Tag Archives: homilies

Homily: “On Saint Mary Magdalene”

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

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Let us ask a basic question: Who is Mary Magdalene? There is much that might be said about who she is; and in truth much already has been said, particularly if you have paid attention to popular books and movies of the last thirty years, because a person named “Mary Magdalene” has often been a major character in such works. Yet popular culture has pushed this to an extreme, has it not? As is often the case with the human condition, we tend to take things to their extremes before finally pulling back. The Church’s mechanism for such pulling back is often Holy Scripture, and making sure that our understanding about the faith accords with it. Continue reading

Homily: “Religion and Formation, Part 2”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on Holy Cross Day, 2016. Cross-posted from the Parish of Tazewell County.

Holy Cross Day is a feast that has different names throughout the wider Church. In the Roman Catholic Church it is known officially as the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, yet recently was also called the Triumph of the Cross. I like how the Greek Orthodox tradition calls this day the “Raising Aloft of the Honored and Life-Giving Cross.” Despite the variety of names, is a solemn feast that traces to very early in the Church, at least to the mid-fourth century, meaning that Christians have been keeping this celebration for perhaps one thousand, seven-hundred years. By celebrating this Holy Day today we join an immense cloud of witnesses that celebrates it with us — celebrates and adores our Savior Jesus Christ who, in the words of our Collect, was “lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself.”

That is a wonderful line from our Collect, and it echoes what Saint John quotes Jesus as saying: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” There are additional ancient texts of John’s Gospel that have Jesus drawing not only all people to him, but all things of any kind: in effect suggesting that what is drawn to himself is reality as a whole. That all reality is drawn to Jesus is an image that, while perhaps staggering in its immensity, indeed too much for the human mind to be able to comprehend in its totality, nonetheless is fitting, is it not? For it was through Jesus that all things were made, and without him was not anything made that was made. (I am quoting of course from the opening verses of Saint John’s Gospel.) If all reality was made through Him, then in His glory on the cross, all reality returns to him, and all reality to Him is reconciled.

With all things in the universe drawn to Jesus raised high on the cross — and we cannot leave anything out here, whether from the vast swathes of interstellar space, all the stars and planets and galaxies fitting in quite nicely next to our beloved little doggies and kitties — you put all of creation together, reconciled to Jesus, and what might emerge is the kind of brilliant white light around Jesus; much like, perhaps, the raiment, white and glistening that Peter, John and James witnessed on the mountain at the Transfiguration of Jesus. What to do with that almost mystical vision, certainly as profound an image as they come, I do not know, save to sit with it, to love it, to reflect upon it quietly — all of reality glistening with Jesus — to allow the Holy Spirit to teach and guide you into truth about the Light Inaccessible. For to sit with, love, and reflect upon Jesus is to ponder him in your heart, the example given to us by Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, the model disciple.

Now I mentioned last week that today would be Part 2 of a kind of sermon series about Formation. This coincides with the kick-off of two Adult Study Classes in our Parish, one at Saint Paul’s and one at All Saints’. And there are two statements I made last week that I want to say a bit more about today.

The first statement was that “Formation is the process by which we continue the journey to have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” I want to underscore that, because without seeing the process by which we gain understanding about Faith as a journey, we may not know where to begin, and we may not feel comfortable trying to articulate the questions that we have. When we are talking about the Christian Faith, the axiom is quite true: there are no bad questions. Formation begins with asking questions, whatever they might be, about our experience with God — this is as true for us today as it was for the first Christians trying to make sense of the Day of Pentecost. When we ask questions honestly, we find that somehow or another, we live into the answers, which leads to still more questions, and more living into the questions, and that is why we talk about journey, or “pilgrimage.” At all times and in all kinds of formation, we are guided by the Holy Spirit who helps us to begin to make sense of Jesus raised high on the cross, drawing all reality to him in glistening, breathtaking white light. Exploring even that one image is the work of a lifetime — it begins in this life and continues into the next.

The other statement I made was that “Adult formation is crucial to the survival of the Church today, and the survival of this Parish.” That is true because that is how the Church has always survived. While there can be no question that our current situation, in the wider Church and in our Parish, is a challenging one, be sure that this is hardly the first time the Church has faced difficulty. Whether it was vicious fights in the early centuries about heresy and true doctrine, not to mention the regular persecution of the early Church and all its martyrs (like Saint Lucy), or whether it was dealing with catastrophes from the Bubonic Plague or the ravages of war, the Church on earth has faced peril, more or less from day one. But it survives through Christians, formed spiritually and theologically in Faith, who pass on the revelation community to community, family to family, even person to person, at all times anchored in the Liturgy of the Church.

To be a disciple is to be trained by God, slowly and patiently to appreciate, to love, to adore the Person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, while available to the wider public, did not form the multitudes—he did not even try. He focused the vast majority of his attention, his care, and his teaching on the twelve disciples. He was raised up high on the cross for the sins of all people for all times. “Christ is the savior of the whole world, and it is important to realize that apart from a few square miles in the Middle East, he did not bother to look at it.” [1] Rather, he slowly guided a small group of people to become a true rock upon which His Church could be built—a group of people about the size of our Parish. To a small group he presented unfathomable mysteries that the Church is still trying to make sense of, to work out in fear and in trembling, mysteries the Church must protect, adore, and share with each new generation. As we gather in our Formation classes whether these two starting up now or in formation classes in the future, do know that less important is coming up with the right answers as it is forming the right kinds of questions, and doing so in community.

Let me conclude by noting that we petition God in our Collect to grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Brothers and sisters, Jesus reaches out to us from the cross with loving arms, and warm hands. His cross is the “source of all blessings, the source of all graces, through it, from our weakness, the faithful receive strength; from shame, glory; from death, life.” [2] This is the grace we must have to take up our cross and follow Jesus. If we believe in him, we believe that he is the true light come into the world. May we believe in this light, that we may become sons of light. And formed by this light, our faces, like Moses’, might shine to others.

[1] Martin Thornton, Pastoral Theology, chap. 6.
[2] Leo the Great, Sermon LIX, On the Passion, VIII: on Wednesday in Holy Week.

Cover image “Crucifixion of Jesus” by Dionisius is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

Homily: “Religion and Formation, Part 1”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 18, Year C)

Sometime this past week, Fall happened. I believe it was Tuesday morning as I recall, just before the service of Morning Prayer at All Souls’ Chapel in Pekin. The temperature dropped; perhaps — and I am guessing and have not looked this up — the barometric pressure shifted. In any case, the signs of Autumn are all around: it is Labor Day weekend, schools have been filled with children for several weeks, the outdoor swimming pools are closed for the year, major league baseball teams have called up their best prospects from the minor leagues, the Marigold Festival kicks off this week, my own family is starting to plan for apple-picking in local orchards—and, well, you all could probably add your own “signs of Autumn.”

From my role, constantly looking at this Parish as a whole from a pastoral perspective, one of the changes that Autumn brings is the gathering and regathering of groups of parishioners for formation classes. It is exciting to me, personally, that this is happening at both at Saint Paul’s church and All Saints’ church. It is exciting because it is through adult formation experiences that we can strengthen bonds in our parish family, ask questions that can lead down new creative paths, and reinforce personal bonds with each other as well as with Jesus Christ.

As I have told many of you, I was blessed in my previous parish with the invitation to lead adult formation classes for four years. This not only forced me to bring down to earth what can be the rarefied air of seminary studies — formation really is where the rubber meets the road—but also it was an opportunity to learn how to listen to God and how He can speak to us, beckon us, entice us—and to do so in the usually quiet times within a small group of adults. One of the many insights I took away from that experience of being a parish catechist is that the riches of the Christian faith are inexhaustible. It is a great blessing to us today to have two thousand years of recorded reflections by devout Christian men and women at our disposal, even at our fingertips.

Because the role of adult formation is so crucial to survival of the Church today—including, I strongly believe, the survival of this Parish—I will not only speak this morning about Formation, but I will do so next Sunday as well—something of a two-part Sermon series. Yet in both cases, I will ground whatever I have to say in the appointed Lessons from Holy Scripture. And so, in that Spirit, what do we hear this morning that calls us to reflect upon the importance of formation? We hear it in Jeremiah:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.

God wants to form us. And who would not want to be clay in the hands of God? God has made the most beautiful and stunning things we have seen—he is the architect of everything in the universe—such beauty, to paraphrase our Psalm, “too wonderful for us; it is so high that we cannot attain to it.” God’s nature is Love. God can only form us into more and more loving creatures. It is he that makes us, and not we ourselves. So may we consent to be like clay in the hands of our loving God!

We also hear about formation from Paul in his Epistle to Philemon:

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

Formation is the process by which we continue the journey to have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Without formation, we have only a partial understanding, if even that. Note as well how for Paul, formation happens in the context of sharing faith in the community. Formation does not happen in isolation. Individuals cannot form themselves. Community is essential.

I often base my thinking about Christian life on what happened on the Day of Pentecost. As I have recounted many times, everything fundamental we can say about Parish life can be derived from the response of the People to the Coming of the Holy Spirit. Saint Luke tells us they continued in “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Formation relates to all three dimensions of the prayer life, but it is part of that first one: “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship.” Our faith in all its dimensions traces from the apostles’ and what they taught of their experience with Jesus, and that experience is only communicated in community that meets also to break bread and for prayer. Formation, then, is not an option, but necessary. And it is also Prayer. Again from our Psalm: “How deep I find your thoughts, O God! how great is the sum of them!” True formation is not learning the right answers on a test, but being thrown into prayer, thrown into wonder and awe.

Finally in our Gospel, formation is one way to interpret the entire passage. We must hate our family members not in the way we feel about them—we are to love our family members—but we are to see Jesus as more important even than the mother and father we love, the brothers and sisters we adore, the spouse to whom we are devoted. If we do not choose to love God and make him our first priority, even above our family, we cannot be his disciple, Jesus is saying. And yet in order to choose Jesus, our choice must be an informed one. All the best choices we make in life usually come from being educated about the choice we face—whether building a tower, fighting a war, or choosing the food we eat, clothes we wear, the company we keep, or where we spend what money we might have. And formation teaches us about Jesus so we know about Him that we are choosing. Without formation, the choice we think we might be making about Jesus may not in fact be about Jesus at all.

Formation is the opportunity we give the Holy Spirit to speak to us through the other people gathered, through whatever it is that is being studied, whether a text from the Bible or something else. Formation can be a crucible that forges our character in the shape God intends it to be. The concluding line from our Gospel reads, “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” That is not “give up” in the sense of give away, but rather in the sense of “offering it up” to God—to place everything we have on the Altar and allow God to reveal their purpose. Our Collect begins, “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts.” May we all give our hearts to God, day in and day out. And may He give them back to us formed like clay in His hands in an ever-deeper understanding of Him, so that we may truly carry his cross into our homes, our workplaces, our neighborhoods as disciples of Jesus—always thanking God because we are marvelously made.

Cover image “Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles” by Duccio di Buoninsegna is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

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 the Transfiguration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homily: Religion and Covetousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Homily: Religion and the Our Father

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 12, Year C)

We have been looking at the Gospel of Saint Luke for what he can teach us about the patterns of activity of the whole of life as lived by the faithful Christian. We are called to reconcile our lives to Jesus Christ. That is little more than pleasant-sounding sentiment unless we are taught just how to do that. That Our Lord was born, lived, died on a cross, was buried and rose again for the sins of everyone, all so that in rising to Heaven he would leave us lost, confused, and bewildered about how to actually follow him strikes me as simply ridiculous. But he did teach us religion, I strongly maintain. He said He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life: that implies religion. Hence the need to learn what religion actually involves.

We certainly learn by doing, and this is a part of the purpose of liturgy. To take one example, liturgy teaches us about repentance. At the beginning of our liturgy, we as a Body acknowledge that over the last week separateness from God has creeped in, as it inevitably does, and we acknowledge that we have yet to fully grow into the Love to which God calls us; and we pledge to delight in God’s will, and walk in God’s ways, so that all we do may give glory to His holy Name. Reconciling our lives to Jesus means all we do — whether here at the Altar being fed by Word and Sacrament, or in our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces representing Jesus — is to give glory to God, as we are able and according to our gifts.

The Holy Spirit presents himself time and time again, in one opportunity after another each and every day of our life, to be guided toward the voice of Jesus. So that in hearing Him, we grow closer to him as he lives and moves and has His Being in us and all the creatures around us, all of whom are made through Him. Jesus calls us to Him that we may share more and more in the glory of the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We are here for unity with God, and God’s gift to us, given to us through our Baptism, is the capacity to accept what has been given through Jesus. All we need to do is say “Yes” to God when He makes Himself known to us. When we say “Yes” we consent to being closer to Him, being bound to him, tightly wrapped in His love.

It must be that religion, the activity of the faithful Christian, binds us to Love Incarnate. It must be that Love itself binds us, ties us up, and in so doing, gives ultimate freedom. For the activities called “religion” are gifts of Love given at the Day of Pentecost — baptismal fellowship that forms us in the teachings of the apostolic Church; gathering for the Breaking of Bread; and daily Prayer both personal and extemporaneous as well as from the teachings and tradition of the Church.

The patterns of religion, then, involve learning about our forgiving God in community; the asking for and receiving of necessary provisions; and the gathering and dispersing week-to-week in praise of God who has created all things past, present and future.

We can see that the Our Father prayer is the summary of the religious life. It contains, in concentrated form, the patterns of activity of a life growing in Love. Just as a field of vanilla beans is concentrated into vanilla extract, all of religion is concentrated into the Lord’s Prayer. “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come” is an ever-constant reminder that God has created all things, all creatures, and therefore is radically outside the bounds of time and space. “Give us each day our daily bread” asks God for what we need, and asks Jesus, the living bread, to share His Sacred Humanity with us to that we might feel, see, smell, hear, taste and think through his senses. “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” asks for the coming of the Holy Spirit, who unites all creatures to their Creator and who allows us to find forgiveness in our heart. “And lead us not into temptation” acknowledges the triune God’s providential hand in all activities, who provides always a way out when the Devil tries to test us.

Clearly, the Lord’s Prayer is the most important prayer in all of Christianity. Of all the abundance of Jesus Christ’s teaching to us, He in fact only directly taught one prayer, and that is the Lord’s Prayer. The Church has recognized the importance of this prayer by making it central to its religion. It is said when the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood is on the altar, and it has always been said during the daily Offices. In fact, liturgical history indicates that the Lord’s Prayer was the first form of the daily Office. Evidence dating to the first century AD, or early in the second, shows that the Lord’s was ordered to be said by the Christian community three times a day, every day. It therefore was the official prayer of the early Church.

The Lord’s Prayer, then, is at the heart of Christian religion. It sums up the aims, aspirations and activity of the Christian life. And the reciting or chanting of the prayer itself became a central of the Christian family. Another gift of our Baptism is that we can be assured that if we respond to grace by participating in the Breaking of Bread each Sunday, and praying the Our Father on a daily basis — not because of duty but because it is a gift from Love Incarnate — we will grow in love and holiness. And there is nothing more infectious in this world, nothing more attractive to potential workers on the harvest, nothing more evangelistic in our neighborhoods, than love and holiness.

Cover image “The Synaxis of the holy and the most praiseworthy Twelve Apostles”  is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

Homily: “Religion — Martha and Mary”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homily: Religion and Our Gifts

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 10, Year C)

Last Sunday I suggested that we can look at Saint Luke’s account of the Sending of the seventy-two for what it says about the nature of religion. While in the secular world, the term “religion” means a system of beliefs, of one form or another, within the Catholic tradition of Christianity, it is in effect a verb. Religion is first and foremost activity.

And so the seventy-two, sent by Jesus into homes to pronounce Peace and proclaim the Kingdom of God has come near — that is sent to represent Jesus to others — is at the heart of religion. We, too, the Body of Christ, are sent to represent Him in the world, sent each Sunday at the Dismissal — go in Peace, to love and serve the Lord — and therefore are presented with opportunity after opportunity to bless the homes around us with the Peace of Christ, and to proclaim in our lives that the Kingdom of God has come near. And then to return the following Sunday, the gathering of His Body, to come to the Altar of God to be reminded of the majesty of the Almighty Father, to meditate on his mighty acts, savoring again how Jesus Christ live, died on the cross, was buried, and rose again for our sins and for the sins of all people, past, present and future, to be enlivened by the Holy Spirit, and to be fed with the Bread of Life, rejuvenated for another week of ministry, of evangelism. Religion, then, is but the special way in which the whole of life is lived by faithful Christian.

In today’s Gospel, we hear the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and there is perhaps no more well-known parable in all of the New Testament. It repays constant reflection, meditation and contemplation, particularly in the troubled times of today’s society when we seem to hardly go more than a day without learning of some heart-wrenching tragedy. And to meditate upon the Parable looking for what it may say about religion-as-activity—it can teach us here as well. We notice in this passage the strong affirmation of how important it is to ask questions about the teachings of the Church. As I pointed out back in May when I gave a talk during Evening Prayer, there are two primary kinds of questions the first Christians asked on the Day of Pentecost. “What does it mean?” and “What shall we do?” On these two questions hang the health of every Christian community, including this one. These questions give evidence that the Holy Spirit is present and alive.

Now by that I mean, present and alive within the community, within the Parish family. Yet this Parable also makes clear that the Holy Spirit lives and is present outside the community, as well. It is the Parable about the Good Samaritan, not the Parable of the Good Jew. In Jesus’s story, the implication is clear: God teaches and forms the conscience of people outside of His chosen disciples, that is, outside His Church. To rearrange the words of our Collect today and apply it to this Parable, would go something like this: “God granted that this Samaritan knew and understood what things he ought to do; and that this Samaritan had the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.” God works outside His elect, outside His Church on earth. His grace fills all in all, for He created all things and fills them with his blessing.

I had a conversation this past week with a man who, as it went, told me that he did not think it was necessary to go to Church in order to treat people with love and respect. And I told him — and I was wearing my collar—yes, agree. And this Parable is one reason why. God reveals the values of human decency, love, respect and dignity beyond those who come to Mass every Sunday. Even more, God bestows gifts upon such people, as he bestowed gifts upon the Samaritan man. See how the Samaritan man shared his gifts — of awareness, pity, bandages, oil and wine; a donkey, good sense and discernment, silver coins, even persuasion. We ourselves may not possess all of these gifts, yet we all possess gifts and talents given to us by God, and in abundance; for our God is not a miser, but has formed us in his image.

To use our gifts to the fullest, we firstly must acknowledge that they come from God, not us — it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; and secondly we must use them as they were meant to be used. This second part demands discernment, because it is not always readily apparent how best to use our gifts. It may take not weeks or months, but years, even decades — sometimes a whole life. The test is this, whatever the gift we may be trying to understand and use, is this gift giving greater glory to God, or to me? Does it lead to the growth of mercy, or does it lead to creeping pride? Does the gift increase health—spiritually and hence behaviorally—or does it lead us to hardened hearts in the face of hunger, fear, injustice and oppression?

Simply put, through our gifts do we represent Jesus in the world? That is the real test. With that in mind, let us hear the words again of our Collect.

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Homily: Religion and Evangelism

Delivered at All Saints, Morton on the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 9, Year C)

As I prepared for this Liturgy, and particularly for this homily, I will admit that an image I could not quite shake was an acceptance speech at an awards ceremony, like the Academy Awards. Now, perhaps the younger people here may have no idea what I mean when I say “Academy Awards.” I suspect that is not altogether a bad thing, to be unfamiliar with this annual event. I have not watched this awards show in well over a decade, but who can forget the image of the announcement, “And the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor goes to . . .” and the surprise on the face of the winner, who proceeds to the stage, hugs all the people around him waits for the applause to end, and then breathlessly give an acceptance speech, thanking every person all the way back to childhood who helped that person win this award. A long list! And sometimes the orchestra started to play, cutting the speech off somewhere between thanking the third grade music teacher and that first agent which got that role of an invisible extra on a 30-second toothpaste TV ad.

So while I will not rattle off a list of names, and it could be lengthy, believe you me, I will simply say that I am truly grateful to be here with you all, and I, and my family, are grateful for your prayers, and for the many ways our move to this Parish of Tazewell County, and the Rectory in Pekin, has made us feel welcomed, loved and inspired.

And yet I continued to ponder this image of the acceptance speech. It struck me that many of the speeches, despite even a dozen people being thanked, seemed someone to still be about the actor. Yes, the words were thankful, but the overall spirit seemed more self-centered. I do not have any examples of this, but it is a sense I remember having when I watched these sorts of shows. Yet occasionally there was a winner whose speech really did point beyond that person, and do so in a poignant, touching way. Maybe it wasn’t even the words that actor said in this remarks, as much as the presence he or she had — a dignity, a depth, a strong yet humble presence.

Jesus is pointing to this distinction. The distinction is between, on one hand, a kind of self-centeredness, and, on the other hand, one that is God-centered. The seventy-two (in some ancient manuscripts, it is 70) return from being sent out like lambs among wolves, return from pronouncing Peace to all houses they enter, return from healing the sick, return from proclaiming “The Kingdom of God is near.” They return from representing Jesus to the local community of Samaria, which would have been a hostile environment.

They return, and say to Jesus, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” Now it would be wrong to judge the 72 as bluntly self-centered. I say that because Our Lord did not judge them, as far as Saint Luke relates to us. His response to them is loving. He confirms their accomplishment — “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” And he affirmed the spiritual power they have when they represent Jesus — curing the sick means they have power to overcome all power Satan may have spiritually, and hence behaviorally, over people. And, indeed, the 72 had not forgotten the holy Name of Jesus, and had invoked it in their evangelism.

Yet Jesus is a gentle guide, a wise spiritual director. “However,” he says, “do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” He detects a creeping pride. And he reminds them that the greatest glory is not what we do, even when it is God who works through us. Our greatest glory is what God has already done for us. He created us, he called us into covenant with him. So often he gently coaxes us toward into ever-greater humility. This is what the Sacraments are for: gently coaxing us into humility.

This passage from Luke tells us a great deal about the true nature of religion. That word, religion, is so abused today. In this national political season, we have only begun to hear to thrown around like a dagger. In the secular world, “religion” means a system of beliefs. But in the Catholic tradition of Christianity, of which Anglicanism is a part, religion is in essence a verb. It is activity; it is dynamic, not static.

Religion is that activity, that way of living, that ties or binds ourselves to God. It is motion. It is experiential. It is working with people, saying good-bye, and then later on, often seeing them again. Just as the 72 were dismissed by Jesus and sent into evangelism or mission, we are dismissed each Sunday, and sent by God in peace to love and serve the Lord as he lives and breathes in all people, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces. And we return the following Sunday. We return not because our tails are between our legs, usually, but because God calls us and we respond. And he ever-calls us into humility, because only in humility can we serve the Lord.

Homily: “Catholic Imagination”

Delivered at Saint Paul’s, Riverside on the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 6, Year C)

A week ago, after Mass, a group of us from Saint Paul’s accepted the invitation from the Rector of All Riverside to accompany him to travel to Hyde Park to hear an address given at Catholic Theological Union. The speaker was Father Richard Fragomeni, who happened to have been one of my professors when I studied theology at CTU. And the topic of the talk was “the Catholic imagination.”

That is, as you well know, a principle that has become increasingly explored here at Saint Paul’s. Father Fragomeni, who in addition to being seminary faculty is the rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, gave a talk both entertaining and enlightening. And as his talk neared the end, he took questions, one of which came from the Rector of All Riverside, who asked Fr Fragomeni if he might say a couple words about the notion of “meditation.” Because, I think, the afternoon Mass at CTU was about to begin, Fr Fragomeni being also the celebrant, his answer was perhaps rather short because of time. He did, however, follow up in an email to me the next day.

In the email, Fr Fragomeni wrote that a metaphor to understand what Catholic imagination entails is “mediated immediacy.” He went on to write that this metaphor “points to the hope that the presence of God/Christ, while immediate, that is, present among us, is not a direct presence, but a mediated one — through signs and symbols and dreams and bread and wine and oil and people and stars and cosmos and emptiness.” He concluded by writing, “Now that takes some imagination to inhabit that place: most apophatic, and most sacramental.”

Mediated immediacy. The presence of the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob — of the God who forgives all sins. And yet a presence, mediated by the things of creation; mediated by creatures. We know God first and foremost through his creatures. We discern the will of God through our relationship with creatures. And not only creatures such as bread, wine, oil, but people, animals, soil, mountains, rivers, and the rest. All of these can mediate — can be means of conveying — God’s presence. We are to be stewards of creation not so that we can control and manipulate the creatures of this world, but so that we can hear God through them.

In our Gospel reading from Saint Luke, we have oil, and it is brought to Jesus, and it is used the anoint the feet of Our Lord. Although tradition for about 1,400 years interpreted this woman as Saint Mary Magdalene, the text does not name this woman, but to say she was a sinner. Perhaps she is not able to anoint the head of Jesus with oil because her humility keeps her low. Many of us, perhaps all of us, are similarly brought low by awareness of sins we have committed. We are brought low by the awareness of the wounds inflicted by sins — wounds upon ourselves, and wounds upon others.

And yet we are raised up by grace in our love for God. We are raised up when we give ourselves to God just as this woman gave herself to Jesus through this oil, and through her tears, through, even, the hair on her head. We are raised up by a God who wants to forgive us, wants to be immediate in our presence, mediated by the gifts we offer to him. Saint Luke is telling us that we do not have to know the right way to offer God ourselves and our gifts. There is not the sense that this woman was following a procedure, a step by step process of how to properly anoint Jesus. She just gave herself to God, thoroughly, completely, not holding anything back.

When we give to God our own best gifts, our own treasures; when we tell God we are aware of the specific sins we have committed, in that sense “give him our awareness”, our awareness becoming a gift we offer him — perhaps the most expensive, most prized, most special gift we can offer him — he responds with love. He responds with forgiveness. He responds with his presence — immediate, yet mediated by the gifts we offer to him.

Cover image “Jesus at Bethany” is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

Homily: “That He Might Fill All Things”

Delivered at Saint Paul’s, Riverside at the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016

In this age in which the Bible is used in society every which way for every which cause, it is easy to forget how deeply personal its words are. Over the last two centuries of biblical scholarship, we have learned that “the Bible itself is no objective record of events and sayings, no set of revealed propositions, no manual of morals and no biography of Jesus.” So what, then, is it? “It is an intensely personal interpretation of the experience of the biblical writers from within the community of faith.” [1] That community—the Church—experienced the Ascension of Jesus in a variety of ways. In two accounts, Ascension occurs on Easter Day, in the evening; in today’s reading from Acts, forty days after Easter Day. Yet in all three accounts the Ascension is not experienced as an absence of Jesus, but rather as his real presence in a new and more powerful way.

New and powerful, indeed, and intensely personal. In Saint Luke’s gospel, the immediate reaction to the Ascension is “great joy.” Not great sadness; not great confusion or despondence—great joy. Luke tells us as well the disciples “were continually in the temple blessing God.” And so we have prayer and liturgical worship to go with great joy. Saint Mark, in his account, tells us the disciples “went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them.” All of the disciples’ experiences—all their life and actions, all their contemplation—became filled with Jesus.

Ascended to His Father, he became intensely personal for the Church. When Jesus was with them in His flesh, they often were confused, even challenged him—they did not understand who he truly was. But when he ascended, they knew—they grasped together in prayer that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, definitively reveals ultimate reality—that he was indeed the Son of God, sitting at the right hand of the Father. They knew that Jesus ascended so that he might fill all things.

All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. All of creation, all creatures both great and small, are the expression of God. The nature of the primordial Father is to give—to make, to create—and all that is manifest comes to be through the Word that speaks and expresses—the Son. And the love between the Father and Son—what unites them, and unites us as His creatures to them—is the Holy Spirit, for He is the shared will between Father and Son. Every creature is the sensible expression of a thought of the Son of God, of Jesus.

All of creation expresses Jesus—yet clearly he is more expressed in some parts of it more than in others. As Pope Leo the Great said over 1,500 years ago, what was visible of our Redeemer at the Ascension was changed into a sacramental presence. [2] Jesus chose bread and wine to express, to be, Him. And that fact we particularly celebrate today in the First Holy Communion of Isadora Dallman and Oona Dallman, as well as the recently received First Holy Communion of Jacob Bailis. We all celebrate—some of us in deeply gratifying ways—the journey toward unity with God that Oona, Isadora and Jacob are on.

It is, undoubtedly, intensely personal for them; we pray it grows ever-more intensely personal as the journey continues—and yet it is the journey of the oldest tradition of the Christian People of God. The Eucharist, supported by daily Office prayers and lived out as Devotional fellowship with the world based on the Bible—these are the repeatable parts of Baptism. Jacob, Isadora and Oona have all chosen, of their own free will, to receive preparation of Holy Communion through guidance, teaching and prayer. May the Eucharist fill them, and continue to fill us all, and give us all great joy to bless God through our worship and to go forth into the world preaching the Good News of Christ, knowing that everywhere we go, the Lord is there working with us. Alleluia! Christ the Lord ascendeth into heaven: O come let us adore him. Alleluia!

[1] Martin Thornton. Prayer: A New Encounter, Personal Preface.
[2] Sermon 74.

Cover image “Ascension of Christ” by Guariento D’Arpo is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original

Homily: “Filled with the Power of the Spirit”

Delivered at Saint Matthew’s, Bloomington on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany
According to the RCL: 
Neh 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Ps 19; 1 Cor 12:12-31a; Lk 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.

One of the important dimensions to always remember in our meditations and reflections upon Saint Luke’s account of the beginning of the mature ministry of Jesus is what directly precedes our Gospel reading in Luke’s narrative. What directly precedes is his Baptism in the River Jordan, then a genealogy that is 16 verses long which traces Jesus all the way back to Adam and Eve, and then finally his Temptation in the wilderness. And so, first and foremost as we consider the Gospel account today, we see Jesus setting out on his public ministry after having done what in today’s language, we would say is a great deal of discernment. He heard his Father’s voice and the bodily presence of the Holy Spirit at the River Jordan. And this self-knowledge, which was not brand-new but perhaps reached in this baptism its fullest self-revelation to Jesus, drove him into the Wilderness to actively confront the Devil, overcome the Devil, beat the Devil for all time, and then, into public ministry, which demonstrated to everyone that his own fleshly being was foretold by prophets like Isaiah. What I am offering to you is that perhaps this is something of a pattern that might be applicable to us, as individuals but even prior to that, as members of this parish, Saint Matthew’s, Bloomington. For we together are the local Body of Christ in this place, here and now, as we together are on our journey.

Finding a pattern in how our Lord and Savior discerns and then acts has certainly been of tremendous service to me in my own journey. Among my first comments this morning is to express my sincere gratitude to you all for welcoming me and my wife and daughters into your parish family—for allowing us to journey along with you. There has been a warmth, a genuineness, and a deep sense of hospitality that began from my first moments with you. Six years ago when this journey began, I could have never dreamed to be here with you all. When one signs on to God’s demand to pursue Holy Orders in His Church, one learns quickly that things will not go according to one’s own plan. On the other hand, as a wise person once said, if one’s expectation of God’s will is that it will be regularly bring inconvenience, difficulty, and awkwardness, then things will go very smoothly.

How true this is even about Saint Matthew’s, Bloomington! This is, no doubt, a healthy parish with a clear purpose to worship God in the beauty of holiness. And yet among my own first experiences with you all was learning about the truck that smashed into the church. Inconvenient, to say the least—also difficult, certainly awkward, along with a whole host of additional adjectives that could be used. And then I remember hearing Fr Halt preach, my first time, and he spoke passionately about seeing God’s presence—here, in this near-tragic accident, in the waves and ripples of its impact on this parish and the local community. God is active, God is alive, God is present—here and now—we know this to be true, and yet do we have the words to articulate what His presence works and flows?

When we begin to ask these kinds of questions—how do we talk about God’s presence in our lives, and the direction he gives for our lives?—we might falter. We might trail off into vagueness or even silence. We know He is present. We may not know how exactly God’s presence works, and how it flows through us.

This is precisely why we must look to Jesus. This is where, again in so many ways, in all ways, he becomes our primary teacher. This is what the New Testament is for—watching Jesus, the living and glorified only-begotten Son of the Father, the anointed one, our Lord and Savior—watching Jesus live, and move, and have his being. Just as a person training to be a teacher learns best from shadowing an experienced teacher, just as a nurse resident learns from being taken under the wing of an experienced nurse, or a postulant learns to be a priest by direct relationship with experienced priests, just as children learn how to be adults by the constant model of their parents and other important grown-ups—we learn how to be Christians, that is, more and more Christ-like, or in Saint Paul’s words, to “strive for the greater gifts,” by not only reading about him or studying theological theories, but by watching him at work.

I mentioned before that we can find something of a pattern, and I think that pattern is begins with being filled with discernment and emptying forth into action. Jesus learned definitively who he was at his baptism and again in the Wilderness, he then fought against the Prince of Evil and won, and then “returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding country.” The profoundness of his power, how it spread widely, this is a preview of what later happened on the Day of Pentecost, when the power of the Resurrection and the Presence of the Holy Spirit, channeled by the ferocious preaching of Peter, changed the course of the lives of three thousand souls that day, and hundreds of millions of souls since then.

All of the creation was made new by Jesus. And he teaches us that asking the hard questions, wrestling with them together, wrestling like Jacob wrestled with the Angel, living-into the mystery of God’s will for us—Jesus teaches us that this is the way toward proclaiming the Gospel in our own lives. The hard questions—like, “Who are we?” “Who am I?” “How did we come to be?” “What is God’s purpose for our being here?” For Jesus this meant realizing the unrealizable—his true identity as the savior promised since the prophets of old. For us it means continuing, according to our gifts, his earthly ministry of full loving God and fully loving God’s creation and our neighbor. Through him and entirely because of His grace, we are to “preach good news to the poor,” to “proclaim release to the captives,” to “set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

And so all that Jesus read from Isaiah that day applies to us through Jesus, is part of our vocation as members of His Body. We Christians can only acknowledge in profound humility the tremendous responsibility Jesus himself willingly accepted for himself, and accepted for his followers. We are incorporated into His Body. We are incorporated into his Saving ministry.

And so, in this season of annual parish meetings and asking the hard questions about who we are and what is God calling us to do, how deep a resonance the words of our Collect become, chanted by Fr Halt at the beginning of Mass, which I invite you to pray again with me now:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Homily: “Bringing Gifts to the Child”

Delivered on 3 January 2015 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Once upon a time, there once was an old lady named Old Befana. She lived alone in small house on the outskirts of a small village. Not terribly friendly was she. Whenever people dared to knock at her door, never did she let them in. “I have no time for visiting,” were always her words. And if you ask the children what they thought of her, they either said, “She’s cranky,” or “All she wants to do is sweep with her broom!”

And that was true—sweep, sweep, sweep, in the morning and in the afternoon. Her house, her front step, and the walk out to the road. When she wasn’t sweeping, she was baking. Everyone could smell the delicious things baking in her house. “But whom does she bake for?” people would always wonder. And when she wasn’t sweeping or baking, she was singing what sounded to everyone like lullabies. “But whom does she sing for?” people would always wonder.

And it came one evening, after Old Befana had her dinner and finished her sweeping, that she readied herself for bed. She locked the door and shuttered the windows. Into bed she climbed, blowing out the lamp, and asleep she fell.

In the middle of the night, Old Befana woke up. The room was bright. “What’s all this?” she asked. “The lamp is still out,” she said, “and the windows shuttered. Yet all my house is full of light!” And when she walked to the other side of her house to open the shutter, in flowed light upon light, pouring into her room. In the eastern sky she saw a brilliant star, seeming to grow before her eyes. “Harumph!” said Old Befana, closing the shutter as tightly as she could. “How will I ever sleep with all this light!” And sleep she did not; tossing and turning all night long.

The next morning it was back to her normal routine. She ate her breakfast, and then, as she always did, she began sweeping—sweep, sweep, sweep. Her house, her front step, and the walk out to the road. Yet when she got to the road, she stopped and listened. It was bells, tinkling. “Oh it is probably just the wind,” she said. Sweep, sweep, sweep. Yet again, she heard bells. “Oh, I bet it’s the birds singing.” Sweep, sweep, sweep. But once more, it was bells. “My old ears play tricks.” Sweep, sweep—

Suddenly, over the hill, came the most glorious procession Old Befana had ever seen. Camels, horses, elephants, and people—so many people, something splendid! And about halfway back there were particularly royal-looking men, with jeweled robes and what seemed like crowns on their heads. They stopped. Down came the kings, and they walked up to a frowning Befana. One of them said, “Please, which way to Jerusalem?” “Eh?” said Old Befana, “never heard of it.” The second said, “We are searching for the child. Do you know of him?” Befana said, “There are many children,” and she swept and swept. And said the third, “But this one is a King.” Befana said, “I know nothing of royal matters.” Yet he continued, “Our maps have told us,” he said, “that when the bright planet appears from behind the moon, a bright star, the Child King will be born.” “The star I have seen!” said Befana. “It kept me awake all night. Yet do excuse me, I have work to do.”

As she turned, the procession started up again. “Old woman,” called a young girl, “You should come with us. This Child, this Baby King, has come to change the world. He comes for us. He comes for the poor. We are bringing him gifts.” Old Befana paused. She watched the procession wind down the road. “Huh, a Child King,” she muttered. “Jerusalem . . .” and yet she swept, and swept and swept. Yet she talked to herself. “Coming to change the world. Coming for the poor.” Sweep, sweep. “Well, heaven knows, Befana is poor.” Sweep, sweep. “Gifts; only a child.”

Old Befana went back into her house. “Perhaps I should go see him . . . But what do I have to take to him?” She put down her broom. She got out some butter, and sugar and flour. She blew on the fire and added some wood. And she began to sing. She baked all day. She didn’t even sweep. It was almost dark when she finished. A basket was filled with all the cakes, cookies, and candies she had made. “I’ll take a few coals in a little pot to keep the cookies warm,” she said.

She grabbed her shawl and opened the door. “And I’ll take along my broom, to sweep the room clean, for the Baby King’s mother will be tired.” Old Befana stopped for she realized she had not swept for at least three hours. “Oh this won’t take long,” she said. She put down the basket and began to sweep. Sweep, sweep, sweep: her house, her front step, and the walk out to the road.

Then she locked the door, gathered up her basket, pulled her shawl around her and took up her broom. Old Befana was on her way at last. First she ran, and ran and ran, as fast as her legs would carry her. The sun was set, yet she still ran, for the Star again shone brightly to the East of the moon. And then her breath came short, her old legs began to ache—O but still she ran, now a little bit slower. At last she had to sit beside the road. She could run no more. “O, I should have left earlier. Now I will never catch up. And where is Jerusalem?” She closed her eyes, and gave a long sigh: “I will never find the Baby King.”

Suddenly the sky was filled ever more with light, and heavenly angels sang. “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” Old Befana rose to her feet. “Tell me! Tell me where He is,” she cried picking up her basket and broom. “I bring gifts to the child!”

She began to walk. Then run again. “Glory to God in the highest,” sang the angels once more. “Wait!” she shouted. “You must help me. Show me the way to Jerusalem!” Old Befana began to feel lighter. She ran faster and faster, so fast it took her breath away. She was running in the sky!

Old Befana never caught up, alas. She never found the Child that night. But she is still searching, to this day. Every year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, Old Befana runs across the sky. She visits children while they sleep, and leaves them gifts from her basket. Then she takes her broom and sweeps the room all clean. “For, after all,” says Old Befana, “I never know which child might be the Baby King of Jerusalem.”

And so with a profound nod to artist and writer Tomie dePaola, from whom this story is adapted, I invite you to join me in prayer:

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the Peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Image: “Byzantine icon of Nativity (Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens)” taken by Ricardo André Frantz is licenced under CC BY 2.0. Resized from original.

Saint Mark, icon by the hand of Monica Thornton

Homily: The Spectacular Awkwardness of James and John

There is, I think, a spectacular awkwardness in the conversation between Jesus and the disciples James and John. They ask, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?” They say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” And Jesus replies, “You do not know what you are asking.” Conversation with Jesus—the term for this is “colloquy”—ensues about the Cup, a symbol of sharing in Jesus’ “cup of suffering,” and baptism, immersion into pilgrimage. A little while later, when word of this exchange reaches the other disciples, we are told they were “indignant,” and in another translation, “furious.” A fascinating exchange! One of the challenges sometimes faced by disciples of Jesus of any age, and exemplified in this lesson, is less about the problem in talking to Jesus ourselves in private and asking Him to help us, but rather in the reactions of others when they find out we asked Jesus to help us find that new job, new car, new house. Rather than comfortably asking Jesus for something—which he already knows we want—we worry, “What might others think of this?” and the simplicity of talking to God is impeded.

I described this conversation as having a “spectacular awkwardness” about it. I say this particularly because our Gospel lesson is preceded by three verses we do not hear today, which have Jesus describing His Passion in summary as well as with some detail. In the verse, immediately before our lesson, he says the Son of Man will be mocked, spat upon, scourged, killed and then “after three days he will rise.” And so there is something of a dissonance, to say the least, when that holy narrative of humiliation, torture and death is followed by a demand by James and John to “do for us whatever we ask of you.” And yet, it is often the case that the deep questions we have—those questions that have echoed inwardly for a while, but usually have to be put aside because something more pressing in our life is demanding immediate attention—those questions are sometimes triggered by something we hear, and it may not be the particular words we hear, but rather have to do with the person saying the words—his or her presence, whether it has a calmness that disarms, or an energy that excites, or both; as well as the particular time and place—we are stirred to ask that question we have been meaning to ask for days, weeks, even months or years, but never had the chance. And in this trusting relationship with another person, we just ask it, because it needs to be asked. Some commentators on this Gospel passage immediately side with the other disciples and criticize James and John for their demand and request, calling it “self-centeredness.” Say what you want about that, but I am glad they asked it, and St Mark apparently was, too, because he included it in his narrative!

I would suggest that this request to “sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in glory,” had been echoing inwardly in James and John because they, along with Peter, were witnesses to the Transfiguration of Jesus, which in Mark’s Gospel is told but one chapter earlier than our lesson. Recall that they were brought up to a “high mountain,” the garments of Jesus becoming “glistening, intensely white.” They heard the voice of the Father Almighty speaking out of a cloud which was overshadowing them, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” To attempt to describe what James, John and Peter must have experienced is the task of poets, but we cannot be wholly wrong to suspect they were shocked, overwhelmed, their hearts perhaps emblazoned with the holy fear of God. Howsoever it was for them—and let it be affirmed again that this is a very good meditation for us to make today, putting ourselves in their shoes, reflecting creatively on what it may have been like to actually be there on that mysterious mountain—basic knowledge of humanity shows us it is hardly unreasonable to assume the experience of the Transfiguration of Jesus stretched their understanding of reality, and required time to process. And as part of that processing, at some point James and John would ask questions about just what happened back on the mountain with Moses and Elijah. Remember the Church has historically depicted in icons the Transfiguration with Jesus in the center, Elijah on his right hand and Moses on his left. In the normal course of human thinking, psychology, emotions, and cognition mix together, and out comes the awkward question from James and John to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one and your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” and we might add, “like we remember Moses and Elijah back on the mountain.”

Whereas the disciples were indignant or furious at this question, Jesus was not. There is no characterization in the text of Jesus’s response, other than his words. And these words put together show Jesus in the role that today we would call spiritual director or ascetical guide. He masterfully responds to their first demand—“we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” with, “What do you want me to do for you?” When they elaborate, he says, “You do not know what you are asking”—not, what a stupid, ridiculous, incompetent question, how dare you ask it!—but rather with the guidance they need: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Do we hear the tremendous affirmation in these words given by Jesus to James and John? What glory! And yet he does not hesitate to correct where they do go awry: “but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” All of which further issues in still more guidance and direction by Jesus, now to the Twelve as a whole, about the nature of servant ministry, and it is surely with teaching such as this echoing inwardly in the corporate memory of the Twelve along with the early Church that called them back to the Hebrew Scriptures and passages such as our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah which show Jesus to be the messianic king in the tradition of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses as well as the Suffering Servant figure spake by the Prophets of old. This is another reason why, according to one interpretation of the Transfiguration Icon, Moses and Elijah are depicted. Moses represents the Law, the five books commonly called the Pentateuch; Elijah represents the Prophets, the major writings like Isaiah and minor writings like Hosea. We are invited to reflect, then, on the fact that we cannot properly see neither the humanity nor particularly the divinity of Jesus without the Law or the Prophets. Yes, true prayer requires the whole Catholic Bible, yet even moreso the fullness of salvation history.

Brothers and sisters, let us glory in the spectacular awkwardness of James and John. Let us give thanks to these Saints for the courage to ask their question. Whether it was merely self-centered, or whether it was mystagogical reflection that looked back the Transfiguration, we can be assured and emboldened that whatever desires we have, bring them to Christ. Whatever demands we feel called to make, bring them to Christ. Whatever wishes, hopes, goals we have, bring them to Christ. Make a full oblation to God—and then listen for his response. He knows what we want before we ask—in our Collect two weeks ago: He is always more ready to hear than we to pray, and he gives us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask.

Icon by 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.

 

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.

Saint Mark, icon by the hand of Monica Thornton

Homily: Jesus Christ, suffering servant

Delivered at Saint Paul’s, Riverside on 5 July 2015.

“And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching” (Mk 6:6).

Brothers and sisters, spend time this week reflecting on this description of Jesus. This is St Mark describing Jesus doing ministry in his own country. Jesus—already being followed by great crowds, crowds that throng about him. Jesus—already performing great and mighty works— miracles of healing, of taming the waters, of exorcising demons, of raising a girl from the dead, such as we have been hearing. Jesus—with his elected twelve disciples, who have been hearing and reflecting upon these mysterious parables spoken by Jesus to larger crowds but explained by Jesus to them as means for more intimate spiritual direction.

Spend time this week reflecting that in his own community, surrounded by both disciples and relatives, who possess “first-century eyes,” as we have been discussing, Jesus could do no mighty work, save a few healings, with this particular group of people, for the most part.

Yet this is Jesus, the God-Man. Can we doubt that Jesus was as emboldened as Ezekiel the prophet—to “be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit upon scorpions”? Doubtless these prefigure Jesus’s passion, wearing a crown of thorns amid a rebellious, antagonistic crowd out for blood. And can we doubt that, like St Paul, Jesus lived with profound visions of the truth, even mystical visions of reality, of paradise, of heaven itself, yet was never “too elated” by them to be able to teach others?

For whatever visions Paul was given through a glass darkly, such were perfect visions in the senses and mind of Christ. Jesus, we must always remember, is the perfect pray-er. From his Nativity through his childhood and into his public ministry as an adult, through it all in every moment, the “whole life of Christ was one of unbroken adoration”—a “perpetual adoration.”[1] We forget this because of how constant his prayer was. Yet his unceasing prayer—his adoration of the Father—is as important to our salvation, and the redemption of the world, as his Passion, for the Passion is but another way we see the prayer of Jesus, his Incarnation made manifest.

Jesus is our high priest. Jesus is our Messiah of the Remnant Church. And here, St Mark’s emphasizes also that Jesus is the Suffering Servant. Scholars confirm that our Gospel passage is one of many moments in the Gospels that recapitulate the “suffering servant” motif found particularly in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. As one scholar writes: “The characteristics of God’s chosen servant are that he is quiet and restrained; no loud proclamations herald his activity,” that is, “no conquering hero of popular Judaism.”[2]

The suffering servant, in his humility, teaches us how to live. The suffering servant, in the pain received from our transgressions, bears our grief and sorrow, is bruised for our iniquities—and yet through all, his stripes, his wounds, heal us. The suffering servant, through the example of his own life, gives to our lives spiritual direction.

These are all qualities perfected in the life of Jesus Christ. They are evoked in our Gospel from St Mark. Jesus’s ministry is not remote and insular but with the people in the community. Jesus does not get into indiscriminate arguments on Facebook about the true God, but is largely restrained—he does not lash back at his community for the offense they take at his words, but with a wounded yet brave face “marvels because of their unbelief.” He is not callous or thick-headed to the reactions around him, but has the utmost sensitivity to them. How does he react? He reacts by accepting the truth of reality at that given moment—“a prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house,”—and by doing the quiet and restrained work that he can—laying his hands upon a few sick people and healing them. And then by going about his daily business, “among the villages teaching.”

This moment for Jesus, with this rebellious people whose hearts most assuredly were hardened, did not present a hill that Jesus chose to die upon. He picked his battles and this was not one of them. Not only politics, but in a notable sense ministry itself, is the art of the possible.

Yet it is an art of the possible that relies upon the hard rock of orthodoxy. Ministry is the art of the possible that knows that God is present—here and in all places. Ministry is the art of the possible that does not shy away from speaking the truth, yet is realistic about outcome. Because ministry tills the ground—and sometimes the ground is rocky, arid, and inhospitable! And, always, we are frail, imperfect, likely to sin. God knows this, God expects this, God forgives this. God loves us for our frailty. God loves us for our imperfections. God loves us despite our sin.

Let us, in our ministry rooted in our baptismal covenant and enacted in our prayer which is our lives, be bold, humble, and realistic. Let us be bold like Ezekiel—recognize the Holy Spirit lives in our bodies, and be not afraid of the words he guides us to speak. Let us be humble like Paul—we are given an abundance of revelations about the truth of ultimate reality, yet the world remains fallen, original sin remains real, and our bodies often sick, frail and tired. And let us be realistic like Jesus—those who do not have ears to hear, won’t. Yet, we must always believe, those who do have ears to hear, will.

It is the duty of the Church to perpetuate the Incarnation. May our lives be the bold, humble and realistic hands of Christ. 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.

[1] Martin Thornton, The Heart of the Parish, chapter 6.
[2] Dr Guillaume, as quoted ibid.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Homily: Faith’s name for reality is God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.


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

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.

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.

To Be Called by Jesus

Homily delivered on the Solemnity of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, 2014 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.

“Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”

Immediately we should ask, “What does it mean to follow Jesus?” And furthermore, because Jesus said, “Follow me,” we should ask, “What does it mean for Jesus to call us?”

Our Collect reads, “We pray that, after Saint Matthew’s example, we may with ready wills and hearts obey the calling of our Lord to follow him.” And so the Collect gathers together the two questions — what does it mean to follow Jesus? and what does it mean for Jesus to call us? — in a neat little package that if taken seriously, has to do with the very core of being Christian today.

So, how do we answer these questions? And how do each of us in our own unique devotional lives come to grips with the implications? One thing is certain: all of us are called in some way; God’s calling is an actuality in our lives, because we are here at Mass. Each of us here has chosen God rather than the alternative. The very act of choosing to be here, of choosing God, means that we are avoiding sin, in that sense “repenting,” because to be separate from God is sin and by being here we all intend therefore not to be separate from God, but to be closer to Him.

So it is not that we should look at Matthew as if what he did in following the call of Jesus is alien to our experience. It is not. Now, our gospel does present Matthew’s response as rather instantaneous and perhaps there is something to be gained in understanding that Jesus’s call to us, whenever it happens, should be not merely heard but obeyed — responded to with active listening. Our Collect also speaks of having ready wills and hearts. Matthew, despite his lifestyle, or perhaps because of it, is shown to have had a ready will and heart. He is an example of discipleship to us.

Blessed Mary, as the Church teaches, is the model disciple, and we can see here that Matthew’s response to Jesus’s call is analogous to Mary’s response to God when he bestowed upon her a vocation to be the Mother of God. Just as Mary’s response was immediate, so was Matthew’s.

I mentioned a moment ago that it may have been because of Matthew’s lifestyle that he had a ready will and heart. I say this because we must always remember the insight that comes from St Thomas Aquinas — that grace does not destroy our nature; rather, grace perfects nature: fulfills our nature. God’s actuality in our lives means that when we become more truly human, truly at home in God’s creation, truly at home in being a creature of God and the humility that requires, more truly in this world — when we accept that God wants us to follow him in this life, in this situation, in this context, with these challenges — this is when we truly cooperate with the grace, the love of God that came before our awareness of it, yet if obeyed, will carry us to the glorified existence in the power of the Holy Spirit through our incorporation into the glorified Body of Jesus the Christ.

So we should not think that Matthew did anything else but respond properly to his situation as Jesus revealed it. And what was his situation? As a tax collector, Matthew worked in a kind of toll-booth. He worked in that tollbooth to collect fees on goods, probably the fish caught nearby. As something of a cog in the government’s financial system, perhaps his relationship with those fishers was one of exploitation. Such people are not “doers;” they take from doers. That is the essence of the relationship, even when done without malice.

Whatever the details of his life, by being a tax collector, in light of the presence of Jesus, Matthew saw himself out of harmony with his surroundings, his life, his context, those fishermen. When we listen to Jesus, really listen by choosing — actively choosing — to open our hearts, the Church teaches that we are brought from disharmony with our surroundings to harmony; from dissonance to consonance; from blurry to focused; from jumbled up and messy to organized and ordered.

It is useful to recall that earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 4, Jesus told Peter and Andrew, when he called them, that he would make them “fishers of men.” So we can see that Matthew moved from being a collector of money from the activities of fishermen to being a fisher, to being an apostle of the kingdom of heaven, which is true. Whereas from the hard work of others he once collected money, through being in relationship with Jesus, he was thrust directly into intimate relationship with the very people from whom he probably used to be at arm’s length. Jesus brings us closer to people; our sensitivity to people and their lives increases.

Why? Because of grace. Grace makes us more alive. We need the grace, revealed by Jesus, because without Him our lives are out of harmony; in that sense, sinners; less alive hence more dead; or in the Benedictine sense, out of balance.

Jesus balances, Jesus harmonizes, Jesus makes us more alive because of his grace. As it was then, it is now. But this movement of grace is not abstract, intellectual, or magicial. It is incarnational: it happens through activity. But which activity?

If we distill his activities to their fundamental essence, we see a pattern. The grace of Jesus spread through meals together, dining together, communing against the conventions of the day. This is Eucharist.

The grace of Jesus also spread through his adoration of the Father; his perfect prayer. His Father, and through him, our Father. This is the Office.

And what’s more, the grace of Jesus spread though his life lived with people, healing, teaching, listening, leading, breaking open Scripture in new ways. This is Devotion, the ministry of our baptism.

This pattern of three activities — Office, Eucharist, Devotion — are core practices that Jesus calls us to do. He calls us to them because these are his activities, and we are called to follow him, to be His Body left behind to continue His ministry. Following him means we respond to his call to order our lives around Him, and His grace. Just like Saint Matthew.

It is through these activities, as a pattern called regula, that we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. Regula is how Jesus taught us to pray, to worship God. And it is through these activities — codified for Anglicans in our Prayer Book — that we are given, by the grace of God who came to us and continues to come to us, a right view of our state before God which, in the words of the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey, enables true vision instead of a vision clouded with unrealities. A true vision of the truth of our vocation.

Saint Matthew, 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.

Homily: On Martin Thornton and the Eucharist

Homily delivered on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi 2014 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.

Now, it was not quite parallel to that moment that Saint Augustine described in his book, Confessions, when it was a little boy in a garden who pointed to a Bible and said to Augustine, “tolle lege,” that is, “take and read.” This was Augustine’s famous conversation moment, when he read in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” — have a God-centered life, and to throw off his selfish ways.

But if one looks back at one’s life, and discerns moments when a change of direction in life occurs, for me this would certainly be one of them. What am I talking about?

It was almost four years ago that I was celebrating my 36th birthday. I had just completed my first year of seminary courses at Catholic Theological Union, and I wouldn’t start courses at Nashotah House until the coming fall. That morning, Hannah asked me, “it is your birthday, so what do you want to do?” I said, “let’s go to a book store. Let’s go to Half-Price Books.” This is a used book store chain, with a number of outlets around the country and several in the Chicago suburbs. “Ok, so we’ll go to Countryside,” she said. “No,” I said. “The one in Niles on Touhy Ave near that leaning tower thing up there.” “There’s a Half-Price in Niles?” she asked. “Yep,” I said. “And it is bigger than the one in Countryside, so let’s go there.” She agreed, and, because the girls were listening in, I added, “and after that we can go get some ice cream at Oberweiss,” to which there were cheers and happy sounds.

We drove to Niles, arrived at the bookstore, and being a student of theology, I made a bee-line for the theology section of the bookstore. Thumbing through the books, at one moment I came upon a book the title of which immediately grabbed me. It was English Spirituality, by Martin Thornton. Immediately I noticed that this book described my own experience of St Paul’s Parish. It wasn’t in direct ways, as this book was really pastoral theology — that is, intended for clergy and lay catechists as a help of their particular ministries. But it was in the feel of the words and ideas, the pacing, the sensibility. It just felt like here. And as I later came to affirm, it felt clearly Anglican. Clearly Catholic and of Catholic imagination. Clearly Benedictine — by my lights, it is the writing of Martin Thornton, along with John Macquarrie, where the best and most useful examples of Catholic Anglican imagination patiently lie, waiting for the Church to wake up and recognize it.

Why does all this matter on this particular day? In addition to being the Feast of Corpus Christi in this particular year, June 22nd is also the day when in 1986, that is 28 years ago, when Martin died in Crewkerne, England, in the English county of Somerset which is in the south-west corner of England.

He was 71 years old. He was survived by his wife, Monica and their daughter Magdalen, both of whom are still alive and very active. Martin Thornton’s gravestone describes him very simply: a farmer, a priest, and an author. As a farmer, he was one of the early adopters in England of sustainable agricultural practices, this would be during World War II. As a priest, both in parishes as well as being the Canon Chancellor at Truro Cathedral also in southwest England, he specialized in spiritual direction, which is the application of theology to the life of prayer, usually through one on one meetings between the spiritual director and the client, that is to say, the person seeking direction. And as an author, he wrote thirteen books, the first in 1948 and the last in 1986.

He had a number of areas of focus in his writing. The first is the prayer life at its core — the threefold regula of Office-Mass-Devotion, the beating heart of our baptismal life; that is, our behavior, what we do. Another is spiritual direction. Martin strongly held that spiritual direction is one of the historic strengths of Anglican Christianity before and after the 16th century yet has been neglected over the last 150 years. Another focus was the realities and needs of ordinary Christian men and women, boys and girls. He felt their needs had become overlooked by serious works of theology: what does it mean to be a parishioner, he explored. Another focus was the theological endeavor itself — how do we do theology today given our social realities? — he particularly focused on what is known as “ascetical theology,” which are the words and concepts that the Church uses to articulate our experience of theosis, of the journey both joyous and difficult of becoming better disciples and being reformed into greater likeness of Jesus Christ. In these and other areas, Martin Thornton was a genuinely orthodox and Catholic Anglican: someone thoroughly immersed in English and Anglican history, theology, and practice, and because of that, a true innovator and forward-thinker. As he wrote, the “reinterpretation of the Gospel to every age is itself an integral part of orthodoxy.”

Do we hear these words? The “reinterpretation of the Gospel to every age is itself an integral part of orthodoxy.” To be orthodox is not to simply rehearse a laundry list of correct doctrines as some sort of litmus test — do you check off the correct boxes on the test? Nor is it to simply reinvent the Christian faith according to the whims and trends of contemporary society. If it feels right, let’s affirm it! No, we believe in the living God, not a god of museum history, or a god who has been wrong for 2000 years, but the active and loving God of history, and of this present moment, and of this present circumstance and of these social conditions.

And, appropriate for this Feast day, we believe in the living bread that came down from heaven. The living bread come down to redeem us and feed us. Martin Thornton taught on the Eucharist and this is part of his teaching. Yes, the living bread comes down to redeem us, but also, you might say in the “other direction,” our world is taken up into the heavenly realm. The bread and the wine, both work of human hands — the kneading and baking of the bread, the fermenting and bottling of the wine — are received by us from God, are directly of the goodness of the Lord, the God of all creation — these are taken into God. This bread is taken into God, and hence breadhood itself, the very nature of bread. This wine is taken into God, and hence winehood itself, the very nature of wine.

The nature of bread and the nature of wine are that they are created by God! If their nature is given by Christ their fullest natures in the Eucharist, then through the Eucharist, all of creation is taken up into God. The very nature of creation — creaturelihood, you might say — is taken up into the heavenly realm.

Our food, then, is of the heavenly realm. And this is of significance not only for our own personal salvation, but just as importantly, for all of creation. All of God’s creatures. The Eucharist is the greatest intercessory prayer there is. The Prayers of the People are very important in their particularity and specificity. But the ultimate Prayer of the People is the Eucharist. Because through each Eucharist, through each taking up of creation into God, into the heavenly realm, all of creation grows more and more like Christ. This Eucharist, right here, right now, is the best thing that can be done for the entire universe, the cosmos of planets, stars, nebulas, galaxies and the rest, the best thing we can do for society.

This is something of what Martin Thornton teaches about the Eucharist. This is what he would have us consider. His teaching was never that this must be intellectually understood as one understands that 2 plus 1 equals three. His teaching is that this theology — this profound theology of the Eucharist that redeems creation, redeems reality — that this theology is to be prayed with; is to be contemplated; is to be thought about is to be at the center of our own lives, and at the center of our community gathered around this altar, and those communities gathered around altars everywhere on Earth. To pray with this, to contemplate it, to wonder about it, to question it and even interrogate it, and to celebrate it, for the Eucharist is an incredible gift of love from God.

The Lord opened the doors of Heaven: and rained down manna also upon them to eat:
He gave them bread from heaven: So men did eat angels’ food, alleluia!

Homily: Mystagogy on the Resurrection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this possibility begins with the Resurrection of our Lord.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homily: “Thomas and the Resurrection of Woundedness”

A homily given at Grace Episcopal Church, Chicago, on the Second Sunday of Easter, 2014.

So now that Holy Week and Easter Sunday have come and gone, all the problems of the world are fixed, right? No more does anyone go to sleep hungry. No more does anyone struggle to get the doctor care they need, for themselves, for their children. No more do long-term illnesses plague any of us or those we know. Or those we don’t know.

None of us have to worry any longer about where the money will come from next month when all those bills come due. We have all the energy of our youth, we are like Energizer Bunnies. Like a miracle, we no longer need to lie down every couple hours (and I count myself in that group!).

I mean, look around, listen, it’s the 8th day of Easter, we’ve been singing, “Alleluia!” We are smelling the flowers of Easter, of springtime, the green of the grass.

There are no more problems in the world, you see, because people — don’t you hear them? — they are saying “The Lord is Risen!” They are saying it really passionately. Great songs about how now above the sky he’s King, Alleluia! where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!

And, even, they say, the Lord is among us — walking, talking, breaking bread! That’s the story, that’s what we are hearing. It is everywhere, around the whole planet. A great big cosmos of Alleluia.

So, the task now is just to bask in this glory, swim in this beauty, be massaged by this truth. Right?

Well. . . . the disciple Thomas says, maybe that’s not quite the whole truth.

The disciple Thomas seems to be saying, the way I am hearing all this, seeing all this, I’m sorry, you may be having a lovely experience, but I will not believe. He seems to be saying, how do I know that what you have seen is not an apparition, something you’ve imagined yourselves into?

I will not believe, he says, until I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails. Only after doing that, he says, will he believe. Only then will he call Jesus “Lord.” Only then will he call Jesus “God.”

Look, Thomas wants more than a mere good story and happy ending. Thomas is not ready to celebrate Jesus alive just because the group is doing it. Even because “all the cool kids are doing it.” The testimony of others, even others he trusts, the disciples, those who sacrificed everything to follow Jesus, this testimony alone will not satisfy, will not convince, Thomas.

Perhaps Thomas was concerned that, in the heat of the moment, the other disciples have simply been deceived. Really wanting to believe, and through that desire making it so. Perhaps this has happened before: we are told his was an age of many people claiming to be prophets, whose teaching it seemed turned out to be, well, questionable.

But despite Thomas’s doubts, Jesus came, and despite Thomas’s skepticism Jesus stood with Thomas and the others. Jesus filled the room with his peace, and invited Thomas to touch his wounds. The wounds of the nails. The wound on Jesus’s side.

We might note that there is no indication that Thomas actually touched these wounds. But he perceived them. Gave full attention to them. A kind of reverence. Did not ignore them.

It was through the presence of Jesus, and openness of Thomas to his wounds that Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” It was seeing, this sense of “perceiving” that in this Jesus, there was no apparition, no unreal Jesus, no Jesus without continuity with he who was the crucified, this was Jesus the wounded.

Thomas needed to see a resurrection of woundedness before he would see God.

Friends, in this Easter season, we ought remember that Jesus did not need the stone rolled away to come out. The stone was rolled away so that we could enter in. . . . Enter in to the mystery of Christ, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus crucified. And it is a mystery, for as Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

And so, without the vantage point of Thomas and the other disciples, how do we believe?

We can believe, I think, when we perceive the wounded nature of reality. And not just perceive woundedness, but put ourselves in relationship with woundedness. In still deeper relationship with those who are suffering. With those who are hungry. With those who need medical care.

And in still deeper relationship with wound, we open ourselves. We empty ourselves, like Christ did on the cross. Never ignoring pain, wound, suffering. Never pretending that the real, real reality is a perfect picture of divine perfection.

No. The real, real reality is crucified, wounded. Opening ourselves to the truth of reality means compassion. A word that means — suffering with. Thomas teaches us to insist on reality, the hard truths of a complicated, often tragic world. To insist that easy narratives just won’t do.

And yet, when the hard truths of reality hit us, let us also say with Thomas, My Lord and my God. For in Christ is hope. In Christ is the hope to live with confidence in the newness of life.
Yes, he is wounded. But he lives.

Image “The Maesta Altarpiece—The Incredulity of St Thomas” by Duccio is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original

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.