Sunday, April 1, 2018

Sermon on Easter Day

Fra Angelico, Noli me tangere, 1440-1442
John 20:1-18

The Church’s faith in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead hinges upon two items of evidence attested in the New Testament (and a third, about which I will say more presently). The first bit of evidence is the empty tomb. The second is the series of the appearances of the risen Christ to the disciples beginning on the first Easter Sunday.

These New Testament accounts are remarkably spare and restrained. Nowhere do they attempt to describe what happened inside the tomb when Jesus came back to life. They confine themselves simply to the eyewitness testimony of the women and disciples who were there that morning on the first day of the week, and in the days and weeks following: the empty tomb and the appearances of the Risen One.

Neither bit of evidence signifies that much on its own. An empty tomb by itself could result from the body being stolen or hidden, as Mary Magdalene supposes in the Gospel we’ve just heard. And appearances of a dead person to the living were not all that uncommon in the ancient world – just as some would argue that they’re not that uncommon today either. Over the years, a number of people, both parishioners and friends, have told me about departed loved ones appearing and speaking with them in the days following death and burial. Ghosts, spirits, hallucinations, or over-active imaginations? You decide.

No, it’s the combination of the two, the empty tomb and the bodily resurrection appearances, that amounts to the strongest evidence that something utterly unique and unprecedented happened that first Easter Sunday morning. And the Gospel reading from John, traditionally appointed for the principal Mass of Easter Day, explicitly brings out both these elements in wonderful detail: the tomb is found empty; the Risen Lord appears to Mary Magdalene.

Part of the beauty of John’s account is the way he describes the respective responses of three principal characters at the tomb: Peter, the Beloved Disciple, and Mary Magdalene. Before dawn, while it’s still dark, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, finds the stone rolled away, and the interior empty. She runs to tell Peter and the other disciple, whom Jesus loved. This other disciple, by the way, is generally believed to be John, the author of this Gospel, so this really does purport to be an eyewitness account.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple run to the tomb. John is probably younger and in better physical shape than Peter, so he gets there first, but he doesn’t go in – perhaps out of deference to Peter’s position of leadership among the disciples. When Peter arrives, they both go in. At this point, John’s description really does suggest eyewitness testimony: the linen cloths are lying there, and the linen napkin which had covered the Lord’s head is rolled up separately in a place by itself: not the sorts of details that are likely to be made up.

John does not explicitly tell us Peter’s reaction. But Peter seems to take it all in, not knowing what to think for the time being. By contrast, the Beloved Disciple sees and believes. Neither of them yet know the scriptural prophecies foretelling that the Son of God must die and rise again. But the Beloved Disciple—that is, John himself—has an almost mystical intuition that if Jesus isn’t here, he must be alive. Then, having seen all that there is to see, the two disciples return to their homes.

I’ll wager that some of us here today are more like Peter, while others are more like John. Some come to church, listen to the biblical stories, take them all in, and don’t know what to think. The jury is still out. Others have no difficulty hearing and believing. Notice that John doesn’t say that either response is better than the other. He simply notes them both and moves on with the story.

Mary Magdalene doesn’t return home, but remains outside the tomb, weeping. Unlike Peter and the Beloved Disciple, she thinks she knows exactly what’s happened: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” And even when she encounters two angels inside the tomb who ask her why she’s weeping, she persists in this belief: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When Jesus appears and asks why she’s weeping and whom she seeks, she doesn’t recognize him. Supposing that he’s the gardener, she pleads, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

It’s only when he addresses her by name, Mary, that the realization dawns on her. The penny drops. We can only imagine her joy as she exclaims, “Rabboni! Teacher!” Down through the centuries, commentators have spilled much ink on the meaning of the Lord’s mysterious words, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father …” But at least part of their meaning is that the Jesus Mary Magdalene has been seeking is Jesus as he was, the Jesus who died, the corpse for whom she wanted to complete the rites of burial. He calls her to let go of all that. Instead of trying to hold on to the past, her mission now is to look to the future: to go and tell the disciples what she has seen and heard, and so bear witness to the Lord’s Resurrection.

And again, I’ll wager that Mary’s experience exemplifies the pattern for many of us. C. S. Lewis writes somewhere that “humanity’s search for God” – the topic of innumerable lectures, articles, and books – is a bit like the mouse’s search for the cat. That is, it gets things completely the wrong way round. We may search for God and God’s truth all we want, but ultimately the end of our quest comes not when we find God but when God finds us, calls us by name, and gives us some task or mission to fulfill during our earthly life. This was certainly my experience when I came to faith in Christ: not one of finding God, but of being found by him. It’s not a little unnerving, because one realizes that one isn’t nearly as much in control of one’s life as one thought.

And so the third bit of evidence upon which hinges the Church’s faith in the Resurrection – after the empty tomb and the appearances of the Risen One – is the difference it makes in our own lives here and now. I believe in the Resurrection of Christ because I encounter the Risen Jesus here, in the life of his Church, in his Word and Sacraments, and not least, in the faces of his faithful people. The Church’s Easter proclamation is that Christ is alive. And if we seek him, he will find us.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas 2017 -- Solemn Mass of the Nativity

“And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)

Earlier this evening, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ at Saint Catherine’s Basilica in Bethlehem. Some of the Palestinian Christian families present at the celebration claim to be descended from the first Christians in the vicinity, who in the first and second centuries kept alive the memory of the exact location where Christ was born—a cave among trees at the end of a ridge, so it was said.

Saint Justin Martyr wrote of this cave in the mid-second century, and Origen of Alexandria wrote of it in the third – even though the Emperor Hadrian had turned the site into a pagan shrine of Adonis in a vain effort to wipe out all vestiges of Judaism and Christianity in the region after the Bar Kochba revolt (of 132-135 AD). In the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine constructed a Christian basilica at the site, which was rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, and has been restored and renovated many times in the years since.

To this day, one can descend a stone staircase to visit the Grotto of the Nativity, located directly underneath the basilica’s high altar. Set in the stone floor, a silver star marks the spot with the Latin inscription, Hic de Virgine Maria Iesus Christus natus est: “Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.” Close by, a small side chapel marks the location of the manger.

Saint Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary wrapped her newborn in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger “because there was no place for them in the inn.” Recent cultural-linguistic and archeological research suggests, however, that “inn” is a misleading translation. The Greek word kataluma is more accurately rendered “guest room.” And this translation invites us to re-imagine some of our traditional pictures of the Nativity.

When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, one of the villagers – perhaps a relative of Joseph’s – would have given them lodgings. The customs of hospitality demanded no less. But since many others had come to Bethlehem for the census, all the available guest rooms in the village were occupied. In that area, peasant dwellings were often built against hillsides in front of, next to, or above natural or man-made caves used for family activities during the day and to shelter animals during the night. So, Mary and Joseph probably stayed as guests in just such a cave, because there was no place for them in their host’s guest room. Most probably, they were among family; Mary likely gave birth surrounded by caring relatives, even if distant relatives of Joseph.

In Luke’s Gospel, the word translated “manger,” phatne, is derived from the Greek verb “to eat,” and denotes a feeding trough or stall for cattle or horse feed. In the Latin Vulgate, Saint Jerome translated this word as praesepium, whence we get the title of this evening’s choral Mass setting, George Malcolm’s Missa ad praesepio, or “Mass at the Crib.” Of course, the English word “manger” has a similar derivation, coming from the French verb manger, to eat. The cave in which Mary and Joseph received lodgings would have been furnished with a stone manger or feeding trough for the animals, ready to serve as a makeshift cradle for the newborn Jesus.

We don’t know at what time of year Jesus was born, but Mary’s bundling him up in swaddling cloths suggests that it was cold, even if not "the bleak midwinter." In any case, the sight of a newborn wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger was sufficiently unusual that it could serve as an effective sign confirming the truth of the angel’s announcement to the shepherds of the birth of a Savior, the Lord Messiah.

Some early Christian writers, such as Saints Ambrose and Augustine, noticed that the image of Jesus at his birth, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a stone manger in a cave foreshadows Jesus at his death, taken down from the cross, wrapped in a linen shroud, and lying on a stone slab in another cave. The symbolism is that his death fulfills the purpose for which he was born into the world.

There was no place for them in the guest room. The word kataluma, translated “inn” or “guest room,” appears only three times in the New Testament: here, and in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels where Jesus and his disciples have entered Jerusalem, and Jesus sends Peter and John to prepare the Passover meal, telling them: “When you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house which he enters, and tell the householder, 'The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?' And he will show you a large upper room furnished; there make ready.”

It’s interesting and perhaps more than a coincidence that the same Lord who was denied the guest room at the time of his birth, occupies another guest room on the eve of his death, and there hosts the Passover meal where he institutes the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. But again, that is why he was born into the world in the first place. And that is why we’re here this evening: to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, where he promises to become sacramentally present with us, just has he became physically present with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men in Bethlehem.

Every December, we’re subjected to somewhat tiresome polemics about putting Christ back into Christmas, and Christmas back into “the holidays.” Various devotional commentators write columns and letters about how to discover the real meaning of Christmas, and where to find Christ amidst all the busyness and commercial glitz of the season: perhaps in quiet moments or quality time spent at home with gathered and reunited family members. I want to suggest, however, that this evening we’ve come to the right place; before we find Christ anywhere else, we find him here.

In Hebrew, the name Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” This evening, this church is “Bethlehem in Providence” – the house where Jesus the Bread of Life comes to us and feeds us. The manger, a feeding trough, signifies that he is our spiritual food and drink. By sharing in our life and death, he invites us to share in his Resurrection to eternal life, beginning here and now, in this sacred and sacrificial banquet.

I give the last word to Sir John Betjeman, who sums up far better than I can all that I’m trying to say:

  No love that in a family dwells,
    No caroling in frosty air,
  Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
    Can with this single truth compare –
  That God was man in Palestine
    And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Acknowledgment: some key ideas for this sermon came from Aidan Nichols, O.P., Year of the Lord's Favour: A Homiliary for the Roman Lectionary, Vol. 2, pp. 61-62.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Annual Parish Meeting -- Rector's Address

Ives Window, S. Stephen's Church
As a parish, we have much to celebrate and be grateful for. During the past year, I’ve continued to derive strength and encouragement from the commitment, energy, and enthusiasm evident in so many areas of parish life: from the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper to the Christmas Pageant; from the May Procession of our Lady to the New Year’s Day Dinner.

During 2016, we had a well attended Friday evening Lenten series, as well as Lent and Advent Quiet Days. Attendance at Advent Lessons and Carols and the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass was impressive. A cheerful commitment to service in the Name of Christ is manifest every Saturday afternoon among those parishioners who assist with the Epiphany Soup Kitchen, now in its eighth year at S. Stephen’s!

When my friends and colleagues in other places ask me to describe S. Stephen’s, I tell them—without any hesitation, false modesty, or embarrassment—that we simply have the best liturgy and music of any parish in Rhode Island. James and I work hard to keep it so; and we couldn’t do it without the enthusiastic support of choristers, servers, altar guild, ushers, and not least faithful parishioners in the pews.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my staff: Assistant Priest and Episcopal Campus Minister Fr. Martin Yost, Organist and Choirmaster James Busby, Parish Administrator Cory MacLean, and Financial Assistant John McGlashan. And the officers of the Vestry: Senior Warden Tom Bledsoe, Junior Warden Susan Brazil, Treasurer George Ryan, and Clerk and Sacristan Phoebe Pettingell. We are blessed to have such a great team.

We do face some challenges. Nationwide, church membership and attendance is declining, and this is especially true in the Northeast. We’re not immune to these trends here at S. Stephen’s. Also, as I mentioned last year, we’ve been taking too much out of the endowment to fund current operations, and some restructuring is necessary. The Senior Warden and the Treasurer will be saying more about that.

Over the past few months, it’s become clear to me that to secure the long-term future of the parish, we need to make some changes in at least three areas: evangelism, stewardship, and planned giving. The changes I’m talking about are not so much procedural or methodological as what might be called cultural and spiritual—defining “culture” loosely as the mix of attitudes, assumptions, habits, and practices that shape our collective identity as a community.

Evangelism is a major theme of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry; and for once I’m glad to say that I approve heartily of the lead we’re getting from the top of our institutional structures! For too long the Episcopal Church has focused on programs aimed at church growth while soft-pedaling evangelism; and the results have been disappointing. Church growth programs emphasize marketing and methods of developing seeker-friendly congregations. Useful as those approaches are, evangelism requires something more: namely, getting comfortable talking about God’s place in our life, and inviting friends, neighbors, colleagues, and associates to come to church to experience for themselves the difference that Jesus can make.

That may be an intimidating proposition. Evangelism has generally not been part of our culture as Episcopalians; in many parishes the de facto assumption is that the clergy are there to do our evangelism for us. But that approach won’t work anymore, if it ever did. We need to engage in some serious self-examination and study of how to cultivate a more robust and vibrant culture of evangelism. So one of my goals in the coming year is to identify some sources of outside help whom we could invite to come into S. Stephen’s and lead us in a process of learning how to become a more evangelistically oriented parish, while at the same time respecting, safeguarding, and promoting our Anglo-Catholic identity.

Stewardship is another area that requires work. Sincere thanks are due to everyone who pledged financial support for the coming year. We have some enormously generous parishioners. But I’m convinced that a greater number could afford to give significantly more if they really made it a priority. Again, the problem is not so much economic or financial as cultural and spiritual. As I never tire of pointing out, in other parts of the country, giving levels are much higher than in New England for reasons that have little if anything to do with disposable income. In the coming year, then, I want us to engage the question of how we can renew our culture of stewardship in this parish.

Faced with proposals for cultural and spiritual change, our natural reaction is often one of resistance. It’s too difficult; our habits, attitudes, and ways of doing things are too ingrained. We like ourselves just fine as we are. Why should we change? Ultimately, the only persuasive answer to that question comes from examining whether our current attitudes, habits, and practices are helping us achieve our goals. We all want to grow as a parish. The question is how well our culture of evangelism, or lack thereof, is serving us in achieving that goal. We all want to put S. Stephen’s on a secure financial footing and reduce the amount we take from the endowment to fund current operations. The question is how well our culture of stewardship is serving us in achieving that goal. The motivation to change will come when we see that our current cultural patterns are not helping and may even be hindering the achievement of goals on which we all agree.

Change is possible. I’ve seen it. After I first arrived at S. Stephen’s seventeen years ago, one of the complaints that I heard repeatedly was that we had a deserved reputation for being unfriendly and unwelcoming to first time visitors and guests. More than one person told me, “I came to coffee hour and no-one spoke to me.” (The ones who told me that, were generally the ones who’d persevered in coming anyway!) A consensus emerged that we needed to fix this. So, in various ways we worked on trying to become more welcoming and hospitable. And it worked: I haven’t heard those complaints for a number of years now. Quite the opposite: a number of visitors have told me how warm and friendly we are. If we could make that change, we can also make the sorts of changes I’m talking about with respect to evangelism and stewardship, provided that we see the necessity of doing so.

Last but not least: planned giving. In my annual meeting address last year, I said that we must take pro-active steps to grow our endowment. One of the most important means of doing that is planned giving: that is, parishioners and friends making provision for gifts to the parish from their estates after they depart this earthly life. When you think about it, that’s how we got our endowment. So much of what we do here today, week by week, is funded by the generosity of the former generations of parishioners whose monuments and memorials line the walls of the church. It’s part of the fellowship we enjoy with the living and the dead in the communion of saints. We pray for them, they pray for us, and their gifts to the church continue to enrich our life together in this parish. In gratitude for their generosity, it behooves us to be generous for the benefit of those who will come after us in this place.

I’m pleased to announce today the formation of an organization that will be known as the Robert Hale Ives, Jr., Legacy Society. You may remember that Robert Hale Ives, Jr., was the young parishioner of S. Stephen’s who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Antietam in the American Civil War. On his deathbed in Frederick, Maryland, he made a bequest to the parish of $5,000 (which in today’s money is worth about $122,000) to help pay off the $20,000 mortgage the parish incurred in the construction of its new church building—provided that the remaining $15,000 be raised within a year of his death. It was, and the mortgage was paid off. He is memorialized in the Ives window in the north aisle, which you see directly ahead of you when you walk in the front door of the church.

To join the Ives Legacy Society, you simply fill out a form indicating that you’ve remembered S. Stephen’s in your will or have otherwise provided for the parish in your estate planning. And we take your word for it and enroll you in the Society!

The purpose of the Society is to foster a culture of planned giving by publicly recognizing those who make such provision for the parish. By joining, we have the opportunity to bear witness to the place S. Stephen’s holds in our lives, and to encourage others to do the same. So I’m pleased to conclude by distributing these brochures, which explain the Society in more detail, and include an application form to join. Thank you all very much. I believe with God'd help we can all look forward to great things ahead in the continuing history of this wonderful parish.

Sermon for Epiphany 4, Year A

Fra Angelico, Sermon on the Mount, 1436-1443
Matthew 5:1-12

In my childhood, the comic strip Peanuts popularized the slogan beginning with the words, “Happiness is.” Happiness is a warm blanket. Happiness is a fresh pile of autumn leaves. Happiness is a home run. The craze soon spread to advertisements, T‑shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers. The point was that you could fill in the blank in an almost infinite variety of ways. Happiness is a new car. Happiness is a perfect golf game. Happiness is a vacation in the Bahamas. And so forth.

Throughout history, philosophers and other observers of the human condition have remarked on our natural desire to be happy. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that our inalienable human rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The question is where true and lasting happiness is to be found. The Peanuts philosophy seemed to imply that each individual is free to define his or her own subjective meaning of happiness. But in the Church’s traditional teaching, happiness is something objective and given, more to be revealed and discovered than invented or constructed. And the paradigmatic Christian understanding of happiness is nowhere summed up more succinctly than in the collection of sayings from Saint Matthew’s Gospel known as the Beatitudes. The word beatitude means blessedness or happiness. And the beatitudes give us our Lord’s answer to the question of where true and lasting happiness is to be found.

Down through the centuries the Church has made use of easily memorized lists that sum up its teaching about the Christian life. The Ten Commandments give a basic set of do’s and don’ts. The Seven Deadly Sins give a comprehensive picture of the destructive patterns of behavior that separate us from God and one another. The four Cardinal Virtues and the three Theological Virtues portray the ideal of Christian character. The seven Gifts of the Spirit and the twelve Fruits of the Spirit describe God’s movement and action in the Christian life.

Entire books have been written on each of these catalogues of commandments, virtues, vices, and gifts. But the Church has always given pride of place to the nine Beatitudes as the clearest statement possible of the goal of Christian life as the blessedness and happiness of the Kingdom of heaven.

The Gospel readings for today and for the coming three Sundays are taken from the Sermon on the Mount, which opens with the Beatitudes. Jesus goes up on the mountain. When he sits down, his disciples come to him and he begins his discourse.

Notice that here Jesus is speaking to his disciples, who’ve left everything to follow him. They are the ones who are blessed because they’ve become—or are becoming or will become—poor in spirit, meek, merciful, and so forth. The ninth and last Beatitude makes this point clear, when our Lord shifts from the third person to the second person and declares, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil falsely on my account.”

So, here we have Jesus beginning his most famous sermon by pronouncing a series of blessings upon his disciples. Each blessing has two parts: a present condition, and a future reward: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. In each case the present condition describes a quality of those who follow Christ, and the future reward describes some aspect of true happiness in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Notice that the people whom our Lord pronounces blessed are the very opposite of those whom the world thinks blessed. We tend not to think of the poor in spirit or those who mourn as being particularly happy. The wisdom of the world is that nice guys finish last. But here our Lord subverts the world’s values. It may seem so now, he says, but the time is coming when this-worldly fortunes shall be reversed. The meek shall inherit the earth. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who now suffer persecution and exile—and no humanly constructed wall or humanly issued executive order will be able to keep them out.

We don’t have time to go through each of the Beatitudes in detail. Entire books have been written on the Beatitudes; each one of them alone could easily be the subject of an entire sermon. Not so long ago some preachers would give nine-week sermon series, taking each of Matthew’s beatitudes a Sunday at a time.

Suffice it to say that Jesus himself is the perfect fulfillment of everything he says here. He displays perfectly what it is to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to make peace, and to be persecuted, reviled and spoken against for righteousness’ sake. First and foremost, the Beatitudes are a portrait of Christ.

And it’s only in Christ that we make the Beatitudes our own and enter into the happiness that they describe. A number of commentators point out that their wording is not, “If you want the kingdom of heaven, then be poor in spirit; if you want to be comforted, then mourn.” That is, they’re not so much prescriptive as descriptive. They’re not so much a how-to manual as a promise and reassurance of the divine reward held in store for those whom the world counts least blessed in this life.

But what we can’t achieve on our own our Lord can and will achieve in us. We’ve been baptized into his Body, the Church, and we receive his life in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. If we persevere in making use of the means of grace he’s appointed for us, he will make us into the very people that he describes in the beatitudes, a people on the way to true and lasting happiness, the goal and end of human existence, a reward great in heaven.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sermon for Epiphany 2, Year A

Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432
(Click on image for larger view)
John 1:29-42

About thirty years ago, on a road trip in Belgium, we stopped in the city of Ghent—on the highway from Brussels to Bruges—for the express purpose of going into Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and seeing the treasure of late medieval religious art known as the Ghent Altarpiece.

Designed by Hubert van Eyck, the Altarpiece displays twenty panels painted by his younger brother Jan van Eyck between 1430 and 1432. (It was stolen and returned to Ghent twice in the twentieth century, once each during the two World Wars, but that’s another story.)

The largest and best-known panel is called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. By any estimation it’s a magnificent painting. It’s also significant in art history not only for its unprecedented realism and attention to detail, but also for being one of the earliest Western European paintings executed in oils rather than egg tempera.

At the center of the painting an altar stands in a verdant meadow bordered by lush foliage. On the altar stands a Lamb. From a wound in his breast a stream of blood pours into a chalice, also on the altar. Yet the Lamb is serene, showing no signs of pain or suffering.

Above the altar, at the top of the painting, the Holy Spirit hovers in the form of a dove, radiating beams of supernatural light that illuminate the entire landscape without casting any shadows. In the foreground, at the bottom of the painting, stands the well of the water of life. Visible on the horizon are the towers and spires of the heavenly Jerusalem.

A group of angels surrounds the altar, worshiping the Lamb. Two are swinging censers; others bear the instruments of the Lord’s Passion: the Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the spear that pierced his side, and the pillar where he was scourged.

Four groups of human worshipers approach the altar from different directions: in the foreground, contemporary monks and bishops to the right, Old Testament prophets and virtuous pagans to the left; in the background, virgin martyrs and holy women to the right, and martyrs and saints of past centuries to the left.

An inscription on the altar identifies the painting as a visual commentary on the words of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It also has a mystical visionary quality, affording a glimpse of worship in heaven as described in the Book of Revelation, where the Risen and Ascended Christ appears as a Lamb who has been slain and yet lives.

The first part of today’s Gospel reading from John comprises John the Baptist’s reflections on the Baptism of Christ, which we commemorated last Sunday. Here John speaks of what appears to be a mystical vision that he himself experienced at the Baptism of Jesus: “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven and it remained on him.”

Interestingly enough, in the parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is not John but Jesus who sees the Spirit descending in the form of a dove and alighting on him. But just before that, the Synoptics include another detail missing from John’s account: “[Jesus] saw the heavens opened...”

It’s easy to skip over that little detail: he saw the heavens opened. But that’s the stuff of mystical visions. At the risk of doing what we were told in seminary never to do—namely, conflating John’s Gospel with the Synoptics—we may well ask: did John the Baptist also see the heavens opened? And, if so, what did he see?

Following this line of questioning, theologian and preacher Aidan Nichols OP speculates that at the Baptism both Jesus and John the Baptist received a glimpse into heaven, where Jesus saw himself, and John saw Jesus, as the Lamb of God on the heavenly altar. This is admittedly just speculation, but if true it would definitely account for John’s subsequent identification of Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

This motif of seeing the heavens opened recurs in the New Testament. Almost immediately after the events related in today’s Gospel, Jesus himself declares to Nathanael, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” And at the moment of his martyrdom, our patron, Saint Stephen, gazes into heaven and testifies to his accusers, “Behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.”

The image of the Lamb in the Old Testament is multilayered. It could refer to the lambs sacrificed twice daily in the Jerusalem Temple, morning and evening, or to the lambs that individual Israelites could bring to the Temple to offer as sacrifices for their sins. It could refer to the Passover Lamb, sacrificed every year to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt when the blood of the lamb on the Israelites’ doorposts caused the angel of death to pass over their houses. And it could refer to the Suffering Servant in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, who “opened not his mouth, like a lamb that is led to the slaughter …"

Another possible meaning is the Apocalyptic Lamb. In certain Jewish writings dating to between the Old and New Testaments, the figure of a lamb represents Israel’s Messiah, opposed by an array of ferocious wild beasts representing the nations of the earth. Against all odds, the lamb defeats and subdues these wild beasts, inaugurating the arrival of God’s kingdom and the messianic age.

Some scholars have thus argued that when John the Baptist proclaims that Jesus is the Lamb of God, his meaning is simply that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed one. It seems to me, however, that when John adds that this Lamb takes away the sin of the world, he is signifying something more: namely that Jesus has come to shed his blood in a sacrificial offering that will reconcile a fallen world to God.

At every Mass, we sing or say the threefold hymn Agnus Dei: “O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.” Then the priest shows the consecrated host and chalice to the people, repeating the words of John the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God; behold him that taketh away the sins of the world.”

These words invite us to look beneath surface appearances, and see into the heart of a deeper reality. Visual artists like Jan van Eyck communicate something of this reality in their paintings. Music can also be its vehicle, as can various forms of prayer, meditation, and silent contemplation. Whatever the vehicle, if we’re faithful, persistent, and attentive, it just may be granted us also to see the heavens opened, and the Lamb standing at the throne of God.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sermon for Solemn Mass of the Nativity

Giotto di Bondone, 1304-1306

Saturday 24 December 2016

From early childhood, many of us grew up to associate Christmas with the giving and receiving of presents. In my parents’ secular household, the miracle of Christmas was the nocturnal visit of Santa Claus to leave all sorts of delightful toys and games under the tree to be discovered and unwrapped, opened and assembled, in the first light of morning.

It wasn’t until I started attending church as a young adult that I came to think of Christmas primarily in religious terms as the occasion of Midnight Mass to celebrate the Lord’s Nativity. But that’s another story.

From my childhood, well into my teenage years, the question, “What would you like for Christmas?” was of momentous importance. In school, my classmates and I would excitedly tell one another what we were hoping to get for Christmas this year. In high school, this topic of conversation prompted one of my friends, who was a semi-competent artist, to submit to the student newspaper a cartoon showing a child sitting under the Christmas tree ripping the wrappings off a mountain of presents, with the caption, “Tis the season to be greedy!”

This cartoon caused indignation among the more literal-minded types in the student body who, not realizing that it was satire, thought my friend was purposely overthrowing the religious and spiritual meaning of Christmas. The truth was the opposite; he was in fact a practicing Episcopalian who wanted to lambast the day’s commercialism and materialism.

But the giving and receiving of material gifts in no way contradicts the Christian understanding and observance of Christmas. In 1923, the noted writer and Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton published an essay on Christmas presents. He began by saying that he’d recently seen a statement by Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, that while she had no objection to Christmas presents per se, she herself didn’t give presents in any “gross, sensuous, terrestrial sense, but sat still and thought about Truth and Purity until all her friends were much better for it.”

This plan, Chesterton commented, was not necessarily impossible or superstitious, and it had a certain economic charm. But, he continued, it was definitely un-Christian. “I do not know,” he wrote, “if there is any Scriptural text or Church Council that condemns Mrs. Eddy’s theory of Christmas presents, but Christianity [itself] condemns it, [just] as soldiering condemns running away.”

He went on: “The idea of embodying goodwill—that is, of putting it into a body—is the huge and primal idea of the Incarnation. A gift of God that can be seen and touched is the whole point of the … Creed. Christ himself was a Christmas present.”

It occurred to me as I read these words that Chesterton effectively demolishes the proverbial adage that it doesn’t matter what you give someone because “it’s the thought that counts.” No, says Chesterton, the thought by itself doesn’t count, and cannot count, until it somehow becomes embodied and tangible, because we are embodied creatures living in a material creation that God saw was very good.

It’s true that material presents fall short when given as substitutes for loving care and attention, or as attempted compensation for neglect or worse. But, conversely, the act of thinking good thoughts about those dear to us also falls short unless those thoughts become incarnate in gifts that effectively let the recipients know that we’re thinking of them.

I recall reading somewhere that if you’re invited to dinner at someone’s home in France, it’s customary to take along some such gift as a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates, much as here in the United States. But one needs to be careful to choose a gift of high quality and good taste because, unlike in this country, the idea that “it’s the thought that counts” just doesn’t fly over there. More precisely, the quality of the gift given communicates more than we might realize the extent of our respect, esteem, and affection for the recipient.

In any case, Chesterton’s main point is that even among those for whom Christmas has become a secular cultural holiday rather than a solemn religious observance, the practice of giving gifts preserves a vestigial memory of the Christian teaching that Jesus Christ is God’s greatest gift of all: a Christmas present of infinite quality expressing infinite love because it’s the gift of God himself present among us.

About a month ago, in my capacity as Superior of the American Region of the Society of Mary, I was pondering what to do about the situation in one of our Wards in Texas. The Ward Secretary was retiring after 24 years of dedicated service, and her last meeting in that capacity would be on the first Saturday in December. I wondered whether I should phone, write a letter, send a gift, or some combination of all three.

Finally, I realized that whatever else I did, the best gift I could offer by far would be to fly down there, attend the meeting, and greet her in person. And so I did—taking along a letter of commendation and the gift of a little statue as well. As every priest learns in the exercise of the pastoral ministry, sometimes on critical occasions there’s just no substitute for showing up in the flesh. But that is the incarnational principle of Christianity.

God himself sets the pattern. Contrary to Mrs. Eddy’s theory, when the human race had fallen and become subject to sin and death, God did not just sit in heaven thinking thoughts of Truth and Purity until we were all the better for it. On the contrary, God came down from heaven in person—in the Person of his Son—to share in our created human life so that we in turn might share in his uncreated divine life. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. That’s the good news that the Church proclaims and celebrates every year on the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity.

So there we have what we might call the Catholic doctrine of Christmas presents. By cheerfully giving them, we grow in the virtues of generosity and unselfishness. And by gratefully receiving them, we remind ourselves that all the truly valuable and worthwhile things that we have in this life are not those that we can take or earn for ourselves, but those that come to us from God as gifts freely given, beginning with our very existence, and ending with heaven itself. The practice of giving and receiving gifts, not only at Christmas but also throughout the year, thus becomes a spiritual discipline, a means of growth in grace and holiness.

And when we kneel at the crèche and gaze at the infant Christ, we behold the first and best Christmas present of all: the gift of God himself in the flesh. The wrapping is swaddling clothes, and the box is a manger. So we give thanks to God for such a wondrous gift, and adore.

Some key ideas for this sermon came from Aidan Nichols, OP, Year of the Lord's Favour: A Homilary for the Roman Liturgy, Volume 2, pp. 60-61. Excerpts from the Chesterton essay are here.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sermon for Proper 28, Year C (Sunday after the Presidential Election)

"The sun of righteousness shall rise,
with healing in its wings" (Malachi 4:2)

Malachi 4:1-2

Well, I didn’t see that one coming. This past Tuesday, the nation experienced a cataclysmic upset in the Presidential election, and I suspect that many of us are still trying to sort through our reactions to it all, as indeed am I.

I’ve no desire to add to the mountains of political commentary through which we’ve been wading these past few days. Your clergy are called to be preachers, not pundits. Much less do I want to commit the cardinal sin of “preaching politics from the pulpit.”

But I do want to offer a few thoughts in response to the election of the sort that really can come only from the pulpit. In formulating these thoughts, my task is not to be clever or original, but rather to draw on the best wisdom of the Church’s tradition of reflection on the duties of Christians within the political order. My goal is simply to articulate a few ideas that we’ve probably all heard before but perhaps need to be reminded of again now more than ever.

This election has not so much revealed as it has magnified and brought into sharper focus the deep ideological and cultural cleavages dividing our country. In a letter to the Diocese of Rhode Island on Friday, Bishop Knisely wrote this:

The results of the election this week have confirmed what we already knew. Our country is deeply divided along regional, racial, gender, and economic lines. The divisions are real and painful. The divisions are ending friendships and threatening family relationships. There are people in our communities and congregations who are delighted and people who are devastated. The emotions are real and raw, and their intensity is hard for some to understand.

That’s an apt description of the situation. How then is the Church called to respond? Remember, if we’re baptized, we’re members of the Church, so a more precise way of putting it is: How are we called to respond together, as the Church?

Framing the question in this way suggests the beginning of an answer. In the words of the English Bishop George Bell at the beginning of the Second World War, our calling is “to be still the Church.” That is, we’re called to do what the Church does. We’re called to fulfill the Church’s duties to God, to our members, and to the wider community at this time and place in history, as indeed in all times and in all places in history.

The Church’s mission begins and ends in what we’re doing here this morning: offering worship to Almighty God, and holding up the needs of the world in prayer. And that really is the essence of the response that the Church is called to make to the Presidential Election. Before we do anything else, we pray. But how are we to pray: for whom, and for what?

Here the Church’s liturgical and spiritual tradition comes to our aid. Difficult and distasteful as it may be for some, the first object of our prayers must be the President-elect himself. Down through the centuries, the Church in all lands has prayed for emperors, kings, and those in authority. This practice goes back to the New Testament, where Saint Paul writes in his First Letter to Timothy: “First of all, then, I urge that prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all … for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.”

Such prayer for the head of state does not necessarily entail approval of his policies or actions. In the early centuries, Christians constantly prayed for the Roman emperors who periodically persecuted them and sent them to the lions. It does entail the recognition that those in positions of political authority need God’s grace and guidance to make enormously complicated decisions wisely and justly. The President-elect stands in deep need of all our prayers, and it would be selfish and unchristian to withhold them now.

Secondly, we’re called as members of the Church to pray for those with whom we disagree, even within the Church itself. This imperative goes back to our Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …”

To refer back to Bishop Knisely’s words on Friday: some in our congregations are delighted, and some are devastated. That is no less true here at S. Stephen’s than anywhere else. In the past few days, a number of bishops and other church leaders have spoken of the need for reconciliation in our communities. But reconciliation doesn’t mean that we all have to agree, or that we should paper over our disagreements with a veneer of "niceness." It does mean, however, that so far as possible we must avoid allowing a situation to develop in which any member of our parish is made to feel shamed, ostracized, or intimidated on account of their political opinions, no matter how strongly we may disagree with them. Instead, we are called to pray for those with whom we disagree—and not just that they might be converted to our superior wisdom, but also that God might open our hearts and minds to understand better where they’re coming from.

Thirdly, we need to pray for ourselves: especially for wisdom and discernment in responding to the challenges that lie ahead. A week from today, we shall celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. That observance reminds us that all earthly authorities are ultimately subject to God’s laws and God’s reign. The Kingship of Christ furnishes us with a set of criteria by which to evaluate and when necessary criticize the actions of our earthly rulers. Contrary to popular opinion, the Church has never taught blind obedience to authority. When the state passes laws and enacts policies that violate elementary standards of justice, fairness, and decency, then as Christians we may be called to protest and register our opposition. And if the state should attempt to require our complicity in actions and policies that violate such standards, then we may be called to resist. Just ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King, Jr. Where, when, and how we may be called to protest or resist is a deeply personal question for each of us; here above all we need to pray for the grace of God’s guidance and direction.

That, then, is a threefold summary of our obligations to prayer in relation to the political order in times of unsettling change and upheaval. Pray for those in positions of authority, including the President-Elect. Pray for those whom we perceive to be our enemies and opponents, that we may find some measure of mutual understanding, common ground, and ultimate reconciliation. And pray for ourselves, that we may receive all necessary wisdom and courage to bear witness to the sovereignty of Christ over all earthly powers and dominions. To him alone be all glory and worship, both now and to the ages of ages. Amen.