Monday, November 27, 2023

Between Thanksgiving and Advent...

This can be a confusing period of time--as this book cover suggests.

As we end November and approach December the civil and church calendars coexist in a somewhat unusual manner in the U.S.  Often, Thanksgiving Day is the immediate herald of Advent, but November has five Thursdays this year (Thanksgiving currently is the fourth Thursday of November, not the last Thursday of the month), and this gives a longer-than-usual gap between the culmination of the fall and the start of the Church’s preparation for Christmas—time available for consideration and use in the spiritual life.

Under the current (1979 BCP) version of the Church Year, the last weeks of the annual cycle focus on themes of judgement, harvest, completion, and the consequences of time meeting eternity.  These traditional Advent themes are, in effect, stretched out into something like a preamble to that season, emphasizing the elements of our faith summed up in the creeds around the “Judgment of the quick and the dead.”  This includes a healthy dose of eschatology and its intensity--the "secret sauce" of all authentic Christianity.


This emphasis allows Advent itself to be focused largely on joy—both the joy of Christ’s first coming (Incarnation/Nativity) and the joy of his second coming at the end of the ages.  This is different from prior calendars which tended to look at Advent in more explicitly penitential ways.


Because so much of Western Christianity’s understanding of eschatology has been built on fear, terror, remorse, shame, and condemnation, the other side of the coin is rarely considered.  The form Advent now takes in our calendar is less about The Four Last Things of death, judgment, heaven, and hell, and more about living in such a way that we will hear with joy the words “Behold, the Bridegroom comes!” at the end of time.


The biblical figures we focus on in the coming season are: the prophet Isaiah, the Prophet of the Advent; Christ’s Forerunner, St. John the Baptist; and the God-bearer, St. Mary the Virgin.


Isaiah prepares us for God’s shocking action of bringing the Messiah to us; the Baptist heralds the Messiah’s arrival, and the Blessed Virgin consents to God’s election and bears the Christ-child so that God may share in our life and redeem it “from within,” so-to-speak.


Through all of these weeks, the two aspects of our redemption—the proving, testing fire of judgment and the comforting, healing embrace of love—are explored and shown to be but two sides of the same coin.  To dwell in the Kingdom of God means an entrance into the divine presence and our true selves, an entrance in which all sin is ultimately consumed and all distortion stripped away in the ravishing, glorious totality of God’s love.  This is at the heart of authentic eschatology and forms a major part of the preacher’s and teacher’s work in this part of the Church Year.


Most years, all of this happens in quick succession—The last Sunday after Pentecost, with its imagery of judgement and enthronement being followed by the harvest thankfulness of Thanksgiving Day and then almost immediately by Advent Sunday’s proclamation of “Sleeper’s, Awake!”


This rapidity is as it should be, really.  The scriptures testify that God’s judgement will be sudden, not a bureaucratic “process” involving lots of forms and delays, nor a test we “study up” for.  Yet, the insertion of an extra week from time-to-time (as with this year) does afford us the opportunity to consider a couple of thoughts: God’s mercy in allowing time to repent, and the difference between judgement and simple retribution.


This extra space of time between Thanksgiving/The Last Sunday after Pentecost and Advent Sunday is a reminder that God often grants us time to draw back and change direction.  This space for repentance is one of the many ways God shows mercy, and something to give thanks for, always.


The other point I would like to make about this week is that it shows how God’s judgement is a considered matter, a revealing of our journey, intentions, and purposes, rather than mere retribution or spite.  


The parables of judgement in the Gospel are not about a capricious deity just showing off power for power’s sake, but the working out of consequences of deeds done (or not done).  

We can go for long periods without thought to the kind of life we are building, but all the while, we are still building it.  That is our “life project,” and it is the offering we will make at the end of our earthly pilgrimage.  The space between these parables of judgement and Advent Sunday is a good time to think seriously about the nature of that offering, and how we may use this Advent season to renew and re-form that offering so it may be worthy of the eternity on the edge of which we stand this season—and every day—as members of Christ’s body.


Enjoy this week, and use it wisely!

Saturday, October 28, 2023

"That All Who Seek You Here May Find You..."

Almighty God, to whose glory we celebrate the dedication of this house of prayer: We give you thanks for the fellowship of those who have worshiped in this place, and we pray that all who seek you here may find you, and be filled with your joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

This Sunday St. Timothy’s will observe one of its two Parochial Feasts: the dedication of its church (the other is its “feast of title,” the commemoration of St. Timothy in January). This annual event recalls the dedication liturgies in this parish’s history: of the first church building (now our parish hall), of the second (and current) nave, and of the educational, office, and chapel addition in 1997.


This liturgy has several special characteristics. First of all, it is a feast with its own collect, lessons, prayers of the people, and hymns. It opens with a Festal Procession, with a collect at  a station where the icon of our  patron St. Timothy is displayed. The Gloria in excelsis, the great hymn of praise from the early Christian era reserved for major feasts, is sung as the altar is censed. Deceased benefactors and members of St. Timothy’s are recalled in our prayers. Finally, before the liturgy concludes, a solemn Te Deum is sung, giving God especial thanks for this house of prayer as a guaranteed place of meeting and as a center of mission. So much for the liturgical details.


What must be of greater concern for us is the meaning behind this feast and its special elements, for the liturgy is a direct participation in the mystery of God the Holy Trinity, and a showing forth of the Kingdom of God, dawning even now in its fullness by the action of the Holy Spirit. What, then, does this liturgy signify to us?


The collect for the feast puts two things front-and-center: communion and its fruits. The Feast of Dedication is a thanksgiving for communion in its many forms: fellowship with God, fellowship with other disciples, fellowship with those who have already entered eternal life. It is also a plea to God that this parish—holy ground, dedicated to God’s way, God’s presence, a kind of divine beachhead in our agonized and strife-torn world—may always be a place where people may find God and be filled with divine joy and peace.


Ours has become a “desacralized” world; that is a fancy word for the condition of having little or no holiness. In its place, we have tried to substitute the material, the commercial, the purely physical, or the ideological. All around us we see the grotesque results of this experiment: addictions, obsessions, environmental degradation, the commodification of human life, industrialized killing, and the reduction of mystery and awe to such slogans as “follow your bliss”, “it’s all good”, or the demand for conformity to a particular political party or opinion. The hunger for something more is being bought off—temporarily—by a less and less effective array of consumerist and ideological stop-gaps. 


But the Church has the one thing that will satisfy that hunger: communion with God, with the creation, and with each other. Here, in this place, the cheap and sleazy answers the world hands out are not offered. Here, the utter connectedness of all things to their God is revealed. Here joy and peace are not just words: they are the currency of our shared life. Each Eucharist is a joyful renewal of that fact, reaching out beyond the buildings of St. Timothy’s into the lives of its members throughout this city and its surroundings.


The Feast of Dedication is no self-congratulatory party wherein this parish looks admiringly at itself in a mirror. It is a thanksgiving for the grace of God leading to the foresight, sweat, and sacrifice of those who came before us to bring about this parish’s physical presence. But it is more than that: it is a rousing call to take seriously the preciousness of Holy Ground in a city where hope, justice, peace, relationships, and even human life have become just words. 


Here, at this place, the Kingdom of God is made known at each Eucharist, in each class or parish event. Here, those who seek God are able to find him: imperfectly, yes—but find God we may. For the Lord has blessed it, set it apart, making it a portal through which all may enter and be restored, refashioned into what we were created to be from the foundation of the world: the Royal Priesthood of Creation.


Let us give thanks for the dedication of this parish and live out its promise. Like all churches who retain zeal for the Kingdom of God, it is a beacon of hope in a world awash in turmoil, anxiety, and fear.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Lammastide: Earth, Altar, and Us All

The first day of August is traditionally called Lammas Day – a term coming from an earlier form of English that means “Loaf Mass” Day. This was the day when wheat flour from the recently-begun harvest was made into loaves (often of an intricate form), baked, and then brought to the Eucharist to be blessed. It was a sign of gratitude to God for the new wheat crop and an opportunity for communal celebration of God’s provision and all the coordinated labor that went into it. 

Until recently the direct connection between the earth, sustenance, human labor, community, and God was self-evident. If the crop failed, people went hungry, disease spread, and the possibility for all sorts of chaos became much greater. Village life – where most people spent their relatively short existence – left no room for global markets and Grubhub deliveries. It was a remarkably clear-eyed and relational world then: what was grown nearby through ceaseless toil and much uncertainty provided for survival. The various agricultural holy days in the English Church calendar (Plow Sunday, Rogationtide, Lammastide, and Harvest Home) brought human need to God’s throne through supplication, intercession, benediction, praise, and gratitude. The earth and the altar were directly connected through the plow, the worker’s hands, the barn, and the cottage hearth. 

In our current day, these direct relationships have been obscured. The abundance of food in our society would startle people from less than a century ago. The seemingly-ceaseless flows of deliveries to stores and homes have disconnected the various parts of the chain in many people’s mind. No longer are worship, community, labor, and the individual fully integrated: they exist in a disbursed universe of specialties. Worship is quite often more of a performance or a weekly ideological fill-up. Community now generally means mere likemindedness, online more often than in person. Labor has become hidden from view and treated as a kind of necessary evil rather than a sacred act. What prevails today is just the individual, the all-important consumer.  

Yet, when the pandemic upset all the supply-chains and production patterns, we had a momentary taste of the chaos and fear our forebearers knew well. Many people entered into full-on panic. Divisive attitudes, fantastic delusions, and apocalyptic hysteria proliferated. A few, however, knew that an essential part of the response to the situation had to be worship. Those of us formed by traditional Anglican/Episcopal patterns of worship knew about the centrality of those old practices of supplication, intercession, and thanksgiving. By engaging in them we drew closer to God and to each other rather than engaging only in panic. Earth, community, altar, and believer were pulled together once again.

The observance of Lammastide, or some version of it, would be good to re-institute in our churches (provision for it remains in the Church of England). It would be one more way for us to live out our message of hope, community, and communion. It would also be a very visible way to connect the earth, the altar, and us again. Rather than retreat further into the disconnected and anxious culture of darkness around us, we would be far wiser to gather together in the light of Christ, ask God’s blessing, and give thanks for the Creation and its many gifts – including each other. 

But this will take courage, faithfulness, and vision. 

St. Timothy's -- which has long observed the Rogation Days -- will observe Lammastide this Sunday as part of our renewed focus on the connection between Creation and Liturgy.  What will your community do to begin or continue this work?

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Mid-Lent Sunday

The Church at Little Gidding

Midwinter spring is its own season
 Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
 Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
 - from ‘Little Gidding’ (No. 4 of “Four Quartets”) by T.S. Eliot

This Sunday forms the transition in the Lenten Season from the focus on our own need for repentance to Christ’s work of bringing about our reconciliation with God. Thus, it turns our attention from our sin (which can become a sort of obsession if we are not careful) towards God’s love. Like Eliot’s ‘Midwinter spring,” we have come to a moment that is between two seemingly opposite things: Ash Wednesday and Easter Day… yet this moment is but part of a reality of which both Holy Days partake. 

 Mid-Lent Sunday (also known by an entire raft of other names: Laetare, Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, The Sunday of the Five Loaves, &c.) is a brief respite from our usual Lenten observance; it is also an open invitation to take the season seriously if we have previously not. As St. John Chrysostom will remind us at the Easter Vigil (in his famous sermon), it is not too late to begin our preparation! 

 On a deeper level, though, this Sunday moves us from a focus on our sinfulness to the freedom and forgiveness we receive in Christ. The Gospel reading for this Sunday makes the choice very clear: either we are like the man born blind, who received the gift of sight from God as a gift, or we are like the Pharisees whose love for God had become twisted into a bitterness that could ignore the miracle in their midst and instead condemn both the recipient and the giver. 

 Mere religion will side with the Pharisees. They were simply “following the rules.” True Christian discipleship will choose the riskier path of Jesus, though…because it brings freedom and the capacity to love. As has been said, humanity is always suspended between the law of this world and the love of God, and it must choose.

Let the rest of Holy Lent be a conscious examination of our preferences, so that when we arrive at Holy Week, we will choose love, knowing there is no other way to the peace we seek, the potential self our God has in store for us.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Lent: The Season of Spiritual Heart Surgery

The Collect for Ash Wednesday, which may be used throughout the season, asks God to give us “new and contrite hearts.” 

The renewal of our true and innermost being—symbolized by the heart in biblical language—can only happen by a kind of surgical re-shaping (contrition means “to wear down” or to “grind away”). This is one of the main purposes of Lent, and each year we are called to take seriously where God is calling us to open our lives to his providential, careful work of healing and softening hardened, sick hearts.

The passage below is from one of the earliest extant Christian documents, perhaps even older than some of the books of the New Testament in their final form. It is from a letter written by the Bishop of Rome to the Christians of Corinth when their internal dissention had risen like a thundercloud on the horizon of the Church’s mission. Their divisions were hurting the common life of the Body, and Clement sought to do the work of a true pastor: open the eyes of the flock to the truth of their situation, giving them the remedy. Like all Christians, they stood in need of repentance when they had lost their way.

The season of Lent is, to a certain degree, a renewal of our sense of eagerness for the Kingdom of God, something early Christians knew and felt with great naturalness. Such eagerness exposes everything adverse to God’s way of love, exposing it to view and inviting the Master Surgeon to remove the cancer of sin, wherever it grows. It is that heartfelt desire Lent seeks to rekindle in us, for this season and beyond.

If we want as individuals and as a community to experience something of the transforming grace and motivating energy of ancient and authentic Christianity, we must offer ourselves for the same surgical procedure without delay. For, as Scripture says, “now is the acceptable time,” and a new and healed heart awaits us…our very lives depend on it!
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            Let us fix our attention on the blood of Christ and recognize how precious it is to God his Father, since it was shed for our salvation and brought the grace of repentance to all the world.
            If we review the various ages of history, we will see that in every generation the Lord has offered the opportunity of repentance to any who were willing to turn to him. When Noah preached God’s message of repentance, all who listened to him were saved. Jonah told the Ninevites they were going to be destroyed, but when they repented, their prayers gained God’s forgiveness for their sins, and they were saved, even though they were not of God’s people.
            Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the ministers of God’s grace have spoken of repentance; indeed, the Master of the whole universe himself spoke of repentance with an oath: As I live, says the Lord, I do not wish the death of the sinner but his repentance. He added this evidence of his goodness: House of Israel, repent of your wickedness. Tell the sons of my people: If their sins should reach from earth to heaven, if they are brighter than scarlet and blacker than sackcloth, you need only turn to me with your whole heart and say, “Father”, and I will listen to you as a holy people.
            In other words, God wanted all his beloved ones to have the opportunity to repent and he confirmed this desire by his own almighty will. That is why we should obey his sovereign and glorious will and prayerfully entreat his mercy and kindness. We should be suppliant before him and turn to his compassion, rejecting empty works and quarrelling and jealousy which only lead to death.
            Brothers, we should be humble in mind, putting aside all arrogance, pride and foolish anger. Rather, we should act in accordance with the Scriptures, as the Holy Spirit says: The wise man must not glory in his wisdom nor the strong man in his strength nor the rich man in his riches. Rather, let him who glories glory in the Lord by seeking him and doing what is right and just. Recall especially what the Lord Jesus said when he taught gentleness and forbearance. Be merciful, he said, so that you may have mercy shown to you. Forgive, so that you may be forgiven. As you treat others, so you will be treated. As you give, so you will receive. As you judge, so you will be judged. As you are kind to others, so you will be treated kindly. The measure of your giving will be the measure of your receiving.
            Let these commandments and precepts strengthen us to live in humble obedience to his sacred words. As Scripture asks: Whom shall I look upon with favor except the humble, peaceful man who trembles at my words?
            Sharing then in the heritage of so many vast and glorious achievements, let us hasten toward the goal of peace, set before us from the beginning. Let us keep our eyes firmly fixed on the Father and Creator of the whole universe, and hold fast to his splendid and transcendent gifts of peace and all his blessings.

(From The First Letter to the Corinthians, by Clement, Bishop of Rome, c. 100)