Friday, March 25, 2016

Remembrance

For Maundy Thursday, 2016

Remembrance: this is crucial to faith. It is so central to the Eucharist that theologians and liturgists have a special word for it: anamnesis. Amnesia is forgetting; anamnesis is remembering. We do this in remembrance of him, according what we have been taught of old.

People tell us that spirituality is all about a search for God, and that furthermore, one carries out this search on a path of ones choosing with some vague confidence that, if nothing definite is ever found, it is the searching that matters. But that is not how true religion works. This is not to say, not at all, that God is not to be sought, but rather that the world makes God the passive and silent object of a person's seeking. But the LORD God, so the story of scripture says, is not passive; indeed, it seems more the case that He is wont to reveal Himself to people without warning or invitation. Abraham, Moses, and Samuel in the Old Testament; Zachariah and Mary in the New: all these were the target of God's revelation, wanted or not. In the case of Paul the apostle, the divine presence was thrust upon him quite against his will.

We moderns, for the most part, are spared such revelations. No burning bushes, no voices, no angels speak to us, and we are apparently in little danger of being thrown from our horses. So how do we know God? Well, by word and sacrament, as the prayer book says. Language is fundamental to humanity: while other animals do communicate, and we have taught some rudiments to a few apes, it is humans who speak and hear and write and read. Humans, and God. God said, “let there be light.” Jesus is the Word who is God. Thus scripture manifests God, simply by telling the divine story.

Scripture testifies to the LORD God, and he commands its recollection. Tonight we have heard two of these commands. In Egypt, on the eve of deliverance, he tells the Israelites to prepare the Passover meal out of which will come the mark, the sign of their separation; but he also commands festivals in perpetuity, that the Jewish people should ever remember their exodus and how it was accomplished. A thousand-odd years later, Jesus ordains another meal, bread and wine, which we are to do in remembrance of him, until he come again. In obedience to this the church has set apart ministers to break the bread and offer the cup, that the death and resurrection of Jesus be remembered to the end of ages.

So here we are: The LORD God, in the words of scripture, is sitting there revealed to anyone who would but read. We have been given the story, and we have but to have faith in it, and do as it tells us. But if words come from God, well, lying came from the serpent. And the words of scripture: well, God spoke them through the mouths and pens of men. Thus we are presented with a paradox: the truth is not only out there, it is right out in the open; but being words, we cannot of ourselves sift it from all the untruths and misapprehensions and outright frauds that pretend to tell us the fundamental truths of the cosmos. Thus, when we turn away from written revelation and conduct our own search, we like as not end up at an idol of our own construction, having forgotten the God once shown.

But we have more than word; we have sacrament. Jesus said, “do this in remembrance of me”; but he also said, “this is my body”, and “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” And while many have argued through the years that these words are purely symbolic, that is not what the church as a whole has taught, and this is not what this church has taught. Broken bread and poured wine are not merely token; Jesus is really present, in a mystery whose explanation is beside the point. We eat and drink, and Jesus becomes part of us, in reality. Likewise, in baptism we are bathed in Jesus' death and resurrection, not just in play-acting, but in a truth which is beyond mere materialism. And all this is carried out in the Church, that great and sacred mystery, in which the words and sacraments are handed down, from one generation to another. We remember, because the church remembers—because we remember. We remember the holy story, and we repeat it again, and thus it is passed along, the most fundamental ministry and evangelism there is. The truth is not found; it has revealed itself, and that revelation must be told, and must be partaken of in the rites of the church.

And thus anamnesis: remembrance. To remain the people of God, we must remember that we are the people of God, and we must tell the story anew. Otherwise the gospel, the good news, dies as we die, and the vine of which we are the branches fails to grow. In this age of studied skepticism and contempt for authority, this is a very hard thing, since after all, our telling is but the latest in a long chain of speakings, and who will believe what he has not seen?

And yet, in so believing, we are blessed. And therefore in telling, we are the more blessed. Jesus commanded the disciples to love one another; and if our love for the world leads us to tell the sacred story to those who have not heard it, our love for each other must manifest itself in our mutual encouragement, in the repetition of the gospel, that it not be forgotten. Let no one be a stumbling block to another's faith; let us recollect together the holy Word which is within us and which binds us into the church. Let us, in remembrance of him who died for us and rose again, break the bread, drink the cup, and repeat the story of salvation as we await the day of his coming, when the story will be fulfilled and we will see the truth, face to face, world without end. AMEN.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Glory, Seen Through Faith

preached 7 February 2016, the last Sunday in Epiphany

Epiphany begins with a voice from heaven, at Jesus' baptism; then the first miracle, at Cana, is a small, subtle thing. And today we are at the midpoint of Jesus' ministry, and we have a miracle that is not small, and not subtle; in fact, it is all about show: Jesus, shining in glory, accompanied by Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the foremost prophet. Nobody is healed, nothing is physically changed; the three witnesses simply see the spectacle of Jesus, the Son of God, the Christ testified to by Law and the Prophets, in his glory.

And yet the vision confounds them. Peter's response is all but nonsensical: what do the three figures need of dwellings? And to further this, the cloud descends on the mount, as on Sinai, and the voice speaks again, as at the baptism, proclaiming the Sonship of Jesus. And the three, what do they do at the passing of the vision? They do nothing, and say nothing.

And yet, they have seen the glory of the LORD God, not veiled, not reflected, but face to face. Before then, only Adam and Eve, in Eden, and Moses have so spoken to God. And as to the latter, we have a curious story. Our first reading comes as Moses has descended from the mountain with the second tablets; and while he is upon the mountain, he makes a request of the Lord:

Moses said, "Show me your glory, I pray." And God said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, 'The LORD'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," he said, "you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." And the LORD continued, "See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen."

And at the end of the book, it says that the glory of God came down on the tabernacle, so that Moses could not enter it; and in Chronicles, when Solomon has finished his prayer before the newly consecrated temple, it says that the priests could not enter, because of the glory which filled it. The children of Abraham saw the Lord's mighty acts as they were delivered out of Egypt, but the divine presence: this they could not withstand, much less enjoy. Indeed, their reaction to the spectacle on the mountain as Moses receives the first tablets was to abandon the Lord for a molten calf, an idol whose glory was naught but the sheen of gold and whose power was but in their imagination. The real reflection of God's glory they could not abide, and thus Moses veiled it.

But here in Luke, “veiled in flesh” as the Christmas hymn says, the three disciples see that glory, ordinarily hidden but now shining forth; and in their testimony we also see that glory, now hidden in heaven but yet present among us. Paul is referring to Moses's veil when he says “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” And he says, “For it is the God who said, 'let light shine out of the darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”: it is this light which is among us, through the Spirit, in the words of scripture we hear and the sacraments in which we take part. Each time we come to this place and hear the Word of the Lord, that glory is revealed, not in a blaze of confounding light, but in the knowledge of Christ which is taught through the Church. And each time we draw near the altar and partake of the sacred body and blood, are we not incorporating that glory into our very selves, even as we recall the sacrifice and resurrection which is the foundation of our faith?

Yes, it is through faith that we now see the vision on the mountain top. To the world this is nothing more than myth, the fairy tale of yet another religion. And even we, who through faith see the real glory, are tempted into a vision of a more manageable god. The LORD God who passes by, holding his hand over Moses in a rocky cleft: it smacks of pagan stories. It offends our sophistication, so that we hew to an image of a god who is so perfected, so encased in superlatives, that we fall into deism, worshipping, well, honoring at any rate a perfect immobility whose glory we never risk seeing directly and whose hand we need not fear, for it will never intrude into the ordinary. We therefore cleave the two great laws and obey only the second. We proclaim the second with all our might, the law the pharisees set aside, loving our neighbors as ourselves, or at least to the extent that our lives leave room for that. It is our worship that is flabby, because we do not fear God. Our very modern skepticism veils his glory, so that we do not draw near his presence trembling as they did at Sinai.

And yet we are so drawn, each week, through spiritual hunger or obedience, and we swallow some small bit of that glory, veiled in bread and wine. And though some of us may rarely be made by the spirit to feel that presence within us, for most it is only faith that gives vision. And yet, the glory is there. Therefore fan the flame of that faith, and worship the God who is really present, not just on the mountain top, but within his church, to whom he has given salvation to ages of ages.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

It's not that I Hate Prayer C

I came across this post which if it doesn't link to my thoughts on the datedness of Eucharistic Prayer C, might as well be written as a response to it.

And actually, on one level I like the prayer a lot. The way it moves from the glory of creation through the history of sin and redemption is most highly to be commended, at least in principle. It fairly cries out to be the liturgy of choice for Trinity Sunday. My problems it are in the way of tune ups. Responsive liturgy was the thing back when it was written, but in this case I think it doesn't gain us anything, and indeed immediately presents the problem that the prayer cannot be sung, because getting the congregation over the responses is just never going to work. I also find the final section awkward. Never mind how the invocation of the patriarchs has to be messed with (and I think the solution to that is to work Mary into the mix): the juxtaposition between that and the prayer is jarring. They just don't fit with each other. And that second paragraph: whatever we say, we need to find something better than "this fragile earth, our island home."

I think all of these things are fixable, and if they were fixed, we would end up with a prayer for the ages. But the force driving us to revision is, from what I can see, utterly uninterested in any of this. That's why I wrote the other article: I think that, unless there is a huge change of heart or the balance of power is way off from what I and I think most people sense, the specific purpose of the revision will be to make a book even more attuned to the progressive politics and social milieu of the present. Prayer C only hints at the early 1970s; you almost had to be there to fully read it. Enriching Our Worship is unmistakably the product of turn-of-the-century academic progressives, and that is the direction we are intended to take.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Embarassment of the Revised Common Lectionary

I have complained before about the peculiar way the Revised Common Lectionary omits parts of readings, and particularly so in the psalter. So tonight, on the feast of the Epiphany, we have yet another peculiar psalm passage. Both the BCP and RCL appoint some or all of Psalm 72 for this feast, regardless of the year. The BCP gives the option of using all nineteen verses or allows skipping from verse 2 to verse 10. I would guess that it is this latter verse which was felt germane to the feast: The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute,* and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts. And given the length of the psalm it's not surprising that the BCP offers a "cut to the chase" option.

The RCL, however, gives only one option, which is to omit the last five verses along with verses 9 and 10. It is the latter omission which is the more striking because it's decidedly peculiar to skip over just two verses. And here they are:

8 He shall rule from sea to sea, * and from the River to the ends of the earth. 9 His foes shall bow down before him, * and his enemies lick the dust.
What could possibly be wrong with this? Well, I have to think that it is verse 9 which offends someone's tender sensibilities. But when the Great Litany rolls around and we are beseeching God that we "may finally beat down Satan under our feet," I really can't see the problem with a great deal of grovelling on the part of Christ's enemies, or rather, The Enemy. But apparently someone saw enough of an issue that we were made to skip a pair of verses, so that once again reading the text straight out of the BCP is made difficult, to no particularly good end.

Some liturgist I once read said that part of the purpose of cycling through the psalms was to put the words of scriptural prayer and praise in our mouths whether we wanted them there or not. It would appear that this principle was foreign to the compilers of the RCL readings.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Hope in the Child

preached 4 Advent 2015

many of you have wondered what Micah is talking about when he speaks of “Bethlehem Ephrathah”? What, you, may have wondered, is “Ephrathah”? Well, it's a place name, which may or may not be a simple synonym for Bethlehem itself; but what matters to us is that, like many such names, it has a meaning, which is “fruitful”. Bethlehem, out of which was born the King of Kings, the savior of Israel and all humanity: this the prophet foretold.

But first, a stopover in Judea, before the promised births.

An unborn child is all potential, the object of our hopes as parents. Then the day comes, and we parents are presented with a bundle of nascent humanity, whose impact upon the world is unrealized and whose future, for good or ill, is seen only in our dreams, and in the providence of God. Some weeks back I came across a consideration of the morality of killing baby Hitler to forestall the evil he brought forth; in truth, it is only an academic exercise. We know not whether our children are destined for obscurity or fame or notoriety. But the two mothers-to-be in our gospel, unlike the rest of us, had Gabriel's promise that the children they carried have a place in divine providence above all others. The two miraculous conceptions, Elizabeth's out of her age, and Mary's out of her virginity, were the sprouted seeds of the grace of God; Jesus, the branch of Jesse's tree, was promised to bring to fruition the salvation so long awaited by the prophets.

And thus, in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, the Theotokos, the God-Bearer (for so she is titled in the east) came to visit her. The child in Elizabeth's womb lept, he of whom the angel promised, “he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” Caught up in the Spirit, she blessed Mary, the vessel of divine grace, for Mary's trust in God's promise, that Mary would carry the son of the Most High, the heir to the throne of David, whose kingdom will have no end.

Mary's hymn in response to Elizabeth's greeting, praising God for his mighty acts and for the grace laid upon her, is one of the great and most ancient hymns of the church. But that hymn, as she sang it, looks to the past: God has shown strength, has scattered the proud, has put down the mighty, has filled the hungry and has sent the rich away empty. The Lord God was known to her and to Judah in the history of Abraham and his descendants, bringing them out of Egypt to Sinai and then to Jerusalem, where his presence filled the temple in the midst of the land. She recalls how the Lord acted, not out of the mighty among men, but out of the small, the weak, the outcast. Abraham was childless; the children of Jacob were slaves before they passed through the sea to freedom; David was the least of Jesse's sons. But God did not forget the covenant with the father of the nation of Israel, as Mary recalled, and God does not forget his children adopted through the water of baptism. Thus did she trust in the angel's promise.

We know where the promise was to lead: to the cross and the tomb. Mary did not, or at least, Gabriel's message gives no hint of the road to Calvary. Did Mary cling to faith in God's promise to her on that Friday when the apostles' hope was broken? We do not know, though we know that she was among the few who stayed in witness. We as parents see the future in our children, whom (we hope) outlive us to continue humanity. Mary, and Elizabeth if she lived to that day, saw their sons executed, seemingly the end of hope. But God's promise was not empty: his providence was fulfilled, and beyond the hopeless Friday and dismal Saturday came that glorious Sunday, the day of life reborn and unending.

In these latter days we wait between that first advent and the next and final advent, when the kingdom will be complete and all death and sorrow shall be ended. We start out with hope for our offspring, hopes and desires which may be fulfilled or disappointed or crushed entirely in this world of sin and loss. And yet in our our sorrows, in our losses, at the grave, we sing this song: alleluia, alleluia, ALLELUIA! So in this season, let us set aside our hopelessness and look to that holy child, Jesus Christ, in whom our hope and salvation is made incarnate, and who with the Father and the Spirit is given praise and glory unto ages of ages. AMEN.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Athanasius on Enriching Our Worship

Given the suspicion that the program of BCP revision is intended by many to establish Enriching Our Worship as the pattern for future common prayer, it behooves the prudent liturgist to examine its rites with an eye towards the orthodoxy of its language. Fortunately Matthew S.C. Olver has done the heavy lifting for us in a series of three articles on the Covenant website. Part 1 provides an introduction and lays groundwork for the study; Part 2 examines the differences between the EOW and BCP rites in the large, and Part 3 focuses on the eucharistic prayers.

But you can readily get a picture of where this is heading by opening up a PDF of EOW 1 (daily office, litany, and the eucharist) and searching for the word "father". The word appears as follows:

  • Once in the preface (a reference to the church fathers)
  • Nine times in the canticles, of which three are in the Te Deum alone
  • Twice in the Apostles Creed
  • Six times in the Nicene Creed
  • Three times in a section explaining the omission of the filioque
  • None whatsoever in any of the eucharistic prayers
The tallies for "Lord" would appear to be better until one realizes that maybe a third of them are in the Benedicite, and that most of the rest are either in other canticles or in the exchanges which open the eucharistic prayers (plus one in the Sanctus). But it's the composite of this, the way it comes together in a theology, which makes the difference. Fr. Olver is not sanguine about this:
The reason that the Episcopal Church must find a different way to address the feminist concerns I outlined in my first post is that, despite the claim of SCLM’s principle that “the truth of the Gospel which proclaims Jesus as the Son of God the Father and as Lord is essential,” the EOW1 rite as a whole, speaks a fundamentally contrary word. EOW1 speaks a de facto different Trinitarian theology. Let me be clear: I do not wish to imply in any way that the SCLM is trying to introduce a new Trinitarian theology. Rather, I want to suggest that the Trinitarian implications of their revisions take a back seat to the stated goal of removing gendered language for God. My reading is that they have not considered carefully enough the wide-reaching implications of these revisions in Trinitarian theology, Christology, soteriology, and beyond.
Personally, I do not think the situation is that innocent, and I think that allowing Arian interpretations and other heterodoxies is part of the intent, albeit perhaps indirectly. Recall that the driving word behind all of this, and really behind nearly any ECUSA controversy, is "inclusion". Inclusion has been construed extremely broadly, so that it has been seem to encompass not only avoidance of racism, not only resolution of disputes over sexuality, not only conflict over the role of women, but has moved into the whole issue of whether the church even has any boundaries. And throughout church history, the two markers which drew such boundaries were sacrament and doctrine, and they were always coupled.

But now we are seeing numerous attempts to blur the line between being a Christian and not really being a Christian: communing the unbaptized, claiming saints who aren't Christians, priests who claim to be both Christian and Muslim, a bishop-elect with an infatuation with Buddhism, and numerous experimental rites which incorporate neo-pagan elements, tamper with scripture, and excise the creed. Thus the door is opened to Arian (or even Unitarian) tenets because the people in particular to be included encompass those who cannot deal with the doctrines of the virgin birth and the resurrection, or who for that matter don't want to be Christians at all.

In order to make this church safe for that sort of indifferentism, it must, in the end, be made inhospitable to any insistence of orthodoxy. The Council of Nicaea must not only be made optional, but in the end must be proscribed, for the canons of Nicaea are the very realization of the judgement that it does matter what we say about Jesus, and that when we worship his resurrected humanity, we recognize also his divinity, and with Thomas say, "my Lord and my God." Thus, the intent will surely be, in the end, not to place the rites of EOW alongside those of the true prayer book, but to displace them. And, in orthodox faith, I cannot have that. Rite I and Rite II are the starting point of revision, not these error-ridden substitutes.