Monday, January 29, 2018

The "Gesima Sisters" and Preparing for Lent

Now that we are approaching February 2 and the Feast of the Purification/Presentation, it is time to begin thinking about Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.

Some of you reading this will remember the three Sundays prior to Ash Wednesday being known as the ‘Gesima’ Sundays: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. They formed a sort of “semi-season” of preparation before Lent in the ancient Western Calendar, with carefully-chosen readings emphasizing our need for salvation and the essential disciplines toward that end. The names related roughly to the number of days before Easter; seventy, sixty, or fifty days before Great Day. One priest I worked with used to speak lovingly of “the Gesima Sisters” and their annual visit.

Following the trend of Western liturgical revisions in the 20th century, the current  Prayer Book swept these observances away. The focus today in the Liturgical Calendar is on Epiphanytide as a time of Theophany (the showing-forth of Christ as Son of God) and the mission of the Church to share the Gospel to all peoples.

As valuable as this focus is, there remains a very real need for all Christians to prepare for Holy Lent. When we defer that work until the days immediately prior to Ash Wednesday, our Lenten observance will likely be very shallow--more a matter of avoiding chocolate than learning to forsake sin, love God and neighbor, or receive and share forgiveness.

To that end, during these three last Sundays of the season, we are focusing on classic themes and practices for preparation for the full observance of a Holy Lent:

- Sermons on rekindling a Holy Desire for God, humility, and forgiveness of others
- A Lenten Rule form will be set out (with a detachable commitment form) with instruction for considering your Lenten discipline.
- A list of key Lenten practices with explanations will be in the Tidings (our parish newsletter)
- The "Lenten Table" in the narthex offers a rich variety of materials, free for the taking, for your Lenten devotion.

As part of this Lenten preparation, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday) will witness our annual “Farewell to Alleluia,” where we will "bury Alleluia" behind the altar, expressive of our coming Lenten fast of this word in the Liturgy. Alleluia is then "resurrected" at Easter.

While the Gesima Sundays are no longer officially part of the Church Year, my own sense is that eventually, a pre-Lenten time of dedicated preparation will re-emerge. In addition to being an ancient part of the Calendar, it simply reflects a wise and holy practice. For us to enter into Lent with true openness of heart and mind, thoughtful preparation is essential.

The 17th century priest and poet George Herbert's poem on the season begins: "Welcome, dear feast of Lent." He was aware of how this great fast was actually a rich feast of sacred knowledge and love through careful ascesis, prayer, study, and works of mercy. How may one say this without having done some examination of conscience, or considered the distance between our current way of life and that set forth in the Gospel? Should we enter one of the most important times in the Church Year, complete with all of its elaborate liturgies and traditions, having done less preparation than secular people put into their Christmas or Halloween decorations?

In the end, our Lenten preparation will always be an expression of what we believe that season is really about. If it is simply a period of dreariness, external to one's life and renewal, then we will want as little to do with it as possible. It will be all carnival and shrovetide pancakes with us. If it is vital and central to our living discipleship, we will continue the venerable practice of turning from  Christmas and Epiphanytide celebrations toward the Paschal Mystery by observing these days with intentionality, eagerness, and hope.

May the "Gesima Sisters," in one form or another, grace your days ahead as we prepare for that "dear feast of Lent" -- a feast of spiritual growth, if we but let it be.

Friday, January 26, 2018

St. Paultide Reflections – Hope for imperfect people

I am currently making my way through the little book of talks collected under the title The Road to Eternal Life by Michael Casey, OSB. I have found it very helpful not only as a commentary on the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict, but as a distillation of much of the best of Western catholic Christian thought and practice.

With the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul yesterday, we have entered into a short period in the calendar focused on this Apostle, his character and story, ministry, and some of the important figures arising from that ministry (including the Patron Saint of the parish I serve).

In a delightful example of synchronicity, my daily readings from Casey’s book have recently drawn much of their insight from the writings of the Blessed Apostle, and I wanted to share with those who might read this blog a few passages I have found very useful.

“It is by God’s grace that I am what I am” – warts and all. When I survey the landscape of my giftedness, it is not hard to praise God as its origin. There is, however, another side to my life that I hope will never intrude into public awareness. This is the shameful history of my selfishness and hardheartedness. For this I alone seem responsible. Indeed, this appears to be what Saint Benedict is saying in the fourth chapter of his Rule: “If he sees anything good in himself, let him refer it to God and not to himself. But let him know that the evil is always from himself and take responsibility for it.” (RB 4.42-43)

I do not want to appear to be ascribing to God the ugliness that is entirely my own creation. What I am saying is that the aspects of my life that are displeasing to me are not outside God’s plan; they are designed to bring me to a fuller realization of the unconditional character of God’s love. If I were all sunshine and light I could easily believe that God loves me because of my inherent goodness and that, in some way, I have made myself eminently worthy of that love. That seems to be a harmless enough delusion, but it is not. What do you think will happen when eventually I fall into some action that even I cannot deny, excuse, or rationalize? The logical conclusion will be that because of my misconduct God no longer loves me. My shame will quickly lead me to despair, as though God could be surprised and disgusted by the way human beings act.

Here’s what the fourteenth-century English mystic Julian of Norwich has to say about this situation:

For, in truth, we shall see in heaven for all eternity that though we have sinned grievously in this life, we were never hurt in God’s love, nor were we ever of less value in God’s sight. This falling is a test by which we shall have a high and marvelous knowing of love in God forever. That love [of God] is hard and marvelous that cannot and will not be broken for our trespasses…In love mercy allows us to fail somewhat, and in failing we fall, and in falling we die…Our failing is full of fear; our falling is marked by sin; our dying is sorrowful. Yet in all this the sweet eye of pity never departs from us and the working of mercy never ceases. (Revelation 14, chaps. 61, 48)

It is true that it is by God’s grace that we are what we are and by God’s grace we have been preserved from countless calamities of our own making. Even though we fall short of our own hopes and expectations, it is by God’s grace that we are what we are. God has a plan for us, of which we have only the sketchiest knowledge. Let us allow God to get on with the work and not delay its outcome either by taking credit for what meets with our approval or by becoming downcast when we are plunged into the mystery of our own resistance. “It is by God’s grace that I am what I am.” Whatever I have, I have received from God, and whatever I have become, it is part of the mystery of Providence. As always, the bottom line is this: I can never be beyond the pale of divine mercy.

As I reflect on this passage, a number of things stand out as very important and useful in my life as a disciple and in my work as a pastor of souls.

The first is found in the sentence: “Let us allow God to get on with the work and not delay its outcome either by taking credit for what meets with our approval for be becoming downcast when we are plunged into the mystery of our own resistance.”

In my own life, I have often been intensely frustrated—and embarrassed—by the degree to which I have resisted God’s promptings and direction. Invariably, when I finally let go of the resistance to what God is giving me grace to embrace (this is the moment of compunction or penthos, followed by repentance), real growth follows.

Over the years, I have come to see my resistance as an apparently necessary part of the work of being a disciple. Instead of being disgusted or even terribly embarrassed about this, I am gradually coming to accept that part of my humanness is being a thickie when it comes to learning the Gospel way of life.

In doing so, I have found that the resistance actually declines. Part of the resistance to God, it seems, is simple pride and stubbornness. When one accepts the limitations of the self and our actual need to fail as part of the process of believing and growing in belief, this self-acceptance leads to quicker repentance and greater assurance of God’s ongoing love for me…in spite of my sins.

The quote from Bl. Julian of Norwich is another part of this section of Casey’s book I find helpful. That the sweet eye of pity never departs from us and the working of mercy never ceases is an important truth for me to accept as I learn the implications of what we are taught in 1 John 4:8 (“God is love”). If God is indeed love, then all elements of a human-style transactionalism or quid-pro-quo relationship must be cast out.

St. Paul experienced perhaps the most intense form of realization that one’s faith has been mistaken. The feast we celebrate on January 25 is as much about his failing on his own as it is about God’s success in his life. His failing, then his falling, and finally his dying-and-rising to new life in Christ, is a clear exposition of what all who follow Jesus must undergo, each in his or her own way.

This fact never departed the Blessed Apostle. His writings frequently betray self-knowledge of his resistance—in the past and as an ongoing reality in his life. But, “It is by God’s grace that I am what I am” remains true for him—and us—at each step of the journey. This form of self-acceptance does not lead to complacency; indeed, it is inimical to complacency. Rather, it is a growing awareness of what God’s love for us really means, and how that love brings forth from us more and more desire to let salvation be accomplished in us, rather than resist it.

It is not that God creates our sinfulness or our brokenness—not at all. Yet, God’s work in our life goes beyond the day-to-day: he knows our potential self already, and the work of salvation we experience in moments of growth and in moments of resistance to that growth partakes of an ongoing relationship, a communion that is itself an expression of our created nature and God’s revealed will for his creatures.  In this sense, our resistance—like St. Paul’s—becomes part of our own story of God’s victory rather than merely our folly. Even our resistance, you see, must be given over as an intentional offering to God.

When we learn to “get over ourselves” and allow God to love us through the good and the bad, we join St. Paul in being able to say: “It is by God’s grace that I am what I am,” and say so in hope as we make our way towards that perfection which only communion with our knowing-and-loving Triune God makes possible. And that is very good news, indeed for as-yet imperfect disciples like me.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Christ Bathed in Light—St. Gregory Nazianzus & The Feast of Theophany

The Feast of the Baptism of Christ is also known as the Theophany (showing forth of God). It is one of the most significant moments in the entire Gospel story. Christ is revealed to all present as the Holy One of God; the Holy Trinity is explicitly manifested in the voice of the Father, the Holy Spirit’s anointing presence “in the form of a dove,” and in Christ, the Son; Heaven and earth are re-connected and the Creation revealed as holy once more. The waters of the river Jordan, once Israel’s entryway into the Holy Land, become the entry for all people into the divinizing light and life of God through Holy Baptism.

St. Gregory the Theologian (c. AD 329-390, feast day May 9) was one of the greatest of all Christian thinkers (sharing the designation “Theologian” with the Apostle St. John!). His thought was profound, partly because of his scholarship, but mostly because of his deep prayerfulness and humility before the mystery of God. This sermon is often read in conjunction with this Feast.

The excerpts of this sermon below show his understanding of this great mystery within the context of how we are to live it out by remembering our cleansing in Christ through Holy Baptism, and then the ongoing cleansing of our spirits through the Holy Sacraments, prayer, ascesis, study of the Sacred Scriptures, and the works of mercy God places before us daily. This is an essential element of authentic faith-sharing (evangelism): we may only share what we have ourselves received.

Through the baptism we celebrate today, we are made able to stand beside Christ the True Light and enjoy more and more its splendor by sharing in it—and sharing it with others.

+  +  +

Christ is bathed in light; let us also be bathed in light. Christ is baptized; let us also go down with him, and rise with him.

John is baptizing when Jesus draws near. Perhaps he comes to sanctify his baptizer; certainly he comes to bury sinful humanity in the waters. He comes to sanctify the Jordan for our sake and in readiness for us; he who is spirit and flesh comes to begin a new creation through the Spirit and water.

The Baptist protests; Jesus insists. Then John says: I ought to be baptized by you. He is the lamp in the presence of the sun, the voice in the presence of the Word, the friend in the presence of the Bridegroom, the greatest of all born of woman in the presence of the firstborn of all creation, the one who leapt in his mother’s womb in the presence of him who was adored in the womb, the forerunner and future forerunner in the presence of him who has already come and is to come again. I ought to be baptized by you: we should also add, “and for you”, for John is to be baptized in blood, washed clean like Peter, not only by the washing of his feet.

Jesus rises from the waters; the world rises with him. The heavens like Paradise with its flaming sword, closed by Adam for himself and his descendants, are rent open. The Spirit comes to him as to an equal, bearing witness to his Godhead. A voice bears witness to him from heaven, his place of origin. The Spirit descends in bodily form like the dove that so long ago announced the ending of the flood and so gives honor to the body that is one with God.

Today let us do honor to Christ’s baptism and celebrate this feast in holiness. Be cleansed entirely and continue to be cleansed. Nothing gives such pleasure to God as the conversion and salvation of humans, for whom his every word and every revelation exist. He wants you to become a living force for all people, lights shining in the world. You are to be radiant lights as you stand beside Christ, the great light, bathed in the glory of him who is the light of heaven. You are to enjoy more and more the pure and dazzling light of the Trinity, as now you have received – though not in its fullness – a ray of its splendor, proceeding from the one God, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, January 5, 2018

"Let the nations now take their place..." The Feast of the Epiphany

The Epiphany is one of the Principal Feasts of the liturgical year. This feast is, for Christians in the Western tradition, primarily a celebration of the adoration (worship) of the Christ child by the Magi—this being the first encounter by the Gentiles with the Lord who would grant us to be numbered amongst the holy People of God. It is the fulfillment of many prophesies in the Hebrew Scriptures and is rich in meaning, rewarding prolonged consideration.

This excerpted sermon on the Epiphany by St. Leo the Great illustrates a number of features of classic Christian faith. It shows how deeply imbued with the Holy Scriptures all true teaching and preaching in the catholic faith must be. It delivers a message both of hope and of clear direction for how to savor this feast and how to apply it—in this case, by taking a lesson from the star that guides the Magi on their way, to help others come to their destination in God. It is a fine example of what faithful preaching has always been (and must always be), so the hearts of women and men may be nourished in the unique and joyful message of Salvation.

May your Epiphanytide celebrations continue the theme of joy and possibility begun at Christmas. Keep the whole season after Epiphany until Candlemas (Feb. 2) as a time of intentional thanksgiving for being led by faith into God's nearer presence while on earth and for the promise of meeting our Lord "face to face" at the end of the ages.

+  +  +

The loving providence of God determined that in the last days he would aid the world, set on its course to destruction. He decreed that all nations should be saved in Christ.

A promise had been made to the holy patriarch Abraham in regard to these nations. He was to have a countless progeny, born not from his body but from the seed of faith. His descendants are therefore compared with the array of the stars. The father of all nations was to hope not in an earthly progeny but in a progeny from above.

Let the full number of the nations now take their place in the family of the patriarchs. Let the children of the promise now receive the blessing in the seed of Abraham, the blessing renounced by the children of his flesh. In the persons of the Magi let all people adore the Creator of the universe; let God be known, not in Judaea only, but in the whole world, so that his name may be great in all Israel.

Dear friends, now that we have received instruction in this revelation of God’s grace, let us celebrate with spiritual joy the day of our first harvesting, of the first calling of the Gentiles. Let us give thanks to the merciful God, who has made us worthy, in the words of the Apostle, to share the position of the saints in light, who has rescued us from the power of darkness, and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. As Isaiah prophesied: the people of the Gentiles, who sat in darkness, have seen a great light, and for those who dwelt in the region of the shadow of death a light has dawned. He spoke of them to the Lord: The Gentiles, who do not know you, will invoke you, and the peoples, who knew you not, will take refuge in you.

This is the day that Abraham saw, and rejoiced to see, when he knew that the sons born of his faith would be blessed in his seed, that is, in Christ. Believing that he would be the father of the nations, he looked into the future, giving glory to God, in full awareness that God is able to do what he has promised.

This is the day that David prophesied in the psalms, when he said: All the nations that you have brought into being will come and fall down in adoration in your presence, Lord, and glorify your name. Again, the Lord has made known his salvation; in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice.

This came to be fulfilled, as we know, from the time when the star beckoned the three wise men out of their distant country and led them to recognize and adore the King of heaven and earth. The obedience of the star calls us to imitate its humble service: to be servants, as best we can, of the grace that invites all men to find Christ.

Dear friends, you must have the same zeal to be of help to one another; then, in the kingdom of God, to which faith and good works are the way, you will shine as children of the light: through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with God the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.
(from Sermo 3 in Epiphania Domini, 1-3. 5: PL 54, 240-244)

The Collect of the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.