Friday, August 31, 2012

SS. Aidan (c. 590-651) & Cuthbert (634-687)

  1. Everliving God, you called your servants Aidan and Cuthbert to proclaim the Gospel in northern England and gave them loving hearts and gentle spirits: Grant us grace to live as they did, in simplicity, humility and love for the poor; through Jesus Christ, who came among us as one who serves, and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Setting Our Hearts On the Living Lord

Regarding the overall message of today’s Scripture readings, Adele Stiles Resmer, who is Assistant to the bishop and Minister for Community and Mission in the Grand Canyon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, reminds us that your commitment, and mine, to serve God gets lived out over a lifetime. Who can count the challenges that stand in the way of such a commitment: losses, betrayals, the lure of success from wealth and position and power? She says that it’s in the reciting of our history, salvation history, that you and I are reminded of who God is and who we are in response to God. And she quotes an old saying which says, ‘If you want to hear the train, you need to be near the tracks.’ In other words, if you and I want to be faithful, we should “position [ourselves] in a place where [our] story is recited again and again” so that we can remember who we are in relationship with this God.

Fr. William Countryman, a noted CDSP theologian, writes along the same lines as Adele Resmer in his dated but still marvelous book The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel: Crossing Over Into God. Commenting on today’s Gospel passage, he says: “...Baptism...while necessary for the Christian life, does not guarantee the loyalty of those who receive it...even the fully initiated, those who have participated in the Eucharist, are not perfectly reliable.  Many of Jesus’ disciples leave because of his outrageous language; and among those who remain, even within the inner circle of the Twelve, is the betrayer...

Jesus speaks again today of the wisdom of faith: that it is the setting of one’s heart and trust on the Father, through his incarnate Son who draws us, that ultimately leads you and me to eternal life.  “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day”  (John 6:40)  Jesus contrasts this with the foolishness of unbelief, expressed so directly in the opening line of Psalm 14: “Fools say in their hearts: ‘There is no God.’

The basis for such faith comes from two sources: 1) from Jesus’ word that he is “come down from heaven” to give “eternal life” and to raise up; and 2) from Jesus’ own body and blood, now glorified and risen, which reveals the Father to us sacramentally, in the Eucharist, and spiritually through his indwelling and life-giving Spirit of love. 

Today’s Gospel passage opens with the final two verses of last Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus hammers away at the fact that his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink; that in sharing his body and blood we “will live because of me”; that he himself, indeed, is the “bread that came down from heaven”, surpassing and supplanting the food from God given to the Jewish people’s ancestors.  Hearing these words, many of Jesus’ disciples exclaim: “This is tough teaching, too tough to swallow” John comments: “After this a lot of his disciples left.  They no longer wanted to be associated with him.” (John 6:60 & 66) 

When Jesus asks if the Twelve also want to leave, St. Peter steps forward to speak for them.  First, he says: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life...” Did you ever ask yourself to what “words of eternal life” he was referring? You and I actually have heard them many, many times.  Here is is just a sampling of them:

  • God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the good news. 
  • Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.
  • Whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.         
  • Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
  • Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the reign of heaven, but the one who does my Father’s will.
  • The one who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
  • Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  
  • Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.
You have the words of eternal life.  You and I listen to and read these words over and over again throughout our lifetimes.  Do we actually hear what they’re saying? Do we commit ourselves to live by them each day? Do we find it difficult to “come” to the Father, to truly set our heart on God? Do we, perhaps, resist being drawn because the demands seem too great? Are Jesus’ words and sacramental presence “hard sayings” for us? Hard, yes, because of our weakness in trusting.  Hard also, because we often don’t really agree that Jesus is really present in the whole Body of Christ which includes him, each of us, and every person for whom he died, no exceptions. Could that be why we have such difficulty seeing the connection between our following of Christ and the social issues confronting our society?  If we admit that they’re related, it puts some very uncomfortable responsibilities on you and me to do justice, to feed the hungry, to welcome strangers; to struggle, as Jesus did, “against...rulers, against...authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil...” (Ephesians 6:12)

The second thing which Peter says to Jesus in behalf of the other Apostles is: “...we’ve already committed ourselves, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”  The “words of eternal life” become real only when we come to the Father through Jesus in faith, when we set our hearts on him, particularly in the Eucharist, as we respond to the Father’s gift of drawing us.  This is a living encounter, and in it we echo the commitment which Joshua expresses in the first reading: “ for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice of himself on the cross, on behalf of humankind, intended and accomplished the restoration of our relationship with the Father.  All human beings, without exception, have been saved, redeemed. Jesus meant this restoring, this one-ing with the Father, for all and for each of us personally and corporately, and left us, in the Eucharist, the pre-eminent sacramental sign confirming this.

The Eucharist is the outward sign by which Jesus draws near to you and me as particular individuals, as well as to the whole community of faith.  In the fullest sense this sign is the pledge of the Father’s, the Son’s, and the Holy Spirit’s accessibility to you and to me, the tangible assurance that God in Christ desires to relate one-on-one to you and to me, and to the whole Body of Christ through the bond of love.  The sacrament is the open, frank, and unambiguous pledge of the fact that the Father, in Jesus the Christ, wishes to share God’s life, Spirit, presence, and grace with everyone who comes forward in faith to receive Christ’s body and blood.

When, as recipients, you and I set our hearts, in solid trust, on God, through the power of ritual supplication of Christ and his Church, then the outward and visible sign of bread and wine becomes, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “...the inward and spiritual grace...the Body and Blood of Christ given to his people...” (BCP, p. 859) Just as the Apostles, in their living encounter with Jesus, we also come to know, in Jesus present, “the Holy One of God”.

To enter into relationship with the Holy One, even though we don’t fully understand all its implications, is wisdom.  To do otherwise makes one, in the words of the Psalmist, a “fool”.  Which brings us back to Fr. Countryman’s stark reminder, mentioned at the beginning: “...Baptism...while necessary for the Christian life, does not guarantee the loyalty of those who receive it...even the fully initiated, those who have participated in the Eucharist, are not perfectly reliable...

John takes great pains, at the end of this discourse in Chapter 6 which we’ve heard over the past five Sundays, to focus in on the disciples, including Judas, in vv. 70-71 which aren’t actually part of the RCL passage today.  Note that this is the first mention of Judas in John’s Gospel, quite interesting in that 1) John uses a veiled reference by Jesus that “one of you is a devil”; and 2) John describes Judas as “he, [who] though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.”  It’s a very different portrayal from Matthew who depicts a remorseful Judas, who, though greedy, is somewhat more pitiable because he’s driven to his own suicide.  In John’s Gospel, however, Judas simply doesn’t believe. He, like the others who walked away, hasn’t set his heart in trust on the Holy One who has shown by his words and actions that he’s the source of life and salvation.

When Judas appears again in John’s Gospel it’s at Jesus final supper together with the Twelve, where several times hints are again dropped that Judas is going to betray Jesus, and during which Judas disappears out into the night.  His next encounter with Jesus is in the garden when he brings a cohort of Roman soldiers to arrest Jesus.  John describes a Judas who is so unbelieving that he doesn’t even identify Jesus to the soldiers by calling him “Rabbi” or by kissing him. Jesus is the one who actually comes out of the garden, like a good shepherd defending his flock, and asks virtually the same question which he asked the disciples at the beginning of John’s Gospel: “Whom/what are you looking for?  In Chapter 6, John acknowledges Judas by describing what Judas is going to do, which casts cloud over his loyalty as a disciple. Later, in Chapter 18:5 John refers to “Judas, who betrayed him...”, reminding us that Judas, once a chosen participant in Jesus’ ministry, now stands in the darkness of complete unbelief.

Someone has commented that there are people who can experience God in a wildflower, while others fail to discern Christ even in the consecrated bread of the Eucharist.  The key, as Jesus has told us over these past five weeks, is in allowing the Father to draw us, in setting our hearts in trust on Jesus, and in sharing together the living bread, in whom we have eternal life and who will raise you and me up at the last day.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bernard of Clairvaux: The Love-Monk

"'I will love you, O Lord my strength, my strong rock and my defense, my Savior, my sole desire and love.'

My God, my helper, I will love you with all the power you have given me: not worthily, because that is impossible, but nevertheless to the best of my ability. Do what I will in life, I can never discharge my debt to you, and I can love you only according to the power you have given me. But I will endeavor to love you more and more, as you see fit to enable me to do so; and yet, never, never, as you should be loved..."
(From Bernard's treatise On the Love of God)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Black Elk (1863-1950): Man With A Vision

Black Elk with 2nd wife,
Anna Brings White, &
daughter Lucy Looks
Black Elk

Black Elk (Heȟáka Sápa) was a famous Medicine Man/Holy Man of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux), a heyoka = sacred clown/jester. He was a second cousin of Crazy Horse.

"Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking", Black Elk once said. Born on the Little Powder River in Wyoming, he came from a line of powerful medicine men. Though he began hearing inner messages from the time he was about 4, it was at age 9 that he experienced a life-changing vision in which he heard a call to save his people. Black Elk said that during his life, he had several of these visions. In his "great vision," he said that he met the spirit who guided the universe and saw a great tree, symbolizing the life of the earth and of the Indian people. He only spoke of this after he was much older, but his family apparently understood that he was clairvoyant.

Black Elk was involved in several battles with the U.S. Cavalry, including the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, when he was about 12. In 1887, Black Elk traveled to England with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Black Elk remembers this as an unpleasant experience, as he relates in John G. Neihardt's later book, Black Elk Speaks. In 1890 Black Elk was among the injured survivors of the massacre at Wounded Knee.

He married his first wife, Katie War Bonnet, in 1892. She became a Catholic, and all three of their children were baptized as Catholic. It wasn't until after her death in 1903 that he, too, was baptized. He took the name Nicholas Black Elk and served as a lay catechist. He was a spiritual leader among his people, and saw no contradiction in embracing what he had found valid in both his tribal traditions and in Christian teaching. He was married a second time, in 1905, to Anna Brings White, a widow with two daughters. Together they had three more children and remained married until Anna died in 1941. Toward the end of his life, Black Elk revealed the story of his life and a number of the sacred Lakota rituals to John Neihardt and Joseph Epes Brown who later published books: Black Elk Speaks (Neihardt, 1932) and The Sacred Pipe (Brown, 1953).

Black Elk died at age 67 on the reservation, August 17, 1950.

In a tradition not unlike the biblical prophets, Black Elk's legacy was strong medicine wisdom, as witnessed in just two quotes:

"Grown men can learn from very little children,  for the hearts of little children are pure. Therefore, the Great Spirit may show to them many things which older people miss."

"There can never be peace between nations until there is first known that true peace which is within the souls of men."

Perhaps our world could use a few more sacred clowns!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Remembering Frère Roger Schutz of Taizé (1915-2005)

Loving God, whose blessed Son became poor that we
through his poverty might be rich:
Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, 
that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Roger
may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain
to the riches of the age to come,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

One of the singular blessings and joys of my life was to have met and prayed with Brother Roger in 1992 at the first North American "Pilgrimage of Trust" in Dayton, OH, and to have met and had a wonderful conversation with Brother Alois, his successor as leader of the Taizé community.  I was also pleased to read recently in some comments by Episcopal spiritual writer, Cynthia Bourgeault, that the Taizé community has continued to be energized and carry forward the momentum of Brother Roger's ideals and ministry under Brother Alois. Taizé is, in the words of John Paul II, "that little springtime", particularly in the lives of countless young women and men throughout the world.  

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Dormition of the Theotokos

“The feast days of the saints are often referred to as their "heavenly birthdays" since they ordinarily celebrate the day when the saint died and thus passed into the new life of the Kingdom of Heaven.  No one illustrates this better than the Blessed Virgin Mary. Tradition relates that, when the time of her death drew near, all of the apostles gathered in Jerusalem to be with her: all except Thomas, who was preaching the Gospel in India and was unable to return to Jerusalem in time. The apostles gathered around her in a house on Mount Zion, near the Upper Room where they had shared the Last Supper with Jesus and had also received the Holy Spirit with Mary on Pentecost...When she died, the apostles carried her to a tomb in the garden of Gethsemane, which, tradition says, belonged to Mary's family. 

Some time later, the apostles discovered that Mary's tomb was empty. This was not like the Resurrection of Jesus: Mary was not raised from the dead and did not appear to the apostles after her death; nor did an angel announce the news. Rather, her tomb was simply empty and they concluded that she had been taken directly ("assumed") into heaven, in much the same way that Scripture and Tradition attest that the greatest saints of the Old Testament, Enoch, Moses, and Elijah, were taken up bodily. In time, Thomas returned from India and the apostles told him what had happened, together with their conviction that Mary had been assumed into heaven. According to this tradition, Thomas once again played the role of the doubter and insisted that he would have to see the evidence before he would believe. At this point, we may perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the tradition is a bit unfair to Thomas. It hardly seems possible that this apostle who had traveled far and risked much to share his faith would make the same mistake twice. Nevertheless, the tradition has him going to the tomb of Mary where, instead of her body, he found the tomb full of fragrant flowers. One version of the tradition says the flowers were roses and lilies. Then, looking up, he saw Mary herself, going up to heaven. Looking back, she saw Thomas and dropped the girdle which had tied her robe and an angel delivered it into the hands of Thomas.

It was not until 1950 that the Assumption of Mary was defined as a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, when Pope Pius XII proclaimed that "the ever-virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven." In reality, however, this dogma was nothing new. It simply made it a matter of obligation for Roman Catholics to believe what many Christians have always believed, namely, that God had "taken to himself", for eternity, the blessed woman who had borne his incarnate Son in time. All believers look forward to "the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come." At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the emperor asked the patriarch of Jerusalem to bring the relics of Mary to Constantinople so that they could be enshrined at what was then the center of the world. The patriarch replied that there were no relics because, as he said, the apostles had found that her tomb was empty and her body had been assumed into heaven: she had already gone where we all hope to go.

Some Christians have difficulty with this idea because it is not in the Bible, though, as already noted, the Bible does tell of others who have been assumed, body and soul, into heaven. Nevertheless, Mary's role in our salvation, and her particular relationship with God is a pivotal one on our behalf. Her "yes" to the Archangel Gabriel opened the way for God to take on our humanity, to become fully one with us in the flesh. As an ancient prayer says, God humbled himself to share our humanity in order that we might share in his divinity. In the moment that Mary said "yes" to God's plan, she was already one with God in a unique way, bearing within her body God himself. A connection such as this transcends by far the intimacy of human relationships. Indeed, it reaches beyond death: so the Church believes.

At the Council of Ephesus in 431, Mary was given the title Theotokos: God-bearer or Mother of God. Nestorius taught that the divinity and humanity of Jesus were distinct and never mingled, so that Mary was "Christotokos", the mother of the man Jesus, but not the mother of God incarnate. The teaching of Nestorius was rejected by the Council and Mary has been known ever since as Theotokos, in token of the fact that she carried God himself in her womb, and continued ever after to share a special union with him, both in life and in death. In the West, Mary's feast on August 15th is called the Assumption. In the East it is called Koimesis: "Dormition" or "Falling Asleep". Both titles are somewhat vague about the details. Indeed, despite the tradition concerning Thomas's vision of Mary’s ascent into heaven, the Church is officially silent on the way in which she got there. What is clear is that, as the Collect for this feast says, God took Mary to himself, to be with him and to be one with him for ever. That is what we celebrate on today.

Taking its cue from the experience of Thomas at the tomb of Mary, the celebration of this feast includes the blessing of fragrant flowers and herbs. Flowers have always been associated with Mary in a particular way. She is the Mystical Rose and many flowers are named for her or have popular names that relate to her. August is the wrong time to plant any kind of garden, but Marymas would be a good day to begin planning and marking out a Mary Garden. Some plants and seeds and bulbs do best if planted in the fall, and others can be added in the spring. 

From ancient times, in every culture, herbs and various flowers have been known to have healing properties. The blessing of herbs and flowers on Marymas is a way of "baptizing" the wisdom of traditional healing and combining it with the Christian wisdom that recognizes that God is the true source of healing and that salvation (wholeness) is ultimately found only in the Son of Mary, Jesus Christ. Thus, it was customary for the faithful to bring bunches of herbs and wild flowers to church on this day. They were blessed at the beginning of the Eucharist and then taken home to be used for healing and protection through the coming year. In many parishes and especially at shrines, this is a day for processions and for celebrations that continue after the liturgical observances have been completed. Traditionally, working people had a holiday from work, so that there were also family celebrations. 

An especially good, yet relatively simple way to celebrate this feast is to have a tea party (but certainly not in any political sense!). A festive table might “Sweet Mary”. For food at the tea party we suggest nasturtium sandwiches and strawberry shortcake. The strawberry was known as the "Fruitful Virgin" because it blooms and bears fruit at the same time. Another lovely European tradition says that the strawberry is sacred to Mary who accompanies children to keep them safe when they go strawberry picking on St. John's Day. The nasturtium is known as "St. Joseph's Flower." It is an edible flower and can be combined with cream cheese to make tea sandwiches. Tea should be accompanied by prayers appropriate to the occasion, such as the Collect of the Day which concludes this article. Children should be told the story of Mary's heavenly birthday. How else will they learn about it? Finally, everyone can enjoy a walk in the garden which could easily be made into a game, with an award, such as a Mary-blue ribbon, for the person who identifies the most flowers and herbs that are named for Mary." (Excerpted and adapted from the web site Full Homely Divinity)

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; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.  
(Collect for St. Mary the Virgin, Book of Common Prayer, p. 243)

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Never Hungry, Never Thirsty

In last week’s Gospel passage from John, Jesus conversed with people who were hungry and led them step-by-step from their following him around in hopes that he’d keep their bellies full, to a deeper spiritual search for a way to satisfy their inner hunger, to a reflection on their religious heritage wherein God constantly fed their forebears, and finally to the realization that he, Jesus, is the true “bread of life” who alone can sustain them.

We who are the Church are part of that same step-by-step learning process, beginning with the reality of bread, the common life-sustaining element in our lives. From that reality we’re led further to search spiritually for a source to satisfy our own deep inner longings and needs. In reflecting on our own Christian and Episcopal heritage, we find rich testimony to Christ in the Eucharist. We’re led to an ongoing understanding of Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist, which we share, which is Jesus himself, the Bread of Life.

Jesus had confirmed, both for his followers and for us, that the “work of God” is “to believe in [i.e., set our heart on] him” whom the Father had sent. “But”, Jesus says further, “I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” His hearers don’t buy this “bread of life” talk (6:35-50), even though they‘ve actually seen him at work, in action. Nevertheless, they haven’t accepted Jesus through his many signs and deeds for them, any more than their ancestors truly accepted God’s feeding them in the desert. Central to understanding why this is so and, indeed, central to understanding this 6th chapter of John’s Gospel, as well as the Eucharist, are these verses from the psalm appointed for last week, i.e., Psalm 78 (vv. 24-25): “...He rained down manna upon them to eat and gave them grain from heaven...he provided for them food enough.

Exodus 16:2 says: “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained/murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness...”, both before and after they were fed! The Hebrew for murmur = to dig in; be obstinate; complain all night. John, in today’s passage, says that “the Jews began to complain about him”, using the Greek word for to grumble. In both Exodus and in John’s Gospel, people are obstinately complain and grumble because they lack the openness, the willingness, the risk of faith necessary to allow them to see what God and Jesus were really doing, viz., providing them with life-giving food far beyond their desire for satisfaction of mere physical hunger. The feeding with manna and quail in the desert was but an outward sign of the deeper reality of God’s constant care and provision for God’s chosen ones.

The manna, as noted in Exodus, quickly melts. The people who ate it, the forbears of Jesus‘ audience, still died. But God’s feeding of the people, God’s enduring care and mercy and love continue on endlessly. That’s the real sustenance, the real “bread from heaven”. Jesus, too, is trying to help his hearers to see a reality beyond the carpenter’s son from Nazareth: a reality beyond fleshly food which can sustain only briefly. The two key phrases, in the Exodus story about the manna, in Psalm 78, and in John 6:31, are “from heaven” and “to eat”.

Article 25 of the largely-ignored Articles of Religion (Book of Common Prayer, p. 872) says that “Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will toward us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in him.

The Eucharist, therefore, isn’t only a badge, token or sign, though it is that. It’s also a sure witness, an “effectual” sign: a sign corresponding with the reality of God present in us, at work in us expanding our faith, our capacity to set our hearts on God. What Jesus focusses on in the Gospel, and what we need to appreciate about the Eucharist, is that Jesus, in his Person, expresses and reveals who God is. That was what his followers truly hungered for. And that’s what we hunger for today: the reality of Godself.

The Eucharistic bread wherein Christ becomes present to us and which we see before us is a sort of “window in the wall”, to borrow a phrase from the late British Roman Catholic Monsignor Ronald Knox. Through the Eucharistic bread Jesus reveals to us the reality of his Father, like a window which gives us access to spiritual realities incredibly beyond our human experience, yet contained within our deepest being.

Jesus is, indeed, “from heaven”. He speaks of himself as the One sent from God. He himself is the Father’s gift of sustenance for time and for eternity. All people, without exception, are invited to come to the Father through Christ in faith. Belief, setting one’s heart on God, involves a mystery known only to God; but no one who comes to God through Jesus is ever rejected. The ability to “come”, to “believe”, is God’s gift, not a human accomplishment. Through it a person shares eternal life even now, and ultimately attains it forever in being raised up.

It’s no easier to accept this through seeing the Eucharistic bread over which we pray Jesus’ words of institution than it was for these free-loaders to accept it through seeing a man whose origin and roots were in a God-forsaken village of theirs called Nazareth. “How can this be? This is someone we’re familiar with: we know. How dare he say it’s ‘from heaven’?” Jesus’ response, to them and to us, is, “Don’t murmur; don’t dig in and be obstinate. Question, yes, but don’t grumble in disbelief.’” Ultimately, we either choose to take Jesus at his word, or we refuse. He simply repeats: the one who comes to me, drawn by my Father, “I will raise that one up at the last day...the one who believes has eternal life.

The second part of today’s Gospel (50-51) sheds light on the phrase “to eat”. Originally, “bread, to eat” referred to the manna spoken of in Exodus. Jesus now contrasts that physical, perishable and passing food with a different kind of food: “the bread of life”, “the bread which comes down from heaven”: bread which, when you eat it, you don’t die. Jesus identifies himself with this “living bread”. 

By implication in all that goes before this passage (44-48), a person who comes to Jesus in faith begins to know who God is. As one has this continuing experience she/he realizes that her/his life is being sustained and completed. If one continues to grow, this isn’t just a passing condition or a fad, but is permanent. One begins to “live forever”, to experience “eternal life”. 

Finally, Jesus assures us that this becomes possible, not only for the individual, but also for “the world”. “...the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” That is the Eucharist. Eucharist means thanksgiving

The Lima Statement, a significant ecumenical document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry drafted at Lima, Peru, in 1982 by over 100 theologians from all the major Churches, speaks of the Eucharist as “Thanksgiving to the Father”.  In the Eucharist, it says, “God himself acts, giving life to the body of Christ and renewing each member. In accordance with Christ’s promise, each baptized member of the body of Christ receives in the eucharist...the pledge of eternal life.

That life comes to us through a sign: the sign of bread which sustains human life. While we let the sign itself, the Sacrament, speak to us in all its richness of meaning, we can never allow ourselves to be so caught up with the sign itself that we become casual with the immense reality behind the sign, viz., the reality of Jesus the Christ, God’s Son. Oscar Hammerstein wrote a beautiful lyric which says: “A song is no song till you sing it; a bell is no bell till you ring it; and love in our heart wasn’t put there to stay: love isn’t love till you give it away.”  In humble signs of bread and wine God gives away to you and me God’s enduring love and life in the Body and Blood of Christ. Jesus gives us his assurance that “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.


Clare, The Poor Lady

Born in 1193 in Assisi of a wealthy family and a noted beauty, Clare caught the joy of a new vision of the Gospel from St. Francis' preaching. Escaping from home, first to the Benedictines and then to a Beguine-style group, she chose a contemplative way of life when she founded her own community, which lived in corporate poverty understood as dependence on God, with a fresh, democratic lifestyle. Clare became the first woman to write a religious Rule for women, and in it showed great liberty of spirit in dealing with earlier prescriptions. Clare governed the monastery for forty years, caring for the sisters, ready to do whatever Francis directed. During the long years after Francis' death, she supported his earlier companions in their desire to remain faithful to his vision, as she did. Some of her last words were: "Blessèd be God, for having created me."  (Borrowed from St. John’s Herald, Lakeport)

O God, whose Blessed Son became poor that we through His poverty 
might become rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, 
that we, inspired by the devotion of Your servant Clare, 
may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches 
of the age to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, 
Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Christ's "Majestic Glory": Our Anchor

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, 
wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: 
Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, 
may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, 
O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

While, of course, it would’ve been nice had Peter, James or John had a videocam at hand to record the actual Transfiguration of Jesus for us, we know that’s pure fantasy. Nor is there any other record other than what’s related by Matthew (17:1-9) and Luke (9:28-36), certainly not eye-witness accounts. Nevertheless, the later author of 2 Peter, borrowing the name of St. Peter and assuming his voice of recollection for an audience already familiar with the Transfiguration story, can say: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (1:16-19)

The early Church was deeply aware of who Jesus was for them. Their recognition wasn’t based on some clever fabrication, but on the reality of the Father’s confirmation that Jesus is the “Christos”, the Anointed One, the One sent to humankind, bearing both the nature of a human being as well as the nature of God. The author of 2 Peter expresses this in the word “majesty”.  God the Father honors and glorifies Jesus by singling him out as “my Son, my Beloved”. What Jesus was, what he taught others, what he did as an example for all to follow, and what, in the end, he gave for all: in that God was “well pleased”. One might get a hint of why this would be so from a moving passage in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Love (22). In the 9th Showing Jesus asks Julian: “‘Are you well satisfied that I suffered for you?‘ I said: ‘Yes, good Lord, thanks be to you. Yes, good Lord, blessed may you be!‘ Then Jesus, our kind Lord said: ‘If you are satisfied, I am satisfied. It is a joy, a bliss, an endless delight to me that ever I suffered the Passion for you; and if I could suffer more, I would suffer more.  For Peter, speaking through the author of the Epistle, God clearly confirmed Jesus as Savior. He urges us to dwell on this message, to absorb it into our souls as light “shining in a dark place”. The process of gradually, throughout our lives, becoming aware of the “Majestic Glory” of Christ is like the dawning of day and the morning star rising in our hearts.

Perhaps that’s what the Collect means by praying that we “may by faith behold the King in his beauty”. But, oh, how difficult a task, as the Collect also intimates, in that we do this within “the disquietude of this world”. Two recent massacres of innocent people in Colorado and Wisconsin; the ongoing violence, on both sides, in the civil war in Syria; the endless wrangling among political factions in many countries: most noticeably in our own  during this senseless presidential campaign, with its scurrilous attack ads and its obscene waste of money when so many in our society cry out for just the basic needs. 

One of the major messages of the Transfiguration is a reminder that our lives need to be unequivocally centered and anchored in the power and presence of Jesus the Christ. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” That’s possible if our lives are more and more characterized by the Apostles‘ silence, a contemplative silence which helps us accept the reality of God-with-us, rather than with “the disquietude of this world”.    

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Search To Fill A Deeper Hunger

The Book of Common Prayer refers to the Holy Eucharist as “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts...” (Concerning the Service of the Church, p. 13) Because of the centrality of the Eucharist it’s well worth one’s time to prayerfully study and think about the 6th Chapter of John’s Gospel, in order to come to a deeper understanding of the mystery of Christ present in the Eucharist.
John’s Gospel essentially encompasses two major sections: 1) The famous and utterly magnificent Prologue; and 2) The Book of Signs, divided into four parts: 1) the opening days of Jesus‘ revelation; 2) from Cana to Cana: the time between the changing of water into wine at the Cana wedding and the healing of the official’s son at Cana; 3) Jesus, in the context of the principal Jewish feasts; and 4) Jesus as he moves toward his hour of death and glorification. 
The 6th Chapter of John, including today’s Gospel passage, occurs within Part 3 of the Book of Signs, where Jesus deals, in sign and word, with the main Jewish feasts (Sabbath/ Passover/Tabernacles/Dedication), showing how he himself is their fulfillment. Specifically, the context of John 6:1-71 is Jesus at Passover. He multiplies bread and walks of the sea (1-21); the crowd whom he fed follows him from the Sea of Tiberias over to Capernaum, puzzled as to how he got there (22-24); Jesus speaks to them of the bread of life (25-34; 35-50; 51-59); there is reaction to what Jesus teaches: from the people, from the Jewish faction, from his own disciples. Here, our interest centers on vv. 25-34.   

Throughout John’s Gospel, and particularly in this passage, John shows how Jesus teaches people by way of conversation. In four steps, Jesus converses with folks who’ve missed the point of a question, action, or teaching. He leads them in a quadruple step-by-step from the human experience or situation to a deeper reality involving himself.
First, they want to know when Jesus arrived at Capernaum. They know (22-23) that Jesus isn’t still where he was, and that he didn’t go over to Capernaum on the one available boat. They hurry over there (25),  undoubtedly seeking this wonder-worker who can keep them fed, and they find Jesus there. He begins a conversation with them about the very thing they’re really seeking: another handout of bread, by telling them that they need to direct their energies to seeking out imperishable, enduring food, “which the Son of Man will give you.” The Father, he says, has “confirmed that One as his agent to give life.” (27 - Common English Bible translation) The New Revised Standard Version renders this: “For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” In Eastern practice it wasn’t a signature, but the seal which authenticated a political or commercial document. According to the rabbis, “The seal of God is truth.” The Talmud relates that one day a small scroll fell from the firmament into the midst of some Jewish law experts who were fasting and weeping in the synagogue. They opened the scroll which contained one word: emeth = truth, which is spelled with three Hebrew consonants: aleph (1st letter of the alphabet), min (middle letter) and tau (last letter). Therefore, it was said, God’s truth is the beginning, the middle, and the end of life.
The people want to know what “works” are necessary to accomplish God’s will. (28-29) Jesus says, “No works, but only one work: that you believe in [set your heart on] the One whom God sent.” According to Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944) there’s an interplay of words here: “Work not the food” is parallel with “work the works of God”. Jesus sets these people on a spiritual journey to seek out the only One who can sustain their life. The point, especially spelled out in v. 27, is that what God offers us is God’s free gift in Christ. Any work we do establishes no claim on it.
Thirdly, the Hebrews were a people of sign, rooted in a long tradition of signs and wonders. They were also, so like us, typically human and missing the point, that they next ask: “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?...” (30) They go off on a long tangent proudly flaunting the fact that
Moses gave their forebears a “heavenly” sign in the manna which fell into the desert every day during the Exodus. Of course, they omit the fact there’d been significant “grumbling” by the people to get their demands fulfilled, as well as when they eventually tired of the same old menu every day! For the record, Jesus reminds them that “It wasn’t Moses who gave the sign: it was God.” “My Father”, he says, “gives the true bread from heaven, and it gives people life.” Their response: “Give us this bread always [lit., every when].
Finally, Jesus clearly identifies himself: “I am the bread of life.” Notice how his teaching follows a definite progression: from physical hunger, to the beginning of a deeper search to satisfy an inner hunger, to reflection on their religious heritage, to the person of Jesus, who is the life-giving bread sent from the Father.
Jesus‘ use of food-related terms to describe who he is is wholly in keeping with Hebrew tradition. Today’s first reading (Exodus 16:2-4; 9-15) shows how God supplied people’s need for food during the Exodus. The people whom Jesus taught traced their heritage back to Abraham and the other patriarchs. Their ancestors had been shaped into a people through the Exodus experience. They’d witnessed God’s mighty deeds, God’s signs, down through the generations, delivering the people from their oppressors. Though imperfect and few in number, yet God graciously chose them to be God’s own. Still, in typical human fashion, they periodically lost sight of the big picture, complained against their leaders, and quickly forgot the event which had made them God’s own people. 
We who are the Church, through Jesus, “God’s agent to give life”, “ share the rich root” (Romans 11:17) of the Chosen People, have adopted as our central ritual of worship the Eucharist, wherein we feed on “bread from heaven”: the bread of God’s Word and the bread and cup of the Sacrament. The same gracious and mighty God who fed ancient Israel also feeds us. God does so despite the fact that we, too, are imperfect and relatively few; that we, too, regularly complain and grumble; that we, too, have so often forgotten the event and love which made us God’s chosen. Yet, God still feeds us.
John’s Gospel passage today is a sort of invitation to us who are the Church to become part of the crowd and to share in the step-by-step learning process through which Jesus guides us.
First, we need bread. Think about all your experiences of bread within your lifetime and what it has meant to you, both in specific situations and in an overall way. Bread is desirable, filling, necessary to life, readily available for most. But we have many more important needs, beyond physical hunger. Perhaps the very physical bread of Holy Communion can lead us to see our need for something much deeper and more sustaining.
Secondly, our search, ultimately, is for whatever it is that can fill our inner hunger. How do you and I find peace of heart? What or who can fill our deepest need for being worthwhile? for being needed? for accomplishing something lasting? for love? How can I cope with my limitations and weaknesses, or fill up my loneliness, especially when others misunderstand me; when I’m just not up to life’s demands; when tragedy intrudes on my convenience and comfort? Who can sustain me? Many times we already have the answer, though we don’t always want to hear it or act upon it. Our works, our activities, our plans and projects, our busyness won’t get us very far in the long run. “This is the work of God: that you believe in the One whom the Father has sent.
Third, it’s necessary and beneficial for us to reflect on our own religious heritage in order to understand the Eucharist better. As Episcopalians, we stand in a great religious tradition, one worthy of our trying to understand it better and of living in its light. The great Jeremy Taylor, chaplain to King Charles I and later the Anglican Bishop of Down and Conner, writes this in his The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living (1651):  “As the ministers of the sacrament do in a sacramental manner present to God the sacrifice of the cross by being imitators of Christ’s intercession, so the people are sacrificers, too, in their manner: for besides that by saying ‘Amen‘ they join in the act of him that ministers, and make it also to be their own; so when they eat and drink the consecrated and blessed elements worthily, they receive Christ within them, and therefore may also offer Him to God, while in their sacrifice of obedience and thanksgiving they present themselves to God with Christ, whom they have spiritually received, that is, themselves with that which will make them gracious and acceptable. The offering their bodies and souls and services to God, in Him, and by Him, and with Him, who is His Father’s well-beloved, and in whom He is well pleased, cannot but be accepted to all the purposes of blessing, grace, and glory. This is the sum of the greatest mystery of our religion; it is the copy of the passion, and the ministration of the great mystery of redemption.
Finally, Jesus reveals himself to us as “the bread of life” in the Eucharist. The satisfying of our spiritual hungers, which is the goal of our spiritual search and the only basis for our religious tradition, is the person of Jesus Christ, now become for us “the bread of life.” “And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take, this is my body.‘ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’” (Mark 14:22-24)
Corita Kent writes: 
We knead new bread
and we need new bread
and this can be said of the bread and of the word
In trying to get hold of things mysterious
we try to invent something definite
and mystery must always be redefined
or better yet
come at newly and indirectly
through stories and things around us...
(Footnotes And Headlines, p. 13)   

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Generous Rich Man

Joseph of Arimathea, Luke says, was the man who donated his own prepared tomb for the burial of Jesus after Jesus' crucifixion. Joseph, mentioned in all four Gospels was a native of Arimathea, in Judea, a town associated by Crusaders with what is now Ramla. He was apparently a man of wealth, probably a “councilor” or member of the Sanhedrin, according to Luke. Mark (15:43) identifies Joseph as an "honorable counsilor, who was searching for the kingdom of God". Matthew (27:57) says he was a rich man and a disciple of Jesus. In John (19:38) Joseph is described as a secret disciple of Jesus, who boldly “asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus.” Commentator R. J. Miller notes this as an "unexpected” act, and wonders if Joseph of Arimathea is, in effect, bringing Jesus into his own family. 

 Pilate, reassured by a centurion that the death had taken place, allows Joseph's request. Joseph immediately purchases fine linen, according to Mark and Luke, and proceeds to Golgotha to take the body of Jesus down from the cross. Assisted by Nicodemus, Joseph takes Jesus’ body and wraps it in the fine linen, along with 100 lbs. of myrrh and aloes, spices which Nicodemus had brought, according to John. Jesus' body is then carried to the place which had been prepared for Joseph's own body, a man-made cave hewn from rock in the garden of his house nearby. This was all done speedily, for “it was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning." (Luke 23:54) 

 Joseph of Arimathea is venerated as a saint by the Catholic, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Episcopal Churches: on March 17 in the West, and on July 31 in the East and in Lutheran churches. The Orthodox additionally commemorate Joseph on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers, the second Sunday after Easter. 

The first reading today, from Isaiah 53, deals with a “a man of suffering, [one] acquainted with infirmity.” (53:3) Traditionally, of course, we see this as referring to Jesus, the unique “Man of sorrows”. But many interpret verse 9 as a prophecy about him fulfilled in the Gospel by Joseph of Arimathea: “They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich...” (Isaiah 53:9) The exact translation is somewhat ambiguous in the Hebrew, and none of the Gospel accounts even claims a prophesied fulfillment. 

 Then there is a mass of legendary detail which, ever since the 2nd century, in addition to the New Testament references, has accumulated around Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph is mentioned in both apocryphal and non-canonical accounts such as the Acts of Pilate, or Gospel of Nicodemus, dating in its original form from about the 4th century. Many early church historians refer to Joseph of Arimathea, including Irenaeus (2nd cent.); Hippolytus and Tertullian (2nd-3rd cent.); Eusebius (3rd-4th cent.); Hilary of Poitiers (4th cent.); and St. John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople (4th-5th cent.). 

The Gospel of Nicodemus, a text appended to the Acts of Pilate, provides a good deal of mythologized detail about Joseph. It reiterates the canonical Gospel information that after Joseph asked Pilate for the body of the Christ, and prepared the body with Nicodemus' help, Christ's body was delivered to a new tomb that Joseph had built for himself. In addition, it says that when the Jewish elders express anger at Joseph for burying the body of Christ, he responds: “...Why are you angry against me because I begged the body of Jesus? Behold, I have put him in my new tomb, wrapping in clean linen; and I have rolled a stone to the door of the tomb. And you have acted not well against the just man, because you have not repented of crucifying him, but also have pierced him with a spear...” (Gospel of Nicodemus, Tr., Alexander Walker) It continues with the Jewish elders capturing Joseph, and imprisoning him, then placing a seal on the door to his cell after posting a guard. Joseph warns the elders: “The Son of God whom you hanged upon the cross is able to deliver me out of your hands. All your wickedness will return upon you.” When the elders return to the cell, the seal is still in place, but Joseph is gone. The elders later discover that Joseph had returned to Arimathea. Having a change in heart, they desire to have a more civil conversation with Joseph about his actions and send a letter of apology to him by means of seven of his friends. 

 Joseph then travels back from Arimathea to Jerusalem to meet with the elders, where they question him about his escape. He tells them this story: “On the day of the Preparation, about the tenth hour, you shut me in, and I remained there the whole Sabbath in full. And when midnight came, as I was standing and praying, the house where you shut me in was hung up by the four corners, and there was a flashing of light in my eyes. And I fell to the ground trembling. Then someone lifted me up from the place where I had fallen, and poured over me an abundance of water from head to foot, and put round my nostrils the odor of a wonderful ointment, and rubbed my face with the water itself, as if washing me, and kissed me, and said to me, ‘Joseph, fear not; but open your eyes, and see who it is that speaks to you. And looking, I saw Jesus; and being terrified, I thought it was a phantom. With prayer and the commandments I spoke to him, and he spoke with me. And I said to him: ‘Are you Rabbi Elias?’ And he said to me: ‘I am not Elias.’ And I said: ‘Who are you, my Lord? And he said to me: ‘I am Jesus, whose body you begged from Pilate, and wrapped in clean linen; and upon whose face you laid a napkin, and put me in your new tomb, and rolled a stone to the door of the tomb.’ Then I said to him who was speaking to me: ‘Show me, Lord, where I laid you.’ And he led me, and showed me the place where I laid him, and the linen which I had put on him, and the napkin with which I had wrapped his face; and I knew that it was Jesus. And he took hold of me with his hand, and put me in the midst of my house though the gates were shut, and put me in my bed, and said to me: ‘Peace be to you!’ And he kissed me, and said to me: ‘For forty days do not go out of your house; I go to my brothers into Galilee.” (Gospel of Nicodemus, Tr., Alexander Walker) 

 Medieval interest in Joseph of Arimathea centered around two themes: 1) that of Joseph as the founder of British Christianity, even before it had taken hold in Rome, and 2) that of Joseph as the original guardian of the Holy Grail, who supposedly brings the cup of the Last Supper eventually to Glastonbury Abbey. 

 All of this, of course, is what it is: pious, romantic, beautiful legend based on dubious evidence. Perhaps what’s most important for us to take away from the example of Joseph of Arimathea is stated in today’s Collect: Joseph’s great reverence for and desire to protect Christ’s body, and his courage, despite his fear. Joseph did not only what was demanded by Jewish piety, but went far beyond in humanely and generously offering his own tomb for Christ’s burial. We might ask: what would we do in a similar situation? Are we as devoted to Jesus in our own spiritual lives? Do we revere the mystical Body of Christ, our sisters and brothers, whoever they are, enough to continually address their needs with extraordinary courage, humanity and generosity? It’s to pray for this that we join together whenever we share Christ’s Body and Blood.