Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Bit Over the Top, My Most Reverend Ma'am

I had heard that the presiding bishop had said something typically foolish in her sermon at the reconvened ECUSA diocese of/in South Carolina, but with my usual reluctance to have to parse her pronouncements, I hadn't actually seen what she said. Well, OK: after being poked enough about it I finally made myself read the official transcript. Ho boy. Is there some place on the globe where comparing one's opponents to "citizens’ militias deciding to patrol their towns or the Mexican border for unwelcome visitors" and ascribing to them something akin to "the state of mind evidenced in school shootings, or in those who want to arm school children, or the terrorism that takes oil workers hostage" is not hugely inflammatory?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Watch the Midwife

On Tobias Hallers's recommendation I caught the Christmas special of Call the Midwife, and I'm quite glad I did. The series, set in the 1950s in the London east end, follows a house of Anglican nuns who calling is in nursing, along with the secular nurses (who are the central focus of the stories) who work with them. The nuns are of course a little too perfected of their various types, but every episode seems destined to show now visions of grace and mercy, and the girls (for they are quite young women) are absolutely winning as they go out into this very rough world. I commend it to all who may read this.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Looking East

Tobias Haller has republished his excellent essay commending ad orientum celebration of the eucharist as a norm. I add my concurrence with some observations of my own.

As I've had call to mention from time to time, the one really rock-solid achievement of the 1979 BCP revision has been in establishing a new structure to the eucharistic liturgy which has thus far stood firm in spite of all other proposals for revision. Other than those problem people who omit the confession (I know who you are, you do know you'll have to get caught up on Judgement Day) I have never been anywhere nor read any proposed rite where the 1979 order is deviated from (I know those wacky liturgists at St. Gregory of Nyssa get pretty far from the 1979 text, but even their order is pretty close to it), except at a few missal parishes and a couple of special commemorative services using pre-1928 rites. And I think there is a good and obvious reason for that: 1979's rhythm just works, very well.

But when this rhythm is considered in the church building, it seems to me that it favors a particular space, and favors using it in a particular way. And that space is the classic tripartite Gothic hall-church, with the pulpit and lectern perched at either side of the steps up into the choir. Consider how the focus shifts around: when the readings start, the eye is upon the lectern, then shifts to the gospel reading (which is pulled forward, the one time the choir's focus is into the nave) and then to the pulpit for the sermon. And then everyone turns towards the altar in profession of the creed. The prayers and confession (both, in those early days, likely to be done kneeling) turn the focus inward, and then the everything turns toward the altar again as the communion proper begins.

In a more "modern" versus populum celebration these days, this rhythm is likely to be disturbed. Moving the choir eliminates the visual cue of having them turn to face the altar, though of course the back gallery form common to Georgian buildings never allowed this. (One imagines, though, that Georgian liturgical patterns were the farthest things from their Dix-influenced minds.) The tyranny of the microphone (and I have to say that few Episcopal churches are so large as to demand their use) has led to increasing use of the lectern as a place from which to lead parts of the service, turning them into lectures within the congregation.

And it is that inward focus which increasingly dominates our liturgy. I have heard it asserted that versus pop and centrally focused liturgy signify immanence, but personally I see this as a problem, and not a positive sign. Here I can do little better than repeat what I said last spring:

In the new plan, we do not look to God at all. We look to ourselves, and turn away from transcendence. Communion itself is the most immanent of all rites, for what could be more immanent than holding Jesus' flesh in one's hand, and drinking his blood from the common cup? Jesus looks down upon the performance, over the shoulders of the sopranos, hoc est corpus, hocus-pocus, see how the miracle is performed once again, pay no attention to that Son of God over there, reigning from the cross.
We moderns don't like a transcendent God. We like our God to resemble the Force, flowing in and amongst us, but not possessed of an alien will beyond and outside our ken. The big problem with God the Father, and I think the real reason why he continues to disappear from our liturgies, is not His gender, but the fact that his elderly frowning countenance represents everything that reminds us of our failings, and that we are every bit the rebellious children taught in Genesis 3. We are caught between time in the church, saved and exalted, and yet still not free of the sinning which we recommence to committing each morning.

This is why the church needs to continue to pray outward. Christ is within us, yet we are still apart from God, and must petition him as his servants. We sing "Come down, O love divine;" we pray that the elements be the Body and Blood as though God must act anew at each liturgy. And this is right and proper and even necessary, not because God cannot be ever present, but because we are ever pulled from him by our sins, which we from week to week commit anew. We need to know not just that God is good, but that he is also great, far greater than can be enclosed in our little community. The eucharist testifies not only to God's presence among us in the person of the Son our Christ, but that God's presence is made manifest through the Spirit which blows where it pleases, according to the purposes of the Father whose reason is beyond our ken. In a world where all is very terribly still not made well, we need to be reminded that our salvation depends upon the grace carried down to us from heights we could otherwise never reach; the priest prays, and we pray with him, and not he to us or us to him.

As Fr. Haller says, it is possible to construct a round space in which the focus is central, but directed upward: I would mention St. Clement's, Alexandria, thought to be the first of its kind in modern times. But the symbolism there is of Tabor or Sinai, and the priest does not face the people, who are arrayed around him. I would also say, as a practical matter, that round spaces are acoustically very difficult unless they are very small; long vaulted spaces are much more congenial to congregational singing. But in any case these spaces, at their best, cry out for God to descend upon us; and they are very, very different from the sanctuary-as-stage/nave-as-audience arrangement which is the typical versus populum sanctuary. One can also see that at St. Clement's the Liturgy of the Word conducted from a different part of the church, away from the altar, leading to the same rhythm of attention that the tripartite church evokes. By contrast the increasing trend is to build what is frankly an auditorium, in which all seats face the sacred stage so as to have good sight lines for the performance of the rite. And it's terribly ironic that in the middle ages, it was considered so very important see the key moment of the liturgy, in buildings which were so very uncooperative about allowing that vision; but we moderns, who can read and hear and participate without seeing, have made this the sine qua non of liturgical design. But the liturgy is not a show to be seen, and indeed the watching is distracting. When the priest raises the elements in token of offering, it is He to whom they are lifted who should be the object of our attention, not the ministers, nor the ritual of that offering. God is and shall be among us, but we must also remember that he is without us and beyond us, and it is that remembrance, I think, which needs the more attention in this age.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Fire and Water, Water and Fire

Preached on Epiphany 1, Year C, 2013

Fire and water: these are the images we have this week, signifying the flood of divine power pouring forth from the Holy Spirit. Water and fire, which cleanse and purge the earth.

Today's gospel is one of the very few passages which every evangelist recounts, so it is surely of paramount importance in the gospel story. If it sounds familiar, it is because the first half was read back on the second Sunday of Advent. So this Sunday is, in its way, the second point at which Advent ends, for John's proclamation of the one whom he heralds is fulfilled: Jesus arrives at the Jordan, to be baptized like the rest of us. In both Matthew and John it is related that John protested the notion of baptizing the one whose sandals he felt unworthy to undo, but Luke does not record this detail; he simply tells of John's preaching, and then relates the descent of the Spirit, “in bodily form like a dove.”

Fire and water, and a dove. Jesus, of course, being the second person of the trinity incarnate, is never truly separate from the Spirit; but the Spirit came upon him as he comes upon us all. The form of the dove is sign and token of this, but also signifies Jesus' empowerment to ministry: from the Jordan he went into the desert to fast, and thence to preach and be sacrificed for us, and on the third day, to rise, destroying death.

And then the Spirit descends again on the apostles, this time in the form of flame, not as a songbird. Thus is John's prophecy fulfilled. Water and fire: the baptism of John, signifying repentance and rebirth, and the baptism of the Spirit, which is transforming and empowering. The church's baptism is through water, but likewise signifies fire; both baptisms in one. Jesus receives water and the Spirit, the first of the many in the church so baptized; his humanity in the church is also our humanity.

Fire and water. Old timers around here may recall that the hotel in Silver Spring, when first built, featured a restaurant called the Fire Fountain. And this was not simply a romantic name: there was a literal fountain beside its entrance, each watery jet graced with a gas burner, so that the fountain both flamed and flowed. It was a very tame wonder, eventually extinguished as the price of natural gas made such profligacy too dear, and as the restaurant's very period theme palled in the passage of years. But the Spirit, which moved over the water, is not a tame fire. In Isaiah, the LORD promises that Israel will pass through the water and the fire unharmed; but water and fire signify the Spirit's cleansing and purging might. John washes people of Jacob's house in the Jordan, but warns them that the chaff of Israel shall be burnt, just as Jesus foretells the burning of the weeds that grow among the wheat in the fields which the angels harvest at the end of the season. Jesus' arrival at the river, in the late winter of Judah's Roman domination, signifies that the growing season is at hand; and when will the harvest come? When shall the pyre consume what is discarded? We hear in the Revelation, that great dream, of a lake of fire which is the second death, destroying that which is set aside as unworthy in the last great judgement. These are dark signs, fearful signs which, if God's promise be taken faithfully, we shall never fulfill. But between us and the reaping angels stands a season, long or short, in which we must fulfill the promises made at our baptisms, in which our faith must be realized in life, that our life may be made real through faith.

Fire and water. The Father sends forth his voice in fire, and the Godhead is enthroned over the flood. The dove has been something of a treacherous image in our art, for it signifies how the Spirit may steal upon those whom it inspires; but when we see the Father, crowned in ancient wisdom and majesty, and the Son, ruling from the cross in our humanity, we look at the dove and see a decidedly third-rate third Person. We need to remember more than the gentle descent; we must keep in mind the fiery flood of the Spirit's power. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness, and it is the Spirit's power which shakes it. The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe, and it is the Spirit's power which twists them. In the end of days, when the bowls of God's wrath are poured out, it is the Spirit which will move over the earth in destruction, just as the Spirit brooded over the waters of creation.

Fire and water. The LORD moved before the Israelites in a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. He led them through the Red Sea on dry land, which also signifies the waters of baptism. The passage through the water gave life to Israel, and death to their pursuers. And when the forty years of wilderness exile were ended, the ark was carried into the Jordan, and the people crossed into the promised land on dry ground. Elijah's mantle passed to Elisha, and when it struck the Jordan's water, Elisha crossed on dry land. And them in the fullness of time, John came to the Jordan, which thus signifies passage into new life. Jesus went into the water, as we all do, and was baptized, as we all are, one LORD, one faith, one baptism.

John baptized with water, as we do. Christ, through the church, baptizes us in fire, and marks us that we may not forget the grace poured over us in the water of salvation and the blood poured out in our stead. John called the people to repentance, even as we must call to the world and to each other; but the Spirit makes that repentance the gateway to new life, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, our Christ.

Fire and water. Only the Father knows when these will be poured over the earth in the latter days, when the story of salvation shall be completed and the story of our rebellion shall meet its end. In the meantime, we drift and fade, dried out but not aflame. Wheat which does not bear grain is as good as weeds, and many of us do not yield a crop. The Israelites wandered in the desert, fed with quail and the bread of angels, and yet they turned to the golden calf even as Moses received the law from the LORD, less than a year after the water was crossed to safety. We turn to our own idols: wealth, fame, self-righteousness, indolence, complacency, and most of all, our arrogant pride, and we cease to heed the fire within us. We wither, and we yield little for the LORD's harvest. We are watered, and the growth is rank, the grain small. The sun shines upon us, and its energy is wasted. The Israelites complained against the LORD, and his fire burned at Terebah; they balked at the edge of Canaan, and that generation was set to wander until it raise up a new and more faithful people, who carried the ark into the Jordan and crossed into the land long promised. And each year our church shrinks, and our diocese shrinks, and our parish is so weakened that on an average Sunday, everyone in attendance could be accommodated in a single service. We meet people in a store whom we used to meet in church; our children go off to college, but young families do not return. We dream of a new building, and then are forced instead to worry over meeting our budget. And here a parish closes, there another quits the church. Year by year we fade, and the harvest diminishes.

But each year we start again, and find ourselves in a house in Nazareth, in a stable in Bethlehem, and on the banks of the Jordan. We do not need a second baptism for our revival, but need only to recall and revive the faith sealed in our first. We walk again into the waters with Jesus, but in story only, for it is recollection we need, not a second sacrament. Fire and water: these we must recall and feel within us, not as heat and flood, but in faithful action and sacred testimony. We must live so as to call others into the water, and to bless them with the Spirit's fire, that they may be increased in life and increase the harvest. And if we do the LORD's work here, in faith and love and concord, then at the last we may be gathered into that great and final harvest, called from the ends of the earth, to be raised forever in the life to come. Even so, Amen.

An administrative note

I'm in the process of attaching labels to post, but given five years of posts to label, it's going to be a while.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Credo Ex Hoc Omnes

I have had a curious juxtaposition of two looks at the scriptural text. Earlier, Tobias Haller referred to this post of his on Facebook by talking about God violating "natural law", which was quickly taken to mean talk of God violating natural order, and various people immediately signed themselves up to cast aspersions on the gospel narrative and to deem the birth stories fictions. Then today, most of the Epiphany sermon was taken up with a deconstruction of the popular version of the Three Kings.

Now, filing the edges off the legends is not terribly difficult: it doesn't make a great deal of difference that they were μαγοι, that is, Zoroastrian priests from Persia, or that three gifts doesn't imply three givers, or that the star didn't hover over the Holy Family's dwelling like a helicopter with a searchlight. It is more relevant to the truly modern reader that Matthew, in his first two chapters, cites five passages of scripture as being fulfilled, for it is a settled principle that nobody ever prophesied anything.

And there are apparently still many who retain the old enlightenment certainty against the miraculous. Yes, the old Baconian principle works very well, but it is an axiom, not a deduced or revealed truth. It makes all the difference in the world whether those early chapters of Matthew and Luke are accounts, however flawed, of what happened, or are merely the "cleverly devised tales" spoken of in 2 Peter. A Jesus who is not God incarnate, who is simply an ordinary man who was used as the frame for various teachings, tales, and parables, and who indeed need not have existed at all, is nothing more than the irrelevant subject of mankind's religious sickness, that mental illness that demands explanations of the cosmos which are never forthcoming. Only the Truth Word Incarnate can give true revelation, and only the true Lamb of God, raised again, can give a salvation that is real, and not merely false comfort.

But we are doomed by our own chronological snobbery. We believe we are are beyond mythology, and that we are not gullible, at the same time we still speak of the Godhead like rebellious children. And yet we find that we cannot take our supposed inability to find meaning seriously, so we make stuff up, as if we have achieved the mastery we have deemed impossible. The truth is that our distaste for the gospel stories is as much a matter of aesthetics as anything; familiarity has bred contempt.

I choose to defy this. I believe it all, which is not to say that I demand a literalistic adherence to to every iota of scripture, but rather that I do not argue with it. Therefore I do not question that Mary received a supernatural visitation, or that Elizabeth bore her son well out of season. I do not deny that the shepherds were summoned to the manger-cradle by a holy apparition, or that the new family was visited by foreign sages. For I do not see how truth is to be found by pouring my own prejudices into scripture, nor can I believe that the evangelists and apostles intended something so close to the Gnostic version of Christian truth. I see that they intended to teach the real Jesus, born of the Virgin, who really suffered, really died, and really rose again, finally to return to heaven. As I see it, it is only true tradition, and the only one worth believing.