Tag Archives: baptism

The Anglican Spiritual Tradition, parts 1 and 2

By Martin Thornton

PART ONE
There is good reason for dividing this lecture into two unequal parts. I must first offer a brief resumé of what I take the Anglican spiritual tradition to be; then I should like to look rather more fully at the contemporary impact of our tradition, concluding with a somewhat dangerous game of attempting to read the signs of its future unfolding.

Pedantic haggling over the meaning of words is not the most exciting exercise, but it is apparent already that some attention must be given to that most ambiguous and abused term “Tradition”; paradosistraditio, literally a giving-over, or handing-over. Handing-over be it noted and not handing-down. Continue reading

Homily: “On the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Easter Vigil”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for Trinity Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Illinois, on the Easter Vigil, Year A, 2017.

Alleluia—Christ is risen. He is risen indeed—alleluia!

It is a great honor to be here with you all tonight sharing this most holiest of occasions—remembering, celebrating, and in a real sense experiencing the raising from the dead of Jesus Christ by the glory of the Father, that we too may walk in newness of life. Joining me this evening is my family, my wife and our four daughters, and all of us bring greetings and prayers to you all from our parishioners back in Tazewell County, where I am the Priest-in-charge of both Saint Paul’s Church in Pekin and All Saints’ Church in Morton. Indeed I ask your prayers for us as both churches continue to discern what it means, and might yet still mean, for the two churches to become in an official sense the Parish of Tazewell County, serving all residents of Tazewell County.

I mentioned a moment ago that we are not only remembering and celebrating the resurrection of Our Lord to the right hand of the Father in Heaven, the Church Triumphant—but also in a real sense, experiencing it. We have witnessed and shared in the first light of Easter, indeed the first flickers of recognition by Mary Magdelene and the other Mary of the great mystery that was upon them, and upon us—and the first flickers grew to a holy fear and great joy. Continue reading

Homily: “On Forgiveness, part two”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2017.

As I spoke last Sunday, there are seven sayings by Jesus from the Cross in the four books by the evangelists. These seven sayings are also called “the Seven Last Words,” and each of these, individually and as a group, have been the subject of much reflection, speculation, and prayer over the course of the nearly two-thousand-year history of the Christian Church.

If we recall the image of Jesus Christ given to us by Jesus Himself—that He is the true Vine—then these Seven Last Words can be thought of as seven “leaves” of the Vine. We can carry the image still further when we remember that a vine, such as grow grapes, are fastened to a structure, even a wooden structure, both so that the vine develops properly and so that its leaves provide shade to the fruits, to the grapes. Indeed our Jesus, the true Vine, was fastened to the wood of the cross, and Christians have been finding shade under His leaves, His Last Words, ever since, even as we are in this season of Lent. Continue reading

Homily: “On Forgiveness, part 1”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2017.

Our Lord tells Nicodemus that “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Our Lord hung on the Cross, nailed to it, as the true Victim, as God’s love for us, that we might be saved by His love. It is for this reason that everything in the Church’s life and prayer revolves around the Cross, itself an inexhaustible source of grace.

As is well known, Jesus spoke seven sentences from the cross as recorded in the Gospels. These seven sentences are called “The Seven Last Words of Jesus,” it is a common tradition to devote preaching and reflection to these Seven Last Words on Good Friday services. I will be doing so today and over the remaining Sundays in Lent, tying these Words into the appointed Gospel readings and the ongoing life within the Parish of Tazewell County.

The first word uttered by our most compassionate Jesus, as he hung on the cross, was, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” There can be no more dramatic demonstration of the centrality of forgiveness to the Christian life than this first word. Jesus is asking His Father to forgive the actions of His murderers, to overlook their deeds. Jesus knows that His Father always hears Him. He is saying: Look, Father, at the love of Thy Son, not their behavior. Through the Son’s plea, indeed through the Son Himself, those who were responsible for nailing Jesus to the Cross are made present to God the Father, and God the Father made present to them, through Jesus. Forgiveness has everything to do with presence—and particularly with the presence of Jesus. Continue reading

Homily: “On Holiness”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time) Year A, 2017.

After today’s Mass, we break from our reading of the Sermon of the Mount as recorded by Saint Matthew. We have read four portions of this extended teaching, among the first words of Jesus. Lent this year begins later than most, yet not late enough to hear a final portion of the sermon, when Jesus teaches about the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field. There is also the teaching to seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, which is captured in the hymn we have been singing before the proclamation of the Gospel. So although we will not read this portion during Mass this year—for with Lent nine days away, the final Sunday before Lent is always devoted to the first of two readings of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the other being on the actual feast day of the Transfiguration during summer on August 6—through that hymn, we have been savoring at least an important aspect of it. The wonder of the liturgy is how many different ways we can experience the biblical revelation and indeed experience Jesus—through song, through all five of our senses, through prayer, all the ways we worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

That word, holiness, is a primary theme we can find in each of our three readings. In a memorable and often quoted statement from Saint Paul: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” God’s Spirit is His loving holiness, and it can dwell nowhere except in hallowed, sacred space. The People of God are His temple, for it is in the People of God, incorporated into Jesus through Baptism, that the Holy Spirit dwells in a particularly focused way. Although God is present in all creatures, because through Him were all things made, human beings, as far as we know, are the only of God’s visible creatures that can be His temple. That is because while all creatures rejoice in the splendor of God’s radiance, human beings are the only ones that do so out of our choice, because we have free will. We are the only created beings, as far as we can tell, that pray, that contemplate, that reflect on God and choose to follow Him.  Continue reading

On Marian Imagination

Doctrine and dogma have consequences for our prayer life, that is, our relationship with God, and how that relationship is concentrated and focused into acts of prayer—normatively the threefold Regula, including private prayers myriad in variety.

What, then, is the consequence on our prayer of the Assumption of Mary? There are many, for Our Lady is a true panoply of grace. Yet fundamental to our understanding of Mary’s importance to our prayerful living is one that has to with what I have previously called the “Marian mode of perception.”

Because it is not just the “idea” of Mary, or her merits narrowly, that have been assumed into Heaven—but in fact her body—then despite how difficult that notion may be to get our heads around, what it must mean is that it is Mary as a totality, as a unity of body-mind-soul, who is in heaven as the Queen of Heaven as Lady of all the Angels.

The consequence, then, is this: it is Mary’s whole way of being that Christians aspire to achieve by the grace of God. This is the deepest meaning of “Mary, pray for us”: we ask her to be in relationship with us so that we may grow more like her, she who lives in the most perfect unity with Jesus, entirely through His grace, which filled her being from her conception immaculately—that is to say, vocationally. Being more like her, we are more like Jesus—this is but “sanctification” in Marian terms. (For more on the many meanings of “Pray for us,” see this homily.)

The more we are like Mary, the more our own souls might be overshadowed, our own spirit enlightened, that, in the words of Jeremy Taylor, we might conceive the holy Jesus in our heart, and may bear him in our mind, and may grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, to be a perfect man in Christ Jesus. Hence Mary is crucial for our understanding of Theosis.

Perhaps, then, what is often spoken of as “Catholic imagination,” sometimes called “sacramental worldview,”or more technically “analogical imagination”—perception of reality based upon countless profound analogies between ultimate divinity and creatures/creation, all anchored in Christ, our sole Mediator (i.e., the fundamental root, the cantus firmus, of all analogies)—might be more pastorally called “Marian imagination.”

Marian imagination seeks and serves Christ in all persons. Our exemplar in being a baptized Christian, Mary was the first person able to name divine reality as “Jesus,” the first person able to ask what it means to perceive the world as Jesus perceived, and the first person able to reconcile explicitly all things to, and by, Him—to see Christ as the telos of human beings fully alive. Marian imagination—Marian “awe,” Marian “heart”—is empowered by angelic injunction to live completely toward, and for, the Cross: “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Lk 2:35) becomes the actual corporate reality of the first Christians at Pentecost: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). We grow into this “Marian imagination,” just as Mary grew into full realization of who her son was—indeed, the episode of Jesus at age twelve at the Temple is crucial for safeguarding the fact that we, like Blessed Mary, grow into mature Christian sensibility.

Marian imagination sees all things as potential mediators of Christ’s love, the Holy Spirit revealing unity between creatures and God. It is a Marian imagination, then, that can recognize sacramentality whether in the sacred or the mundane, which is then lifted to the sacred. It is through Marian imagination that we lift our hearts to God, during Mass and everywhere else. “The core of Christian living in its fullness is an habitual awareness of Being, a constant but unforced anticipation of the divine disclosure.” (Martin Thornton, Prayer, p. 95.) And when sin separates us from God—from contemplative harmony with Him and His creation within our conditions of time and space—we can “flee” to Mary as oasis, knowing and finding consolation in the fact that we can never love Mary more than Jesus does.

And Marian imagination requires the daily and habitual oblation of prayer, of emptying ourselves in praise and thanksgiving to Holy God, transcendent and incarnate and immanent, which for the Church is summarized by the threefold Regula, where Divine Office culminates in the Mass and lives out in Devotion. Can we doubt that Acts 2:42, the biblical basis for the Regula, is simply the method the first Christians, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit themselves, were driven to use to begin to emulate Our Lady, who lived fully to be united with Jesus? Because Mary’s life, owing to the Annunciation, is trinitarian prayer itself.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.

Homily: “On the Lamb of God”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time) 2017, Year A.

Whereas last Sunday we heard described the Baptism of Jesus in something of a first-person account, Jesus’s own experience of the moment, handed down to Saint Matthew, today the account is from the perspective of John the Baptist, which reached Saint John the Evangelist.

Now, despite that we are told by Saint John that this is the day after the Baptism in the River Jordan, if we consider this account from the Gospel of John while flipping back and forth from accounts of given to the Church by the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we can suspect the plausible and even likely scenario that John the Baptist is here seeing Jesus coming toward him after Jesus had returned from the forty days in the wilderness and the temptations concerning the manner of His messiahship. A biblical “day” is often longer than a 24-hour period. In the wilderness, recall that Jesus rejected being the king of satanic magic, rejected being a king outside the natural order of creation, and he rejects being a king of earthly politics. Having battled the Devil in the wilderness—which is a biblical symbol involving contemplative, silent prayer—having battled the Devil in the wilderness, and forever vanquished the forces of evil, he returns to the community, and John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him.

What light must have shined from Him—the Light of all light! Jesus has taken hold of the life of perfect love. Jesus, always the divine Son, from His birth and maturing as a wee baby, then a toddler, then a big boy, then a teenager going through puberty, then young adult, and finally a fully mature man, increased in wisdom and increased in stature—Jesus through it all was the perfect pray-er. He always held His Father in perfect adoration. Jesus’ consciousness was always heightened and expanded, and because of that, His conscience always attuned to reality, and because of that, His compassion always sensitive to those around Him. He knew who He was—He is the Son of the Most High; He is to sit on the throne of David, He is to reign over the house of Jacob for ever, of His kingdom there will be no end—indeed, He is the Son of God.

And He knew that as the Son of God, He was to live His whole life for us, and for our salvation. And in living His whole life for us, He knew that He is to suffer. He was to suffer because He has taken on our sins, He shares our human nature, He would live and die as one of us. He lived His life on earth at all times bearing His cross, knowing somehow that it is His Father’s will that His Son be nailed to it.

John the Baptist, blessed by being born into a family of devout Jews and blessed still more by the presence of Jesus when both we still in the womb, not perfectly but intuitively understands who Jesus is, for John says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” We hear these words at the moment of eucharistic communion. Jesus, actually and really Him, offers Himself to us in love. The term “lamb” for the hearers of John the Baptist was rich in symbolic meaning. Preeminent among the meanings is that of sacrificial victim—the Passover lamb as well as the lamb of daily morning and evening sacrifice, and weekly Sabbath service. Lamb refers to oblation—an offering to God—for the atonement of sins; a lamb was presented to the Most High has a peace offering and a sin offering. A lamb is offered to make pure that which is impure. Furthermore, “lamb” means innocence, a lamb needs care and nurturing, a lamb is a sign of gentle and serene peace as well as prosperity.

This is why the Church appointed last Sunday the 42nd chapter of Isaiah, and today the 49th. These are two of the four “servant songs” that reflect the prophesy of the “suffering servant.” What it means for Jesus to be the Lamb is described by Isaiah: bringing justice to the nations, not a political but a spiritual king, the Light of light that opens the eyes of the blind and saves those in darkness, a salvation that reaches to the end of the earth. For He takes away the in of the world—He gives us a permanent way out of our self-centeredness, out of our tendency to put ourselves and even those we love before God, before our love for Him. When the resurrected Jesus walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, undoubtedly among the scripture he explained to them were the four suffering servant songs of Isaiah, and how these concerned and described Him.

Brother and sisters, God releases us from the bondage of our sin as we cooperate with His grace, the grace that always goes before us. Yet in the vast majority of cases, this is a slow and even laborious journey. Indeed the true nature of Jesus Christ is revealed little by little. But let us in our imperfect and incremental ways recognize indeed that the Lamb of God walks among us. We sang about the Lamb of God during the Gloria, asking him to have mercy on us and receive our prayer. We will sing again of the Lamb of God during the Communion Rite, asking again for Him to have mercy on us, and also asking Him to grant us peace, a peace which we recognize in those around us, a peace that shows us what forgiveness really means. And then Behold the Lamb of God immediately before Communion itself. We receive the sacrificial offering, and we continue to become that which we behold—that we too may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory. Amen.

Homily: “On the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ 2017, Year A.

Brothers and sisters, we have seen a great light, and on us and the whole Church has a great light shined. For to us a Child is born, to us a Son of God is given. He has been given for the salvation of all men, He has poured Himself out richly upon us. Think of what has been revealed to us through the Liturgy and the biblical revelation over the last two months: babes leapt in wombs, the mute and dumb sang joyously, souls have proclaimed the greatness of the Lord. Angels we have heard on high, shepherds and wise men have come to see the Child, and been shown the Child by His Mother, indeed the Mother of God, who bore God in her heart before she bore Him in her womb, a Mother of God who has felt and seen glory inexpressible. And the Holy Name of this Child has been revealed—Jesus, He who saves, He who loves, He who forgives, He around whom the stars and planets and moons arrange, He by whom lives are changed, journeys reordered, hearts opened.

All that has been revealed to us is wonder and awe. All that has been revealed cannot but soften the hardest of hearts, cannot but loosen the tightest of fears, cannot but open closed doors. And through these glorious seasons of Advent, Christmastide, and now into the season of Epiphany, what have we done but sing? What have we done but pray together in joy and hope? What have we done but reminisce of the Spirit’s presence in our lives, in our families, in our homes? What have we done but savor the holy? Continue reading

Homily: “On the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016.

Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by His most loving presence, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man.

These words that I chanted before the Mass—what wonder they hold! What mystery they tell! What invitation they extend! Brothers and sisters, we must never weary of giving our deepest contemplation to their meaning. For amid all of the warm memories of Christmastide that we all have with our families and friends, which we recall and live again in this holy season, let us also savor above all else the fundamental reality of this moment: that God has come to earth and Mary is Mother of God.

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Homily: “Advent and Joy”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday of Advent 2016, Year A.

In my homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, to all of you I said the following words:

“Let us continue to seek harmony with each other through prayer. For when we do so, God will send forth to us His increase. The increase of the harvest is completely up to God—he will send new disciples not when we think we are ready for them, but only when God decides—when He judges—that we are ready to receive new disciples, when we show the fruits of our prayer and harmony.”

I said those words last Sunday, and I repeat them again this morning, and I probably will repeat them again in the future, because they reflect accurately the Gospel as the Church has received it from Jesus Christ. The theology of those words is derived primarily from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke, when he appointed the Seventy for mission, “two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come.” And when he appointed them, Jesus said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.”

Jesus sends us out as lambs in the midst of wolves. We are lambs by virtue of our baptism, being incorporated into Him, the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We are lambs because we hear the voice of our shepherd, we hear Christ’s speech, we hear His voice. And hearing His voice, we are filled with joy—the real joy, against which all other joys are secondary. This joy protects us, it shields us, for it is the shield of faith. This joy is our breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of our salvation, the sword of the Spirit. This joy is true peace.

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Homily: “Religion and the Theological Virtues, pt. 4”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Christ the King, the Thirty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 29, Year C).

I will conclude today with my series of sermons on the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. It was four Sundays ago that I began in on this area of Christian religion. Recall part of our Collect from that Day: “Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command.” Well, we do not properly pray if we say words that we do not grasp and have a decent handle on as far as their meaning. And what understanding we might have already of the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity can always be renewed and deepened; it is the very nature of Christianity that we continually revisit and in so doing, re-experience, the terms and principles we use to attempt to grasp the revelation about ultimate reality—God—that is in Jesus Christ, and in Him definitively.

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Homily: “Into the Hearts of Those Who Loved”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County at Saint Paul’s, Pekin during the Mass for Christian Burial of Mary Margaret Baxter, parishioner.

I once received an email from a woman who knew my wife through the graduate school Hannah attended. This woman wrote me seeking ideas about how to answer her children’s questions about their grandmother who had recently died. I believe her daughter was six years old and her son nine years old. This was not a church-going family, to say the least. In fact, I had heard both her and her husband say some pretty nasty things about the church over dinner conversation. They knew I was studying theology, and that did not matter.

The particular question the children had been asking is, “Where did Grandma go?” The mother told me that her children had said, “Grandma must be somewhere . . . where is she?” Despite the mother and her husband being avowed atheists, who even ridiculed Christian believers, she reached out to me in an act, I think, of great courage. I cannot speak to her motivations except the obvious concern she had for her children, who were dealing with death—with the grieving and confusion that so often comes with death—for the first time in their young lives. Because of our media culture—television, video games, movies, even regular stories—death I suspect was not a completely alien concept to these children. They were bright kids with intelligent parents. And this of course was the first time for the mother and father dealing with death from the perspective of a parent. Never had they experienced death—the grieving and confusion of it all—through the eyes of children under their care. We all may think we understand death and dying, and then it happens to someone close to us, and the reality of the strangeness of it all hits us in the face.

So I struggled about how to respond to this question from these particular persons. What I said was, “When a person dies, their body remains here on earth, whether buried or cremated. But who they are goes directly into the hearts of those who loved that person. So,” I continued in my email to the mother, “when you talk with your son and daughter, point to your heart and to theirs, and say, ‘Grandma is right here.’”

This apparently worked. The mother later wrote to thank me for these words. She said they were a great help with her children. I do not share this story to make myself out as a hero. The only hero is Jesus Christ. All I did was proclaim the truth. “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” And so our relationship with a person who dies does not end — our relationship with the person changes. The closer we are to Jesus, the closer we are to our loved ones, because our loved ones live in Jesus and live in his resurrection.

Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus says “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home in him.” Jesus and the Father make their home in our hearts. The heart in the biblical understanding is not only the seat of desires, emotions, thoughts, and plans — it is the primary arena in which we encounter God. God lives and moves and has his being in all places everywhere, and in all his creatures, because through him all things were made. Yet he lives and moves and has his being in a particularly concentrated and focused way in the hearts and lives of the Baptized, who because of baptism are members of his body. Because of Baptism, our body, says Saint Paul, is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. And so if the Triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — lives in us, lives in our hearts, then so do all the Angels, Archangels, all the company of heaven, all the Saints, and all the faithful departed, including our sister Mary.

To feel confused or perplexed, to grieve for the loss of loved ones, is as perfectly normal part of the process as death itself is a perfectly normal part of life. In our Gospel, Martha was grieving. She wanted Jesus to do something. Yet when we accept our confusion, rest in perplexity, allow sadness to happen as it must — to not fight it — when we proclaim with our hearts the truth of the Christian faith, even as we want Jesus to do something — only then can we realize that he already has, and the joy of the Christian faith can soften and expand our hearts even more.

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:14-19).

Cover image “Resurrection of Lazarus” by Duccio di Buoninsegna is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

Homily: Religion and the Transfiguration

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016.

The Church year (from Advent through the last Sunday of Ordinary Time, called Christ the King) amid its inexhaustible riches can be said to broadly focus on two mysteries. From Advent through the Day of Pentecost, we focus on the mystery of Jesus Christ, the life of the Son of God and Second Person of the Holy Trinity. From the Day of Pentecost through Christ the King, we focus on the mystery of the Church, the life of the Body of Christ on earth and all of visible creation (called the Church Militant), in the Intermediate State of Paradise (called the Church Expectant), and in heaven itself (called the Church Triumphant).

This is pertinent because the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus occurs twice during the Church year. It is always the appointed Gospel for the last Sunday after Epiphany, before the season of Lent; and it is appointed, of course, for the Feast of the Transfiguration. Therefore, the calendar suggests that there are two perspectives upon which to reflect on the Transfiguration. Whereas before Lent, we focus on what the Gospel account reveals about the mystery of Jesus, today we consider what it reveals about the mystery of the Church—the relationship that the angels, saints, faithfully departed, and all the baptized, including us have with Jesus Christ. Bluntly, before Lent, it is “What does this say about Jesus?”; today, it is “What does this say about us?”

All three Lessons involve the image of a holy mountain. The idea of scaling a mountain has remained the classic analogy for spiritual pilgrimage. As a matter of course, what we know about climbing mountains is that it is hard work which requires discipline, courage, stamina—days which are dull, even monotonous, as well days occasionally adventurous and exhilarating, yet so because of the disciplined plod. Moses had already led the Israelites for some time before he had his mountaintop experience, and the twelve disciples, including Peter, John and James, had already followed Jesus for some time before theirs. Mountain-top experiences are relatively rare, and they are the fruits of labor.

One of the purposes of the Feast of the Transfiguration is to be a harvest for us, the People of God, who have been concerned of late with the relatively mundane tasks of religion—the activities by which we praise, reverence and serve our Lord, learning about the means by which our souls are saved; about sin and its cure, humility; religion as summarized in our baptismal covenant: continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the daily prayers, and it is lived out representing Jesus in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, seeking harmony with the created order, resisting sin: loving God and neighbor. It is very much like the work required to grow vegetables from seed—less the excitement of the planting as much as when the novelty wears off: pulling weeds, watering, pruning. Mundane, yet: ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened for you—the Church does not teach, labor in the vineyard and the fruits might come; no, the Church teaches, practice religion and they will come.

Historically, the Feast of the Transfiguration traces to about the 4th century, and the earliest evidence points to its origination in early monastic communities in the desert of Egypt. These Christians living austere lives of quiet obedience, strict daily discipline and extended periods daily of silent contemplation began to recognize a liturgical depth in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke of Jesus becoming dazzlingly white. It became a central feast in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, associated in fact with the harvest season. Newly picked grapes were brought to the Church to be blessed on this Feast. This parallels, incidentally, the medieval English blessing of bread from new crops of wheat on what is still called Lammas Day—or “loaf mass” day, August 1, close to the eastern Feast of the Transfiguration. Transfiguration became an official feast in the West in the fifteenth century, and added to the Episcopal Church calendar about 120 years ago.

The tedium of growing grapes, or wheat; attending Mass week in, week out during long stretches of hot weather—perhaps the Christian religion, Christian obedience gets a bit hum-drum when compared to the fun activities of summer travel, swimming pools, backyard grilling and looking at the stars. Is it too much of a stretch to suspect we might be sometimes lulled into something of a summer stupor, within our air-conditioned homes and cars, our gardens yet to bear fruit or roses?

“Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory.” The transfigured glory of Christ wakens us from our summer slumbering. A rose blossoms in glistening white. Imagine what it must have been like for Peter, John and James. The wonder—the holy awe of it all! Moses and Elijah—both having had mountaintop experiences, and both having had experiences with a holy cloud—speaking of Jesus’s departure, that is, of His Passion, Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection. Could there even be words to describe the experience for Peter, John and James? Can we fault Peter for wanting to cling to this moment, to build shelters so that the moment might never end?

We ought not fault him, because despite not knowing the meaning of what he said, God responded with still more glory. A cloud came and overshadowed them—this is a biblical symbol for the presence of the Holy Spirit, overshadowing the three disciples just as Mary was overshadowed at the Annunciation. And entering into the holy cloud, the voice out of the cloud, saying “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This voice is the Father, speaking to the apostles, and hence to us, like he spoke to Jesus at his Baptism in the River Jordan.

And so this is a fully trinitarian experience—the mountaintop of the mountaintop—and the fulfillment of the voice of the Father is Jesus alone. Jesus is the one we are to listen to. By listening to Him, we will hear the voice of the Law, signified by Moses, and the voice of the prophets, signified by Elijah. Rather than trying to control Jesus, to box him in, we are to listen to him.

Peter, John and James experienced this event, this unspeakable miracle. A biblical miracle is an experience beyond the capacity of language to express its full meaning. The accounts of miracles in Scripture attempt to bring expression to that perceiving in depth. Miracle-language attempts to articulate moments that had within them deep wonder, unspeakable awe and mystery. There is a focusing of God’s activity in a miracle, an intense concentration of the action of God.

And doubtlessly Peter, John and James carried this concentrated experience with them, mostly in silence, or confused wonderment—certainly changed inwardly in the soul like Moses was changed outwardly on the skin of his face. They experienced this miracle, yet still doubted the divinity of Jesus, and at first disbelieved his resurrection. It was only looking back later on this mountain-top event, after the resurrection of Jesus, that they saw not only the depth of the experience but its meaning—that Jesus was both Man and God: a Man who definitively reveals ultimate reality, his manhood fully taken into God. The Transfiguration initiated them into the mysteries of God, but it took time for them to see in this experience its fullest depth, for it to become true prayer.

Saint Peter tells us that we will do well to pay attention, as a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. We reflect on the Transfiguration of Our Lord because it is a lamp shining in darkness. The primary darkness is not the world at large, but our inward souls. May we keep silence, reflecting inwardly on Jesus transfigured in dazzling and glistening white. And may we, as we climb the mountain by our religion, by faith behold the King in his beauty. And may the day continue to dawn, and the morning star continue to rise in our hearts.

Cover image “The Saviour’s Transfiguration”  is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

Homily: Religion and Covetousness

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 13, Year C)

Over the recent Sunday Gospel lessons, focusing as we have on religion as activity, we have not heard much on the topic of Sin. It has not been entirely absent, however. A creeping pride was implied with the seventy-two disciples returned from evangelism, as well as with Martha amid her hospitality. It was implied strongly toward those who did not help the man who fell among the robbers. It was mentioned prominently in the Our Father prayer—“forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us”—but beyond that, nothing more said.

In today’s Gospel, sin takes center stage. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” Jesus implores. In other translations, the word is “covetousness.” Note the strong language from Jesus: “Be on your guard.” And before that, “Watch out!” Jesus wants to get our attention with this teaching.

“Sin” is one of those words that is pervasive not only in the Church but in the wider society as well, and so the true meaning of sin has I think been obscured as a result. Just as we seen the term “religion” in the secular world has a static meaning, quite different from the more dynamic meaning within the Church, the term “sin” within the Church’s most ancient teaching requires a careful understanding.

Sin means separation from God. Sin means separation particularly with respect to our hearts. Let us be clear: we are never separate from God in an absolute sense—that kind of separation means not only death but annihilation. God’s presence is necessary to exist in the most fundamental sense. But we are often separate from God, that is to say sinful, in our will, our choices. In the choices we make, with respect to our bodies, actions, emotions, habits, as well as inwardly in our soul—what captures all of that is the term “heart”; our heart is where we encounter God, and it is in our heart—the center of our being and existence—where we can be very separated from God. When the Church speaks of the unbaptized person, in particular a wee baby, being “born in sin,” it is not in an absolute sense of separation, for that is impossible for a person who is alive; but in that existential sense of the heart that has yet to choose God in an active, intentional way.

Sin, then, is activity. It refers to activity distinct and different from activity born of the desire to love God. Sin is activity without the love of God at its center. Sin is activity with love of oneself, or love of some idol or false god, at its center.

There in fact is only one kind of sin, and that is Pride. Pride is at the root of all sins, which vary only by emphasis. What is Pride? Pride is the denial of the fact of creation; that we are creatures. It is the denial of creaturelihood; for to deny that we are creatures denies that there is a creator, that is, denies God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. Pride is the root of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden, of Cain with his brother Abel, as well as of Satan, the fallen angel who thought he was greater than God. Adam, Eve, Cain, Satan—each misunderstood, in their own way, the nature of the created order. That is, they got the doctrine of creation wrong. The doctrine of creation is that God makes, keeps, and loves all things; all things find ultimate meaning only in God; and all things are to serve God. Activity contrary to that doctrine is sin.

I mentioned that Pride is the root sin, and all other sins vary only by emphasis. This refers to what are called the Seven Capital Sins, or Seven Deadly Sins. The Church teaches there are seven major patterns of sin—that is, seven ways we go awry from the doctrine of creation. All of them are forms of Pride, of denying the fact of creation. The Capital Sins have to do with our relationship to creatures and the created world. When we are in right relationship with creatures, we are close to God, for His will is expressed through His creatures. When we are not in right relationship with creatures, we are separated from God.

Like religion and like sin, “relationship” is not static but dynamic and active. When we speak of the experience of Christian religion, we are speaking about being in right relationship to God through the created world—moment to moment, day to day. We are speaking of activity by which we are in harmony or growing in harmony with God’s creation, and hence in harmony with Him.

In our Gospel today, we hear about the Capital Sin of greed, or more classically, “covetousness.” A rich man builds larger barns to store his possessions. But this is done not for the benefit of God but of the man himself. His sin—the choice that separates him from God and fosters disharmony—is to choose himself as the primary beneficiary of these possessions—grain and goods. This choice creates a relationship with the possessions, these creatures, that is sinful. He is thinking strictly in terms of materialism. He choice thereby denies that there might be any ultimate or divine purpose for the grain and goods that glorifies God. So he does not really love these creatures—the grain and goods—in the Christian sense, because Christian love involves God and neighbor—but rather he loves owning, possessing, even exploiting these possessions.

Covetousness, then, is “a lack of love for creatures—an inordinate love to own, exploit and abuse them. It is materialism, the failure to understand that creatures are to glorify God in their own particular way and to help us to do the same” [*].

We overcome covetousness “not by turning our backs on creation but by trying to admire and understand creatures more perfectly, not by hating things but by loving them more truly” [*]. When we admire and try to understand creatures, we open ourselves to the possibility of God revealing to us spiritually something of their ultimate purpose. Covetousness, or greed, separates us from God, because it denies that creatures have any ultimate purpose. It is a form of Pride, of denying the fact of creation with a particular emphasis on the denial of godly purpose.

The antidote for covetousness is generosity. Yes, that means sharing what we have, what we have been given, with others. The first Christians, we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, shared their possessions in common. But it also means being generous in our attitude. We often covet the judgements or opinions about others of whom we do not approve. Our attitude thereby becomes rigid, unbending and final. Historically we have seen such attitudes towards people of other skin colors, social classes, gender, country of origin, or level of education. Or it is because we have been wounded by someone, and understandably harden our hearts toward them. We covet, and hold onto, these attitudes because it allows us to avoid the hard work of loving them, and loving God in them. But loving others does not mean liking them, but adoring the fact that God is as active in their lives as he is in ours.

Let us, by the grace of God, have the self-awareness to recognize when we are being ungenerous in our attitude toward persons or things that bother us, or even that we hate. Let us remember that when we love God, we, by definition, are loving all that God loves—and God loves all his creatures and all his creation, without exception. To begin to conceive the scope of God’s love throws us away from Pride and into Humility—a love that is abundant beyond our comprehension, for God loved all his creatures in the beginning, loves all of them now, and will love all his creatures for ever, world without end. Amen.

[*] Taken from Martin Thornton, The Purple Headed Mountain, chap. 5.

Cover image “Christ the Saviour (Pantokrator)”  is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

 

Homily: “Religion — Martha and Mary”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County at All Saints, Morton on the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 11, Year C)

Baptism today is not a given, hence it is a decision that has behind it a great deal of intentionality. Many people no longer think it is necessary to be baptized. They may have no strong opinions against it, but it is no longer even on their radar. In the not too distant past, to be baptized was more a matter of course, even of social custom. People of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came by this honestly. There are some commentators today who look at the changed environment in which the Church lives, and immediately say that those baptisms were less genuine, even more superficial, because “everyone was doing it.”

I am not quite of that view. Any time we look at the past, and do so honestly, we immediately see nothing is as simple as it may first appear. There are so many factors to consider when looking at the past and trying to make judgements. History is complicated. Be that as it may, Christians today in our society can no longer expect that the normal social values and Christian values are one and the same; or even, at times close at all. We are living in a time when Christian values, and the Christian way of living, when compared to values and behaviors in wider society, are what some, including our Bishop, call “counter-cultural.”

To be baptized today is an act that is counter-cultural. And so my first remark is to commend Paul and Brittainy, as well as Tim and David, in deciding to baptize young Anna, as well as their other children. It is a choice that flies into, not with, the prevailing winds of society. Baptism is against the grain. To make this choice is, in the technical sense, what it means to be “authentic.” To be authentic is to take control, or begin to take control, of the direction of one’s life. Paul and Brittainy, Tim and David are doing so on behalf of Anna. This is a decision that requires courage, responsibility, and they all are to be commended in making it.

To be baptized is, in a very particular way, to become a Christian by grace. In the very helpful Catechism found in The Book of Common Prayer, what being a Christian involves is described with clarity. The duty of all Christians, of whatever age, gifts, and level of maturity, is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God. We pray that young Anna will grow into her God-given gifts and into a life of Christian ministry that uses her gifts in the world to the glory of God—to be equipped for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ—of loving God and loving neighbor.

To be baptized is to begin the religious life as members of the glorified Body of our Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. To be baptized means we have the ability, given freely as a gift from God, to reckon our entire lives to Jesus. The baptized person can see Jesus as the measure of all things, the pattern to be found in all aspects of reality, always the point of departure.

Now to do that, to reckon our entire lives to Jesus—to find in the choices we face how the light of Christ enlightens us—is not easy sometimes. We forget to include God; we become blind to his light. Reckoning our lives—and the best example of doing this is found in Blessed Mary, the Mother of God—requires both quiet moments of contemplation as well as active lives of serving others, of representing Jesus.

We see both examples in our Gospel reading today. Martha welcomed Jesus and the disciples into her home and served the guests—an example of the active life. Her sister Mary sat at the feet of the Lord, listening. She is the example of contemplation. Now although Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better way—that is, contemplation, or sheer listening to the Word of the Lord with no distractions—a closer look reveals that Martha is also listening to the Lord. Yes, she is active, perhaps a bit too active, perhaps pride is creeping in, but she is also listening to Jesus. She recognizes that she needs the help of Jesus.

The better way—no matter our lives, our gifts, our responsibilities—is always listening to God, seeking his saving help. What is the better way for Mary is the better way for Martha, and the better way for us. Yet Martha is not a negative example for us, but one very positive and affirming. She welcomes Jesus; she provides hospitality; she talks with Our Lord. She mixes listening and doing, and we are to do the same. Remember she is a Saint, her feast day is July 29, shared with her sister Mary. Saints are the best interpreters of holy Scripture, because their lives express the Gospel.

For as we live our active lives today—our religious lives representing Jesus in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces—when we feel overwhelmed, or stressed out by all of the tasks on our to-do lists, tell Jesus. Talk to him, and bring him your complaints, as Martha did. As is taught in our Collect today, God knows our necessities before we ask, even our ignorance in asking.

So be honest, remember Mary, remember the need for quiet contemplation, away from distractions to hear Jesus—yet be like Martha. Live a mixed life of activity and contemplation, according to your gifts. And when the road gets bumpy, do not edit your frustrations, tell Jesus about them. If it means complaining to God about another person, by all means do so—Martha did! But then, like Mary, and like Martha, have the courage, the patience, and the fear of the Lord to listen to him, to wait for his sign, to be guided spiritually, and hence behaviorally, by him. One of the many gifts of Baptism is the assurance that when we listen to him, at some point in time of his choosing, He will speak.

Cover image “Christus im Hause der Martha” by Georg Friedrich Stettner is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

“Prayer and Incarnation”

By Martin Thornton[1]

Contemporary theology is in confusion: which is at least to start with a proposition that nobody is likely to dispute. It is neither my present task, nor is it within my competence, to try to unravel the tangle; I am to be concerned with an examination of incarnational prayer within the contemporary situation. Nevertheless theology and prayer are inextricably bound together; theology without prayer is sterile, while prayer without theology can be over-fertile, giving birth to all sorts of outrageous monsters.

“Theology may be defined as the study which, through participation in and reflection upon a religious faith, seeks to express the content of this faith in the clearest and most coherent language available.”[2] Thus: “ . . . some experience of the life of faith precedes theology and may indeed be said to motivate it.”[3] “Participation in a religious faith,” “experience of the life of faith,” are reasonable definitions of prayer: so prayer precedes and motivates theology. Conversely theology guides prayer, supplying it with an intelligible structure and foundation.

Modern controversy remains peripheral to my purpose, yet in view of this theology-prayer interplay, some attention must be given to it. After that it will be necessary to reverse the process and take a look at contemporary trends in spirituality: how in fact do modern people pray? What is their aspiration and attrait? What sort of questions and problems most frequently confront the spiritual director? Only after such a preliminary skirmish can we get down to our real business: an examination of incarnational-or christological-prayer as it impinges on the experience of the modern faithful.

I

For present purposes the current debate might be seen as between the “orthodox” (a significant word since it means right worship instead of, or at least as well as, right belief) and the “radical.” This is an oversimplification: radical theologians may come up with a refined and enlightened orthodoxy, while all of the orthodox would be happy to be called radical in the literal sense of getting to the root of the matter; their objection is to the theory that you must cut down and burn the whole traditional tree in order to reach that root. However, the rough distinction should be fairly clear. Let us settle for orthodoxy as sanely conservative, paying humble if not uncritical homage to the wisdom of the past, regarding tradition not as antiquarian but as a living lifeline; as against the tear-it-all-down-and-start-from-scratch school. To narrow the context, we are concerned with those to whom the principles enshrined in the definition of Chalcedon are true, however validly the statement may be criticized, reinterpreted, or put into a different philosophical frame; and those to whom this formula, especially as it touches upon the full divinity of Jesus Christ, is regarded as suspect, inadequate, unintelligible or superfluous.

Given a controversy of this sort, it is impossible for a struggling Christian to remain unbiased; whatever one’s intellectual integrity and logical discipline, it is inevitable that the process of prayer itself, one’s intuition, faith-venture, experience, instincts, or whatever, will incline towards one side or the other. It is more honest to state one’s bias quite bluntly, inviting readers to adjust their response accordingly, than to claim impartiality. I am on the orthodox side, which brings me to a prior objection to the opposing viewpoint.

Much radical theology (another necessary generalisation within the brief compass of this essay) inclines to an arid intellectualism; a kind of neo-rationalism. What cannot be logically demonstrated or intellectually explained must perforce be dismissed. This is not only arrogant but curiously old fashioned; rationalism is itself two centuries out of date, and more recently I thought I heard something like its death knell in James Ward’s Psychological Principles, in F. R. Tennant’s tirade against the “psychologist’s fallacy,” and in A. N. Whitehead’s ‘philosophy of organism.’ Even more curious is that this outlook runs counter to contemporary, existential-and indeed biblical-emphasis upon the synthetic wholeness of human experience. The contemporary stance might be expressed as something like: “I ex-ist, stand out in creation as self-conscious being, therefore I am.” Some of our radicals would appear to go back to quasi-Cartesianism: “I think, so perhaps I am, but nothing will convince me except cerebration.” One suspects this school to be confusing belief with faith, and then failing to see the connection between them: more simply, are they leaving prayer on one side? Or to introduce Professor Macquarrie’s important distinction, are they confusing theology with philosophy of religion?[4]

There is nothing to be said in favour of obscurantism, or in favour of blind faith. There is much to be said for intellectual integrity, but the first step towards it is the admission of intellectual inadequacy, especially when we are dealing with the superior human aspiration like prayer. All of which is not to side with the simple faithful against the professional academic, to set piety against theology, but to insist upon the necessity of their marriage. Moreover, however interdependent the marriage partners, it is prayer, “participation in a religious faith,” that “precedes and motivates” theology. Total faith-experience, not just intellection, is our premise.

My second criticism of much (obviously not all) radical theology is that it is inclined to be narrowly biblicist. The New Testament is placed against its widest contemporary background, all the scholarly tools of the critical trade being brought to work upon it. But it is then abstracted from its ecclesiastical context. If theology is as defined, as the Church clarifying its experience, then the total, ongoing life of the Church cannot be ignored: “the theologian speaks out of the community of faith, the philosopher of religion is an individual investigator.”[5] The biblical interpretations of the Fathers and the Schoolmen may be questioned by contemporary scholarship, but they cannot be ignored, and the doctrinal formulations arising from Patristic and Scholastic interpretation cannot be dismissed. You cannot reach the root by cutting down the tree. I find it difficult to subscribe to the view that the Church, however defined, was infallibly inspired when it wrote the New Testament and formulated the canon, and has been consistently wrong ever since.

It is conceivable that the Church might have interpreted the experience of the Last Supper as a dominical exhortation to a sort of extended, secularised, grace-before-meals, while developing a liturgical extravaganza at the heart of which was ceremonial feet-washing. According to the Fourth Gospel, should not something like this be the central act of Christian worship? But no New Testament scholar however objectively glued to the text, can ignore the fact that throughout its progressive life-history, the Church has thought and acted differently. In fine, you cannot do theology, even biblical theology, without reference to how the Church, that is Christian people, felt, thought, prayed and worshipped, throughout the ages, not excluding our own. Biblicism reduces itself to religious philosophy.

My last dissatisfaction with the radical school is that it appears to be deficient in pastoral perception. This needs explanation. I have no use for the view that all theology ought to be immediately applicable to the practical situation; that books and lectures that do not inspire parish priests to produce next Sunday’s sermon with added zeal are to be dismissed as academic and useless. But if we stick to our definitions, theology should articulate the total experience of the living Church, which includes the prayer and experience of its individual members. If Auntie Emily tells of visions of angels behind the henhouse it is the business of theology to discern, investigate, diagnose and guide. In my experience, which is inevitably both narrow and biased, orthodoxy is surprisingly good at this; its theology may be written in what looks like metaphysical obscurity, yet it manages to keep one foot firmly on the ground, behind the henhouse. Radical theology is inclined to be academic in the wrong sense, which is itself unorthodox. The vast Augustinian corpus for example: De Trinitate, Confessions, Enchiridion, et al, may not be easy reading but it is all pastorally orientated. It is the work not of an academic but of a struggling Christian and a Bishop dealing with a diocese. It is all embedded in prayer and a sunny spot behind the henhouse is not a bad place from which to tackle it. Radical theology looks lost outside the senior common room.

II

That launches us upon our investigation from the opposite, and primary, position: how do modern people pray? What is their aspiration, attrait, learning, experience, which it is the business of theology to clarify and articulate?

Riding rough-shod over the sophistries, we must begin with some explanation of what I choose to call the existential stance. By this I refer to the instinctive, intuitive, conditioned outlook of modern Western people, especially in so far as it differs from the outlook of the recent past. The change has come about in the last century, perhaps since 1900, perhaps 1914; that is for the sociologists and professional historian-anthropologists to argue about. The point is that modern people think and live according to existential, rather than substantive, principles and interpretations. Modern people in the Western world are existentialists, even if they would be surprised to be so described and even if they have never heard of Sartre or Heidegger. I support this viewpoint by asking a simple question: what is a rolling-pin? The Fathers of the Church, the Schoolmen, the Caroline Divines and the Victorians would answer that it was a cylindrical piece of wood; modern people would define it as a tool you made pastry with. The first is the substantive answer: what is it made of, what are its attributes? The second is the existential answer: what is it for? how is it used and experienced?

The change is recent. The Victorians spoke of gold-sovereigns, we do not talk about paper-pounds, because we are no longer interested in what money is made of, only in what we can do with it, how we can experience its worth.

I am almost forced to change sides and throw in my lot with the radicals, who recognise that our credal formulae, including Chalcedon, are written in language that makes little sense to modern people, and which is no satisfactory guide to contemporary christological prayer. To the modern Christian, a list of the divine attributes is as helpful as a wooden cylinder is to a budding cook. Is Jesus a redemptive presence or a metaphysical complex of natures and persons and substances? My orthodoxy here recognises the genuine strengths of the radical position. But will the radical respond by mitigating his intellectualist, biblicist, and anti-pastoral emphases, and begin at the beginning: how do modern people pray? And which of us can best guide them?

The first result of this change of outlook is an emphasis, either recognised or subconscious, upon total integrated being rather than psychological analysis of the person. In current jargon, prayer concerns the whole being, it is a total response, an absolute commitment. If the movement may properly be called existential, it is also both biblical and dominical: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” But if we recognise the biblical doctrine of man, this must mean all at once not faculty by faculty.

This accounts for the modern reaction against Ignatian-type mental prayer, and consequent movement towards simple contemplation. The one is discursive, analytic and intellectualist—“mental” in fact—while the other is concerned with total synthetic experience. So Ignatian-type mental prayer would appear to be the natural carry over from a good deal of radical theology today, hinting that such theology is not only out of step with contemporary philosophy but also out-of-date for modern pastoral practice.

The emphasis is on relationship, in Christian context baptismal relationship. Modern prayer begins not with something one does but with the acceptance and working out of a status that one has been given. In the next section I hope to show that this, too, fits in very well with orthodoxy, and that we are liable to come to a savage full-stop without incarnational and christological orthodoxy.

If spiritual direction is to be competent, such christological orthodoxy expressed in contemporary, non-substantive terms, can prove a great stimulus, especially with incarnational contemplation. On the other hand, contemporary spiritual guidance would lose much efficiency if Chalcedon were completely thrown away. Despite five centuries of legitimate criticism, the condemnation of the four heresiarchs still offers invaluable safeguards and warnings. When put together, ancient and modern interpretations of orthodox christology combine vital experience with clarity of thought.

III

Precisely what is meant by incarnational prayer? This question can now be examined in the light of the foregoing, and such examination should throw light on its congruence with radical and orthodox christologies.

I suggest that four main types, or stages, of prayer come under the general heading of incarnational. They overlap, yet they are progressive stages in which incarnational theology needs to become more sophisticated and more important.

The first stage is prayer based upon the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. What did Jesus teach about prayer? Comparatively little, but enough to give some sort of guidance. The Pater Noster itself can be studied and analysed to give rise to specific forms and methods. The example of Jesus is more fruitful: did he himself adopt any specific method, outlook or ascetical structure? This question has been fully examined by many scholars and, despite obvious disagreements in interpretation, a clearer pattern emerges.[6]

The living and praying Christian is guided by the scholars, but he also needs guidance from Christ himself, which means meditation upon his words, works and acts. Some kind of Ignatian-type, discursive exercise comes in at this point.

The christological assumptions of those making this type of prayer will colour its value and authority. Yet it is not wholly incompatible with radical, quasi-Arian interpretation; Jesus is a significant teacher of prayer, who may be studied in the same way as St Bernard can be studied. But there are snags when this sort of christology is placed in its wider New Testament context, and still more when it is widened into the whole ascetical tradition of the Church. The holy women and St Thomas the Twin worshipped Christ; to devout Jews to whom idolatry is the sin of sins, this can only mean that they regarded his as divine: Chalcedon grows out of the experience of the living Church. Moreover, the multifarious and diverse schools of prayer which later arose not only followed Chalcedon, but they would all fall to pieces without it.

The second stage of incarnational prayer is that which sees Jesus as Mediator and Intercessor. This might be stretched into compatibility with an Arian christology: Jesus is invoked to mediate and intercede after the fashion of the invocation of the saints. But more difficulties arise. Why should any mediator between God and man be required—the time-honoured Protestant question? Because of the infinite gulf between them. We are inevitably led into the doctrine of the Trinity without which no christology makes sense. Jesus points to the transcendent Father. The New Testament is clear about that if it is clear about anything, and yet the error of immanentalism is rife in contemporary prayer, life and thought. If man was made but little lower than the angels it is forgotten that the angels were made infinitely lower than God. So any genuine mediator must be considerably more than human: Cur Deus Homo? is still a good question. Perhaps a quasi-Arianism, or some more sophisticated Arian interpretation might still just be possible. But if that is so we have departed from meditation and descended to invocation, or straight intercession. But invocation-intercession, in any Christian sense, depends on the doctrine of the Church, which in turn depends—as we shall see later—on orthodox christology.

The third stage of prayer is that which arises from the idea of encounter. Jesus is neither ancient teacher not remote intercessor but living presence: “Lo, I am with you alway.” Prayer now consists in meeting with the living Christ; eucharistically, recollectively, and by way of continuous personal guidance. We no longer live according to remote and objective Christian principles, neither do we rely on some shadowy faith that Jesus makes continual intercession to the Father for us. Jesus is here, over there, in encounter, to talk to, lean on, argue with; he is our friend and brother, present guide and leader. Right action depends not on principles but on what Jesus commands here and now; right prayer depends on his initiative. We approach the situation-casuistry in ethics and the existential interpretation in prayer: there is Christ and here am I, so let us talk, embrace and work things out from where we are.

That looks as if we are drawing nearer to radical christology, especially the type which argues that if Jesus is God, man, and sinless, then he is too remote to enter fully into the human situation. In fact we are drawing further away from this kind of thinking; there are far more snags than we found before. Living encounter must mean a God-man encounter in two senses: first man meeting God, and secondly man meeting God transcendent through the mediation of a God-man. Because if Jesus is Man, pseudo-god, and possibly sinful, then we might find ourselves on happier terms with him than with the Christ of Chalcedon, but we are on no terms at all with God. So prayer has stopped. Moreover, could one reasonably speak of encounter with the living presence of a Man-possibly-sinful-pseudo-God? We can follow the written teaching of the man-Jesus or of St Bernard; we can ask either to intercede for us with the Father; we can believe in the communion of saints in which St Bernard is in some sort of living intercessional rapport with us, but can we realistically encounter the living and resurrected and glorified Bernard? Perhaps, but there is a difficulty and a difference: you cannot put Jesus at the top of the list. If the invocation of St Bernard means anything it depends upon a doctrine of the Church that depends on a christology something like Chalcedon.

The fourth stage is that which is, for reasons explained in section 2 above, generally adopted in pastoral practice and which seems meaningful and attractive to modern Christian people. This is the concept of prayer based upon the Pauline doctrines of the Church and of our status en Christo: the idea of baptismal incorporation.[7] We do not merely encounter Christ, still less follow his teaching or ask for his mediation: we are “in Christ,” incorporated into the Body of Christ. What does this mean in terms of prayer and day-to-day spiritual experience? It means that the sacred humanity of Jesus is ontologically extended to embrace humanity, and in a particularly creative way, baptised humanity. The whole of our nature, the whole of our being, intellect, senses, emotions, intuitions, appetites, and the rest, are made one with their counterparts in the humanity of Christ: we are wedded to Jesus and the twain shall be one flesh: to taste an apple is to participate in the sacred humanity.[8] Prayer becomes contemplative, non-discursive, total and supra-intellectual.

There is overlap; the prayer of incorporation, incarnational and eucharistic, does not preclude the concept of encounter, although it transcends it, neither does it eliminate the notion of mediation or New Testament meditation. But this common stage in incarnational prayer, common in pastoral guidance and not particularly “advanced” but congenial to the modern temper, is wholly dependent upon orthodox christology. You can learn about prayer from both Jesus and St Bernard, you can invoke both to intercede for you, you might, at a stretch, encounter them both, but it is impossible to speak meaningfully about incorporation into the humanity of Bernard. The Jesus of Chalcedon is nearer than the saints so soon as one’s prayer has got off the ground. The conclusion is that if the neo-Arian christology is adopted then Christian prayer is confined to the kindergarten, from which it has no hope of emerging. We could, and strictly speaking should, go on further to stages five, six and seven: into the realms of Christian and christological mysticism. But space, not discounting this writer’s limitations, forbids.

What I have tried to do in this brief essay, having freely admitted to personal prejudice, is to look at theology, both orthodox and radical, from the viewpoint of spiritual and pastoral experience, and of ascetical theology. I have little use for intellectual obscurantism, for blind faith, and still less for the criticism that the wretched radicals disturb the faith of simple Christians; a little disturbance does simple faith no harm, and if the incarnation is taken seriously and prayerfully, then faith must be severely tested every morning of the year.

From our stance, however, radical theology does not come out of the examination very well, for it would appear to suffer from a threefold restrictiveness: a narrow intellectualism, a narrow biblicism, and a lack of historical perspective. It is nothing very new; all three weaknesses arose in the eighteenth century and led into Deism. Today they go into the opposite direction towards an all-prevailing immanentalism: theology is displaced by religious philosophy, Christ becomes man, the Church is turned into a human society, and religion sinks into moralism. There is no place left for God the Father Almighty, and so for religion. Pastoral prayer—the adjective is superfluous—remains the premise and springboard for theology, and despite the interrelations, it must be the final judge of theology. Its judgement favours orthodoxy because only orthodoxy can support it. Theology is the articulation of the Church’s experience, it is not speculation about God in a vacuum.

[1]. Martin Thornton, “Prayer and Incarnation.” Christian 4, no. 4 (1978), 317-324. Transcribed by Matthew Dallman for the occasion of Martin Thornton’s centenary, 11 Nov 2015; Martin Thornton, pray for us.
[2]. John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, revised edition (SCM Press: London, 1977), l.
[3]. Ibid., 5
[4]. Ibid., 21-25.
[5]. Ibid., 2.
[6]. For example, J. Jeremias, The Prayer of Jesus (SCM Press: London, 1962); Lewis Maclachlan, The Teaching of Jesus on Prayer (James Clarke: London, 1960); William Barclay, The Mind of Jesus (SCM Press: London, 1960).
[7]. See E. L. Mascall, Christ, The Christian, and The Church (Longmans: London, 1946), 77ff.
[8]. G. K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1943), 57-8.

What does ‘Remnant’ mean?

When we look at businesses or organizations as a whole, there tends to be a core group within the whole who constitute the “heart.” Not necessarily the ones who put in the longest hours or do the most taxing work, yet something irreplaceable and necessary rides on the shoulders of these core people: their vision, their behavior, their commitment. And through their work, the whole organization, all the way out to its margins, benefits and shares in, even can take on the character of, that core.

The Chicago Blackhawks of 2015 are a pertinent example. There is a spectrum that constitutes everything meant by “the Blackhawks.” Certainly much rides upon the shoulders of the players themselves, whom we can easily see as “the core.” Yet important also are the trainers, team management, all of the ticket-holders and fans, all the way to the kids who wear Patrick Kane jerseys at their neighborhood ice rink. All are part of the same “team” yet with different roles to play according to their gifts and vocation. Seen in this way, the “team” in the narrow sense becomes something of a wider “family.”

This manner of thinking can be applied to the Church, and particularly the Parish, with intriguing ramifications. The theological term used by the Church is “Remnant.” We find this in Saint Paul: “At the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:5-6). In the Authorized Version (popularly but inaccurately called the “KJV”), the term also occurs in The Revelation to John (12:17): “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

To what does “woman” refer? Marian scholar Hilda Graef writes, “The early patristic tradition unanimously regards this woman as a symbol of the Church” (Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, Chap. 1). Later patristic, medieval and modern tradition grew to see the “woman” as a composite symbol of both the Church and Blessed Mary. Writes Graef: “Mary is not merely the individual mother of Jesus, she is also the ‘daughter of Sion,’ the representative of the People of God.” This means that Mary is representative of the Remnant as seen in Elisha, Amos, Micah, First Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Joel, Ezra, and Deutero-Isaiah. Furthermore, Remnant is directly implied by the stories of Noah (Gen 7:23), Abraham (Gen 18:12-32), Jacob (Gen 32:9), and Joseph (Gen 45:7). In each of these instances we see the common theme in two parts: 1. a person or small group of people chosen by God as His instrument and 2. upon whom the salvation of the whole world depends.

These are in fact complementary emphases. For without the core people who are chosen (elected) by God, who continue in the example of Blessed Mary and reform into ever-greater likeness of Jesus, what are the Saints but curious, even bizarre, people? Likewise, absent the participation of the wider community according to their gifts and talents, what claim can the Church possibly make to being “Catholic,” a term which means “universal” and “according to the whole”? And without the whole, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7) is empty sentiment.

Now, just as the Blackhawks players must, in fact, play, the Remnant must do their work in relationship to the whole. This work is the perpetuation of Christ comprehensively and completely. A classic description of the Church is that it is the extension of the Incarnation of Christ. This in fact is a Remnant way of describing the Church: people who are to be the extension of Him. The preaching, teaching, healing, leading—all of what Jesus did—we can sum up as His Prayer, which was always in perfect adoration of the Father Almighty. By perpetuating His prayer, we perpetuate Him, by His grace—and actual people are called by God to do this. These people we call the “faithful Remnant” and together with their community, “the Remnant Parish”—all exercising their gifts and talents given by God for the common good.

It is a severe distortion to imagine that only the Remnant is going to heaven, a mistake some are tempted to make. Our Lord did not command his Apostles to baptize the nations so that, upon baptism, they would perish in eternal damnation. Rather, His command was for the salvation of the whole world. The faithful Remnant Parish is not pessimistically withdrawn from the world; Remnant is the opposite of retreat. Remnant means engagement, as Jesus himself was the Suffering Servant giving himself to all of humanity.

Our terms are that we are to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” from our Baptismal Covenant. Likewise, the faithful Remnant and Remnant Parish pray as a family on behalf of those members of society who do not sense any calling whatsoever to attend church, and even are actively antagonistic towards Christianity. Such a parish prays in part because others cannot or will not—Remnant prayer is “substitutionary prayer,” so to speak. This is particularly evident liturgically during the Prayers of the People: “Let us pray for the Church and for the whole world,” “For all people in their daily life and work” (Forms IV and VI). The Remnant Parish is distinct because called by God, yet is intimately and sacramentally connected with, and responding to, the concerns, challenges, problems and evils of the world through the compassion of Christ.

What emerges in relief are five, possibly startling, points for further pastoral, devout experimentation:

  • The Remnant are “the bearers of the community’s future existence” (Fr Leslie Hoppe, OFM, The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p. 827). Canonical and local Saints teach us about who we the Church will become.
  • In the Remnant is an infectious holiness demonstrated through purity in worship, loyalty in faith, and complete abandonment to God and His Providence. Remnant prayer is the prayerful center of the Parish and is its central activity.
  • The Remnant serves the whole of the Parish. As Fr Thornton wrote, “It is the very heart which recapitulates and serves the whole; in fact the complete Body of Christ in microcosm, and its relation to the environment is the relation between Christ and the twelve, to their world. This palpitating heart pumps blood of life to all the body as leaven leavens the lump or salt savors the whole” (The Heart of the Parish, IV). The primary condition is that a parish “believes, practices, and teaches the full Catholic faith and supports and promotes authentic Catholic culture,” in the words of Fr Fraser. True catholicity implies locality.
  • The norm of parochial Prayer is the threefold Regula performed daily by the members of the faithful Remnant, elected by God to pray vicariously on behalf of all, and joined by the whole community as they are able, which typically means in the celebration of the Eucharist on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Remnant prayer truly pervades all.
  • Part and parcel of Remnant reality in the parish is Catholic imagination. To wit: “It is not, however, merely the human part of the created order that receives redemption and makes its true self-offering to God by joining ‘with the angels and archangels’ in the heavenly worship. The whole material realm in involved, for man is ‘nature’s priest.’ . . . Not only man, but the universe, will be transfigured and glorified, and in this transfiguration the great mystery of the Resurrection of the Body will be brought about” (20th-century Anglican divine Eric Mascall, in Christ, the Christian, and the Church, XIII and IX). Parochial activity overflows into all of life and involves the whole material realm.

What, in sum, does Remnant mean? Remnant doctrine emphasizes that God does His saving work through His Body. He works through the diverse gifts and graces He has given particular members to exercise for the benefit of all (see 1 Cor 12). As a whole, we are “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20). Remnant doctrine synthesizes fundamental Church’s theology (e.g., Incarnation, Baptism and all the Sacraments, the Church, Election/Vocation, People of God, Theosis) and emphasizes both corporate and individual aspects of our shared call to follow the example of Blessed Mary and all the Saints in obedient life dedicated to Jesus, extending and perpetuating the Catholic faith within Christ’s Church with infectious holiness and through vicarious, trinitarian prayer (Regula). Remnant doctrine teaches that the one Body of Christ shares in each other’s God-given gifts and graces, and is so doing we share in the prayer life of those particular souls, lay and ordained, who are elected by God to the full life of Christian prayer on this earth.

In short, Remnant means being Blessed Mary’s children. The Mother and Bearer of God—Theotokos—Saint Mary is also, we must proclaim, the Mother of the Remnant. Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Homily: Faith’s name for reality is God

Delivered on Trinity Sunday, 31 May 2015, at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.

This past Thursday was the 8th anniversary of the death of Father John Macquarrie. He was without question a major theologian in the 20th-century Church, and remains known to this day quite literally around the entire world. What’s more, Fr Macquarrie had a special relationship with Saint Paul’s, Riverside. In addition to being the seminary professor who taught dogmatic theology to our rector, the two remaining friends in the decades thereafter, Fr Macquarrie preached four times in this church, from this pulpit.

A number of his books are in our parish library, and they are exemplary works of prayerful Catholic theology within the Anglican tradition. He wrote for all levels of commitment, from the beginner to the proficient to the more perfected. Yet I think of all the tremendous insights he shared, one insight stands above all the rest, at least for me. It is this: Macquarrie wrote, “Faith’s name for reality is God.” Let us spend some time reflecting on what it means to say, “Faith’s name for reality is God.”[1]

In Christianity, God is spoken of in many ways. Two of the more common are as spirit and as love. God is also spoken of as transcendent: quoting Saint Anselm, “That, than which nothing greater can be thought.”[2] God is said to be incarnate: Jesus of Nazareth as our sole mediator and advocate. And God is spoken of as immanent and near: inscribed on our hearts, our very breath of life.

Many ways indeed to speak of God, yet “Faith’s name for reality is God” in fact sums all of that up. When we speak of reality seen with the eyes of faith, we are speaking of what is true, what is authentic, what is genuine, and what actually exists—against the illusions in life which are distortions of reality, truth obscured by falsehood through temptations by the Devil. For the People of God—we who deny ourselves, have picked up our cross and follow Jesus—God is what is true, what is authentic; God is what is genuine, what actually exists; God is love. And we experience reality as love, as unmistakable spirit. We experience reality as transcendent, incarnate and immanent. Our prayer life, as Regula, is oriented toward those three dimensions of reality.

macq_faithsnameHoly Scripture provides countlesd examples that demonstrate the truth of Fr Macquarrie’s insight. I suggest we briefly consider three.

The first example is Moses. In our Old Testament reading, Moses was confronted at the Burning Bush. Called by the Spirit acting through an angel, what he heard he recognized as the truth of his people, suffering yet affirming God and His providence through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Can we doubt that Moses, in this revelation of God named “I AM,” was filled with the Holy Spirit, and cut to the heart with divine love for God and his people’s vocation to be the means through which God himself is revealed to the cosmos? Can we doubt he experienced transcendent mystery? “God-named reality”, I think, describes precisely what Moses perceived, in this and all of his subsequent ministry.

The second example is Blessed Mary. Our Lady was confronted at the Annunciation. Look at what Mary’s tremendous moment of prayer and perception disclosed! It disclosed the angelic, who spoke of the Holy Spirit, which would come upon her. It disclosed the son she will bear: Jesus, the Son of the Most High, which refers to the Father. This reality—which I have suggested can be called “Marian awe”—indeed was God-named. It was Trinity-named.

The third example is Our Lord, himself, at his Baptism in the River Jordan. Emerging from the water, he heard his Father’s voice: “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.” And the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. Jesus’s perfect faith saw this reality perfectly, and it was God-named, animated as fully trinitarian reality. In a unique and singular way, Jesus’s Baptism was a confrontation with God-named reality, in which he is the divine mediator. Trinitarian reality was his life! It is only because of Jesus’s own eyes upon reality that we might be able to name reality “God.”

Note also that in each case, the responses of Moses, of Mary, and even of Jesus to the activity of the Holy Spirit can be summarized by words we say ourselves in the Our Father—for in essence, all three respond with “Thy will be done.” For them and for us, the words “Thy will be done” are the beating heart of what it means to respond to God: another reason the Our Father is the model of all prayer, because here it enshrines obedience.

It is an ancient formulation to speak of our obedience as prayer to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Yet I think it is perhaps more revealing to reverse that order—that we pray in the Holy Spirit, through the Son, to the Father Almighty. This order emphasizes, with Saint Paul in the Epistle reading today, that “we are led by the Spirit of God.” We cannot follow Jesus without the Holy Spirit, and so as a matter of course any grasping of the true significance of the word “Father” is impossible without the Holy Spirit.

Hence we can boldly and resolutely affirm that for the Christian faith, if God is love, then true love itself cannot be without the Holy Spirit. That fact was demonstrated way back in the 5th century in the thinking of Saint Augustine, a doctor of the Church and highly influential on Anglican tradition. What Augustine taught was that if God is indeed love, then God must be three. Love, you see, to be Love, requires a Lover, a Beloved, and the Loving between them.[3] The Father so loved that he gave to the cosmos his own Beloved Son. The loving between them is the Holy Spirit, their shared will. Lover, Beloved and Loving being necessary for Love, God therefore is three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Trinity Sunday, in fact, is a tremendous solemnity of divine love.

When we are born of the Spirit, we become incorporated into the Body of Christ, and hence into the loving relationship between Father and Son: their reality, shared with us. Because the Father loves the Son, and the Son perfectly prays to the Father, their reality gives us order and direction. We are given order because to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength is the true way of life. We are given direction because, likewise, we are to seek out our neighbor, to love our neighbor as ourselves—seeking and serving Christ in all persons. Reality is the marriage of love and truth. Faith’s name for reality is God.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God described to us and to the whole Church, all might, majesty, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.


[1] John Macquarrie, Paths in Spirituality, 2nd ed. (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1992), 30.
[2] Saint Anselm, Proslogion, Chap. 2.
[3] Saint Augustine, De Trinitate, VIII.5.xiv.

Synaxis of Holy Angels

Why set-prayer?

What, exactly, is the ontological basis for set-prayer? The primary set-prayer for Christians, of course, is the Our Father. And it is from those words of Jesus that the Divine Office derives its raison d’etre. We often (and justifably) hear about the existential basis for set-prayer, as well as its scriptural basis. For example, the existential basis was classically stated by Caroline theologian William Beveridge:

A set form of prayer is an extraordinary help to us. For if I hear another pray, and know not beforehand what he will say, I must first listen to what he will say next; then I am to consider whether what he saith be agreeable to sound doctrine, and whether it be proper and lawful for us to join with him in the petitions he puts up to God Almighty; and if I think it is so, then I am to do it. But before I can well do that, he is got to another thing; by which means it is very difficult, if not morally impossible, to join with him in everything so regularly as I ought to do. But by a set form of prayer all this trouble is prevented; for having the form continually in my mind, being thoroughly acquainted with it, fully approving of every thing in it, and always knowing beforehand what will come next, I have nothing else to do, whilst the words are sounding in my ears, but to move my heart and affections suitably to them, to raise up my desire of those good things which are prayed for, to fix my mind wholly upon God, whilst I am praising of Him, and so to employ, quicken, and lift up my whole soul in performing my devotions to Him. No man that hath been accustomed to a set form for any considerable time, but may easily find this to be true by his own experience, and by consequence, that this way of praying is a greater help to us than they can imagine that never made trial of it. (Sermon on the Excellency and Usefulness of the Common Prayer, 1681)

Such a good passage! Nothing could be existential in any exclusive sense, but this is almost entirely existential rationale. Set-prayer helps us. It helps us in that we can participate more consciously and actively. We do not have to worry about trusting the words of the prayer, if it is extemporaneous or merely new. We already know the words. So we can relax, and “fix our mind wholly upon God.” There, of course, is a place for extemporaneous and spontaneous prayer and devotion, doubtless Beveridge would acknowledge. Yet there is also a place for set-prayer, and this is why, from an existential perspective.

That said, what is the ontological perspective and rationale for set-prayer? That is, why is it appropriate given not our needs, but rather God’s own Self? Ontological truth, that is, truth about Being as such, we say deals with God and His Nature, or at least derive from Him and His grace. Baptism initiates an ontological change in our Being; it has to do with us, but it derives entirely from God’s gift and it does not depend upon us for its fundamental grace. We must respond, but Baptism incorporates us into Jesus whether or not our Christian virtues are particularly cultivated. What’s more, there is an ontological change to the bread and wine during the Eucharist. Their Being shifts from that of bread and wine to the Body and Blood of Christ. Again, we must both be prepared for, and we must respond to, the Eucharist for it to be fully efficacious. But ontologically, it is about God and His grace. One can never truly divorce the ontological perspective from the existential one, in other words. But one can focus on one or the other and give it more emphasis in our thinking.

Hence the ontological rationale for set-prayer, including the Divine Office in a fully invariable form, is not what it says about us, but what it says about God. We may not like the invariable form, may want the daily variety of Psalms and Scripture lections; we may want the variable canticles and concluding collects; or particular BCP versions or translations of the Bible. There is great existential merit to each of those. Yet ontologically, none of that really matters. What matters, ontologically, is what set-prayer discloses about the Holy Being of God.

And what set-prayer discloses about God is His utter transcendence. Set-prayer affirms, in what small and almost inconsequential way it can (because of time and space limitation), that God is God is God. That is, God is utterly beyond time and space. He is “ontological other.” Taken by itself (which it is not in Christian faith), such truth leads directly to Deism. God is also “axiologically other.” His moral and aesthetic values are completely beyond our ken. Put these together and you have Aquinas’ cosmological argument rendered ascetically, for this truth is in fact prayed by means of set-prayer. The Our Father, and the Divine Office, become corporate drill exercises, not primarily for our benefit (although there is benefit for us) but rather first and foremost because of what we are acknowledging about God. (For more here, see Thornton’s Pastoral Theology, Chap. 17.)

But, one might ask, don’t we already say as much in our prayer life? And don’t Psalms and Scripture lections regularly touch on such themes of God’s transcendence (such as in Psalm 139)? The answer is yes, of course. We acknowledge all the time God’s transcendence though sacred words.

Yet what set-prayer asks us to do is acknowledge God’s transcendence not only in words, but in act. Set-prayer asks us to perform our acknowledgement. It is not merely a saying, but a doing. And in the doing of set-prayer such as the Our Father, and moreso I argue in the Prologue Office of Praise, we are confronted with the stark, almost unfathomable reality of God’s sheer ontological and axiological otherness. We are invited to realize that God is God all the time, no matter if we are acknowledging this fact of reality or not—and we barely understand what even that really entails. But we need to acknowledge this fact for it to become fully efficacious for us. We need to live what it means to praise our beyond-time-and-space God. Think of it as a consummation of what is pointed to by the film Groundhog’s Day, and the (possibly) 33-plus years Phil spends living a single day. Because monotonous, completely set, strictly invariable prayer is all about God and His transcendent nature, by actual performative, enactive acknowledgement (and not just saying the words), we learn about the Holy Being of God in a very deep and subtle way. This is not our doing, but that of Christ, who makes up for our frailty with his kenotic grace. Through Him, and only through Him, can we hope to pray perfectly.

It is this reality that the Angels and Our Lady and the saints unceasingly praise, for only they are truly holy and perfected enough so to do. Angels sing at the foot of God’s transcendent Throne, singing through Jesus to the Father, for only He can fully and completely pray to Him. The Divine Office is transcendent reaching toward and joining with the unceasing praise by Angels, the Archangels, and all the Company of Heaven. The whole Body of Christ sings the Divine Office in the power of the Holy Spirit to glorify God the Father Almighty, ‘primordial Being,’ in the words of John Macquarrie. To glorify the unchanging Father warrants an unadorned yet beautiful recounting of His radical otherness and cosmic creativity. God invites us to abandon ourselves and surrender in Holy Fear to the light inaccessible, the mystery incomprehensible. To live daily as if in the orans posture: this is what the Office is for. To follow in, learn from, in fact embody, the awe of Blessed Mary in the Annunciation of her child, the Son of the Most High, is what the Divine Office is for.

It is, ontologically, what set-prayer is for—Marian awe through Christ in the face of stunning, unfathomable otherness. Day by day, O Lord, we magnify Thee.

Homily: “Living with Marian Awe”

Delivered 19 April 2015 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.

Today continues our Eastertide mystagogy, which this year at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, focuses on the Baptismal Covenant, renewed by all of us at the Great Vigil of Easter. We considered last Sunday the important statement of our faith called the Apostles’ Creed. In the words, “I believe in,” first and foremost we are affirming our relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. For the Christian life has as its fundamental basis our desire to be in obedient relationship with the Holy Trinity, and for the Holy Trinity to be in saving relationship with us. Our saying of the Apostles’ Creed may seem like intellectual assent, but in fact it is all about relationship.

Today, we pass from the Apostles’ Creed to the first of the baptismal affirmations. The celebrant asks all of us: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” And we respond by saying, “I will, with God’s help.” Now, there is a great deal to be said about this threefold affirmation, as well. I suppose that it might seem like a rather mundane affirmation to make. “Of course we affirm all that. That is obviously what we do as Christians, just as a matter of course.” And if we consider this affirmation in the plain sense of its words, that is true. For we do gather in sacramental fellowship to break eucharistic bread in the Mass, we hear and reflect upon the apostles’ teaching in the Bible, and we pray throughout the liturgy and sometimes elsewhere. Yet just as an iceberg shows only a portion of its true size above the water, the vast majority of its mass below and unseen, this affirmation has much to it beneath a mere surface analysis, and looking for depth is precisely the role of mystagogy, a term whose etymology shows it means a leading or guiding into mystery.

Now, this first affirmation has the outward form of a promise. The words, “I will, with God’s help,” have that ring, and to call it a promise is not wrong. But what does it mean to make such a promise on the event of our Lord and Savior’s holy Resurrection? Such is no ordinary evening in the Church, and so this promise is no ordinary promise, but takes on a special character that must be looked at with care and spiritual reflection. And, again, the importance of relationship comes to bear. We affirm our relationship with the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, with the breaking of bread, and with the prayers. And so even though we may from time to time not fulfill to the letter this affirmation, we who participate as best we can in the Catholic Church of Christ are never out of relationship with this affirmation in any total sense.

Thus it is better to say, we embrace the apostle’s teaching and fellowship; the breaking of bread, and the prayers. To call this an “embrace” acknowledges the fluctuation that routinely happens in the Christian life, day to day, and week to week—much as we embrace our closest friend or our spouse, knowing at times we will be emotionally, even spatially, distant and apart, but never totally out of relationship despite fluctuations in intensity.

But what is it, in this threefold affirmation, that we in fact are embracing? Well, we need to know that this affirmation is taken directly and without alteration from the 2nd chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, verse 42. You recall that this chapter is Saint Luke’s description of the beginning of the Christian Church at the Pentecost event. And so we are drawn to, as it were, hold in mind today also the Solemnity of Pentecost, just over a month away. The mystery of this baptismal affirmation has embedded within it something of the energy, and the explosion, of the Holy Spirit coming down, becoming known, lighting afire the hearts and minds and tongues of the gathered apostles, other disciples, and Blessed Mary the holy Mother of our Lord. And then Saint Peter preached, “These men are not drunk.” Rather, prophesy has been fulfilled, wonders made manifest and available, the moon turned to blood—we note that just two weeks ago, we saw just this kind of lunar eclipse, called a “blood moon.” And the Holy Spirit was poured out by God upon all flesh as a universal opportunity of grace for all. This Jesus, whom we crucified, God has raised up. And like the first Christians, of this we too are witnesses.

Now in his description of this tangible manifesting of the Holy Spirit in a way that demands nothing short of awe, holy fear, and even confusion, Saint Luke I think discloses to us the parallel between Mary and the first Christians. For just as Our Lady at the Annunciation experienced in overpassing awe the presence of the Holy Spirit, so were the apostles and the first Christians overpassed by the Spirit at Pentecost—and so, at the Easter Vigil, were we. By similar analogy, just as Blessed Mary, at the Presentation of our Lord at the Temple, was pierced through the soul by the words of Simeon, so, Saint Luke tells us in Acts, were the first Christians “cut to the heart” by the Pentecost event and the preaching of Saint Peter—and so, cut to the heart are we invited to be.

We should recall here that in biblical language, the heart is not the seat of emotions, but rather is the seat of the will. The biblical “heart” is by no means unemotional, but it has to do with our choices, our doing and pattern of behavior. We still have this meaning in everyday language when we speak of a person having “lost heart” in the doing of some activity. And so for the first Christians to be cut to the heart means they were confronted, and refashioned, with a new set of choices, a new way of life, a new normal of living together and of praying that brought to fulfillment the religion of their forefathers, of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of David.

The question asked by the Church as a new body to Saint Peter and all the apostles was, “What shall we do?” This is a question not of belief, not of doctrine, but a pragmatic question of behavior (“pragmatic” deriving from a Greek word meaning “to do”). Saint Peter’s answer was, also, pragmatic: “Repent, and be baptized.” This, too, accords with our experience at the Easter Vigil and throughout the Christian life. “Repent”—that is, turn to God, lift up your heart, your pattern of behavior, to the divine. “Be baptized”—yes, be baptized if you are not already, but for those that are, even more “be a baptized person,” claim and own the unmerited gift given to you by God when you were incorporated into His Body. Appropriate who you are amid God’s presence here in our reality of time and space, with us and in us, and we in Him. Be whom God calls, elects, predestines, you to be.

It is precisely here, where the rubber meets the road, that the meaning of first affirmation of the baptismal covenant for us begins to become vivid. This affirmation is how we repent and claim our baptism. For us to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers, we embrace what the first Christians did as a body in their very first moments. We affirm our relationship with the Church at its birth. And we affirm our relationship with Mary, for this affirmation but elaborates upon her response to the angel Gabriel: she said, “Let it be to me according to your word.” We say, “I will, with God’s help.”

And so it is no surprise that Christian tradition has come to call this threefold affirmation the core pattern, or Rule of the Church: Regula for short. The Regula involves the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship,” or Devotion, meaning personal devotional ministry unique to each of us as individuals and as local parish families: how we share in and live out community life and serve the world around us guided by the Holy Spirit immanent and near, so doing in accord with the biblical revelation. It involves “the breaking of bread” of course called the Mass, which is the source and summit of our sacramental life and itself models catholic imagination and eucharistic worldview, for in taking Christ into our bodies we share in his loving, intimate view of creation. And it involves “the prayers,” or the Divine Office, the official, that is authoritative, set-prayer of the threefold Church based upon, and elaborating upon, the Our Father prayer given by Christ to his disciples as a means to address the Father through Jesus.

Regula, then, is the response as a Body to God’s presence and activity. Regula is how we live with Marian awe into the mystery of the Resurrection and the activity of the Holy Spirit. Regula is how we put into practice the faith of the Apostles’ Creed. It is how we enact the relationship with God in whom only can we find true rest. Regula is the repeatable aspect of baptism.

One final point is that the Divine Office may seem too much of a daily commitment. Here, the counsel of the Church is to commit to reciting the Our Father at least once a day, or better yet singing it, which brings forth our worshiping parish family to wherever we may be. And not just our parish family, but the whole Church. Through this prayer, we join as a active body—that is, Christians in the Church Militant, the Church Expectant, with the Saints, and with the Holy Angels in Heaven, all who sing the Our Father. Although we are not to become Angels, we are to become angel-like, insofar as we do what they do: unceasing praise to God Almighty at the foot of His transcendent Throne.

What a glorious, unitive Vision of God that must be! The Italian poet Dante, in his allegory the Divine Comedy, wrote that the sound of the angels’ hymn of praise is like the laughter of the universe. Not as in response to a joke, but as in Marian awe, the joyful response to the ineffable glory of creation redeemed. May we open ourselves in cooperation with God’s grace to embrace more fully the Rule of the Church, the threefold Regula, which arranges the doctrine of the Trinity for prayer; and in so doing, may we hear more and more the laughter of the universe, and ourselves live with Marian awe into, and as, Christ’s crucified joy. Amen.

Homily: “No power in ourselves to help ourselves”

Delivered on the Third Sunday in Lent, 2015 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.

In our Collect today we pray “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Yet the question can be asked: Do we know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves? God surely knows, but do we? Do we know this in our lives, in our experiences, in our relationships? This is the hard question.

All of us said Amen to this Collect. So we have at least accepted it as a statement of truth in our community. It is no criticism whatsoever to suspect that despite our basic accepting of the statement—and I think we can say that it was basically accepted, as none of us upon hearing it stood up and said, “wrong!” and walked out of Mass—despite accepting it, we might not be able to articulate the full depths of its meaning. For after all, who can articulate the full depths of the meaning of God? Only Jesus Christ, himself. Who can know the depths of our wretchedess an disorder? Only Jesus Christ, himself. Who can fathom the deepest dimensions of forgiving love? Only Jesus Christ, himself. So it is okay that we might not fully understand the doctrine that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. By saying “Amen” we are allowing the possibility of being taught and shown what it means when the time is right.

When we say Amen we declare that we want to choose God. When we say Amen we put ourselves at his mercy and in his loving arms and under the shadow of his wings. Just as Blessed Mary Our Lady said to Gabriel, “Let it be to me according to your word,” our Amen submits ourselves to a Holy God that overpasses the knowing of all creatures, to a Holy God that sweetly and tenderly loves us. Our Amen asks that God fight for us against the Devil. He fought for us in the wilderness. He chose to willingly confront the evil one, to seek him out—through prayer and fasting.

He continued, as Saint John tells us today, in the temple. He made a whip of cords, and he drove out the merchants, their animals and the money-changers—not because they were evil itself but because their presence interfered with the true purpose of the temple. He drove them out in a fury: “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” Those words “you shall not” ring of the Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. “You shall not” worship other Gods; you shall not take the name of the Lord in vain; you shall not forget the Sabbath; you shall not dishonor your father and mother; you shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, servants, or possessions. And again today, “You shall not make the temple a house of trade.” This temple was destroyed, yet in three days it was raised up. Saint John tells us that the disciples understood Jesus to refer to the temple of his body.

And we must understand that we, the body of Christ, are his temple. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians. We are his temple through Baptism, which orients us to the journey of Faith ahead; we are his temple through the Sacraments, which feed and nourish us, refresh us, with Hope; we are his temple through the prayer life or Regula taught to us by Jesus, which challenges us to embody Charity in all moments, in the face of our enemies and amid all creatures.

And as his temple, we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. It all comes from God. As Saint Paul says, we can will what is right, but we cannot do it. We can recognize our disorder, our sin, our wretchedness, but we depend on Jesus to deliver us. It is Jesus who saves us; who absolves us. It is Jesus who acts in the sacraments. It is Jesus who gives himself to us on the Cross and at the Altar. It is Jesus who teaches us to pray. And it is Jesus who drives the merchants and the money-changers out of our mind, our thoughts, out of the temple of our body. Our body, as God’s temple, is and must be a temple of prayer. When we say “Amen” we too remember that he had said these things; we too believe the scripture; we too believe the Word which Jesus had spoken.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Marian Penitence

“Penitence,” wrote Martin Thornton, “becomes a search for the truth of one’s vocation” (The Purple Headed Mountain, Chap. 5). Penitence can take on this character when we accept the possibility, which the biblical revelation insists is fact, that all of God’s creation is an integrated, purposeful, lively unfolding with a unique role for each and every thing, including us. Certainly true penitence begins as Our Lord told Philip: “Follow me” (John 1:43). This becomes adventurous when it grows into a disposition of life: Be Following Him. If we are, in the phrase of English fourteenth-century writer Walter Hilton, to reform into the likeness of Jesus, that journey of holiness begins in finding harmony with our surroundings, as Jesus surely had with His, and goes awry without it.

Perhaps the only valid test here is moral theology: have I committed fewer sins? Sin is separation and paying lip service to the first line of the Nicene Creed is the height of Pride, the basis of all separation. Not only when receiving Communion, reciting the Office, or studying Scripture, but always and everywhere, are we choosing to follow—opening to, and in this sense, “thanking”—God Almighty as He actualizes in our lives? And do we use His creation and His creatures to His greater glory? For the revelation disallows any version of “God is not here and doesn’t much care.”

“Repent and be baptized,” is how Peter exhorted the first Christians (Acts 2:38). But as Paul reminded Titus, our baptism is more than a rite; it is a way of life, a sacramental status before God. Peter perhaps implied, “Choose God and then spend the rest of your life working out the implications of that choice.” Be baptized—just as we say, “be mature” or “be yourself”: our Lord demands we own our status, incorporated into Him “in virtue of his own mercy” (Titus 3:5). Baptism plunges us into Trinitarian reality through the glory of material water, fragrant oil, and audible words. Within such paradox lies enough food for Lenten mystagogy several times over.

To wit: “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). It was Saint Augustine who wrote, “Every visible thing in this world is put under the charge of an angel” (De diversis quaestionibus, 79). This staggering statement is also exemplary ascetical theology, the articulation of spiritual growth: for only through our sense perception is God’s presence available to us. As God called Our Lady by sensible means of Gabriel, we are called by God aided by the angelic host who through the visible and perceivable bring the invisible and incomprehensible beckoning before us, inviting adventure anchored in Christ.

[The above meditation is my contribution for Day 4 of Lent to From Dust to Triumph: Reflections for a Holy Lent published by Nashotah House.]

“Whither Christian Baptism?”

The Times (UK)
March 11, 1972
By the Rev. Dr. Martin Thornton

The practice of Infant Baptism is a non-biblical, undogmatic, yet nevertheless venerable tradition, which arose and continued according to three pastoral factors. The Church was the unique and exclusive channel of truth and salvation; everything outside was degradation and vice. The family, and especially the Christian family, was a close-knit unit within which harmonious disagreement was impossible. Later came Christendom, wherein Church and state more or less coincided; secular law originated in moral theology, baptism followed birth, nationality and religious allegiance overlapped. None of these factors pertain any longer. The Church continues to believe in Christ’s unique revelation, but other world religions can no longer be dismissed as “pagan;” God’s relation with his creation is wider than the Church. Members of modern families now think differently, vote differently, believe different things, and get along pretty amicably on the principle of mutual respect. Despite various national pretenses, Christendom is shattered.

What of theology? To simplify, perhaps over-simplify, there are two poles of thought. The ancient Catholic tradition insists that the sacrament of Baptism is an objective act of God, whereby the recipient is mystically incorporated into the Body of Christ. Subjective human considerations are insignificant. The opposite view is that the efficacy of divine sacramental action demands a minimal human response, which is impossible to an infant recipient. In terms of pastoral responsibility both views meet at the same practical point. By the latter theory infant baptism is meaningless; by the former it achieves far too much. For we must now humbly recognize sincere agnosticism, accept the autonomy of anti-institutional Christianity, and honour the particular spiritual genius of each world religion.

Significantly, more and more Western people are attracted to the ascetical ethos of the East. Infant baptism according to the Catholic view precludes for ever any such spiritual freedom or choice. It becomes analogous to the medieval child-marriage; it cannot be dissolved whatever the circumstances. The baptized non-believer—according to this theory—has acquired a status, or had it thrust upon him, against which he rebels. His life must be a living lie. This is surely one of many powerful arguments for the deferment of Christian initiation until the age of reason and discretion.

The traditional compromise has been the bisection of the initiatory process into two separate rites: baptism and confirmation. Recent studies and pronouncements have shown that this is no solution. Either baptism is the full Christian initiation, which makes confirmation superfluous (the view recently propounded), or confirmation somehow or other “completes” the sacrament which thus renders baptism meaningless—another reason for deferment to a later age.

What then are parents supposed to do? How can they make a responsible and indeed devout decision? The agnostic and non-believing parent can only decide for baptism on the grounds of superstition, convention, or the “Christendom ” principle. By Catholic doctrine the implications are horrific.

What of sincerely Christian parents? Obviously they are in no way immune from social and theological change. Their faith, prayer, teaching and example in no way guarantees genuine faith for their child in 15 years’ time. Should he then embrace another religion or none they may be deeply disappointed but they need no longer regard him as depraved or damned, or even as a family outcast. It will be argued that for Christian parents infant baptism constitutes an act of faith; so does non-baptism. In fact the traditional practice could be subconsciously evasive; baptism and leave it to God, but why not refrain from baptism and still leave it to God? The latter could well constitute the more creative and responsible decision.

If it is now argued that Christian initiation is of corporate as well as individual significance, that it is a building up of the total Body of Christ, then I must agree while pointing, nevertheless, to the “Christendom” error. If the Church is to regain Catholicity in the deepest sense of its unique, self-giving service to the whole world, then it must first be rid of nominal members whose integrity is threatened by their being Christians against their will and conviction.

Cover image “Baptism of Jesus” is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original

Homily: Mystagogy on the Resurrection

Homily delivered on the Sixth Sunday of Easter at Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois as part of its Eastertide mystagogy series. This homily is also reflection on thoughts expressed by Dr Rowan Williams in his 1982 book, Resurrection, some of which are directly incorporated into this homily.

One of the curious paradoxes of contemporary society, certainly in societies known as “first-world” but increasingly around all the planet, is that we can be seemingly so well informed about events happening on the other side of Earth and be so seemingly separate from our neighbors close to home.

Through a variety of screens — whether television, computer monitor, or cell phone — we can pay close attention to political events in India, this morning in Jerusalem, the meeting between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, or meteorological patterns wherever we will like to look. All the while, many of us here do not live in this neighborhood of Riverside, but rather travel at some distance to come here. Most of us travel some distance to get to our places of employment, whether by train or car or bus or bicycle.

Now many of us know our neighbors, at least their faces. Perhaps we share meals occasionally, or at least chit-chat on the sidewalk. Perhaps we know them because we hear late-night arguments coming from inside their homes. But think of all the houses near yours, the occupants of which, could you name? Do you know anything of their story? Do they know anything of yours? And note how normal it is for one’s blood relatives to live far away from you, not only different cities but in a different state.

Now, of course we are all connected. There do not need to be conversations to recognize the solidarity that exists whether we recognize it or not. Our solidarity shows up, for example, last summer with the flood in Riverside. That was on the local level. It shows up through social events that bind us: for some of us, the score of the Bears game, for example. On the national and international level, it showed up dramatically on events of 9-11. We are all interdependent whether or not we recognize its implications, whether or not we share meals together, or babysit each other’s children, whether we help others in a crisis.

Yet, absent these sorts of particular phenomena, is there nothing, then, that can bind a people together except the score of the Bears’ game? Or the incoming weather changes? Are we only bonded when some sort of calamity or disaster occurs?

The Christian Church says, no, there is much, much more than can bind us together. The Church here on Earth is made up of people for whom the possibility of more is the deepest concern. The baptized members of this Church promise their lives to this possibility, and we say it is not only a possibility yet to be realized, but also one that can be realized here and now, in our lives, and in our society.

And this possibility begins with the Resurrection of our Lord.

This Lord is a man we crucified. During Holy Week, we all yelled “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The responsibility of the Jesus’s crucifixion is on our hands. The responsibility of Jesus hanging on the cross and bleeding and dying is on our hands. When Peter, in the 2nd chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, says “this Jesus whom you crucified” he is speaking to us. That we crucified.

But, wait, how is he speaking to us? How are we responsible, today, for Jesus being the victim of this brutality?

We are responsible because we sin. We are responsible because to sin — whether a large sin or a small sin — is in fact a form of violence to Jesus. To sin is to separate us from God. To sin is to move us away from God. To sin is to hurt forcibly, literally hurt, the one who wants nothing more than to love us, protect us, and make us like him. Just as “prodigal son” moves himself away from his generous father, we move ourselves away from our most generous creator, the one who’s very nature is love: the one who’s very nature makes our relationships with others.

We sin when we forget who God is, and treat people and things without love. We move ourselves away because we are always tempted to think, and to act, that we are somehow divine, that we are in charge. We crucify Jesus because we are constantly self-centered.

Being self-centered, we forget that in all that we do, we are present to God, and God is that to which all things are present. God is the creator of everything. The lover of everything. The keeper of everything. Time and time again, we forget this unfathomable fact.

Adam and Eve forgot this unfathomable fact. They forgot that the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was under God’s authority. They forgot that the tree by its nature points to God. They forgot that the tree is an icon of God, and instead saw in it a means to be divine, as if they were in charge. Self-centeredness, pride, selfish desire — by whatever name, this is the root of all sin.

And it is self-centeredness, pride, selfish desire that crucified Jesus, that crucifies Jesus today, and that can only be healed by the transformation of that history and that guilt which can only come when we, who judge Jesus to be less than God every time we forget him, turn to him, the victim, and recognize him as our hope, our savior, our Lord. Grace can only be released when we look to no one but the crucified. When we confront the crucified victim, and see in him salvation.

Friends, in this Easter season of mystagogy — being led again into the mysteries and wonder of God, particularly of Holy Week, and this morning of the Resurrection — being led into them so as to savor them as we would savor the best food and the best drink, or the best artwork — we begin by always keeping in mind that Jesus did not need the stone rolled away to come out. The stone was rolled away so that we could enter in. . . . Enter in to the mystery of Christ, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus crucified.

This entering into the tomb is the day to day activity of the Christian. Entering into the tomb is our deep commonality. It is what binds us as the People of the Living God. This empty tomb, the Resurrection of Our Lord, just like all of the events of in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, is an event of such creative action that our talking about them is always exploratory and never exhaustive.

To taste and see that the Lord is God requires that we are given back our story, our past of guilt, hurt, separation, and confusion. All of the Old Testament stories available to us on the Easter Vigil — Creation, the Flood, the binding of Isaac by Abraham, the crossing of the Red Sea, and more — these are our stories because these are part of the ongoing and ever-living memory of the People of God. We read these stories on the Easter Vigil to understand who we are.

And it was the receiving back of her story, her identity, that Mary Magdalene experienced, I think, in the garden outside the empty tomb. She saw a gardener, and asked him where the body of Jesus was taken. And Jesus said to her, “Mary.” To which she replied, “Teacher!” She was given back her history, and she was transformed. Because of the Resurrection she had a focus and pivot of a fresh and transforming interpretation of all human reality. And we do too.

Owing to our actions and words that separate us from God, we too are not worthy for the Lord to come under our roof. But when the word of God is said, a saying that returns to us the fullness of our memory and identity, a saying that proclaims the Resurrection of the victim we judged guilty, a saying that itself was in the beginning, a Word with God, a Word that is God, a saying through which all things are made, a saying from the very nature of God, like Mary Magdalene, and like Thomas, and all the disciples of Jesus, our souls are healed. Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on Earth.

Cover image “Chora Anastasis1” by Gunnar Bach Pedersen is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original

Ascetical theology and Catholic imagination

When we speak ascetically in the Catholic sense as Martin Thornton did — against and beyond the Anglican ascetical writers of the early 20th century such as Evelyn Underhill, Oscar Hardman, Bede Frost, C.F. Rogers, H.S. Box, and F.P. Harton — we are liberated from their more limited “theology of ascetical practices” into ascetical theology that is wider and far more provocative. Following Thornton, to speak ascetically means “articulating the church’s corporate experience.” As Thornton wrote in 1960 in reference to that former crop of Anglican ascetical writers, “we need an ascetical ascetical-theology”.1 Theirs was too narrow and leaned individualistic. His critique did honor their contributions (he was particularly fond of Harton’s Elements of the Spiritual LIfe), but sought to push reflection on the theology of prayer still deeper, more corporate, and more Catholic.

“Catholic” must mean that the particular is analogous to the whole. The very word means “according to the whole.” If a person, a family, a parish, a church is to be Catholic, then its being in the particular must be a microcosm of the Church, the true whole. In all practicality, this means having a comprehensive and active relationship with the Catholic Faith once for all delivered to the saints. It means having a Catholic imagination.

As Thornton wrote in 1978, doctrine and prayer are two sides of the same coin.2 The “use” of these coins or tokens comprises the doing of theology. This sheds intriguing light upon the term “orthodox”. Following Thornton, to be orthodox really means that the corporate prayer life is in full accord and balance with the doctrines that comprise the Faith of Holy Church.

Ascetic corresponds with dogmatic, in other words. Prayer life that lives into and through Christian doctrine is orthodox. Seen in this way, “orthodoxy” becomes not an intellectual litmus test but an exciting adventure. It is a matter of living! Furthermore, this renders the Benedictine emphasis on “balance” as a still more penetrating insight into the nature of Catholic life. Life is a risk and a struggle, and we often lean too far in one direction, only to be pulled back to the other, else we fall over and must get up. The same applies to the balancing of doctrine and prayer life.

In Acts 2.42, we learn that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This threefold framework — respectively, Devotion-Mass-Office — is called by Thornton “Regula“. He appears to be the first Christian writer to do so.

If “Catholic imagination” was alive and active from the first moments of the Church, and why would it not be, then it is clear from the biblical revelation that Catholic imagination and Regula go hand in hand. There is no better example of this than Acts chapter 2: verses 1-41 are Catholic imagination — “baptismal” imagination, if you like. And then comes verse 42: Regula as the response of the community. So to the question, “what is Catholic imagination?”, one must look to the 2nd chapter of Acts as the basis. We ought use Acts 2 prayerfully to open our own hearts to God’s presence in our Christian family.

Hence Regula is not a concept, but rather an articulation the church’s corporate experience. Regula is the heart of ascetical theology in the Thorntonian sense. Or, put another way, Catholic imagination is the “stuff” of Regula. It very well may be a doctrine itself, the doctrine of the Regula. Regula is one side of the token; Catholic imagination is the other.

Hence it makes sense that Catholic imagination has been diminished in the West, because the centrality of Regula has been diminished in the West. You cannot have Catholic imagination without robust Devotional-baptismal commitment out in the world, without a robust Eucharist as the focusing and concentrating of all creation, and without a robust Office that is the daily activity of the People of God, an engine to catalyze devotion and love to God by ordinary Christians, rather than the obligation of the parish priest only!3

We can further reflect upon Catholic imagination when we look at the doctrines of the Trinity, the Church, and the Incarnation.

From the doctrine of the Trinity we can see that Regula is a threefold responding to a Triune God. Divine Office emphasizes praise to the Father through Jesus in the Spirit. Mass emphasizes Communion with Jesus who reveals the Father in the Spirit. Devotion emphasizes guidance by the Spirit to Jesus who reveals the Father. And yet, through it all, it is not three prayer lives, but one prayer life that integrates into seamless praise, communion, and guidance: of, with, and by God. This is the basis of Catholic imagination.

From the doctrines of the Church and Incarnation, we see that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit into the cosmos in order that the Holy Spirit would bring and unite all things to Him and fully reveal the Father. God became man so that man might become God.

Hence in the Church Militant, all things of creation can become sacramental, the God-given exemplars being the seven Sacraments. This process is the basis of our Devotional-Baptismal activity: being Christ’s hands and mind in the world so that the Holy Spirit’s activity can guide all people.

In the Church Expectant, God’s children can become sanctified, or (if you will accept the expression) sanctoral, in the adjectival sense: more and more saintly and holy. God’s adopted children are given the opportunity to continue their growth and reformation into the likeness of Christ. This process is the basis for the Mass, where we commune with the entire Church in a mystical family that shares in the love of Christ which finds consummation (on earth) in the Eucharist.

In the Church Triumphant, all of God’s holy creatures, including those fully sanctified, become angelic, in that all join with the angels in their activity of ceaseless praise and thanksgiving for the primordial God the Father (we do not become angels, but become as like them as possible in our activity). This process is the basis for the Divind Office, where we unite as the Body of Christ (all states of the threefold Church) in praise for Our Father to sing with the Angels, “Holy holy holy”.

In sum, Catholic imagination is spontaneous and organic response by the People of God to the presence of the Holy Spirit who calls us into deeper recognition and working out of our baptismal status. It is the response by Christians whose lives are ordered by the doctrine of Regula. Catholic imagination sums up the activity and processes alive within the Christian family that are preserved (akin to yeast) in the additional core doctrines of Trinity, Church, and Incarnation. Catholic imagination is sacramental, sanctoral, and angelic. And the scriptural basis for this is the second chapter of The Acts of the Apostles, the Church amid the energy of its baptismal status.

Following Thornton’s reasoning, if a corporate, that is to say parochial, Christian existence cannot be seen to be ordered by Regula — daily Office, weekly (or daily) Mass, constant Devotion — then not only can a community not claim to be Catholic, but it cannot claim to be orthodox either, no matter what its intellectual claims on various Christian doctrines may be.

Why? Because for Thornton, the proof of all doctrinal pudding is in the doing. For a parish family to leave out, ignore, or under-emphasize either Office, Mass, or Devotion — or God forbid, two of them — causes immediate violence to the doctrines of Trinity, Church, and Incarnation. Regula is the living out of those doctrines, a making-real through participation in grace; without regula, these doctrines and all others are little more than interesting intellectual wordplay and emotive wall-building.

All of this is something of what “breaks forth” when ascetical theology is correctly understood.4 It is necessary to see “ascetical theology” not as the theology of ascetical practice, but as the articulation of the Church’s corporate experience. Asceticism presupposes Catholic ascetical theology. And once you step into that terrain and begin to grapple with articulating the Church’s corporate experience, catholicity ensues.

1 Martin Thornton, “Anglican Ascetical Theology, 1939–60,” Theology 63 (August 1960): 313-319.
2 Martin Thornton, “Prayer and Incarnation,” Christian 4, no. 4 (1978): 317-324.
3 See Martin Thornton, Prayer: A New Encounter and The Function of Theology.
4 Thornton continued to reconfigure “ascetical theology” in a more Catholic direction with English Spirituality (see chapter 2). Over his entire career, he continued to develop its characteristics and differentiate it from the former “theology of asceticism”. The formulation “the articulation of the Church’s corporate experience” shows up in a book review he wrote in 1984: Martin Thornton, “Spirituality for Ministry,” Pastoral Psychology 32, no. 4 (Sum 1984) 287-288.

Homily: Watchfulness through Regula

Offered for Saint Paul’s, Riverside on the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 14, Year C)

We return this morning to the theme of watchfulness — of being awake, of waiting, of being ready, of knowing, correctly. We after all are being told that Our Father who art in heaven wants to give us the kingdom of God. Doing so is his good pleasure. He has prepared for us a city, the New Jerusalem. Amazing! And so we do well to pay attention to these words and to meditate upon them, and to ask ourselves, what can these words mean for my prayer life, for our prayer life? Christ is telling us that his Father, and Our Father by adoption through baptism, wants to give us the kingdom. There is no hesitance on the part of God. It is his good pleasure.

So, what holds us back from receiving the Kingdom of God?

St Luke invites us to consider that it is our own lack of watchfulness that holds us back. We are not awake. We are not waiting. We are not ready. And thus we don’t have proper knowledge. Those are four negative statements. But do they indicate anything unrealistic? For if we were already awake, already waiting and ready, already taught, the notion of growth into the likeness of Christ, of journeying with Christ to the New Jerusalem, of theosis, would be unnecessary and even absurd.

No, the catholic understanding of the Christian life is that we must become more awake, more attuned, more ready and waiting. Knowing the necessity of that challenge is knowledge that is crucial to salvation. When we realize the challenge that our Lord presents us as we follow him and walk in his ways, we immediately become more humble. And who is more awake, more ready and waiting, than the humble man or humble woman or humble child?

Let me suggest that to be watchful is to be in a condition where you are able to be taught. Able to receive. Able to be open. This presents our challenge as one that involves increasing humility. Where our cup is emptied so as to be filled with God. How can we become more watchful?

Our collect today begins with, “Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will.” How can we become more watchful? Well, for one, we are invited to always remember that God gives us being. God enables us to live. And to think and to act with righteousness.

How do we remember this, on a daily basis? For Christ does appear to want us to remember this on a daily basis — unceasingly, says St Paul. And how do we remember this, not merely on our terms, as private individuals, but how do we remember, how are we watchful, on the terms of Holy Church, of which we are members?

The Church, from its beginnings, has understood the answer to that question has to do with living our lives according to rule, or “regula”. The fundamental pattern that undergirds Christian life: the dynamic relationship between active and conscious participation in Mass, daily Office, and Personal Devotion.

Mass of course means attendance at the Sunday Eucharist, where we are right now, and for those able, daily Eucharist — and it is centered around the concentrated, gathered, focused presence of Christ and his Sacraments.

Office means an invariable set of prayers said or sung everyday, often morning and evening but at least once a day — and it is centered around the transcendent God the Father and holy awe at his wondrous creation.

Personal Devotion means living a scriptural life, scriptural encounter with the world, where scripture is the thesaurus of our experiences in fulfilling our baptismal covenant, through ministry, in serving the poor, needy, hungry, and in relating to all of creation, of which we are to be stewards — and it is centered around the immanent Holy Spirit, our comforter, who brings us to all truth.

A life lived according to Rule — a system perfected by St Benedict’s Rule and reflected in our Book of Common Prayer no matter the version — teaches us, coaxes us, gently guides us, or to use an older expression, learns us. Rule invites us to be more watchful, naturally, every day, every week. We can become more attuned to Holy Trinity — to the transcendent God the Father (through Office), the immanent Holy Spirit (through Personal Devotion), both of which find consummation at the altar of Christ, both fully God and fully man, both transcendent and immanent, the definitive expression of God’s word that brings all of creation into being, and yet to who’s altar we shortly will proceed. We are not worthy that he should come under our roof. But by him and his sacraments we are healed: more awake, more ready and waiting, more enabled to live according to his will. May your treasure be in a Christ-centered life. And may your heart be there.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Regula, Sacred Space, and Sacred Time

The Church is Christ’s body, and He is the head of the body. In this sense, the Church is the “extension” of the incarnation of God. As John Macquarrie wrote, “the Church is an ongoing incarnation. It has not yet attained ‘to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.'”1 The Church therefore is still on the way toward, in Walter Hilton’s classic term, “the likeness of Jhesu.”

The Church is on a journey of reforming, a journey that is reflected by the Catholic doctrine of the threefold Church — militant, expectant, triumphant. Hence the Church’s offering of worship is itself a growing, a becoming, a journey “on the way” from sinfulness and disorder to sanctification and likeness to Jhesu.

This journey is initiated by the ontological action of Christ in the sacrament of Baptism, is affirmed in the sacrament of Confirmation, is fed by the sacrament of Eucharist, navigated by the sacrament of Reconciliation, ordered (for some) by the sacrament of Matrimony, healed by the sacrament of Unction, all of which are made valid by the sacrament of Orders. Indeed modeled by the Eucharist, but in fact through each sacrament, anamnesis occurs: the actually-making-present-again of Christ, who, as Dix wrote, is “presently operative.”2

All of this is an outline of how the life of the Body in its becoming, through the actual presence, or presences, of Christ, the head of the Body. What gives this outline a living — or more properly, “ascetical” — shape or pattern is the Catholic rule, or Regula. This Catholic rule is threefold: the pattern of Mass-Office-Devotion. As Martin Thornton wrote, “Here is the basic Rule of the Church which, varying in detail, is common to East and West, monastic and secular, to all the individual schools without exception, and which forms the over-all structure of the Book of Common Prayer.”3

The full regulaIt is here how we see sacred space and sacred time serve our journey toward likeness of Jhesu. Sacred space refers to the specific environment or environments whereby the Regula is embraced and enacted. The parish church (usefully, Thornton refers to the parish as an “organism”) houses the altar and tabernacle, is the gathering place for the local community of the People of God, is the normative location where the Word of God is proclaimed, and where corporate participation in the liturgy — which is “God’s theology”,4 God’s own way of making Himself intelligible — invites growth in the Body of Christ. Hence, sacred space is where the People of God are sacramentally and corporately capacitated for our journey.

Sacred time refers to the variety of narratives that animate the threefold Regula. These narratives are centered around the life of Jesus of Nazareth, how the events and actions of His life reinterpret all of salvation history in the Old Testament, and these narratives detail crucial events and actions of Christ’s Body, the Church, in its early days and years. Further, sacred time animates the lives of the apostles, prophets, martyrs, and the saints. “The saints are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture.”5

Through sacred time, ever-cyclical yet ever-new, we are invited into deeper likeness to Jhesu by walking with Christ’s on His own steps, beginning with His being the expressive agent of all creation as narrated in Genesis, by learning his way: “If any man will come after Me (i.e., will be My disciple), let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me,”6 and by studying Saints, whose lives are icons of Christ. Sacred time is the eschatological entirety of the paschal mystery in the slow-motion of time and space.

In short, the Body of Christ, of which He is the head, is on its way to salvific likeness of Him by means of His sacraments. The threefold Regula gives this journey pattern and shape. Sacred space (normatively the parish) gives this journey its corporate housing for the People of God. And sacred time animates the journey through the variety of narratives — the glorious abundance! — that tell of Christ’s presence, His anamnesis, that invites us to His glory.

 

1 John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (London: SCM, 1977), XVII.69.viii. ; Eph 4.13.
2 Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: Continuum, 2005), 245.
3 Martin Thornton, English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 1986), 76.
4 David Fagerberg, Theologia Prima: What is Liturgical Theology? (Chicago: Hillenbrand, 2004), 15.
5 Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 78.
6 Luke 9.23. Cf. Mt 16.24; Mk 8.34

The Prayer Book as Regula, a Slideshow

If the first Christians were Catholic, it was because of their threefold prayer life (Acts 2:42) seen as the total, systematic means for repentence and baptismal reality taught by Saint Peter and the Apostles. That is the template, or Regula (Rule), of Catholic life; the threefold Regula orders the repeatable dimensions of Baptism by which we repent. The Book of Common Prayer, being a Regula inherited primarily from the tradition of Saint Benedict, also orders in a unique way such a comprehensive corporate response, with emphases of its own yet leaving nothing fundamental out. Therefore Catholic renewal within Anglican parochial tradition, that is, Catholic Anglican vitality, demands through a more profound embrace of the total life of obedience ordered by Prayer Book heritage. Veni, Creator Spiritus!

click for slideshow


See also: What does Regula mean?

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton. 


Homily: “At the Cross Trembling with Mary”

An Eastertide mystagogy on the Liturgy of Good Friday.
[NB: Homily by Matthew Dallman.]

Our Eastertide mystagogy continues. This morning, Good Friday. The meaning of the Atonement. The meaning of our Lord’s death on the hard wood of the cross.

I think of two images. One is Mary holding the newborn baby Jesus (such as in the two icons here in the Church). The other is Mary holding the newly dead body of Jesus (such as in Michelangelo’s Pietà). We encountered the first back at the end of December. We encountered the second during the Holy Triduum and Good Friday. I think of these two images because the interplay between the two encounters can interpret the Atonement.

Why? Because of Mary. It is Mary, what we know of her experience and what we think her experience might reasonably have been, who interprets the Atonement in the fullest, most grounded sense. If we extend just a bit on both ends of these two images — just before holding the baby Jesus back to the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel, and just after holding the body of her dead Son to the coming of the Holy Spirit in flaming tongues at Pentecost — here then we have the entirety of the Incarnation, and Mary was present through all of it. Mary’s presence. Mary’s prayer.

What comes to mind is music we heard on Good Friday:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?

Mary was. Mary was there. And so to look with Mary’s eyes, hear with Mary’s ears, feel with Mary’s touch, and to ponder with Mary’s heart — is to be mystagogical, is to invite her journey with Christ to animate our journey, to teach our journey. It is another way of asking Holy Mary, Mother of God, to pray for us.

Mary is the model, the exemplar, the pattern for being a disciple of Christ. Holding the newborn Jesus. Holding the newly dead Jesus. We are invited to do the same. To hold the newborn Jesus in our hearts. To hold the newly dead Jesus in our hearts. With the same delicate tenderness of Mary.

To ponder Mary is to ponder how she acted with such devout tenderness. Imagine how Mary must have looked at the world, her mindset. Remember that moment early in the life of her Son, with Simeon in Jerusalem. Simeon, righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, beholding, blessing the baby Jesus. And then saying to Mary that a sword will pierce through her own soul also.

A sword will pierce through her own soul also. Mary lived her whole life in that mystery. Ponder that. Her whole life was mystagogical — spent discerning how this liturgical mystery was the source of meaning, that a sword would pierce through her own soul, also. Does it mean she’ll die by a sword? Or something else. And then that word “also”, does it mean a sword will kill her son? A real sword? A symbolic sword? But only just her son, or the souls of other people, too?

Simeon’s words must have been very disorienting for Mary. Perhaps it was difficult for her, a person like you and me, to find balance in life amid this strange mystery — the mystery of her son’s identity and vocation. When she and Joseph find Jesus at age 12 in the temple, maybe at that point she had forgotten or wanted to deny the divine possibilities of her son’s identity; thereby her son reproves her, for “where else would I be but in my Father’s house?”

And then later, at the Wedding at Cana, maybe the pendulum swung to the other side, amid this lack of beverage she called on him as a kind of divine magician. Fix this crisis! And he then reproved her, “woman, what have you to do with me? my hour has not yet come!”

A sword will pierce through her own soul also. This is a very strange and mysterious statement if you ponder it. And it leads directly to the foot of the Cross.

We are invited to live in the same way, in this life of discernment, pondering mysteries in our heart. And so when we discern, we are being like Mary. When we look through Mary’s eyes, hear with Mary’s ears, feel with Mary’s touch, and ponder with Mary’s heart, the meaning of the Atonement takes on a whole new dimension. To interpret the Atonement, through Mary’s eyes and with her heart, is to see each moment, each episode in the life of Christ in light of the mystery of this soul-piercing sword.

Like Mary, we live our lives with something of a sense of how it all will end. But there is a lot we don’t know day to day. Like Mary, we too struggle with balancing the faith into which we are immersed and plunged with our own sense of reality and the demands of everyday life? Coming to some kind of balance about the true nature of reality, this trinitarian nature of reality, this reality of God as invisible spirit that is at the heart of everything in creation, and all people — coming to balance about this day to day is a life’s work, and work that lasts beyond this life.

But at each moment, we are invited to the truth, and invited to accept, to surrender, in the faith shared with the whole Church gathered before the Altar, to the strangeness, the unfairness, the profound mystery of this death of Christ on the hardwood of the cross. To the strangeness, and the profound mystery of the altar, where we are invited to have our soul healed by The Word, eating his body and drinking his blood.

Perhaps we tremble at that thought, of eating body and drinking blood. Perhaps Mary trembled at the revelation of the person in her womb. She surely trembled when she realized she left behind her 12-year-old boy in Jerusalem. We can imagine she trembled at hearing in her son’s adult voice speaking to the disciples and the gathered masses with an authority beyond that of the prophets, beyond that of the priests, an authority that, at the time, and even now, can sound very strange. And undoubtedly she trembled at the sight, the sound, the smell, the touch of her bleeding, mangled, dead son, holding him in her arms, just as she held him as a little baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, with the light of new life.

If you there when they crucified my Lord, and we were, then maybe sometimes, and even this holy day, and at this holy altar we will soon approach just as we approached the cross on Good Friday, giving our heart to God by means of the beautiful red flowers we laid at the Cross, maybe we can tremble.

May we all come to the altar, the table of our Lord, trembling through the eyes of Mary, trembling with the ears of Mary, trembling in the heart of Mary, trembling in the mystery; for by this mystery, with this mystery, and in this mystery — somehow lies everlasting life.

Homily: “Why NOT Me?”

(Delivered on the Solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord, 13 January, 2013, at Saint Paul’s, Riverside. NB: The Gospel According to St Luke read by Father Thomas Fraser)

In the words of today’s Collect: “Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior.” So what does this mean, to boldly confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? What does it mean for us to keep the covenant we have made?

Through the Daily Office, the covenant is recited every morning. Through the Easter Vigil, we all make present again our baptismal covenant. And yet it appears during Epiphany—fitting because epiphany is a word that means “manifestation” or “appearance”. With his baptism in the River Jordan, Jesus appeared to the world and manifested Himself as the Messiah, the Son of God, one of the Holy Trinity. Somehow this means something for our own baptism.

Epiphany begins in meditation upon the role that the Star of Light plays in guiding us to the truth of incarnation — the icon of which is the journey by the Wise Men to bring gifts to the new King. Their recognition represents the recognition of Christ’s reality being for all peoples, all nations, all souls. Christ’s reality — a universal reality.

Now, Luke’s account of Christ’s baptism is not an account of a Christian rite. Rather, this is a Jewish rite signifying purification—an ascetical act, part of holy living to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God. Jewish tradition often required this washing of baptism to stand in the presence of God. Jewish baptism was understood to restore the unclean to the state of a ‘little child’. Unlike Christian baptism, Jewish baptism was repeatable, even daily—less ontological, more existential.

Purification. A part of holy living. For a closer communion with God. Repeatable. As if a little child. Daily. Christian liturgical asceticism—that is, our Catholic life in liturgy and sacraments, growing in discipleship—integrates these principles into our practice of our prayer life. From the Jewish baptism tradition we receive possibilities for our prayer life.

Now notice that place matters. The River Jordan has very significant biblical history. Father Helferty spoke on the 3rd Sunday of Advent of “sacred space”. The River Jordan is sacred space. In Genesis, the Jordan valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord. It was a boundary to the Promised Land, where God would dwell with his people. Moses never crossed it, but rather he died before crossing. His death might be understood symbolically — that the Law is necessary, but it is not enough. It was Joshua (in Hebrew meaning savior and in Greek Jesus) who led the children of Israel and the Ark of the Covenant through the River Jordan in the miracle of its waters parting. A memorial was made of twelve stones taken from the riverbed, stones from under the feet of the priests. And later the prophet Elisha performed two miracles at the Jordan.

The Jordan is sacramental space in the “living memory” of the children of Israel, and in the present awareness of Jesus, who was for us baptized. That our Redeemer washed in the waters of this living memory means that we wash in these waters. It was for them, and is for us, an Icon. Only through the Jordan do we enter into the promised land of God’s kingdom. Christian prayer re-presences all of this—meditating on the River calls our mind to Christ. Calls us into righteousness — taken by the hand of God, and kept.

And in this place the mystery of Holy Trinity first manifested. This is the true nature of reality — trinitarian. Dimly hinted at, and in shadows before—surely Mary, Our Lady, had something of a glimpse through time, being a Jew soaked in Scripture, through the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel and the birthing, nurturing, and pondering in her heart the life of her son.

But in this place the mystery of Holy Trinity first manifested. Thus to recognize, or perhaps participate in, trinitarian reality somehow is a way we keep our covenant. How can this be?

We notice that Luke describes a sense of expectation in the people. People were asking good questions: discerning. They were seeking Christ. We promise to seek and serve Christ in all people. Benedictines receive all guests who arrive as Christ. And we ask questions rooted in discerning our parish’s vocation, and each person’s God-given vocation. Our expectation usefully grows when we do so.

We notice that Jesus was listening. As St Benedict teaches, to pray is to listen. To listen is to pray. Note it is not particularly important to Luke how Jesus prayed. Just that he did. And in praying Jesus heard God the Father speak. The word of God is all powerful. Yet here “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased” within this overall setting seems something of a gentle persuasion. A quiet. Fitting for prayer. Fitting for prayer in the sacred space of the River Jordan. Our prayer in sacred space anchors in listening, perhaps blessed by gentle persuasion that grows over months and years.

Note that Jesus is not alone — Luke has removed John the Baptist from the scene. Yet people remain purifying, seeking closer communion with God. Even when we pray alone, we are never actually alone.

With the Father speaking, it seems we hear Christ’s thoughts, which hear the Father’s words. Christ does not speak during this event. He does not cry or life up his voice, or make it heard on the street. But he is empowered through his praying, his listening, and his experiencing. Can there be question that a man who bled, suffered, and died on the cross for us yearns for us to be empowered by him?

The heavens opened for Jesus — the holy spirit, in bodily form, as a dove. In Acts, St Luke understands this as an “anointing”. As we consider what “anointing” means, first notice the simultaneity of the moment — the Father’s speaking, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and the Son as the outward expression of all three. All bound together existentially — distinct, but one.

Moments of truth are built upon this kind of simultaneity, aren’t they — we sometimes speak of “perfect storms”. The streaming of specific events coinciding and crashing and leaving us with nothing to do but — sigh in silence. Awake but overwhelmed. Even … “overshadowed”. Or as Julian of Norwich say, “over-passed”. Like Mary in her moment of truth at the Annunciation. As Peter, James, and John were overshadowed at the Transfiguration. As the hovering of God’s spirit over the face of the deep in Genesis.

As we are when something of life’s reality manifests itself to us. Discloses to us. The birth of a baby. The death of a loved one. Getting a new job. Losing a house. Discerning a vocation. Remembering that you will die. Lost in confusion.

To situations where reality particularly focuses, whether in a peak moment, a valley moment, or an ordinary, everyday moment, how do we respond? We can, and often do, say “why me?” To the challenge, we shrink a bit. Sometimes we mentally run away. Sometimes we actually run away.

Luke doesn’t say whether Christ, as he did in the Garden of Gethsemane, experienced any hint of “why me?” That he settled on “why Not me” is quite clear as we will encounter in several weeks on the 1st Sunday of Lent when we continue liturgically from this moment in Luke’s gospel.

In conversation with Gabriel, Mary, the model of following Jesus, questioned, to be sure. She discerned. This issued in a strong but gentle “why NOT me?”: the words “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” capture both gentleness and boldness.

When we, through the grace of God, turn our “why me?” into “why NOT me?”, complaint transforms into opportunity; moaning into possibility; avoidance into adventure. The silver lining, the sense of adventure, the empowerment—to genuinely experience all this is, I suggest, to be anointed by the Holy Spirit. To be anointed is to feel bodily the possibilities of Why NOT Me.

noahThe anointing of the Holy Spirit, as a dove in bodily form — ought we not recall Noah? Blessed Noah, faced with unspeakable prospects of destruction, death, and chaos, said why NOT me, a Yes to God’s words. Above the rains he made a dwelling. And waited. And waited for a dove in bodily form — through the emergence of this dove, Noah, his family, and the creatures were restored to right relationship with creation. Saying Yes reconnected them to the earth. Saying yes grounded them. Not just a lining in silver; a lining in rainbow.

So what does this all come to? I suggest it comes to this: when we pray, why me becomes why NOT me. Not transaction but dynamic movement. A movement led, guided, by God’s grace. Prayer says yes to the movement of grace in our hearts. This movement in prayer is how we keep our baptismal covenant. Prayer through Mass, Office, Devotional reading and study, and ministry to seek and serve Christ in others—together a regula, Catholic Rule, or Rule of Life—that we live and breath and presence to others—this is how we boldly confess him as Lord and Savior, even in our gentleness.

The glorious company of the Apostles at Pentecost said Yes. The goodly fellowship of the Prophets said Yes. The noble army of Martyrs said Yes. The Holy Church throughout all the world, says Yes.

Saying Yes to God — Yes to this moment, in this moment, through this moment — yes to this moment as Icon—means we renounce Satan, the evil powers of this world, the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God — to say Yes means to Jesus we say “I do”.

Bless the Lord, my soul! Lord God, how great you are. On you may all your people feed — and know you are the bread indeed, who gives eternal life to those — that with you died, and with you rose.

 


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