Tag Archives: homilies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go to HOMILY II.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Homily: Watchfulness through Regula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Homily: Renaming Our Experiences (with audio)

Homily by Matthew Dallman
Given at St Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois
On Proper 9, Year C: Genesis 18:1-10a | Psalm 15 | Colossians 1:21-29 | Luke 10:38-42

St Luke’s narrative of Christ’s journey to Jerusalem continues, just as our journey — the journey of the Body of Christ — continues to the new Jerusalem, whereby the journey that begins in this life to grow into the likeness of Christ finds completion, fulfillment, and perfecting in the life to come. And so Christ’s journey in Scripture is our journey now. Amid the hostile lands of Samaria, he enters a village — that is to say, Jesus and the disciples, numbering 70 if not more — and this group is received. They are received by Martha and welcomed into her house, and there in her house is Martha’s sister, Mary.

(As a point of clarification, this is the only moment in Luke’s Gospel that Martha appears. And although we might be tempted to hear the names “Martha and Mary” and associate them with the sisters of Lazarus who is raised by the dead in the Gospel of St John — Mary being Mary Magdalene — biblical scholars suggest this is a less-than-justifiable connection to make. The Mary here is probably not meant to be interpreted as Saint Mary Magdalene, and at least in this gospel, Mary and her sister Martha do not have a brother named Lazarus.) This need not be a problem, for not associating between the Gospels of Luke and John allows us to focus more freely on this story, and how this story helps us understand our journey into deeper likeness of Christ.

As I said, Christ and his movement were received by Martha and Mary. This strikes an immediate resonance with perhaps the most quoted instruction from the Rule of St Benedict. In chapter 53 of his Rule, St Benedict writes, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.”

Now St Benedict wrote for communities of residential monks and nuns. And although the Book of Common Prayer is a thoroughly Benedictine approach to liturgical and sacramental spirituality, one being as comprehensive as the other, and although the Prayer Book is in fact a rule, or regula, in spiritual and ascetical continuity with Benedict’s Rule, we still must reinterpret Benedict’s instruction — first because of its basis in scripture such as in our Gospel reading today, but also because we are not residential monks and nuns living in semi-enclosed community, but, with the exception of our rector, non-residential Christians. All of us have chosen to be here and to live by the Prayer Book and not the Rule of St Benedict strictly. We should acknowledge the difference between the Rule of St Benedict and the Prayer Book, but we should also acknowledge the profound consonance between the two. We do this when we reinterpret his instruction to “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.”

We note, too, that our Old Testament reading from Genesis echoes this theme of receiving. Abraham and Sarah receive The Lord. The pericope begins with Abraham, in sacred space of the oaks of Mamre, lifting up his eyes and beholding three men. He and Sarah do provide excellent hospitality, according to the standard of their age — all their attention was centered on their guests. By the end of the pericope, the “they” of the three men become “the Lord” in singular. How that happens is a mystery for us to savor.

But it does appear that when we practice thorough-going hospitality, the presence of the Lord becomes more deeply felt — here, through the presence of God’s providence, revealing that Sarah will indeed bear a child in the spring when the Lord’s presence returns. This recalls, too, words from our baptismal covenant, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons”. To practice hospitality is to seek and to serve Christ in all people. Hospitality is a baptismal responsibility.

In this light we could return to St Luke’s account of the presence of the Lord amid Martha and Mary, and ask, how did they receive Christ’s presence? What does their “seeking and serving” look like? The answer is somewhat obvious: Martha became, we should say, understandably preoccupied by the concerns and obligations of hosting this gathering; Mary, on the other hand, sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. The indication is that Mary’s choice is the closer one to the will of God.

But I would propose that a better question is, how does meditating on this moment impinge upon our prayer life? How does meditating on this moment invite us to deepen how we receive Christ? This is how we are invited to read all of Scripture — as baptized members within the fellowship of the living Church, to allow scripture to feed, inspire, and articulate our experience — poetically, adventurously, contemplatively, looking for its life rather than a mere message that proves something — a teaching and leading into all truth. Through Scripture, too, is how Christ’s presence comes into our own.

And so our Lord invites us to ask, when have you felt his presence? How have you felt moments of openness, even profound openness? A sensing of something of an expansiveness? Or even a deep beauty to the moment, however it has manifested? Truth be told, your sensing may also have come amid a very low moment in your life, when you may have been, you might say, pummeled by reality. Such a moment — whether a peak moment or a valley moment or an everyday moment — it may have been in childhood, it may have come in adult life — we are invited to name these moments as the presence of God. We are invited to find in these moments, to discern in them, what St Paul calls the “glory” of their mystery, this mystery that Christ is in you, in us, and that we are in Him. Naming is central to our journey.

If we choose not to attempt to name these moments, then in fact we are not practicing hospitality to his presence, we are not receiving the Lord’s presence as it came to us. It is OK — it must be OK — if at the time of this visitation, we did not understand that presence to be God. We are in good company there, because neither Abraham nor Sarah understood the three men to be divine. And Martha, although she seemed to perceive the Lord’s presence a bit more, did not really demonstrate any holy fear of God — in fact, she directly accused her sister to Him, and even ordered Christ to do something — both of which are “no-nos” because they don’t recognize God’s true nature. And neither should we accuse Martha, for that is to do to her what Jesus reproved Martha for doing to her sister. Note, Mary’s portion is the good one also because she does no accusing.

No, God invites us to look back at our life’s experiences, and, as it were, “re-name them”. This is the process of discernment, and it is through discerning — prayerful inquiring — that we grow in likeness of Christ by his grace. Renaming through prayerful inquiry is central to the Christian life.

Shortly we will all come to the altar, to the Lord’s table, where the presences of Christ — in all of creation, in our gathering as the People of God in this sacred space, in the words of scripture proclaimed today, in the person of the priest — these presences are gathered up, focused, concentrated in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, where bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, his true and mystical presence. We do this week by week, often day by day. This experience is named “Christ”, because all of our experiences in creation can be named “Christ.”

Homily: On the Liturgical Nature of Mission (with audio)

Given for Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois
On Proper 9, Year C, 2013 (BCP 1979): Isaiah 66:10-16 | Galatians 6:(1-10)14-18 | Luke 10:1-12,16-20

To say that names are “written in heaven” is Christ’s way of saying that one’s way of life matches with the way of life taught by Christ. We are all called to this way, this pattern of being and ordering our lives. And when we follow it, by the grace of God, our names too are written in heaven. In this pattern, Christ is at the center, and his presence speaks to us. His speaking, Luke tells us, sent out the seventy, to go ahead of him, as his speaking sends us out, to go in peace to love and serve the Lord; thanks be to God. And his speaking calls us all back to him for true reconciliation. Just as Christ counseled the seventy against the sin of pride, we must strive to remember that all things good, true, and beautiful come not from us, but from God’s acting. God, who lets-be. This is why it is said that liturgy is God’s theology, his own way of making himself intelligible.

But what would Christ have us do in between his sending us out, and his calling us back? Surely we are to be with people. Surely we are to share meals with those who do not know about Christ, or who have rejected his Good News. Now, our Lord knows that this work, this being with people, will not be easy, and it could even be dangerous. We Christians need only look around the news from the Church today in Syria and in Egypt, where clergy have recently been brutally murdered. Our Lord knows that this work, this being with people, will not be easy, and it could even be dangerous. And still, our Lord chooses for us to be as lambs in the midst of wolves, with no possessions that we prize above the Lord.

What else are we to do? We are to speak. We are not to be doormats, and merely silent. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house’. Do we say these words? Our faith tells us that the Lord will see to it that his peace rests with those who are ready to receive it. It is not for us to decide who is ready; our job is to speak the words. Now, to be ready to receive means that a person can hear the words ‘the kingdom of God has come near you.’ Notice that Luke tells us that these words heal. The words ‘God’s kingdom has come near you” heal. We must strive to present these words to others with integrity, with peace, and through love.

And in presenting these words, live them. For what is the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is the Christ-centered life. It is a life lived according to what is known as a regula — a rule of life and prayer. The regula at its core is three-fold. Firstly, Christ’s actual and mystical presence in all people and things, yet concentrated and focused in the Sacrament of the Eucharist at Mass — this sacrament feeds us, and in so doing invites us to an adoration of all creation; secondly, praise of God the Father through the daily Office, for in the Office, the entire Church — in visible creation, in paradise, and in heaven — sings together in loving acknowledgement of God who is love transcendent; and thirdly, guidance by the Holy Spirit in our encounters with creation and our fellow man, often guided and framed by Scripture. Sacrament, Office, devotional Encounter. This is the pattern at the root of our Prayer Book. This is the pattern at the root of the Catholic faith.

Our Lord knows that this work, too, will not be easy. And so he calls us back to his presence. And so the way of life, Christ’s pattern, emerges: the liturgical life of presence, dismissal, and return. Whenever we need to, and not only when we return, we can ask for God’s help. God listens and wants to hear your voice; daily, regularly, whenever you want, for any reason at all! As Isaiah tells us, God responds to us also like a mother, and we her children. She feeds us from her breast, teaches us on the journey of life, enjoys our playful company. We can say that God’s mission is to mother all of creation and raise it to a new Jerusalem, the very Jerusalem to which Christ’s face has been set.

It is when we, sent out from Mass, help to feed, help to teach, help to enjoy the company of others that the Body of Christ spreads through the world and makes the whole of creation new. This is Christ’s victory. Some say that it is when we “get out of the way” that God acts, and there is truth to that, because it is God’s grace that acts, and nothing strictly of our own. But put another way, when we fully engage another person, face to face, heart to heart — as Christ will shortly face us in the Eucharist — God’s mission finds victory. When we fully attend to any situation, and seek to discern in it the unity of the Holy Spirit, God’s mission finds victory. Attending and engaging — what St Benedict means when he tells us to listen — this is the beating heart of Christ’s pattern of being, and it is how we are to be in our lives, as we seek and serve Christ in others. And through our attending, our engaging, our listening, we speak: we speak in our lives and in our words, the Good News that the Kingdom of God has come near to us, and to our neighbor.

The Prayer Book as Regula, a Slideshow

If the first Christians were Catholic, it was because of their threefold prayer life (Acts 2:42) seen as the total, systematic means for repentence and baptismal reality taught by Saint Peter and the Apostles. That is the template, or Regula (Rule), of Catholic life; the threefold Regula orders the repeatable dimensions of Baptism by which we repent: orders, that is, our baptismal life which is our true spirituality.

The Book of Common Prayer, being a Regula inherited primarily from the tradition of Saint Benedict, likewise orders in a unique way such a comprehensive corporate response, with emphases of its own yet leaving nothing fundamental out. Since A.D. 1549, it has been the dominant liturgical book for English Christians, and those in that tradition. Although in the 21st century we see a wide variety of international versions of the Prayer Book, what has held constant throughout is its fundamental ascetical principles and purpose. That is to say, it is a seasoned system for liturgical spirituality. In this slideshow, that liturgical spirituality is described within its historical context to properly answer the question, ‘What is the Prayer Book for?’

Our position: Catholic renewal within Anglican parochial tradition—that is, Catholic Anglican vitality—demands a more profound embrace of the total life of obedience ordered by Prayer Book heritage. This slideshow is intended as a substantial resource for that purpose. Veni, Creator Spiritus.

“Because worship is the well-spring of all our activity, it is essential that we grow in our understanding and practice of personal prayer and corporate devotion. A cherished part of our heritage in the Anglican Communion is the Book of Common Prayer, which is a bond of unity between us and which provides the forms whereby we live the life of the Catholic Church
—Lambeth Conference 1958 Encyclical Letter of the Bishops

“So it is that the Benedictine Way really underlies the Book of Common Prayer, where the same trinity of liturgy, office and personal prayer is found for the joy of us all.”
—Archbishop Michael Ramsey, 15 July 1965 at Nashdom Abbey

“The Prayer Book system embodies the ethos of our Church which is founded on scripture, interpreted by tradition, which is not only articulated by the catholic creeds (perhaps more commonly used in the Prayer Book liturgies than in any other liturgical regime) but which is also expressed by the spirit-filled continuity of life in the Church and the ways in which we have sought together to respond to the demands of successive generations.”
—Bishop Richard Chartres from “Afterword” in The Book of Common Prayer: Past, Present, and Future, edited by Prudence Dailey. London: Continuum, 2011

click for slideshow


See also: What does Regula mean?

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton. 

 

Homily: “At the Cross Trembling with Mary”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homily: Savoring God’s Word

Deuteronomy 26:5-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Psalm 91; Luke 4:1-13
[NB: The Gospel is read by Father Thomas Fraser.]

In recent decades, there has emerged a movement of people who practice “Centering Prayer”. For those unfamiliar with it, Centering Prayer originates in the ancient Benedictine tradition of lectio divina, and presents itself as practice to cultivate an awareness of being and a deeper relationship with God. Centering Prayer spread through the teaching of it in retreats beginning in the 1970s.

The practice is actually quite simple. A person sits on the floor, or a pillow, or a chair. They choose a sacred word or short phrase that expresses their intention to consent to God’s presence and action during the time of prayer. A word such as Christ, love, God, Spirit, or any word or short phrase. Then commences the sitting in silence. When one notices in their mind any thoughts, feelings, desires, associations, images, one does nothing but silently return to their sacred word, as their anchor, their centering in God. Thoughts, awareness, centering word. That’s it – that’s the whole practice, recommended in 20-minute sessions, twice a day.

One of its advocates is a Trappist (Cistercian) monk named Father Thomas Keating. Once, in a retreat, Father Keating was told by a woman present at the retreat that it was obvious to her that she was not very good at Centering Prayer. Why, he asked. Because, she said, she couldn’t concentrate at all. Over the 20-min period, it must have been over a hundred times she had to return to her word. Ah, he said, smiling, but that is no problem at all. How wonderful to have turned over a hundred times to God. This move, amid thought or feeling back to God, is a simple dance very important to Christian life.

Confronted with the temptations of the devil, what did Christ do? What did he do but this very move; amid a desire of power over creation (the stone into bread); amid a vision of power over the political world (authority over all kingdoms); and amid a feeling of power over the Father’s very hand (forcing a saving by God’s angels), how simple and elegant is each of Christ’s responses. He turns from desire, vision, feeling back to God. His sacred words come from Deuteronomy: words spoken by Moses to the children of Israel, as they themselves concluded a wilderness experience. Theirs was 40 years; Christ’s 40 days.

Perhaps his wilderness was a study of Deuteronomy, in lectio divina — called a “feasting on the word” in four steps. First you take a bite of scripture (reading a phrase or word); then you chew on it (considering its meaning); then you savor it (a conversing with God); and then you digest it (a silent attentiveness). Doing this helps to make true sense of the Word of God, to make it one’s own. And why is this good to do? It is good because when confronted with a battle for our heart, we can walk in the ways of Christ to respond comfortably and peacefully not with our own words, our own will, but rather with that of God’s will and God’s words, whether from Deuteronomy, or elsewhere in Scripture, or even with the simple word, “Christ.”

The seed of all forms of sin is forgetting God. Adam and Eve forgot God. They thought instead of their own desires, their own selves. God called to Adam “where are you?” not because God did not know the whereabouts of Adam and Eve, but because he knew that they were now in the wilderness – physically present, but emotionally, spiritually “not there.” It is God’s words that return us to him. Not merely the specific words, but the biting, the chewing, the savoring, the digesting — or in the Prayer Book tradition, the reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting: lectio divina lived on through the 16th-century upheavals.

This season of retreat, by God’s goodness we receive the bread and wine, fruit of earth and vine, the work of human hands. Will we make this a “sacrament to go”, as so much fast food take out? Or against such temptation, will we eat and drink God’s very words, seeking their meaning, savoring the glory these words give to God? And can the bread of life and our spiritual drink, the very living grace of God, heal our souls as the opening of our lives to the pregnant silence of God’s love that gives expression to all material things, and to the beating heart of every person ever born?

It is such a simple move: amid our thoughts, amid our feelings, amid our mental activity, amid our physical activity, amid our eating and our drinking, amid the retreat of Lent — remember God, on our lips, and in our hearts, for every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.

 


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Homily: “Why NOT Me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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