Something has changed. An Invitation to Holy Week

I don’t know much about astronomy, although I often wish I could recognize constellations and recall specific names of various ‘goings on’ in the night sky. I don’t know much, but I know just enough to know that something’s different, that I should notice something.

1 (1)I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the moon these past several nights has been fascinating from our vantage point. Only a few days ago, I don’t remember seeing it at all. Then a crescent in the night sky, but only the tiniest sliver. Then a bit more. Then last night, while walking home, it was even brighter and reflecting even more light our way — but not taking away from the other stars around — all while promising to wax even more.

We’re on our way to a full moon — April 19, www.moongiant.com tells me. Perhaps you know that Easter Day is connected with the lunar cycle. “Easter Day is always the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox on March 21,” says our Book of Common Prayer, p.880. And if you’re especially adventurous there’s a fairly convoluted “Table and Rules for Finding the Date of Easter Day” in the Prayer Book, pages 880-881, but you have to find ‘The Golden Number’ and know ‘The Sunday Letter.’ Ancient monks and astronomers were a lot smarter than I am!

Turn the page, instead, and the BCP gives us the date of Easter all the way to the year 2089. Whew!Book_of_common_prayer_(TEC,_1979).pdf

All of this, in a weird sort of way, is a beautiful reminder of the importance of what we’re preparing to do — enter our holiest week and prepare for Easter joy. What we, as Christian people, are preparing to do is something like being aware, being made aware that something has changed, something is showing up that we need to pay attention to, something we need to notice.

We’re not always aware of what God is doing in our life and in our world. We’re not always aware, for instance, that normal, everyday dinner-table companionship is nothing short of a sacrament, a gift, given by God. Sometimes we forget to pray. Sometimes we hurry through our meal, forsaking companionship, joy, blessing. Nor are we always aware that a particular challenge, say, is like Good Friday, a day when our God, also, felt pain, felt abandoned. We’re not always aware, not always.

That’s when seasons shift — phases of the moon, for one — giving moments which heighten our awareness, help us pause and remember, return, renew. Years ago, Charlie Price and Louis Weil, two great liturgical scholars of the mid-20th century, wrote: “Our life regularly makes contact with Word and Sacrament as time runs through its recurring cycles.” Liturgy for Living, p.220.

My life, and your life regularly makes contact with Word and Sacrament. It’s just that I’m not always so aware. Nor are you. We get busy or, better, we keep ourselves busy so as not to be bothered. We think we’re in charge. We don’t think we need God or the traditions or worship patterns of the church, or, if we say we do, we don’t always act like it. We actually behave like nothing bad will befall us — no Good Friday challenges here; no abandonment issues in this life; no blessings for which I need to give thanks.

Holy Week, the Christian season which starts with Palm Sunday this weekend, is an excellent interruption to those lies we tell ourselves, the deceptions that make us think we’re in charge and we’re all good. Holy Week asks you to stop, take notice, return, re-orient, be renewed. Holy Week calls you to move your relationship with God and your true self back to the center — back to the place where you keep shoving it off. Holy Week is a time of spiritual introspection and growth. It is God’s gift of a holy interruption.

Take it. You need it. We all do.

I look forward to seeing you in church!

Holy Week storyicons

When we don’t know what else to do

Responding to the March 20 shooting at Great Mills, our local high school, a number of faith communities in St. Mary’s County, Maryland came together for a Community Prayer Service at Ascension, Lexington Park.  The location and time were picked.  We knew we needed to be together.  We knew we needed to hear scripture, sing hymns, say prayers, and turn to God and one another. But then, at some point in the middle of the afternoon, I realized I had no idea what to say, what to pray. My wife, Iman, sent me a beautiful litany written by the Rev’d Laura Everett.  Written after 2013’s Boston Marathon Bombing, click here to find it on Building Faith, a ministry of the Virginia Seminary.

Ascension Prayer Wall 3
The Prayer Wall at Ascension, Lexington Park

Below is the litany we used at Ascension on Tuesday evening, March 20, 2018, slightly adapted from the Rev’d Everett’s original.  Somewhere between our need to bring about real change in the public sphere and the kind of crippling hopelessness that wonders ‘Why here?’ is a deeper Christian conviction, and one we need to keep tapping into.  This litany says as much as it begins: “This is what we do when we don’t know what else to do. We cling to one another, voice our grief, and offer up our prayers to God. Please join in the response … “


 

This is what we do when we don’t know what else to do. We cling to one another, voice our grief, and offer up our prayers to God. Please join in the response.  When we say, “Gracious God,” we invite your response: Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for those injured, those who have died.  May the God of Life welcome them into that place where there is no pain or grief.  In this hour of darkness, surround their families with a peace that passes all understanding.  Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

Ascension Prayer Wall 1We pray for the wounded.  Those wounded in their bodies.  Our community and all who have been wounded by the events of this day. Our eyes have seen more than they should.  Our hearts are rended open.  Attend to the wounded bodies and spirits of the survivors. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for the EMTs, doctors, nurses and staff who tend to brokenness. Bind up their unseen wounds. Make steady shaky hands, mend broken hearts and wipe away every tear. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for the police, fire and emergency personnel who risk their own safety to preserve ours. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, O God, steady those who protect us. For generations, you have been our refuge and our strength.  Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for our counselors, clergy and mental health professionals. May they guide troubled minds and broken spirits. Bless those who devote themselves to the care of others. Give them strength for the long days ahead. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for the media, our reporters and photographers. We give thanks for those who strive to share stories of suffering and hope. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for all the students, teachers, and staff of our local schools, and all schools and places of learning.  Give them comfort and courage to name their struggles and delight in seeking one another’s love, and yours. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for our children startled by such chaos in our community today. Give us wisdom to raise them up in the paths of peace. Be with our County’s parents, teachers and child care providers who try to answer the questions of anxious children. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O GodAscension Prayer Wall 2

We pray for the FBI, the investigators and all who guide our justice system. Help us not seek vengeance but truth and justice.  Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for the perpetrators of violence. We confess the dark places in our own hearts that lust for revenge. Give us a love stronger than hate and a peace stronger than violence. May peace flow through our community like the rivers which frame our places. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

Convict us to rise above the hatred that wrought such violence. Guide us to resist gossip and rumor. Preserve us from quick judgments. Give us wisdom in the days ahead. Reveal to us peace and truth. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for our County Commissioners, our Governor, Senators, Representatives, and all elected officials. Give them gentle words and wise hearts in the days ahead. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

Train our eyes to see acts of kindness in our community. Prod our hands to reach out to strangers. Silence our tongues when we are tempted to lash out in frustration and fear. Give us all words of comfort and love. Gracious God,  Heal and Renew Us, O God

Give us the courage to endure what cannot be avoided. Bring us hope that we will be made equal with whatever lies ahead. Knit us together, neighbors and friends.  Draw near to us in this time of sorrow. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

Even as we grieve, we will remain steadfast in charity, defiant in hope, and constant in prayer. Though the race before us this day is hard, remind us again and again, that we do not take a single step alone. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God.

Calling All Angels

I haven’t thought much about angels.  Maybe I did when I was younger.  I remember a book my mother gave me sometime during junior high school, something about an angel in my backpack.  It gave me a lot of comfort in those awkward adolescent years, but that’s part of the problem now, I suspect – I’ve probably associated ‘angel’ with ‘adolescence’, as if these are kinds of beliefs someone grows out of. 

But ask me about moments in the bible, or in our worship life as a Christian community which continue, year after year, to reveal God’s truth to me, and generally there’s an angel somewhere in that story.  Christmas? A whole host of them.  Easter? “He is risen.”

host-of-angels
“Host of Angels,” by Joanna Morgan

 

One of my favorite biblical characters is Jacob.  I could go on and on about Jacob, himself, and there’s so much liveliness in Genesis chapters 26 through 36.  Within that cycle of stories, I’ve always returned to the famous tale of Jacob’s ladder, Genesis 28:10-22.  The heart of the story is a dream in which Jacob sees “a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” (v.12)  The astonishing thing, however, is that this is a dream, a moment of rest in the midst of real anxiety for Jacob.  He’s on the run from his brother, Esau, whom he cheated out of his birthright and inheritance.  Plus, he’s lying on a stone as a pillow – which I’ve always thought would be the least restful thing!  Jacob is at a turning point in his life, but he doesn’t really recognize it as much of a turning point because, frankly, he’s running for his life, fearful and probably despondent about any hope of a future.  If he can just make it through the night, Jacob thinks, he can wake up tomorrow and run again.  Maybe he’ll do the same thing the next day and the day after, the literal definition of a rat race.

In that moment, he receives not only rest but a promise: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac,” God says, “…Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (vv.13-17)  When Jacob wakes up, his life’s direction is fundamentally changed.  No longer is he a nervous fugitive, a criminal on the run, but a man who is relatively confident that whatever happens he is, nevertheless, kept in the love of God.  “If God will be with me,” Jacob says that next morning, “and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.” (vv.20-22)  The very next day what does he find?  Water, a well, which leads him to family and the creation of a new, abundant chapter in his life.

I heard an echo of Jacob’s ladder while we read in church the story of Jesus’ call to Nathanael (John 1:47-51), the gospel lesson appointed for today.  Nathanael is shocked that Jesus knows about him, even more so because Jesus got all that from noticing him under a fig tree.  So Jesus says, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. …You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (vv.50-51) 

We don’t know all that much about Nathanael, except that he has “no deceit,” as Jesus says (v.47), and that’s obviously the antithesis of Jacob who goes on to wrestle with God, getting re-named Israel.  But Nathanael, like Jacob, is at some kind of a turning point in his life, even though, also like Jacob, he probably doesn’t recognize it as such.  His friend Philip finds him and points him to Jesus.  Nathanael doesn’t seem to jump at the chance to ditch his old life and follow this itinerant teacher but, still, he is drawn closer and closer to Christ.  Maybe he was starting to question his old life; he and Philip seem awfully inquisitive, searching.  But maybe he wasn’t entirely sure what he was supposed to be doing in the future.

Let’s face it: we are always, at all times at a turning point in our life.  Every decision we make in the course of a day can and does impact our future.  Sometimes it’s a simple thing.  What should we have for dinner tonight?  Where will we celebrate Thanksgiving this year?  Sometimes it’s a big thing.  Where should I go to college?  What should I do after retirement?  And most of the time we don’t really know how something that seems so simple might turn out so big, though we often know in retrospect that our most impactful decision started with a small seed – a conversation, an article, a thought, a wrong turn into a new town.

The truth is that God’s preferred future doesn’t require a grand vision on my part.  God’s future doesn’t require much except my willingness to go into it, sometimes boldly, sometimes anxiously, sometimes with calculated steps, but to go nevertheless.

 angels-and-archangelsAnd because we are, at times, fearful and anxious, not always so bold and courageous, we get reminded, looking back, that in those moments there was what we might call this ‘angelic host’ – this ladder of messengers, going up to heaven from earth, and touching earth from heaven.  There are always messengers and messages from God, all around us, every moment of every day.  These messengers are what the bible calls ‘angels’ and God surrounds us with the economy of salvation at every moment, waking and sleeping.  This is what we celebrate today, Sept. 29, which in the life of the church is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, the prayer which reminds us that “…as [God’s] holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth.” 

No, we don’t ‘grow up’ so much that angels no longer matter, becoming a theological holdover from our Sunday School past.  But it’s also true we probably don’t notice until we look back on those big moments, seeing later, sometimes much later that that small thing became a life transition, or a conversation turned into a new vocation, or a seemingly insignificant seed transformed in the ground of our life to become a great abundant tree.

 

I lift up my eyes to the hills

I like to know where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m supposed to be working on, and how long it’ll take – maybe what it’ll take to get there. Driving out to western North Carolina, we took our time, Iman and Carter and me. We drove by exit signs announcing little towns, miles or so off the interstate. I wondered, as I often do, what it’d be like to live there, what it’d feel like to start over, maybe slow down. Then I remembered that I’ve already stepped off the urban grid – I left a metropolitan lifestyle so many years ago that I can’t call myself a “Chicagoan” any longer. Carter herself only knows that city as the place where her grandparents and uncle, aunt and cousin live. 

I suppose I should say “I don’t like to get lost,” but I’ve never really been lost, not that I can remember. Maybe that’s my own selective memory.

Hiking in mountains I’ve never been, following trails that seem to make some sense on a map, well, this is about as close as I’ll get to getting lost. There’s something freeing in walking, wondering, looking around, not exactly knowing where I’m going (and, yes, for safety’s sake, knowing that Kanuga is only down the other side of this mountain, somewhere down there). The trail goes up and turns, off in a direction I can’t see. So I follow it, and go. It bends down along a dried riverbank. I follow it. I’ve gotten lost plenty of times, too, and even found other trails that loop back to more familar terrain.
The Psalmist begins his question, “From where is my help to come?” with the statement, maybe the literal posture: “I lift up my eyes to the hills…” (Psalm 121, Levavi oculos)  The question could’ve been one of doubt, confusion, fear, anger. Maybe it was, at first, and for any number of good reasons. “From where is my help to come?” I’ve probably asked, wondered, puzzled this question – or some such like it – in my head countless times.

But the question’s changed when, at first, “I lift up my eyes to the hills…” It doesn’t go away, that initial question. Nor is it solved. Nor am I entirely certain of where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m supposed to be working on, and how long it’ll take – maybe what it’ll take to get there.

To lift up my eyes, I suppose, is a first step to lift up my heart, lift up my life, know in my core what the Psalmist then proclaims: “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

Because it’s not really about the direction of the particular trail – which, to me, is good news, given the amount of times I’ve gotten lost up here. Time and again, the trail goes up and turns, off in a direction I can’t see. I follow it, or at least try to. It bends down along a dried riverbank. I follow it. Or I think I’m following it. Whatever I’m doing, I’m going somewhere.

But that’s not the same as “the life that truly is life,” as Paul writes to Timothy (1 Tim. 6:19). Following a map or a path or a compass heading isn’t the best metaphor for that kind of life. For a relationship with the Lord – literally “the maker of heaven and earth” – is a deep, a fixed, a rooted thing, not so subject to whims and wishes, twists of the trail or bends further out, at least not in God’s part. That’s precisely the mystery. That’s why  the Psalmist echoes such stationary tones in what seems to be a traveling poem. For the Lord will “not let my foot be moved,” watches over my “going out and my coming in,” preserving me from all evil, keeping me safe.

Where am I going, then? I’m going lots of places, and it’ll continue to be an exciting journey. But perhaps life in Christ is not so much a new destination, but simply the freedom to wander far because I’ve already been found.

Back to the Rectory Porch

When I first interviewed with the St. George’s search committee – now, wow!, nearly nine years ago – they took me on a tour of this campus, a tour which of course included the rectory.  The rectory is a beautiful, stately, Cape Code-style home – grand and simple, while, at once, elegant without being too big.  Simply put, I love the house.

“What a beautiful front porch,” I mentioned, pointing to the broad covered porch that overlooks the church and churchyard, the belltower and parish hall.

“Indeed,” said one of the committee members, “many wonderful prayers have been offered here, and many sermons developed, too, I’m sure.”

When it came time to kickoff my own digital ministry, via this blog, the title instantly came to me: From the Rectory Porch.  (I seem to remember a Milton quote, somewhere in Paradise Lost about a porch, and try as I might — though I haven’t gone so far as re-reading it! — I haven’t come up with anything.)  But for those who might’ve been checking this site, here and there, for any new news or good gossip or, well, anything you’ve no doubt noticed a lull.  It’s not that little is happening in my life and at St. George’s.  Quite the opposite!  Little time has been spent, however, writing about my more situated ministry, pondering Milton, like I just tried to, above, or Herbert or any of those more quaint aspects of ministry in this place.  For one, I’ve been blogging – and blogging regularly for the Episcopal Church Foundation’s Vital Practices series. I submit a blog for them every other week, and you can read behind most of those blogs to figure out what’s on my mind and what might be going on at St. George’s.front porch rocking chair

For another, St. George’s is in the midst of some very significant and holy conversations about who we are and what God’s future for this congregation might be.  You probably think I should’ve written “what our future is” – that being the obvious corollary to who we are – but I think identity and calling are not always the very same thing; connected, just not one and the same.  St. George’s is at a moment, right now, where we’re asking fundamental questions of our current operating model – namely, why does this one congregation, which has been and continues to grow, year after year, still operate with the assumption that we need to have one (full-time) priest, and should we, can we come up with a different, broader, more mission-focused model?  All the while, we’re also trying to invite God into this conversation so that our answer is not a dollars-and-cents fix, but a Gospel-based call.  Creating that space to discern, to wonder, to talk, to remain open to what God is calling me and us to become has taken a lot of focus and energy on my end.  It’s made me to set aside the writing and strategizing (which I confess is my go-to, maybe sometimes my ‘get-away’) and spend time in prayer and conversation with God’s people, one on one.

So that’s where I’ve been, in a nutshell.  Feeling excited and hopeful and, honestly, really optimistic about who we might become, if we lean into God’s future.  And, at the same time, still crazy busy trying to keep up all of these structures we’ve inherited and which I, personally, have also created.

By way of illustration, I’ll close with a slightly more amusing tale.

Yesterday, something came over me to write again for the Rectory Porch.  Maybe it was the rain and the chill; maybe that it was Ascension Day, after all, and I wanted to say something about the Ascension.  (That blog is halfway done, and still sitting on my desktop.)

I was deep into a fun little post – fun to me, mind you; not everyone thinks the history of liturgical observances of the Ascension in western Christianity is ‘fun.’  Like I said, I was about halfway through when the call came.  Iman had come down the night before and we made tentative plans to go out to lunch.  “A half hour,” I said to her, just after I said hello to the pest control guy who was out for his quarterly check on this campus. “Just a half hour, and I’ll be done.  Oh, by the way, the pest control guy is coming over to spray in and around the rectory.  Just let him in.  He knows what to do.”

Shortly thereafter, the phone rang.  It was Iman.  Looking up, across the churchyard, I could see Iman on the phone, her red rain jacket, outside, walking around with the dog, Phoebe.  “Greg, you need to come home right now,” she said.  “Phoebe got into something in the guy’s truck, and ate it.”  (If it were me talking, I’d have added lots and lots of exclamation points, but Iman is great under pressure and she’s not an exclamation-point kind of speaker.  If I could’ve better emphasized the periods in that statement, I’d have done so.  Come. Home. Now.)

Here’s how the rest of the afternoon felt:

Phoebe to the vet.  Iman back to the house so she could get her car (which we left there, not checking the time) so she can get to her afternoon appointment. Me back to the vet: pacing, worry .  “She should be fine,” the vet tech says. “Give her some of these pills…”   Something about blood work.  Something about rat poison inhibiting Vitamin K.  Note to self: Google ‘Vitamin K.’

“Oh, and continue to monitor her for any loose blood or vomit.”

Back at the rectory, Phoebe and me.  On vomit / loose blood watch.  Call from the lady who lives down the lane.  Something about her grandson, a tie, a presentation.  “I’m over at the rectory,” I say.  Moments later, a white truck pulls up.  Grandson gets out, on his way to make a final presentation for a business class he’s taking in college.  He forgot to how tie a tie.  (I’m afraid after all these years of wearing a backwards collar, I might’ve forgotten, too).  Necktie instruction in the rectory living room.  The dog is asleep, exhausted.

Neighbor lady, the grandmother, shows up in her golf cart.  We chat, something about gravestones.  Another truck pulls up.  “This the rectory?”  “Yes.”  “Need to mark phone lines before the perc test.”  Rectory septic went out, or is going out, or at any rate is going to be investigated for what’s wrong when the health department perc test happens Thursday of next week.

Iman and Carter back home; Iman picked her up from school, and they went to the grocery store.  Carter’s working on a mother’s day gift for Iman, who is not (yet, officially) her mom, of course, but whom Carter has come to adore and truly love, and for whom Carter is looking forward to the day, which is soon coming, when she is, officially, ‘Mommy.’

Carter and Iman
The finished project at this morning’s breakfast, Carter’s painting for Iman.

 

Friends come over for dinner.  It was going to be a 6 o’clock conversation at the parish hall about youth group, and the great work they’ve done and how we can work together to build it stronger next year and in coming years, but with Carter’s project and her shower and our dinner – you get it, I’m sure – the ‘meeting’ is moved to the rectory, and to the rectory dining room table, and to dinner.  It’s a much better meeting than it would’ve been, anyway, and even more wonderful to spend time together with friends, fellowshipping, praying, playing, eating, talking.

Even Carter got to stay up a little later than usual and play the second hand of a fun board game.

We all said goodnight.  Carter upstairs, saying our prayers, kisses and off to sleep.  I sat down in the living room chair.

I never even made it to the rectory porch.  It was too dark and cold last night, but also some kind of birds, back in March, made a nest in the one front porch light that’s missing a glass pane, so I left them alone for the past five or six weeks. Their bird babies are all grown and they flew away, just this week, so I went up there two nights ago and cleaned out the light fixture and removed the old nest — now ready to take the rocking chairs up from the basement, wash them, maybe paint a fresh coat, and set them up in prime porch position.

Just this morning, however, I saw a few more twigs and branches back in that same porch light, the one missing a pane.  I reached up and took them out.  This time, I’ll get ahead of those birds.  One round is enough.  I’m about to reclaim that porch.

 

And many a new, fresh prayer will be offered.  And the beginning of, I hope, many good sermons and stories will emerge.  And I know that God will continue to reveal His grace and goodness, His will and His hope for me and for us.  Right there, among so many other holy places, from the rectory porch.

What is Corpus Christi? Does our church do it?

At last night’s meeting of St. George’s Buildings & Grounds Committee, the members were discussing and making plans for the upcoming renovation of the sacristy. The sacristy is pretty much a large storage area and closet and vesting room, used in preparation for worship. Most of the conversation, then, focused on counter-tops and cabinets and solutions to storage issues.  “When we do this, I’d like to add a piscina,” one member of the Committee – herself a member of the altar guild – spoke up.

“What’s a piscina?” others asked.

A piscina, they were told, is a drain used to return water and any other liquids that might be consecrated and/or involved in cleaning consecrated items directly to the ground. Once consecrated, or once mixing with consecrated substances, that item is not longer just a thing; it’s substance is also changed, made different, made into Christ’s real and living presence. And thus, last night, our church’s Buildings & Grounds Committee learned a little bit about our church’s understanding of what’s going on on the altar: what we mean when we talk about real presence.

Today in the life of the church is the Feast of Corpus Christi. The Thursday after Trinity Sunday, the eighth Thursday following Easter is technically known in the Latin church as Corpus et Sanguis Christi – the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Not just a town in Texas, Corpus Christi is a venerable and relatively old Christian celebration, and a kind of counterpart to Maundy Thursday, now nine weeks ago. Maundy Thurdsay, that is, Thursday during Holy Week, that is, the Thursday before Easter, however, is a complicated and busy liturgical day. The liturgies for Maundy Thursday remember Jesus washing his disciples feet (found in John’s gospel, which, interestingly, doesn’t have a last supper) as well as the institution of the Holy Eucharist on that night. Congregations such as St. George’s, Valley Lee have some form of a community meal that night, as well, followed often by a night-long vigil at the altar of repose. In all, Maundy Thursday is about a lot of things, and one consequence is that the Holy Eucharist tends to recede into the background. What Jesus actually did on that last night in that upper room was a really fascinating thing, we believe. Not just the Last Supper, the Holy Eucharist is a profound gift wherein Jesus promised to always be among them “in scripture and in the breaking of the bread,” as we pray in a Collect, and he promises, literally, to show up in the present tense every time we, ourselves, break bread. The word remember in the statement “…do this in remembrance of me” is actually the Greek term anamnesis which is far more than a memorial or history lesson but, in fact, means something like ‘to make actually present again.’ That is, when God’s people in prayer remember (anamnesis) Jesus, Christ literally shows up again, and changes our substance and the substance of our assembly, including what was, previously, just bread, just wine.

Didn’t get that lesson at Maundy Thursday or during Holy Week? Obviously. You’re not alone if this never really occurred to you, and you are joined in this by a thirteenth century Augustinian religious woman named Juliana of Liege. Born in the 1190s in Liege, Belgium, Juliana de Cornillon developed a fascination with the Holy Eucharist. It was bound to happen, anyway, because Liege and much of northern Europe in the thirteenth century had a number of confraternities of the Blessed Sacrament, groups of persons who devoted themselves to adoration and benediction of the Holy Eucharist and, in many cases, had organized continuous prayers and vigils for its efficacy and power. Juliana was orphaned at the age of five and together with her sister, Agnes, they lived in the convent of Mont-Cornillon.

Visions came to her, she reported; the first in 1208 instructed her “to plead for the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi.” One particularly powerful vision was, for her, “the appearance of the full moon having one dark spot, which signified the absence of such a solemnity.” Juliana kept the visions secret but eventually confided in her spiritual director who, breaking all modern understandings of confidentiality (!), told the bishop. In 1246, Robert de Thorete, Bishop of Liege, ordered the celebration of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, and declared that it should continue on that day and in that fashion ever since. This was only in south of Belgium, in the region of Liege, however. By 1251, Hugh of St.-Cher, a Cardinal, brought the celebration to his judicatory in Germany. And in 1264, Pope Urban IV – who as a young archdeacon named Jacques Pantaleon of Troyes served in Liege and experienced this growing feast – composed the papal bull, Transiturus de hoc mundo, and thus instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi to be celebrated the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Apparently, Urban IV’s successors didn’t much care for this feast, and so it fell into obsolescence until it was re-introduced in 1311 by Pope Clement V at the Council of Vienne.

Corpus Christi is a day set apart to honor and celebrate nothing more, nothing less than the mystery that is the Holy Eucharist. Many churches and, even today, many communities feature outdoor processions in which the Blessed Sacrament is placed in a monstrance and carried under a tent throughout the neighborhood. These are honorable celebrations, and yet it would make just as much sense, for me, to actually go out there and celebrate the Holy Eucharist in a public place. Perhaps Corpus Christi could become the lively (and theologically better!) counterpart to Ashes to Go – going out into our communities and neighborhoods, shopping centers and street corners and doing nothing more, nothing less than celebrating Holy Eucharist, making Christ really and truly present.

And yet it should be noted that there is unsteady Anglican precedent for the observance of this celebration, perhaps the very reason it is not found in our Book of Common Prayer. The Church of England does list it as an optional celebration, and Anglo-Catholics in our tradition carry on this feast with special solemnity and, to me, a genuine and exciting missional attitude to their neighborhoods.

As wonderful as this celebration is, however, it also makes sense to me why our tradition, as such, has (at best) a tenuous stance toward Corpus Christi. The late-medieval nature of the origin of the celebration and the fact that in many cases these local communities of eucharistic adoration carried about them some measure of local pseudo-magical understandings of the Holy Eucharist render this a Feast day that is rich in theology but rather poor in practice. Sacraments have about them a real power, literally, to change the substance of things so that this creation becomes ordered, once again, to the precepts of the Kingdom of God and no longer the base concepts we often settle for, flesh and blood, bread and wine, scarcity and anxiety. Sacraments are not museum pieces or precious tokens of a bygone era. Sacraments are powerful. Sacraments are a kind of power unto themselves, thus they need to be used, lived in, radiated out: not ‘gazed upon.’ For those Anglo-Catholic congregations, say, that process through their neighborhood on Sunday (or today) and then invite that entire congregation into the eucharistic worship which immediatley follows – and especially for those congregations who are always, already engaged in the transformation of their communities through works of justice – a Corpus Christi procession not only makes sense but is a great outreach. Otherwise, however, it borders on magic-making and the theological evil that is ‘preciousness.’

For this reason, Article XXV (Of the Sacraments) of the sixteenth century Articles of Religion, central to our tradition, say as much: “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 towards 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 Sacraments are not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same, they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily, purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.” (Emphasis mine.)

The theological, missional thrust underlying Corpus Christi is perhaps best expressed in the poetry and musical compositions of Thomas Aquinas. Personally, I love the fact that St. Thomas – who comes down to us in the academic tradition as the author, literally, of theological tomes and treatises and is regarded as one of the brightest lights of the scholastic period – was also, himself, a poet and a musician. Pope Urban IV, in fact, commissioned St. Thomas to compose the pieces for a mass setting as well as vespers for Corpus Christi. Thomas apparently did so during his residency at Orvieto from 1259 to 1265. One such poem/hymn is Pange lingua (literally: “Sing my tongue…”), and it’s hymn number 165 in The Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1982. We sing it every Maundy Thursday at St. George’s, Valley Lee, during the time in which the altar is being stripped and the people are invited to remain for vigil all night. This congregation jokes with me, calling it “the dirge,” and the tune certainly sounds that way, although the text is rich, lasting, wonderful.

Make these words, then, your prayer on this Feast of Corpus Christi. And grant that, in so doing, you will not just receive, and certainly not ‘gaze upon,’ the bread and wine, the Body and Blood, but rather become what you receive: the Body of Christ.

 

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle; of the mighty conflict sing; tell the triumph of the victim, to his cross thy tribute bring. Jesus Christ, the world’s Redeemer from that cross now reigns as King.

 

Thirty years among us dwelling, his appointed time fulfilled, born for this, he meets his passion, this the Savior freely willed: on the cross the Lamb is lifted, where his precious blood is spilled.

 

He endures the nails, the spitting, vinegar, and spear, and reed; from that holy body broken blood and water forth proceed: earth, and stars, and sky, and ocean, by that flood from stain are freed.

 

Faithful cross! above all other, one and only noble tree! None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peer may be: sweetest wood and sweetest iron! sweetest weight is hung on thee.

 

Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory! Thy relaxing sinews bend; for awhile the ancient rigor that thy birth bestowed, suspend; and the King of heavenly beauty gently on thine arms extend.

 

Praise and honor to the Father, praise and honor to the Son praise and honor to the Spirit, ever Three and ever One: one in might and one in glory while eternal ages run.

The Original Mother’s Day. A Day for Justice & Peace

The first official Mother’s Day was celebrated Sunday May 10, 1907 – the second Sunday in May – at Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. A woman named Anna Jarvis organized the celebration in honor of her mother, Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis. The elder Mrs. Jarvis’ favorite flower was a white carnation, so Anna, her daughter, requested that everyone who attended the services on May 10 wear a white carnation in her mother’s memory. This quickly became the tradition.  (Incidentally, it wasn’t supposed to be that the flowers were given to mothers, as is often the case today; it’s that you wore a white carnation if your mother was deceased, and a red one if she was living.)

Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis
Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis, 1832 – 1905

Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis was a fascinating woman.  Born in Culpepper, Virginia, the daughter of a Methodist minister, in 1832, she died in 1905 — just two years before that first celebration. In her childhood, the Reeves (her maiden name) family moved to present-day West Virginia when her father took a new call. Anna Maria Reeves married the son of a nearby Baptist minister, named Jarvis, and they had twelve children.  Only four lived to adulthood.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the expansive world was bringing to these coal counties threats of civil war; battles over slavery; increasing productivity and technology, but also longer hours and dangerous working conditions – child labor laws were hardly a thing. Thus, Anna Jarvis in the 1840s and 50s organized a series of (what she called) “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” – designed to bring the wise domestic eye of women into deplorable living and working conditions, to improve health conditions for many families.  Jarvis’ first Mother’s Day Work Club raised money for medicines, deployed women to work for families in which the mothers suffered from tuberculosis, and inspected bottled milk and food. By 1860, local physicians and mothers had spread this work to at least 15 other towns.

While the civil war raged on, making their little West Virginia county a strategic stop along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Jarvis urged the Mother’s Day Work Clubs to provide relief and medical care for any and all – whether Union or Confederate. The clubs treated the wounded, and fed and clothed soldiers stationed in the area. Jarvis helped preserve peace in a war-ravaged town by focusing on a common mission in which all could participate. In fact, after the war, she and her family moved to a larger nearby town only to find that tensions between North and South had escalated due to the political bickering surrounding Reconstruction. In the summer of 1865, Mrs. Jarvis organized a Mother’s Friendship Day on the courthouse steps in Pruntytown, WV, to bring together soldiers and neighbors regardless of their confederate or yankee leanings. Many feared that the day would erupt in violence, but it turned out to be a great success. That celebration continued for many years.

For the next forty years, Anna Jarvis led this Mother’s Day movement, a movement of mothers standing up against poverty, war, injustice, and bigotry. Alongside her husband and family, she was committed to the idea that in a violent time, with the ravages of warfare and industry, the voice of women – in particular, the wisdom of mothers – was a deciding factor between death and life. Two years after her death in 1905, then, it’s easy to understand why her daughter, Anna Jarvis, would want to celebrate her mother’s legacy — organizing a “Mother’s Day” on the second Sunday in May, 1907.

Fast forward seven years: President Woodrow Wilson made the second Sunday in May – now called Mother’s Day – a national holiday. That year was, of course, 1914, and this nation was faced with a new threat: a world war that threatened to destroy many advances of human civilization, and nearly did.  This seemingly quiet and quaint second Sunday in May is nothing short of a call to peace, a call to stand up for justice, a call to embrace the values that this world so easily trumps down, underfoot, yet which Jesus called us to embody.

 

This is something the world laughs at, frankly. Peace? What does that have to do with the issues we confront today: war in our streets, threats of terrorism, racial strife and ongoing tension.  Peace? And how can you show us, Christians, what peace you have brought to this planet in the last two millennia? Peace?

But Jesus’ peace is given on a night, long ago, in the midst of his own anguish, pain, anxiety and dread. Jesus’ peace does not wipe away war, neither those outside nor those inside which set people apart. Jesus’ peace doesn’t alleviate our anxiety, like taking a pill at night. The world still feeds on violence and bigotry, hatred and destruction and – yes – it’s all caused by people just like you and me. We live, today, in deadly times.  We always have.

Jesus’ peace, however, is a gift that moves us to act toward justice.  Jesus’ peace is a reality that, deep down, we are already redeemed. His peace is activated when we use it, not only to comfort the brokenhearted but to mend systems of oppression and exploitation, at least so we are no longer completely entangled in them unaware. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus told his followers long ago (John 14:1), for the peace he was giving them was none other than his own. (John 20:21-23)  Use it.

Someone we might remember this weekend, named Anna Jarvis, believed so much in the strangely counter-cultural values of justice, peace, womanhood, goodness, and compassion that she stuck out her neck in a deadly, blood-lusty time. She risked faith, and was redeemed. And you and I remember her, or at least remember her day for it.

Or do we? Honestly, how many thought of the second Sunday in May as an invitation to justice? a call to be about peace-making?

For the longer ending of the story is that Anna Jarvis, who sought to lift up her mother’s memory in establishing this holiday, died in utter poverty, having spent everything she and her sister had to de-commercialize the holiday. As early as fifteen years after President Wilson established the Second Sunday in May as a holiday, Anna Jarvis was disgusted by how quickly it grew into a buying spectacle and how suddenly it lost its focus on what her mother worked so hard to claim – a focus on mercy for the downtrodden, compassion for the prisoners, justice for those broken by oppression, and peace for all humankind.

Perhaps that’s the Christian story in a nutshell:  future generations might not know us for our great deeds and monumental tales but we do them nevertheless. We stand against violence and war-mongering. We love the downtrodden. We clothe the naked. We feed the hungry. We tend the poor.

Not because it’s popular, but because it’s right.  And the right, the only way to peace.

…..

An earlier version of this post was published on The Episcopal Café on 8 May 2011.