Friday, December 2, 2022

Advent, Repentance, and the Prayer Book’s Way of Preparation: It's More than a Wreath

Advent is a season of beauty, expectation, and penitence.

Advent is frequently a misunderstood season today, and thus often not fully experienced.  It is typically reduced to wreaths, candles, and a countdown to Christmas (or, even a sort of prolonged "pre-function" to Christmas) involving chocolate-filled calendars. It is far more than that. Advent is a complex season with multiple dimensions and a strong call to engage in repentance -- yes, repentance.

This ispenitential season – despite the occasional cavil from more recent liturgical experts – but not in the same way as Lent. Advent’s preparation for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ is marked by a high degree of eschatological expectation, for Advent is really a preparation for two “comings” of Christ: his “coming amongst us in great humility” as the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent says and which we celebrate at Christmas, and “when he comes again in majesty to judge both the quick and the dead” at the Last Judgement. Both require serious and considered preparation. This is why St. John the Baptist and his urgent call to prepare for the coming of the Lord features so strongly in the readings, prayers, and hymns for these weeks.

Because true Christian belief and practice about the Last Judgement is founded upon hope and joy (rather than fear and anxiety), any sense of trepidation about the “Last Things” is a sign that we have spiritual work to do – and who among us is free from this ongoing work “now in the time of this mortal life” as the great Advent Collect puts it? Advent, with its focus on expectation and preparation, naturally serves as a time to consider what needs repentance and reconciliation in our life. 

This is all very well to say, but how do we respond?  The Prayer Book provides some clear direction.

First, there is the matter of examining our conscience.  By engaging in this practice, we are led to see what the Holy Spirit is prompting us to address at this juncture in life.  Tools for this work abound in the Book of Common Prayer:

·      The Ten Commandments (from the Penitential Order in the Holy Eucharist)

·      The Summary of the Law (from the same place)

·      The five baptismal promises found in the Baptismal Covenant (in the Baptismal liturgy)

·      The Litany of Penitence (from the Ash Wednesday liturgy)

·      The Great Litany

·      The Catechism

·      The Psalms & Collects


There are, of course, many other tools for examining our conscience (reading from the Sermon on the Mount is one, or one might use one of the traditional forms found in such non-BCP resources as The St. Augustine’s Prayer Book).

Once we have spent time in careful consideration about what is at issue, it then follows that we confess to God our sins and receive assurance of God’s pardon.  In the Anglican and catholic tradition of the faith, there are three such forms: Private Confession, General Confession, and Sacramental (auricular) Confession.

Private Confession is what we do on a daily basis in our own private prayers. It is often how we approach the Confession in Morning / Evening Prayer or the bedtime service of Compline when said alone (though, one must always remember, these services are always liturgical services and thus part of the whole Church's offering, even if said alone).  

This is our regular application of what Jesus teaches in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Confessing our sins to God should be a natural part of life – not as an act of shame or scrupulosity, but openness and candor with our God. It may be done at any time and it is indeed good to become able to confess quickly, just as the Lord's Prayer suggests. It will help up learn to forgive others quickly, as well.

General Confession takes place in community, in the context of Morning or Evening Prayer when gathered in church, or at the Holy Eucharist as we prepare to receive the Holy Mysteries of Christ.  It reminds us that sin is never a purely private matter (a “victimless crime”), but always impairs our relationships with both God and neighbor.  

This form of confession is closer to how the earliest Christians confessed their sins to one another, and thus connects us to the ancient Church’s pattern of acknowledging sin as a body.  It is also an important (essential) part of participating in public worship and particularly in receiving the Holy Sacrament.  One other point: General Confession is followed by the priest/bishop pronouncing an assurance of pardon, making clear that our confession and repentance is predicated on God’s mercy eternally offered in Christ's death upon the cross; the ordained minister is not a magical pipeline of that forgiveness: it is a declaration of that eternal al forgiveness over God’s penitent people assembled for worship.

Finally, there is Sacramental or Auricular Confession.  Here, a penitent confesses to God and the Church in a private manner – with only a priest present.  This form of confession is especially appropriate for sins of a serious nature, for old sins which have long continued to plague one’s conscience, for relapses into past patterns, at the end of life or when preparing for confirmation, marriage, ordination, or other major changes in our life, or when God’s forgiveness seems far away.  

Sacramental Confession is a part of the Church’s healing ministry and is directly connected to our baptism.  It is essentially spiritual medicine and may be received either at posted times in the church’s schedule, or by special arrangement with the priest.

Advent’s brevity is actually one of its best features: it makes clear that the time for setting our house in order is limited, and that God awaits our cooperation for our healing and renewal.  The joyful expectation which marks the season is also a summons to enter into this work with alacrity and zest: God desires our freedom and has come amongst us to secure it.  It is now time for us to respond by discernment and repentance so that we may enter more fully into the joy set before us – a joy begun at Christ’s nativity and culminating in the final “setting to rights” of all things in the love and truth of Christ’s return.

Let us all make this Advent season now begun a profitable season of spiritual renewal and restoration, “now in the time of this mortal life.”  By entering into a careful consideration of our conscience and appropriate repentance, followed by confession in the full assurance of God’s loving pardon, we may come to Christmas with a greater joy and a less burdened heart, ready to celebrate and live with our eyes firmly fixed on that day when, by God’s grace, “we may rise to the life immortal,” already begun in our life in Christ now.


Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the

works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now

in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ

came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when

he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the

quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through

him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost,

one God, now and for ever.  Amen.


Wednesday, November 30, 2022

An Advent Rule of Life


Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the

works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now

in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ

came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when

he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the

quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through

him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost,

one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Collect for the First Sunday of Advent


The Book of Common Prayer sets forth a holistic vision for Christian faith and practice, providing both theological teaching and guidance for living that teaching.  The Collects – prayers for the various Sundays and major Holy Days through the year – are one of the chief repositories of that guidance.  The role played by the Collect of the Day in any given worship service is of great significance, and careful study of these prayers is richly repaid.


The Collect for each Sunday is used at the daily services throughout the week following (with the exception of major Holy Days with their own Collect), and this affords us time to do that deeper consideration which marks a maturing, generous, and healing faith.


The Collect for the First Sunday of Advent, surely one of the greatest of the Prayer Book’s contributions to Christian prayer, is a fine example of this capacity to integrate teaching and practice.


It begins with a call to God for grace (meaning the experience of God’s presence and power) enabling us to do two very Advent-themed things, in language drawn directly from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: cast off works of darkness and be clothed with the armor of light.  It then positions this work in the context of our era – the “era of the Church” – between Christ’s first coming and his second.  Thus, the Collect illustrates the unique meaning of Advent as a season of preparation for the yearly celebration of Christ’s Nativity at Christmas and the ongoing preparation for a final reckoning – of ourselves as individuals and the human race and its history as a whole.


This prayer is not just about delivering teaching or information: that is not enough to our way of praying.  It connects faith with a response to that faith. 


The Christian journey is at every stage a deeper confrontation with all that is alien to God – alienation manifest in thoughts, words, and deeds born of darkness.  Christ’s teaching in the Gospel begins with the same message St. John the Baptist proclaimed: Repent! – from obvious sins as well as from less-obvious ones like cynicism and judging others.  A central aspect of Advent is waking up from slumber and getting ready for what is coming, taking stock of what we are.


Our journey with God is not only about repentance, however.  It is also about growing in grace and sacred knowledge, that “armor of light” about which St. Paul speaks.  Our life is more than negative (avoiding sin).  It is a positive embrace of what God has in store for us as his children. This can mean getting away from electronic devices (like the computer/phone on which you are reading this!) for an extended period of time each week or day so as to pray or read Scripture.  It can also mean learning to listen to others from a position of curiosity and interest.


What emerges from this prayer is a “rule of life” for the Advent season: calling upon God to reveal and cast away the works of darkness in our life and to cloth us with the protection of light in the place of that darkness. Note that this is not a do-it-yourself project (so dear to the modern American mind), but something that can only be done in concert with God’s grace and leading – a drawing together of human and divine will in harmony, inspired by Christ’s “great humility” we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas.


Advent is a short season, and that is part of its message. We do not have forever. We live in time and have been given our life to learn how to love.  This week’s Collect is a striking example of one way the Anglican/Episcopal way of faith engages our total self – mind, body, spirit – in this process of learning. This prayer’s urgency (“now in the time of this mortal life”) is a final Advent theme: let’s get to work now, for now is all we have before the God who is the “Eternal Now.”



Saturday, November 19, 2022

A Different Kind of King: The Last Sunday after Pentecost

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


The last Sunday of the Church Year in the current calendar emphasizes humanity’s need for salvation.  It speaks of our kind being “divided and enslaved by sin,” and prays that we may all be “freed and brought together.” Ah, but exactly how?


The desire to conform the divided and contentious human race to a single standard and rule is an ancient one, fueling millennia of empires, wars, intrigues, and revolts.  It has also led to some of the greatest art and literature humans have produced.  The difficulty is that the usual attempt at uniting peoples has been through force or coercion – which ends up just bringing us to the next chapter in division, enslavement, and alienation.


This Sunday gives God’s response to our need for salvation, healing, and freedom: Christ Jesus, a different kind of king. 


When the earliest Christians began calling Jesus “Lord,” they were being quite specific in this term of address.  Using a title reserved for earthly rulers (and, in the Roman world, for only one ruler – you know who) revealed Christians as a dangerous and subversive community of people.  In an empire built on force and coercion, the Christian Church exalted service, self-sacrifice, and meekness – as did its Lord Jesus. The currency of this rival empire was in an untried coinage, one which did not take death as its starting and ending point: the coinage of love.


In addition to positing a higher loyalty than the to the Emperor, this alternative vision for humans was utterly despicable to those who were invested in the world-as-it-is.  As Jesus had predicted, his Gospel brought conflict with the Powers that Be, who quickly decided that they must stamp the mutiny out.


As long as humans think that true freedom or peace can be found at the end of a gun’s barrel, or by putting a boot on someone’s neck, we will be caught in the cycle of insanity that is recorded history.  When any of us, even for a season, step out of that cycle and put into practice the Gospel vision for freedom and peace – this Sunday expressed in the words of the crucified Christ: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”– by praying for one’s enemies and by handing over all hatred, judgment, and condemnation to the only one who sees all things in truth, then for that moment and in that place the Kingdom of God is present.  Fleeting, perhaps, but present.  For a moment, the lie is overcome in truth.


This final Sunday of the Church Year reminds us that no other solution to the conundrum of human brokenness will, in fact, work. Only Christ’s “most gracious rule” can give the freedom and peace we desire. Only his peculiar lordship, one completely devoid of a desire to coerce, will unite a divided world. Try as we might to avoid it, this is humanity’s destiny. It is what we proclaim in our faith, what we enact in our worship, and what we are challenged to practice in our daily lives. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

St. Aidan & the Seeds of Renewal Today

Today is the feast of St. Aidan of Lindisfarne, who entered into eternal life in AD 651.  He is often called "the Apostle to the English."  His statue on the holy island of Lindisfarne shows him bearing a torch, bringing light to a world mired in spiritual darkness, magic, oppression, and anxiety.  This shows the Church's task and setting remain essentially the same in every age.

Aidan was sent from that other "holy isle" in the Celtic north (Iona) to try and restart a failed mission led by a previous monk. This monk had spoken down to everyone, was of an irascible temper, and seemed to feel that people needed to come to him rather than he going out to them. He also thought that the Gospel could be propagated by spending his time with the "influencers" and powerful in Northumbria rather than with the ordinary folk. As a way of sharing New Life in Christ, it bombed.

Aidan essentially turned this model upside-down -- which is pretty much what authentic Christianity always does to so-called "normal" strategies of human power and invention.

He spoke humbly and with openness, not cloaking himself in arrogance or "know-it-all-ism." He was gentle in manner yet clearly revealing an inner strength and groundedness in kindness and Truth different from the magicians and wizards. He addressed real problems of poverty and slavery rather than consigning everything to unseen forces and talking in airy platitudes.

He walked everywhere (not using horses, then the symbol of power in transit) and spoke with everyone, high or low. This unnerved some of the high-ups in that very stratified society but it immediately struck the common people and opened doors to Aidan's message his predecessor could never have imagined. The results were spectacular. A form of Christianity -- rooted in the culture and practices of that place and time -- grew rapidly and without coercion. Eventually, an entire crop of holy people were produced in the next generation, which is always a sign God's blessing.

Aidan wasn't concerned with building an institution or a success-machine. In this way he differed from many who claim to follow Christ today, where the focus so often goes to the trappings of success and acknowledged achievement rather than true renewal of the person and the world around us.

Renewal of the Church has never really been the point of Christian mission. The Church is Christ's Body and has already been made glorious in Christ's resurrection and ascension, and through the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Church is forever alive, forever victorious over death, forever new. What isn't is the way the Church often goes about its work.

Much of the last century in our country the Church has acted rather like Aidan's failed predecessor: talking down to those outside, hanging out with elites, and being concerned with symbols of power rather than being like Christ in humility and simplicity. Aidan's witness so many centuries ago is memorable because of how it overturned merely human logic with divine love and unexpected freedom. 

What is needed today in the Church is not more relevance and techniques (read: success and control) but more servanthood, listening, and sharing from the treasury not of political/cultural power by ancient and ever-new wisdom -- the wisdom of God. This will, of course, sometimes lead to conflict not only with the "powers that be" but also those who are dedicated to ideologies opposed to the Gospel -- especially those which clothe themselves in "church-talk" while actually being predicated on sin. Yet, such a way of living inevitably attracts those who desire what Jesus, rather than Caesar, has to offer. We must simply be patient, focused, and undistracted in our work.

Such are the seeds of authenticity and simplicity Aidan brought to Northumbria well over one thousand years ago, and these are the seeds of renewal we must tend today.

The Collect for St. Aidan of Lindisfarne

O loving God, you called your servant Aidan from the cloister to re-establish the Christian mission in northern England: Grant that we, following his example, may use what you have given us for the relief of human need, and may persevere in commending the saving Gospel of our Redeemer Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, August 29, 2022

The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist: Telling the Truth


August 29 is the commemoration of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. It is a solemn day, with a story well-attested in the Holy Scriptures, long honored by the Church (though only recently recognized by the Episcopal Church, for some reason).

The Holy Forerunner's death is deeply connected to the story of his nativity (June 24) and the his father Zechariah's prophesy in Luke. It is also directly connected to Christ's nativity and our Savior's embodiment of Truth. We encounter the Baptist's significance and ministry each time we pray the Benedictus Dominus Deus at Morning Prayer -- which, depending on which canticle one uses, could be just about each morning.

Throughout the year, John plays a central part in the story of salvation. In Advent he heralds the coming Messiah by calling all to repent and prepare. His baptism of Christ is central to the entire logic and purpose of Epiphanytide. His boldness and proclamation of repentance is recalled again in Lent. His promise that the One he heralds will bring the Holy Spirit with fire binds Advent to Pentecost.

This omnipresence in the Church year mirror's John’s centrality to the Gospel narrative, from the beginning of Mark through the opening of the Book of Acts. His fierce insistence on divine truth and faithfulness in the face of earthly power is a foundation on which Jesus built and upon which the Christian Church’s ministry of prophetic witness flourishes. Because of his utter fidelity to God’s call, he died a martyr’s death – prefiguring Christ's death at the hands of unjust leaders, as well as the countless other who follow in his footsteps to this day.  Indeed, our day has seen the making of a vast number of martyrs, many beheaded in much the same manner as the Blessed Forerunner -- hidden away in dungeon and "secure locations."

John's witness with regard to the interaction of faith and political power speaks to us in especially potent ways today. His uncompromising commitment to telling the truth in the face of overwhelming secular power sets the standard for authentic Christian life -- and shows how weak and hypocritical many in the Church (lay and ordained, then and now) are when dealing with "the powers that be" when the Church becomes enmeshed with the "power of the sword."

When John said to Herod “you cannot have her” with regard to Herod’s liaison with Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip, it was too much. John was just possibly endurable when he was taking on the religious leaders, but here he was crossing the line into the lane where the traffic is fast and unmerciful. Herodias, tired of Herod’s anxious shilly-shallying about John, wanted this meddling holy man dead and found a way to achieve it. Using the occasion of a drunken birthday party, she slyly planted her daughter as dancing bait for Herod’s inebriate lust. Wildly making public promises of largesse, Herod was in her debt…and Herodias's daughter took him down like an experienced hustler takes down a green rube just off the bus from Nowheresville. In the time it took for the music to stop, Herod was in over his head, and John was without his. The message was clear: Don’t get in the way of powerful people when reputation, politics, and personal cred are on the line. This is ever the case.

The portrait of arrogance, privilege, decadence, and drunkenness emerging here is remarkably appropriate to current events. With so many Christians being willing to go along with Herod's "might-makes-right" reasoning, and with nearly idolatrous levels of support given to politicians very much Herod's kin in terms of behavior by many "Christian" leaders as well as the rank-and-file, one could well imagine John the Baptist's head being lopped off with their quiet nod today. He would have to go, you see: he made the base angry.

The teaching potential of this holy day is great. It shows that to confront evil, we need endurance. Sometimes, it seems that evil actually wins; but its victory—like Herodias’s -- is only apparent. In reality, God’s power and truth is finally completely victorious. It survives continual assault as a vision and a desire. God's vision will forever keep popping up, no matter how many are "cancelled" by silencing or decollation. 

What is needed is an ongoing commitment to Gospel justice, even in the face of evil’s awful array of violence, lies, distortion, and corruption. To the last drop, the last moment, the last sentence, St. John the Baptist witnessed to such a commitment. This is why we keep this day.

This day reminds us that by following Jesus Christ as Lord (whom John heralded), we share in this revolutionary ministry of truth-telling. 

If we in the ordinary congregations of the Church take this vocation seriously, maybe even the so-called "leaders" of a heavily-compromised American Christianity follow the Holy Truth-Teller until the day when all lies are exposed and all elites humbled. Then the tragedy of this day will be crowned with true glory. As it is, we journey on in hope and faithfulness.

A Collect for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

God our Father, you called John the Baptist to be the herald of your Son's birth and death. As he gave his life in witness to truth and justice, so may we strive to profess our faith in your Gospel. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

A Light to Enlighten the Nations: The Feast of the Presentation

On the Feast of the Presentation


Today we rejoice that Christ has come into the Temple to be presented, in accordance with the Law of Moses, to His Father. The story is found in Luke 2: 22-40.


This is a day of extraordinary beauty. In it is fulfilled the yearning of an entire people…though secretly, quietly, gently. The ancient Temple has its true purpose revealed and completed: the presence of God in this Holy Place is now complete, and the hostility between humanity and God is being overcome by God's own initiative


Mary and Joseph witness in awe and wonder the meaning of this moment, treasuring it in their hearts as will all future disciples of Christ. A prophesy of struggle and suffering for Mary is pronounced, something true for her in a unique way, but also a fact for anyone who follows Christ and the Gospel Way authentically.


Yet, there is more. Aged Simeon holds the child who is his Messiah in his own arms, bringing age, infancy, and eternity together. Anna—another aged prophetess—so rejoices at the Messiah’s coming that all around her take note in her delight. It is a day marked by joy, a joy much like that of the Day of Resurrection which it prefigures.


Each person who confesses Christ is fundamentally alive in this joy. It is a mark of true discipleship. Young and old, insightful and simple, mystical and practical: we all share in the light of Christ’s presence. That presence transforms and fulfills us in ways we cannot comprehend or imagine. It reaches through us into the lives and needs of others. “The light has come into the world, and the darkness has not overcome it.”


For centuries, it has been the custom of those celebrating this feast to light small lamps or candles, recalling the light of Christ now come into the world—and especially the Holy Spirit given to us each as members of Christ's body. At Holy Baptism, a candle is presented to the newly-baptized (or a sponsor) to remind all present that this light is conferred and must be cherished and borne into the world.


Do we consciously bear Christ’s Light? Do we honor it? Do we see it as the one true gift—quite apart from our opinions, agendas, experiences, and goals—we have to give? Let us pray that this is so for us. To substitute something else for this light is to turn our back on the Savior, and to close the door on the mystery and power of the events celebrated on this beautiful day.


Rejoice with the Blessed Virgin, with St. Joseph, with aged Anna and Simeon on this day…and share the light given to you long after the candle you bear is extinguished!


A reading from a sermon by Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (7th Century)


Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.


The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.


The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.


The true light has come, the light that enlightens every man who is born into this world. Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this light. Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness. Let us be shining ourselves as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal. Rejoicing with Simeon, let us sing a hymn of thanksgiving to God, the Father of the light, who sent the true light to dispel the darkness and to give us all a share in his splendor.


Through Simeon’s eyes we too have seen the salvation of God which he prepared for all the nations and revealed as the glory of the new Israel, which is ourselves. As Simeon was released from the bonds of this life when he had seen Christ, so we too were at once freed from our old state of sinfulness.


By faith we too embraced Christ, the salvation of God the Father, as he came to us from Bethlehem. Gentiles before, we have now become the people of God. Our eyes have seen God incarnate, and because we have seen him present among us and have mentally received him into our arms, we are called the new Israel. Never shall we forget this presence; every year we keep a feast in his honor.


Collect for the Feast of the Presentation


Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.