"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

Saturday, December 29, 2012

John Donne: On the Wholeness of Christ's Redemptive Work

From a sermon by John Donne:
Only to Christ Jesus, the fulness of time was at his birth; not because he had not also a painful life to pass through, but because the work of our redemption was an entire work, and all that Christ said or did or suffered, concurred to our salvation: as well his mother's swathing him in little clouts as Joseph's shrouding him in a funeral sheet; as well his cold lying in the manger as his cold dying upon the Cross; as well the Unto us a Boy is born as the It is finished:  as well his birth as his death is said to have been the fulness of time.  
Peace, and happy Chistmastide. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Catherine of Siena: On the Virgin and the Incarnation

Saint Catherine of Siena writes:
If I consider your own great counsel, eternal Trinity, I see that in your light you saw the dignity and nobility of the human race.  So, just as love compelled you to draw us out of yourself, so that same love compelled you to buy us back when we were lost.  In fact, you showed that you loved us before we existed, when you chose to draw us out of yourself only for love.  But you have shown us greater love still by giving us yourself, shutting yourself up today in the pouch of humanity.  And what more could you have given us than to give your very self?  So you can truly ask us, 'What should I or could I have done for you that I have not done?'  I see, then, that whatever your wisdom saw, in that great council of yours, as best for our salvation, is what your mercy willed, and what your power has today accomplished ...
O Mary, I see this Word given to you, living in you yet not separated from the Father -- just as the word one has in one's mind does not leave one's heart or become separated from it even though the word is externalized and communicated to others.  In these things our human dignity is revealed -- that God should have done such and so great things for us.  
And even more: in you, O Mary, our human strength and freedom are revealed, for after the deliberation of such and so great a council, the angel was sent to you to announce to you the mystery of divine counsel, and to seek to know your will, and God's son did not come down to your womb until you had given your will's consent.  He waited at the door for you to open to him ... 'Here I am, God's servant; let it be done to me as you have said.'
The strength and freedom of the will is clearly revealed, then, for no good nor any evil can be done without that will.  Nor is there any devil or other creature that can drive it to the guilt of deadly sin without its consent.  Nor, on the other hand, can it be driven to do anything good unless it so chooses.  The eternal Godhead, O Mary, was knocking at your door, but unless you had opened that door of your will, God would not have taken flesh in you.  Blush, my soul, when you see that today God has become your relative in Mary.  Today, you have been shown that though you were made without your help, you will not be saved without your help, for today God is knocking at the door of Mary's will and waiting for her to open to Him.
Peace, and a blessed Christmastide!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christ, Have Mercy

Thus says the LORD:
"A voice is heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
She refused to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more."
~Jeremiah 31:15

In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord;
     my hands were stretched out and did not tire;
     I refused to be comforted.
~Psalm 77:2

Last Friday afternoon, as the details of the Newtown tragedy were being learned, it was difficult to know how to pray.  My wife said that her initial impulse was to pray for peace and comfort for the victims' families.  But that didn't feel right; no, she said, they have to weep and mourn now, to be angry and confused, to give full vent to their grief.  To do otherwise would be both unhealthy and simply wrong.  There is a time for grief, as the Preacher of Ecclesiastes well knew.

The Psalmists knew it also.  They did not hide or explain away their human emotions.  In the Psalms we have the full range of human emotion, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Often, in the course of a  Psalm we experience a time of confusion, sorrow, or anger that eventually comes through to a conclusion, and there is confirmation of God's faithfulness, and closure.  Psalm 73 is an excellent example of this.  But sometimes, there is no comfort, there is no closure.  Psalm 88 is one continuous, soul-crushing lament, with scant comfort to be found.  The Psalmist begins,

          O LORD, my God, my Savior,
               by day and night I cry to you.
          Let my prayer enter your presence;
               incline your ear to my lamentation.
          For I am full of trouble;
               my life is at the brink of the grave. 

And those are the most hopeful lines in the Psalm.  It pretty much goes downhill from there (way downhill, actually, all the way to the abyss).  By the end of the lament, the Psalmist seems as forlorn as ever.  He closes,

          Your blazing anger has swept over me;
               your terrors have destroyed me;
          They surround me all day long like a flood;
               they encompass me on every side.
          My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
               and darkness is my only companion.

Over the weekend, I was looking through the burial rites in The Book of Common Prayer.  It is my opinion that the burial rite, as laid out here in the anthems, the prayers, and the Scripture readings, is a masterwork of liturgy.  I think one would be hard-pressed to find anything that presents the Christian hope so accurately, beautifully, and powerfully.  That said, as I was reading through the prayers and Scriptures in light of the tragedy in Newtown, I confess that I didn't feel very comforted.  I tried, in some small way, to imagine how I would feel as a father whose young child was suddenly, brutally, and senselessly taken from me.  I don't think I would want to hear words of comfort.  I am fairly certain that I would not want anyone telling me that God will comfort those who mourn, that He is good to those who wait for Him, that I should not lose heart, for the things seen are only temporary.  Truthfully, I can hardly begin to imagine the anguish those parents are going through right now.

I think my wife was right when she determined that what she could do, and what all Christians should do, is to be sad.  Rather than to choose not to think about it, or to pray that the pain will simply go away, we should weep with those who weep.  The Apostle Paul counsels the same.  And is this not the central message of the Incarnation, that God in Christ enters our world, becomes truly human that He may fully embrace the human suffering that is an inescapable aspect of our humanity?  At the grave of Lazarus, Jesus wept with those who were weeping.  Looking to Jesus, our exemplar in all things, let us do the same.

But it is still difficult to know how to pray.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Reflections on Isaiah Chapter One

Therefore, the Lord GOD of hosts,
The Mighty One of Israel declares, 
"Ah, I will be relieved of my adversaries,
And avenge myself on my foes.
I will also turn my hand against you, 
And will smelt away your dross as with lye,
And will remove all your alloy.
Then I will restore your judges as at the first,
And your counselors as at the beginning;
After that you will be called the city of righteousness,
A faithful city."
~Isaiah 1:24-26

A couple of things in this passage grabbed my attention during Evening Prayer yesterday.  First, God fights His own battles.  Second, He purifies His unfaithful people (a painful process) in order to bring them again to a place of faithfulness.

Regarding the first observation, I'm reminded of Archbishop Michael Ramsey's words: "Whenever exponents of the Christian faith treat it as something which we have to 'defend' like a beleagured fortress or a fragile structure they are making God to be smaller than he is."  These words resonate with me, as I observe the incessant "culture wars" into which many Christians continue to insert themselves.  I presume that they do so with the best of intentions, but I have felt for some time now that this does more harm than good.  I don't hear many people these days saying, "See, how these Christians love one another!", but rather wondering what piece of controversial legislation we will support or oppose next.

In times such as these, I tend to gravitate toward the words of wise Gamaliel in Acts chapter 5.  When the Sanhedrin is considering how to respond to the "threat" of the preaching of Peter and the apostles, Gamaliel counsels, "Stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action should be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God."  Sounds like good advice to me, given the disrepute which we have brought upon the Church in the eyes of so many by now openly aligning ourselves with this political messiah, now taking our stand on this issue upon which the very existence of our civilization depends, now railing in the name of God against this cultural shift.  Unfortunately, no sooner do I settle comfortably into Gamaliel's advice, confident that I have chosen the better way, than I am reminded of the oft-quoted words of Edmund Burke: "All that is needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."  Well, shoot.  Those words resonate with me as well, though in a way that weighs uncomfortably on the shoulders of my timid, be-at-peace-with-all-men soul.  I think of men like William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and many others.  I think of the prophet Amos, who cried out, "Hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the gate!"  So, how to remedy this conflict between simply trusting in the ultimate triumph of God's truth and the duty of publicly aligning myself with that truth?  How do I quietly and peacefully "leave room for the wrath of God" while also faithfully proclaiming God's truth in the face of sin and injustice?  Well, the answer is ... ha! yeah, I don't know.  But I'm trying to find that place.

Something I can say with confidence, though, is that the Christian life is a life of hope.  Even in suffering and hardship, when the walls are crumbling, when it seems that we have been abandoned, the Christian lives in hope.  It may be that this time of pain and uncertainty is "the smelting away of (our) dross."  For myself, I think of the on-going struggles within Anglicanism.  I don't know how the shape of the Church will change in the years to come, and things certainly can look bleak at times, but I am convinced of the never-failing love and faithfulness of God, who is ever purifying and renewing His people, that we may be "a faithful city".