Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Month: December, 2014

The Angelus

V: (+) The Angel of the Lord announced unto Mary,
R: And she conceived by the Holy Ghost.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.

V: Behold, the handmaid of the Lord:
R: Be it unto me according to thy word.

Hail Mary…

V: And the Word was made flesh,
R: And dwelt among us.

Hail Mary…

V: Pray for us, O holy Mother of God:
R: That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray:
We beseech thee O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts: that as we have known the Incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an Angel, so by his (+) cross and passion we may be brought unto the glory of his resurrection; through the same Christ our Lord, Amen.

“…Let it be to me according to your word.”

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation. 1433-4.

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation. 1433-4. San Domenico, Cortona.

This sermon was preached at the 8am and 10am masses at S. Stephen’s Church, Providence, on Sunday December 21, 2014, the fourth Sunday in Advent.  The mass setting was Duruflé’s Messe Cum Jubilo and the offertory anthem was Parsons’ Ave Maria.

Collect: We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son our Lord cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; though the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

2 Samuel 7:1-11, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.

Many of you may know that every day in the Lady Chapel here at S. Stephen’s begins with the Angelus.  If you are not familiar with this short devotion, it is simply a pattern of prayer which meditates on the miracle of the Incarnation from the perspective of Our Lady.  It consists of a series of three short responses interposed with the Hail Mary, and a final set of petitions asks God to give us some portion of the same grace which filled Mary.  Most of the text comes from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, which we’ve just heard chanted, along with a few bits from a few other places.  If you don’t know the full text, you can easily Google it, or look it up on Wikipedia.  If you have smart phones, you even have my permission to look it up now!

I ask all of my students to memorize the Angelus (and, for that matter, anyone else whose arm I can twist!) because I am convinced it contains in a nutshell the whole of the Christian mysteries, and the entirety of Christian prayer.  If you can’t find it on your phones, you can also find it in the chapel after mass, or just email me and I’ll send you a copy.  It’s worth memorizing, or as someone from 8:00 suggested, print it out and put it in your wallet or your purse.  Pray it throughput the day: for help, in thanksgiving, whenever it occurs to you.

The name “Angelus” comes from the first word in Latin of the first set of responses.  “The Angel of the Lord announced unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Ghost.”  In Church tradition, Mary is at prayer when the angel appears to her.  In art she is often depicted sitting or kneeling, with her prayer book open in front of her.  The fact that this is her posture when at the angel’s Annunciation the Holy Ghost overshadows her connects prayer with the Incarnation in a very profound way.

Every time we pray, we open ourselves to the possibility that God will overshadow us, and that we will be incorporated somehow more and more fully into the promises of God from ages past and into his ongoing plan for the redemption of the world.  Every time we pray we assume the posture of Our Lady when she became the Mother of Our Lord.  Every time we pray we are connected to the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, born for us and our salvation.

“The Angel of the Lord announced unto Mary:” in continuing with the Hail Mary we join in that angelic greeting.  We salute the beginning of the world’s redemption.  “And she conceived by the Holy Ghost.”  We adore the child in her womb, and we pray that his life might carry us through our own death.

If possible, Mary’s response to Gabriel is even more astounding than the Angel’s salutation: “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord, be it into me according to thy word.”  In art it is usually clear that Our Lady is surprised to see the angel; in some pieces she even looks fearful and unsure.  And yet there is great strength in her response.  “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord.”  She echoes Isaiah’s response to his vision of God in heaven,  “Here am I, send me.”  This is also in the same vein as Samuel, as a boy in the temple, hearing the voice of God, and replying “Speak Lord, your servant listens.”  “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord.”  Responding in this way places Mary squarely within the prophetic tradition.  Meditating on her words helps us take hold of our own responsibility to do the will of God in the world.

But the second part of her reply is even more freighted with meaning:  “Be it unto me according to thy word.”  Be it unto me — another way of saying, ‘Let it be.’  “Let it be to me according to your word.”  This is the same verb tense and voice which God himself uses at the very beginning of Genesis to create the world: “Let there be light; let there be a firmament in the heavens; let the waters be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear.”  “Let it be to me according to thy word.”

It’s easy to be confused about Mary’s response.  These days many people seem to see it as merely a passive, powerless assent to the frightening message of a powerful angel.  But make no mistake.  “Be it unto me according to thy word” is the supreme act of personal agency, connected as it is with God’s own creation of the world ex nihilo, from nothing.  In the beginning, the earth was barren and void.  At the Annunciation, Mary is virgin and innocent.  Her “Let it be” begins an entirely new creation, as human flesh, formerly subject to all the laws of mortality and decay, is now knit forever to God himself, in whom is life eternal, unending and unbegun.

“Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.”  To pray these words is to embark on an amazing journey through heaven and earth and back again.  It is to contemplate the mystery of our salvation, and it is to receive its promise.  We return to the Hail Mary with eyes wide in amazement at what God has wrought through Our Lady’s response.

But amazement is not enough.  The Angelus continues with a brief commentary on the Annunciation from John’s Gospel: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”  Our amazement at what God has wrought becomes articulated in the central doctrine of the Christian Gospel: that in Jesus, God himself has become flesh and dwells among us.  We are not left merely to wonder at the grand scope of our thoughts.  We are not allowed to think ideas about God are enough.  We are brought face to face with the reality that the Word which spoke creation into existence, which spoke through the prophets and gave hope to the Israelites in exile; the word which had promised salvation from the moment Adam and Eve first left the Garden: the Word has become flesh, a human person, Jesus Christ.  This short commentary forces us to see that at a certain point our prayer must leave the world of ideas behind and enter the way of Love: the way of sacrifice and death, repentance and forgiveness.

The Angelus returns us to the Hail Mary, and our amazement has turned to gratitude, as we bless Our Lady for her role in bringing about such a Savior.

The devotion begins to wrap everything up with a humble petition: “Pray for us, O holy mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”  Promises we have already begun to receive, which have taken root in us in our baptism, which are nourished in us by the other sacraments.  We strive our whole lives long to be worthy recipients of these gifts, much as we strive our whole lives to return faithfully the love of our family and those closest to us.  As we strive to requite the love which we have received, this petition reminds us that we do so in the company of Our Lady who continues to abide with us in the communion of the saints, all of whom pray for us.  They pray in her footsteps, and their continuing prayers for us help us to be people in whom the Incarnation of Our Lord is manifest today: as it was manifest in them in their own lifetimes, and chief of all made manifest in that manger in Bethlehem with ox and ass, straw and wood, angels and shepherds, and Our Lady at the center with her Child.

Finally the Angelus concludes with a collect in which the whole circle is completed: Annunciation and Birth to Suffering and Death, to resurrection and eternal glory.  We pray that we might be incorporated into this pattern of grace, that we might at last join the Archangel Gabriel, Our Lady, and all the saints and angels, in the eternal contemplation of Our Lord’s saving death and resurrection.

The Angelus is a short prayer: you can say the whole thing – slowly even – and be finished in a minute or less.  And yet it contains the seeds of the entire Christian mystery, and the fullness of Christian prayer.  The event which it commemorates, Gabriel’s visit to Mary, no doubt took a similarly brief period of time.  Yet in those few moments, salvation began for the whole world, a new creation dawned, and God was made flesh.

As Advent draws to a close this year, and Christmas draws near, I commend to all of you the discipline of praying the Angelus.  (If you don’t have the text, let me know and I will get it to you.)  As we pray it together, and rehearse in our spirits the saving deeds of God, may we be brought near to Bethlehem, join our Lady in prayer, and hear the Angel’s message.  May we offer ourselves as a manger for our Lord, and be made new as he is born in our hearts.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: Amen.

Reading Scripture, Reading Life

This sermon was preached at 8am and 10am on December 7, 2014, at S. Stephen’s Church.  It is written for Advent 2, which is traditionally associated with themes of Judgement, and which more recently has focused on John the Baptist.  Both themes present an opportunity to reflect on Scripture, and about we understand God to speak within it and within the lives of those who read it faithfully.

Collect: Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-112 Peter 3:8-15aMark 1:1-8

But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

One of the classic ways Christians have approached Scripture is to read it prayerfully, paying attention to the many layers of meaning present within it.

Traditionally, there are four such layers: the first, and the foundation of the others, is the “literal” level:  What does the text say?  Who are the main characters?  What are they doing?

The second layer is the realm of analogy and various other kinds of literary devices:  What metaphors are in play, with what kind of symbolism?  Does this verse or that verse build on foreshadowing from previous chapters or previous books?  Does it look forward to promises yet to be fulfilled?

The third layer of meaning is that of morality: How do we interpret our moral lives based on the prescriptions or illustrations from this book or that episode?  How do we articulate the kinds of things we understand God expects of us?

The final layer of meaning is often labeled the “anagogical,” or the mystical.  It is the summit of the other layers, and it is a way in which we are brought out of ourselves into closer union with God himself, through the Scriptures his Spirit inspires.

Every subsequent layer builds on what came before.  They are cumulative.  We cannot have one without the other.  In all our Bible reading, we have to begin with the first layer, with what the text says, in order to get to the others in their turn.  (Incidentally, I think a lot of trouble in the church comes from the mistake of elevating one particular layer of scriptural meaning over and above all the others.)  All of them work together as a complex whole: teaching us the purposes of God in the world, instilling in us more and more the holy fear of God, exhorting us to put away sin and be made holy, bringing us out of ourselves and setting us on a track further up and further into the mysteries of God, as we move from this world to the next.

Reading Scripture this way is not an easy project, however.  There are plenty of seeming contradictions in the text between one layer of meaning and another, between a particular passage and a similar one later on.  In those circumstances, the Church has learned a very practical solution.  We cannot simply dismiss Scripture out of hand, particularly when we place so much stock in the Holy Spirit to speak within it.  In circumstances of difficulty, contradiction, and paradox, the Church has learned not to skim over or ignore, but to sit up and take note.  From at least the time of Origen in the second century, and perhaps earlier, the Church has understood these moments as essential clues: clues that the most apparent meaning in the text is not the final one.  In places where Scripture seems not to make sense, or to contradict itself, classic Christian wisdom has seen a sure-fire clue that the Holy Spirit is drawing us further into a deeper mystery.

One of the clearest examples is John the Baptist.  At the beginning of John’s Gospel, the Pharisees ask him point-blank if he is Elijah — whom Scripture promised would come again to prepare the way for the Messiah.  John the Baptist replies — equally point-blank — that he is not Elijah.  At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, however, which we’ve just heard chanted, all the imagery indicates that John the Baptist really is the second Elijah: living in the wilderness, preaching repentance, calling people to return to the Lord.  At another point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus himself seems to indicate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that John the Baptist was indeed Elijah: in chapter nine, he says that “Elijah has indeed come,” and that people treated him just as badly the second time as they did the first time.

What do we make of this?  Is John the Baptist really Elijah, or isn’t he?  This seeming contradiction points us to a third way.  Both possibilities are true, and are meant to show us that the prophetic word, the promise that God would forgive, redeem, and save his people, is not just hot air, not just so much rhetorical imagery, but that it will be fulfilled in a flesh and blood person — who is the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.  The question, “Who is John the Baptist?” points us to God’s answer in Jesus, leads us towards the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and incorporates us into the mystical body of Christ, the household of God.

If all this sounds a little far-fetched, or a little too complicated, all we have to do is look at our own lives.  You and I are full of many of the same difficulties and contradictions that we see in Scripture.  We say one thing and do another.  We have ideals for our lives and hopes for our society, and our weaknesses and sins keep us from achieving either of them.  Everywhere we see good intentions for better futures; everywhere we see self-interest and human flaws contributing towards destruction and chaos instead.

We hear promises like in today’s reading from Isaiah: in which the glory of God is revealed, the rough places are smoothed, the valleys raised, God’s justice spreads abroad, and he cares for his people as a shepherd for his sheep.  We hear these promises and we look around: we do not often see evidence of God’s justice, we rarely see gentleness prevailing in anything; and the glory of God often seems drowned out by bombs and poverty and dishonesty.  How do we read our lives?  How do we read our world?

One option is to dismiss the promises of Scripture, and say they cannot be true.  Too many choose this option, and it is always sad.  Another option is to live in denial about the suffering of our world, and to throw ourselves into the glittering images of a future utopia.  Too many choose this option too, and it always misses the point.

But there is a third option, the difficult option: to see in all of our present difficulties and contradictions the working of the Holy Spirit of God, guiding us through our current thorny ways, pointing us towards a higher truth, a greater promise.  The Holy Spirit neither dismisses hope nor denies suffering, but redeems them both in the person of Jesus Christ.  Whenever we are most confused, most pressed into a corner by the tension between our faith and our world, it is a sure sign that God is near: working his higher purpose, working to draw us nearer to him, to incorporate us all the more fully into himself and his purposes for the world.

How do we take hold of the promise?  How do we find forgiveness for our sins?  Heed the teaching of John the Baptist: repent and be baptized; ask forgiveness, and be washed in the water of new life.  Above all, love him whose way John the Baptist came to prepare.  Love him in whom are met the hopes and fears of all the years (as the Christmas carol puts it).

Soon we will meet him today again at the altar, in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.  It is the Sacrament of death and sacrifice, of resurrection and new creation.  It is the sacrament of love: his love for you and me, poured out upon the cross.  All contradictions, all paradoxes, all conflicts of meaning, come together there, in one person, Jesus Christ.  Let us love him.  So may our confusion and our dis-ease find their answer.  So may our mission be made clear.  So may we be made ready to meet him when he comes again.  So may we rejoice in his kingdom, where righteousness finally dwells.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.



What is your elevator pitch?

This sermon was preached at 8am and 10am on 23 November 2014 at S. Stephen’s Church, for the feast of Christ the King.  Music at the 10am solemn mass was Domenico Scarlatti’s Messa breve “La Stella”

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in thy well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Well we’re fresh from election season, and there seem to be a few more sound bites than usual.  Commercials too, with Thanksgiving and Christmas not too far off.  Most of these have the character of an “elevator pitch” — short, pithy statements, meant to communicate what you’re about in the time it takes to ride an elevator.

They’re used for more than just ads and politics.  Some of my students tell me they’re encouraged to put this kind of statement at the tops of their resumes or on cover letters.  Elevator pitches are the kinds of things we might say about ourselves when first meeting a new colleague, or when catching up with a friend we haven’t seen in a long time.  In all these instances, the “elevator pitch” is a way of presenting a narrow, highly organized slice of ourselves such that it opens onto more, and invites people further in to whatever it is we’re offering.

Today’s passage from Ephesians is an elevator pitch.  The whole thing is rendered in English as only one sentence.  Phrase piles on phrase, clause on clause, as Paul sets forth his chief points right at the beginning of the letter.  It’s as if Paul were breathless with the urgency of it all, and finishes with a grand cosmic statement of the unity of all creation, and the Kingship of Christ over all.  The rest of Ephesians is an expansion of this elevator pitch, and Paul develops these statements into a thorough argument about the nature of grace, the mission of the church, and the scale of the Gospel: encompassing every aspect of the heart, every category of human relationship, and all things in heaven and on earth.  We’ll hear an even shorter version off this elevator pitch a little later on this morning, when the choir sings the Te Deum: “Thou art the king of glory, O Christ, the everlasting Son of the Father.”

Today’s readings are appointed for the same reason we’re singing the Te Deum.  Today we keep the feast of Christ the King.  In itself, this feast is an elevator pitch, and reflects the time it was first celebrated.  You may already have read in your Kalendars, or in last week’s Parish Notes, that this feast was first declared in 1925, as a response to the growth of fascism in Europe.  It asserted the kingship of Christ over all earthly rulers, and reminded Christians that their final loyalty was to Him, and not to any authority this world might claim.

Today, Christ the King might sound somewhat less timely, old-fashioned even.  The doctrine of Christ’s kingship is sometimes offensive, especially to those who hold painful memories of ill-placed imperialism undertaken by Christians who forget that Our Lord’s kingdom does not belong to this world alone.  Similarly it can sound like far too removed a claim, that somehow, from far beyond the stars, Christ rules even over the present, which is so patently full of darkness and pain.  Just like the elevator pitches we make about ourselves, “Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ,” is a narrow statement, which others are free to accept and learn more, or to reject and have no more to do with.  For those outside the Church, and for many even inside, it can appear as a tiny keyhole, extremely difficult to see through to the other side, let alone to pass through with our minds and hearts intact.

And yet this is what we celebrate today: in Paul’s words, that God the Father, having raised Christ from the dead, “Made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places . . . put all things under his feet, and has made him head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  What happens when we unpack that elevator pitch?  What happens when we peer through that keyhole?  What is life like on the other side?

When by faith we manage to pass through, the whole world opens up so exponentially that, on turning around to see where we came from, our whole lives seemed the keyhole.  It was not small after all; we were, our world was.  When we are willing to own Christ enthroned in Glory, we begin to see his glory shot through the whole world.  A painting becomes a window into eternity.  A landscape becomes an icon of tenderness.  Our friends begin to reveal the face of God.  Strangers begin to look familiar, and they appear to us as Christ himself.

In the Kingdom of Christ, our joy increases, but so does our responsibility.  As every thing and every creature and every person takes on added depth of spiritual richness, reflects a greater and greater heavenly light, you and I are more and more duty-bound to love them according to the love of him who sits enthroned in glory, who gave himself up to death for us and for the whole world.  In that death there is a victory to end all victories; for Christ to have conquered death means He is king in deed and not just in word.  But it also means you and I have no excuse for allowing death to retain the upper hand in our lives and in the lives of our fellow human beings.  When our eyes our fixed on the King of Glory, we see that our task in this life is not merely to carve out a pleasant corner for ourselves, doing good where we can and suffering hardship when we must.  Rather our task is nothing less than to strive with all our hearts and all our minds and all our strength against whatever pockets of darkness remain, in our lives and in our world.

This requires that you and I pay attention and notice where we are complicit in sin, where we are culpable for preserving the power of the kingdom of death.  It requires that we name our failures, and ask for forgiveness.  It requires that we stand with confidence on the word of our King, who honors our repentance, and encourages us with the promise that his victory is ours too.

“Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ” is an elevator pitch which opens up the world: under his rule it is a far larger, far more cohesive place than it could ever be under any other ruler.  Under his rule the living and the dead are knit together in one fellowship.  Angels and all the ranks of heavenly creatures share in their company.  All the furthest reaches of the universe, and the tiniest subatomic particles are linked in harmony with one another.  The greatest achievements of art and music, the most stunning feats of courage and valor, the quietest, most gentle whispers of a mother to her child, are the common inheritance of all.  The power of sin and death have been broken, and Life is freely offered to everyone.  Wherever we go in his dominion, whatever our life’s work, whomever we find to accompany us on the way: under the Kingship of Christ, everything is seeded with glory, and we witness it at every turn.

On this feast of Christ the King, let us give thanks for such a king as this.  Let us pray that his kingdom be manifested in full, even as it is now in part.  Let us work, to strengthen the bonds of our fellowship with all the citizens of Christ’s Kingdom: that even as he fills all in all, so he may dwell in us, and we in him, to ages of ages.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.