"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, March 30, 2013

A Liturgy for Holy Saturday

Introduction:  For some time, I have been fascinated with theological ideas around Christ's descent to the dead, between the time of His death on the cross and His resurrection.  This was viewed by the ancient Church as a central event in the salvation story, and the idea of Christ's 'harrowing of hell' gained particular prominence during the medieval period.  I have compiled the unauthorized liturgy below, which is simply a modified and slightly expanded form of the Liturgy for Holy Saturday, as contained in the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer, 1979.  This prayer book is the source of both the opening collect and the closing anthem, 'In the midst of life.'  I have changed the Old Testament reading, and some of the psalter.  The Scripture passages are from The Bible in Today's English Version (Good News Bible), and the psalms are from The Book of Common Prayer, 1979.  I found the reading from the apocryphal Book of Nicodemus in the prayer book of the Northumbria CommunityCeltic Daily Prayer, which provides this introduction:
"The passage is taken from chapters 15 and 16 of the Book of Nicodemus, one of the manuscripts circulated early in the life of the Christian community.  It is not, of course, accepted as canonical, but is rather in the style of the medieval mystery plays which teach through recounting the stories dramatically.  This section, which may be used as a spur to meditation during the strange period of waiting between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, vividly illustrates the statement in the creeds that Jesus descended into hell, and imagines what happens when He gets there!"
May you have a blessed Easter season!     Peace.

A Liturgy for Holy Saturday

The Opening Collect
O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Psalter and Lessons

Psalm 130
de profundis
Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice;
     let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
If you, LORD, were to note what is done amiss,
     O Lord, who could stand?
For there is forgiveness with you;
     therefore you shall be feared.
I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him;
     in his word is my hope.
My soul waits for the LORD,
more than watchmen for the morning,
     more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, wait for the LORD,
     for with the LORD there is mercy;
With him there is plenteous redemption,
     and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

A reading from the Book of Jonah.

At the LORD's command a large fish swallowed Jonah, and he was inside the fish for three days and three nights.  From deep inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God:
"In my distress, O LORD, I called to you, and you answered me.
From deep in the world of the dead, I cried for help, and you heard me.
You threw me down into the depths, to the very bottom of the sea,
Where the waters were all around me, and all your mighty waves rolled over me.
I thought I had been banished from your presence
And would never see your holy Temple again.
The water came over me and choked me;
The sea covered me completely, and seaweed wrapped around my head.
I went down to the very roots of the mountains,
Into the land whose gates lock shut forever.
But you, O LORD my God, brought me back from the depths alive.
When I felt my life slipping away, then O LORD, I prayed to you,
And in your holy Temple you heard me.
Those who worship worthless idols have abandoned their loyalty to you.
But I will sing praises to you; I will offer you a sacrifice, and do what I have promised.
Salvation comes from the LORD!"

The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Psalm 24
Domini est terra
The earth is the LORD's, and all who dwell in it,
     the world and all who dwell therein.
For it is he who founded it upon the seas,
     and made it firm upon the rivers of the deep.
"Who can ascend the hill of the LORD?
     and who can stand in his holy place?"
"Those who have clean hands and a pure heart,
     who have not pledged themselves to falsehood,
     nor sworn by what is a fraud.
They shall receive a blessing from the LORD
     and a just reward from the God of their salvation."
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
     of those who seek your face, O God of Jacob.
Lift up your heads, O gates;
lift them high, O everlasting doors;
     and the King of glory shall come in.
"Who is this King of glory?"
     "The LORD, strong and mighty,
     the LORD, mighty in battle."
Lift up your heads, O gates;
lift them high, O everlasting doors;
     and the King of glory shall come in.
"Who is he, this King of glory?"
     "The LORD of hosts,
     he is the King of glory."

A reading of The First Epistle of Saint Peter.

Since Christ suffered physically, you too must strengthen yourselves with the same way of thinking that he had; because whoever suffers physically is no longer involved with sin.  From now on, then, you must live the rest of your earthly lives controlled by God's will and not by human desires.  You have spent enough time in the past doing what the heathen like to do.  Your lives were spent in indecency, lust, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and the disgusting worship of idols.  And now the heathen are surprised when you do not join them in the same wild and reckless living, and so they insult you.  But they will have to give an account of themselves to God, who is ready to judge the living and the dead.  That is why the Good News was preached also to the dead, to those who had been judged in their physical existence as everyone is judged; it was preached to them so that in their spiritual existence they may live as God lives.
The end of all things is near.  You must be self-controlled and alert, to be able to pray.  Above everything, love one another earnestly, because love covers over many sins.

The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

A reading from the Gospel according to Saint John.

After this, Joseph, who was from the town of Arimathea, asked Pilate if he could take Jesus' body.  (Joseph was a follower of Jesus, but in secret, because he was afraid of the Jewish authorities.)  Pilate told him he could have the body, so he went and took it away.  Nicodemus, who at first had gone to see Jesus at night, went with Joseph, taking with him about one hundred pounds of spices, a mixture of myrrh and aloes.  The two men took Jesus' body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the spices according to the Jewish custom of preparing a body for burial.  There was a garden in the place where Jesus had been put to death, and in it there was a new tomb where no one had ever been buried.  Since it was the day before the Sabbath and because the tomb was close by, they placed Jesus' body there.

The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

The following is from the apocryphal Book of Nicodemus.
Satan, the prince and captain of death, said to the prince of hell: 'Prepare to receive Jesus of Nazareth Himself, who boasted that He was the Son of God, and yet was a man afraid of death and said, "My soul is sorrowful even to death."  Besides He did many injuries to me and to many others; for those whom I made blind and lame and those also whom I tormented with several devils, He cured by His word; yea, and those whom I brought dead to thee, He by force takes away from thee.'
Then the prince of hell answering, said, 'Thou saidst to me just now, that He took away the dead from me by force.  They who have been kept here until they should live again upon the earth, were taken away hence, not by their own power, but by prayers made to God, and their almighty God took them from me.  Who then is this Jesus of Nazareth that by his word hath taken away the dead from me without prayer to God?  Perhaps it is the same who took away from me Lazarus, after he had been four days dead, and did both stink and was rotten, and of whom I had possession as a dead person, yet He brought him to life again by His power.'
Satan answering, replied to the prince of hell, 'It is the very same person, Jesus of Nazareth.'
Which, when the prince of hell heard, he said to him, 'I adjure thee by the powers that belong to thee and me, that thou bring Him not to me.  For when I heard of the power of His word, I trembled for fear, and all my impious company were at the same time disturbed.  And we were not able to detain Lazarus, but he gave himself a shake, and with all the signs of malice, he immediately went away from us; and the very earth, in which the dead body of Lazarus was lodged presently turned him out alive.  And I know now that He is almighty God who could perform such things, who is mighty in His dominion, and mighty in His human nature, who is the Savior of mankind.  Bring not therefore this person hither, for He will set at liberty all those whom I hold in prison under unbelief, and bound with the fetters of their sins, and will conduct them to everlasting life.'
And while Satan and the prince of hell were discoursing thus to each other, on a sudden there was a voice as of thunder and rushing of winds, saying, 'Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lifted up, O everlasting gates -- and the King of Glory shall come in.'
When the prince of hell heard this, he said to Satan, 'Depart from me, and be gone out of my habitations; if thou art a powerful warrior, fight with the King of Glory.  But what hast thou to do with Him?'  And he cast him forth from his habitations.
And the prince said to his impious officers, 'Shut the brass gates of cruelty, and make them fast with iron bars, and fight courageously, lest we all be taken captives.'
But when all the company of the saints heard this they spake with a loud voice of anger to the prince of hell: 'Open thy gates that the King of Glory may come in!'

A Litany

V. I have set the LORD always before me.
R. Because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.
V. My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices.
R. My body also shall rest in hope.
V. For you will not abandon me to the grave.
R. Nor let your holy One see the Pit.

In the midst of life, we are in death;
of whom may we seek for succor,
but of thee, O Lord,
who for our sins art justly displeased.

Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty,
O holy and most merciful Savior,
deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts;
shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer;
but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty,
O holy and merciful Savior,
thou most worthy Judge eternal.
Suffer us not, at our last hour,
through any pains of death, to fall from thee.

The Lord's Prayer

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore.  Amen.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Echoes of Jeremiah

"For wicked men are found among my people ... They are fat, they are sleek, they also overlook deeds of wickedness; they do not plead the cause, the cause of the orphan that they may prosper; and they do not defend the rights of the poor.  Shall I not punish these people?" declares the LORD, "On a nation such as this shall I not avenge myself?"
"An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority; and My people love it so!  But what will you do at the end of it?"
~Jeremiah 5:26a, 28-31

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, "Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place.  Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.'  For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.  
"Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail.  Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal, and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, 'We are delivered!' -- that you may do all these abominations?  Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight?  Behold, I, even I, have seen it," declares the LORD.
~Jeremiah 7:3-11

This Lent, the Daily Office lectionary has been taking us through the book of Jeremiah.  The above passages are but two examples of a theme that runs all through the book.  Judah is being condemned for two great sins:  committing injustice toward the poor and oppressed, and turning away from the LORD after other gods. It seems to me that both are a problem in the Church today, though in different places, as it were.  (I am aware that in what follows, I am speaking in generalities; there are always exceptions to the rule.)

Mainline Protestant churches, such as my own Episcopal Church, have for some time had a distinct emphasis on seeking to promote and uphold social justice.  This is as it should be.  But in some cases, that emphasis has become so central that it has pushed orthodox doctrine to the side, as a thing secondary, or even unimportant (and in some instances, incredibly, basic tenets of Christian doctrine are viewed as problematic, something to be gotten rid of).

Some more 'conservative' churches, such as the many evangelical and non-denominational fellowships, have done well in seeking to remain faithful to God in the midst of a secular society that is increasingly unabashed in expressing scorn for the scandalous and exclusive claims of Christ and His Church.  But these same churches can be guilty of inadequately addressing the needs of the suffering, poor, and outcasts, since we seek another country, and anyway the poor you will always have with you.

I think in order to be the Church, we must duly attend to both concerns.  According to the Catechism of the Episcopal Church, "The Church is the community of the New Covenant.  The Church is described (in the Bible) as the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head and of which all baptized persons are members" (BCP, pg. 854).  This then, is our identity.  It is found, fundamentally, in the person of Jesus Christ.  To move away from this identity, to relegate or downgrade as non-essential the basic doctrine of the catholic, apostolic faith, is to cease to be the Church and to become simply another charitable organization.  Such an organization may draw its inspiration from the example of a really good guy who showed us how we should live, but it is also an organization that, frankly, is not nearly so efficient as some other entities that also exist to address issues of social justice and the common good.  Social justice is not the definitive mark of the Church, but is rather an essential outgrowth of our identity as a community that has been brought, and is ever growing more, into unity with God in Christ.  In the words of the Catechism, "The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ."  Certainly, working for social justice is integral to bringing people into unity with each other, but I think this distinction between the identity of the Church and the mission of the Church is important; we must not put the cart before the horse.  However, where the mission is not being pursued, I think we may justly question the authenticity of the identity.  We should keep James's biting criticism of faith without works ever before us: If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you should say, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?  And our Lord himself reserved His harshest condemnations for those 'Pharisaical' hypocrites, of whom Isaiah prophesied, This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.

Admittedly, this is difficult.  The call to live faithfully as the Church Militant always will be difficult, but we have the consolation that God is in our midst, and through Christ we can do all things.  May He give us grace both to hold fast to Him, our first love, and to ever "strive for justice and peace among all people", faithful in  the ministry of reconciliation that has been entrusted to us.

Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church.  Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace.  Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it.  Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior.  Amen. 


Monday, March 4, 2013

A Conversation at the Hall of Men, and Reflection on the Same

(The Hall of Men is a bi-monthly fellowship of men who gather for food and drink, and to encourage and challenge each other in the faith.  It's a diverse group of Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants, who all find unity in Christ, and who always express sincere love for one another.  I discovered the group about a year ago, at a time when I was feeling a deep need for just such a community of fellowship and formation.  It has been a great blessing to me.)

My brother and I were talking with S and C after most of the crowd had gone.  W mentioned that I was planning on becoming a priest.
'Oh, really?  What church?'
We talked a bit more, just getting to know each other.  S and C asked if we were both raised in the Episcopal Church.
C asked, 'So, do you not feel out of place here?  I mean, since everyone is so conservative?'
I don't really think of the Hall of Men as a typically conservative gathering.  Rather, I think it's pretty uniquely open-minded, which I'd say is necessary for a truly ecumenical fellowship, which the Hall of Men certainly is.  I told him I didn't feel out of place at all, but that I would probably be considered pretty conservative myself, at least by current Episcopalian standards.  C asked how I managed this, staying in an increasingly liberal church when I don't self-identify as a liberal.  I told him I hadn't really worked all that out yet.  But that I very much do want to be a part of the Anglican Communion, and TEC remains the official Anglican church in North America, as far as Canterbury is concerned.  I explained that the Communion is very important to me, since I think of myself as an ecumenist.  It's this church that has always been home to me.  And as regards our official doctrine, i.e. the BCP, it remains thoroughly orthodox, despite the recent decisions and trajectory of General Convention and various vocal leaders in TEC.
C, as I knew, was previously a Methodist pastor.  His experience in seminary was extremely disillusioning, and that frustration continued after his ordination and during his time as a minister.  He has since been received into the Orthodox Church as a layman.
C said he felt positively ostracized in seminary.  'Man, they made me feel like I was George W. Bush or something.  And I'm not that conservative.  I mean, I didn't support the war or anything.'
He continued, 'My one piece of advice to you: don't invest all that time and money in seminary if you're not sure about it.'  I told him that I was at the very beginning of a process that I hoped would help me to learn much and discern more fully what God would have me do.  I said that I intended to be honest throughout the process.  Honest about what I believe and what I am seeking, what I envision for my future, as well as my concerns about TEC.
'Yeah, definitely be honest.  Because that's what I didn't do early enough.  I mean, I was raised in a great church.  Wonderful people, solid doctrine, man -- John Wesley would've been proud.  And I thought that was the church.'  He said he hoped the best for me, but he didn't envy me.  I thanked him for his concern and honest advice.  I know it was sincere, and I know he's really struggled.  I think C's situation is not unlike my own.  And in my more fearful moments, I can see my own path mirroring his, one of painful disillusionment.

So, why am I continuing to pursue holy orders in TEC?  It's a question worth pondering, and I do confess C's advice/warning has been occupying my thoughts lately.  To answer simply: I feel called to the priesthood, and the Episcopal Church is my church.  It is where I feel at home, despite my concerns about the future, and my grief over the schisms of the recent past.
I've only very briefly flirted with the idea of swimming the Tiber or the Bosphorus.  It's true that my knowledge of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy is not extensive, by any means.  God knows what the future holds; perhaps if I did know more, I would feel differently, but I rather doubt it.  I'm aware even now of certain doctrines and practices in both churches with which I don't entirely agree.  There is no perfect church.  I'm sure faithful Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox would themselves acknowledge this.  But they would also maintain that, despite its faults, their church is the one true Church, and therefore everyone else is on the outside, heretics in varying degrees.  I don't believe that.  It's simply one reason why I feel so strongly that I am indeed home as an Anglican Christian.
Of course, I'm also something of a loyalist by nature.  And really, I don't know many people who relish change and the severing of longstanding ties.  So, I'm aware that this could be just so much noble-sounding rationalizing on my part.  But I do feel that if I were once to make that break, and to set out on my quest for 'the true Church', I would never truly find myself at home, never feel entirely at peace.  Along with the question of being in communion with Canterbury, this is a primary reason why I don't see myself joining one of the 'continuing Anglican' churches.  How many are there?  It seems like a new one springs up every year or so.  Once schism for the sake of purity is embraced, it seems to have no end.  Would not the pasture always look greener on the other side, until I got there and realized upon closer inspection that it was more or less just as prickly and weevil-invested as the one I just abandoned?  And I don't think I'm simply making excuses when I say that where I am is where I believe God has placed me.  I intend to do what good I can in this place where He has seen fit to establish and raise me. I want to serve God as a priest in His Church, and I do believe this is a desire that He has placed in my heart.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

In Gratitude for the Celtic Christian Tradition

Currently, I'm reading at least four books of the daily reading, devotional type, and I have several more that I'm waiting to get to.  So, when our most recent excursion to Eighth Day Books resulted in my wife picking up a copy of Daily Readings from Prayers and Praises in the Celtic Tradition (part of The Daily Reading Series from Templegate Publishers), I told myself I wasn't going to start reading it at this time.  But, it's March, and the Scots-Irish river is running high, as it always is this time of year.  Incidentally, stop by our place anytime if you want to get your Celtic fix.  The folk music is always playing, and we keep the kitchen well stocked with cabbage and potatoes, and plenty of good, strong stout, of course.  All of which goes to say that I did't hold out very long.  So, here's a snippet from the introduction, by editors Esther de Waal and the late A. M. Allchin .  It also strikes an appropriate tone for Lent.
We are grateful for a tradition which rejoices in creation and we owe much to the seeing eye of the eighth-century Irish hermit, whose sight, washed clean by contemplation, views the world with extraordinary clarity.  But we are even more grateful for a tradition which will not let us enjoy a theology of creation without also presenting us with a theology of redemption and reminding us of the cross.  We cannot have the light without the darkness.  For, ultimately, we do not even want to evade the cost of discipleship by being allowed to escape into some sort of easygoing religion which glosses over the reality of sin and the need for repentance.
But to discover a tradition just because we need it can be a dangerous undertaking.  It is vital to be strictly honest here and not to lapse into any sentimentality or romanticism which will merely find in the Celtic world material to feed contemporary needs and longings, and thus to remake the past in our own image.  What follows should be allowed to speak for itself, with all its strangeness and complexity. 
I think the warning against "sentimentality or romanticism" is well placed today, when all things Celtic (or so called) are in vogue.  It's an interesting reversal of fortunes for Celtic culture as regards popular sentiment. Not withstanding my own deep appreciation for the complexity of history and the Christian tradition, such sentimentalism is something I know I must guard against.  Only then will I draw from the deep well-springs of this tradition, which is indeed one for which "we are grateful".