Tag Archives: Blessed Mary

Homily: “On the Angels”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, 2017.

The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels has historically in English tradition been an occasion for great celebration and revelry. Coming as it does in the heart of the harvest season, food always played a significant role in the popular piety surrounding this feast. This explains in part why the nickname for this feast in English tradition is “Michaelmas.” There is a play on words in there, because while “Michael” in this pronunciation refers of course to the Archangel Michael, or more traditionally, “Mick-aye-el,” it also refers to a now archaic word in the English language, “mickle,” which means “much” or “large amount.” There is no more efficient way to a person’s heart than through the stomach, and so the culinary plenitude associated with this feast, along with the linguistic playfulness of “mickle”-mas are two reasons why it has been disproportionately celebrated in English Christianity, particularly in the Medieval centuries. Is it any wonder, then, why God has guided us to our post-Mass celebration we today christen as the first annual “Tazewell Parish Pie-Luck”? Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals . . .” and pies both savory and sweet, I am sure the compilers of our Prayer Book thought to include.

We celebrate today the Holy Angels, who always serve and worship God in heaven, and help and defend us mortals here on earth. Continue reading

Homily: “On Saint Mary the Virgin”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, 2017.

This is the day when we recognize and venerate the Mother of God under the title “Saint Mary the Virgin.” It for The Episcopal Church is the central feast of Mary in the Church year. Now, this is fitting because it is also the central feast of Mary of the universal Church, although our sister churches use different names for it than we do.

In the Church of Rome, that is the churches of Roman Catholicism in communion with the Bishop of Rome, this day is celebrated as the Assumption of Mary. That term, “assumption,” is a technical term that refers to the understanding that upon reaching the end of her earthly life, Mary was taken by God—“assumed”—body and soul into heaven; meaning, her whole person and personality is alive and forever adoring God almighty in the Church Triumphant. Now, although when the Church of Rome made this an official teaching there was at that time, and it remains the case today, some controversy at their doing so, we must keep this in perspective. Just as siblings in a family are forever finding ways to be irritated at each other, members of the Christian Church family do the same. Yet this teaching, and specifically the technical term “assumption,” says nothing more than what we profess each Sunday during the Nicene Creed—that we believe in the Resurrection of the Body. We could substitute the word “assumption” for “resurrection” without changing any of the meaning. Continue reading

Homily: “On the Good Soil”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year A), 2017.

In our Collect this morning, we petition God to receive the prayers of His people who call upon Him so that they may understand and know what they ought to do. It is a simple request, but we should not be deceived by its simplicity and think it a mundane sort of question. Rather, let us regard this petition as a noble inquiry, one we should always be making, even daily—after all, our Collect contains the two central questions of serious discipleship asked by the first disciples to Saint Peter on the Day of Pentecost. The first was, “What does this mean?” and the second was “What shall we do?”

We could do far worse than make for ourselves a habit of asking these two questions whenever we are in prayer, or reading the Bible, or reflecting on a sermon. Asking these two questions are part of our responsibility, our responsiveness, to God and His loving initiative of coming to us with His Word. The first Christians’ response to God’s initiative on Pentecost was to ask these two questions—What does it mean? What shall we do?—and so we can see that part of the Gospel pattern we are to perceive and make our own is to ourselves ask these questions when we are presented with, or caught by, God and the claim He makes on us and our lives. Continue reading

The Anglican Spiritual Tradition, parts 1 and 2

By Martin Thornton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homily: “On Forgiveness, part five”

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

The fifth of the Seven Last Words of Jesus was recorded by Saint John in the nineteenth chapter of his Gospel. We are close to the very end of Jesus’s life on earth. Mocked and spat upon, crucified on the Cross, His garments torn, the words to Mary His Mother and His Beloved Disciple John having been bestowed upon them, John tells us that “knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture,) “I thirst.” This, the fifth Word of Jesus—“I thirst.” Continue reading

Homily: “On Forgiveness, part three”

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

In the Western Christian liturgical tradition, the fourth Sunday in the season of Lent has five more names. That one—the Fourth Sunday in Lent—as well as Laetare Sunday (because the first words of the Mass used to be “Laetare Jerusalem”, meaning “Rejoice, Jerusalem”); Rose Sunday, both because Popes used to bless a gold ornament in the shape of a rose and because rose-colored vestments are permitted on this day; mid-Lent Sunday, because it falls halfway between the beginning of Lent and Easter Sunday; Refreshment Sunday, because those keeping the Lenten fasting practice were encouraged to take a break, such as by eating sweet or rich foods; and finally, this day is called Mothering Sunday, which is the origin of our Mother’s Day. A lovely tradition of Mothering Sunday still widely observed is the Simnel Cake, a delicious cake blessed during the Mass and enjoyed during coffee hour. There are in fact more names for this day, which attests to its popularity among the laity; but I think six names are enough to mention at this point.

I have a particular fondness for the association of this day as Mothering Sunday. God commands us, of course, to honor our mother, as well as our father. The particular bonds of deep affection a mother has for her child are something no mother needs explained to them, and no father best question.

And the same applies toward our spiritual and baptismal Mother, who is Blessed Mary. Can there be any doubt that Mary loves the Church with profound affection? The Church is made up of those people we are baptized into the Body of Jesus—baptized the Body of her Son. A Son whose nature and parentage were revealed to Mary, announced to Mary, by the archangel Gabriel; a Son who when still very young was proclaimed to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel”, that a sword would pierce through Mary’s soul also, an image that led Mary to the foot of the Cross. Continue reading

On Marian Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably the most common image of Blessed Mary and Jesus Christ together is that of the arrival of the three kings who followed a star, and found the Child and His family, giving Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Often that bright star is seen depicted over the small gathering. There are countless paintings, icons, and songs—we all have this image deeply ingrained in our imaginations. This image been fueling imaginations for two thousand years. Epiphany comes on the heels of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which completed last night with the Twelfth Night, an image also deeply ingrained in society for many centuries, even so through Shakespeare and other ways, one tradition of which we will celebrate in a small way after this Mass with the traditional King’s Cake.

So what is going on in all this? How do we understand all this through prayer and prayerful reflection? In our Collect, we are asking God to lead us, like the Magi were led. We are asking God to manifest Himself so that through faith we know Him, just as the Magi knew Him as manifested in His physical presence with His Mother—that we may know Him in His glory, and even face to face. “Glory”—that word is used in the Bible to tell us something of which cannot easily be spoken. Glory is always a sign of the presence of God, the presence of divine holiness. That something sacred, something wonderful is taking place. So we see that even simple reflection on the words provided by our liturgy beckons a mystical reflection on this, the Epiphany of Jesus. Continue reading

Homily: “On the Holy Name, the Mother of God, and the Circumcision”

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

The Father of all of creation, of all that is, seen and unseen, has given His only begotten Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the holy Name of Jesus. This holy Name is for us the sign of our salvation. And what a wondrous Name Jesus is! Look at all that it includes: Jesus means Lord, both merciful and gracious; a Lord slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness; Jesus means forgiveness and yet firm in right and wrong; Jesus means holiness, yet a Name that demands obedience—that is, demands our deepest listening; it is a Name that means wonderful counselor, Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Everlasting Father. It is a Name that echoes in all the joyful noises made by infants and children. It is a Name that means oil poured out.

The Holy Name of Jesus includes all this, and more, and yet it also transcends our ability to define this Name. When anything is praised, the most truest and profound sense of that praise is the Name Jesus. Jesus is a mystical Name—a Name that changes our wills, a Name that does not destroy who we are, but perfects who we are. This is a Name that works wonders, in whose light we see Light—a Name that counsels us to repentance and the ordering of our lives. This Name, this Jesus! He fought and won against all the forces of evil. This Name, this Jesus! He is the Father and Mother of the world to come, and this world to come will live in endless peace through His Name. A mystical Name above all names.

Each of the major Catholic traditions of the holy Church today give this Holy Day, the first day of the new calendar year, a distinct emphasis. The Church of Canterbury, that is to say, Anglicans, today emphasizes the holy naming of Jesus. The Church of Rome today emphasizes the revealing of Blessed Mary as the Mother of God. Mary had already known intuitively through the angelic Annunciation of Gabriel that his Babe in swaddling clothes is the Son of the Most High, and she knew His Name was to be Jesus; Joseph also knew through an angelic greeting in a dream this Babe’s Name. That lowly shepherds flocked to them in haste and told them they heard the same thing, also from angels, must have thrown both Mary and Joseph into a deep contemplation, indeed that they were a Holy Family; and Luke tells us Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. To the shepherds, Mary is thereby revealed as the Mother of God. Hence the devout emphasis given by our sister Church of Rome.

The oldest tradition, which used to be the universal pattern for all Catholic traditions, is to celebrate today the Circumcision of Jesus, a moment we hear in our Gospel in these words—“At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he we conceived in the womb.” Today, the Church of Constantinople—the Eastern Orthodox traditions, also our sisters—continue to celebrate the Circumcision. Why was Jesus circumcised? It was not because he needed to be purified or to prevent Him from sin, for He was the Son of God. He chose to be circumcised to establish solidarity with God’s covenant with Abraham and with his posterity. He chose to faithfully fulfill and conform to divine ordinance, “conform in all respects to the rites and ceremonies of Judaism, to everything hitherto accounted sacred and binding.” (source.) His circumcision proves for us that Jesus is not illusion, no apparition. He is a real person, then a small baby of flesh and blood.

And in this circumcision began His passion, His suffering for our transgressions, for which He lived His whole life. In His circumcision is the first shedding of Precious Blood, the first overshadowing of the Cross. Christ was circumcised to that His Previous Blood would begin to flow to soften the hardest hearts of sinners. We too are circumcised, with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ, being buried with Him in baptism. May we continually receive our circumcision, which by baptism is of the whole human person and hence a more mature circumcision, and may we receive it through our disciplined prayer life. By grace may we experience the daily circumcision of our hearts.

Indeed this Name is a sign of our salvation—for through it, behold what is revealed: a real person in Jesus who bleeds preciously, yet He is divine; a real Mother in Mary, who gave birth yet remains ever a Virgin; a real man in Joseph, not a father yet a genuine protector. Mysteries abound on this day! Heavenly God, let all them that put their trust in You rejoice; they shall ever be giving of thanks, because You defend them; they that love your Name shall be joyful in You. Amen.

The cover image “The circumcision of Christ, Preobrazhenski monastry, Bulgaria” by Preslav is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Homily: “Religion and the Wedding Banquet”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 17, Year C)

Religion is how we love God. It is through our religion that we are able, by the grace of God, to seek and serve Christ in all persons. In our Collect this week—and let me point out here that the Collect is provided to us by the Church not only as an important prayer on a given Sunday, but as a gift for each day of the following week, that is, today through Saturday; to take time during the week, even every day, to reflect on the Collect is a good and holy activity; for when we pray with the Collect at home, we emphasize the relationship between Sunday worship and our home life, and we invite that relationship to bear fruit—in our Collect, we affirm that all good things come from God: Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things. That is, we affirm that He is the creator and we are His creatures—we are His people and the sheep of His pasture.

We need to constantly, every day, many times a day even, affirm this right relationship between ourselves and God. We need this because when we are aware of the right relationship between ourselves and God, we are far less prone to sin, that is, to make choices that lead into degrees of separation from God. When we are aware—really aware, not merely intellectually, but profoundly—of the right relationship between ourselves and God, of Creator and Creature, then almost immediately humility grows in our bodies and souls, and fills our heart—humility fills us so that our souls, to quote Blessed Mary, magnify the Lord. Constantly recalling this right relationship, and living and being into that relationship, is what Saint Luke is telling us today: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Jesus is speaking of how we are to act at a wedding banquet. Brothers and sisters, we do this passage from Saint Luke a great disservice if we make it too small. The wedding feast is not small, but large—inexpressibly large. We must recall that throughout Scripture Jesus presents himself as the Bridegroom, and the Church as His Bride. The wedding feast, then, is the relationship between God and the Church.

Lest that sound abstract, let me be quite specific: we are amid the wedding banquet right now, because the Mass is the “sacred banquet in which, through the communion of the body and blood of the Lord, the people of God share the benefits of [Christ’s] sacrifice, renew the new covenant with us made once and for all by God in Christ’s blood, and in faith and hope foreshadow and anticipate the [heavenly] banquet in the Father’s kingdom” [1].

This is what is meant by wedding feast—not small, but incomprehensibly immense. God is the author and giver of all good things—and He gives all good things for our enjoyment, because in enjoying and celebrating what God has made, we enjoy and celebrate Him. That happens in more abundance the more that the love of God’s Name is, to quote our Collect, grafted in our hearts. It happens as God, to again quote our Collect, increases in us true religion.

Religion is how we love God. Religion is how God nourishes us—religion is what nourished the first Christians at the Day of Pentecost, for what issued forth from what must have been that stupendously powerful day was religion: Saint Luke wrote that they continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Acts 2:42). We ask God to increase this in us—increase in us true religion, says our Collect. Meaning, there is false religion—activity that instead of binding us to God, binds us to false gods, idols, or lies. The mark of true religion is that through it, God is glorified: more specifically, the mark of true religion is the bearing of fruit—good works that give glory to God’s holy and mighty Name.

And lest that sound abstract, let Saint Luke be quite specific: Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

So, we might ask ourselves, are we no longer to share meals with our friends or members of this Parish? In the words of Saint Paul when he often presents such a question, By no means! Jesus himself shared many meals with his friends, that is, the disciples, and the first Christians shared fellowship and broke bread together constantly, so the lesson here lies in a different meaning.

If we are to represent Jesus in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, then we are to share His living bread—that is, the Gospel, the good news of Christ—with people around us. Sharing the Gospel, proclaiming the Good News, is a banquet: an encounter with God. We are told to seek out this encounter with the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Seek out such people who suffer in those ways physically—actually poor, actually crippled, lame and blind—and we are to seek out those who suffer in those ways spiritually. Those who are poor are bereft of hope, of the saving help of Christ; those who are crippled and lame know the right direction in life but are unable to follow that path because of frailty and weakness; those who are blind cannot see the heavenly light because they are oppressed by the darkness of the present life.

We invite these people to the banquet not by proselytizing but simply by loving them. But do realize the challenge Jesus demands we face: “We must remember, that we have a great work to do, many enemies to conquer, many evils to prevent, much danger to run through, many difficulties to be mastered, many necessities to serve, and much good to do; many children to provide for, or many friends to support, or many poor to relieve, or many diseases to cure; besides the needs of nature and of relation, our private and our public cares, and duties of the world, which necessity and the providence of God have adopted into the family of religion” [2]

If this sounds imposing—and I believe it should—all the more reason to ask God daily for the grace and power to faithfully accomplish His work. Religion is how we love God, but it is God that gives us the ability to love Him. Let us pray:

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

[1] Pope Paul VI, Eucharisticum mysterium 3 a.
[2] Jeremy Taylor, Rule for Holy Living, I.

Cover image “Marriage at Cana” by Giotto is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

Homily: “Religion and Relationship with Blessed Mary”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Solemnity of Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016.

We have just heard the Song of Mary, known as the “Magnificat” because the first words in Latin translation are “Magnificat anima mea, Dominum”—“My soul magnifies the Lord.” It is embedded within a larger moment in Saint Luke’s Gospel that is known as the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That particular moment as a whole is commemorated on our Calendar on May 31st. Mary travels to the hill country in Judah, having been confronted by the Angel Gabriel and told that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son, and call his name Jesus. That is the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25. Three Calendar days are related to today’s Gospel reading! Anyway, Mary travels to be with Elizabeth, herself bearing a son by the work of the Holy Spirit, that son being Saint John the Baptist.

Just before Saint Luke records this Song of Mary, he tells us that “when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” We hear of course in Elizabeth’s words part of what has become in the Church the Hail Mary prayer. Yet what might be missed is that this moment is in fact the first miracle of Jesus. He sanctified Saint John in the womb of Saint Elizabeth—and Jesus did so by the words of Mary. Can Mary’s words be anything but prayer? No sooner had Mary spoken in prayer than John was sanctified. His first miracle, performed through the prayerful words of his Mother—should this surprise us? It is by Mary that Jesus has come into the world—it is through Mary’s prayer, then, that Jesus might come into our hearts.

The full name for today’s feast is “Saint Mary the Virgin, the Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Its date on the Calendar of August Fifteenth coincides quite intentionally with what is called in the Roman Catholic tradition as “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Let it be clear that these feasts, despite the different names, are one and the same. The words of our Collect, “. . . you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary . . . ” are everything that is meant by the Assumption of Mary, and the theology of Mary’s Assumption into heaven by God upon the end of her earthly life —or, as is said in Eastern Orthodoxy, her “dormition,” or “going to sleep”—has been widely received within Anglicanism, particularly within parishes.

When we think of Blessed Mary, it is common to immediately think of the Hail Mary prayer. A part we have already heard from the mouth of Saint Elizabeth. Here is the rest: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

So often we hear the words “pray for us” or “pray for me” or “have a particular person in your prayers,” or “keep such and such person in your prayers,” and so on. It is ancient custom in the Church, when celebrating the feast day of a Saint, to ask that Saint on his or her day to pray for us. At my ordination to the deaconate, well over seventy saints were named, after each one was chanted, “Pray for us.” All this while I was prostate on the floor before our bishop. Afterwards he called it a very contemplative moment, and let me tell you, it was a particular hot afternoon in the church. So you can imagine that all the sin got burned right out of me.

To want to know what we are doing when we are doing it is a mark of maturity. And so, when we say, “Pray for us”, what are we saying? This phrase finds its context, first and foremost, in the saints of the Church. What all saintly Christians have in common is a life lived toward Christ in the fullest sense; and so we can say that, in a word, what they have in common is holiness. We ask people who display something of a tangible sense of the holy about them to pray for us. God is at work in them, and his activity is palpable, apparent to the senses, apparent in their life. God is calling them in a focused, discernible and active way.

Of course the best example of holiness is Mary. Luke wants us to know that her soul “magnifies the Lord.” Her “spirit rejoices in God.” These are marks of holiness that I think still apply today. Also notice that Saint Luke would have us hear Mary as echoing the prophets. Her words echo the prophet Isaiah, who wrote “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God.” Saints, as I have said before, are the best interpreters of the Bible, because the biblical revelation has struck them in a deeply personal way, and as a result they have lived out the biblical revelation within the human condition in a remarkable manner. “Living with the revelation” is the heart of what it means to be a disciple, and from that comes holiness.

When we ask a person to pray for us, we are saying three things at once. The first is that we are asking the person to say or think something that will help us in some way. “Pray for us” is a form of intercession. “Pray for us, because we really need it.” This is obviously a normal way of speaking when we are faced with some difficult challenge or obstacle, or perhaps when we are suffering in a particularly acute way, or we know that a medical procedure is soon to be performed. Because that person exhibits a sense of holy, we are comforted by God through them, and their offering of prayer brings the Peace of Christ to our hearts.

The second meaning of “Pray for us” is we are asking the person to pray because we are not able to. “Pray for us” here means vicarious: say or think something on our behalf, in our stead, because we are not able to do it. Here, through these three words, we recognize that some people have a vocation to pray. A vocation to be a Pray-er, in the sense of something committed and disciplined. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul writes that “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” Disciplined, unceasing prayer is a gift. And so when we ask Mary to pray for us, we are recognizing her vocation to full-time prayer, and we are sharing in that vocation. Prayer is a gift that can only be shared. In asking such a person to pray for us, our prayer through them will be a better prayer to God.

Here, then is the fullest understanding of “Pray for us.” “Pray for us” means relationship. When we ask Mary to pray for us, we are asking her to be in relationship with us, and we are acknowledging our relationship with her. There is a simple, elegant beauty in doing just that. We say “pray for us, Mary” because we know that being in relationship with her is better than not.

When we are in relationship with Mary, and when we think about what it meant for her to be the predestined Mother of God—totally dedicated to the person and the work of her Son—the Christian religion is transformed from a collection of moral principles, biblical sayings and rules, doctrines and ideas into simple life of obedience and love; from spectacular battles in a culture and political war into unspectacular service to others; from trying to control events into active surrender to God’s loving hand in all things. When we are in relationship with Mary, and see the Christian life more and more from her perspective, the true nature of the Christian religion is revealed. For when a poor and powerless young woman was confronted by the Angel Gabriel and told that she would bear in her womb the savior of the world, the Son of the Most High, holy Son of God, she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In the face of the unfathomable, the incomprehensible, the seeming impossible, Mary said Yes to God. Who would not want to be in relationship with a person like that? This is why Elizabeth was filled with joy—she recognized in that instant that being in relationship with Mary means being in relationship with the Holy Spirit, filled with the Holy Spirit, and thrown into joyful prayer.

I conclude with a prayer from a seventeenth-century Anglican bishop named Jeremy Taylor.[1] Besides being one of my favorite prayers, I share it because it ought never be said that within Anglican tradition there has not been a strong devotion to Mary. Let us pray.

O Holy and ever blessed Spirit, who did overshadow the Holy Virgin-Mother of our Lord, and caused her to conceive by a miraculous and mysterious manner; be pleased to overshadow our souls, and enlighten our spirit, that we may conceive the holy Jesus in our heart, and may bear him in our mind, and may grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, to be perfect men and women in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, IV, ad S.6

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

A Prologue Office of Praise: Antelogium laudis

For the praise and glory of his Name, for our good, and the good of all his holy Church.

PDFs: noted version | said version.


Preces

Officiant    O Lord, open thou our lips.
People     And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.

Officiant    O God, make speed to save us.
People     O Lord, make haste to help us.

Officiant    Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.
People     As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Officiant    Praise ye the Lord.
People     The Lord’s Name be praised.

 

Jubilate Deo, omnis terra
(Psalm 100)

O be joyful in the Lord all ye lands *
serve the Lord with gladness and
come before his presence with a song.

Be ye sure that the Lord he is God;
it is he that hath made us and not we ourselves; *
we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.

O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving,
and into his courts with praise; *
be thankful unto him and speak good of his Name.

For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting; *
and his truth endureth from generation to generation.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son *
and to the Holy Ghost;

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be *
world without end. Amen.

 

Benedicite, omnia opera
(Prayer of Azariah; abridged)

O all ye Works of the Lord bless ye the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye Angels of the Lord bless ye the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye Heavens bless ye the Lord: *
O ye Waters that be above the firmament
bless ye the Lord.

O all ye Powers of the Lord, O ye Sun and Moon,*
O ye Stars of heaven bless ye the Lord.

O ye Showers and Dew, O ye Winds of God, *
O ye Fire and Heat bless ye the Lord.

O ye Winter and Summer, O ye Frost and Cold, *
O ye Ice and Snow bless ye the Lord.

O ye Nights and Days bless ye the Lord: *
O ye Light and Darkness bless ye the Lord.

O ye Lightnings and Clouds bless ye the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O let the Earth bless the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye Mountains and Hills,
O all ye Green Things upon the earth, *
O ye Wells, O ye Seas and Floods bless ye the Lord.

O ye Whales and all that move in the waters
bless ye the Lord: *
O all ye Fowls of the air, O all ye Beasts and Cattle
bless ye the Lord.

O ye Children of Men bless ye the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O let Israel bless the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye Priests of the Lord, O ye Servants of the Lord, *
O ye Spirits and Souls of the Righteous
bless ye the Lord.

O ye holy and humble Men of heart, bless ye the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O Ananias, Azariah, and Misael, bless ye the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

Let us bless the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

 

Te Deum laudamus

We praise thee O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord. *
All the earth doth worship thee the Father everlasting.

To thee all Angels cry aloud, the Heavens and all the Powers therein; *
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry,

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth; *
Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory.

The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee. *
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee.

The noble army of Martyrs praise thee. *
The holy Church throughout all the world
doth acknowledge thee;

The Father of an infinite Majesty,
thine adorable true and only Son; *
Also the Holy Ghost the Comforter.

Thou art the King of Glory O Christ. *
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.

When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, *
thou didst humble thyself to be born of a Virgin.

When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, *
thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.

Thou sittest at the right hand of God, *
in the glory of the Father.

We believe that thou shalt come to be our judge. *
We therefore pray thee help thy servants
whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.

Make them to be numbered with thy Saints, *
in glory everlasting.

O Lord save thy people and bless thine heritage. *
Govern them and lift them up for ever.

Day by day we magnify thee, *
And we worship thy Name ever world without end.

Vouchsafe O Lord to keep us this day without sin. *
O Lord have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us.

O Lord let thy mercy be upon us as our trust is in thee. *
O Lord in thee have I trusted; let me never be confounded.

 

Kyrie, eleison

Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

 

Pater Noster

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Ave Regina Caelorum

Queen of the heavens, we hail thee,
Hail thee, Lady of all the Angels;
Thou the dawn, the door of morning,
whence the world’s true Light is risen:
Joy to thee, O Virgin glorious,
Beautiful beyond all other;
Hail, and fare well, O most gracious,
Intercede for us alway to Jesus.

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


Concerning the Prologue Office of Praise

The Prologue Office of Praise is to be recited at least once per day; ideally it is memorized. It is commendable as a distinct hour for prayer, or to follow the Prologue Office of Praise with the Holy Eucharist, or Matins or Evensong (Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer), or a significant period of silent prayer (i.e. Centering Prayer).

In this Office, the term “Officiant” is used to denote the person, clerical or lay, who leads; “People” denotes all gathered. When prayed by a group of people, the Officiant recites the first phrase of each of the seven prayers, and the People recite the rest. It is appropriate to stand for the Prologue Office when sung or said as a group.

A shortened form of the Prologue Office for families with young children is Preces, Jubilate, Kyrie Eleison, Pater Noster, and Ave Regina Ceolorum.

For more, read “The Case for a Prologue Office of Praise.”

Icon of the hand of Monica Thornton.

Homily: The Mystery of Adam’s Rib

Delivered at Saint Paul’s, Riverside on 4 October 2015.

There is an echo in the Gospel lesson from the Old Testament lesson. We hear, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus quote from Genesis chapter 2. Jesus says, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” In this echoing there is well-established teaching on the Sacrament of Matrimony. And yet there is another echo that I would like to guide us. For this past summer, we read Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. In chapter 5 of the Letter is heard the quote, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,’ and then the writer continues: “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.” St Paul, then, is pointing us back to the 2nd chapter of Genesis—back to, then, the creation of Eve out of the side of Adam—making, or in a better translation, “building,” Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul writes of “building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12). How the building of Eve might correspond with the building of the Church—this is the profound mystery to which I call our prayer.

Great voices have spoken on this, the mystery of Adam’s rib. Three doctors of the Church invite us to consider through it a mysterious, sacramental, relationship between Eve and the Church. Saint Jerome wrote, “Adam’s rib fashioned into a woman signifies Christ and his Church” (Homilies 66). Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, “By this is signified that the Church takes her origin from Christ” (Summa Theologiæ, 1.92.2.co).  And in a longer passage, Saint Augustine wrote, “Adam’s sleep was a mystical foreshadowing of Christ’s death, and when his dead body hanging from the cross was pierced by the lance, it was from his side that there issued forth the blood and water that, as we know, signifies the Sacraments by which the Church is built up” (City of God, 22.17). Out of Adam’s side came Eve. Out of the side of Jesus, the new Adam, came Blood and Water—that is, the Sacraments, and hence Christian life.

And as Christ is the new Adam, Blessed Mary is the new Eve. Whereas Eve is the “mother of the living,” Mary is the “mother of the Church.” As Eve’s sin against God is the basic pattern replicated again and again in the life of the children of Israel and summarized by the Seven Capital Sins, Mary’s “yes to God” is the basic pattern of life for the baptized children of God: “Let it be to me according to your Word.” For “in the scene at the Cross the making of Eve from Adam’s side is repeated symbolically when the new Adam, in the sleep of death, breathes the life-giving breath of the Spirit upon the figure of Mary standing below his opened side” (Lionel Thornton, “The Mother of God in Holy Scripture,” in The Mother of God, ed. E.L. Mascall). Like Mary, we are to orient our lives to the Cross and by God’s grace and by means of the Sacraments flowing from him, say Yes to Him, time and time and time again, each time growing ever-more like Him.

But what of the relationship between Eve and the Church? This word “Adam” is usefully ambiguous. Yes, a particular person—but also universal humanity; human beings in general, made through Jesus the Eternal Word. Out of humanity in general did God form his Church. Of late we have considered the Old Testament doctrine of the Remnant, and we have considered this parish as a “Remnant parish” in light of the collapse of Constantinian Christendom. As we continue to explore how Remnant doctrine might shed light on the Incarnation, our consideration is safeguarded by the fact that Eve, who foreshadows the Church, comes out of Adam, who reflects humanity in general. The two, Adam and Eve, are one flesh, and so humanity and the Church are likewise distinct yet still intimately wedded as one. Despite the difficulties encountered in a hostile secular culture—legal, psychological, and even physical—any notion that the Church must be divorced or separated from human society in a cocoon must be false, for it flies in the face of creation as reflected in Genesis.

May we, the counter-cultural Remnant Church, nonetheless always be joined as one flesh with the concerns, the joys, the sufferings of all human beings. May we grasp an ever-greater sense of our mission and calling to be Christ in this world, perpetuating and extending His ministry, His prayer; yet never to become desensitized to the world, but rather grow in sensitivity, grow in feeling and awareness. Compassion means to “suffer with.” May our compassion be fed by the love of Christ’s Sacraments, which pour out of Him and build us up. And may we remember that to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, ate not two loves but rather are two perspectives upon one love: glorious, profound, mysterious, sacramental.

Image: “La création d’Ève (mosaïques de la Chapelle palatine, Palerme)” is licenced under CC BY 2.0. Resized from original.

 

What does ‘Remnant’ mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Homily: The Marian mode of perception

Delivered at Saint Paul’s, Riverside on 16 August 2015 on the Solemnity of the Assumption of Blessed Mary

Although in one sense we are taking a one week break from our deeper analysis of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, in another sense we are not taking a break but rather looking at a relevant case study. As James Baum reminded me yesterday, there is a strong tradition in the Church taught in Eastern Orthodoxy as well as Roman Catholicism that the city of Ephesus in western Turkey is where Blessed Mary along with the Saint John the Beloved Disciple went to live out the rest of her earthly days. Ephesus today is a major site of Christian pilgrimage for that reason—James himself has been there. And so as we have been considering in our sermon series on Ephesians the themes of Remnant doctrine, vocation, predestination, community life of the baptized and others, our celebration today of the Solemnity of the Assumption of Blessed Mary is an opportunity to reflect upon how those themes must be lived out through adventurous obedience, which Mary above all creatures demonstrates and teaches.

I would like to begin by hearing again our Collect appointed for this day. “O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom.” Again we have a prime example of how our Collects express doctrine. Some people call Anglican Christianity to task for a lack of clearly expressed confession of our doctrine, yet they overlook what it right in front of their noses. Our liturgy, both Divine Office and Mass as well as other sacramental rites, articulates what we believe, and does so in the mode of prayer. In today’s Collect, we acknowledge the Assumption of Mary in the words “O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary.” And we make petition to God that we “may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom,” and this acknowledges the doctrine of Theosis, of growing into unity with God. It expresses this doctrine by means of Blessed Mary, and it presumes that this growing and reforming is a journey, a pilgrimage, of discipleship that begins in this life and continues into the next.

It is in thinking about discipleship that one of my first remarks must be to congratulate Nina Dorenbos, who this morning is receiving the Sacrament of Holy Confirmation. Confirmation, particularly in the manner in which it is handled here at Saint Paul’s, is a Sacrament the preparation for which is maturity, of intentional, that is, authentic cooperation with grace within our community, of being equipped for the work of ministry, of building up the body of Christ (Eph 4:12), of learning and studying the core dimensions of Catholic Christianity in the Anglican tradition.

Let me join the chorus of prayer that celebrates Nina’s preparation for this Sacrament. Of her own free will, Nina spent two years in this parish’s Adult Theology Class, meeting weekly over the academic years and more intensively this summer to complete it. Her choice is one that cuts against the grain of our society in which obedience to Jesus in the Catholic tradition in not a high priority, or even a priority at all, and let me say a brief word about that.

It is not only the most courageous choice available to us, to be a disciple of Christ today. It is also a choice that is difficult because of the profound confusion about discipleship that was present throughout the entire 20th century and is still with us today. This confusion arose because of the incredible upheavals to Western society born of overwhelming technological evolution into a “global village,” of two catastrophically devastating World Wars, of the actuality of nuclear warfare and threat of still more, of totalitarian governments and unspeakable evil in Nazi concentration camps and elsewhere, of disruptions and ruptures in community life, ethnic identity, family life, massive reconfigurations of our transportation on land and in the air, a globalized economy, this Information Age, and so on and so forth. All of that on top of the Industrial Age right before, the Enlightenment before that, and the introduction of the Gutenberg Press which provided the technological basis for the various Reformations in the 16th century which we still have not fully resolved.

All of this adds up I am saying to a crisis of discipleship, because one cannot easily be a disciple without a clear sense of identity within a community and hence of role within the world. Such massive upheaval, threats of catastrophe, and awareness of unfathomable evil makes it very difficult to perceive grace. And without perceiving grace, of God’s activity, it is very difficult to respond to the invitation God offers to grow in relationship with Him.

Now, whether or not Pope Pius XII had in mind this crisis of discipleship in 1950 when the papal definition of the Assumption of Blessed Mary was promulgated, I am not able to say. But I would suggest we consider the possibility that this dogmatic definition can best be understood as an ascetical response by the Church to what is nothing less than pastoral maelstrom. What I am proposing is that the explanation that “having completed the course of her earthly life, Mary was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” in fact is a tremendous and necessary teaching about discipleship. It teaches that because Mary is completely in heaven with the Triune God, no matter how difficult, how confusing, how irrational, painful, or wrenching our circumstances might be, the response is to look to Mary, to learn from Mary, to try to perceive Christ in the world as Mary perceived Him, to understand how she responded within the various circumstances described in the Gospels, and with confidence try to do the same in our lives, in our circumstances—for in this way lies Christ. Look to how Mary responded to God’s will for instruction on how we are to do the same. But how, the question must be asked, are we to perceive like Mary the will of God?

Let it be said that “the will of God, in so far as it is hidden from our eyes, is the most profound of mysteries, the most holy of sacraments. God reveals it, in His own divine and inscrutable fashion, to the souls which His grace has made worthy to receive the secrets of heaven. What He reveals is more than sacred, more than God-like; it is God Himself, the Holy Spirit, Who is the divine will in person, and Who is responsible for bringing into existence out of nothingness all that God has made. ‘Come now,’ the Psalmist tells us, ‘and look upon the works of the Lord, what awesome things he has done on earth.’” (William of St Thierry, The Mirror of Faith, XIII)

Yet I ask again, how do we learn how to look upon the works of the Lord, upon the awesome things he has done on earth? How do we learn how to see everything around us as grace, as present with God, as God being present in all things great and small?

It is here we can affirm because the Church has taught this from its beginning: we learn through Mary. Mary teaches us how to see Christ. Mary teaches us how to hear Christ. Mary teaches us how to respond to Christ with our bodies and minds. In short, Mary teaches us how to perceive Christ through our life. At the ascetical core, Mary teaches us the proper mode of perception that leads by grace to salvation in Christ. Assumption, then, as the dogmatic explanation by means of Mary of the doctrine of Theosis, is necessary in order to affirm Mary’s teaching ministry definitively and for all time.

What do I mean by teaching ministry? I mean what is in Scripture. Mary’s episodes captured in Scripture describe and illustrate what this mode of perception entails. In the Annunciation, for example, we learn we are to listen for God, which means listening to God. When He tells us something, to ask for clarification, to honestly question what He is saying, even to be confused—is not only OK, but it is holy, for it allows for mystery yet says Yes to God—“Let it be to me according to your Word” is the lifeblood of discipleship.

There are more examples. In the Visitation with her cousin Elizabeth, Mary teaches us that perceiving Christ is an activity of pure joy and reverence. And yet in the presentation of Jesus in the temple, Simeon’s great words teach us that Mary lived the rest of her life toward the cross—“And a sword shall pierce through your own soul also,” she was told. When she and Joseph found 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, we see Mary was still working through her son’s true identity, still wrestling with it, and so our own wrestling with the truth of Jesus is not to be despised but again to be regarded as holy. At the Wedding at Cana, a more mature Mary asks the adult Jesus for help, and instructs, “Do whatever he tells you.” Hear the complete abandonment to Jesus in those words. Her devotion and adoration of Jesus teaches us to do the same when our understanding of Jesus’s identity matures.

So think of these characteristics: listening, joy, reverence, being centered on the cross, wrestling with the truth of Jesus, and abandonment to and adoration of Jesus whom we ask for help—these are core principles of discipleship taught by Mary and add up to a Marian mode of perceiving reality, what I have elsewhere called “Marian awe.” This mode of perception is something we grow into, because Mary herself grew into it. And we can be assured that all of this leads by grace to salvation in Christ because the dogma of the Assumption explains that Mary, perceiving the world in this way, is now in heaven, and hence teaches us how to cooperate with grace, which means she teaches about walking the road of discipleship, the journey of obedient pilgrimage,

This is really what it is all about—cooperating with grace, and being equipped by the Church to cooperate with grace. Learning how to cooperate with grace is the preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation. Grace is everywhere, for God is active in the life of Saint Paul’s, Riverside. God is active in the lives of its parish family. God is active in the life of Nina Dorenbos, present in her environment, her network that includes her family, relatives, neighbors, classmates, teachers, of course this parish family. We pray He continues active as Nina heads to Indiana University this week. God was active in inviting her to this deeper commitment to Christian discipleship, in helping Nina to pursue her preparation week to week, month to month. We are about to witness the culmination of a two-year-long expression of Nina Dorenbos saying Yes to God—Yes to His presence, His invitation—Yes to God’s will.

And let us also give witness to Blessed Mary falling asleep, her dormition, and being assumed into Heaven to be its Queen, and may we know that “every way we imitate Mary becomes a prayer to God for enlightenment. It will be a sign of love, a pledge of your devotion, a declaration that you depend upon Him for the fulfillment of all your desires.” (William of St Thierry, The Mirror of Faith, XIV)

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

Homily: Faith’s name for reality is God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.


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

Synaxis of Holy Angels

Why set-prayer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homily: “Living with Marian Awe”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homily: “No power in ourselves to help ourselves”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marian Penitence

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

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

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

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

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

Homily: “‘Yes, but How?’ Blessed Mary and Vocation

Delivered on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2014 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.

How delicate these last days must have been for Mary—these last days before the birth of her son, Jesus, the son of the Most High. These last hours when, as it does for women about to go into the ever-deepening cycles of labor, the time becomes ever-fuller, the senses heighten, each breath a bit more noticed, a bit more conscious and intentional. Having lived for nine months with Gabriel’s message, perhaps her mental life was like what we call today “centering prayer”—her centering word, “Jesus.” Each breath, one breath closer to seeing Him, to holding Him. Each breath, one breath closer to hearing Him cry, to feeding Him, rocking Him to sleep. Each breath, one breath closer to being changed by Him—not into a different person but into more of who she was called by God to be from the first moments of her own immaculate conception: the Theotokos, the Mother of God, the bearer of He who will reign over the house of Jacob for ever.

Unlike Adam and unlike Eve, Mary was never apart from her God-given vocation. She was never cut off from God’s will for her. Early Christian legends about Mary—non-canonical and not part of the authoritative biblical literature, to be sure, but still widely read and disseminated in the early Church, and hence influential in Christian tradition and our living memory today—told of Mary being conceived to her elderly parents, Anne and Joachim, also through a kind of angelic annunciation. The angel said, “You shall give birth to a daughter who shall be blessed throughout the world,” as one legend tells it. It was said, “all of the house of Israel were happy with her and loved her.” Those around her, and her parents at her conception, saw, or perhaps intuited in a still unfocused way, a mystery about Mary—something of who God made her to be. Her vocation was woven into her being, inseparable from her existence, and never denied by her family, her priest, or Mary herself.

It may be that the Annunciation that Saint Luke describes between Mary and the Angel Gabriel was in fact not the first moment that Mary learned of her vocation. It may be that, like the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, where Jesus is given but the fullness of his own vocation through the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove and through the words of His Father—“Thou art my beloved Son with thee I am well pleased”—because we know that something of his vocation to be the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was not only known before this baptism, by the twelve year old Jesus as well as his parents and relatives, yet somehow by all creation knew of Jesus, through whom all things were made, all things perfected—for Mary, too, there were inklings of her vocation, her predestined identity, while still in her mother’s womb, and upon birth and her subsequent development, all of which was then confirmed by Mary by her glorious words to Gabriel: “Let it be to me according to your word.” And so, Our Lady’s “Yes” to God can teach us about the Sacrament of Confirmation, when one learns about and then accepts his or her vocation to the general priesthood, the ministry of the laity, what is taught in this parish as a form of ordination.

For just as with the Sacrament of Confirmation, the person accepts Jesus to be the central focus of the rest of his or her existence, in his life and into the next, so with Our Lady. Gabriel tells Mary that she is to be the Mother of Jesus, that the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. Mary accepts this invitation, confirms this vocation given by God—and her son becomes the ever-blazing heart of the rest of her breathing.

And can we doubt that what also was announced to Mary was a sacramental imagination, a Catholic imagination? Can we doubt that Gabriel’s message permanently sealed Mary’s very being, her very view of all reality? Whether it was an abrupt shift in conscience, or one gradual, is difficult to say when we remember that Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation comes 90 to 100 years after the fact, give or take a decade or two. Perhaps Saint Luke wisely leaves this detail out, and invites us to consider Mary’s reaction to Gabriel, to live into this experience as we are able—what it would be like to be in her shoes. For every moment when we ourselves have a hint or a glimpse into the truth of our own vocation, who we are meant, even predestined by God, to be, then by analogy we are just like Mary with Gabriel. For some of us, the truth of our vocation startles us, shocks us, throws us for a loop. For others of us, we are not so much as disoriented as we sink into a state of deep awe and wonder, even speechlessness. Aspects of our past come together; we see them as providential: we thought we were alone that moment so many years ago, but God was there, gentle guiding us toward Himself. Some of us resist or even deny our vocation. Yet can be there a more troubling form of sin that to deny God’s will for us? It is nothing less than the Capital Sin of pride, the root sin, and it is deadly.

Let it be said loud and let it be said clear—to question, to inquire, to be puzzled by, and to not fully understand our vocation is absolutely not a form of sin. God reveals His will for us when we are ready to receive it, when we can bear it, when the time has a fullness about it, a consonance within it, and we are able to respond. He knows that our vocation will be heavy, will be weighty, truly, like an anchor. I daresay he expects us to inquire to him, even argue with him, to examine this revelation with the full capacities of our earthly life—our reason, our intelligence, our emotions, our bodies, and our heart, the seat of our choosing.

If it sounds wrong for me to say that God expects us to inquire and argue with him about our vocation, then Mary too was wrong, for she said, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” But she is not wrong—she is not questioning God’s authority, nor his power. Mary believed God. She took His presence very seriously. It is a sign of our seriousness, of our maturity, when we can believe in God’s utter sovereignty and at the same time honestly interrogate what God appears to be telling us. This is called “the discernment of spirits,” and the key to it all is humility, is openness before mystery. God knows how powerful and how provocatively deceptive Satan can be, how skillful Satan is in twisting God’s words into grave distortion, as he did with Adam and Eve. God equips us with brains with which to think, communities and families with which to discern, the mystical family of the Church through the parish with which to live, he provides opportunities for us to verify and test our vocation. God gives us sacraments and our liturgical prayer life.

“How shall this be?” is the question that is the foundation of being a disciple. In still shorter form, the question is “Yes, but how?” This by analogy is the same question the first Christians asked of Saint Peter at Pentecost, the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, also a product of Saint Luke’s authorship—for after they heard Peter preach on text from the Prophet Joel, how the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, and about the crucifixion and the resurrection of Our Lord, and that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, how what was kept secret for long ages but now disclosed and made known to all nations—what was the first response from the people but the words, “Brethren, what shall we do?” A “Yes, but how?”—an echo of Mary’s own devout interrogation of God.

It is not self-explanatory how to center our lives around the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, truly God and truly Man. It is not a matter of merely being “good people.” It is not a matter of merely reading the Bible on one’s own. It is not a matter of merely learning the right doctrinal words in the right doctrinal order. It is not merely about coming to Church. It is not merely finding quiet moments to talk with God. It is all that and a whole lot more, according to the pattern of the Church, its Regula. Spiritual guidance or direction is essential to work through what seems like an overwhelming jumble of spiritual possibilities, of spiritual insights, of doctrine, of piety.

When presented with the fullness of God’s purpose in creating us, and his promise for us, “Yes, but how?” becomes perhaps the only sane response. By asking God, and our priests, our catechists, and the holy people in our lives, “Yes, but how?” “How shall this be?—and then, listening to God’s answer—we invite God to lead us still closer to him, ever closer to Christ’s nature, ever closer to who God has called us to be, has chosen us to be, in him before the foundation of the world. We need to be reminded daily of Mary’s commitment to God so that our own commitment to God becomes more like Mary’s. Without a daily relationship with Mary’s commitment to God, a daily relationship within our conscious prayer life, we deny ourselves the sure and certain means for being formed more fully into disciples of the Son of the Most High.

Pray for us, O holy mother of God. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton. 

Homily: O ye Saints of the Holy Catholic Church

Homily delivered on the External Solemnity of All Saints, 2014 at Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois.

Almighty God,” our Collect begins, “you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

It has been said, not altogether inaccurately, that if you want to know what Anglicans believe in terms of doctrine, look at their Collects. At each Mass, the appointed Collect receives pride of place at the culmination of the Entrance Rite, which is what brings us back together, after a week of ministry according to our gifts and circumstance. The Collects are arranged in a very intentional way to correlate with the turning of the liturgical year. And in terms of their doctrinal content, the Collects express doctrine not in a straight, you might say, dry academic way. Doctrine rather is expressed in the Collects in a way that integrates with Prayer.

For those of you who have spent any time devotionally reading the works of Saint Anselm, who has a fundamental role in English, and hence Anglican, spirituality, you might notice a similarity between the style of Anselm and the style of our Collects. It is not, here is some doctrine and dogma, and over here is some high devotional words. No, in Anselm, in our Collects, and I would say in authentic Anglican life, there is an integral balance, in the Benedictine sense, of intellect and action, head and feeling, study and wilderness, dogma and love.

So what of this Collect, appointed for this, the Solemnity of All Saints? Can we look to this Collect for insight into what Anglicans believe about this feast? I believe we can. And I would go further than that — for what we have in this Collect is not only an authentically Anglican view of All Saints, but one deeply Catholic because it expresses Remnant theology. So let’s have a look.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord. So, we talk in this parish about Catholic vision, and every once in a while, as a counter example of what is not Catholic, every once in a while we talk a little bit about something called Calvinism. Perhaps you have heard of it? Well in this “adoration” part of the Collect, where God’s nature or acts are praised in pure adoration of who He is, there is this word “elect” that is of course something of a buzz word in the Catholic-Calvinist debate. Often it means predestination. Some people are predestined, according to historical Calvinism, as God’s “elect” to be saved; and others predestined to be damned. It is a nasty bit of theology, and the Catholic faith holds this to be heretical. Yet why, then, is the word “elect” part of our Collect? If our Collects express our doctrine, and this Collect says “elect”, are we Calvinist in our doctrine?

Not at all. The word “elect” is there because it has everything to do with the Saints. It has everything to do with those who we already call Saints, those treasure-troves of holiness; and with those yet to be Saints, those departed who have proceeded to the next stage of their lives, the intermediate state of Paradise, to further complete their journey of theosis, of being reforming into likeness of Jesus. And it has everything to do with Saints yet born, and yet to die. Because being a Saint is a vocation. Saints are called by God. As Martin Thornton wrote (in The Function of Theology), God makes Himself present — often confronting the person with the resurrected Christ — which issues in personal dialogue or “colloquy”, which is what is meant generally by “mental prayer”, an interchange between minds: the mind of the saint and the mind of Christ. This is how the “voice of God” is “heard” by the spiritual ears of the dedicated mind. This is an existential way of understanding what it means to be “elect.” It means being called by God.

You have knit together your elect. All of this is of God’s initiative, or “prevenient Grace.” Certainly an archetype of all this is Abraham, called by God. This was a calling that tested his resolve, tested his faith, even to the point of sacrificing Isaac his son. Abraham indeed was confronted in the same ways Saints are confronted — completely, demanding the whole person, not just the mind, the emotions, or the body, but all of it, for prayer is loving God in a total way.

You have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord. This means, simply, the Church. It expresses our baptismal promise in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints.” That is not two statements, but one expressed two ways. For the holy Catholic Church IS the communion of saints. Those saints of the past, of the present, and of the future. Saints in this sense includes the Angels, and pride of place goes to Our Lady, Blessed Mary Holy Mother of God, Lady of all Angels and Saints. And the Church of Saints, in all its glorious diversity of expression, of gifts, of time and place — all of it is expression of God, an expression of the mystical Body of Jesus Christ.

Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living. Again, the ability to follow comes from God’s action, prevenient grace. And we are to follow the Saints. We are to learn about them. They are alive. “Communion of Saints” is also a statement about their present condition. They join us at the altar, they watch over us, and make themselves available to us. It is a very good form of devotional meditation to imagine what their lives were like. We often have only scanty details of history about them. This can also be a gift, for it allows us to more easily to see our lives in theirs, and their lives in ours.

The saints, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture.” He continues, “The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out.” That is another way of saying that the lives of saints — both for their heroism and their failures — mediate what Scripture authoritatively points toward: the activity of God, his divine providence.

Saints also point to the proper interpretation of the Beatitudes. Those who are blessed — are poor in spirit, mourn, are meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, are merciful, pure in heart, are peacemakers, and are persecuted for righteousness sake. This list of terms might sound imposing — and in truth, the responsibilities of the Christian life are imposing from one perspective — but as Thornton wrote (in English Spirituality) this list can be described as the following qualities: “poor in spirit” means humility, sensitive to spiritual things; “mourn” means being sympathetic and penitent, “meek” means understanding the joy of life, “hunger and thirst for righteousness” means “craving progress toward union with God”, “merciful” means compassionate, “pure in heart” means constant in religious participation (Office, Mass, Devotion), “peacemaker” means prudent in searching for harmony among men; and “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” means fortitude amid the battle against sin.

Forgive me for breezing through these, for each of them is enough food for a homily itself. But I am just touching on them now to point out that the life of the Saint, which is the life the Christian faith calls people toward, involves qualities and characteristics that are not alien to our everyday experience. All we can do, all Saints every did, all God asks, is to respond to God as his activity is made available to our senses and our mind — according to the gifts and talents we are given by God. Not some other gifts and talents, but those we have, used not for selfish interest but rather for the greater glory of God.

That we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you. Listen to these words! Ineffable joys — joy beyond our ability to imagine or conceive. Prepared by God — because he wants us, yearns for us, fundamentally desires us. Prepared for those who truly love you. This is what Remnant really means. The faithful Remnant are those called by God, who respond to God’s calling, and by his help learn to truly Love him in all moments and activities of their being, beginning in this life and continuing to the next. The Saints, and sainthood whether known officially or unknown, is what we mean by “faithful Remnant.” The Beatitudes are not just qualities of holiness. They are qualities of Jesus himself, qualities in their perfect form, yet available to us by the grace of God wherever we happen to be in our journey. The Beatitudes are a description of the Remnant — those called to fully live out the ministry initiated by Jesus himself — to live out and perpetuate Jesus whether in a monastic community or in a secular community such as Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois.

And it is a life built on sacramentality or Catholic imagination, the Sacraments themselves, built on absorbing Scriptural insight, built on joy, built on obedience, built on community. And, fundamentally, built on love.

O all ye Saints of the holy Catholic Church — O ye holy Men and Women — pray for us.

Homily: “The Many Meanings of ‘Pray for Us'”

Homily delivered on the External Solemnity of the Assumption of Blessed Mary, Mother of God, 2014 at Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois.

The text for this sermon is not itself found in our readings today. But it might be said to point toward the heart of serious, committed Christian religion. The text is simply, “Pray for us,” and it is certainly appropriate to explore the meanings of those three words when we are commemorating, and meditating upon, Our Lady, Blessed Mary, on the Solemnity of her Assumption into heaven, who in the words of our Collect, has been “taken” to God.

The words “pray for us” are often if not even usually part of a Marian prayer or anthem — one thinks of “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death” from the Hail Mary, or “pray for us to the Father” from the anthem, “O Queen of Heaven, be Joyful” as well as “Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ” that is often said at the conclusion of a Marian prayer. It is part of the Litany of the Saints that we pray every Easter Vigil.

It might too be remembered that on any saint’s day, such as last month on the 22nd of July which was Saint Mary Magdalene’s day, the simplest way of effectively remembering that saint, if we have no other time or opportunity to do anything else, is to say, such as in this case, Saint Mary Magdalene, pray for us.

And so, when we say, “pray for us”, we should simply ask, what are we saying? To know what we are doing when we are doing it is a mark of maturity, after all. So, to begin, whom do we address with these words, “pray for us”? We mentioned Our Lady, Blessed Mary, as well as Magdalene or other Saints. What these Christians have in common is a life lived toward Christ in the fullest sense; and so we can say that, in a word, what they have in common is holiness. We ask people who display something of a tangible sense of the holy about them to pray for us. God is at work in them, you might say, and his activity is palpable, apparent to the senses. God is calling them. Their vocation, which only comes from God, is not unfocused but rather discernible and active in their life, sort of like a divine GPS.

Of course the best example of holiness, recognized from the beginning of the Church, is Mary. St Luke wants us to know that “Her soul magnifies the Lord.” Her “spirit rejoices in God.” These are the marks of holiness I think still apply today. Also notice that St Luke, as well as the planners of our lectionary, would have us consider Mary to be prophetic. Her words echo the prophet Isaiah, who wrote “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God.” Prophets, through the grace of God, understand the present in immediate and often abrasive terms. And not merely their present tense as they lived, but again through grace, their words point toward the eternal present, which is reality as looked on by the Blessed Trinity. It cannot be a stretch at all to say that Mary looked upon, was struck by, ultimate reality, for what else can the Annunciation imply? Each episode we have of Mary shows us that she was living with this revelation, pondering it. “Living with the revelation” is the heart of what it means to be a disciple.

So when we ask a person who is tangibly living with the revelation to pray for us, it seems to me that we are saying three things at once. The first is that we are asking the person to say or think something that will help us in some way. “Pray for us” here begins in a petition but is expressed as an intercession. “Pray for us, because we really need it — lend us a hand.” This is obviously a way of speaking when we are faced with some difficult challenge or obstacle, or perhaps when we are suffering in a particularly acute way. Because that person exhibits a sense of holy, we are comforted by God, through them, and, who knows, maybe this will lead to relief.

The second dimension of “pray for us” is we are asking the person to pray because we are not able to. “Pray for us” here means vicarious: say or think something on our behalf, in our stead. “We are not able to do it as well as you can.” Here, through these three words, we recognize that some people have a vocation to pray. A vocation to be a Pray-er, in the sense of something full-time, committed, disciplined. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul writes that “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” And so when we ask Mary to pray for us, we are recognizing her vocation to full-time prayer, and we are sharing in that vocation. Prayer is a gift that can only be shared.

There should be nothing strange about the notion that some people have a vocation to “Pray-er” in a particular way. Much like some people are called to play professional football for the Chicago Bears, and the rest of us clearly are not — fans of that team share in the gifts given to these players, and the players share in the gifts given to the fans. The “Chicago Bears” is more than the players on the field — the “Chicago Bears” is the players, trainers, administrators, owners, and on and on, including the fans. The “Chicago Bears” is an event. In the same way, the Church is an event. It is the Body of Christ, the Remnant of Jesus — Remnant meaning what he left behind of himself to continue his ministry — and the purpose and mission of the Church is best understood in this way: the living, organic Remnant of Jesus himself, doing what Jesus did in his own earthly ministry: preaching, teaching, embracing, healing, feeding, listening, leading.

Although it can be helpful to understand the distinctions between these activities, what must never be forgotten is that all of them are forms of prayer. In the words of Martin Thornton, prayer is the total experience of a religious person. The Church, then, is the Remnant of Jesus, and its activity is prayer, which is understood to begin in the total experience and activity of Christ.

All of which points, I think, to the fullest understanding of the text of this sermon. “Pray for us” means relationship. When we ask Mary to pray for us, we are asking her to be in relationship with us, and we are acknowledging our relationship with her. There is a simple, elegant beauty in doing just that. So often, our complaints with other people begin when a person does not acknowledge us, our feelings, our experience, our being. Regular, daily acknowledgment of relationship is the key to its health. We say “pray for us, Mary” because we know that being in relationship with her is better than not.

Mary, after all, is the Mother of the Church. We might say she is the Mother of the Remnant — that which Jesus lived and then left behind as an active culture of divine life, experience, and activity. This culture is kept fecund primarily through Prayer in the total sense: to work is to pray, wrote St Benedict, which is profound when we see our work as continuing what Jesus consummated.

Now, no one but Mary has her particular vocation: the Mother of Jesus, of God incarnate, and the prayerful life that results from that relationship. And not all of us — in fact, few of us — are called to be full-time pray-ers — whether in monastic order or in secular, ascetic order in a parish. Not all of us are called to suit up for battle on Soldier Field against the hated Packers! By all accounts, the vocation of full-time pray-er is fantastically arduous work, difficult, and regularly unpleasant.

Yet let it be understood: all of us have God-given gifts and we are to work to understand them and then to exercise them by the grace and guidance of God. Any gift from God is going to involve work of some sort — heavy lifting of the soul — but by all accounts there is at the same time in all true vocations tremendous joy, beauty, and contentment, as well. God calls us. And when we say “Pray for us,” we acknowledge that to be true.

And so we join holy Church and say: Pray for us, O holy Mother of God — that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.

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, Chap. 11

 

“The only real fall of man is his noneucharistic life in a noneucharistic world.”

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p. 35

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. We now call this the Divine Office.

In simple terms, the purpose of the Divine Office is to praise God and to magnify God, day by day: an “office of praise.” Christians do so because it 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 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. We seek to do the same, and the Prologue Office of Praise (Antelogium laudis) seeks to nurture a reunified 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. In Anglican patrimony the Divine Office was fashioned as the heart of common prayer. Yet today, because the Divine Office has developed so many variations, such unity—whereby laypersons, deacons, priests and bishops pray together in the same way—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 life for the Faithful 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.

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

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. 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 do we name reality as God? 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 “immanant 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 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 in scripture is the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2.42). Today the terms are, respectively, Devotion (that is, baptismal ministry), 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.

Regula is the doctrine of the Trinity arranged for prayer. It 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 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.

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 feeding miracles of Jesus point to the Mass, where we too are fed by Jesus and his love for us. 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 is clarified. First given by Jesus to his disciples as the Pater Noster (“Our Father”), as mentioned already, the Divine Office is transcendent reaching toward and joining with the unceasing praise by Angels, the Archangels, and all the Company of Heaven. The whole Body of Christ sings the Divine Office in the power of the Holy Spirit to glorify God the Father Almighty, “primordial Being,” in the words of John Macquarrie. To glorify the unchanging Father warrants an unadorned yet beautiful recounting of His radical otherness and cosmic creativity. God invites us to abandon ourselves and surrender in Holy Fear to the light inaccessible, the mystery incomprehensible. To live daily as if in the orans posture: this is what the Office is for. 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.

Accordingly, what the Prologue Office of Praise seeks to do is make Catholic theology unmistakably evident within its text and enacted in its performance. Its invariable, fixed, and unchanging form seeks to revivify the entirety of the scheme of daily Offices. 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.

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. As such, the purpose of the Divine Office, more refined, is 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 a mobile society, a “global village,” there is simply less time available for daily formal set-prayer. Might not this fact 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 minumum, seems quite overdue.

A NEW ADDITION 

What must be stressed is that a Prologue Office of Praise 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 does not replace what is used now, but rather is meant to add to the daily round of set-prayer. One can continue to do Morning and Evening Prayer as one always has, along with the daytime Hours of Terce, Sext and None. 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.

Why make this addition? The primary reason is for ascetical unity — a truly common prayer. We need to pray a common prayer, knowing it as common prayer. Being a concise form, it is perfect for the home, to cultivate the “domestic Church.”

Another is that this Office form catechizes. 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.” 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 of its predominant focus on 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 Antelogium Laudis is to confess doctrinal 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 doable, 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. 

 

Angels and the Catholic Imagination, part 3: Angels are Sacramental Beings


Angels and the Catholic Imagination, a homily series
HOMILY I | HOMILY II

Homily 3 of 3: “Angels are Sacramental Beings”
Given at St Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois

We conclude this morning this three-part homily series on the Holy Angels with an exploration of the relationship between angels and ascetical theology. That is, the relationship between angels and the articulation of the church’s corporate experience, for that is what “ascetical theology” means.

Doctrine is to be used. Doctrine is the beginning, not an end. That is why I began with doctrine two weeks ago — the doctrine of Angels. The Holy Angels are all about God. They are created beings of spirit that can be perceived only with spiritual eyes. Angels are innumerable and in nine orders. They are named because of their activity. They were created with the words, “Let there be Light”. And so they announce God’s creative Word. They serve the Light. They minister to the church and to us, so that we perceive the light with our spiritual eyes. So that our lives are ordered to the Light. So that we as the church are ever-growing toward the light.

All of that is the way we begin to talk about angels and the church’s corporate experience. We continue when we simply recognize that insofar as we are biblical people, a people whose lives are lived sacramentally and liturgically according to the Catholic Rule of Mass + Office + Devotional Ministry, a people who thereby look to Scripture as the thesaurus of our corporate experience, and whereby Scripture and the Holy Tradition of the Church’s corporate experience mutually interpret one another — then angels already help to articulate the Church’s corporate experience. There are over 300 appearances of angels through the Bible, from the book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, through both canons of the Old Testament to the New Testament, and with Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And because of their centrality to the experience of Blessed Mary and her encounter with the archangel Gabriel, through whose announcement to Mary the whole of godly creation is a becoming, on its way to the New Jerusalem; their centrality therefore to her entire mystagogical life — a life savoring the mystery of her Son, pondering in her heart — a mystagogical life lived toward the foot of the cross — because we relive the actually making present again of an angel of the lord to the shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord” — because, ultimately, of our baptism: the Church’s corporate experience is angelic!

The angelic is not an option. It is not a “app” for our cellphone we can choose to download or not. We are amid the angelic presence at all points and in all ways in our life! To recognize this, to be conscious of this, to be aware of this, to be caught by this, to be curious about this, to ponder this — for the angelic to impinge upon our prayer life, our quiet moments, our playful and engaged moments, our moments serving others — to accept the fact, the reality, that all that is perceived by the Church is ministered to by the angelic, is loved by the angelic, is interpreted to us by the angelic — this is nothing less than what catholic people have been doing since Gabriel’s encounter with Mary. This is nothing less than what catholic people have been doing since the confrontation of the twelve disciples by Jesus of Nazareth. Mary’s pondering in her heart IS our model for a catholic imagination. It doesn’t mean we understand all of it. It doesn’t mean there isn’t chunks of angelic theology that confuse us, or sound strange, or even remote. It doesn’t mean that we “get it all now”. We won’t get it all now. But the food of angels we already eat; the air of angels we already breath; the presence of angels we already imagine.

The angelic is like another layer of the reality we have all been living since our baptism. This layer of reality, present in its fullness no matter who much or how little we have perceived it, invites our participation. The angels rejoice when one sinner repents — when one sinner’s mind is transformed, when one sinner’s conscience is expanded and ordered to the Light of Christ — when the woman, having lost one of her ten coins, lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and intercedes to seek that coin. Could it be that this woman is Mary, her nine coins being the nine orders of the angels, and the one lost coin, humanity? Mary is the Queen of the heavens, and Lady of the Angels. Maybe something of this is part of the meaning of the parable of the Lost Coin.

So what remains to be said? Let me suggest something that might be a simple, condensed summary of everything we have so far discussed.

It is this: that Angels are sacramental beings. Angels, by their nature, bestowed by the words, Let there be Light, point the church toward an attitude. An attitude that is sacramental. Now, as our Prayer Book, which is catholic, says, the sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace. And the historic Catholic Church cerebrates seven sacraments. Sacramentality is not the same, but is intimately related. It is more general. If the sacraments are specific liturgical and ritual patterns of ontological grace, then sacramentality is what results from the Christian life of sacraments. In the words of John Macquarrie, “this is a sacramental world.” We don’t recognize that by logical syllogism: it is an existential attitude one learns through participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Body of Christ.

This is a profoundly joyous and grace filled attitude! This is the attitude of the first Christians, Christians willing to die as martyrs! It is the attitude of Christians throughout history who realize it and celebrate the sacramentality of all of creation. This is the attitude we are invited to deepen through Holy Communion at the Altar of Christ, this Holy Table around which are all the angels, the archangels, the entire company of heaven, and at which we are joined with all the saints, known and unknown, as well as our Lady, the queen of the heavens, and Lady of all the angels.

Angels are sacramental beings. And the way to join with them is to allow them to light us, to guard us, to rule us, to guide us. It is to ascend and descend with the angelic — ascending in our gathering around the Word and Table at Mass, descending as we are dismissed into mission to enact our baptismal covenant and to empty ourselves in love for others.

And it is to sing with them every day through the prayers common to the whole Church; that is the Office, which teaches us in the doing of it to be like angels, who are all about God. Let us conclude with a prayer.

May we all be joyful in the Lord, serving the Lord with gladness and coming before his presence with a song. May we know that it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves. May we regard all of creation as God himself does, as very good, and in so doing see all of God’s works as a profound blessing, so that we praise him and magnify him forever. May we join with the angels who cry aloud, the heavens and all the powers therein, with the Cherubim and Seraphim who continually cry, Holy Holy Holy, Lord, God of Power and Might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. May all of our lives be centered around the king of Glory, the everlasting Son of the Father, who having overcome the sharpness of death, opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. May we sing in all our moments, Lord have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy! May we be all emboldened by angels innumerable, like Mary was by Gabriel, as we boldly sing, Our Father who are in heaven! Hallowed be thy name! And may we ever in our hearts know something like the profound, the startling, the beautiful song of the angels to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night, Glory to God in the Highest and peace to his people on earth! Amen. Amen!

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Angels and the Catholic Imagination, part 2: Angels and God’s Creative Word


Angels and the Catholic Imagination, a homily series
HOMILY I | HOMILY III

Homily 2 of 3: “Angels and God’s Creative Word”
Given at St Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois

In last Sunday’s homily on Michaelmas, I offered a five-point outline of the doctrine of angels.

  1. Angels are all about God — praising God and “presencing” God.
  2. Angels are created beings of spirit with no physical body. Hence they are invisible to the eye.  To see an angel means to perceive an angel.
  3. Angels are in nine orders and innumerable — a fact well worth pondering in our heart — innumerable yet created.
  4. Angels are named because of their activity. Their identity is their activity, and their activity is to announce.
  5. Angels were created at the very beginning of God’s creation.

And this fifth point bears a moment of reflection and offers a distinct way into scripture and something of what scripture tells us about angels and angelic presence no matter which book of the Bible we might read. Now if it is true that angels were created at the very beginning of God’s creating action, a reasonable person might very well ask, where does it say so in scripture? And the truth is that in plain, direct terms, the Genesis narrative of creation doesn’t appear to give explicit witness to how angels were created.

And yet it would be wrong to say that the creation of angels is passed over in the Genesis narrative. St Augustine, in his book, The City of God, points out that elsewhere in scripture it is clearly stated that God spoke and angels were created (Psalm 148). This tells us that Angels were created at some point in the seven days of creation. In the Book of Job, when God answers out of the whirlwind with a summary of his creating act, we learn that when the morning stars sang together, all the angels shouted for joy. So angels had already been created on the fourth day, the day that stars were created. What about the third day? This day brought earth and seas, plants and trees yielding seeds and fruit according to their own kinds — this doesn’t seem to fit for the day of angelic creation. Perhaps then the second day? On this day God made the firmament to separate the waters above and below. Angels don’t seem to fit here, either.

And so, it must be the first day. It must be from God’s very first words, “Let there be light”, and there was light — that is, and there were angels. And God separated the light from the darkness — that is, angels of the light from angels of the dark. The angels of the light he called Day; and the angels of the darkness he called Night. It is the Word of God — Christ, the Logos — through whom all things are made, that made the Angels.

Angels are rightly called “day” in their participation in the unchangeable light that is Christ the Word of God. Angels are not the light itself — but only through God. And when angels turned away from God, they became Night because they turned from the light of the Lord. And without the light of the Lord, angels became Darkness. In the loss of light, all things become evil. Not created evil — rather, evil by their own choice.

This accords with what we have already said about angels. To be created on the first day fits with being created spirits without body — when the earth was without form and void — named because they announce God’s light. Angels are all about God — filled, then with the awesome and unfathomable force of God’s creative Word.

In scripture we then read that angels are filled with the awesome and unfathomable force of God’s creative Word for Moses, for Abraham, for Isaac, for Jacob — all of whom encounter the angelic. And angels are filled with the awesome and unfathomable force of God’s creative Word for Mary.

Who can imagine what it felt like for Mary, our Lady, a very young Jewish lady, to encounter the angelic presence Gabriel? Who can imagine such an encounter? Such a confrontation? Who wouldn’t be floored by a presence that speaks Hail O favored one, the Lord is with you!”? Who wouldn’t tremble and shake? This is Gabriel, a name that means the Strength of God.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

How does one imagine a presence that speaks this way? Who names your son? Who names her Lord, our Lord, and who names the very presence around which we gather this morning, right now?

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Do we hear the power, the force of these words? Do we hear them how Mary heard them? Do we allow ourselves to hear this language, this event, with Mary’s ears? God wants us to try, every day.

And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”

And how could it be impossible, for angels speak with the power of God’s original creation! And, here, it is an angel, Gabriel, who is announcing nothing less than the nature of ultimate reality, of the emergence of an unfathomable new creation — a message in its fullest too immense and too incomprehensible by mortal ears, even the ears of Mary — and so Gabriel, raiser of consciousness, raiser of conscience — acts as translator, bearer, loving facilitator to Mary, so that she can understand something of the sheer profundity of this message. So she can process it. That it is accessible to her — something to which she can respond.

“And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

How poignant. How beautiful. How vulnerable. How humble.

And as we come to this table, this Altar, to give ourselves to God, the maker, lover, and keeper of all things, visible and invisible, the God who said, “let there be light” and there were angels, bearing the Light of Light, may we be so enlightened, so guarded, so ruled, and so guided into all truth — may we be emboldened like Mary with the words of Gabriel, the strength of God so that in the real and mystical presence of our Lord through his Body and Blood as spiritual food for us and for our salvation, we too, like Mary and all of creation, praise and magnify him forever, that we can serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song, and that we might sing with Mary, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Go to HOMILY III.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Angels and the Catholic Imagination, part 1: Angels are all about God

Angels and the Catholic Imagination, a homily series
HOMILY II | HOMILY III

Homily 1 of 3: “Angels are all about God”
Given at St Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois on Michaelmas 2013

It is fitting that on this feast of St Michael and All Angels, I have an announcement. This is the first of three homilies on angels that I will be giving; part two is next week, part three in two weeks. This morning, the identity and doctrine of angels; next week the scriptural descriptions of angels, and then concluding with the impact of angels on our spirituality and corporate experience.

If that sounds like a lot, well, as angels say, Be Not Afraid! At least I keep telling myself that.

My daughter Twyla told me something yesterday that I wanted to tell you all. In a moment when it was just her and me, driving in our little silver car down the Stevenson expressway, I asked her, “What do you think angels are all about?” What she said was, “Angels are all about God.”

I do not think I could express it any more succinctly. Angels are all about God. The key is the word “about.” It is because the Church teaches that the doctrine of angels is twofold. On one hand, “about God” transcendently, as if “around God”, serving and worshiping God, the countless throngs of angels that stand before God to serve God night and day, beholding the glory of his presence, and singing praise unceasingly “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might” (which we will shortly join them in singing). And on the other, “about God” immanently, the meaning of angels is not themselves, for we are commanded not to worship them; their meaning is ultimately God — they disclose God’s good news of redemption and salvation in ways that we can perceive and then pass on to others. Angels do both: they about God praising Him, and they are about God’s disclosure of his Good News to humanity so that we, too, might more and more praise him and magnify him forever.

The church over its history has seemed to settle on nine different orders of angels, although we ought not take such speculative formulations too rigidly: the nine orders of angels are Seraphim, Cherabim, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Principalities, Powers, Archangels, and then Angels (which include guardian angels of which each of us has one). The number of angels is said to be beyond our imagination, which is to say innumerable. To me, that is the key thing. Not the nine orders — it is that they are innumerable. That is worth pondering in our hearts what it means to say that the angels are innumerable.

Angels are created beings of spirit; they have no physical bodies and hence are invisible to the eye. So to “see an angel” cannot mean to witness physically with the eye; rather, to see must mean to perceive. For indeed angels have everything to do with perception of all things, all emotion, all truth, all beauty, all goodness. About this I will say more shortly.

Angels are named because of their activity. “Angel” means “to announce”. What they do is what they are named. For example, Michael means “who is like God” because he confronted prideful Satan with that very question. Satan means “the opposer” or “the accuser” because of his accusing activity toward God. Their identity is their activity. We will reflect more specifically on angels in holy scripture next Sunday in the second of the three homilies.

Angels were created at the very beginning of God’s creation, probably (as we will discuss next time) through the very first words of God, “Let there be light” and there was light, that is, angels of the light, which all angels first were, until a certain some of them rebelled against God and became fallen angels of darkness. Because angels are so intimately bound up with creation itself, angels have a strong correlation to our understanding of the doctrine of Creation, including our own stewardship of the world and its inhabitants, and our relationships with other people. Angels can greatly aid us to love both our neighbor and our enemy as ourselves. And so angels have a great deal to say about our spirituality, about our growing into unity with God through likeness with Christ, about theosis, You might say that angels are the original raisers of consciousness, against which all other forms of consciousness-raising are pale comparisons — except maybe a cold pint of frosty alcoholic beverage after the kids go to sleep. But not only consciousness raising, but conscience raising. They help us respond more fully to God’s will and calling, and hence they help us progress spiritually by helping us choose to commit fewer and fewer sins.

Because angels are different orders of creation from man, when we die we do not become angels, any more the vocation of dogs when they die is to become human. But just as dogs are trained by man in a loving relationship, we might say we are trained by angels in a loving relationship, all of which points to God. This topic of spirituality personal and corporate experience will be looked at more closely in my third homily in two weeks.

And so as we prepare to walk to the altar to commune and to dine with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven who enlighten us, guard us, rule us, guide us and all people from the moment of their conception through this life and into the next life — as we prepare to join with the angels at Christ’s table to praise God and to magnify God, to taste and see that the Lord is good, and after we are sent out in mission to evangelize — a word that means to announce well — through our thoughts and actions shared with our neighbors, what I ask you to take away, if anything, are two things: One is what Twyla said: that angels are all about God, about him praising, and about his salvific grace.

And the other is something once written by St Augustine in a short occasional treatise where he responded to 83 questions with … 83 answers. He wrote, “Every visible thing in this world is put under the charge of an angel.” If that is true, is that not a staggering thought? And again, not only seen, but perceived.

Every perceivable thing in this church … in coffee hour … once you go outside to your car … you notice the rest of the day … the rest of the week… at work, at home, when you travel…the rest of your life on this planet … the rest of your journey in the next life … in this cosmos, in this universe of countless galaxies!

Every perceivable thing in this universe is put under the charge of an angel, and angels are all about God. If it is true — I don’t know what to say! Does not all of reality light up, as if, pardon me, a cosmic switch was flipped on and all of creation dazzles like the waving robes of those whose faces see God? And what can we say confidently but the words of Jacob? How awesome is this place! This is truly the gate of heaven.

Go to HOMILY II.

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.