Saturday, October 17, 2020

St. Luke's Day


"There is something peculiar in St. Luke's day, something calm and soothing connected with it; it occurs at a time when summer often revives a little before it finally goes, and sheds on us a parting smile; there is something in St. Luke's own character which speaks of healing to both body and mind, like the good Samaritan, into the wounds of both pouring oil and wine. We connect his Gospel especially with the Atonement, and the mercies of God to penitents;...To these we may add the personal history of St. Luke himself. In the service for the day he is brought before us as the faithful companion of St. Paul in the last view we obtain of the great Apostle....The recurrence therefore of this day is like the last gleaming of the year itself at this season, when a serene and bright interval precedes its close." (Isaac Williams, Sermon LXXXVIII)

Thus do we hear in a sermon by Isaac Williams, a 19th century English clergyman, student of John Keble (who is famous for his cycle of poems 'The Christian Year' about the themes of the Sundays and Red Letter Days as they occur in the Prayerbook) and member of the Oxford movement. Inasmuch as he mentions "atonement" as a central theme of Luke's Gospel, I think it is important that we spend a bit of time examining the Biblical concept of Atonement, particularly as it manifests in the observance of Yom Kippur, which began this year on the eve of September 27th. Leviticus chapter 16 gives us the necessary details of the observance of the Day of Atonement, beginning with a reminder of the deaths of the two sons of Aaron who were consumed by fire for making an unauthorised offering of incense. As a consequence of this (and it matters not whether they were literally consumed by "fire from the Lord"), Aaron is enjoined to observe the regulations of the law with care and exactitude and not to treat the divine ordinances with casual contempt. Among the offerings, he is to take two goats. One will supply blood to be sprinkled within the holy of holies while the other will serve as the 'scapegoat'. Per verses 21 and 22: "And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat into the wilderness."

That the goat is sent bearing iniquity into an uninhabited land can be seen as an illustration of what later philosophers such as St. Augustine would call the non-being of evil. Bear with me here. He says: "All of nature, therefore, is good, since the Creator of all nature is supremely good. But nature is not supremely and immutably good as is the Creator of it. Thus the good in created things can be diminished and augmented. For good to be diminished is evil; still, however much it is diminished, something must remain of its original nature as long as it exists at all. For no matter what kind or however insignificant a thing may be, the good which is its 'nature' cannot be destroyed without the thing itself being destroyed....Whenever a thing is consumed by corruption, not even the corruption remains, for it is nothing in itself, having no subsistent being in which to exist. From this it follows that there is nothing to be called evil if there is nothing good." (Augustine, Enchiridion, chapter 4)

So the sins of the community are sent away into a place that is perfectly identified with their pure nature of non-being, or "uninhabited-ness" if you will, which is a good lesson to us all as to both the interior dispositions which our sins create both within the self and within others (for everything we do has an impact on those around us, no matter how imperceptible) and their ultimate consequences should there be no acceptance of the insurmountable mercy of the Cross and its perfect ability to convert destructive non-being into the very fountain of all life-giving grace.

Something else to take away from the Day of Atonement is this. As the first day of the seventh Hebrew month marks the beginning of the religious new year, the celebrations of Yom Kippur on the tenth day are designed to help make a new beginning by asking forgiveness amongst one's acquaintances, fasting, not bathing and participating in extra prayers at the synagogue. On the eve of the feast, the Torah scrolls are removed from the 'Ark' and the cantor sings (in Aramaic) the Kol Nidre which translates as: "All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths."

This can seem a little unsettling when taken out of context. But, from the Jewish Encyclopedia: "The tendency to make vows was so strong in ancient Israel that the Pentateuchal code found it necessary to protest against the excessive estimate of the religious value of such obligations (Deut. 23:23). Rash and frequent vows inevitably involved in difficulties many who had made them, and thus evoked an earnest desire for dispensation from such responsibilities....The "Kol Nidre' was thus evidently developed from the longing for a clear conscience on the part of those seeking reconciliation with God." This problem of rash and excessive oath taking is also recognised in the New Testament. From St. Matthew's Gospel: "But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King....Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from the Evil One." (5: 34-35, 37) As indeed Jesus Christ here overcomes the need for swearing an oath and rather commands those who follow Him to simply tell the truth and to follow through on it, He also, being the perfect high priest surpasses the blood offerings in the Temple once for all and purifies all who believe in Him by the shedding of His own blood. There is no more need for a continuous purifying that is only symbolic. The sign-value of its usefulness is at an end. Calvary is thus both the last and the greatest Day of Atonement. The exclamation of the crowd gathered in Pilate's courtyard was even more true than they realised at the time: "His blood be on us, and on our children." And indeed that is the case for all who are in Christ.

There are some unique insights regarding this offering that are only to be found in St.Luke's narrative. At the institution of the Eucharist, this Gospel simply states: "This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you." The eschatological addition of "and for many", present in the other synoptic Gospels is absent here. Perhaps this is Luke the Physician emphasising the present, healing and reconciling quality of receiving communion for each individual in the moment as a personal reminder of both the Upper Room and Calvary, rather than choosing to emphasise the availablility of this self-same grace to generations of believers to come.

And, speaking of Luke as physician, the collect provided in the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer differs from the American version thusly: "Almighty God, who calledst Luke the physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul; may it please thee, that by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed, through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

So, from the perspective of providing "wholesome medicines", he gives us the (unique to him) accounts of the Good Samaritan - wherein a broken body is treated and given time to heal- and the Prodigal Son - wherein a broken relationship is restored both by sincere repentance and unconditional love always on the lookout for a first inkling of desire to receive it.* And so here is revealed something else of the qualities of the living God that were (perhaps) not as accessible or explicit in the purifying rites of the Old Covenant.

It is both consistent and reasonable that these things, together with all else that is presented to us in the Gospels and reflected upon in the Epistles and the Apocalypse (and as they are cognizant of and in harmony with the traditions of the Old Testament, to be seen there as well), are meant to give us as complete a picture as we can comprehend of the Atoning work of Jesus Christ in His person and in His sacrificial death and Resurrection.

And so there is a lot to come to terms with here on this feast of the Evangelist St. Luke. But there is really only one critical thing to remember when thinking about the Atonement:

"And he arose and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." (Lk. 15: 20)

*[The father (of the parable) himself, having inculcated the 'first cause' of this desire by his very nature (the example and care he gives his children as he raised them and into the 'present' day of the parable), models the great gift of God the Father in giving to us the even the desire to be saved and to receive his Son, thereby re-confirming the Church's opposition to the "diy" heresy of semi-Pelagianism wherein we would be able to be the source of our will to be saved. In saying this, it does not mean that our will to be saved is not free, rather that it is does not originate (is not capable of originating, cf. Original Sin) within our own will, but supplied (principally) through the perfect will of God the Father by the movement of God the Holy Ghost.]

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Trinity I

Whereas last Sunday we celebrated the glories and perfection of the Eternal Trinity, today we take a step back and look at the sins and inclinations of mortal man. It makes for quite a contrast. And I think that is a good and beneficial thing. Our post-lapsarian [i.e. our life after the commission (or fall or lapse, hence the expression) of Original Sin] existence is the key to understanding Christian anthropology. Without this common, received, understanding, the task of teaching and passing on the faith becomes exponentially more difficult. Thus the Lectionary has a noticeable evangelistic function as well as its practical uses in that it allows us to return to this essential theme and its consequences repeatedly in the principle context in which the Scriptures are to be encountered, proclaimed, and expounded – public, liturgical worship.

Bearing that in mind, within the bounds of the 1st Lesson for Morning Prayer and the Epistle and Gospel appointed for today, we encounter some teaching and exhortation on discernment and mindfulness in how we approach what we say, what we think, and what we do.

Firstly, consider this from Jeremiah 23:32, "Behold, I am against them that prophesy false dreams, saith the Lord, and do tell them, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their lightness; yet I sent them not, nor commanded them: therefore they shall not profit this people at all, saith the Lord." Let's be honest, we like to lie. And there are many reasons why: to avoid blame and/or consequences, to deflect our own sense of shame, to gain social or economic advantage, because it is expected ('everyone else does it'), and I'm sure a myriad of other excuses can be proffered. It seems easy, and there is a certain thrill in 'getting away with it'. But it is problematic not simply because it is unethical and immoral, though that is certainly the case. In his novel "Love in the Ruins" (which is curiously apposite for our current situation), Walker Percy has his main character (Dr. Thom More) reflect on the nature of lying: "When I left the hospital, I resolved not to lie. Lying cuts one off. Lying to someone is like blindfolding him: you cannot see the other's eyes to see how he sees you and so you do not know how it stands with yourself." And in that cutting off of the self, we express (however subconsciously) a desire to remove ourselves from the communion of the Church, from the communion of the saints, and from our participation in the life to come. We take up the example of the tempter in Genesis rather than the Saviour in the Gospels. "But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No, 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one." (Matt. 5:37, NKJV)

Secondly, "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" (1 Jn. 4:20) It's pretty rare that any of us would come right out and say "I hate you" to anyone. But it is awfully easy to accuse, to willfully misunderstand, to think that we have a complete perspective and have nothing further to learn. In other words, I may not say I hate you, but I sure think it. I, like most of us, have experienced all of these things. In the 14 years since I have been ordained, and in the 10 years in and out of formation programs before that, I have been accused of various heresies, yelled at by a parishioner about a matter of which she had insufficient knowledge, been told I needed to see a psychiatrist to sort out my "head/heart issues", told I was not open to the formation program, asked to place my trust in people who proved themselves (quite publicly and as a matter of record) to be untrustworthy, and the list can go on. Let me state quite clearly, I am not seeking pity or to exonerate myself. I am a weak and sinful man. I don't know everything. I have to live with mental health issues. It comes natural to me to remember and hold onto resentments. No, I don't tick off most of the boxes that have been placed on the list of the "perfect priest". And, maybe they were right who thought I shouldn't have been ordained. I am not a corporate man, I don't follow the crowd, I dislike coffee hour, I am aware of my difficulties. But when I stand at the altar and look at the cross, I am reminded that if we were not so deeply broken, there would have been no such need for a deeply radical atonement to be made for us. And yet the fact remains that precisely such an atonement has been made. And that is why I hope and keep struggling to the end.

Lately, I have been thinking much about the petition in the Lord's Prayer "as we forgive those who trespass against us". In Greek these 'trespassers' are opheiletēs (i.e. debtors, those who owe an obligation). It is deeply, and sadly, ironic that it comes so naturally to us to accuse others of not meeting their obligations and refuse to see that we ourselves are in the same boat. (cf. Matt. 18: 21-35) Perhaps now is a good season for practicing a deeper self-examination for us all and of seeking forgiveness where it needs to be sought and applied.

As to what we do, "And it came to pass, that [Lazarus] died and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, as was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom." (Luke 17: 22-23). Fr. Stephen Freeman, commenting on this parable, has said: "The point of the parable is found in its end: 'If they have not listened to Moses and the Prophets, neither would they listen to someone even if he came back from the dead.' It is not a parable about the topography of the after-life, but a comment about our present life and our unwillingness to hear the gospel....If you want to know the way to go – if you want to know how things work – then you have to know the heart of God. You have to know God himself. And this is all that we need to know for life here – and life hereafter. God Himself is our heaven – and in the teachings of the Fathers – God Himself is our hell – for hell is nothing other than our self-imposed refusal to accept the love of God. It is that refusal that brings its own torment. If we have the eyes to see – we are already traveling the roads of heaven and hell – already dwelling in the bosom of Abraham or in the torments of Hades. The geography of that journey is the geography of love and mercy, kindness and forgiveness – or contrary – hatred and judgment, violence, self-conceit, slander and calumny." (blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2 godforallthings/2011/10/19/the-geography-of-heaven-and-hell/)

Just to add a quick addendum to this analysis to bring it in contact with my main point, the trouble for the rich man is again a willed cutting off of common cause (i.e. communion) with Lazarus. His wealth and position, giving him a sense of security, allowed him to ignore that which cannot be set aside, the encounter with humanity itself.

As a side note, I would counsel you specifically that, with regard to the present social upheavals in our country, while the politics themselves are ontologically irrelevant, the people involved are not, even those you disagree with.

In conclusion, Trinity Sunday and that immediately following are two great pillars exemplifying a reliable, orthodox Christian anthropology. As it is demonstrated in the theology and worship of the Church, so must it specifically leave its mark in the lives of individual believers, and that as manifested in what we say, what we think, and what we do. "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another." (1 Jn. 4:10-11)

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Mother's Day

Our Lady of Kazan
This past Sunday the civil calendar reminded us to consider motherhood. The church calendar also provides (at least) two occasions to do so in the Springtime – "Mothering Sunday" on the IV Sunday in Lent and also the Annunciation on March 25th. Having something to say about family life, then, will be my theme for today.
Not having been called to marry and sire children, it certainly isn't my place to expatiate on the virtues and duties of spouses and parents devoid of any practical experience. What I can speak to, however, is the experience of being raised in a family. I was fortunate as a child to have a stable home life. My parents seemed to strike a good balance between being either too strict or too lenient. Home was a safe place and, while I enjoyed staying over with friends, the experience was inevitably a "foreign" one where the rules, expectations, and scheduling were not what I was accustomed to and I was always glad to be back home among that which was familiar.
And, ideally, that is a function also of the Church, either in its larger geographical or local (parochial) manifestations. I think that is one of the major reasons why the ecclesial scandals and upheavals of the 20th and 21st centuries that we have and will continue to live through are so difficult to deal with. A place to belong that ought to be "safe" (i.e. dependable in terms of its theology, morality, and avoidance of criminal behaviour) has, in too many instances, betrayed the trust that was expected, nay required, of it. And this is something that transcends denominational lines and "political" labels (a conservative vs. liberal praxis of Christianity) and wounds the entire body of Christ.
Inasmuch as the familial has been betrayed by its own, it can also be properly healed only through its own. And I think that is true both of the 'meta-issues' that confront us as well as those lesser things we are called to deal with personally in our daily lives. In his "Dialogue with Trypho" [written sometime in the latter half of the 2nd Century A.D.], Justin Martyr says: "He became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God: and she replied, 'Be it unto me according to thy word.' And by her has He been born, to whom we have proved so many scriptures refer, and by whom God destroys both the serpent and those angels and men who are like him; but works deliverance from death to those who repent of their wickedness and believe upon Him." [en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/ Ante-Nicene_Christian_Library/Dialogue_with_Tryph]
So I think it is appropriate to also consider Mary on this Mother's Day. And while it was, and is, certainly a right consequence of the Reformation to put a halt to the excessive and frankly idolatrous practices that had arisen surrounding the cultus of the saints, I think there is an equal danger in underemphasising the significance of who she is and of what great dignity she was called to in the operation of the economy of redemption. The Scriptures both provide sufficient testimony to her as an exemplar of faith (thus refuting any need for further, "clarifying" doctrines as taught by the Church of Rome) and give us evidence of her participation, along with that of the other women disciples, in the life of both the pre and post-Resurrection fledgling Church (thus indicating that there are proper roles for both sexes, and that one ought not to impinge on the other).
As to the supposed "silence" of the canonical Scriptures, John Henry Newman in a sermon on the Annunciation preached at St. Mary's Oxford (Church of England), offers a two-fold response. The first is that the Scriptures are written to the glory of God, not to the honour of this or that saint, praiseworthy and notable though they may be. As to the second:

"But, further, the more we consider who St. Mary was, the more dangerous will such knowledge of her appear to be. Other saints are but influenced or inspired by Christ, and made partakers of Him mystically. But, as to St. Mary, Christ derived His manhood from her, and so had an especial unity of nature with her; and this wondrous relationship between God and man it is perhaps impossible for us to dwell much upon without some perversion of feeling. For, truly, she is raised above the condition of sinful beings, though by nature a sinner; she is brought near to God, yet is but a creature, and seems to lack her fitting place in our limited understandings, neither too high nor too low. We cannot combine, in our thought of her, all we should ascribe with all we should withhold. Hence, following the example of Scripture, we had better only think of her with and for her Son, never separating her from Him, but using her name as a memorial of His great condescension in stooping from heaven, and not 'abhorring the Virgin's womb.' And this is the rule of our own Church, which has set apart only such Festivals in honour of Blessed Mary, as may also be Festivals in honour of our Lord; the Purification commemorating His presentation in the Temple, and the Annunciation commemorating His Incarnation. And, with this caution, the thought of her may be made most profitable to our faith; for nothing is so calculated to impress on our minds that Christ is really partaker of our nature, and in all respects man, save sin only, as to associate Him with the thought of her, by whose ministration He became our brother." [Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons: The Reverence Due to the Virgin Mary, Ignatius Press, p. 313]

Such 'silence' as this is also appropriate to us in our Christian profession. We had only better be thought of with and for God's Son – our Lord Jesus Christ. "And ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's." (1 Cor. 3:23)
And so, on this Mother's Day, I commend to you the example of Mary. I offer my blessing, encouragement, and gratitude to those who have undertaken the needful and honourable estate of parenthood. After the manner of Justin Martyr's “Dialogue” above, just as many social and personal problems can be germinated in a troubled family context, so can they be avoided and/or dealt with in a healthy family context. And finally, let us ever keep to the forefront of our remembrance and living that all may "know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God." (Eph. 3:19)

Saturday, April 18, 2020

It's a sabbath...like it or not

Gen. 2:2-3"And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made."

Here in April of the year 2020, a great portion of the planet is under some type of quarantine due to the outbreak of what has been called the coronavirus. While it is not as deadly as some other pestilences that have occurred throughout human history, it is certainly very contagious and, hence, some otherwise extreme precautions have been called for and, indeed, sensibly mandated.

Among the great hallmarks of contemporary economic theory and practice in the developed world is the two-fold principle of 'produce and consume at all costs'. Some of the progeny of this relentless system include targeted advertising to our personal communication devices that we keep powered on most of the time in order to keep up to date with information (God forbid that we 'miss out on something' - thus feeding into the narrative that we have an overriding imperative to consume, be it information or durable goods and investments), an increasing lack of well-defined boundaries between work and personal life, and few reliable social security structures to fall back on in case of illness, injury, or economic downturn that prevents being able to work. The system thus forces those, especially among the poor and not-well-connected, to continue to eek out a subsistence living while sick themselves and potentially contaminating a large swath of other people with whatever ailment they are carrying. Such a situation is not ultimately sustainable and, whether by virtue of concerted public action or uncontrollable compulsion, will be interrupted.

And now it has been. So it seems that we have, for a time, a situation that requires of us the impetus to stop and take stock of what it is we have been living like/for. And that is no bad thing. And it is not my purpose here to dive into economic or political theory. Rather, I am interested in how we as individuals and as Christian believers can respond to this circumstance that we find ourselves in, and that not by choice.

Our society, in many of its younger constituent members (and, yes, this is a generalisation, but anectodal evidence is strong in its favour) has become completely enthralled to the fast pace of technology and that has affected not only how they see themselves, but in the works and reactions they produce. In other words, our consumption has a profound impact on who we are, how we see ourselves, and how we relate to our fellows. Indeed, it has 'consumed' us. Movies and television shows have become much more 'intense' (and loud), there is a great impatience for the 'next big thing' to be developed and to discard that which it replaces, there is a serious increase in attention deficit disorders in young students and twenty somethings to the point that sitting still and being alone with one's thoughts is an almost unthinkable exercise. Our culture has become obnoxious, rude, loud, overstimulated, and ill-considered. The present virus has taken some of the teeth out of this monster that has been self-generating for some decades now. And that is a good thing.

For a significant minority among us have a hard time interacting with, let alone understanding or desiring to participate in, the frenetic pace that has arisen. We would prefer a nice cup of coffee or tea, a good book, a long walk, a meaningful conversation with a close friend, and/or some time to recover after having been to work/school/running errands that exhaust us. We may be used to feeling closed off from the great crush of humanity, able to fend for ourselves, not mind being alone with the thoughts that rumble through our own head-space, become resilient enough by the training of our nature/mental condition to not panic when something serious occurs that requires our adaptation to circumstance beyond our immediate control. That has been our whole life. It is a blessing, especially now, that may not have felt like one during the many long years of our trying to come to terms with ourselves.

It is now up to the majority to try and cope without some of the innate tools that we might possess. Thus, they will need patience and compassion as they struggle with the discomfort of being not-themselves. A sabbath is here, at the end of our man-made works, whether we like it or not.

Ex. 20:8-11 "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it."

There are at least a couple of significant things to notice here in this passage from Exodus. The first is that we, who are made in the image and likeness of God, are called to imitate Him in the conclusion of His creative acts. After the six days of creation, He stops to bless what He has done. And we can do the same thing by being more mindful of what we do and how we do it. Whether it is our work, our prayer, our interactions with family/friends/strangers (especially on the internet!), a certain casual unawareness has crept into our social discourse that allows us to keep people at a distance, comment on (read "disapprove of") some aspect of theirs and feel justified in doing so. Rather are we called to bless and to be a blessing to others. And it can be done, even if we disagree, even if the other party is objectively "wrong", and in those times when the wisdom of the Spirit calls us to say nothing at all. Then will we be able to stop and and to see the blessing in what we have done or avoided, which becomes another barometer for reading the condition of our own hearts and to understand more clearly what sort of conversion we are being called to at this particular time.

The other thing, which ties into the first point, is that "the stranger that is within thy gates" is also specified as being included in this sabbath keeping. It is a call to be both kind and generous to those in our midst, especially if they are hard to be kind to. You may be the agent of change God has called to help them become whole through your example and prayer. It is a fearful thing to obstruct the good purpose of the good God and try to replace it with our own sins and failures. A sabbath is here, at the end of our man-made works, whether we like it or not.

Mark 2:27 "And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath."

In like manner after the Scribes and Pharisees who have, up to this point in St. Mark's Gospel, accused Jesus of forgiving someone's sins, not fasting, and breaking the sabbath, so their modern analogues in the secular world seek to shame people into altering their behaviour by criticising those who leave their homes (without knowledge or consideration of the circumstances involved) and those who have no homes (for not being in one! and for which all sorts of things are blamed but one of the  principle causes, the vagaries of the unrestrained free market which capitalises & commodifies everything in its wake and leaves those behind who cannot afford to invest in its "liberties".) It seems that the "professionally irritated" are among us in force as they were in the 1st century. We can, however, be thankful that the modern day Reddit warrior has not, for the most part, set his sights on religious practice. Back then, someone was healed of a physical disability, a group of people - as likely as not alienated from the religious establishment of the day - have found someone who will accept them and lead them, hungry folks found a legitimate source of food. Today, people put themselves at risk to care for the needy. Are those really such bad things? Are they worthy of complaint?

It's a matter of priorities. If even the great David himself knows that the Torah is meant for his benefit, not to constrain him, how much ought we to be encouraged by his example and to take after it. "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." (Matt. 5:17) In light of this, there is no good reason for the Scribes and Pharisees to be unsettled by Jesus or for us to be unsettled by the Coronavirus.

Jesus here shows us how to read and interpret the Scriptures properly. He, as the Incarnate Word, is the definitive reference point for all that has been written and that which is to come. The heart of the Gospels is the account of the passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus. Everything else about the narratives flows out from that. The same is true for the whole of the Biblical narrative. The Gospels themselves are the heart. The Epistles, Wisdom literature, Prophets, and Law are concentric circles surrounding the Gospels. The two outermost rings, Genesis and Revelation, the 'book ends' if you will, describe for us the relevant beginning and end of salvation history. And if these latter two seem confusing, filled with bizarre imagery and things that cannot be taken literally, well...think about what they are attempting to communicate: the life and creative power of the Omnipotent God and the response of His beloved creation to His own greatness. No small task, that.

And so, as we continue to live out our days and contemplate our existence and perhaps what sort of changes to our own lives we need to continue after the pandemic runs its course, it is critical that we keep in the forefront of our minds what our Christian profession entails. It is not the keeping of a specific liturgy, the right to assemble together in a public place, or reminding other people of their faults and shortcomings (chances are as likely as not they're already aware of those without your intervention). Rather it is believing in the Lord Jesus, holding the right faith according to the Creeds, allowing the Word of God to constantly take deeper root within our hearts, a consciousness that we are a communion of believers (even in the midst of separation) which both embraces and transcends the physical reality, and a living faith in the reality of the Resurrection, during busy seasons and during times of rest, whether chosen or enforced. A sabbath is here, at the end of our man-made works, whether we like it or not.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Epiphany V

The tradition of the Rule of St. Benedict*, almost 1500 years old now, is known for both its practical wisdom as well as the detail which it provides for the arrangement of the Daily Offices. Speaking of how the Psalms ought to be employed, the Rule says:"Above all else we urge that if anyone finds this distribution of the psalms unsatisfactory, he should arrange whatever he judges better, provided that the full complement of one hundred and fifty psalms is by all means carefully maintained every week...We read, after all, that our holy Fathers, energetic as they were, did all this in a single day. Let us hope that we, lukewarm as we are, can achieve it in a whole week." (from Ch. 18, RB80, p. 215)

Quite analogously, Thomas Cranmer applied the same methodology to the 30 day Psalm cycle in the Book of Common Prayer. If the monks of old could accomplish such in the course of a week, let us hope that we, preoccupied as we are, can manage the same in a whole month. And now, on account of 20th century liturgical tinkering, a majority of the Psalms can be read at Morning and Evening Prayer over a period of 6 or 7 weeks. As the saying goes, 'not that there's anything wrong with that' per se, but it does indicate a tendency in both our prayer and preaching habits to somewhat marginalise the Old Testament generally and the Psalms in particular. So I rejoice on these Sundays when Morning Prayer is our service order because not only can the Psalms be preached on from the pulpit (as at any other time), but also proclaimed in the context of public worship, the very function for which they were composed originally.

So we read this morning in Psalm 112:2 "His seed shall be mighty upon earth; the generation of the faithful shall be blessed." From St. Augustine's "Exposition on the Psalms": "The Apostle witnesses, that the works of mercy are the seed of the future harvest, when he says, 'Let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap;' [Galatians 6:9] and again, 'But this I say, He which sows sparingly, shall reap also sparingly.' [2 Corinthians 9:6] But what, brethren, is more mighty than that not only Zacchaeus should buy the kingdom of Heaven by the half of his goods, [Luke 19:8] but even the widow for two mites, [Mark 12:42] and that each should possess an equal share there? What is more mighty, than that the same kingdom should be worth treasures to the rich man, and a cup of cold water to the poor? (newadvent.org/fathers/1801111.htm) And so here we have two significant things going on. The first is a preview of the theme in the Epistle about working mercy and that in the Gospel lesson about the nature of the harvest.

The second is the noting of both Zacchaeus and the widow giving away that which was dearest to them. For Zacchaeus it was the money he had stolen by means of legally acceptable fraud; for the widow it was all that she had to provide for herself in this life. In some ways, they couldn't be more different, but here St. Augustine is considering them as two sides of the same coin, so to speak. Though he uses the phrase “buy the kingdom of heaven”, it should be understood as a rhetorical examination, What is it worth to you? Once again, the same question is being put to us that I brought up last time only in different words: What is it worth to you? - Who do you say that I am? In response, are we willing, like these two people given as examples, to surrender everything? And not just money, but all those other things most dear to us: comfort and security, ego, pretense, anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, suspicion, etc. It's all got to go. And if that sounds impossible? Well, just look carefully at the Cross where literally everything has already been surrendered.

The Epistle today is somewhat unusual as it is not an exact quote from the Authorised Version of the Bible. Likewise on Trinity 15, the Gospel lesson on that date is taken from the American Standard Version, which is a late 19th, cent. update of the good old King James. Whereas we heard about “a heart of compassion”, if you flip to Colossians 3:12 in the KJV you will read “bowels of mercies”. The late Fr. Lou Tarsitano, preaching on this day at St. Andrew's Church in Savannah, GA. back in 2000, had this to say: "[W]hile 'a heart of compassion' is an effort to provide an example of what that strange expression means, it hides more than it reveals....Thus, St. Paul approaches the mystery of human life, body and soul, on this earth, when he says, 'Put on bowels of mercies.' He means more even than 'love' and more even than 'a heart of compassion.' He expects us to call up every kind of mercy, even for those that we do not approve of or for those who have made themselves our enemies, from our 'guts' – from everything that is in us, from everything that makes us who we are. He expects us to become the living examples of mercy, and not merely to think about it, and especially when some other person doesn't deserve mercy in our ordinary human calculations." (lectionarycentral.com/epiphany/Tarsitano.html) And if that sounds impossible? Well, just look carefully at the Cross where literally everything has already been accomplished.

Speaking of mercy, we now move from our own receipt of instruction by St. Paul to God's own example in the Gospel lesson. It seems that the unidentified “enemy” was not content merely to destroy all or a portion of the future harvest, but wanted rather to plant so much confusion that the sower wouldn't be able to tell what he was even looking at. I think that describes us in our post-Edenic, lapsarian state quite well, don't you?

And just as Newtonian mechanics are quite sufficient to describe the functionality of matter and energy in the universe on a macroscopic scale but cannot accurately guide us down to a quantum level of understanding what it is that really structures that which we observe, just so in moral theology the “Newtonian world” (so to speak) of the Covenants given to Noah and Abraham, the Commandments given to Moses that followed and the Natural Law before them becomes insufficient to describe the person redeemed by and justified in Christ. The Resurrection literally changes everything and reveals the foundational structure of what we have been observing throughout the course of recorded salvation history, including the fact that the harvest is not ours to accomplish, but only to partake of.

Consider what Fr. Robert Hart says about the Gospel lesson: "The plants that are called tares are very much like wheat in appearance, but they lack the nutritional properties of wheat. You can’t eat from these weeds. However, it is very difficult to distinguish with the eye between the tares and true wheat....No, the Lord does not uproot the wheat in order to destroy the tares. Consider what it would mean if He did. Look at Saint Paul. If ever there was a tare that deserved uprooting, it was the persecutor of the Church, Saul of Tarsus. He had been confident in his own righteousness as a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee who was, as touching the Law of Moses, blameless. And, the crowning virtue of his righteousness was his zeal that he demonstrated by persecuting the Church. When the Lord Jesus appeared to him, as he approached the Damascus Gate, and was knocked to the ground, Saul learned that his crowning achievement of righteousness was actually the great sin of persecuting none other than Messiah Himself by persecuting His people. What had been in Saul's mind the seal and mark of his righteousness, was in reality a filthy rag, a grievous sin. And, at the same moment that he was being made aware of the enormity of his guilt, he was being shown mercy, called from the darkness of ignorance and sin into the light of Christ, and to the righteousness that comes by faith in Him. It is no wonder that this whole theme would dominate the message of what, today, we call Pauline theology. And so it is, this one-time enemy of the Church became Saint Paul the Apostle.” (http://anglicancontinuum.blogspot.com/2014/02/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany.html)

Here is the lesson for us. Rather than getting all worked up over the future condition of one person or another (tares or wheat, how can we even discern?!? Yet it remains sorely tempting to try), simply pray for the conversion and salvation of all, especially those who seem particularly unlovable and undesirable or just plain wicked after the example of Ananias in Acts 9. Remember too, that it is quite likely that there are those who think the same about you or I (i.e. unlovable, undesirable, just plain wicked). Please God, they will pray for our own conversion of heart as well. We are called to love all and to forgive all, even as Christ has forgiven us. And if that sounds impossible? Well, just look carefully at the Cross where literally everything has already been forgiven. And that unfathomable harvest of Divine mercy, that locus of compassion, leads us right back into the Psalms where they are blessed who fear the Lord and take great delight in his commands.

*Speaking of which, if you haven't read it yet, I heartily endorse Rod Dreher's "The Benedict Option". My only real disagreement with Dreher is his assumption that the post-Constantinian Church-State-cultural cooperative (in all its various forms) was ever a good thing that we should strive to someday be able to return to. (See my previous post and feel free to disagree with it. That is simply my opinion.)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Trinity XXV

Daniel 3:8-30       Matthew 24:23-31
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Now that we are approaching the end of the Ecclesiastical as well as the secular year, the Scripture lessons in the lectionary focus, appropriately enough, on eschatological themes. Today we are being warned to redouble our faithfulness in the face of both a coercive civil power as well as the idolatry of false religion that has at its base not Christ, but the ego.

If you would once again follow me back in time, the original 1928 Daily Office lectionary indicates most of the third chapter of Daniel as the first lesson for Morning Prayer on this day, wherein is recounted the casting of the three Hebrew men into Nebuchadnezzer's furnace for refusing to bow down before an image he had set up, to wit:

"Then Nebuchadnezzer in his rage and fury commanded to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abéd-nego. Then they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzer spake and said unto them, Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abéd-nego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up?...[I]f ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?" (Dan. 3:13-14, 15b)
And I'm sure you know the rest of the story. The furnace was so hot that those charged with casting the king's victims into it and standing watch were themselves consumed by the flames, yet the three young men were unharmed. Nebuchadnezzer was so impressed that he released them and, in a great act of completely missing the point, now commanded the death and destruction of any who spoke ill of the God they worship.
And therein lies our own word of warning. For the first three hundred years of its existence, Christianity was an illegal movement persecuted by the civil authorities. Not only did it survive under such circumstances, it flourished after the pattern of Christ Himself who tells us in John 12:24, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." My friends, that is the 'natural' state of Christ's Church here on earth. I would suggest that what we have become so accustomed to seeing from a now centuries-long perspective, Church and State living peaceably side by side if not outright assuming each other's duties and obligations, is not the proper environment in which the Gospel can grow and prosper unaltered. What is in fact 'upside down' we have accepted as 'right-side up' because that is what we have been told (with varying degrees of insistence) and is the draught we have imbibed. It is far too early to tell, but perhaps things are now changing and Christianity will no longer effectively be an arm of the state. Many people are afraid of this. Well, let me be the positive contrarian and tell you that what can be a source of anxiety and panic is actually cause for rejoicing and greater hope. At this juncture in western history, Christendom (that symphonic and symbiotic relationship of Church and empire) has played itself out. And frankly, if I may say so, not a moment too soon! As we read in Psalm 146:3 "Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help." For they, like Nebuchadnezzer, will turn on you in a moment's notice and all the transitory money, power and influence that they can offer will still not be able to save you. "Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God." (vs. 4)
"[I]f any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not." (Matt. 24:23) Joel Osteen would tell me that Christ is found in positive thinking and prosperity. I don't believe him. Dr. Creflo Dollar would tell me that Christ is found in possessing a great fortune. I don't believe that either. Arianism and Islam would tell me that Christ is simply a great creature (and, thus, incapable of making Atonement without a greater-than-he, external assistance). If the Church's teaching of the Scriptures is true, that simply cannot be the case. The former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church would tell me that Christ is found in the Millennium Development Goals of the U.N. They, of their very nature, lack the ability proclaim that Christ is risen. The great Christian empires, democracies and other secular governments have desired to tell me that Christ is present in absolute agreement with politics and constitutions, bureaucracy and legal compulsion, campaigns and backroom deal making. If a tree is known by its fruits, I don't believe that either. For what all of these contrivances give freely with one hand, they will eventually take away with the other after the fashion of Nebuchadnezzer himself. This is the fatal logic of the zero-sum game, of fear incarnate through threat of scarcity, of covetousness and the passion of desire that has marred our theological history from the beginning with the murder of Abel by his own brother Cain – a great sorrow that did not have to be so. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book "Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence", "God may choose, but God does not reject. The logic of scarcity- of alpha males and chosen sons – has no place in a world made by a God whose 'tender mercies are on all his works' (Ps. 145:9)."
One of my all-time favourite quotes from Fr. Stephen Freeman has to be: "The Kingdom of God has come whether we like it or not." And, if we're being honest, a lot of us don't like it because we cannot control its parameters and force it into the blindness of a singular lens, try as we might! The Kingdom of God is not synonymous with politics, economics, the 'successful' life of quiet desperation that so many people 'achieve' in the modern world, nor even with the heaven imagined by those who still dwell in the two-storey universe where we do our thing 'down here' and God is watching 'up there' where we will eventually get to after the terms of our contract expire, sufficient effort has been expended, or our anxiety has propelled us. That is all wretched, meaningless nonsense. And here, in the words of Dostoevsky's 'underground man' is where it can all go: "Because I only talk a good game, I only dream in my head, but do you know what I want in reality? That [it] all go to hell, that's what! I want peace. I'd sell the whole world for a kopeck this minute, just not to be bothered. Shall the world go to hell, or shall I not have my tea? I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea." (from "Notes from Underground") But, unlike the 'underground man' whose intent was to write off his fellow persons among whom he was not able to find his place, we are called by our Lord in similarly strong words to that single-mindedness of which He is both Author and Exemplar: "And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead." (Matt. 8:21-22) This is not a rejection, but a fulfilling in which all are invited to partake.
If it is found neither in empires nor in bureaucracies, neither in the practice and belief of much that is contemporary calling itself 'religion', do you wish to see the Kingdom of God as it actually is? Then you will find it right here during these numinous moments in the midst of the liturgy, you will find it in the persons of the poor and disadvantaged who still gladly give what they can and pray with thanksgiving, you will find it in your own heart when you freely love those who are become your enemy through their fault or yours. Mostly, though, you will find it not in the life of competition for position and anxiety over having 'enough' (of whatever it is you have been told to pursue), in the shame of comparing ourselves to others and bargaining for the merest scraps of information and recognition (looking at you social media!) That is the offspring of this modern society (and many others throughout history). But rather that Kingdom is to be found in the life of grace freely given through our baptism and continuous conversion to the Lord Jesus, in Whom alone is salvation and eternal life.
So, there is good news here. There is occasion and opportunity that has never existed here in the two centuries since the creation of this country.  Following the Lord Jesus will no longer automatically gain you advantage and preferment. But that's okay, for the two great principles are always true and present: Christ is risen and the Kingdom of God is come among us. Nothing else really matters. So it is quite right to pay the circumstances of our existence in the world no mind whatsoever. As we are instructed in 1 Cor. 2:6, "Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect; yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought." And, we can also take courage that Jesus counsels us in John 21 against needless worry, comparison, and false choices (as if there were a scarcity of Divine love to go around) and shows us instead what we ought to be about: "Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee? Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me." (vs. 20-22)

Monday, August 6, 2018


"For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
(2 Peter 1:17)

The Christian manifestation of God's glory begins its full fruition at Christ's baptism. As the Holy Ghost descends upon Him, we hear the voice of the Father declare: “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (Mk. 1:11) The three occurrences, or theophanies if you will, of this utterance all come at the most significant moments in Jesus’ ministry on earth and thus are not just "wow moments" chosen at random. They point to the three traditional roles ascribed to Him of prophet, king and priest. He is a prophet because He comes to tell us of the things of God through His preaching and healing ministry begun at the river Jordan. He is king because He is thesecond Person of the Blessed Trinity reigning forever in Heaven, manifested so dramatically on Mt. Tabor. He is a priest because He offers the one liturgical oblation, to which all the blood offerings of the Old Testament rites pointed, of Himself on the Cross.  Seeing their connexion, let us now consider each of these happenings in some more detail.

John's baptism, particularly of Jesus, has a significance both historical and analogical, and not simply because these are things that we have assigned to it. We are to see that Jesus' coming is going to completely transform and fulfill all that has come before by His participation in the lived Covenant given to Moses and developed by Israelite tradition. Now, it can appear problematic that Jesus here presents himself for a baptism of repentance. We who profess the orthodox faith say of Him in the Nicene Creed: "God of God, Light of Light, Very God of veryGod". Consider that in the grand scheme of Christianity (particularly with regard to the Cross and Resurrection, without which everything else becomes meaningless), a fallible god in need of conversion and repentance is entirely laughable and useless. Thanks be to God, that is not the case. Thus we are not in any meaningful way similar to the present day devotees ofa self-inflicted Mt. Olympus and the errant, fickle deities that have been enthroned there by pathological fiat. Rather does Jesus come to confirm His own humanity and to reaffirm the message of John. What John had been preaching to those gathered about him was in fact perfectly consistent with both the Old Testament prophets and the newly inaugurated  ministry of Jesus, to Whom all that had come before did indeed point and in Whom all would find perfect fulfillment. Herein is the glory of this first facet of the triple theophany recounted in the Gospels.

In the second instance, the Transfiguration, there is no seeming paradox to contend with. The Divinity of Christ is displayed before the eyes of the chosen Apostles, who are absolutely dumbfounded. As the perfect humanity of Christ is established and confirmed in His baptism, so does the Father confirm for us on Mt. Tabor that Heis pleased to throw the full weight of the Godhead in our direction, for our benefit. If ever there were any doubts in the minds of Peter, James and John, it has certainly been illustrated for them beyond the shadow of a doubt that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory.” The Gospels are showing us that yes, the two natures in the one person of Jesus Christ is in fact an authentic revelation, doctrine commended to the faithful as worthy of beliefand entrusted to the care of the Church to preserve for all ages.

The other thing to note about the Transfiguration is the topic of conversation amongst Jesus, Moses and Elijah. In a sermon about this subject the Rev. John Mason Neale, the great 19th cent. Anglican priest and hymnographer, said: "And what did they talk of? If wehad not been told, how different a conversation we should have imagined! We should perhaps have thought that they would speak of that kingdom which the LORD had come on earth to establish; that kingdom which shall never be destroyed, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail; that kingdom which shall be from sea to sea, and from the flood unto the world's end. Nothing less. 'They appeared in glory, and spake of His decease.' To talk of death in the height of this glory! To talk of a shameful death,-a death of agony,- amidst such brightness as the world had never before seen! Yes: but the text does not end so. They 'spake of His decease which He should accomplish.' What a wonderful word! When do we speak thus? We say that a man accomplishes deliverance from death, but to accomplish death itself,who would thus talk? It tells us how freely, how earnestly, our LORD set about His Passion, according to that saying of His: 'I have a Baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished.'... And that indeed was a glorious subject for a season of glory. This was a brighter and better vision than Moses had, when he gat him to the top of Pisgah, and beheld all the land which GOD had promised to His people. This was a nobler prospect than Elijah had, when the chariot was bearing him up above the clouds, and his mantle fell from off him." (John Mason Neale, Sermon XV, "The Three Tabernacles")

There are many facets of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ to fix our attention on. But no matter which you choose, they all lead to the passion, death and Resurrection. There is no getting around that, and that is a good thing. And so these instances of kerygmatic parallelism that we have noted in the Gospels are now brought to completion on Calvary by the centurion’s statement: “Truly this was the son of God.” (Mt. 27:54)  The Evangelists have collated pregnant instances of both the perfect humanity and the perfect Divinity of Christ and now show us that the redemptive work of the Cross is as efficacious as itneeded to be. The humanity of the Jesus who humbly submitted to St. John’s baptism is offered on the Crossin a perfect sacrificial act of love. The Divinity of Christ exhibited on Mt. Tabor is able to offer the perfect sacrifice and to have it accepted on our behalf. This is both something that only humanity could do and that only God could do. Take away one of these two elements and the whole scheme of redemption loses its potency, the remainder becomes nothing more than an empty ritual, a cosmic farce performed not out of love and mercy, but merely out of disinterested condescension or, what's even worse, a sort of sanitised blood-lust and wrath. In the words of Fr. Stephen Freeman: "For various reasons, some people are determined to make the economy of salvation to be linked with the Wrath of God. If you do not repent, then God will do thus and such... I have always considered this representation of the gospel to be coercive and contrary to the love of God. I have heard convoluted ways in which this wrath is interpreted to be 'the loving thing to do' but I do not buy it....But it is essential in our witness to the God Who Is, to always relate the fact that He is a loving God, not willing that any should perish. He is not against us but for us. This is utterly essential to the correct proclamation of the Gospel." (from "Glory 2 God for all things", God's Wrath, Jan. 15, 2009)

There is one more thing to note. On this day some 73 years ago, the world was forever changed when, in the context of a state of war, a nuclear bomb was detonated over Hiroshima. And whatever side of the debate you find yourself on as to whether this was a justified, proportional response or no, the fact remains that such action could only be taken within a grievously broken world wherein remain unconverted men who, above all else, desire power.  What, then, do we do with this? From an article two years ago in the magazine of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, In Communion: "The Transfiguration is a promise to a broken world. A promise that all scars will be healed, all divisions overcome, all wars ended, and all souls restored. The Earth will no longer be a crucible of destruction, but the realm of the Kingdom. Atomic radiation will not shine forth from broken bodies, but the uncreated light from transfigured ones. Men will no longer aspire to harness the power of God, but will kneel before their king. There will no longer be cause to be afraid." (Nicholas Sooy, In Communion, Aug. 2016)

And so, as Jesus calls us each and every day to follow Him, we too can and must assume a portion of His threefold role as prophet by striving faithfully to live an authentic Christian life that will preach to others by our deeds and disposition, as priest by making offerings united to His of both praise and repentance, and as king by longing for the coming of His Kingdom which is indeed here among us as we are told by St. Mark: "...The time is fulfulled, and the kingdom of God is at hand..." (Mk. 1:15). And we know what our dignity both is and will be in His Kingdom: "Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might bepartakers of the divine nature." (2 Pet. 1:4) And then, when we come at last to our own particular death and judgment, our Father in heaven will be able to say of us, always on account of the work of His Son accomplished perfectly for us as we could never accomplish for ourselves: This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Trinity IX

"[The] holy Apostle Saint James, leaving his father and all that he had, was obedient unto the calling of...Jesus Christ"

"A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living." (Lk. 15:11-13)

As the Church celebrated St. James this past week on July 25th, three quick things of note occurred to me:

1. Whereas the Apostle James, who may or may not have caught wind of John the Baptist's preaching about Jesus, nevertheless surrendered his livelihood at a moment's notice to follow Him, someone he had no first hand knowledge of with no prior, contractual assurances about what the future would hold; the younger son, who had literally known his father and family his entire life and was bound to them by ties of blood and filial affection, was able (in effect) to wish his father's death to his face by asking for his stake of the inheritance and then remove himself far away from them to lead a life of self-indulgence along with, I am sure, many other carefully crafted plans for his own future enjoyment.

2. Whereas St. James was witness to the preaching and healing ministry of Jesus, the showing forth of the Divinity of Christ in the Transfiguration and the wonderful miracles of the feeding of the thousands and the raising of Lazarus from the dead; the younger son was forced into the worst of circumstances when the money he depended on ran out, had to take on undesirable work and, ultimately, had to come face to face with his shame and steel himself to beg forgiveness from those he had mindlessly cast aside as utterly worthless and literally dead to him.

3. But...here's the really good part. These things happened, and continue to do so today. And we can, I think, take great courage and comfort in the examples of both these men. Whether early in the day or late, whether before or after any of us have sinned, there is always room for repentance, forgiveness and the embrace of the Lord Jesus. As we learn in Matt. 20:14-15, "Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?" And with what great generosity is the gift given? It is almost shocking to our sensibilities, particularly our great regard for the 'fairness' of debt, vengeance and retaliation. "But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry." (Lk. 15:22-24)

"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches" (Rev. 2:29) “and let all the people say Amen.” (Ps. 106:46b)

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Easter II

II Samuel 1:19-end   I Peter 2:19-end   John 10:11-16

As has become my custom since last summer, I have been using the original daily office lectionary appended to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The first lesson given for this morning is the last portion of the 1st chapter of II Samuel. This is a marvelously providential choice as it allows us to do some hermeneutical heavy lifting with respect both to the overall Biblical narrative and to the Eucharistic propers for today more specifically.

From II Samuel 1:19-21: "The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen! Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph. Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil."

Firstly, consider these words at their 'face value' in the context of the narrative. This is a portion of David's lament after learning of the death of King Saul. Notice both his righteous indignation against the death of the anointed king as well as the depth of filial affection directed toward the man who had, earlier, persued David and those loyal to him in order to kill him. We'll come back to that in a while as we examine the Epistle.

In an effort to dig down a bit deeper from the surface of the literal meaning, the curious onlooker is as likely as the formal student to encounter the historical-critical method which seeks, as its name implies, to understand the biblical texts in their cultural and temporal contexts with as much scientific objectivity as possible and as little conjecture as necessary. Some who adhere to this approach as a principle vehicle of interpretation have, however, stretched the meaning of 'necessity' well beyond the breaking point.

Pope Benedict XVI, in the Foreward of the first volume of his work "Jesus of Nazareth" talks about both the usefulness as well as the limits of this methodology. "The historical-critical method – let me repeat – is an indispensable tool, given the structure of Christian faith. But we need to add two points. This method is a fundamental dimension of exegesis, but it does not exhaust the interpretive task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God....On painstaking reflection, it can intuit something of the 'deeper value' the word contains. It can in some sense catch the sounds of a higher dimension through the human word, and so open up the method to self-transcendance. But its specific object is the human word as human." (Jesus of Nazareth; vol. 1, xvii)

So it seems clear from these remarks that there is yet something still needful when we approach the Scriptures. Going even further 'under the surface' from historical criticism, we arrive at the typological method of reading the Scriptures, itself quite prominent among the Fathers of the first Christian centuries. To be sure this methodology did not originate with them, but is found in the text of the inspired writers themselves. Consider Romans 5:14: "Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come." What the Authorised Version renders as 'figure' is 'typos' (tóo-pahs) in Greek. According to Strong's Concordance, 'typos' (G5179) can mean (among other things): a stamp or die; a style or resemblance; a figure, form, manner, pattern, or print. In the specific context of this verse from Romans, then, Adam is the type whereas Christ is the anti-type.

In order to clarify the nature and function of typological interpretation further, consider this from OxfordBiblicalStudies.com: "Some of what happened in the OT is seen to be anticipations of events recorded in the NT, and some of the narratives in the gospels seem to be reflected in the Acts. The anticipations are called ‘types’ and the fulfilments are the ‘antitypes’. Thus the story of the Exodus is repeated in the synoptic gospels; the Israelites cross the Red Sea, yield to temptations of doubt and disillusionment for forty years in the wilderness, and then Moses on Mount Sinai presents the people with the Law. In the gospels Jesus is baptized in the water by John, is tempted for forty days in the wilderness, and then gives the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7). The difference is that where Israel failed, by repeatedly grumbling and doubting God's determination, Jesus succeeded. The gospels are, as it were, retelling the story of Israel, but giving the events of Jesus as its climax and rationale.... The principle behind such exegesis is that God had the same purpose in the NT as he always had (cf. Heb. 13:8). He is consistent. Though his plan failed because of Israel's weakness, he did not change his plan but brought it to completion through Jesus."

Now, all of this has been by way of preparation to consider the Old Testament lesson that I started out with. I would suggest that king Saul is, in this case, a type foreshadowing Christ on the Cross. He is, as indeed is the Lord Jesus, God's anointed, killed on the heights of Gilboa as Christ was on Golgotha. "The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places" by one who was unaware of the ultimate gravity of his actions. Saul's attendant tells David in II Sam. 1:10: "So I stood upon him, and slew him, because I was sure that he could not live after that he was fallen: and I took the crown that was upon his head, and the bracelet that was on his arm, and have brought them hither unto my lord....And David said unto him, Thy blood be upon thy head; for thy mouth hath testified against thee, saying, I have slain the Lord's anointed." Surely there is an echo and prefiguring of St. Luke 23: 33-34: "And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."

And while it is an easy thing to contrast David's order to kill Saul's attendant with Christ's call to the Father for forgiveness toward those who have crucified Him, in reality both are simply being faithful to the Covenant in place at the time, to wit: David has exacted an "eye for an eye" whereas Christ perfectly exemplifies the Summary of the Law we were reminded of at the beginning of today's Liturgy.

The other thing to note in this text from II Samuel becomes David's lament over the man who had persued him unto death. And that is a remarkable thing in and of itself. Who among us is possessed of sufficient virtue to genuinely lament the death of those who hate us and wish us harm, grevious or otherwise, justified or not? David's response is also noteworthy in that it preceeds the theology of the Epistle. "For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully....For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps." (I Peter 2:19, 21) Here, then, in David's lament, is yet another example of type preceeding antitype. "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."

The conclusion of the Epistle is a natural segue into the Gospel lesson. Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep." (Jn. 10:11) In his sermon for this Sunday, the Rev. Isaac Williams noted: "As the Lamb was slain from before the foundation of the world, so is He ever the good Shepherd that gives His life for the sheep; it is His own inseparable attribute. I am the good Shepherd: the good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep.  He that died for us, and gave us that proof of His love, has not gone away, and departed, and left us in the wilderness, but is even now with us as the good Shepherd.  He is not indifferent about us, of our ways and doings, but as a man careth for his own, which he hath bought at an exceeding high price, so He, as the good Shepherd, careth for us."

Once again, this returns us to a consideration of David. His original occupation was also tending his father's flocks from which he was called to defend the Israelites against the Philistine army and their champion Goliath who had inspired fear in all the men of Saul's army. Later on, he put his own life at risk once again defending himself against Saul himself in order to bring peaceful rule to Israel. And if David, as type, out of his sin with Bathsheba begat Solomon who would reign as the wisest of the Kings, so Christ as antitype would, out of the death wrought by Adam's sin, beget mankind again as adopted children of the Father who once again have access to eternal life. "I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep."

Now that we have gone hither and yon to consider some of the prefigurements of the Old Testament effective in and of themselves as signs and symbols of the glory to come yet never able to bring about what they pointed to until the Incarnation itself brought reality out of their  shadows and into His own glorious light, there is one more thing to consider about Christ our Good Shepherd. The two verses which follow immediately upon today's Gospel lesson read: "Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it up again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again." [Jn. 10:17,18] We too have a share in this power of laying down and taking up again. Just as I have noted before that we share in the creative power of God's Word by use of our own words to build up or destroy, to bless or to curse with our tongue, so we too have an active and participatory share in the power to lay down our burdens and sins. Should it be your lot to be (over)burdened with anger, resentment, impatience, pride, envy, hatred or anything else listed in Galatians 5, as by your own will you had taken them up originally, so under God's grace now is the time to lay them down. As we read in Romans 6:19: "[A]s ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness" by the grace won for you by Christ our Good Shepherd.

In conclusion, Martin Luther, in his sermon for today, tells us: "Comforting, indeed, it is to be the happy lambs who have a welcome refuge in the Shepherd and find in him joy and comfort in every time of need, assured that his perfect faithfulness cares for and protects us from the devil and the gates of hell. Relative to this subject, the entire Twenty-third Psalm is a beautiful and joyous song, of which the refrain is, 'The Lord is my Shepherd'."

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Brother Paphnutius - an ongoing parable (Part VII)

"And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body." (Mk. 14:22)
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366 A.D. - the Egyptian desert (early winter)

Br. Paphnutius loves the Book of Common Prayer and quantum physics (the whimsical irony of neither one of these having been conceived in his lifetime being completely beside the point!). In its American edition of 1928 there is a prayer that includes (on pg. 37 for those following along at home): "Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions." If in his own day, the Gnostics and the Arians were the loudest of the divisive, just imagine what he would think if he could see the state of Christianity in the 21st century!

At the least(!), these divisions are at their heart a disagreement over what particular texts mean as we read them in the Bible. And that got Paphnutius thinking, 'what happens when someone reads something from the Bible? Do they bring their own biases and individual ways of thinking?' (Yes.) 'Will any one person ever have enough information to be able to read it in isolation?' (Not likely.) 'Are the decrees of the Council of Nicaea an accurate representation of what appears in the pages of the Scriptures?' [Paphnutius is banking on it, with good reason (cf. the rhetorical point immediately preceeding this one).]

So, when reading the Bible, is it simple or complex? Neither? Both?

How's about this? Let's say, for argument's sake, that it is "ontologically simple" yet "theologically and literarily complex".

Let's see how Paphnutius breaks this down using the text quoted at the head of this article. It is indeed ontologically simple. Jesus, acting prior to the surety of His Crucifixion and Resurrection (which is, by the way, the WHOLE POINT of the entirety of Scripture) begins His fulfillment to the Passover act by means of the chabûrah meal [in order that it might be subsequently repeated regularly (see Gregory Dix) - that whole bit about fulfilling, not abolishing, the Law being entirely germane here].

Thus the "take, eat" of the Last Supper is ontologically simple.

But there is all sorts of other stuff going on here. This account was written down (and has been translated through) multiple languages and textual recensions of (generically slight) different readings so that words such as "take", "eat", "do this", "remembrance" "my body" cannot simply be taken at face value but must be looked into through cultural anthropology, literary analysis (including etymological development), their relation to the rest of the narrative in context, the teaching of the Fathers of the first centuries A.D. (remember that bit about not being able to work in isolation?!), and other means.

Consider this as well. The "communions of antiquity" (Rome, Orthodoxy, Miaphysite), the Reformed bodies (Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Anglicanism, etc.), and the modern movements (non-denominational, revivalist, prosperity, etc.) cannot agree on what this verse means.

Thus the "take, eat" of the Last Supper is, at the same time, theologically/literarily complex.

The point (yes, there is one) is that this is a pretty important specific subject (as it is mentioned not only by all 4 Gospels, but also in Acts and the Pauline Epistle to the Corinthians) so we (at bare minimum) need to keep our thinking clear (even if, as seems likely, there will never be entire agreement).

In our thinking, perhaps Heisenberg can help clear away some of the mental jetsam that is such an obstruction:

"As an example, he considered the measurement of the position of an electron by a  microscope. The accuracy of such a measurement is limited by the wave length of the light  illuminating the electron. Thus, it is possible, in principle, to make such a position  measurement as accurate as one wishes, by using light of a very short wave length. But...the  Compton effect cannot be ignored: the interaction of the electron and the illuminating light  should then be considered as a collision of at least one photon with the electron. In such a  collision, the electron suffers a recoil which disturbs its momentum. Moreover, the shorter  the wave length, the larger is this change in momentum. Thus, at the moment when the  position of the particle is accurately known, Heisenberg argued, its momentum cannot be  accurately known." (see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qt-uncertainty/)

Phew! What?!?

Simply this. Delving too deeply into the complexity, we can (and have) gotten quite lost and shifted the point (which is indeed to "take, eat" not "look, dispute"). Exclusively relying on the simplicity (particularly when such is conceived in modern terms such as plain, unadorned, easy to understand and not in a philosophico-theological construction of non-compartmentalisation and evident teleology) moves us to where some are at today [i.e. drowning in a sea of Nominalism (of their own making!)].

[Now, if you will excuse him, Br. Paphnutius is off to attend Sunday Liturgy so that he might "take" and "eat".

To be continued...