Holy Women, Holy Men

I suspect I posted something on this last summer in the run-up to General Convention. There is a major revision in the works for Lesser Feasts and Fasts, which is the liturgical book dealing with commemorations of the saints and other notable figures in the history of Christianity and the history of the Episcopal Church. There has been some debate about the inclusion of this or that figure (John Muir, who wasn’t a conventional Christian by any stretch of the imagination), people who left Anglicanism for the Roman Catholic Church, like John Henry Newman, and many more.

My sense when I first looked through Holy Women, Holy Men was that it was something of a politically-correct attempt to acknowledge everyone who has made an important, or not so important, contribution to contemporary religion and culture. There are two aspects of it that deeply bother me. First, the expansion of commemorations. One of the things the Protestant Reformation did was simplify the religious calendar, removing the commemorations of many saints from the annual ritual year. Now we are back where we were in the Middle Ages. Perhaps that’s not so bad, but on the other hand a proliferation of commemorations might lead to the lessening importance of the whole enterprise.

Secondly, I am deeply concerned about what I suppose I should call religious imperialism. One of my most memorable moments from the time I spent teaching History of Christianity in an Episcopal Seminary was when a student commented after our discussion of Erasmus, “He was an Anglican.”

Well, no.  He wasn’t an Anglican, he remained a Catholic and died one. As I was reading on Episcopal Cafe the entry on Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson yesterday, I sensed the same thing. To adopt or assimilate members of other denominations or Christian traditions, or even from other religious traditions, seems to me rather arrogant. Williams challenged not only the Puritan orthodoxy of colonial New England, he would have been equally vocal against the Church of England. To learn from and respect those who would have had deep disagreements with Anglicanism is one thing, to place them in our ritual calendar is quite another.

I presume the goal is to honor their contribution and their faith; but how can we do that authentically by eliding the deep differences between themselves and us?

The Martyrs of Japan, 1597

February 5 (in the “old” calendar of the Episcopal Church) commemorates the Martyrs of Japan, Franciscans who were crucified in an act that marked the beginning of the end of the remarkable expansion of Christianity in sixteenth-century Japan.

Few American Christians, especially non-Catholics, are aware of the missionary expansion of Christianity across the world in the sixteenth century. Perhaps that expansion is best exemplified by St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit who was one of Ignatius Loyola’s first companions and who took up the missionary enterprise when Ignatius himself was unable to do so. He traveled first to the Portuguese colony of Goa in India, then to the Philippines, and finally to Japan. He died as he was preparing a voyage to China.

Christian missionaries met with great success in Japan. It’s estimated that by the end of the sixteenth century, there were some 300,000 Christians. Unfortunately, competition between the religious orders and conflict between Spain and Portugal contributed to the ultimate rejection of Christianity by the Japanese state and Christianity’s virulent suppression. Part of the story is told brilliantly in the novel Silence, by Shusaku Endo.

Perhaps most remarkably, in spite of intense persecution, Christianity went underground and survived in Japan. Indeed, when Japan was forced open in the 1850s and European missionaries arrived, they encountered small groups of Christians who had maintained their faith through the centuries. Some of them adopted the Christianity they now encountered, others maintained the faith and practice that had evolved during the centuries of persecution. Their story is told in a moving documentary Otalya: Japan’s Hidden Christians.

St John Chrysostom, January 27

St. John Chrysostom, whom we remember today, was one of the great theologians and bishops, and perhaps the greatest preacher in the early centuries of Greek Christianity. Born in Antioch in 349, he spent some years as a monk and apparently practiced extreme ascetism. Ordained a deacon in 381 and a presbyter in 386, his preaching brought widespread fame. Because of his renown, he was made Archbishop of Constantinople in 398. In Constantinople he repeatedly aroused the wrath of the imperial court and was banished twice and died in exile in 407.

He is most famous for his sermons, of which many survive. He attacked the ostentatious show of wealth and repeatedly urged his listeners to care for the poor. Here is an excerpt from a homily on Matthew 14:

For what is the profit, when His table indeed is full of golden cups, but He perishes with hunger? First fill Him, being an hungered, and then abundantly deck out His table also. Dost thou make Him a cup of gold, while thou givest Him not a cup of cold water? And what is the profit? Dost thou furnish His table with cloths bespangled with gold, while to Himself thou affordest not even the necessary covering? And what good comes of it? For tell me, should you see one at a loss for necessary food, and omit appeasing his hunger, while you first overlaid his table with silver; would he indeed thank thee, and not rather be indignant? What, again, if seeing one wrapped in rags, and stiff with cold, thou shouldest neglect giving him a garment, and build golden columns, saying, “thou wert doing it to his honor,” would he not say that thou wert mocking, and account it an insult, and that the most extreme?

Let this then be thy thought with regard to Christ also, when He is going about a wanderer, and a stranger, needing a roof to cover Him; and thou, neglecting to receive Him, deckest out a pavement, and walls, and capitals of columns, and hangest up silver chains by means of lamps. Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, 50, (from http://www.ccel.org)

He is also famous for a series of sermons directed against Jews, the full texts of which can be found here.

In addition to his sermons and many other writings, The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom continues to be used by Orthodox Churches. An English translation is found here.

The “Prayer of St. Chrysostom,” which appears in The Book of Common Prayer, is a late-medieval addition to the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and was not written by him.

The Light of Epiphany

On January 6, the liturgical calendar marks the Feast of the Epiphany. We may know it best as the official end of the season of Christmas, which has twelve days, ending on January 5. The word itself comes from a Greek word that means “to manifest” or “to show,” and it was frequently used in pagan contexts to refer to an appearance of the divine. In the early Church, Epiphany was probably the more ancient celebration than Christmas. It is a festival of the Incarnation and brought together much of Jesus’ life, from his birth to the beginning of his public ministry. Among the events that were commemorated at Epiphany were his baptism and the Wedding at Cana.

With the rise of the commemoration of Christmas in the late fourth century, Epiphany came to focus on these other episodes in Jesus’ life. That focus continues to this day. All of the gospel readings used during Epiphany emphasize the divinity of Jesus Christ and the different ways in which his divinity was revealed to his followers and to the world. In the Episcopal Church, the season of Epiphany traditionally ends on the last Sunday before Lent with the reading of the gospel story of the Transfiguration.

Like Advent, Christmas, and Easter, Epiphany uses the image of light as a dominant symbol. From the star that in Matthew guides to the magi to the place of Jesus’ birth, to the celestial radiance that descends upon Jesus during the Transfiguration, light shines brightly in Epiphany. There is none of that darkness in which the Advent candles burn. The light of Epiphany shines on everything, transforming the world into the brightness of joy. Bach captures this idea in his lovely chorale, “Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light, and usher in the morning.”

I always experience Epiphany through the bright light of January. Among my favorite winter memories is walking through a woods on a moonlit night after a fresh snow. The light of the moon reflects off the snow and gives an eerie, heavenly light to the dark night. Sometimes it seems as if it were daylight. Then there is the brightness of a sunny day after the snow has fallen. The world always seems brighter to me in January. That, I suppose, is the message of Epiphany.

Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This collect is a revision of William Bright’s translation of a collect from the Gelasian Sacramentary. The reference to “daily visitation” is especially a propos in Year C of the lectionary cycle in which the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent is the story of Mary’s visitation of her cousin Elizabeth. The prayer draws a parallel between the experience of Mary and that of the believer. One could argue that the “mansion prepared for himself” offers a striking contrast to the inn within which there was no room for the Holy Family. It is also possible to draw a different connection: between Mary’s readiness to bear the Son of God, and our willingness to open our heart to him.

Advent

I have blogged in previous years about the colors of Advent, about some of the fairly new traditions of Advent, including the Advent wreath here.

Traditionally, Advent was a penitential season, much like Lent, hence the use of the same liturgical color, purple, in both seasons. Recent liturgical changes have downplayed its penitential aspect and emphasized the theme of waiting or expectation, as well as being alert.

There’s a profound disconnect between “the holiday season” and Advent, perhaps most apparent in the lectionary readings. One aspect of Advent that remains as true today as ever is that the focus for much of the season is not on the birth of Jesus Christ, but rather on his second coming. Apocalyptic themes predominate. On the first Sunday of Advent, we will hear from Luke’s version of Jesus’ apocalyptic preaching; later, we will hear similar themes from John the Baptist.

The focus on the Second Coming explains the earlier penitential emphasis. But there’s another way of thinking about Advent’s apocalyptic side. The first Sunday of Advent is the Church’s New Year’s Day, the beginning of the liturgical calendar. Advent, first or second, is all about God’s time. We rarely consider the importance of how we think about time. There’s been an enormous cultural transformation in recent years. The move from analog to digital in a way masks the passing of time. We don’t watch the hands of the clock moving across the dial, instead we have the constantly flashing beacon of led displays.

A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues was lecturing about the changes in the early modern period that came to the conception of time, and how people related to it. He began the lecture by asking students to tell him what time their watches read. In fact, only a handful of the eighty students had watches. All the rest kept time by their cellphones.

The Holiday Season, with its bustle of activity–shopping, parties, concerts, and the like–each year makes enormous demands on our time. Advent, which sees God breaking into time, breaking into history, twice; once in Bethlehem, the other at some point in the future, reminds us that even as we are slaves to the time of the season, God operates by a very different clock. Indeed, God exists outside of time, and it should be our goal to view time sub specie aeternitatis.

Candlemas

Today, February 2, is the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple. It is one of the most ancient commemorations in the church calendar, and has undergone significant transformation over the centuries. It honors the story in Luke 2 in which Joseph and Mary bring the infant Jesus to the temple. This was a practice in Judaism of the day when a mother would come to temple on the 40th day after birth, to offer sacrifices and be ritually purified. In the Luke story, Mary brings two turtledoves, the sacrifice specified for poor women. One of the focal points of the story is the song of Simeon, which he sings after seeing Jesus. Known as the Nunc Dimmitis, it begins “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation….”

In earlier centuries, this feast day was known as Candlemas. It was the day when the priest blessed the beeswax candles that would be used in the church in the coming year, and laypeople could bring their candles for blessing as well. Mary’s coming to the temple on the fortieth day after giving birth in keeping with Jewish observance had an a significant impact on medieval religious practice. In most of western Christianity, a similar rite “The Churching of Women” was observed on the 40th day. It remained in the prayer book until the 1979 revision. In the sixteenth century, when continental Protestants attempted to do away with it as “popish superstition” they met strong resistance from women, for the celebration had become an important rite of passage and reintegration into the community after childbirth.

Candlemas is a feast day rarely observed by contemporary Episcopalians—we don’t often even use beeswax candles any more. At St. James, most of our candles use oil rather than wax but it had cultural as well as religious significance. One of the legends in England said that a wintry Candlemas would make for a late spring, which is probably the origin of the idea of Groundhog Day.

Perhaps the most important part of the gospel story is Simeon’s song of praise, which is regularly used in the liturgy, especially in the daily office, at evensong or compline. The prayerbook version reads:

Lord, you now have set your servant free

To go in peace as you have promised

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,

Whom you have prepared for all the world to see:

A Light to enlighten the nations,

And the glory of your people Israel.

Advent Rest

The gospel for Wednesday in the second week of Advent was Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The lesson from the Hebrew Bible was taken from Isaiah 40 and included these familiar words: “but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

These lessons remind us that one of the themes in Messianic expectation in the Judaism of Jesus’ day was the image of the Sabbath rest. The idea of the Sabbath is one of the great gifts of the Hebrew people to human culture. The fact that we get weekends off, that we even have the notion of a week, is the product of Judaism. In Genesis, God’s creation ends with the creation of the Sabbath; indeed it is correct to say that the Sabbath completes or perfects creation.

The notion of the Sabbath rest permeates Biblical tradition. It wasn’t just for humans. The commandment to keep the Sabbath holy mentioned livestock, slaves and aliens. Sabbath rest extended to the land as well: every seventh year all of the land was to lie fallow, to rest and recover.

While we have retained the notion of days off on the weekend, there is very little in the contemporary weekend that has anything to do with Sabbath rest. Indeed, Advent may be the least restful season of the year. Not just because of the swirl of holiday activity. The scriptural lessons are full of warnings about staying awake and being watchful.

Still, the notion of rest is important this season and for our understanding of the Christian life. Perhaps Augustine said it best, “My heart was restless until it found its rest in you.”

Advent

We had quite an exciting morning on the first Sunday of Advent yesterday. As I arrived to prepare for the 9:00 service, I noticed one bank of lights in the sanctuary was out. I did a little investigation and discovered that there were power outages all over the building. We learned that there was a downed power line and prepared for a less than brightly illuminated service. Just after the completion of the reading from the Hebrew Bible, all of the lights went out. The church remained in darkness for the rest of the service.

As we worshipped, my eyes were drawn to the only artificial light in the sanctuary–the altar candles and the advent wreath. One of the themes of Advent is darkness and light. Tom spoke of that in his sermon, about the symbolism of lighting another candle each week as the days grow shorter. The flames from the candles were a reminder of the audacity of our faith and our longing for the coming of the Incarnation.