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.
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!
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.
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.
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
We 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 God
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 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.
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.
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)
“Every wise man therefore will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question. ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?'”
– John Wesley, “Catholic Spirit,” a sermon first preached in 1750
In the life of the church, March 3 is set aside as a day to celebrate the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, most famously known — if known at all — with some historical inaccuracy as the founders of Methodism, a misunderstanding the Episcopal Church calendar of saints is quick to correct with the title: “John and Charles Wesley, priests.” They were raised in a Church of England home, after all — their father, Samuel, was rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire — and the brothers were thoroughly Anglican. Being caught by the zeal of missionary activity in the world was perfectly in keeping with the English churchmanship of their native 18th century.
Not only because it’s their day but also because we presently find ourselves in a church obsessed with talking about mission, though seemingly leery of making that into a verb, it might be wise to spend a bit of time learning from our history. Let me go ahead and say it: a potential consequence of investing carefully in this will be the creation of a broad and truly united coalition of Anglican churches in North America, if not one Anglican/Episcopal church which knows how to live out Anglican comprehensiveness in the 21st century. Quite specifically, I believe the mission challenge of the Episcopal Church in the next several decades will be to find and forge a way in which conservative Episcopalians and those Anglican groups who have already left will find a place in a wider structure to return and form a much more comprehensive Anglicanism in North America, side by side with those of us who are already their brothers and sisters in Christ. As an Episcopalian, I don’t want to (continue to) make the same mistake that our forebears did when the Methodist controversy started to boil over.
Not unlike our own, the 18th century was a period in which the institutions of yesteryear had become so consuming that concepts such as freedom and independence were high on the list for anyone interested in charting a more vibrant future. Over the course of that century, such values obviously spurred creative re-thinking in the political sphere and equally creative missionary attempts in the ecclesiastical world.
It was certainly possible to do this work within the established institutions of their day; just look how long the British system tolerated the men whom Americans vault today as heroes: Washington and Adams among others. Likewise, the Church of England found a way to balance missionary zeal with their commission as a national church. Every Sunday and Wednesday, for instance, I pray the Mass in a chancel in St. Mary’s County, Maryland in which there sits embedded into the floor a large stone dedicated to a former rector of the parish, the Rev’d Mr. Leigh Massey. Massey, we’ve learned, was of Irish descent, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, and at the tender age of nineteen and in the year 1723 — when John Wesley was twenty years old and a full twelve years before John would set sail for the colony of Georgia — Leigh became a truly missionary priest and rector of William & Mary Parish in the new world colony of Maryland. The stone in St. George’s chancel reads: “Near this place lies inter’d the Reverend Leigh Massey. He was educated at Oxford, the rector of this Parish, the darling of his flock and beloved by all who knew him. He died Jan. 10, 1732/33 aged 29 years.” (What appears to be confusion regarding the year of Massey’s death is attributable to the fact that Britain and the eastern portion of what would become the United States had, by that time, not yet accepted the Gregorian Calendar, a move that would become official by Act of Parliament as late as 1752.)
One very real danger, looking backward, is to be romanced into the deception that the church as missionary and church as institution are somehow opposing entities or concepts. They are not, nor have they ever been.
The fact is the divorce of Methodism from Anglicanism is a sad chapter, and was itself a prolonged and painful transition. There’s fault on both sides. For one, the Church of England didn’t help itself, failing to recognize that it was in some ways the very mission field the Wesley’s — and countless others, no less the Rev’d Leigh Massey — engaged which led naturally to the renewal or, at least, the desire to renew which they in time helped bring about. The equally and, maybe, more inflammatory evangelistic efforts of George Whitefield didn’t help the Wesley’s gain a wide audience in the seats of power of the church of their day. And yet they, John and Charles, were offering a much more thoroughgoing ‘Anglican Methodism’ than was the more stridently Calvinist Whitefield; the former brothers’ more Arminian emphasis on the necessary balance between justification by faith and works of mercy running clearly in line with the Caroline Divines, especially Jeremy Taylor whose most notable work is his profound devotional contribution, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living.
For another, the Wesley’s didn’t really help themselves. There was, it seems, a bit of the rogue in the Wesley DNA: at one point, Samuel took such a strident stand on an issue in his parish that the villagers burned down his house, nearly killing his young son, John. (Those biographers who make a big deal of this psychological trauma in the development of John’s theology have probably read too much Freud, although today’s United Methodist symbol — a flame and cross — is an ironic choice.) Likewise, John was equally staunch, the one noteworthy instance being the time he refused to offer communion to the daughter of a well-connected colonist — either because she refused to marry him or he, not wanting to marry her, nevertheless didn’t want her marrying the man she did, the facts depending on the particular biographer — an act which led to his being shipped back to England. Add to that that John, eventually, had enough with the foot-dragging of the church of his day and uncanonically commissioned elders, among whom Francis Asbury would become the most significant, to spearhead the organization of the church in America. Charles bitterly opposed his brother’s decision and even John, himself, feared for the direction of the new Methodist Episcopal churches in America, especially when in 1787 Francis, nicknamed by some “the American Pope,” changed the title ‘superintendent’ to ‘bishop’.
We, too, have become eerily skilled at making minor differences, mostly differences in emphasis, the cause and consequence of our divorce. Do you need an institution in order to do mission? Or do you need a mission to have an institution? Or, to God, do those distinctions make any bit of difference? From what I can tell, there’s no basis in these contentions for anything like a substantial argument, so let’s move on. But moving on, in practice, means that we would need to place obvious limitations on what we can and what we cannot institutionalize — meaning, specifically, what we can and what we cannot legislate or wrangle over at gatherings such as General Convention. If the devil’s in the details, that’s a big one.
Another very real danger is the tendency to calcify the Anglican theological tradition. Ever since the Church of England recognized that it had given birth to a worldwide family of churches, interestingly, on account of the American Revolution and around the time ‘Anglican’ began to become a term, itself, we knew we had a problem or, at least, an issue with authority. Looking back, removing the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the 16th century was still a safe thing to do, provided the king could exercise sufficient power. Once that power dynamic shifted, everything else did, too.
Ever since, there is and has become a contested core of Anglican thought and practice. Within, there is indeed a core; a way of being and thinking in a uniquely Anglican fashion. And it’s contested, sometimes with great vitriol, and it will continue to be so. That’s actually part of the charm of our theological tradition.
As I hinted earlier, the Wesley’s themselves were in many ways giving a contemporary voice to that contested core, aligning their evangelical and missionary efforts with the thinking of Lancelot Andrews and Jeremy Taylor and those Caroline Divines who preceded them by at least a century. So named for their support of King Charles (hence ‘Caroline’) and similar emphases to the reforms of Archbishop Wm. Laud (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1640, executed in 1645), whose 17th century reforms stressed a sacramental and liturgical piety, the restoration of episcopal authority, and the downplaying of Calvinist themes and preaching, these heavily influential theologians (a.k.a., ‘Divines’) were not in many ways united in their conclusions or arguments but, strictly speaking, in their methodology. They drew heavily on biblical and liturgical sources, most notably the Book of Common Prayer, and sought to demonstrate the continuity of Anglicanism within the great, albeit broad Christian tradition. They placed a strong emphasis on patristic studies and brought back many of the Eastern (Greek-writing) Christian theologians that had long been dismissed from the largely Latin (Western) Catholicism of recent centuries.
Into this context, then, it’s very easy to place the emerging theology of John and Charles Wesley: they, too, emphasized a liturgical and bible-based method of working out one’s salvation; they, too, taught that regular attendance to one’s spiritual, sacramental life was important, and they steered away, as I’ve already mentioned, from a more dominant Calvinist stress on predestination and toward a the thinking of the 16th century Dutch Reformer, Jacobus Arminius, who affirmed that our works to some degree, while not justifying, have something to do with God’s plan of salvation.
Equally so, we have much to learn from our past. A friend lent me what I can only call a book-length rant, Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors (2004). Author Edward Norman’s contribution (?) was an insightful and somewhat fun read, if only for its caustic dogmatism and bold self assertions. The author, Norman, contends that contemporary Anglicanism is a theological mess. I’d say he’s right. Not wanting to legitimize this sloppiness or our church’s generally slipshod course, I can’t go so far as Norman does in tracing the root of the problem. Here, below, Norman establishes the thesis; note that he traces the issue back to the Wesley’s (whom he clearly likes) and those who came after them (whom he doesn’t):
“The genesis of Evangelical revivalism at the end of the eighteenth century suggested no threat to the Church of England’s unity, for it occurred within a general consensus about the inherent Protestantism of Anglicanism. It was possible for Methodism, for example, to continue to worship at parish churches for fifty years before they separated into a distinct denomination. But when the new High Church movement appeared, in the 1830s, the appeal to Catholic antiquity, and to the past unity of Christianity, divided the Church of England in a manner which was instantly recognized. … It is also true, as some others noticed, that the ritual observances complained of were not, anyway, authentic revivals of early Catholic uses, but Tridentine splendor re-defined in the sharp light of nineteenth-century Ultramontane extravagances. The outcome was the beginning of disintegration. At the very time that the word ‘Anglican’ was coming into familiar parlance, in the middle years of the nineteenth century, the Church of England was in fact losing the semblance of unity which the name was supposed to express. Since then there has been an uninterrupted internal crisis of identity. … The Anglican way — almost the hallmark of Anglicanism — is to compose vacuous forms of words within which hugely divergent viewpoints can be accommodated. It is the promotion of expediency over principle, and is the manner in which Anglicanism is held together. … Not much force would be needed to flatten the Church of England as a coherent religious institution. It is a house of cards.” (Norman, Anglican Difficulties, pp. xi – xii)
Apart from his witty command of the English language and regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Norman’s overall point, he seems to commit the other problem we should’ve learned from the Wesley years — a dangerous seizing up of one or several parts of the Anglican theological tradition. To Norman, what does the “general consensus about the inherent Protestantism of Anglicanism” mean, anyway? And who’s in the “general”? Likewise, even though I’ve stepped back with some critical distance from the Anglo-Catholicism in which I was formed, I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that such churchmanship and its related customs in any way voids the merits of that rich tradition within Anglicanism.
The Christian and, specifically, Anglican theological enterprise is much broader than we’ve made it. And if we want to talk seriously about mission we’d be wise to start by acknowledging the single-minded theological dominance in the Episcopal Church of a 20th-century Protestant liberalism, as well as get much more serious about reprising Anglican comprehensiveness and bringing back that truly contested core. Regardless of whatever theological tradition in which you find yourself at home and, as such, better able to articulate what God in Christ is doing in your life, it does not seem — nor should it be — an exclusive concept to welcome the more robust participation of those who work from a different, even completely different methodology.
And so I’ll close with a more personal reflection.
The Episcopal Church was really my saving grace while I was enrolled in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. I was starting to feel that academic theology, which I really do love, was beginning to work on my soul like paint-thinner does on old finishes. I looked and looked for a church community that could strike a balance between prayer and, yes, honest-to-God prayer to Jesus Christ as well as not forsake the intellectual and secular world in which we found ourselves. The campus ministry, Brent House, was led by a gifted chaplain, the Rev’d Sam Portaro, and I was initially brought there by a fellow housemate with whom I lived in intentional Christian community, a Ph.D. student named Randall Foster. Sam and Randall were certainly at opposite ends of the theological spectrum, but both men could speak in profound and powerful ways about Jesus and about their Christian life as well as the ways they carry out reconciling ministry in the world. Sam is a priest in the Diocese of Chicago and I am proud that he was one of the presenters at my priestly ordination. Randall is now a priest in the Diocese of Forth Worth (the Anglican Church in North America) and today, on the Feast of John and Charles Wesley, he celebrates the anniversary of his diaconal ordination. I, too, celebrate Randall’s ordination and I celebrate, very much, that Randall is a minister of Christ’s redeeming Gospel. I know without a doubt that Randall is a light to those who come into his path. It saddens me, however, that he and I can only claim our continuing brotherhood in the larger, less visible Anglican Christian communion.
When will that time come, I wonder, when we really will come into the one-ness for which our Lord prayed? Probably around the time when we learn from our mistakes, one of which occurred during the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, lights of the world in their generation.
Rami Elhanan is an Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem. While serving in the army, during one battle in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, his unit set out with 11 tanks and returned with only 3. He lost friends and, even worse, lost his innocence. He was broken, angry, bitter – and filled with hatred. In time, he got married, started a career and a family. On the evening of Yom Kippur 1983, he held in his hands his beautiful baby daughter, Smadar. But on the afternoon of September 4, 1997, Smadar was killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers who took the lives of five innocent people in browing the shelves in a Jerusalem bookstore — one of them Rami’s beautiful 14 year old daughter.
Bassam Aramin grew up in the West Bank city of Hebron. At the age of 12, Bassam saw one of his friends fatally shot by an Israeli soldier. For him, revenge was a palpable, dark force. He joined a group who called themselves freedom fighters, but those in power called them terrorists. They threw stones, at first, and empty bottles but one day in 1985 he found several discarded hand-grenades in a cave. With his friends, they threw them at Israeli jeeps. Two went off; no one was injured. Bassam was sentenced to seven years in prison.
After his release, Bassam began to build a life for himself, which included a family. Sadly, however, on January 16, 2007, Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot in the head with a rubber bullet by an Israel soldier. She was standing outside her school. She died two days later.
Following such unspeakable tragedy, both men chose to do remarkable things. Both men chose to stop the strife and warfare and anger and bitterness. Both chose peace.
For Rami, Smadar’s death brought back his old, unprocessed anger. But he couldn’t stir up enough even to reignite revenge. A group called the ‘Parent’s Circle’ invited him to a session. ‘Parent’s Circle’ brings together families who’ve lost children and loved ones in the conflict and yet still want peace. From that session on, Rami’s world, he says, was turned upside down. Those whom he once hated embraced him and loved him. Former enemies were the source of his greatest consolation.
In 2005, Bassam founded ‘Combatants for Peace’ – an organization which brings together those who fought on opposite sides. ‘Combatants for Peace’ evolved into a movement of individuals who yearned to simply talk with those whom their states told them were enemies. As Bassam once remarked, “Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and non-violence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.”
We don’t do so very well in resolving conflict and finding peace with our enemies. Even our best attempts fall flat. Oscar Wilde famously instructed: “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.” Godfather Michael Corleone gave what is, to many, sound advice: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.” Abraham Lincoln once offered a poignant line about making friends out of enemies but it, still, carries notes and scars of battle: “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends,” Lincoln remarked. Even when we try to make nice, we are often our own worst enemy.
That’s why Rami’s and Bassam’s stories are so unique. It didn’t take decades and increasing maturity. It didn’t require the passing of years to realize that what once tore apart their souls with bitterness and revenge is now just water under the bridge. Within moments – moments not years – of unspeakable tragedy, they responded with peace, dialogue, empathy and understanding. Immediately: peace.
That’s what’s truly remarkable about the earliest Christian movement, as well. In Acts chapter 10, there’s a famous story about Peter and a Gentile named Cornelius. God tells Cornelius his prayers have been heard and that he should send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, a nearby village. In Joppa, meanwhile, God presents a rather strange vision to Peter – a large sheet comes down from the sky with all kinds of animals. In the vision, a voice says “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” But Peter’s a good law-abiding Jew. Understandably, he says, “By no means, Lord! I’ve never eaten anything profane in all my life.” “What God has made clean,” the voice says, “you must not call profane.” Peter comes to just as a knock comes on the door. It’s the men whom Cornelius sent. Peter goes with them to Cornelius, they have a wonderful heart-to-heart and the Holy Spirit immediately descends upon the room. Peter feels it and baptizes the whole household, right then and there.
What happened in that moment for Peter and Cornelius, like that which followed Rami’s and Bassam’s tragic losses, was immediate. No study period, no checking with the elders, no consulting scripture or thinking about what’s been done before. God swept in and peace happened. And it happened immediately.
But that’s not exactly our situation. Flip to Acts chapter 11 and you see the after-effects, the angry backlash. The leaders of the Christian movement – a still Jewish movement – heard that a Gentile was baptized without first having to become circumcised. They’re angry. They call Peter to headquarters. There, he tells the whole story: the sheet, the animals, the voice, the trip to Caesarea, the presence of the Holy Spirit. What else could I do? Peter says. It was so very clear, so very immediate, and I responded.
Like Peter, we don’t live in communities which quickly and altogether respond to immediacy of any kind, let alone an immediate turn from revenge to love, from being enemies to friends, from separation to unity. In fact, I learned of the story of Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin from a 2012 documentary entitled, Within the Eye of the Storm. It tells the story I told you, about their lives and the processes they both undertook to find peace. They became friends. But the film is also about the experience of introducing one another to their communities – communities which were not prepared and did not necessarily, automatically, immediately respond with the same kind of love and forgiveness and peace. Imagine it. An Israeli sitting with Arabs who quite literally – and, you might say, for good reason – hated him simply because of who he was. An Arab sitting with Israelis who literally and, again, you might say, for good reason, saw him as a terrorist. Forgiveness doesn’t come easily in this world. Peace is not won swiftly. None of this is ever immediate.
The world in which we live is not geared towards wholeness and healing; it’s not designed for love and forgiveness. American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr outlined in his now-classic 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, what’s called “Christian realism.” Power and positioning and pride lurks everywhere in this world, at least this side of heaven, Neibuhr argued: sin is at the bedrock of the foundation of this world. That’s why even our attempts to play nice sometimes turn out so rotten.
Being a person of faith, in general, and a Chrisian, specifically, involves the hard work of scrutinizing that which comes from within. It may be of God; Jesus said the kingdom is near you. It may not be of God. Israelis and Palestinians are trained to hate. That’s their base reaction. A good law-abiding Jew like Peter was formed to avoid, at least, and by no means accept a Gentile like Cornelius. That’s Peter’s gut reaction, in spite of the fact that he lived with Jesus all those years. Even the apostles and elders of the Christian movement had a resistant gut reaction, a frankly reactive, bitter resistance. What kind of person do you dislike, and for what reason? What do you abhor and on what scriptural or political reasons do you base your opinion? In it may be God, and it may very well be not of God.
It’s a certain truth that when God shows up he keeps shattering the boxes we make, blurring the lines we draw. But when we take the risk to love and live as God so clearly does, the world says you’re unrealistic, naïve, and at the very least that you’ve gone about it all too immediately.
And yet ours is a faith that makes us try, still. No doubt you’ve seen a bumper sticker with a quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Problem is, he didn’t say that. Not exactly. It sounds like a self-help magazine, and awfully, well, like a bumper sticker. What Gandhi actually wrote was this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in this world would also change. As a man changes his own nature so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.”
We need not see what others do. Rami and Bassam, early in their lives, did what others did and they paid for it. In time, they chose to live differently. When tragedy struck, again, they did not wait to see what others did. Peter didn’t wait to see what others did, either. And that community, the church, which called him to task – they, too, were a little bit odd, a little bit strange, a whole lot spontaneous. The moment in that room was hardly silent after Peter recounted his story, for the Holy Spirit was moving and sweeping in her delightfully spunky and, you might say, radically upsetting way. Immediately, they praised the God who shattered their prejudices and destroyed their small-mindedness. Immediately, they rejoiced that theirs was a kingdom not of this world. Immediately, they did a bold thing and were given the grace of God to do it with courage. They may have looked back, they may have been afraid, but immediately they were also transformed.