Poetics

Monday, May 31, 2021

Trinity Sunday

 

"And thou shalt make the breastplate of judgment with cunning work; after the work of the ephod thou shalt make it...And thou shalt set in it settings of stones, even four rows of stones: the first row shall be a sardius, a topaz, and a carbuncle: this shall be the first row....And the fourth row a beryl, and an onyx, and a jasper: they shall be set in gold in their inclosings." (Ex. 28:15a,17,20)

It is interesting to note that the order of the stones given for the priestly breastplate here in Exodus is reversed in the book of Revelation. The sardius, or sardine – a deep, brownish red reminiscent of blood – exchanges its first place with the jasper – which can appear opaquely white. How appropriate that in the literary and theological transition from the Old to the New Testament, the first has become last and the last, first. Just so then, the first Adam, by his disobedience, is stained with blood and death. The second Adam, Christ the sinless and unstained one, assumes his place and becomes "the first begotten of the dead" (Rev. 1:5). So the positioning of the stones in these two instances acts as a mirror image of our redemption. Life was exchanged for death, which became life again. As we read in I Corinthians 15:22: "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive."
    

Consider this as well. Dr. Oliver Greene, in an article posted on Philologos.org, says: "In the Old Testament the saints looked forward to the day when the Lamb would come, they looked forward to the cross [cf. Isaiah 53], and therefore saw the Sardius...the blood-red stone...first. They looked beyond that and saw the Jasper, the clear white stone representing His power and His rule at His second coming." (philologos.org/bpr/files/j001.htm) The Lamb having now been offered once for all and the vision of the heavenly liturgy being opened out before him, the Evangelist St. John quite naturally sees things from the other side as it were where the victory of the Resurrection appears to have priority amongst the allegorical imagery. "And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone." (Rev. 4:3a)
    

There are certainly plenty of other things to consider in today's Epistle. I will, however, limit myself to just two. The Rev. Isaac Williams, in a sermon for Trinity Sunday, had this to say: "The seasons of our sacred year have carried us through the great events of our Redemption, our Lord’s Birth and Temptation, His Passion, His Resurrection and Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Ghost; and now...the mystery of the Blessed Trinity is revealed; and for one half of the year from this time we commemorate by lessons of obedience this doctrine of the Three Persons in One God." (Williams, Sermon 47)
    

It is clear from this that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not just something that we hold casually and incidentally. When the Rev. Williams speaks of our commemorating this doctrine "by lessons of obedience", that can be seen in at least two instances. First of all, in the liturgical praxis of the Book of Common Prayer and several of the pre-Reformation western rites, every Sunday from now until Advent will be celebrated or commemorated as some ordinal number after Trinity. Thus the life of the Trinity becomes for us the referent in all of our public worship.
    

Secondly, our Lord Jesus Christ, in His divine nature, is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. In those very lessons from the Gospels that we hear, when He tells a parable, that is the eternal Godhead telling a parable. And here we must pause to bear in mind as well that speech is impossible without both words and the breath that impels them. Thus we are hearkened back to the beginning of creation in Genesis where God speaks His Word Who is moved by the Spirit. "And the Spirit of God [which word in Hebrew, ruach (roó-akh), is synonymous with "breath", "wind" or "spirit"] moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Gen. 1:2b-3) So in every instance where Jesus speaks, there before us is another manifestation of the creative power of the Triune God. Thus it becomes trebly poignant when Jesus preaches, for that is God preaching.When He heals, that is God healing.  And when we read in John 11:35 "Jesus wept", in a particular sense that is God weeping. For as the Athanasian creed proclaims, "Who although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ." So it seems pretty clear to me that we are indeed, and greatly privileged that it should be so, "commemorat[ing] by lessons of obedience this doctrine of the Three Persons in One God."
    

I shall return to Isaac Williams' commentary in a moment, but first a brief aside about the Athanasian Creed. It is a curious thing to me that, while it has been included in every edition of the English Book of Common Prayer from the getgo in 1549, it took until 1979 for it to make an appearance in an American Prayer Book. A variety of theories have been proposed as to why this is the case from it simply being a matter of length to our rather (in some quarters) robust embrace of principles stemming from the Enlightenment which tend to shy away from strong doctrinal statements such as: "Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly." Seemingly, yes, that is a strong doctrinal statement. But it is no more so than what we read in John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." Two things about this whole issue. First, some of the squeamishness can be laid directly at the feet of our generically Nominalistic approach to things as a default position. The Nominalist says: I see words such as "catholic" or "perish everlastingly" and I feel that I ought not to like them, therefore they are categorically unlikeable for me. I have named them as such, and that is my truth.
    

Secondly, this visceral objection to such things as the aforementioned portions of the Athanasian Creed and the Gospel need not have the 'teeth' that we think it does. Philosophically, I am something of a Neoplatonist and that colours my outlook on a lot of things. I tend to think in terms of archetypes and images. Thus, I can quite sincerely both recite the Athanasian creed and mean every word of it, while at the same time not assuming that everyone who has left the practice of Christianity for a variety of reasons is simply destined for hell. It is simply not our place to judge and condemn as we do not know the circumstances. And it's no wonder so many people have been frightened away. Frankly, religion in our day has reached a low ebb. We have become so confused that we now simply apply a "Jesus veneer" to our pet neuroses and anxieties and call it a day. All I'm saying is that things don't have to be what we think they are at first blush.
    

Back to the business at hand, again from today's Epistle. "[T]he first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things, which must be hereafter." (Rev. 4:1) Isaac Williams continues on: "It was a voice speaking, and yet it was as of a trumpet.  This combines together the two great events of Pentecost—the awful trumpet of Mount Sinai on the giving out of the Law, and the living tongues on the descent of the Spirit; the one expressive of fear, the other of love; the fear and love with which we are henceforth to live in the great mystery of Godliness, as revealed to us in the Old and New Testament."   (Williams, ibid)
    

This transition from holy fear alone to that converted and inflamed by the Holy Ghost in the fire of His love is aptly illustrated for us in (appropriately enough) three instances in today's Gospel. Firstly, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under cover of darkness and gives for his opening volley what has, no doubt, become the default "party line" of affirming Jesus' good intentions. And yet, I don't think Nicodemus is being anything but sincere here. In light of the risk to his socio-religious position he is taking in associating with Jesus, certainly an understandable fear, he is being a cautious man. Straightway does Jesus begin to help him see by looking beyond the established way of seeing things. This new birth will take away all that has been holding him back. Jesus not only recognises the position that Nicodemus finds himself in, he offers the way out of it. Such is the goodness of the love of God overcoming the fear that has been engendered via the keeping of the Law and its accretions in the context of living under the watchful eye of the Roman state.
    

Secondly, Nicodemus takes Jesus too literally, thinking that he is being asked to go back in time, stuff himself back into the womb and do a second take. He is afraid that what he is being told, appealing as it is to him, is impossible. The bit about the wind blowing "where it listeth" is a good follow-on to the rector's sermon on the Sunday after the Ascension when he told us that it doesn't so much matter "how" the Ascension happened as "that" it did. Jesus is comforting Nicodemus out of what must have become an ingrained eye for fine points and details that his experience of interpreting and living the Law must have provided him. The "how" of the operation of grace in being born again of water and the Spirit is not so important as the "that" of being born of water and the Spirit, which administration thereof has been entrusted to the life of the Church. 
    

Finally, poor exasperated Nicodemus just can't take it anymore. "How can these things be?" he asks. And Jesus gives him a brief glimpse of both the necessity of the Incarnation as well as the promise of the Resurrection in terms that Nicodemus could understand via Moses' use of the bronze serpent to heal the people of Israel, who had complained themselves into dire straits once again. Most certainly was this complaining done out of uncertainty and fear, just as the human motives of the Sanhedrin and the secular power under Pontius Pilate for crucifying Jesus were also impelled by uncertainty and fear and just as the commission of Original Sin was also motivated by uncertainty and fear. Yet, thanks be to God, such things no longer need have place among us for, as Isaac Williams says: "[The Spirit] makes present on earth the things of eternity; He reveals to the heart the mysteries of Heaven. "
    

In conclusion, in all the things we have considered today, the old and new Adams enshrined and foreshadowed on the breastplate of the high priest, the life of the triune God obediently considered in all the Sunday Eucharistic propers in the Prayerbook and the conversion of the stupefying fear of the Old Covenant into the reverential and loving fear of the New by the descent of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Trinity is on display in full force.
    

It has been said that the longer one preaches on Trinity Sunday, the greater the likelihood of falling into heresy becomes. Thus, in the face of all that is presented to us for consideration on this day, let us then fall silent and take to heart the words of Psalm 95: "O come, let us worship and fall down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker. For he is the Lord our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand."

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Sunday within the Octave of the Ascension

 "The end of all things is at hand; be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer." 

(1 Peter 4:7)

 A couple of things come to mind when I read or hear this  verse, both having to do with our contemporary cultural situation. But first, an important caveat. Passages like this in the Scriptures may indeed speak to our circumstances, but rarely (if at all) do they speak of our circumstances in more than a generalised way. What I mean by that is that, no, the Bible does not predict or describe political or social events in 21st century America, 16th century Europe, or any other socio-political phenomenon outside of the eschatology of the Christian  faith proclaimed in the New Testament during the 1st century A.D. To think otherwise is, quite frankly, to reduce the Scriptures to the status of pagan superstition and to embrace idolatry. There are many idols, just as there are many "antichrists". The current ones are neither special nor unique. "Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time." (1 John 2:18)
    

To resume, then, we who live in the "last times" (which began at the moment of Jesus' Resurrection by the way, and have persisted until our own day) are indeed both called to be "sober" and to witness to its lack among our fellows. In the Greek, the word translated as "sober" is sōphronéō [Strongs G4993], which can mean: to be of sound mind, to exercise self control, to curb one's passions.
    

Surely the embrace and dissemination of conspiracy theories is a key indicator of the lack of soberness present in our culture. Consider this, from Lifeway Research, a ministry associated with the Southern Baptist Convention: 

 [C]onspiracy theories have become a growing concern for many pastors and church   leaders across the country. In a recent Lifeway Research study, 49% of U.S. Protestant pastors say they frequently hear church members repeating conspiracy   theories. While spreading harmful information has no religious or ideological limits,   such dangerous explanations have a long, unfortunate history among Christians.Church historians, Christian apologists, and those who have personally suffered as a result of conspiracy theories say followers of Christ must be concerned with seeking and following truth. Mary Jo Sharp, author of Living in Truth: Confident  Conversations in a Conflicted Culture, says there are two main reasons people are  drawn to conspiracy theories—ease of understanding and escape from the  ordinary....Sharp says conspiracy theories often ignore the myriad of complex beliefs, desires, and motivations humans bring to an issue. Without those complicating matters, the conspiracy theorist can more easily comprehend the issue and move on with other things. 'Belief in a conspiracy theory may be born out of a good desire to understand a situation but devolves into finding quickly digestible answers,' she  says, 'like fast food for the mind.' [click here for the whole article]

 

In other words, it is an ego-maniacal exercise in conveniently shoring up the fears and suspicions of the individual. Conspiracy theories offer an easy to comprehend explanation, a sense of fellowship with one's fellow believers, the thrill of having "inside information", and the addictive power of the passions in angrily justifying oneself to one's perceived enemies by means of the available anonymity of social media. Such things have no place among Christian people, as we read in Ephesians 4:22-24, "That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness." 

"Be ye therefore sober."    

Something else to consider with regard to "soberness" has to do with 'being in one's right mind'. And, yes, it's easy to laugh and joke about that. But it is a very serious concern. As many of you know, I struggle with mental health issues including depression and anxiety, which have been greatly exacerbated over the course of the past year where seemingly everything is in flux and we are surrounded by chaos and despair. And the Christian Church has not been spared these things even within her own ranks. But that should not be a surprise, for we are not called to be of the world, but we still do live in the world and bear its burdens.
    

I can tell you that I like to know what's happening, I like to make plans ahead of time. And that is just not possible right now. And, yes, we can talk about how that is a grace and wallow in pious imaginings, but it is also a hard thing to endure. There are days when my anxiety is literally debilitating to the point I can't summon the will to go outside. I wake up in the morning fearing the worst and spend the rest of the day talking myself down from those heights. It is a destructive pathology that cannot be overcome solely by the strength of my will. I am getting help to manage these things, but I also admit that I may have to carry them around for a while, perhaps for balance of my life. Perhaps this is my "thorn in the flesh" that St. Paul talked about (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7). That is my lack of soberness.
    

And I tell you this for two reasons. One is simply to offer encouragement to you. We all, without exception, have things to struggle with. And it is so easy to convince ourselves that it's just us, everyone else is fine. In reality, that is mostly a façade. Much of our strength of character comes from how we choose to acknowledge this on the spectrum from outright denial to acceptance to living into our challenges under God's grace.
    

The other reason I tell you this is to counteract the nonsense that is spread abroad among, particularly nefariously, some Christians who see this as a sign of deficiency (of faith, religious practice, or what have you) or of demonic influence. Don't get me wrong, the dark powers have free reign to influence persons and things to destruction, but Satan didn't give you bi-polar disorder or cause your marriage to break down. There are much more prosaic causes at the root of such things.
    

So, no, things are not well right now. But we have no justification to expect perfection in this life. Indeed as we read just beyond the text of today's Epistle, "Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator." (1 Peter 4:19) Yes, as unpleasant as it it, there is suffering in this life as a matter of course. But there is also faithfulness. There is good and bad, there is truth and there are lies, there is darkness and there is the light that shines in the darkness and which shall not be overcome by it.
    

In conclusion, I would offer you this as encouragement. Every time we gather here at St. Michael's we are gathering as the Church and we are making an offering, and it is not just bread and wine, prayer intentions or money, we are making an offering to God of our whole selves. And while we rightly desire to bring all the good and beautiful things as a thank offering, it is true that we will also bring those things that are not so nice to behold: worries, impatience, fear, anger, mistrust, grievances, brokenness, the list can go on. But that's okay too. Indeed that is the whole point. God does not ask for a part of  us, but the whole of us, good and bad. As I have said on Easter Sunday before, the veil of uncertainty, anguish and despair is now permanently torn away. For, you see, our God has the uncanny ability to turn that which is hideous and filled with death into something perfectly beautiful and life giving. And just as our Lord Jesus Christ passed through the Cross into the Resurrection, so are we, of our very nature as Christian people, called to do likewise. In the words of St. Gregory Nazianzen: "Let a man give all things to him who gave himself for us as the price of redemption and as the substitute of our guilt. Nothing so great, however, can be given in return, as the offering of ourselves, if we rightly understand this mystery, and if we, for his sake, become all things, whatsoever he for our sakes became."
    

Consider this as well, from John's Gospel: "In the world, ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." (16:33) And so, my friends, if we wish to heed His call and ascend with Him, this is the mind of Christ that we must have at all times, Who has indeed overcome the world.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

some thoughts

 

In no particular order...

It's been a year and we are still dealing with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. I have personally received the first dose of one of the vaccines with no ill effects. This has been a hard year for us all, not helped by the ongoing economic perils and the political events surrounding the last general election. But that is all so much wind hot air that blows where it will and is then gone. Stop trying to grasp it with a desperation that is close to idolatry. Enough with conspiracy theories, sound bites, and the twin passions of shame and anger inflamed by social media. "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful." (Luke 6:36) After all, He gives food, water, shelter, and life to those you hate. You can, likewise, at least stop trying to bludgeon your enemies with your own inflated sense of right(and righteous)ness.

Everything is changing, and it's scary. But so were the World Wars of the last century. So were the Napoleonic Wars. So were the upheavals of the Reformation, the Black Plague, the Mongol invasions. Heck, our ancestors were probably freaked out by fire the first time someone struck a flame too. If we have learned nothing else from modern physics, macroscopic appearances to the contrary, everything is in flux and relative to everything else. It's nothing new. We just have to adapt, more or less successfully, and believe that our stability lies not finally in this life but in the life to come. If you're like me, that is a huge ask. But, "(e)very good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." (James 1:17)

Come back to church. If you think virtual attendance is good enough, you're wrong. If you think this, having come from a sacramental/liturgical tradition, you're even more wrong. It's time to face up to the hidden shame, the narcissism, the delusion, the lack of seriousness that dwells within you. Way too many have had poor motives for attending church and refused to learn the faith and (even the content of!) the scriptures. Being satisfied with a primary school level of catechesis and a plate full of emotional responses, they have not grown in understanding. Do you approach your job in such a half-assed way? Your marriage and/or family life? If so, more's the shame.

Too many people in the Anglican continuum have held on simply because we are (or are perceived to be) "traditional" or "conservative". And they stop with that, making an idol out of their perceptions. Knowing neither the tradition nor what it is we are attempting to conserve, our churches are dying and our people are trapped in the morass of self-satisfaction.

We simply must do better. We have to reach those who have not been reached by the Gospel. We must not expend more wasted energy on the apathetic. We are not anti-science. We are not homophobic or misogynistic. We are not the Republican party at prayer. We cannot afford to define ourselves solely by what we are against. We need an educated clergy, an informed laity, a firm commitment to and understanding of a life of prayer and perpetual conversion. And we need to cease and desist from bowing down before and worshiping things that are not God.

Then, and only then, do we stand a chance of survival and growth into the 21st century and beyond.

Does anyone else actually care?

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Sexagesima

 

I can readily admit that, in these dark days, I am full of anxiety and despair. Our culture continues its accelerated decline under the burdens of a pandemic, economic distress, a lack of seriousness in higher education, slogans and sound bites in the place of considered analysis, and the fact that so many will have been permanently seduced away from the Christian Church through the convenient appeal of virtual attendance even after it has been judged safe for all to return. But, on the other hand, this isn't really surprising given the widespread addictive power of the online world. People are constantly on their phones, as their creators intended.

My concern for each of you as well as for myself is to continually respond to the saving faith of Jesus Christ, to live a life of continual conversion and intellectual assent to the truth of the Scriptures, the Creeds, and the sacramental life of the Church that is able to speak to and resist the worst impulses of modern life. And I often feel like I am just screaming into the wind or banging my head against a brick wall. And what makes me feel that way more than all else are my own faults and failings. It is so very tempting to just give up.

In the face of that, I would ask you to consider this, from Chapter 4 of the Fellowship of the Ring: "'We still have our journey and our errand before us', answered Gandalf. 'We have no choice but to go on, or to return to Rivendell.' 'I wish I was back there', [Frodo] said. 'But how can I return without shame – unless there is indeed no other way, and we are already defeated?' 'You are right, Frodo,' said Gandalf: 'to go back is to admit defeat, and face worse defeat to come.'

In like manner do we read in John 6:68, "Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life." So we continue on, under grace, as best we are able. And thus today I would like to consider with you Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 which is one of the Old Testament lessons appointed for Evening Prayer today in the Lectionary Tables and which concerns itself with some details surrounding belief and charitable works.  

Having famously declared that all is vanity, the sacred author examines the failures of purely human wisdom and philosophy, the pursuit of pleasures and material goods for their own sake, and the false practice of religion. In his introductory remarks to this book for BlueLetterBible.org, the 20th century American Presbyterian Dr. J. Vernon Mcgee notes that:
 

Solomon pursued in this book every avenue, experience, and interest of man in this life to find satisfaction and fulfillment. Solomon as king had full freedom to carry on this experiment, and he was not hindered by financial or power limitations. He could go the limit in every direction. The result is “vanity” — emptiness. Frustration and dissatisfaction met him in every experiment. The conclusions are human, apart from the divine, made by the man under the sun. This is the ultimate end of man’s efforts     apart from God. (www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/mcgee_j_vernon/notes-outlines/ecclesiastes/ecclesiastes-outline.cfm)


Verse 2 of Chapter 11, which is one of the more difficult, reads: "Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth." St. Jerome's commentary on this verse tells us:
 

And in Ezekiel there are found seven or eight steps leading up to the temple. And after the 'ethical' Psalm, that is one hundred and eighteen, all the psalms are of fifteen steps by which we are first taught the law, and when the seventh is finished, we then climb to the Gospel through the 'eight steps. Therefore it is taught that we should believe with equal respect in each, the same for the old as for the new.  The Jews dedicated their seventh part, believing in the Sabbath, but did not dedicate that eighth, denying the resurrection on the day of the Lord.  On the other hand, heretics, Marcion and Manichaeus and all who rip up the ancient law with their savage mouths, dedicate their eighth part, taking up the Gospel.  But they do not save as holy the seventh, spurning the old law.  For we are not able to understand the worthy crucifixions, the worthy punishments already in mind, which are reserved for those who are moved to wickedness on earth, that is for the Jews and the heretics, and for those denying the other of the two....The Hebrews understand this passage in this way: keep both the Sabbath and the rite of circumcision, for if you do not adhere to these wickedness will come over you unexpectedly. (sites.google.com/site/aquinasstudybible/home/ecclesiastes/jerome-commentary-on-ecclesiastes)


This, obviously, needs some further unpacking. The "ethical psalm" that he refers to here is 119 in the Prayerbook which uses the Hebrew rather than the Greek numbering. The difference being due to whether you consider Psalm 10 as a part of Psalm 9 or standing on its own as a separate literary unit. Each portion of Psalm 119 (a meditation on the Law) is 8 verses long. And indeed the two subsequent Psalms, 120 and 121 in our numbering, consist of 7 and 8 verses respectively as St. Jerome says.

And then he talks more specifically about maintaining the balance of both Testaments. The one is useless without the other for Christian people. Of the two heretics he mentions, Marcionites reject the Old Testament and what they see as its separate "god". Practically speaking, consider this, we Anglicans are blessed with a robust Daily Office system that includes both the Psalms and the Old Testament as integral parts of our daily liturgical prayer. Yet, many (most?) people don't make use of them and many parishes can't (or won't) offer weekday worship. Clergy all too frequently do not preach on the Old Testament. At all. Frankly, you're lucky if the priest or deacon pays attention to the Epistle during his sermon. So there is some danger of a soft Marcionism creeping into our identity. Awareness, however, is a good first step to counteract this. Don't know where to begin? Well, as a cheap advertisement, when it is safe to do so we can resume our planned Bible Study reading Dr. John Walton's treatment of Genesis Chapter 1. Stay tuned!

The other important thing St. Jerome mentions is the devotion of the Jew to Sabbath and circumcision. Just so, the Christian must devote himself to the Lord's Day and baptismal identity. (N.B. Sunday is not the Christian Sabbath, it is the Eighth Day, the day of Resurrection and completion/ fulfillment, the Lord's Day, in Russian it is Воскресенье, literally "resurrection day" – our liturgical use of the Decalogue which mentions keeping holy the Sabbath is strictly allegorical on this point.)

What does all this have to do with my opening remarks? Well simply that we are being encouraged by Ecclesiastes to carry on with our God-inspired work, whether the fruits of reward are evident or not in this lifetime. We are further instructed by St. Jerome not to "stop short" in our belief, to stall out on the Seventh Day but to carry on to the Eighth Day, for as Psalm 118 declares: "This is the day which the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it."(vs. 24)

And so I bid you good cheer and encouragement. These are dark days. People, already long troubled by the rootlessness and vacuity of modern life (whether aware of it or not), are struggling. A good dose of kindness and compassion, particularly to those who are seemingly unlovable and undeserving, will not go amiss. As Lent will be upon us soon, it is an opportunity once again to regroup, re-evaluate, take ownership of our besetting sins and bad habits, and trust in the Lord's mercy and the great hope that the Resurrection is real.


Monday, January 25, 2021

St. Paul the Apostle

Christianity as a general principle is on the receiving end of a lot of criticism, much of it self-inflicted. From our sad, millennium old theological disagreements which confuse and repulse, to the embrace of the excessive rationalism of the Enlightenment which sterilised the wondrous mystery of the faith into an overly moralistic, strictly regulated behavioural programme that turns Matt. 11:28-30 into a lie (“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”), to the contemporary substitution of the death bearing idols of politics and finance for the living Word of God.
    

One of the more recent victims of this long decline is the person and reputation of Paul the Apostle, whose conversion we celebrate tomorrow. He stands accused of everything from misogyny, homophobia, and antisemitism (deeply ironic, that) to helping prop up the institution of slavery. Now, I am in no way attempting to excuse any flaws and failings that he may or may not have possessed in this life. However, three things about such critiques: 1. It is surely impossible to have an accurate read of the state of anyone else's soul, particularly those who lived 2000 years ago. 2. Being acknowledged in the liturgy as belonging to the company of those whose sanctity is particularly noteworthy and fruitful for emulation does not guarantee that those who are lived a perfect, sinless life. People who would otherwise give no credence to any sort of "immaculate conception" seem to demand it of those they wish to take issue with. 3. There is little or nothing I can do by taking up the banner of condemnation against anyone anyway. If there is any change I have any reasonable hope of effecting, under grace, it is in my own heart. Do you want to change the world? Then the counsel of the abbot to his monks I read about two weeks ago holds: "Pay attention to yourself." It is neither your place nor within your power to deal out perfect justice tempered with perfect mercy. That is merely a delusion generated by the words of the serpent in the garden: "For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." (Gen. 3:5)
    

'John J. Kilgallen, professor of New Testament at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, begins his America magazine essay, “A Complicated Apostle,” by admitting that “when one reads or hears what Paul wrote, one often meets a personality that can seem unpleasant or even antagonizing … appearing pompous, cantankerous, superior, harsh.” Experts agree: Paul can be a difficult fellow. He exhorts love for enemies, yet is not above wishing aloud that his enemies would castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12). He calls his addressees stupid (Galatians 3:1)....Even Paul’s biggest booster, the author of Acts, introduces Paul to the reader as an accessory to a lynching (Acts 7:60). So we may well ask: why should we take seriously, let alone read reverently, this vituperative, hallucinating, conflict-ridden polemicist who was at the same time both a passionate disciple of a man he never followed and a passionate enemy, by his own admission, of those who did? Why hasn’t the world written him off as a fulminating, apocalyptic crackpot? And why has a worldwide Christian communion been celebrating his birthday?' (https://www.pbs.org/wnet/ religionandethics/2009/08/05/august-5-2009-the-real-paul/3839/)
    

Certainly this article is guilty of taking certain things out of context, operating under a lens of heightened suspicion that leaves no room for genuine conversion, and not acting on the three principles I enumerated above (not that there would be any expectation of that happening anyway). But I think the question at the end remains a sound one, one that can be asked of any theologian, indeed any believer. Why should we attend to what you think?
    

Fr. Kenneth Baker, a Jesuit priest writing in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, tells us why in a summary of the essence of St. Paul's theology: "Christ is the key to St. Paul.  His theology is Christocentric.  The Gospel according to St. Paul is that the Son of God became man in Jesus Christ, in order to reconcile all mankind to God the Father, by his life, passion, death and resurrection.  For Paul, Christ is the glorified Christ, now reigning gloriously in heaven, and seated at the right hand of the Father. Here are some of the main points in the theology of St. Paul: 1) Because of the sin of Adam, and each one’s personal sins, all men are sinners and in need of redemption (Rom. 3:23; 5:12-21).  2) In order to save mankind, God sent his Son into the world, born of a woman (Rom. 4:4), to make a fitting satisfaction for sin.  3) That Son is Jesus Christ, who communicates his grace, and justifies all who believe in him, and are baptized.  4) The grace of Christ includes the sending of the Holy Spirit, which constitutes the believer as an adopted child of God, a member of the body of Christ, and an heir of eternal life.  5) Christ Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophecies of the Old Testament, and has established a New Covenant to replace that of Moses; therefore, Christians are not bound by the ceremonial and dietary laws, and circumcision, contained in the Law of Moses.  This means that one does not have to become a Jew in order to be a Christian.  This insight of Paul made Christianity into a religion open to all peoples (see 1 Tim. 2:4)." (https://www.hprweb.com/2012/09/ the-theology-of-st-paul/)
    

If you demand a priori perfection of everyone you will live a very lonely life. It is a fact that the perfect Word of God is entrusted to imperfect persons in an imperfect church which both has and will continue to sully it in various ways by its imperfect witness. The 6th cent. A.D. Chinese Buddhist Sang T'san wrote:
    

    One thing, all things:
    move among and intermingle
    without distraction.
    To live in this realisation
    is to be without anxiety
    about non-perfection.

In our present context there are two things that can speak to us as Christian people from this insight. One is that God was incarnate in time and space, "And was made man" as we confess in the Nicene Creed'; the "one thing" (perfect divinity) among "all things" (our scattered humanity). And that very act, given our own imperfection and labour under the auspices of Original Sin, means that things, even post-Easter are going to be messy, marked by failures as well as successes because the resurrection has not displaced free will. True love is not to say, "let me do everything for you". Rather, true love is "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (Jn. 3:16) Keeping this always at the forefront, and having confidence in the two primary truths of the faith that are always true, regardless of what anyone says: Christ is Risen and the Kingdom of God is come among us, will help to banish the "two-storey" thinking identified by Fr. Stephen Freeman and which pervades so much of modern thought and gives rise to so much religious anxiety, living with and in the midst of imperfection. Strive, then, to be without anxiety. For the Kingdom of God is come, in the manner that it has, whether we like it or not.
    

Finally, hoping that I have shed some light on how we can realistically approach and be in company with St. Paul, let me close with some thoughts by Bishop Tom Wright, formerly of Durham and one of the proponents of the "New Perspectives on Paul" school of theology (which, as an aside, is worth looking into, even if you find yourself disagreeing with some of their particulars):

[T]he claim [of Jesus' Messiahship] only makes sense as the validation of everything that first-century Jews like Paul had held dear (the ancient purposes and promises, the long covenantal narrative). The symbols of Jewish identity themselves – circumcision, Sabbath, food laws – were set aside, not because they were irrelevant or ‘legalistic’ but because they were forward-looking signposts to the reality which had now been unveiled. To cling to the signposts is to imply that you have not yet     arrived at the reality; but the point of Paul’s gospel was that the reality had dawned in the events concerning Jesus. In him, the promises to Abraham had been fulfilled; Adam and Eve had been rescued, and with that new creation had been launched; Israel’s exile was over and ‘Israel’ itself had been transformed, as so many scriptures had promised, into a new worldwide family. This story, with this fulfilment, is the necessary substructure for Paul’s mission; and, I would submit, for ours as well. Fresh teaching in all these areas is urgently needed if we are to understand our shared mission as both the announcement of Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord, demanding the personal response of obedient faith, and the inauguration of new creation, with signs of healing and hope pointing forward to the eventual renewal of the whole cosmos. (ntwrightpage.com/2017/09/27/learning-from-paul-together).
 

And that, that, is why we should listen to what St. Paul has to say. It's not about him. It's not about you or I as 'rugged individuals' anxiously hoping to save ourselves by 'fixing' that which surrounds us. It's about the proclamation of the glory of God, the promise of things to come. It's because of this that we value these Epistles, this 'paperwork', amongst all the other documents we acquire in our lives as so clearly illustrated last week.

Glory to God for all things. Amen.

 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

St. John, Apostle & Evangelist

 

Aside from Christmas and Easter, being accorded the honour and privilege of preaching today is one of the greatest occasions of the Church year. For it is the feast of St. John the Evangelist, to whom it was given the distinction that the "highest" theology in the New Testament appears under his name. On this great day, in this great season, under the mercy of the great goodness of the living God, let us then consider some portion of that revelation which was given to him to understand.
    

At Morning Prayer today, the first lesson from Exodus 33 reads, in part, "And [Moses] said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. And [God] said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy." (vv. 18-19) By the time we arrive at this point in the narrative, the Israelites have been delivered from their slavery in Egypt, arrived at Mt. Sinai, received the Law and the ceremonial instructions for the tabernacle liturgy, broken the Law and received it again at Moses' intercession. It has been said that Exodus "begins in gloom and ends in glory" (cf. Dr. J. Vernon McGee) And it is the same for us. The birth of Jesus is immediately preceded by the gloom of many long years of theological and moral darkness under the cloud of the Adamic transgression and the heavy weight of the Pharisaical exegesis of Moses. Afterward, that very graciousness has come among us in a mysterious and, to some, unlooked for way. Mercy has indeed been shown after the perfect manner of the Divine solicitude, now not just to historic Israel under the covenant granted to Moses, but that original blessing given to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3 is now restored and given to Jew and Gentile alike, "And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed."
    

Then we come to Christmas Day itself, wherein the Gospel lesson proclaims, ""In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God....In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not." (Jn. 1:1, 4-5) The great poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, opens his work On the Morning of Christ's Nativity thusly:

This is the Month, and this the happy morn
 Wherein the Son of Heav'ns eternal King,
 Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
 Our great redemption from above did bring;
 For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
 And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
 And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherwith he wont at Heav'ns high Councel-Table,
 To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
 He laid aside; and here with us to be,
Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,
 And chose with us a darksom House of mortal Clay.
 

The Light of the world is indeed come, puts the darkness to flight, and sustains the world in being until the second and glorious coming wherein, according to 1 Cor. 15:28 "...all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all." And yet it remains for the time being that there are many things that remain mysterious, not yet "subdued" to our limited, rational minds. We believe and confess that the Divine nature is one in essence, subsisting in three persons. We profess that Jesus is "very God of very God...And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man". We are taught that, in order to be truly alive, we must die to ourselves. "Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?" (Rom. 6:3)
   

Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, preaching the Nativity sermon before King James I in 1607, says:

    Of God, the prophet Esay saith, Vere Deus absconditus es tu; God is of Himself a mystery, and hidden; and that which is strange, hidden with light which will make any eyes past looking on Him. But a hidden God our nature did not endure. Will you hear them speak it plainly? Fac nobis deus, makes us visible gods who may go before us, and we see them. Mystical, invisible gods we cannot skill of. This we would have; God to be manifested. Why then, God is manifested....Were it not a proud desire and     full of presumption, to wish things so remote to come together? to wish that the Deity in the flesh may be made manifest? Yet we see wished it was, by one in a place in reasonable express terms, O that thou wert as my brother, that sucked the breasts of my mother! That is, that He might be manifested in the flesh! O that He might be! and so He was. Not only manifest at all; that is great; but manifest in the flesh; that is greater. For if gold mixed though it be with silver is abased by it, what if it be mixed     with the rust of iron or dross of lead? This must needs be great in itself, but greater with us; with us especially that make such ado at any though never so little disparagement; and that if any, though not much our inferior, be ranked with us, take ourselves mightily wrong. We cannot choose but hold this mystery for great, and say with St. Augustine, [37/38] Deus; quid gloriosius? Caro; quid vilius? Deus in carne; quid mirabilius? God; what more glorious? flesh; what more base? Then, God in the flesh; what more marvellous?


"God in the flesh; what more marvellous?" Indeed it is so. And it has been anticipated down through the course of salvation history, has come to fruition in time in a small and insignificant corner of the Roman Empire, has born fruit, been misunderstood and corrupted in the hearts of many throughout the past two millenia, but nevertheless remains true and accessible to all who would be saved. As we heard in today's Epistle, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life" (1 Jn. 1:1)
    

And so, during the progress of this Christmas season, whether in covenant and mystery, whether in the joys or sorrows of everyday life, whether in knowledge or ignorance, whether in holiness or in the struggles that beset us, let our prayer and remembrance always be: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people" (Lk. 1:68)

Saturday, October 31, 2020

All Saints/All Souls

 

The first of these is easy to account for. All Saints Day has had proper texts in the Prayer Book from the beginning in 1549 so, obviously, the Reformers had no objections to it. Secondly, there are countless numbers who have lived especially holy lives - so many that there isn’t room on the Church calendar to accommodate them all in any practical way. Besides, who knows how many saints there are whose virtue has escaped the public notice of the Church? So we have a day to collectively celebrate them all and to thank God for the action of His grace in our lives.
    

But, it is not simply "their" day. It is ours too. For we are numbered among the saints and, yes, I purposely use the present tense 'are numbered' with good reason, it is Biblical and factual. Romans 1:7 says, "To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ." In Colossians 1:1-2 it is written: "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timotheus our brother, To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
    

Rather than just being limited to a list of those formally enrolled (or "canonised") by the Church, all faithful Christian believers everywhere are, and are called to be, saints. To this great dignity, we can only respond with the Apostle John: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are." (1 John 3:1a)
    

Yet I know that sounds like a tall, nigh on insurmountable task. And it is, were we simply left to scratch around in the dust of our own devices. But...the God of all grace has and continues to supply the will to "all that believe in Him" to live into the saving faith He has given us and to show it forth in increasing knowledge and good works. Think of it this way, as it is directly akin to that other seemingly impossible directive in Matt. 5:48, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." The Rev. William Barclay, in his 'Daily Study Bible', gives us some helpful advice for interpreting and receiving this piece of the Good News. "On the face of it that sounds like a commandment which cannot possibly have anything to do with us. There is none of us who would even faintly connect ourselves with perfection....This word [perfect]  is often used in Greek in a very special way. It has nothing to do with what we might call abstract, philosophical, metaphysical perfection....A man who has reached his full-grown stature is [perfect] in contradistinction to a half-grown lad. A student who has reached a mature knowledge of his subject is [perfect] as opposed to a learner who is just beginning, and who as yet has no grasp of things....It is the whole teaching of the Bible that we realise our manhood only by becoming godlike. The one thing which makes us like God is the love which never ceases to care for men, no matter what men do to it. We realise our manhood, we enter upon Christian perfection, when we learn to forgive as God forgives, and to love as God loves." (The Gospel of Matthew vol. 1, 177-178) That too, then, is how we live into our call to sainthood.
    

Here's where things start getting a little more interesting. The keeping of All Souls Day and some of the attendant customs, ceremonies, and theology surrounding it have been (and continue to be) subject to no little amount of controversy. At its heart, I believe the disputation rests on the question of the purpose of prayer and supplication for those already deceased. As a further subset to that, it seems to me that there is a generic misunderstanding of the nature of what prayer itself actually is. Let me boil this down as simply as I can. Whether you come from a traditional. liturgical church like our own, an Evangelical mega church, an underground fellowship officially persecuted by the local government in some foreign land, or what have you, we all pray. If someone is sick, we pray for them. When we are inspired by the grace of God, we thank Him in prayer. There is a cause and effect relationality to all of our thanks and praise. Need something next week? Ask for it today. Thankful for blessings received yesterday? Be sure to thank the One Who gave them tomorrow. Thus, our prayers are bound up with our existence in time. As this is the only mode of existence we have experienced, it works for us. But what about God’s perspective? In heaven there is no time. God is always present. He wasn’t kidding when He revealed His name to Moses as “I AM” (as opposed to “I WAS” or “I WILL BE”). That means that our next week is present in the mind of God right now and always will be. He sees the future because there is no future for Him. So when we petition Him, we are not seeking to change His mind or alter foreseen events because that is impossible. The gift of prayer, then, is for our benefit. It is ultimately an act expressive of faith, hope and charity. To keep on with the example of prayers of petition, when we ask for needs, we are proclaiming our belief in God. We are living out our grace-infused hope that what He has proposed for our faith is true. We are doing a work of charity by recognizing and responding to the needs of others. In short, we are keeping in communion with them. When we pray, we are acknowledging the Divine ordering of the universe [- no more, and yet no less than that].
    

Keeping all that in mind, consider this, from 2 Maccabees 12: "[The] noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, forsomuch as they saw before their eyes the things that came to pass for the sins of those that were slain. And when he had made a gathering throughout the company to the sum of two thousand drachms of silver, he sent it to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering, doing therein very well and honestly, in that he was mindful of the resurrection: For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead." (vs. 42b-44) The context here is that Judas Maccabeus and his men went to engage the governor of Idumea in battle and some of the Jews of Jerusalem were killed and later discovered to have things consecrated to the gods of the Jamnites on their persons. Verse 40 attributes this as the cause of their deaths. Much more significantly, Judas finances a sin offering for these dead, demonstrating his belief in the future bodily resurrection of the dead as well as the charity of praying for their repose. This is a not insignificant instance in the Scriptures and though it is from the Apocrypha - and thus out of bounds for establishing doctrine, per the 6th of the Articles of Religion - it provides a precedent for our very human instinct to remember the dead. Again, as the Articles put it, we can read it for “example of life and instruction of manners”. And thus it leads naturally and directly into our discussion of All Souls Day
    

Consider what St. Augustine has to say in his work "On the Care of the Dead" wherein he has been discussing what the deceased may or may not continue to be aware of that happens on earth: "Let us not think that anything reaches those deceased for whom we care except what we solemnly pray with our sacrifices – either at the altar, or by our prayers, or by our alms. Yet this does not benefit all for whom such things are done, but only those who prepared for such benefit while they were yet alive. But since we cannot determine who these people are, we ought to do them for all those who have been reborn, so that we do not overlook anyone whom these benefits can and should reach. For it is better to do these things uselessly for people whom they will neither help nor hinder, than to not do them for someone whom they could help." (www.fourthcentury.com/on-the-care-of-the-dead) So, employing here the logic of Pascal's Wager, St. Augustine says it is better to do something potentially superfluous than to neglect something beneficial. Praying for the dead, then, places us in good company with our forebears in faith.
   

 In conclusion, whether we are considering the saints here on earth gathered in the visible body of the Church, those who died and await the fulfilment of their hope in Christ, or those who have come to their reward in heaven, all have in common the possession of the wedding-garment in today's [Trinity XX] Gospel. What that garment might be is described by the Rev. John Boys, sometime Dean of Canterbury during the reign of James I & VI: "The wedding garment, as Origin thinks, is Christ: or as Eusebius, the new man: or as Jerome, observing of the commandments of Christ: or as a pure conversation: or as others, an upright heart, coming to the marriage rather out of duty, than for a dinner: or as others, charity: or as Gregory, grace: or as others, faith: or as others, regeneration: consist in faith and repentance All which upon the point are the very same: so that (as our divines observe) the question is idle whether faith or godly life be this garment, because good works always proceed from faith, and faith always showeth itself by good works." (The Works of John Boys, 758)
    

And that is the hallmark of which we are reminded by these past liturgical days and by which we are called to order our lives aright: in good works proceeding from faith and that faith showing itself in our God-enabled works.

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) 

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*[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)