Yes of God for the Path Ahead...

There is one thing we are proud of: our conscience assures us that in our dealings with our fellow-men, and above all in our dealings with you, our conduct has been governed by a devout and godly sincerity, by the grace of God and not by worldly wisdom. There is nothing in our letters to you but what you can read for yourselves, and understand too.  Partial as your present knowledge of us is, you will I hope come to understand fully that you have as much reason to be proud of us, as we of you, on the Day of our Lord Jesus. It was because I felt so confident about all this that I had intended to come first of all to you and give you the benefit of a double visit: I meant to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and after leaving Macedonia, to return to you, and you would then send me on my way to Judaea. That was my intention; did I lightly change my mind?

Do I, when I frame my plans, frame them as a worldly man might, so that it should rest with me to say 'yes' and 'yes', or 'no' and 'no'?  As God is true, the language in which we address you is not an ambiguous blend of Yes and No. The Son of God, Christ Jesus, proclaimed among you by us…was never a blend of Yes and No. With him it was, and is, Yes. He is the Yes pronounced upon God's promises, every one of them. That is why, when we give glory to God, it is through Christ Jesus that we say 'Amen'. And if you and we belong to Christ, guaranteed as his and anointed, it is all God's doing; it is God also who has set his seal upon us, and as a pledge of what is to come has given the Spirit to dwell in our hearts. (From 2 Corinthians 1:12-22, NEB)

Today’s appointed reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Corinth, is an important example of the way Christians are to go about discernment and decision-making. If we take a look at it with care, we will benefit from the experience—and better understand our Lenten preparation.

St. Paul begins the section with a reminder that we may be proud only of the victory of God in us…nothing else. He tells the Corinthians that this victory in his own life is seen by the way he makes choices not by exercising his own independent will (something he was very good at, we know, before his conversion to Christ), but by living in God’s free gift of love and direction…his grace.

This grace doesn’t reduce us to the level of puppets, however. It means we still may exercise our own choices and thinking…but in concert with God. That concert or synergy is always present with St. Paul and makes reading his letters even more interesting. He remains a human being, with a will and passions and a personality; that much is very clear from his writings! But, the will and passions and personality are now in a loving and ever-deepening dialogue or communion with God, and that communion yields clarity of discernment about choices to be made.

The Apostle then goes on to say that instead of a worldly diffidence or willfulness—weighing everything out with uncertainty, acting on impulse, or “charting our own course”—a person of faith is always becoming more and more “in Christ” so that the decisions made are so much in concert with the living Christ that they are natural, appropriate, and made from God’s love, not human anxiety or thirst for power and control. Instead of pointing to ourselves, such decisions point to God and the true need of the other in our life.

This “becoming in Christ” is not something we can accomplish on our own. No list of “10 techniques for becoming a Christian” can or should exist. Instead, St. Paul tells us that this is “all God’s doing,” and happens because of the Holy Spirit given to us as a result of our decision for Christ. When the Spirit is given to us—and this is sealed and made manifest in Holy Baptism—we are made part of Christ’s Body and are set on the journey of growing more and more into Christ, becoming that “new organism” the Apostle speaks of elsewhere, a kind of being that lives in increasing harmony with God’s revealed will for this life and in eternity.

This is a manifestation of the Peace of God that was made incarnate in Christ. To acquire that peace, it is necessary that we strip away all that is not Christ in our lives. This is our ascetic cooperation with God, and in doing this we enter more and more into the eternal prayer of love and unity between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. It is out of that loving unity that Christians are to act.

The stripping-away process I speak of is part of all Christian life, but especially it is the focus of Holy Lent. As we approach this great season each year, it is essential we take stock of our lives and see where it is still “no” and “yes” in our life with God. God, who has said “yes” once and for all in Christ, beckons us to do the same with Him. Our God makes no compromises with diffidence or willfulness—the “no” in us. For our complete communion, we must surrender all ourselves to Him for his loving and redemptive purposes, his eternal and joyous affirmation.

Understood this way, repentance/ascesis is the farthest thing from punishment or some sort of painful “no” in our life. It is the gateway to a life of “yes” with God, our neighbor, and our potential and true self.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Light to Enlighten the Nations…Every Day.

At each baptism in the Episcopal Church a candle, lit from the Paschal Candle, is given to the newly-baptized (or an adult sponsor). While there is no “official” liturgical formula for this action, I usually use these words when presenting the candle: “Receive the light of Christ, that when the bridegroom comes you may go forth with all the saints to meet him; and see that you keep the grace of your baptism. Amen.”

Very often these baptismal candles are extinguished and put in their presentation box, and then packed away—a memento in some special place at home, never to see the light of day again. While reasonable in a purely human way, it is a great mistake in the spiritual life to put the “light of Christ” in a box and stow it away as a kind of pleasant memory.

The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple (also known as Candlemas) celebrates an event recorded in the Gospel according to Luke, Chapter 2. It is a unique window into a moment of beauty and significance, pointing not only to Christ’s identity as Messiah, but to the great humility of God in coming to be our Savior, the great love and risk taken by the Blessed Virgin Mary in bearing the Son of God into the world, and the utterly unexpected people (such as Simeon and Anna) God uses to proclaim the truth.

This day is also a celebration of light: the light of God’s physical presence in Christ coming into the Temple, the light that enlightens all people (about which Simeon’s canticle in Luke 2:29-32 speaks), and the light each of us walk in when we follow Jesus not as a good teacher or one who agrees with our personal opinions, but (as St. Peter says in John 6:68) the one “who has the words of eternal life.” It is that latter light that must not be forgotten or packed away or in any other sense become merely theoretical.

At Candlemas it the Church’s ancient custom to assemble for worship at a place apart from the usual gathering-spot and there to receive, light, and bless candles. After hearing again St. Simeon’s words about “a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel,” we physically bear this light in procession into the darkened church building, recalling Christ’s entry into the Temple so long ago.

The privilege as Christians to bear light into darkness is, however, a current obligation. From the moment of baptism, we are made part of a Body of Light. This holy day makes concrete and visual what is always true. We may all be called to bear the Light of Christ differently—for some the quiet but intense encounter of the aged Simeon, or perhaps the energetic witness of Anna, or the wonderment-in-the-midst of events of the Blessed Virgin or St. Joseph—but bear that light we must.

So, take out your baptism candle and burn it on this day and on the anniversary of your baptism. If your parish has a Candlemas liturgy, attend it and hold your light consciously and with gratitude. If your church doesn’t observe this holy day, agitate for it next year and light a candle tonight while reading the collect and lessons for this day, rejoicing in the light of Christ now come into your life—and “keep the grace of your baptism” anew, and always.