With The Day of Pentecost we come to the close of the Easter Season’s 50 day ‘feast of feasts’. In Israelite worship this 50th day after the Passover marked the end of the spring harvest and the offering of the ‘first fruits’ of the earth in sacrifice to God. It also was a feast commemorating the giving of Torah (the law/teaching) to Israel at Sinai during their desert wanderings.
The liturgical celebration centers on the risen Christ’s presence with us ‘to end of the age’. Through his promised gift of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter (Strengthener) ‘writes’ the Great Commandment of love for God and neighbor in our hearts, empowering us to witness to the Good News through our lives in the world.
As we near Pentecost, the colors of the Monastery chapel begin to shift from the whites and golds of Easter to the fiery hues of Pentecost. On the feast of Pentecost, the altar frontal and the celebrants’ vestments will be vibrant red, commemorating the “tongues of fire” that descended on the heads of the disciples who began to speak in other languages ‘the wonderful works of God’.
Since Pentecost is one of the feasts reserved for Holy Baptism, we frequently initiate new Christians through ‘water and the Spirit’, while publicly renewing the Baptismal Covenant ourselves. Another of our customs is to read the Eucharistic lessons in several languages to symbolize the reversal of the confusion of languages at the tower of Babel by the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Suggestions for Prayer and Practice
Scripture presents us with two very different accounts of how Jesus’ disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit: John 20:19-23 and Acts 2:1-21. Read the two accounts and meditate on how they differ. Which of the two experiences would you have preferred to have, and why? What does this reveal about how you experience God’s presence and power with you?
When the disciples receive the Spirit in the Gospel of John, Jesus breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Hebrew word for “spirit” means “breath” or “wind.” You might find it meaningful to pray with your own breath this Pentecost. You might pray with the text of hymn 508, “Breathe on me, breath of God.”
The Day of Pentecost is a wake-up call, a chance to invite the Spirit into our life. God is longing to give himself to us as fuel for our spirits. During this season, start each new day with an intentional time of refueling. Find a place at home to be still and attentive. And then open yourself to the Holy Spirit. A good opening prayer might be, “Come Holy Spirit. Fill me with life anew.” As we spend daily time with God, the Spirit is quietly nourishing and replenishing us, preparing us for the day ahead, to play our part in bringing justice, peace and hope into our broken and hurting world.
Praying the Questions
After they received the Holy Spirit, the believers were so aflame with the Spirit that they could not keep still. They simply had to tell others the news of how God’s power had raised Jesus from the dead. There was a fiery urgency in their proclamation, and their message had a powerful, life-changing effect on those who hear it. What can you do to be similarly transformed, to be made fearless and strong and to be filled with a passionate love for the Most High? How can you share word of God’s power in your own life, that it might have that same life-changing effect on those who hear it?
With organized religion steadily declining in our country, with nearly a quarter of the people in the U.S. identifying as having no religious preference, perhaps we could use some stirring up, if we hope to influence our own generation. Are we brave enough to pray for a windstorm like the one the disciples and the crowd experienced on Pentecost? Do we dare ask God to pour out the Holy Spirit on each of us and on the Church with power and might, as God did for these early believers? Do we have the courage to pray God to unleash the Spirit on us? Would we be willing for God to set us aflame with passion for the Gospel? Open the windows of your soul to let the mighty wind rush in. Will you dare to ask?
Ascensiontide is the brief ‘season’ which actually is a part of the Great Fifty Days of Eastertide, which stretches from Easter Day through and including the Day of Pentecost (from the Greek meaning fiftieth day). This season is observed in the nine days from the feast of the Ascension leading up to the feast of the Day of Pentecost. Ascensiontide marks liturgically the accounts in Luke and Acts where the Apostles experience the last of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, as well as their waiting in prayer upon his promised gift of the Holy Spirit to empower and guide them in preaching and living the Gospel.
In these ten days, through Word and Sacrament, we celebrate the mystery of Jesus’ glorification in kairos, God’s eternal now, and the entry of human nature into God’s very being. We celebrate the eternal presence of the risen Christ before God “to make intercession for us” (Hebrews 7:25) in his exalted human nature—in promise of our own sanctification and glorification in him. As the SSJE Rule notes: “Father Benson taught us to look always to the glory of the ascended Christ and find the meaning of all we do in union with him” (SSJE Rule of Life, Chapter 24, The Mystery of Intercession). The season of Ascension calls us to this work.
Yet in these days, we also celebrate Jesus’ abiding presence with all believers now. As he promised “…remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Though we await still the Feast of Pentecost, the promised Spirit, the Advocate, is already with us “to guide you into all truth” (John 16:13) Thus in these days we are invited to contemplate the mystery of the Ascension through the lens of John’s Gospel, where Jesus both is ascending and the Spirit is already given by Jesus on the day of the resurrection. There, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17). Similarly in one of the Johannine resurrection appearances, “…the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:20-22).
In the light of this understanding, we at SSJE do not follow the sometime-practice during of extinguishing the Paschal candle on Ascension Day, as we once did, because we recognize that the ascended Christ is already and always with us, and that the Spirit is always and already given to us.
In icons of the Ascension (see below), Jesus’ mother, Mary is usually present, shown praying in Orans position. She traditionally is not depicted as looking up, as the disciples are. This visual representation recalls the words of the two angels speak in Acts 1:11: “You men from Galilee, why do you stand looking up.” This emphasizes that this is not a literal event, but a way of understanding the change in Jesus’ presence with us.
Suggestions for Prayer and Practice
You might reread the accounts of Jesus’ Ascension recorded in the Scriptures: Luke 24:51; John 17:1-11; Acts 1:6-11. What stands out to you? What arises in you as you read these stories? Offer these observations to God in prayer.
You might find it meaningful during Ascension to pray in anticipation of Pentecost with the collect for the seventh Sunday of Easter: O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. Where are you seeking comfort right now? Where do you need the strength of God?
You might also want to try praying with paintings or images of the Ascension, like the icon of the Ascension from Pskov-Perchersky Monastery, Russia. Notice how the center of gravity in this icon is the assembled gathering below. Even the ascended Christ’s right hand of blessing points us back downward to the gathered crowd. Pray with this icon, asking Christ to make himself known to you in it. Ponder your own place in the crowd of Christ’s faithful followers.
Praying the Questions
What must the followers of Jesus must have thought of God’s faithfulness during that strange, silent hinge between Ascension and Pentecost. Jesus has left them, again, promising a comfort that has not yet come. In Luke, we read that they returned to the upper room, a place where Jesus’ presence had been palpable and significant: the site of the last meal they ate before his death; where they hid after his execution; and where he had revealed himself to them after he had risen. They spend the wait between Ascension and Pentecost in a place of memories, recalling God’s former faithfulness to quiet the doubt and fear no doubt rising in them. What “upper room” can you enter in these days of waiting? What memories of God’s past faithfulness can draw you through today’s uncertainty?
Before he ascends in their sight, Jesus says to his followers: Stay here. Wait. Wait until you have been clothed with power. The days of waiting between Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost are about God’s waiting on us: notfor our ability but for our availability to receive the power Jesus intends for us, which will come at Pentecost. How is God waiting for you to say “Yes” to your life? What will open up the channel for God’s work within you and through you?
The season of Easter begins in the darkness, as we gather in the early morning hours to celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter. This most ancient liturgy of the church is comprised of four parts: the Service of Light, in which we celebrate the new fire kindled from which to light the Paschal (Easter) Candle; the Vigil of Lessons, in which God’s saving deeds in history are retold; the Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant, in which believers reaffirm their commitment to the Christian way; and The Holy Eucharist, which breaks the Lenten fast with the proclamation of the Easter “Alleluia.”
At the Monastery we follow the practice of silencing the bells which usually punctuate our life from Maundy Thursday until after the Easter Acclamation. Worshippers at the Great Vigil of Easter are encouraged to bring with them any sort of hand-held bell to ring as we sing the Paschal hymn and “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” These many bells, and the bell in the Monastery tower, joyfully announce the Resurrection. This custom may reflect even more ancient habits of keeping silence before a spring equinox or a winter solstice, then celebrating it with a joyous celebration of light and sound to announce that the darkness has fled and new life is coming back into the world.
Throughout the fifty days of Easter, the vesture of the sacred ministers is white, symbolizing the light of Christ. Another symbol of the light of Christ is the Paschal candle, which remains prominently in the midst of our worship throughout Eastertide. Marked with the year and the Greek symbols Alpha and Omega (symbolizing the beginning and the end), this tall pillar is lit during every service of worship to recall the light of Christ in the world and his triumph over the powers of darkness and death. The flowers and plants around the candle will gradually change from the whites and yellows of Easter, to the oranges and reds of Pentecost, with its emphasis on the fire of Holy Spirit.
During Easter, our worship space is also dominated by the baptismal font, from which the congregation will be sprinkled with waters recalling those used at our own baptisms. As this is done, the Schola sings the ancient hymn, Vidi aquam, “I saw water.” During Eastertide worship, the Apostles’ Creed, anciently associated with the sacrament of baptism, will also be chanted in place of the Nicene Creed. In all these ways, the season of Easter becomes a chance to reengage with the deep meaning and truth of our baptism.
Suggestions for Prayer and Practice
During the Easter Vigil, we reaffirm our baptismal vows and commit ourselves anew to the Baptismal Covenant. During Eastertide, you might find it meaningful to return to the Baptismal Covenant (BCP 304-305) in prayerful reflection. Where is God calling you to devote yourself in this next season of your ongoing conversion to the life of Christ?
Throughout Eastertide, when we gather to pray and worship, we say “Alleluia” out loud almost endlessly. Alleluia / Hallelujah is a Hebrew word that means “praise the Lord.” “Hallelujah” appears in the New Testament as the chant of the choirs of heaven, singing praise, and glory, and gratitude to God. During Easter, you might find it meaningful to take “Hallelujah” out of church and into your day. Saying “Hallelujah” throughout the day is a way of expressing your gratitude and claiming your part in what God is up to in sharing with us the gift of life. Saying “Hallelujah” heralds the hope of Easter. How might saying “Hallelujah” change your day – your life – this Eastertide?
Praying the Questions
In each of the three gospels that record resurrection appearances, the authors make it clear that although the Lord is risen and glorified, he is nonetheless still mutilated, still maimed. The marks of death and loss are not erased by God’s redeeming work. The same is true in our lives: signs of death appear right alongside the presence of promised resurrection life. Where are you aware of signs of death and loss in your life and the world around you? Where do you see resurrection in your life and in our world right now?
The first resurrection appearance is to Mary Magdalene, who is weeping in the garden when Jesus speaks her name. God often comes to us when we are face-first with death. When all we can hear is: “It is finished” and all weep because all we can see is death, then Jesus stands beside and calls us by name. Have you had this experience? How has Jesus called you by name before? How have you made it through death already, through past losses?
The resurrection is not just some past or future event. We are invited to tap into Jesus’ resurrection power in the here-and-now for ourselves, and to share it with those whom we know and love, with the stream of strangers who cross our paths, and with our beloved earth. How has resurrection power been present to you in your past? What can you do to channel and share Jesus’ resurrection power today?
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. At the Monastery, we follow the tradition of burning the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday and using those ashes in our liturgy. Ashes are an ancient sign of sorrow and repentance. They symbolized mourning, mortality, poverty, and penance.
The Christian custom on being marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday draws from the early western church. Lent began as the season of final preparation (following a three-years’ instruction as catechumens) for those seeking Holy Baptism at Easter. But the season was also used as a period of personal public penance in which those separated from the Church were restored to communion and fellowship by being sprinkled with ashes, dressed in sackcloth, and obliged to remain apart from the Christian community until Maundy Thursday. By the tenth century, this public penance had fallen into disuse, but a derivation of the practice was claimed for the entire church by placing ashes on the foreheads of the entire congregation, making the sign of the cross.
The ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday offer a two-fold reminder, which can be helpful to carry forward throughout the whole of Lent. First, ashes are a reminder of our mortality. As we hear in the funeral rite: “earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” The ashes remind us to live every day with an awareness of the preciousness of life, the stewardship of our resources, and gratitude for all the gifts of this life, which will end.
Secondly, ashes remind us of poverty. By taking on this outward sign of ashes, we acknowledge our identification with the poor, on two levels. In an internal way, all of us probably know the ways in which we feel vulnerable and in need, in which we come up short. This feeds our internal identification with poverty.
By taking the sign of ashes on our forehead, we also choose to take on an external identification with the poor of this world. We belong to them, and they to us. With ashes on our forehead for others to see, we take on a public pledge of the remediation of others’ poverty.
Ash Wednesday – like the whole ensuing season of Lent – beckons us again into our work: of turning afresh to the Lord, seeing ourselves clearly, and giving our need to the One who formed us from the dust.
Suggestions for Prayer and Practice
The liturgy for Ash Wednesday contains many rich resources for prayer and reflection, which can be used throughout the season of Lent. You might find it meaningful, in your personal prayer, to return to elements from this stirring, soul-searching liturgy.
- Invitation to the observance of a holy Lent (BCP 264)
- Psalm 51 (BCP 266)
- Litany of Penance (BCP 267-9)
It has long been the Christian practice to adopt during the season of Lent some spiritual practice that will draw us closer to God and nearer to the self whom God intends us to be. For some, this practice is a “giving up” – breaking some unhealthy habit, for instance, or examining prayerfully some disordered attachment in our lives in order to gain freedom from it. For others, it is a “taking on” – adopting a healthy practice, or engaging our minds and bodies in new and life-giving ways, or reaching out to others. This Lent, prayerfully consider what practice would allow you to take the next step on your pilgrimage of faith.
Throughout Lent, we hear the call for repentance most every day. Repentance asks us to observe in retrospect where we had it wrong and with whom, and then to resolve to make amends where we can. You might find a daily practice of repentance to be a helpful Lenten discipline. At the end of each day, stop; review your day. Be thankful in every way you can be thankful; pay attention to where you need to repent. And then claim Jesus’ promise that he is with us to create in us a new heart.
Perhaps the most important discipline to take on during Lent is intentionality. Don’t sort-of do something. Don’t sort-of fast from something. Be intentional: be really present to the grace of this season and its power to draw us near to God.
Praying the Questions
In the collect from the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we pray, “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts….” The English word, “contrite,” comes from the Latin, contrītus, which means “thoroughly crushed.” The sense of the word is about having a heart broken open. How is your heart being broken open now, in this season of life? What is God inviting you to in this opening?
Lent is not a time to be miserable, to try to lose weight, to break old habits. Instead it is a time to discover who we truly are: a people worthy of pardon and absolution, a people worthy of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a people worthy to stand in God’s presence, a people worthy of God’s love. The purpose of Lent is to discover our worth, not to revel in our misery. This Lent, even as you acknowledge your sin, you might also mediate on your own worthiness. As you look in the mirror, can you see someone who is holy because God is holy? And as you go about the world – on the T, in a shop, at your office – can you see those around you as a temple of God, because God’s Spirit has chosen to dwell therein?
The penitence, self-examination, prayer, fasting, and alms-giving enjoined upon us in Lent are for us, for our own benefit, and not for God’s. They are meant to bring us into a face-to-face encounter with our need, as well as the need of our brothers and sisters. These spiritual tools have been sharpened and refined by the generations and bequeathed to us for the sake of our growth in humility and larger vision. The longer we look, the more God will reveal. How have you been blind or refused God’s invitations to grow?
The Christmas season is actually twelve days long (hence the familiar carol), running from Christmas Eve (December 24) until the Eve of the Epiphany (January 5). At the Monastery, we celebrate Christmas for twelve whole days, including by observing several significant feast days that connect the Feast of the Nativity to early spreading of the gospel: the feasts of Saint Stephen (the first martyr of the Church), Saint John the Evangelist, and the Holy Innocents. These days’ mix of joy and harsh realities – what we are being called to give our lives to – marks this season, then and now.
One significant way that we celebrate Christmas at SSJE is actually by not beginning early. It’s Advent straight until December 24, and only then do we begin to decorate. At the heart of our Chapel decorations is an olive wood crèche crafted in olive wood by Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem. A generous gift made it possible for the Brothers to commission this stunning work of art. In worship during Christmastide, the blessing of the crèche at the beginning of the Eucharist acknowledges and celebrates the gift of Christmas: Christ in our midst.
Visitors to the Chapel will also notice the festive evergreens that deck the choir grille. “Greening the Church” is an old English tradition, which nods to our community’s roots in Oxford. The fruit at the base of the crucifix (rood) on the grille is symbolic of the fruit of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. The cross itself is often referred to as the tree of life, and partaking of its fruit (the bread and wine of the Eucharist) reverses the curse of the Fall. At the base of the rood, you’ll also spy the “Partridge in a pear tree,” an ancient symbol for Christ on the cross.
Suggestions for Prayer
- We invite you to pray deeply with the Nativity icon, using a guided video program by our Br. James Koester, available at SSJE.org/nativity
- Revisit the Nativity story in the gospels (Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 2:1-12). What details stand out to you? What does the text actually name? What do you associate with the Christmas story that is not present here?
- This Christmastide, pray with the Holy Family in our midst in the form of the millions of refugees of our own moment. We urge you to visit Episcopal Migration Ministries to see how you can help. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/ministries/episcopal-migration-ministries/
Praying the Questions
- What is your nativity story? When we are born into this world, the first thing we do is to cry for help. What hardship have you had to endure? How have you cried out for help? Who has nurtured you?
- We are all born of God, and a gift of God. To whom are you given as a gift?
- Reflect on the paradoxes of the Christmas season – the juxtaposition, for instance, of the joys of the Christmas feast with the tragedy we immediately commemorate the very next day: the stoning of Stephen, the church’s first martyr. How have such juxtapositions and paradoxes marked your own life? How might they dwell in your heart this Christmastide?
The Advent Season (the four weeks leading up to Christmas) begins with warnings for awareness of and readiness for the end times – which come in some form to every era and every human life. Traditionally this has been taken as a call to meditate upon the ‘last things’: death, judgment, heaven and hell.
During Advent, those who join us in the Chapel might notice some key changes to our worship:
- During our celebration of the Eucharist on Tuesdays in Advent, we begin in a dimmed chapel. The lights rise slowly while we join in singing the Candlelighting Anthem: “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” In Advent, we await the coming of the ‘Light of the world’ in the face of Jesus. The word “Advent” means ‘coming,’ and so this season, we both celebrate Jesus’ first Advent among humanity, and await his second Advent, when all shall live together as children of the most-high and the darkness shall give way to light.
- At SSJE, our tradition is to use the color blue in Advent. Our church is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary who cooperated with God in giving birth to Jesus, the human face of God in our midst. Traditionally, blue is the color associated with Mary and so our primary space of worship is imbued with the color blue as the sun shines through the stained glass. The altar is also draped in blue with accents of earthy green and rose, which match the vestments worn by the priest.
- The third Sunday of Advent (just a little over a week before Christmas) is called ‘Gaudete’ Sunday — Gaudete is the Latin word for ‘rejoice.’ This day is marked by the addition of the color rose to the Advent blue. In many Advent wreaths, you’ll see three blue candles (or purple depending on your tradition) and one rose candle. Here at the monastery, we place pink roses among the evergreen branches of the wreath, and our altar frontal is turned around to the side that contains only blue and rose. The seasonal Advent Chasuble (the vestment worn by the presider at the Eucharist each day) has a ring around the shoulders that symbolizes the Advent wreath with four golden crosses, three set in a deep blue, and one set in a velvety swatch of rose.
Praying with images
Consider finding an image or painting or photograph that seems to speak a theme of Advent (waiting, repentance, scenes of wilderness, lamp light are just a few examples) and take on the practice of looking at it with a gaze that anticipates, even expects, something to be communicated.
Additionally, the readings prescribed in the lectionary are replete with images of all kinds—pay attention to these and try to use them as jumping off points in your prayer during this expectant season.
Praying your life
Finally, recollect those moments of your life that were characterized in particular by some kind of expectant waiting. What was God saying to you during such times? Can you bring that awareness into a fresh conversation with Jesus?
Praying with poetry
The hymnal is a great resource for prayer when you find yourself unsure of how to begin, and the Advent section of The Hymnal 1982 (hymns 53—76) is particularly rich. “O come, O come, Emmanuel” (hymn 56) even includes a schema for the daily reading of a stanza beginning on December 17. You might even try pairing these with the readings of the lectionary for a particular day, listening for the dialogue that ensues between scripture and poetry.
Praying with the Propers: The Great “O” Antiphons
Try Praying the Great “O” Antiphons (so named because they each begin with “O”) during the last seven days of Advent. In Western rites, an antiphon is a short sentence of scripture that sung or recited before and after a canticle, which is a hymn or chant with a biblical text. In the Anglican tradition, we sing canticles frequently and in various forms or occasions.
The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are the central canticles for Evensong. The Gloria in excelsis is the central canticle we sing most often for the Holy Eucharist. Occasionally, a canticle will replace the Psalm in the lectionary readings, as is the case on both the second and third Sundays in Advent—look out for instances like this as you follow your Ordo.
Historically, the “O” antiphons occurred at the praying of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer on the weekdays leading up to Christmas Day. These historical stanzas find their way into our hymnic repertoire in (as noted above) “O come, O come, Emmanuel” which are clearly lined out in Hymn 56 in The Hymnal 1982.
The Great “O” Antiphons: O Wisdom, O Adonai, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Rising Dawn, O Rex Gentium, O Emmanuel, O Virgin of Virgins.
Praying with the Book of Common Prayer’s “Outline of the Faith”
The final section, The Christian Hope, in the Book of Common Prayer’s “An Outline of the Faith” (pp. 846-862) provides a framework for prayer with these themes, in the context of the expectation, hope, and love assured in God’s eternal promises in Christ. In the season of Advent, we invite you to use this sections as a prompt for your own reflection and prayer.
The Christian Hope
Q: What is the Christian hope?
A: The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.
Q: What do we mean by the coming of Christ in glory?
A: By the coming of Christ in glory, we mean that Christ will come, not in weakness but in power, and will make all things new.
Q: What do we mean by heaven and hell?
A: By heaven, we mean eternal life in our enjoyment of God; by hell, we mean eternal death in our rejection of God.
Q: Why do we pray for the dead?
A: We pray for them, because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.
Q: What do we mean by the last judgment?
A: We believe that Christ will come in glory and judge the living and the dead.
Q: What do we mean by the resurrection of the body?
A: We mean that God will raise us from death in the fullness of our being, that we may live with Christ in the communion of the saints.
Q: What is the communion of saints?
A: The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.
Q: What do we mean by everlasting life?
A: By everlasting life, we mean a new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other.
Q: What, then, is our assurance as Christians?
A: Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.