Tuesday, November 30, 2021

St. Andrew: Christian life and an Ordination Anniversary


May Andrew, gentlest of the saintly company
   Inspire forgiveness for our grievous trespasses
That we, sore burdened by offences manifold 
   At his petition may obtain deliverance

(Verse from a hymn on St. Andrew’s Day)

 

 

Almighty God, who hast given such grace to thine Apostle Saint Andrew, that he counted the sharp and painful death of the cross to be an high honour and a great glory; grant us to take and esteem all troubles and adversities which shall come to us for thy sake, as things profitable for us toward the obtaining of everlasting life. Through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

(The Collect for the Feast of St. Andrew, Apostle, in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer)

 

 

 

November 30th is the Feast of St. Andrew “the first-called,” as recorded in the Gospel according to St. John. St. Andrew is my “ordination patron,” since I was ordained to the sacred priesthood on this day in 1993. In addition to seeking his prayers as a companion on the journey, I have thought a great deal about my patron over the years, learning more about his particular ministry and gifts—both from the Holy Scriptures and subsequent pious tradition.

 

Perhaps known best as St. Peter’s brother, the Fourth Gospel records Andrew as having first been a disciple of John the Baptist before becoming acquainted with Jesus and eventually following him (and in turn inviting his brother Peter to meet Jesus). From this we can tell he had keen spiritual thirst and insight. Andrew listened so deeply to John’s message that he knew John was not the Messiah, recognizing (as others couldn't, it appears) John’s mission of preparing the way for the Messiah.

 

I keep this aspect of St. Andrew’s witness in mind as I go about pastoral ministry. It is so easy to become wrapped up in personalities or issues that I can miss the true message. When younger, I sometimes became quite wedded to a particular figure or movement in the Church without recognizing how such passions and loyalties can take my attention and focus from following Christ and his gospel. It is surprisingly—and sadly—easy to substitute another “gospel” for the one our Lord taught. Andrew’s witness challenges this. 

 

Another aspect of this Apostle which intrigues and guides me is his name. Andrew’s name in Greek means “manly,” or “valorous.” The fact he bore a Greek name rather than a Hebrew one (as did his brother Simon) suggests a family background operating more in the midst of the complex cultural currents of his time and place rather than in the backwaters or safe eddies of religious traditionalism. This also has a message for me. 

 

It is sometimes tempting for a person with my temperament to desire peace so much as to want to “climb back into the womb” (to borrow a phrase from Nicodemas) of religious purity and custom. This is not real discipleship or authentic Christianity—but an immature and selfish impulse to avoid the implications of following Christ. To show real maturity, true spiritual valor, we must be so deeply-grounded in Christ’s mind that we may follow wherever He leads without fear or complaint. It means being willing to take risks while not losing connection with the life-giving source of faith, vision, hope, and wisdom. This is the proper place of holy tradition.

 

This leads me to a final point of consideration: Andrew’s courageous and yet gentle nature. Tradition holds that Andrew was martyred on a cross, much like his brother Peter. These first disciples identified so deeply with Christ Jesus they were to die in a like manner as did he—emphasizing that the Christian life is not an escape from suffering but an encounter with it in Christ’s power and love, identifying more with Christ through them. 


This, in turn, leads to loving others more openly and speaking the truth in love. Andrew invited his brother Peter to meet Jesus: he didn't force or hector or shame him. The difference is at the heart of the Christianity I know and desire. Relinquishing the outcomes to Christ is a necessary part of surrendering to God--as step requiring humility and inner communion with the Lord.

 

I am thankful for having the “first-called” Apostle as my ordination patron. His witness inspires me in the sometimes difficult and tumultuous times in which we live to listen deeply, follow simply, and love courageously. While I am only a beginner in this journey, today I rejoice in the witness of a disciple who has left a record of “things profitable for us toward the obtaining of everlasting life” in his actions, words, and character. By God’s grace may it be so for us all.

 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Last Sunday

 


Next Sunday's liturgical title is: "The Last Sunday after Pentecost." It has a rather jarring quality to it. The Last Sunday. It makes one think of finality and culmination.

Due to the collect for this Sunday and the imagery often used in both the scriptures appointed and hymns chosen, it is frequently called "Christ-the-King," though the BCP nowhere actually names it thus.

The "Feast of Christ-the-King" was instituted by the Roman Catholic Church in the 1920s in response to growing secularization, the effects of nationalism, and (to be honest) the decline in monarchies in favor of democracies, communism, or dictatorships. Originally appointed in that Church for the Sunday before All Saints' Day, it emphasized Christ's sovereignty above other loyalties and ideologies--something very much worth consideration now, as well.

Many Episcopalians now prefer "The Reign of Christ" to "Christ-the-King" for this day, largely for its avoidance of patriarchal / hierarchichal / masculine imagery for Christ. Yet, the debate over this Sunday's "nickname" tends to obscure its actual message.

What this Sunday celebrates is not substituting one form of earthly power (monarchy for democracy) for another, but the coming victory of God's reign on earth--something we pray for each time we say the Lord's Prayer and the Creeds. Simply put, this Sunday celebrates a world we pray for but often seem at odds with.

Such a world is not based on death, fear, or shame. It is lived in light, love, and joy. It bridges divides we think impossible; it raises up the lowly, and brings down the haughty. It reveals the truth about God, humans, and the creation. God's restored world is utterly unexpected by and completely at odds with "the way things are." Through the gift of the Holy Spirit it is available to us in holy creation, in liturgy, in prayer, and in Christian service with others made in God's sacred image.

Whenever we meet with it--even for a moment--we will find Christ's reign strange and challenging to the exact degree we are wedded to death. It is for this reason that this Sunday's Gospel reading highlights the dialogue between Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ: a conversation between death and Life itself.

This Sunday is a frank admission that placing our loyalty in "the way things are" or in our own "devices and desires" is in direct opposition to Christ's reign, his will as made known in the gospel. It points to the conflict at the heart of being a Christian.

It has been observed that, for one to catch the feeling of authentic Christianity, one must understand every day to be our last. Only then will the preciousness and sacredness of each day be revealed. "The Last Sunday after Pentecost" catches that very well. True Christianity means we have already died and risen with Jesus and are thus citizens of God's dominion, God's sacred community. Our loyalties, priorities, and desires must and will be tested again and again, until we gladly surrender to this.

As we come to this Sunday, I pray we will each experience it truly as "The Last Sunday": consciously standing on eternity's edge and preparing to fall lovingly into Christ's arms of love and truth.

For, in truth, that is what this Sunday (and every day) should be--the eternally glorious moment of surrender to the Love which alone makes right, and which alone overcomes death, fear, and loss.


Brandon+

Monday, November 8, 2021

Sharing the Common Cup: A Pandemic Message


During the pandemic there has been a concern on the part of some about the chalice at the Eucharist. The concern is that the common cup is not sanitary and should be avoided. Indeed, the Episcopal Church in many places forbade the distribution of the Holy Sacrament from the chalice to the people at the start of the pandemic--and continues to do so in some places still--while in others questionable or novel innovations have been employed to deal with this concern. Like so much else, the biblical, catholic, and rubrical provision for communion in both kinds in the Eucharist has been upended in the pandemic.

These responses have often resulted in erroneous, improvised, and misguided thinking and practices: scientifically, spiritually, and liturgically. I write this message to address these matters as part of the teaching office I have with you.

Scientifically

The risk of transmission of disease from the common cup is very, very low.  A recent article has once more confirmed this.* If the shared chalice were an effective means of communicating disease, I would be ill much of the time, as I receive what remains in the chalice at the conclusion of communion at each celebration of the Eucharist. 

We also know now that SARS-CoV-2 is not effectively transmitted by surface contact in situations such as found with the common cup. As the above-linked article concludes:
In summary, the common communion cup may theoretically serve as a vehicle of transmitting infection, but the potential risk of transmission is very small. Currently, available data do not provide any support for the suggestion that the practice of sharing a common communion cup can contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
While the risk isn't zero, very few people are at any risk of infection by receiving the sacrament from the chalice.† Episcopalians often say they "follow the science." Here, this means accepting that the chalice is both sanitary and safe for the vast majority of people. 

Spiritually

Above and beyond the question of science is the matter of what sacraments mean and what they provide for the faithful. We should be much more concerned about the value and efficacy of the sacraments as spiritual medicine (and our own preparation for them0 than a preoccupation with their fitness for us

Consumerism has so invaded our era that we often ignore the solemn words found in the Exhortation (based, in turn, on St. Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians) for "all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup" and "Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord." The exaggerated concerns around the common cup only deepen a serious error in contemporary church discourse: conforming the sacraments to us, rather than conforming our lives to sharing in them. As Jesus asks of James and John, so he does of us: "Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Matthew 20:22). The common cup is not an "option" among options, but a very physical encounter with Christ, neighbor, and creation through the Paschal Mystery. Approaching it in this light changes the discussion's context and character.

This brings up the point that the Holy Eucharist, like the entire Christian life, is not primarily about "being safe." Putting the priority on complete safety has never been a mark of authentic Christianity. 

In the early stages of the pandemic there was an understandable concern to limit transmission and keep our gatherings from being a way of bringing sickness and death, but with added knowledge it is time to assert the spiritual priority of making the sacraments available to God's people. The absolute priority of safety urged by some obscures the truth of the Gospel--a way of life inherently risky and at odds with the world's standards. Reliance on comfort, convenience, and riskless-ness found through such things as teleconferencing and avoidance of the chalice ultimately makes the Christian life more unreal, removed from human need and divine participation.

The spiritual consequence of prolonged physical absence from receiving the Holy Mysteries in both kinds is not to be downplayed. When Jesus says in John 6:53 "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" he is not speaking only figuratively. Prioitizing online forms of gathering has unintentionally undermined  incarnational, sacramental faith while encouraging gnostic, intellectualized distortions of that faith. The anxiety around the cup is, I believe, a further expression of this. When the cup is returned to normative use our fears will gradually be overcome and a renewal of trust made available through it.

Now that they have been vaccinated against this disease, many of our people have been pleading with clergy and lay leaders to bring back fully-sacramental worship in order to give sustenance for this long and arduous journey. Sadly, they have often been met with what amounts to pseudo-scientific legalism and spiritual prevarication, being told "we can't share the cup until everyone is comfortable with it" and the like--something never true in the Church's history before and quite beside the point now. The many people who have told me that receiving the cup is, for them, an essential part of their spiritual life have been denied this because of the qualms of others in their home communities, often in the name of "inclusion." This turning of sacramental theology on its head is sadly ironic and painfully misapplied.

Holding whole communities of vaccinated (and now boosted) parishioners hostage to the anxiety of a few is actually a form of coercion and exclusion rather than an image of inclusion. Making accommodation for access and mitigation of risks (bringing the Holy Sacrament to the immunocompromised, online access for services where useful, employing masks in liturgy, improved ventilation/air cleaning, &c. in church) while allowing for normative worship is the inclusive, generous, and spiritually-based response.

Liturgically

The Eucharist is a sacrament of unity--the unity of God-in-Trinity, the unity of God and humanity in Christ, the unity of the Body of Christ in heaven and earth, the unity of the Church throughout the world and across the ages, the unity of our life as a holy offering, and the unity of those who gather in Christ to share in this meal. To shun the shared cup without sound reasons diminishes this sacramental sign of unity.

Similarly, the substitution of pre-packaged "communion kits" for a common sharing essentially obliterates it. When, as some churches have done, communicants are given (or take for themselves) private plastic-wrapped wafers and cups, the visible sharing in this unity is drastically reduced if not destroyed. It also creates a large amount of plastic waste at what is supposed to be a meal where "nothing is wasted" and brings up the question of how such "waste" is to be reverently disposed of--along with the obvious point that such "communion-at-all-costs" is an unfortunate icon of our alienated, polluted relationship to God's Creation. Once again, consumerism (masquerading as sanitation, safety, convenience, &c.) has intruded, with all its Mammon-worshipping paraphernalia and logic, and displacing sound sacramental, liturgical practice.

The often hasty liturgical modifications made at the start of the pandemic may have had some logic initially, but their continued employment proves one should not generalize from emergencies to life afterwards. Rather, we should prioritize normative liturgical practice as found in the official formularies of our tradition, working from them and staying as close as possible to them and the underlying, cumulative sacramental wisdom they embody. Liturgy based on this communicates Christ, rather than panic, fear, or uniformed and consumeristic novelty.

 +   +   + 

There are, of course, legitimate reasons for not receiving from the chalice: recovery from alcoholism, or the effects of some medications might be good reasons, for example. Since we teach that reception in one kind (either the consecrated bread or wine) is sufficient for a full communion, abstaining from the common cup does not nullify one's experience of the Sacrament. To receive or not from the chalice should, however, be based on spiritual and factual considerations, not myth, pseudoscience, or plain misunderstanding. 

To conclude: For all but the most seriously immunocompromised, the chalice is safe. It is sanitary. It delivers Christ's sacred Blood to us without danger, as our Lord would have it. It is a sign of our being one in Christ. You may receive from it in faith and without fear and in joy. The pandemic has not changed this.

Let us focus now, instead, on what it means to "share in that cup" and to be nourished in Christ's life and love there.

BLF+

* This article does remind us that if we are experiencing active infection, we should not receive. In such cases, we should not be in public liturgy, either.

†If you are seriously immunocompromised or for some other reason do not feel you can receive Holy Communion in a public liturgy, please contact me. I will make Holy Communion available to you privately in an ultra low-risk setting.