Glory? Tuesday in Holy Week

Near the end of his gospel, John ‘breaks the fourth wall,’ so to speak, and addresses his readers:

Now Jesus did many other sings in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:30-31

dbb3f3db451d9dd2b1c716ce09d8900ab8ec6072Jesus did a total of seven signs in this gospel, ‘signs’ being John’s word for what the other gospel writers call ‘miracles.’  (But that’s a distinction for another blog post.)   Very likely, you remember Jesus’ first sign.  He turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. (Jn.2:1-11)  Do you remember what the gospel author wrote at the conclusion of that story?

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

John 2:11

Jesus’ signs reveal Jesus’ glory.  They show he has real power.  He has power over disease.  He can heal sick people — healing the royal official’s son (sign 2) Jn. 4:46-54; healing the paralytic at Bethesda (sign 3) Jn. 5:1-15; and healing the man blind from birth (sign 6) Jn. 6:16-24.  He has power over nature.  He can walk on water, as he did in Jn. 6:16-24 (sign 5).  He can multiply some fish and a few barley loaves and feed a multitude; John 6:5-14 (sign 6).  Speaking of the feeding of the 5,000, it’s fascinating that John’s gospel doesn’t give us a Last Supper with bread and wine, but what this gospel does is expand our understanding of God’s sacramental presence in the world.  After all, Jesus’ first sign is wine (Jn. 2) and his fourth sign is bread (Jn. 6).  The whole of Jesus’ life, and our whole life in Jesus, is a great big, never-ending eucharistic fellowship.  Lastly, Jesus even has power over death.  His seventh, and final sign is when he brings back to life his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:1-45).

Jesus’ signs reveal Jesus’ glory.  At first glimpse, Jesus’ glory sounds like our dictionary definition.  glo-ry: High renown or honor won by notable achievements.

But that’s all going to change.

We hear about glory in the gospel appointed for Tuesday in Holy Week, John 12:20-36.  This time it’s on Jesus’ lips: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus said. (Jn.12:23)  Given that you’ve already read about glory in this gospel, you may be thinking that Jesus must be preparing to do something amazing — show his power, reveal his strength, overcome an obstacle, knock down barriers.  But then he says a weird, counter-intuitive thing about seeds and death: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” Jesus said, “it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn.12:24)  Wait? What?!  Wasn’t your glory just shown to conquer death?  Why are you talking about death?

As it turns out, glory and glorification, in the gospel, are not about things we define as ‘might’ and ‘strength.’  Glory, for God, is not about great achievements and notable praise.  Glory, for God, is about love — sacrificial, abundant love at that.

john 11New Testament scholars have traditionally broken John’s gospel into two books — the Book of Signs (1:19-12:50) and the Book of Glory (13:1-20:31).  With our Holy Week gospel, we’re at a transition point between those books, the threshold in which we’re leaving one and entering another.  We don’t know what we’re preparing to enter.  We do know that something has changed.  We caught a glimpse — the meaning of ‘glory’ alone just changed — but we don’t fully know what is different, what is new, and why everything feels like it’s turned over, upside down.  That’s part of the anxiety of reading this gospel.  Indeed, that’s part of the anxiety of living this life.

Stick with it, however, and we soon learn why everything changed.

A few chapters later, we have the opportunity to pray alongside Jesus.  John 17 is one long prayer: “After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said…” (Jn. 17:1).  In this prayer, we finally learn what glory, God’s glory is all about.

First, glory is the power of the Ultimate Source of life.  Jesus prays that He may glorify the Father (17:1).  Jesus rejoices that He has brought God’s people more closely to God’s heart.  In 7:4, Jesus says: “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.”  Glory is God’s power, and when all things are restored to God all is well, all is right, all if glorified.

Second, glory is living as though we are already redeemed, already God’s own.  Glory is God’s power, and it is a further point of God’s nature that God imparts what is God’s own. Thus Jesus said: I am asking “on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.” (17:9)  And 17:22: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.”  Did you hear that? We are given God’s glory.

What a gift, that God would give us God’s glory!  But in order to receive it, we must first understand it.  And, thus, one of the greatest gifts of John’s gospel, taken from beginning to end, is that we understand that, and understand why the word ‘glory‘ changes.  This is a lesson we also learn (or need to learn) from life.

We start off thinking in elementary terms.  At first, we think that glory is about amazing deeds of power, high renown, notable achievements.  But at some point we face difficulties and challenges, not only in John’s gospel but in life.  That’s the moment we start to disbelieve everything we were once told: “Phooey!” we say, “That’s just bible talk. Jesus might’ve walked on water back then, but he can’t save me now.”  Perhaps we forget that God’s glory is manifested most clearly on the Cross.  Perhaps we just don’t want to look for God in the suffering and pain, the anxiety.

Cross-shaped moments are precisely those in our lives in which Jesus is most present.

We just don’t want to look for him there.  We hardly want to recognize it ourselves.

Turns out, that the problem was our own heart, our own stubbornness and refusal.  All along, we wanted life to be carefree, and we didn’t know there was anything on the other side of pain or challenge.

Stick with Jesus through John’s story and, like a sign itself, glory changes for you!  Like a sacramental transformation, glory changes.  Not only does the meaning of the word change right before your very eyes, but you change.  You grow into God’s glory — which is more than we could ever ask or imagine.

We don’t always have Jesus. Monday in Holy Week

I read once that Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, traveled very lightly.  She carried her breviary and a can of instant coffee.  That’s it.  Even though she said on more than one occasion, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily,” she’s on her way to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, the church in which she found a spiritual home, at times an uneasy home, but a home nevertheless.

Dorothy-DayShe wasn’t an entirely likeable person.  She had one daughter, Tamar, and their relationship wasn’t the easiest.  Dorothy wasn’t warm and cuddly; she was tough and formidable.  She struggled deeply with the inherent brokenness of this world.  She extended hospitality and yet she wasn’t a friendly Christian do-gooder.  “There are two things you should know about the poor,” she wrote: “they tend to smell, and they are ungrateful.”  She knew what it was to call Christ ‘Savior’ and she found him not only her Lord and Master but also her friend.  Interestingly, when she went to write her story she titled it, The Long Loneliness.   

I was lonely, deadly lonely. And I was to find out then, as I found out so many times, over and over again, that women especially are social beings, who are not content with just husband and family, but must have a community, a group, an exchange with others. Young and old, even in the busiest years of our lives, we women especially are victims of the long loneliness.

There are some brilliant moments in which I can viscerally feel her holding a candle against the darkness, daring the darkness to try, just try to overcome the light (Jn. 1:5):

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

I treasure these images of Dorothy Day — bold, visionary, faithful, fierce.  It’s not easy to love the poor, especially because it feels never-ending.  We can’t ‘fix’ them, and the system is so broken that even if we helped them get a job (which most of the poor in our country have, by the way) or help them “get back on their feet” (how many times have we heard that?) we wouldn’t be able to set most up for long-term success.  One of the leaders of the food pantry at Ascension, Lexington Park, said: “If you’re going to be in this mission business, you can’t look at the cars they drive, nor the shoes on their feet.”  I take his words to mean that you can’t judge those who come into a food pantry looking for food.  If they say they’re hungry, feed them.  By way of initial responses, compassion and hospitality make for good beginnings.

The gospels tell us that the poor teach us how to seek and serve Christ. On Monday in Holy Week, we remember the sorry in which Mary annoints Jesus’ feet in Bethany. (John 12:1-11) Jesus teaches about the end that is to come, his end.  That’s what Holy Week invites us to pay attention to, but what it really asks us is to come to terms with our faith in the here and now.

Even though Jesus is no longer here, physically, he gave a very clear teaching about how we are to shape our lives and ministries.  The poor, He said, must be at the center of our common life, the literal heart of any ministry done in His name.  But sadly this teaching has been misunderstood.  Here, I’m specifically thinking of John 12:8 — what my NRSV translates as, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”bible3

The shorthand interpretation has sounded something like a treatise on global economics.  Poverty will always be around, it goes; there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  In fact, Jesus himself said as much.  Be nice to poor people, but there’s nothing you can do to change poverty. 

Even worse is suggesting that Jesus asked us to make a choice: pay attention to Him, on the one hand, or do the works of the social gospel, on the other.

I’ve come to appreciate another way to read John 12:8.  Let’s look at the language more closely.

First, the Greek for “have” (“you always have the poor…” and “you do not always have me…”) is echete, which is used throughout the New Testament to talk about ‘having’ or ‘holding’ something. It can mean holding something in the hand, but it also has a deeper sense of “holding one’s self to a thing,” or “being closely joined to a person or thing.”  It’s not just about possession.  The word choice implies a relationship.

Second, even though echete appears to be the present indicative form of the verb (“you have“), the construction for the present imperative is exactly the same. It could also be a command, as in: “you should have”  or “you must have…” According to this compelling sermon, John 12:8 could mean so much more:

The verb “exete” meaning “you have” used in this passage is in an imperative form and not in the future tense. It is, therefore, a command, not a prediction. I am inclined to interpret this command as Jesus instructing the listeners to hitch themselves – throw their lot in – with the poor. In John 12:8, Jesus says “Here! Have the poor with you! In everything you do, keep in mind the poor!” And then the parallel of “Because you do not have me always” reminds us that the poor are the stand-in group for Jesus. Because Jesus is saying he is not going to be physically present forever, here is a group that is Jesus. To remember Jesus is to remember the poor.

Jesus may be issuing a command: “Keep the poor with you.”  Keep the poor with you because you will not always have me.  Because you won’t always have me, Jesus says, the very least you must do is keep the poor near you, near your heart, near the life-blood of your ministries every moment of every day.

Third, even the conjunction could change.  The NRSV puts a “but” in there — “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  This “but” is the Greek de, a common conjunction which can mean “however” or “but,” but can also mean “and” or “moreover.”  For instance, it’s “and” throughout Matthew’s genealogy: “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah …” (Mt. 1:2)  Likewise, de is effectively translated “moreover” in passages like this one between Jesus and John the Baptizer (Mt. 3:14-15):

3:14 – Moreover (de), John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?

3:15 – Moreover (de), Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

A simple re-translation of the conjunction in John 12:8 tends to release the verse from misunderstanding.  Try this – “You always have the poor with you, and you do not always have me.” Or: “You always have the poor with you; moreover you do not always have me.”  We’re not being asked to make a choice between Christ and serving the poor; in fact, they are one and the same: the One we adore as He is made known in scripture and the breaking of bread, and the ones we hold close when our Lord and Master has ascended at God’s right hand.

Keep the poor with you always.  In fact, keep all kinds of poverty with you — in your heart, in the ways you see and experience the world.  There is poverty everywhere.  We must keep the poor with us always.

Like Dorothy Day in her time we, too, are surrounded by so many levels of poverty.  The challenge is to figure out how to relate to poverty, and especially how to relate to those who are poor.  Dorothy Day showed us a truly Christ-like way to respond, even though she wasn’t always so sweet and kind.  Don’t pretend it’s not there, she taught us.  Don’t try to push poverty and the poor away.  Recognize brokenness. Recognize those persons who have been broken.  Hold poverty and, especially, hold the poor close to your heart, Jesus teaches: Keep the poor with you always, He says, for you do not always have me.

Why?

Because it’s entirely possible to go through life giving without loving.  But it’s absolutely impossible to love without giving.

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.

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.

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.

Maryland Day & the Annunciation

O Lord Christ, whose prayer that your disciples would be one, as you and the Father are one, inspired certain of your followers to create on American shores a colony that would practice tolerance, consecrated in the name of your blessed mother to whom the angel announced this day a new gift: Grant that the people of this land may continually give thanks for your protection and uphold the liberty of conscience and worship, until all shall receive the benefits and follow the disciplines of true freedom, endowed by the Name of the same, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

……….

 

On my grandmother’s Illinois kitchen windowsill there was a decorative ceramic tile, maybe it was a coaster or a trivet.  “Maryland,” it read, an image of that state’s flag.  I suppose my aunt and uncle who lived in Maryland gave it to my grandmother, or she bought it there on one of her trips.  I, too, had visited my aunt and uncle, and I remember that Maryland was a faraway place — not just geographically but historically and, in many ways, another world entirely.

I remember staring at that flag, the checked black and gold set in quarter panels opposite red and white crosses; the family crests, I learned in time, of the Calverts (black and gold) and their ancestral Crossland family.  I’d seen nothing like it before.  It suggested another world, an ancient world.

I’m now a Maryland resident and, what’s more, our daughter was born here, specifically in the birthplace of the colony: St. Mary’s County.  After nearly seven years of residency, I still feel honored to live here, blessed to participate in an ongoing experiment of community building, a gift we celebrate today.  It’s Maryland Day.

On 22 November 1633, a group of English travelers — about 150 in all — boarded two ships, the Ark and the Dove, and set off from their mother country from the Isle of Wight.  Most of the group were indentured servants.  They would help settle the new colony and prepare the way for future arrivals.  There were, roughly, an equal number of Catholics and Protestants, and on board was at least one Jesuit priest, Fr. Andrew White.  Also sailing with them was Leonard Calvert, the future governor of Mary’s Land — the third English colony in the so-called “new world” — himself, Lord Baltimore’s younger brother.  Rough sailing met them as they traversed southward down Europe’s coastline and even more demanding storms beset them as they made a direct western trek across the ocean.  At one point, the Ark separated from the smaller Dove, only to be reunited in Barbados.  Eventually, they made their way to their new home, pausing initially at their destination to make a peace treaty with the native Conoy tribe in advance of their landing.  When the time was clear and the setting just right they waited a few more days.  That is, they waited until March 25 — the Feast of the Annunciation, the Christian remembrance of the moment when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear a child (amazingly exactly nine months before December 25!)

On 25 March 1634, Fr. Andrew White, along with the others, stepped off the boat onto the shores of what is now St. Clement’s Island — a rather tiny island in the Potomac River, a quick swim from what is now northern St. Mary’s County — and celebrated Mass, presumably the first such Catholic celebration in what was British North America.  Although religious toleration wouldn’t be the official policy of the new colony until several years later — the Maryland Toleration Act, an ‘Act Concerning Religion’ wasn’t signed until April 1649 — it was clear from the earliest days that this new place, named for and consecrated in Mary’s name, was going to practice a degree of forward-thinking inclusivity that was unknown in their homeland and yet unpracticed in this new frontier.

Today, March 25, is Maryland Day.  We in St. Mary’s County uphold our role as the birthplace of the colony.  For some among us, St. Mary’s County is the birthplace of Catholicism in America and, indeed, just as it was in the 17th century, so too it remains today — Episcopalians down here are vastly outnumbered by Catholics!  For still others, Maryland Day and this place, the birthplace of the colony shines with the bright and not uncontroversial origin of a new thing in a new land: religious toleration, or at least freedom of worship for Trinitarian Christians.  This is a special day celebrating a special place.  Mary’s Land is a unique contribution to the American experience, and it’s well worth the time to pause and consider what implications the ideas that led to this colony’s founding had on the development of the rights and privileges we enjoy — some may say, ‘take for granted’ — today.

It’s not inconsequential that March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38).  I’m sure it was just good timing.  But the story we hear in Luke’s gospel is a profound story about God doing a new thing and in a new way with a new setting and new people — God’s messenger, Gabriel, announcing to a poor Jewish woman that she would bear and bring into the world the living presence of God, Jesus.  It’s downright amazing that the King of the universe would’ve acted in this way, this strange and unexpected way — inviting a marginal, poor, frightened woman not only to say “Yes” but, depending on her answer, re-route the world and overturn the powers-that-be.

The special gift of these juxtaposed stories — Maryland Day and the Annunciation — is that they are new revelations, new ‘showings forth’ of ancient, eternal mysteries.  When, after hearing Mary’s striking tale, you read the story backward, turning once again through the pages of prophecy and the unexpected ‘showings-up’ of God in scripture, it all starts to make sense.  When you see what those Calverts were up to, and trace the lineage of their thinking back in time, the pieces start to come together.  And when you live, like I do, in a place that will constantly humble you by the very imprint of its history and historicity, its tradition and profound staying power, you realize that you are both new and, at your best, part of the old; that your creativity is truly fresh and yet, at once, also just another instance of the long story resurfacing.

When, that is, you’ve had the gift of practicing new revelations for a very long time, you realize that the old is the handmaiden of the new and the new the power of the old.  You realize, in a far deeper sense, what the writer to the Hebrews was trying to say: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.” (Heb. 13:8)