"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Christ in the Eucharist

"For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him."
~ John 6:55-56

With the successive gospel readings from the sixth chapter of John over the past several Sundays, I've been thinking about Jesus as the Bread of Life.  Of course, every Sunday we believe that we gather to partake of this Bread in the Eucharist (i.e. the Lord's Supper, the Mass, Holy Communion),  "the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him", the sacrament whereby we are strengthened by God's grace and drawn into closer union with God in Christ.  The power and consolation of this central act of our worship has been made more real to me of late, as I've been consciously seeking to open myself more willingly to the Spirit and grow closer to Jesus.  I believe that in these earthy gifts of bread and wine, by God's grace I encounter the real presence of Christ.

It is curious to me that so many Christians lay such emphasis upon negating a sacramental theology of the Eucharist, that is, in stressing that "these are only symbols, and we only do this 'in remembrance'; there is no special grace or power to be received here" (incidentally, it's my understanding that the Greek word anamnesis has significantly deeper meaning than our English remembrance, a meaning that imparts living into the reality of a past event, not merely thinking about it.  I really need to learn Greek one of these days; I can only imagine how much it opens up the Scriptures).  Apart from the very early and continuing tradition of the church (a line of argument which unfortunately may not carry much weight with many Protestants) there is the testimony of Scripture.  I would even say that a view of the Lord's Supper as memorial only, to the point of denying the real presence of Christ, is not grounded in the Bible, but rather in a reaction to the perceived abuses and/or excesses of the church of the middle ages.  To be sure, there was much need for reform and renewal in the church of the sixteenth century, and it was in this context that the Protestant traditions were born.  Unfortunately, it is still the reactionary context in which many continue.  

But what do the Scriptures say?  In the synoptic gospels, Jesus speaks with little elaboration, "This is my body ... this is my blood."  Paul writes about the imperative of not drinking "the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner" in a passage that seems to make clear that we partake of a powerful spiritual reality in this meal, a reality that unites us truly, not just symbolically.  "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ?  Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?  Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread."

And then there is Jesus as the Bread of Life in John's gospel.  Jesus says, "I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh."  The crowd is incredulous; "How can this man give us His flesh to eat?"  I can imagine them arguing and scratching their heads, trying to make sense of it: "Well, this guy is obviously crazy! ... No, no, he must be speaking metaphorically ... Surely, you don't think he actually means what he is saying?"  And Jesus answers: "My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him."  The message is not to be taken literally (Jesus is obviously not advocating cannibalism), but neither is this mere metaphor.  Here is a reality that goes deep, beyond what is seen, beyond what can be comprehended  rationally.  But it is a reality that gives eternal life and affects the union of man to God.  This is indeed a mystery, sacramentum.  The crowd, not surprisingly, responds, "This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?" and many abandon him.

It is a difficult statement, and a hard thing to which Jesus calls us.  For, as my priest pointed out in her homily this morning, it is not only life to which Christ calls us, but death also, death to ourselves and the corruption of the world.  We eat of the Bread of Life even as we share the Cup of His Passion.  In the Eucharist we turn away from the dying things of this world, and take hold of that which is real.

We Christians separate ourselves from one another over so many things.  But it is truly sad that the very act which Our Lord commanded and gave us to draw us to Himself and one another in unity, has become such a cause of division.  Yet I believe that the Eucharist remains as God intended it, a sacrament of grace and union, and that He will even still draw us together around His table, that we who are many may find ourselves one in Christ. I pray that God hastens the day.  Peace.

And we earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, whereby we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies.  Grant, we beseech thee, that all who partake of this Holy Communion may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, and be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction; and also that we and all thy whole Church may be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord; 
By whom, and with whom, and in whom, in the unity of the Holy Ghost all honor and glory be unto thee, O Father Almighty, world without end.  AMEN.
 ~from Eucharistic Prayer II, Rite I, BCP  

Thursday, August 16, 2012

In Honor of Our Lady

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 forever.  Amen.
~Collect for the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin  Mary
(El Greco)
In the liturgical calendar, August 15 is a major feast in which the Church honors Mary, the Mother of Our Lord.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, the day is known as the Assumption of Mary, referring to the belief that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven when her earthly life was ended.  Essentially the same doctrine is held in Eastern Orthodoxy, where the feast is called the Dormition (i.e. falling asleep) of Mary.  In the Anglican tradition, the day is simply known as the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin (or some similar title), since the Assumption is not a doctrine promulgated in Anglicanism, though there are certainly Anglicans who hold the belief.  In any event, Anglicans appropriately recognize the place of unique honor which Mary has been granted by virtue of her humble obedience to God and integral role in the central event of all history.

Dormition of the Theotokos

I like the following excerpt from Lesser Feasts and Fasts, as I think it well expresses our via media within the Church universal on this point:
Mary, Queen of the Apostles
"Later devotion has claimed many things for Mary which cannot be proved from Holy Scripture.  What we can believe is that one who stood in so intimate a relationship with the incarnate Son of God on earth must, of all the human race, have the place of highest honor in the eternal life of God."
The text concludes by referencing a verse of the hymn Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones:

O higher than the cherubim, 
More glorious than the seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluia!
Thou bearer of the eternal Word, 
Most gracious, magnify the Lord,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Saint for Today

O God of the prophets, you opened the eyes of your servant Dominic to perceive a famine of hearing the word of the Lord, and moved him, and those he drew about him, to satisfy that hunger with sound preaching and fervent devotion: Make your Church, dear Lord, in this and every age, attentive to the hungers of the world, and quick to respond in love to those who are perishing; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.
~Collect for Feast of Saint Dominic, Priest and Friar

Saint Dominic was born in Spain in the late twelfth century.  As the founder of the Dominican order of friars, he had a profound influence on the Church and world of the middle ages (the Dominicans, of course, continue as a religious order today).  But he is a timely example for our own day, as well.  The Dominicans, or Order of Friars Preachers, were organized in large part for the purpose of increasing the spiritual scholarship of the Church through study and devotion to the fundamentals of the faith, and then sharing the fruit of that study through preaching and teaching.  As a religious order, the friars adhered to a vowed rule of life, which was lived out within a dedicated community.

I believe that the Church today has a great responsibility to focus upon the same needs to which Dominic was called: the study and teaching of true doctrine, and the formation of Christian community.  The need for a focus upon learning and devotion to the essentials of our faith (both through catechesis and continuing formation) is ever present, but it seems especially critical now for the Episcopal Church.  I think it is difficult to argue with the opinion that in recent years there has been a consistent trend within much of the leadership of the Episcopal Church to downplay the place of Scripture and Christian tradition in favor of cultural relevance and experiential knowledge.  I don't wish to sound melodramatic, but I do believe the future of the Episcopal Church depends on a renewed devotion to the catholic, apostolic faith which we proclaim every week in our recitation of the Creed, but which I fear fewer and fewer Episcopalians are expected to understand or greatly value.

As for the need for Christian community, I believe this is one of the great challenges of our day.  Relationship is the reality for which humanity is intended.  Relationship lies at the very heart of God, the Ultimate Reality, as beautifully and mysteriously revealed in the doctrine of the Trinity.  It is into that relationship, and into relationship with every created thing, that God calls us.  In our world today, we pride ourselves on being more connected than ever before.  Through the marvels of technology, we can follow events on the other side of the globe in real time, and instantly chat with friends thousands of miles away.  And yet, how many of us know our neighbors next door?  I believe that the Church is being called to remind us of what we seem to be quickly losing in this most modern era.  The Church, which maintains that the greatest event of all time is not to be expected with the next Apple technology, but rather happened two thousand years ago in the coming of One who calls us into unity with God, is well suited to call us now back to the reality for which we were made: the love of God and the love of neighbor.  It is a call to meaningful, loving relationship in community, made to a world that is nothing if not busy.

Finally, it should be noted that Dominic did not simply seclude himself in an ivory tower, content to studiously delve the depths of doctrine.  He preached what he studied, and practiced what he preached.  Dominicans vow themselves not only to a life of study and preaching, but of poverty as well.  In the language of the prophet Amos, today's collect speaks of Dominic perceiving "a famine of hearing the word of the Lord," which references his call to preaching by alluding to another famous episode from his life.  While the young Dominic was a student at university in Castile, a severe famine struck the region.  In response, Dominic sold all he had, including his beloved books, for the relief of the suffering.  He is reputed to have said, "I will not study on dead skins when living skins are dying of hunger."

May God grant us grace and wisdom to partake of the riches of saints such as Dominic in our own day.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why Believe in God?

Then it seemed as if men must proceed from light to light, in the light of the Word,
Through the Passion and Sacrifices saved in spite of their negative being;
Bestial as always before, carnal, self-seeking as always before, selfish and purblind as ever before,
Yet always struggling, always reaffirming, always resuming their march on the way that was lit by the light;
Often halting, loitering, straying, delaying, returning, yet following no other way.
But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before: though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.
Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no god; and this has never happened before
That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,
And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic.
The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
In an age which advances progressively backwards?
~T.S. Eliot, from The Rock 

I talk to myself quite regularly.  Sometimes in my head, sometimes out loud as I go about some daily chore, alone until my wife walks in unexpectedly to get a kick out of my 'conversation.'  I've often asked myself the question, 'Why do I believe in God?'  And in my mind I've reasoned and reflected a good deal in an attempt to answer that question.  The fact that I don't know if I've ever really had this conversation in response to a friend actually inquiring about my faith reflects rather poorly, I'm afraid, on my life as a witness to Christ.  But, in any event, despite the fact that I feel a Christian responsibility to be prepared always to give an account for the hope within me, what I believe is in fact of the utmost importance to me, and simply for that reason alone it is something I think about a lot.

However, as T.S. Eliot points out, ours is the Secular Age.  Increasingly, the Christian today is asked not, 'Why do you believe in Jesus?', but simply, 'Why believe in God at all?  Haven't we now moved beyond the need for all the superstitious fables and stifling oppression of religion?  We know so much more now; we can figure out the answers to all the questions on our own.  We don't need God anymore.'

Well, it is certainly true that many of the old mysteries that the ancients ascribed to God because they could do nothing else have now been answered by the incredible advances in human knowledge over the last few centuries in particular.  And it is also sadly true that institutions of religion have often been usurped by humans to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of others.  But I don't see how these facts discredit God, unless one is looking for reasons to not believe (in which case, any reason, no matter how poor or unbiased, will do).  And while I fully expect that human knowledge will continue to advance, I must be honest in stating that I also believe emphatically that we never will get it all figured out, this side of heaven.  I suppose one could view that as pessimism; I simply view it as an obvious truth (I'm also pretty optimistic, as regards our ultimate destiny; that's for another post).  For all the truly remarkable gains of the modern era, in science, medicine, and technology, I don't know that the human creature has really changed that much.  Modern Man may have it better than Ancient, or Medieval Man, but I think this is due to changes in the institutions and structures which are part and parcel of our modern world, and the comparatively favorable conditions in which so many of us now live.  I don't think Man has undergone a gradual, biological change, and is now fundamentally a better creature.  I think we are as selfish, conflicted, confused, and depraved as ever (well, I can at least speak for myself), it's simply easier to hide from these realities of our interior selves now, since the structures of our society generally satisfy our necessities and restrict our baser instincts (although note what barbarity inevitably results when enlightened Modern Man, even in the form of 'a good American boy', is forced to face the horror of a war zone).  And besides, now more than ever we can keep ourselves distracted with so many other things; reflection, not least of which over the state of one's own spirit, is not something we can afford to be bothered with at the speed with which we now move.

So, no, I don't think we will ever build heaven on earth.  And yet, here is the remarkable thing: we keep trying.  We have these ideas, these ideals: justice, peace, beauty, love, all in perfection.  And yet we never experience these things fully, so how did we come to conceive of them in this way at all?  And why do we continue to grasp for that which we have never been able to take hold of; for all we know we never will get there.  From whence springs this desire?

A while back I read a passage from Evelyn Underhill's book The Spiritual Life.  It's a great little book, and can be read in a sitting or two; I highly recommend it.  When I first read the passage below, I sat up, and my mouth dropped open.  Or maybe that's just how I felt; it made an impact.  Underhill is talking here about prayer, but I find in her words the ground of my belief in God.  At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I felt like I was reading my own thoughts.  But she states them with greater eloquence than I could hope for, so I'll close this post now with her words.  Peace.

"Prayer means turning to Reality, taking our part, however humble, tentative, and half-understood, in the continual conversation, the communion, of our spirits with the Eternal Spirit; the acknowledgement of our entire dependence, which is yet the partly free dependence of the child.  For prayer is really our whole life towards God: our longing for Him, our 'incurable God-sickness', as Barth calls it, our whole drive towards Him.  It is the humble correspondence of the human spirit with the Sum of all Perfection, the Fountain of Life.  No narrower definition than this is truly satisfactory, or covers all the ground.  Here we are, small half-real creatures of sense and spirit, haunted by the sense of a perfection ever calling to us, and yet ourselves so fundamentally imperfect, so hopelessly involved in an imperfect world; with a passionate desire for beauty, and more mysterious still, a knowledge of beauty, and yet unable here to realize perfect beauty; with a craving for truth and a deep reverence for truth, but only able to receive flashes of truth.  Yet we know that perfect goodness, perfect beauty, and perfect truth exist in God; and that our hearts will never rest in less than these.  This longing, this need for God, however dimly and vaguely we feel it, is the seed from which grows the strong, beautiful, and fruitful plant of prayer.  It is the first response of our deepest selves to the attraction of the Perfect; the recognition that He has made us for Himself, that we depend on Him and are meant to depend on Him, and that we shall not know the meaning of peace until our communion with Him is at the center of our lives."