Tag Archives: confirmation

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. 

“Whither Christian Baptism?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am baptized, therefore I adore”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Book of Common Prayer. 1662.