Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Three Silences: Preparing for Holy Week

Silence is a sometimes-overlooked but important part of worship. Here are three significant silences occurring each Holy Week, and I invite you to be part of them all, taking strength and insight from each:

The first is the silence after the Maundy Thursday liturgy. Because there is no dismissal, this liturgy doesn’t “end” so much as go into recess. After the altar is stripped and the lights lowered, we leave quietly. Our hushed departure from the church building shows how much these days change our “normal” pattern of life & worship--with its organ postlude and family-at-home time during Coffee Hour. We honor both God and neighbor through reverent silence as we depart for home or to the Altar of Repose during the All-Night Prayer Watch.

The second silence is at the start of the Good Friday liturgy. This is the one time in the year when worship begins with a protracted silence. Perhaps the greatest form of prayer is silent communion in wonder and adoration, and on this day we make a sacrifice of the usual opening to the liturgy by omitting all singing, movement, and sound to engage in this form of prayer. This may be the most solemn moment in the entire Liturgical Year, yet it happens without a word. Perhaps some of the most important sharing of the Gospel, or most significant witnessing to Christ we ever offer will occur in just such silence.

The third silence comes at the Easter Vigil, following the baptismal liturgy. When all have been baptized, anointed, and welcomed into Christ’s Body, it is our custom to kneel in silence before the lighting of the altar candles and the Proclamation of the Resurrection. This third silence is so very different from the two previous; it is pregnant with energy, with expectation for the joy about to unfold—a joy repeated each year but somehow like the First Easter each time. This silence peers into the tomb with the Holy Women and seeks, yearns for Christ’s rising. The final moments of the era of death are about to be overcome by the Light of Christ and the Kingdom of Life. It is my favorite silence each year.
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It seems a bit odd to be so enthusiastic about silence, but I believe it expresses one of the real gifts we bear as Anglican Christians: the gift of mystery and transformative encounter with God in worship. This encounter leads to a fundamentally different orientation to life; one of a deep peace and assurance, a hope stronger than all the fleeting doubts and anxious turmoil of this or any age. What we experience in worship makes us more just, more merciful, more compassionate and persevering in  all our life, because our worship is our life, not separated from it. The stillness and silence of our communion with God is an undying prayer through all our choices, trials, and encounters. 

I want to encourage each of you to join me—with any friends you feel called to invite—to participate not only in the silences but the many other parts of Holy Week—the fountain of our faith and the seal of our hope. Together, we will journey from Palm Sunday's raucous parade to the moment when we sing the great Easter hymn of victory "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death..." and taste anew the joy God has prepared for us from the foundation of the world.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Genesis 43:5 -- The Gospel in Miniature

"Ye shall not see my face, except your brother be with you."

As we read the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis this Lent, I am reminded of a lecture given by then-Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey. The lecture's topic was the Holy Spirit, and in illustrating a point he made a comment--almost an aside--which has stayed with me over the years. 

He spoke about the centrality of care for the Other in the Christian faith, summing it up in those words from the King James version of the Forty-Third Chapter of Genesis: "Ye shall not see my face, except your brother be with you." Ramsey said this was, in a sense, the Gospel in miniature. 

There is another saying (I forget the source) along much the same lines: "If you seek salvation, look to your brother." 

In our day, we would perhaps modify these to "sister and brother," but the meaning remains the same: our salvation is connected to our love and care for the others in our life. There is no such thing as a completely individual Christianity; indeed, an individualistic faith is blasphemous and the religion of demons. The Gospel of  Jesus Christ makes this completely clear: to love God means loving the neighbor in real, tangible ways.

This is particularly important to keep in mind during Lent. Two of the great disciplines of this season--fasting and prayer--must not overshadow the third: Mercy. They are completely interconnected and mutually-reinforcing. It is mercy which seems particularly in short supply right now.

We hear much about justice today, and justice is indeed essential both for our faith and our society. However, mercy marks the Christian life most profoundly, for mercy is what God has shown us rather than justice. As a matter of justice, what humans have done and continue to do to each other, to the environment, and in response to God's love would merit our extinction, not our vindication in a court of law.

But this is not what the Gospel proposes. Rather, it is by the conscious reception of God's mercy in Christ to us that we may become merciful to others--recognizing their just claims and seeing our absolute dependence on their fair treatment as the criterion of our own salvation, much as we say "forgive us our sins as we forgive others" in the Lord's Prayer. This is the message of the Christ's cross, not of Justice's balance.

We seem uncomfortable with mercy today, preferring the sharper language of judgment, blame, shame, and condemnation. This is a sad replay of earlier patterns in our society, which seems always drawn to harshness rather than compassion. We often act as if we believe that eventually, force will make us love each other.

Compelling people to love the Other never works. It is only by a recognition of our own completion in our brother or sister that we can truly understand the meaning implicit it "Love your neighbor as your self" or the hidden meaning of the words of Joseph's command. Understanding and accepting God's mercy for us unlocks this recognition. 

When God came into our world to share our life--sharing it to the very end--the best excuse we could have for walling ourselves off from each other was removed. If God could do this, so may we. By becoming part of Christ's living Body, we are now able to let him work through us to overcome barriers in love and mercy. We do not have to do this on our own. We do not have to wait for the other person to blink or capitulate or even change. We are free to love now because we ourselves may know we are beloved of God--warts and all, even in our present condition.

This is a new language for humanity. It is not "natural" for us in our present broken condition. To learn this language means a dedication and persistence available only through communion with our Triune God. There can be no "instant justice" in human affairs nor can mercy flow unceasingly from human hearts without deep humility arising from regular repentance. All the essentials of the Gospel are woven in a seamless garment, like Christ's robe. Teaching and practicing these essentials is the ongoing work of the Church's inner inner life nourishing its mission to the whole Cosmos.

With so many today receiving so little justice or mercy, a true Lenten fast will lead not to impotent anger or self-righteous blame, but to a greater thirst for the good of the Other, and to each of us discerning how we might bring our brothers and sisters along with us to the Kingdom through repentance, humility, service, and compassion. Like Joseph, we will seize the opportunities God gives us to save and serve those in need.

For truly, without them, we shall never see God's face.