Tag Archives: baptism

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.

The Case for a Prologue Office of Praise

“It is not sufficient to participate regularly in the Eucharist, with its unequal stress on individuality and formalism; rather we have to be eucharistic people. We have to live perpetually in the eucharistic context and this means preparation in the form of constant attempts to resolve the underlying paradoxes involved. The cosmic and the local, with stress on the former because the contemporary balance veers strongly towards the other side. Then the corporate and the personal, for the same reasons in the same order, and the immanent-transcendent balance which boils down to an application of the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity: which says it all.”
Martin Thornton, A Joyful Heart

“The only real fall of man is his noneucharistic life in a noneucharistic world.”
Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World

INTRODUCTION

From the earliest moments of the Christian Church, in part influenced by our Jewish heritage, a fundamental aspect of the life of the disciples of Jesus was to enact formal set-prayer. Jesus bestowed upon us the “Our Father” prayer, the Pater Noster. It is the model for set-prayer: particular words in a particular order to give thanks as a body to God the Father. “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” (Acts 1.14). Vocal prayer using common, yet sacred, words—we now call this the Divine Office.

What is it for? In simple terms, the purpose of the Divine Office is to give thanks God and to magnify God, day by day: a “means of praise.” Christians do so because praising God teaches us who God is. This habitual activity becomes what William of St Thierry termed “necessary obedience.” God is Maker, Lover, and Keeper of all creation; His truth indeed endures forever, and knowledge of Him invites deeper participation in the goodness of Christ’s eucharistic holiness. Internalizing who God is prepares us to receive the Sacraments and to see all of creation eucharistically.

Nonetheless, relationship with God is always conditioned by societal context, and today many Christians increasingly live within media-rich environments where travel over significant distance is the daily norm. God certainly works within our conditions, and so must our prayer life: grace perfects nature, as Saint Thomas taught. Yet, oddly, the Divine Office form standard today within Anglican patrimony has remained largely unchanged over almost 500 years, then introduced to a late-medieval, rural society of largely illiterate peasants ruled by a monarch; theirs was a society that lived and worked under the shadow of the village church. Ours is a post-industrial “global village” where the preferred church can be several miles away.

Social conditions change. Saint Benedict and Thomas Cranmer boldly and pastorally amended their Divine Office forms so as to tune into God more efficiently, given their social conditions. Should we do the same? I seems clear that we might have to.

In Anglican patrimony the Divine Office was fashioned as the heart of common prayer. This reflects the strong Benedictine influence on the way Anglicans pray. So much so that Archbishop Arthur Michael Ramsey was led to say to a gathering at Nashdom Abbey in 1965: “So it is that the Benedictine Way really underlies the Book of Common Prayer, where the same trinity of [eucharistic] liturgy, office and personal prayer is found for the joy of us all.” The original purpose of the Book of Common Prayer was to order prayer life through the year so that all in the realm would pray the same way, “with one accord,” as the first Christians did, accompanied by Blessed Mary.

Yet today, because the Divine Office has developed so many variations, such unity—whereby laypersons, religious, deacons, priests and bishops pray together with one accord—appears obscured at best, and in some places lost. For those that do daily liturgical prayer, the variety of options—numerous Prayer Book iterations, Common Worship, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Breviary, and more—are on one hand a blessing, yet erode ascetical unity, upon which the daily set-prayer hinges.

Even worse is that many people do not do any kind of daily liturgical prayer. For these souls, the routine of faithful life finds little space and clearing for the Divine Office. Yet because the Divine Office is a baptismal obligation, and unity is an important characteristic of Anglicanism, something must be done to reunify through prayer the Church Militant that in many ways, despite its strengths given by grace, has been torn apart by the jumbled, even dissociated, conditions of a mobile, secularized society in an satellite-driven information age.

The pastorally minded corrective begins by going “back to basics” as means for creative, necessary renewal. But how do we do that without sacrificing orthodoxy and catholicity, nor the enduring insights of Benedictine spirituality, nor the basic worship pattern of Prayer Book heritage?

THE THEOLOGY BEHIND THE DIVINE OFFICE

Looking at the theological underpinnings of the Office sheds light on the situation, and suggests a remedy. So the key is to see corporate prayer as a dynamic, theological whole. At its core, orthodox and Catholic prayer is responding to God within our baptismal status, and has been since the cosmic explosion of the Pentecost event. “Faith’s name for reality is ‘God,'” wrote Anglican theologian John Macquarrie, and it is what Christians have said since the Coming of the Holy Spirit. Prayer life can be said to be full, integrated, embodied, Catholic, and orthodox when it is an active and intentional response to God-named reality.

But how actually do we name reality as God? We do so through prayer. To us it has been revealed that reality for the Christian is a diversity of three-in-oneness: reality in the dimension of its “transcendent otherness,” which is named God the Father; reality in the dimension of its “immanent nearness,” which is named God the Holy Spirit; and reality in the dimension of “incarnate mediation,” which is named God the Son, Jesus Christ, named in our liturgy as our only Mediator and Advocate. Catholic reality, and hence its prayer life—liturgical, sacramental, salvific—is ultimately derived from, and correlated with, nothing less than the Doctrine of the Trinity.

Prayer is responding to God. How are we to respond? Our triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—invites a threefold response mentioned by Archbishop Ramsey and that Anglican theologian Martin Thornton appropriately called Regula, meaning “pattern” or “framework.” Gloriously formulated for 6th-century monastic life by Saint Benedict and for 16th-century secular life by Cranmer (and in many other ways within the family of Catholic churches), the basis for Regula is the Day of Pentecost and its fruits, which is captured in scripture as the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2.42) in light of the pattern already mentioned, whereby the disciple with Mary prayed together “with one accord.” Regula, indeed, is the grace of Pentecost.

Today the terms are, respectively, Devotion (that is, baptismal ministry in theworld according to the Bible), Mass, and Divine Office; these are distinct, but interwoven and irreducible. More than mere formula or framework for organizational discipline, Regula is dynamic praxis; for Thornton, it is the lifeblood of participation in the divine life of the redemptive organism, the Church.

Startlingly, this means that Regula in its deepest sense is the doctrine of the Trinity arranged for prayer. Why? Because Regula orients us to the threefold reality of God. Devotion orients to the immanent dimension: increasing openness to the Holy Spirit who is infinitely variable to us in time and space and who reconciles us to Christ, the definitive revelation of the Father. Divine Office orients to the transcendent dimension: surrender to our heavenly Father, wholly and invariably otherness, our source and origin from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds to unite us to the Son. And Mass (“eucharistic liturgy”) orients to the incarnate dimension: mediated communion with the real presence of Jesus Christ both deity and man—fully transcendent as the Son of God, fully immanent as human being. Yet this is all one response, one prayer life, to love heavenly God who loves us beyond measure and yearns for our spiritual growth. As Saint Athanasius wrote, God became human so that humans might become God—that is, through Himself and His sacraments, we might become numbered with His saints and, in the words of Walter Hilton, reformed into the likeness and holiness of Jesus.

Jesus taught this in His own life. Moments of the life of Jesus Christ reveal Regula, the fundamental pattern of holiness. Besides the Pater Noster, given by Jesus to be our set-prayer, His baptism in the River Jordan points to the Divine Office, an objective daily ritual of corporate repentence that, through Jesus, discloses God’s identity and story. The road to Emmaus along with the feeding miracles of Jesus point to the Mass, where we too are fed by Jesus and his love for us through Word and Sacrament. And the myriad episodes where Jesus heals, preaches, teaches, and eats with others point toward Devotion, ministry to the creatures of the cosmos in relationship with Scripture. Regula, then, is the means by which we live; Regula articulates our corporate experience of being Christ’s Body, and the means by which we cultivate the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.

THE PURPOSE OF THE DIVINE OFFICE

Through Thornton’s theology, the specific purpose of the Divine Office as a whole (within the larger whole of Regula) is clarified. First given by Jesus to his disciples as the Pater Noster (“Our Father”), as mentioned already, the Divine Office is set-prayer that allows a 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. Its purpose is not to “sanctify the time” but to pray to the Father as Jesus would have us pray: “an eschatological proclamation of the salvation received in Christ, and a glorification and thanksgiving to God for that gift,” in the words of Roman Catholic theologian Robert Taft, SJ. Simply put, the Pater Noster is the germ of God’s theology.

And here we can see the source of our current difficulties: Christians today do not pray the Divine Office “with one accord.” Variety in prayer, not common prayer, is by far the norm. We can see this even within the narrow sample of Anglicanism within the UK and USA. Compilers of recent the most recent liturgical books, for some reason displaying remarkable permissiveness, allowed many options within the rubrics for the daily prayer liturgies—so much so that two groups could intend Morning Prayer on the same calendar day yet their actual prayer could be quite different, not at all “with one accord.” This cuts at the heart of what it means to be Catholic and apostolic. The problem, therefore, could not be clearer: we are not being faithful to prayer life in its apostolic origin.

A NEW ADDITION 

Despite what may seem to be intractable differences between contemporary liturgical forms for daily set-prayer, a solution may not be too difficult to find. What does not appear to be necessary is any kind of 100% uniformity. Robert Taft, in his magisterial analysis of the history of the Divine Office, shows in a moment’s glance that there have always been differences in practice between traditions when it comes to the Divine Office.

Instead, a smaller amendment, or addition, to what faithful Christians are already doing seems not only more realistic, but also in keeping with the spirit of the Our Father: a short, yet profoundly substantial way to pray with one accord. A well-designed addition to what Christians are already praying according to their tradition would allow diversity within the Body to continue to flourish and at the same time would provide a means for much-needed unity.

Accordingly, this is what the Prologue Office of Praise (Antelogium Laudis) is designed to be. Its invariable, fixed, and unchanging form seeks to revivify the entirety of the scheme of daily Offices, no matter which tradition is followed. It is intended to support the underlying, and original, purpose of the Divine Office as a whole: Marian awe in the face of radical otherness.

Key to its design is making universal, Catholic theology unmistakably evident within its text and enacted in its performance. In the Prologue Office of Praise (Antelogium Laudis), we celebrate the beyond-time and space, unfathomable reality of heavenly God as mediated by His mighty acts of creation, salvation, and reconciliation, initially revealed to the Old Testament prophets and the Children of Israel, and consummated definitively in the Incarnation of Christ as announced by the Holy Spirit through Angel Gabriel to Blessed Mary, Ever-Virgin, our exemplar in discipleship and witness to Christ: Our Lady truly is the Mother of the Church. This refines the purpose of the Divine Office as a whole: to invite daily through praise the unfathomable presence of divine otherness that confronted Blessed Mary. This is an otherness that confounded her in holy fear, that taught her, that empowered her. And, by baptismal incorporation into the Body of Christ, this mystery can do so for us, in a continuous and gradual unfolding of God’s revelation of himself.

As Mary intercedes that we may be made worthy to receive the promises of Christ, we enact obedience to the grace of God through the Divine Office. It is “prologue” in that it prepares us—hones us—by means of the Holy Spirit to adore, and then receive, Holy Communion. Through this heavenly food we can become Christ’s out-poured and kenotic love, most precious as it is most plenteous, in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich. But Saint Paul instructed, before we eat and drink, we are to discern the Body (1 Corinthians 11.29)—such discernment is our daily work: the Divine Office on Monday prepares us for Eucharist the following Sunday. To take the Christian claims seriously means every morning is a test of faith. Yet our obedience, often difficult and even dry feeling, patiently teaches us about Jesus and our baptismal incorporation into Him. A genuine sacramental outlook upon all of creation is a gift from God, yet we must always remember that Blessed Mary had her moments of arid boredom, too.

Likewise, our obedience means internalizing, absorbing, and living-out God’s theology. This ascetical responsibility coincides with the pastoral fact that in many cases within in a mobile society, a “global village,” there is simply less time available for daily formal set-prayer. Might not this fact, the grace of the “mixed life,” also be of divine providence? Yet we cannot forswear orthodoxy, which would deny our baptism, so a Prologue Office of Praise, which can be prayed amid a hectic, busy life as an ascetical minimum, seems quite overdue.

THE NEED FOR A SUPPLEMENT

What must be stressed is that the Prologue Office of Praise (Antelogium Laudis) is not intended as a substitute for the Cranmerian Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, or any form currently in use. The Prologue Office of Praise is not intended replace what is used now, but rather is meant to add to the daily round of set-prayer, in whatever form one follows. One can continue to do Morning and Evening Prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, as one always has, along with the daytime Hours (i.e., Terce, Sext, None, etc.). The suggestion here is to chant or recite the Prologue Office of Praise as another “hour” for daily set-prayer. This could be for a first hour of the day, for an hour right before Sunday Mass, for a Midday hour, for an evening before sleep. Any time that makes sense within the daily routine.

Why make this addition? The primary reason, again, is for ascetical unity—a truly common prayer. We need to pray a common prayer, knowing it to be common prayer. Being a concise form, it is perfect for the home, to cultivate the “domestic Church,” and it is perfect within the church grounds, such as in a chapel or in the church pews before Mass begins.

Another reason is that this Office is a form of catechesis. This is one of its great strengths. Refined to its bare theological core, the Prologue Office becomes a sturdy rock of daily doctrinal catechesis for young and old alike, experientially absorbed through memorization and singing. This points directly to the theological virtue of “Faith,” what Macquarrie called “existential knowledge” and Aidan Kavanagh called “theologia prima.” Faith is a virtue, a behavior, a willing assent. As such it requires cultivation on a daily basis. A memorizable, and hence internalized, Divine Office form expands upon the set-prayer of the Our Father by means of the Creed. God’s story, the deep truths, thus becomes our story, and this Office, by growing the virtue of Faith, becomes a sturdy rock for both catechesis and evangelization. To chant the Prologue Office of Praise is to confess doctrinal orthodoxy, a confession inwardly digested and lived-out still more through offices of Holy Silence and Readings, as well as recollectively in ministry.

This Prologue Office of Praise is fittingly seen as a pledge of allegiance to God, an eschatological proclamation of faith, the basis for “a school for the service of the Lord” in the Benedictine sense: it teaches as much through the mere habit of it as it does through its content. Our lives showly adjust to the truths embedded in this Office.

It catechizes also because it is awash in Catholic and Orthodox doctrine. This Antelogium Laudis is a theological and experiential expansion of the Pater Noster by means of the Nicene Creed. Analyzed as a whole, its text proclaims a variety of authoritative doctrine, the crucibles of the Church’s historical experience. Doctrines include that of Prevenient Grace, Baptismal Incorporation, Remnant and Adoration in the Preces; God and Metanoia in the Jubilate; of Creation, Angels, the People of God and Remnant in the Benedicite; of Incarnation, the Church, Atonement, Resurrection, Parousia and Theosis in the Te Deum; of Penitence and Adoration in the Kyrie Eleison; of the Kingdom of God in the Pater Noster; and of the Theotokos and Assumption in the Ave Regina Caelorum—these and more, directly from scriptural and scripturally derived prayers primarily of patristic ethos. Yes, these are canticles and hymns, but embedded within them is Catholic imagination: tremendous theology and glorious doctrine ecumenically celebrated.

Why the emphasis on doctrine? Because to sing the Prologue Office of Praise (Antelogium Laudis) is to confess universal truth, a constant need in the Church no matter the age. And as in the patristic era, particularly prior to Constantine, doctrinal confession manifests through joyful performance and almost secretive memorization: to memorize is to internalize, to internalize is to embody, to embody is to teach by example, with or without words. We are to serve the Lord with gladness and come before His presence with a song (Psalm 100). Singing forms us, and formation through catechesis, as theological reflection in relationship with doctrine and experience, is the beating heart of evangelization.

CONCLUSION: AN ORTHODOX AND BENEDICTINE PASTORAL SOLUTION

To reconcile the pastoral situation today with our baptismal obligation, an orthodox solution is to add a Prologue Office that is comparatively shorter, more accessible, more explicitly doctrinal—and a Benedictine and Cranmerian solution is to restore a common Office able to to be sung by laity and clergy alike: a true unity of the Church Militant. This counteracts a clergy-only Divine Office, too often our situation today, upends the entire theology of historic Prayer Book heritage. It is called the Book of Common Prayer not for nothing.

All of which is to say, this Prologue Office is pastorally attuned for a missional Church in a mobile, “post-Christian” society. It is doctrinally vigorous, yet ascetically realistic. It does not require paging through books, does not discriminate against the illiterate, young or old, and can be sung anywhere and at any time, whether in the morning, noonday, or evening: whenever the holiness of beauty is disclosed (Psalm 29).

This Office is also family-friendly. For those with young children, its second half—Kyrie Eleison, Pater Noster, and Ave Regina Caelorum—is a gentle place to start for adult and children alike, and it is quickly memorizable. Subsequently, the Jubilate can be added, followed in turn by the Benedicite and Te Deum, first in portions and then in their entireties. Because even the youngest of children, through the help and example of their parents, day by day can magnify God, and worship His Name ever world without end. May we join Ananias, Azariah, and Misael, the three holy children—saved by God in the fiery furnace of His abundant and gracious love. And in so doing, may we sing—may we trumpet!—our love of our heavenly Father, who confers upon us our very being, and who gives for our salvation His only Son, Jesus Christ.

As a final note, the reason that the Prologue Office of Praise uses classic, non-contemporary language—also known as “sacral English”—is two-fold. The first is to be consistent with the sensibility of the Pater Noster, the prayer that controls the theology of the Divine Office; despite it too being non-contemporary, it is nonetheless beloved today—”art,” “thy,” and “thine” are familiar precisely because the prayer is used. Likewise, the more one uses the JubilateBenedicite, and Te Deum, the more “ye,” “hath,” and the rest become familiar and second nature.

And the second follows from the first. Without question, the sacral English translations simply sing better: the phrasing and literary sensibility of that era have more musicality and hence more poetical allure. Contemporary does not necessarily mean improved, and a persuasive case can be made that contemporary translations of these prayers obstruct rather than edify. The translations selected here are better to sing, theologically more transparent, and, in the case of the Benedicite, shorter. The choice therefore is obvious. We are, after all, to bring the first fruits of our ground into the house of the Lord our God (Exodus 23.19). Not only Truth, and not only Goodness, but also Beauty adores our Maker, our Lover, and our Keeper—for He is their source.

CONCLUDING PRAYER

Heavenly Father, who bestowed upon your Church from its first baptismal moments the grace of Regula: capacitate us to love you, the Lord our God, with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our Mind; and likewise enable us by your presence to love our neighbor as our self, that our life in response to you can indeed become holy, holy, holy; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, our comforter, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton. 

 

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 a more profound embrace of the total life of obedience ordered by Prayer Book heritage. Veni, Creator Spiritus!

“So it is that the Benedictine Way really underlies the Book of Common Prayer, where the same trinity of liturgy, office and personal prayer is found for the joy of us all.”

—Archbishop Michael Ramsey (15 July 1965 at Nashdom Abbey)

“The Prayer Book system embodies the ethos of our Church which is founded on scripture, interpreted by tradition, which is not only articulated by the catholic creeds (perhaps more commonly used in the Prayer Book liturgies than in any other liturgical regime) but which is also expressed by the spirit-filled continuity of life in the Church and the ways in which we have sought together to respond to the demands of successive generations.”

(Bishop Richard Chartres from “Afterword” in The Book of Common Prayer: Past, Present, and Future, edited by Prudence Dailey. London: Continuum, 2011.)

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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Notes on Luke’s account of the Baptism of our Lord

There are several things to recognize in the account in the Gospel According to St Luke of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan. I’ll take note of what I’ve found, doing so in no particular order. Here is the passage (according to the BCP lectionary):

As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”

1. One is how appropriate this moment in Scripture is during the celebration of Epiphany. The word “epiphany” 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” (T. Hopko, The Winter Pascha, ch 31). Epiphany in the West begins with the liturgical meditation upon the role that the Star of Light plays in guiding us to the truth of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth — a guiding that is modeled by the Wise Men who bring gifts to the new King. Their recognition of Christ’s Kingship represents the recognition of Christ’s reality as for all peoples, all nations, all souls. Christ’s reality is a universal reality. In each of the Gospel accounts, Christ’s public ministry began. It “showed itself”. The nature of his mission was disclosed for the first time: to the world, but also (perhaps) to himself.

2. The baptism that all four Evangelists chronicle is not a Christian baptism. Rather, the nature of this baptism is that of a Jewish rite “signifying purification or consecration” (“Baptism”, Jewish Encyclopedia). It was an ascetical act “to form a part of holy living and to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God”. To say that the baptized person is now “illuminated” meant to a Jew that he or she “now belongs to Israel, the people beloved of God”. This Jewish rite was an “absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled” by a person and was called a “seal”. In early Jewish literature, never canonical or binding for Christians, Adam and Eve “stood up to the neck in the water, fasting and doing penance—Adam in the Jordan for forty days, Eve in the Tigris for thirty-seven days”. In early Jewish homiletical tradition, the repentance of Israel issues in “the spirit of God (hovering like a bird with outstretched wings), manifested in the spirit of the Messiah, will come [or “the Holy One, blessed be He! will spread His wings and bestow His grace”] upon Israel”, and baptism was required to stand in the presence of God. Unlike Christian baptism, Jewish baptism was repeatable. Thus it was more existential than ontological. For some Jews, daily baptism was required “in order to pronounce the name of God in prayer in perfect purity”. Baptism cleansed from the “impurity of idolatry”: Talmudic commentary understood Pharaoh’s daughter’s bathing in the Nile to have been for this purpose. The theology of baptism in general was derived not primarily from biblical Law but through practice. By way of accrued symbolism, the baptism restored the unclean to an “original state of a new-born ‘little child'”, and the baptized were “suddenly brought from darkness into light” (for all quotes, ibid.)

3. Place matters: the River Jordan itself has a very significant biblical history. It may easily be understood as “sacred space”. The Jordan valley was “well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD” (Gen 13.10). Moses, in leading the children of Israel to the Promised Land, never crossed the River Jordan. This River was a boundary to the Promised Land — “the place where God would dwell with His people providing them with the endless blessings of His presence” (Hopko, ch 33). Moses instead died before crossing this boundary. This might be symbolically understood that for us the Law is necessary to salvation, but not itself sufficient. The Law is not enough. It was Moses’ successor, Joshua (which literally means Savior, and is the Hebrew form of the Greek word Jesus) who leads the children of Israel to the Promised Land. Joshua’s crossing issued in a parting of the waters in the presence of God’s people, including the Ark of the Covenant. This allowed the people of God to pass through into their place of final destination. The Lord commanded Joshua to remove twelve stones from the Jordan, where the priests stood, and pile them together for an eternal memorial of this miracle given by the Lord (Josh 1-4). Additionally, The Jordan was crossed by Elijah and Elisha on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8, 2:14). God thrived through Elisha performing two other miracles at the Jordan: God healed Naaman by having him bathe in its waters, and he made the axe head of one of the “children of the prophets” float, by throwing a piece of wood into the water (2  Kings 5:14; 6:6). Thus the River Jordan is a “sacred space” because it is part of the “living memory” of Israel. That Christ washed in these waters means that we wash in these waters through our baptism, the action of which is His. We cannot just wash in “any old river” and be clean; God says no. “Only through the Jordan do we enter into the land of the living, the promised land of God’s kingdom” (Hopko, ch 33). The waters of the Jordan sanctify us forever.

trinity4. Continuing the theme of “appearance” and “manifestation” from paragraph 1, this event manifests for the first time the mystery of Holy Trinity. This is the true nature of reality. The true nature of reality is triune — that is, God is Holy Trinity. This is a truly great mystery. Triunity was hinted at dimly and in shadows through the previous covenants with Israel. Blessed Mary, Our Lady, surely had some glimpse of triune reality in her life lived as a Jewish woman (soaked in Scripture), her “Yes” to God through the Annunciation by Gabriel, and her giving birth, nurturing, and pondering in her heart the life of her son, Jesus of Nazareth. We note that with the public emergence and manifestation of Christ as Messiah comes the emergence of the Holy Spirit as a “unique divine person” (Hopko, ch 32). We can observe the pattern by which Jesus himself recognized triune nature. Amid the communal rite of baptism and a widely shared sense of “expectation” and discernment, heaven opened: God the Father “spoke” to Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form as a dove, descended upon him. This pattern involves prayer, experience, reflection, sacred space, and a corporate (rather than individual) basis for life. (This pattern is repeated and retrieved by the apostles in the Lukan narrative of Pentecost; and here St Luke more explicitly associates the Holy Spirit with the sense of fire to which John the Baptist alludes.) Thus we can learn from Christ: for how Jesus realizes the triune nature of reality should be a model for how we realize triune nature.

5. Luke’s narrative emphasizes that Christ is the full and final revelation of God. This happens through Luke’s details: What is left out of the the Gospel reading (vv. 19-20) is that Herod imprisoned John. Christ’s anointing (or recognition of triune reality and his own true nature as God the Son) follows after the ministry of John the Baptist rather than overlaps it (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, vol 3, p. 67). Furthermore, unlike the Markan and Matthean accounts of the Baptism of our Lord, the Lukan account shifts all attention to Jesus. Here there is no sense that John baptized Jesus; Luke “virtually removes John from the scene” (ibid, p. 71).  He extends the distance between John’s baptism and Jesus. Rather, it seems as if the baptism, and triune anointing, occurs amid a crowd of Jewish people. All of this reinforces two conclusions: John the Baptist is the final prophet of the Old Testament, and Jesus Christ (although continuous in many respects with all of the biblical history of the children of Israel) is a unique and singular emergence to the world of God’s nature and God’s identity.

transfiguration6. In addition to comparing this moment to Pentecost, we can compare this moment to the Transfiguration story (Lk 9.28-36). In both cases, we the readers are given access to an “empowerment and declaration that takes place between God and Jesus in the communication that is prayer” (Johnson, p. 71). In both cases, what happens is a mix of public and private, of objective reality and subjective recognition. Particularly in the baptism narrative, we are somehow privy to the thoughts of Christ. This is the first such access we have in Luke. Luke’s first words from the mouth of Jesus are in the temple as a boy of age 12. But here (as in the Lukan Transfiguration narrative)  he does not even speak. He prays, he listens, he experiences. In all of this, he discloses his true nature for others to witness and behold.

7. From Luke there is a strong emphasis on the physical nature of the Holy Spirit. The dove was “in bodily form, as a dove”. It is useful to recall biblical precedents for “structural similarity” (Johnson, 71). Such precedents include the Annunciation (1.35) and the angelic song (2.14) from the infancy narrative. In the Annunciation, the Spirit “comes down” and reveals the name of God; what’s more, this power will “overshadow” Mary. This brings to mind the “hovering” of God’s spirit over the face of the deep in Genesis 1.2, and points again to the Transfiguration narrative, where “a cloud came and overshadowed” Peter, James, and John. And provocatively, Luke’s emphasis on the physical nature the Holy Spirit as a dove calls to mind the dove over the waters in Genesis 8.8 at the end of the flood. There, it was the dove sent by Noah that acted as an agent of completion to the event of the flood. Through the dove, Noah and the rest on the Ark were restored to right relationship with creation. All was well again. Through the dove came a uniting, a reconciling, a harmonizing with creation. And the action of the dove issued in God’s speaking to Noah (which parallels God’s speaking to Jesus), God’s articulation of his covenant with all peoples, a visible disclosure (the rainbow), and a sense of mission for Noah (“be fruitful and multiply”). When we recall that following all Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus is the commencing of Christ’s public ministry, his own mission becomes a fulfillment of the promise God made to Noah.

emmaus8. Concluding thoughts. Any reflection upon Scripture is best served through the lens of ascetical theology. That lens issues in the question: how does this passage impinge on my own life of prayer. Another way to say that is to ask, what can I take from this to help me be a better disciple of Christ, to “delight in his will and walk in his ways”?

The baptism of our Lord in the River Jordan demonstrates to us that prayer life rooted in Christ is trinitarian. When we rooted our prayer life in Christ, we are at the River Jordan with him, and he for us. The way the ancient Jewish people understood baptism (as a daily event) is the way Christians understand prayer (a daily, and even ongoing and continuous happening).

Christian prayer life is a matter of discernment, colloquy, and purification. We discern through patient reflection and contemplation given the facts, situations, and challenges our life poses to us. We colloquy through conversation with God and by opening ourselves to listening to God’s disclosure. We purify through our receiving of the Sacraments, particularly Penance and Eucharist, which restore the holiness of our Baptism and seals the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit throughout our prayer.

As we discern, colloquy and purify we shouldn’t feel the necessity to be able to come to words about our experiences — that is, what are sensing God’s will might be. We can take solace that Christ didn’t immediately come to terms, either. What does give us solace is that our prayer in Christ washes away our separation from him, and from the true nature of reality.

When we root our prayer life in Christ, we acknowledge the words of God the Father, that Jesus is his beloved Son. This acknowledging is praise to God the Father, praise that Christ mediates. Christ-centered prayer likewise gives praise to the Holy Spirit, not a mere afterthought or decoration on this moment, but rather a real, physical, personal Being that unites our biblical imagination with the Annunciation, the Transfiguration, Pentecost, and the covenant and mission that issued from the end of the Flood. Thus Christian prayer is modeled by Christ’s baptism: an act of Christian prayer is an event of Trinity; a life of Christian prayer is a journey to the realization of Trinity. In reuniting with triune reality through prayer in Christ, we become reconciled to God’s creation. And it begins as Christ modeled and thus how St Benedict began his rule: we must listen.

Neither “Liberal” nor “Conservative”; and a whole bunch more

Father Thomas Fraser, who is rector of St Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois (and theological consultant to Akenside Press) recently wrote a number of short pieces that he distributed to the parish. These are posted at the “Catholic FAQ” page on the parish’s website, along with a number of others. In each case, he touches on topics that are crucial to any renewal of Catholic reality in Anglican parishes.

QA_150In one, he responded to the question, “Is St Paul’s Parish liberal or conservative?” He began:

St Paul’s is neither liberal nor conservative in the popular sense of those words. St Paul’s is theological. That is, it takes the historic theology of the Universal Church very seriously; and faithfulness to Catholic theology – not partisan politics or “being PC” – is the basis for all judgments, decisions, teaching, formation, and practice here.

Read the whole piece (PDF). In my own opinion, that parishes work to cultivate a theological culture, rather than a political culture, is absolutely essential to Catholic renewal. As Father Fraser goes on to say, of course any parish is going to have for its members people of both liberal and conservative persuasions (and the grey areas in between). But what is at the center of this culture — a political agenda (whether liberal, conservative, or mixed), or God and His theology (i.e., the liturgical and sacramental life)? Unless it is God and His theology, then any renewal will simply not last. An ideological rather than theological renewal might stir up activity for a time, but it will peter out. A theological culture is centered around truth: God, ultimate reality.

In another piece, even shorter, Father Fraser gives a brief explanation of why the parish service leaflet says the following:

Being Benedictine means that St Paul’s is
Christian, Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian
in that order. And we are here to stay.

Those words themselves are almost thought-provoking enough. What he says about them you can read here. Personally, I love that those words are in our parish service leaflet. They serve to keep our ecclesial priorities in order, because the emphasis is on spirituality and theology rather than polity (which is important but over-emphasized).

In a third piece, he responds to the question, “What is St Paul’s relationship to ‘the larger church’?” Owing to the fact that this subject is perhaps more complicated, I will give a longer excerpt from Father Fraser’s response:

As I have said so often, theology really is important to all of us; it is not just something of interest merely to those sorts of people who like that sort of thing. Here we see again the crucial importance of ones doctrine of the church.

In general the Protestant teaching about the institutional (“visible”) Church is that the Church is a human sociological institution (like schools and universities, hospitals, libraries, etc.) whose basic function is Christian fellowship, inspiration, and education. In general in Protestantism the only operative salvific/theological element is the person’s own “individual relationship with Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior.” Therefore if one has a relationship with a church body it implies/proclaims/certifies that the person accepts that church body’s teaching and practice, i.e. its fellowship, inspiration, and education.

The Catholic Doctrine of the Church (held by the Early Christian Church and continued unbroken to the present by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Old Catholics, and the Oriental Churches) is that the Catholic Church is a Sacrament, the foundational Sacrament that actually makes present the Kingdom of God and administers the seven Sacraments, the principal means by which God gives His people salvific grace.

This means that the “visible” (institutional) Church on Earth was established by Jesus Christ Himself to continue His Incarnation – to be His physical Body here authoritatively continuing His ministry – until He returns again at the end of the age (the Parousia). The Catholic Church is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and is a divine, not a human, institution. Anglicanism teaches, based on Our Lord’s own teaching, that the Catholic Church while not infallible (it can err) is indefectible (it cannot remain in error; in the fullness of God’s time, the Holy Spirit will lead it back into all truth). What, therefore, is indispensable about the Church (“the deal breaker”) is not its immediate fellowship, inspiration, or education, but its sacramental validity.

And he goes on to say a good deal more, all of which I recommend.

Renewal tends to happen when basic questions are asked and explored anew. In this case, “what is ‘church’?” and within that, what is it for? As he has said in other writing — such as this one — there really is an enormous difference between how “church” is defined according to a general Protestant understanding and how it is defined according to a Catholic understanding. One might say that the difference boils down to taking the words, “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic” seriously, with each word pointing to and consummating profound theological recognitions. How these recognitions begin to reorient and reorder one’s life in Christ in terms of everyday living become, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, “the message”.

pentecostThe Church is, after all, not an end unto itself, but rather a “medium” by which the incarnation, life, and mission of Jesus Christ is extended and grown. The “message of this medium” involves our total life, ontologically changed and then fed by the Sacraments, continuously in relationship with God’s immeasurable love whether we recognize his grace or not. But it does matter that we attempt to recognize his loving grace. To do so, even when we don’t want to, is the call of the Christian life of prayer.

It is not that what we do is the fundamental bottom line for salvation. No — it is not what we do, but what God does, and how God imagines us. But we are called to respond. Our Prayer Book says it succinctly: prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. Notice the emphasis on action, even as ‘action’ here is broadly defined. We are not called to be doormats amid a watching of God’s beautiful emanations all around us in creation, as if salvation is like watching the correct television show. There is no place for passivity in the life dedicated to walking with Christ. We are called to activity.

All of this is fully in line with the recognition that Anglicanism is pragmatic — that is, rooted in doing, in practice (some call this ‘praxis’). Unlike schools of spirituality that are “confessional” (where membership requires assent to a list of doctrinal propositions) or “charismatic” (where membership requires an affirmation of an individual spiritual experience), the English-Anglican School roots membership in doing.

This is, however, to say more than merely a churchy version of “half of life is just showing up”. Why? Because “just showing up” is I suppose active, but only minimally so. It is far too passive to be an authentic response to God’s calling. Yes, you have to “show up” to the Liturgy. But the Liturgy is not a movie, nor a theatrical performance. The Liturgy is God making Himself known to us through profound conversation and interaction. The Liturgy presuppose participation of a particularly profound kind. It is rather an immersion: the senses, the mind, the body, the heart.

And it is not just on Sundays and days of Holy Obligation. The liturgical life is continuous, Sunday to Sunday, Easter to Easter. As Martin Thornton writes, “the ‘liturgy’ is not worship, it is a system”. This system is the dynamic interaction of Mass, Office, and personal devotion (usually Bible meditation). It bleeds into, and fuels, the ordained ministry of the Laity — the people of God — to seek and serve Christ in others and in all of creation. To say that the liturgical life is continuous is simply to take God’s love seriously: it is immeasurable, it comes before and precedes anything we do — this is what “prevenient grace” means. Any pragmatic School of spirituality makes prevenient grace central to its self-understanding.

The English-Anglican School is pragmatic, yes. But perhaps it is better to call it “ascetical”. The term “pragmatic” has virtually lost all sense of its original meaning, rooted in “to do”. It now is commonly recognized as meaning practical and non-ideological: “what works”. The common definition leads in a different direction than a life lived following the steps of Christ. I guess if you meditate upon that common definition, you might still be able to detect echoes of the original meaning. But that is stretching too far. Ascetical is better, and a term from the Pauline Epistles and the early Church.

To say that the Anglican School is ascetical recognizes that the daily participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of Christ is participation rooted in our response to become disciples of Christ, and to deepen our relationship with, and likeness to, God (theosis). To call the Anglican School ascetical recognizes that this participation is a journey — one that proceeds through one’s entire life and into the next (from the Church Militant to the Church Expectant and hopefully to the Church Triumphant).

To call the Anglican School ascetical is to recognize that God’s plunging of our identities into the vast possibilities of Triune reality and discernment — a plunging accomplished through the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation — must issue in activity that is led by Christ. His own baptism in the River Jordan models this. Upon his immersion in water, Jesus heard God the Father speaking and was anointed by the Holy Spirit. And his ministry thus officially began.

“Pragmatic” is being there. “Ascetical” is being Triune.

“I am baptized, therefore I adore”

How do we understand the work of the Holy Spirit in baptism? That question immediately demands two more: first, what is the source of our understanding? and second, what is the content of our understanding?

To the first, we recognize that historic, Catholic Anglicanism affirms with the whole Church lex orandi, lex credendi. Our liturgies state our doctrine. There was, after all, never a time that the holy Church was not liturgical. Hence our primary source for how we understand baptism in terms of doctrine is our baptismal liturgy, which summarizes the biblical revelation and the revealed experience of the Church for two-thousand years. As Saint Basil (d. 379) writes: “we must make our confession of faith in the same terms as our baptism. Since we have received those terms from the baptismal tradition, [we] glorify God with the same terms we use to profess our faith.”

As far as the second question, within Anglican parrimony we can look to the historic Book of Common Prayer for useful points of departure. The 1662 BCP reads: “None can enter into the kingdom of God, except he be regenerate and born anew of Water and of the Holy Ghost.” Thus the Spirit is the key to “entry into the Christian life,” writes John Macquarrie. The Spirit brings “the regenerating grace of baptism,” according to Basil. Yet here we must be clear; for as Macquarrie reminds us, ultimately “Christ remains the true minister of every sacrament.”

The Spirit begets sanctification. The liturgy reads, “wash him and sanctify him with the Holy Ghost,” and this echoes Saint Basil: “the water accomplishes our death, while the Spirit raises us to life. . . . If there is any grace in the water, it does not comes from the nature of the water, but from the Spirit’s presence.” Basil calls the Spirit “the perfector,” which is to say, He who seasons and matures us, who strengthens us, the “holy Comforter,” in a term that is traditional but still meaningful.

Baptism puts us into a mystical relationship with God. The key moment of the 1662 liturgy — “I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” — bears this out. And look here at this curious word, “name.” As Heidegger points out, to name is “to command,” “to invite,” “to call forth.” To be baptized is to be called by God; therefore baptism sets in motion a process only through which we are able to discern God’s will. Or as Basil summarizes, “to worship in the Spirit implies that our intelligence has been enlightened.” Because of the Spirit in baptism, Schmemann emphasizes, the world is again Eucharistic. Basil resounds, in a most startling passage:

Through the holy Spirit comes our restoration to Paradise, our ascension to the Kingdom of Heaven, our adoption as God’s sons, our freedom to call God our Father, our becoming partakers of the grace of Christ, being called children of light, sharing in eternal glory, and in a word, our inheritance of the fullness of blessing, both in this world and in the world to come. Even while we wait for the full enjoyment of the good things in store for us, by the Holy Spirit we are able to rejoice through faith in the promise of the graces to come.

The Spirit, he continues, gives “the baptism of salvation.” Macquarrie reminds us that the word “baptism” means “to plunge” or “to immerse.” Through the Spirit, the baptized person is immersed in a universe of saving grace. Only the baptized can truly say, “all is grace.” The new creation of baptism — “the beginning of life, the first of days”, writes Basil — transforms being-in-the-world from the salvific scarcity of Original Sin to the salvific abundance of our prior Original Righteousness (that is, pre-Fall).

The Spirit enables us to model our lives on Christ’s example. Because the new creation is Eucharistic, “all things belonging to the Spirit may live and grow in him,” reads 1662. We are able to receive salvific grace, the things belonging to the Spirit. Through His workings in baptism, the Spirit prepares us to receive the Sacraments that provide strength and renewal of our baptism.

This is how we can speak of each Sunday is a “little Easter” — which is to say, a renewal of our baptismal vows. Macquarrie here reminds us that baptism is “not only a turning to Christ; it is a turning with Christ or in Christ. . . . This sharing in Christ’s own baptism . . . is also a kind of ordination, a call to the lay apostolate, to share in the general priesthood of the Church.”

The Spirit, Himself a gift, also gives gifts. Through Confirmation (a mature affirmation of the baptismal ordination vows), we receive through the Spirit the “manifold gifts of grace” (1662). This is to say, simply but astonishingly, the Spirit renders more expansive our consciousness — what we are aware of. The Spirit establishes new boundaries of perception, to use a phrase from the 1960s.

Only in the Spirit can we truly “adore.” That word’s true meaning is seen etymologically from the Latin, ad + orare, literally “to pray toward.” Basil writes, “It is the unique function of the Spirit to reveal mysteries” and we must prefer nothing but Christ in our daily disposition. From 1662, “daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more, until he come unto thy everlasting kingdom.” Baptism begins a journey. Perhaps this points to the pithiest way to understand what the Spirit does in baptism. For His presence and actions enable nothing less than the capacity for theosis, the uniting with God body and soul. Hence one might say, contra Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” a genuinely Christianized improvement: “I am baptized, therefore I adore.”

Works cited
Basil. On the Holy Spirit. Translated by David Anderson. Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980.

Heidegger, Martin. What Is Called Thinking? New York, New York: Harper, 1976.

Macquarrie, John. A Guide to the Sacraments. New York, New York: Continuum, 1997.

Schememann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1960.

The Book of Common Prayer. 1662.