The months-long suspension of in-person worship required in response to the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a disorienting experience for church-folk throughout the world. Added to the need for physical distancing in nearly every aspect of daily life, some experience the interruption of regular religious assembly and fellowship as a painful loss. Though alleviated to some degree by the use of technological capabilities for online gathering, the inability to partake of the sacraments is a profound grief for many. In the disruption of accustomed, habitual practices, the temptation to turn inward in despair and inertia is great.
But now our world languishes and groans in the midst of disease and death and the exposure of long-standing hatred, prejudices, injustices and inequities, all the result of human sin. Christians must relinquish self-concern and fear and give themselves, individually and corporately, to steadfast witness of our Creator’s goodness and love.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul points us to our baptismal death to sin as the source of new and abundant life in Christ, both for ourselves and for the world which Jesus came to save. “You also must consider yourselves dead to dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” [Romans 6:11]
By our union with Christ in the baptismal mystery of his dying and rising we find our unity and meaning in life as his disciples. The Baptismal Covenant which we profess together in the Apostles’ Creed points to the present and eternal reality of our oneness with God, with one another, and with the whole Creation. Our re-birth in Holy Baptism through water and the anointing Spirit has marked us “as Christ’s own for ever”, a new creation reflecting the glory of God in our very being. Through three renunciations of evil and sin, and through three pledges to “turn” to the obedience of our Lord and Savior’s grace and love, we have been given power to be God’s children and messengers of the Good News of God in Christ now.
Psalm 138:1-4, 7-9
In the year 2006, author John Koenig began a writing project based on his observation that there were no words to describe certain common existential feelings and emotions. These holes in the language inspired him to research etymologies, prefixes, suffixes and root words which resulted in a weblog of neologisms and their definitions (a neologism being a newly coined word or expression that has not quite found its way into common use). On his website and YouTube Channel, both bearing the name “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” John introduces us to words like: vermodalen, the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist. Liberosis, the desire to care less about things. And opia, the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye.[i] There is a word from this dictionary that has entered into my prayer life as of late: avenoir, the desire to see memories in advance. On his YouTube channel Koenig gives an exposition of this definition. He writes, ‘We take it for granted that life moves forward. You build memories; you build momentum. You move as a rower moves: facing backward. You can see where you’ve been, but not where you’re going. And your boat is steered by a younger version of you. It’s hard not to wonder what life would be like facing the other way.’[ii]
I imagine that the reason this word has been the focus of my prayer lately is due to the fact that I lost both of my parents recently within the course of a year. Not only have these two losses in a relatively short time been disorienting, they have forced me to take action on many things that I thought I had time to plan. Being an only child, I am now facing the responsibility of resolving the affairs of my parent’s estate, including the clearing out and sale of a house filled with the remnants of memories made by three lives that once lived there. I am very in touch now with the enigma of time, both temporal and eternal. The temporal comes and goes within the construct of earthly time in the matter of decades, years, months, days, or as little as one second. The eternal lives on and on, long past the ability of finite human brains and hearts to recall. It is hard to imagine what exactly eternal means within the construct of our bodies and minds, which are temporary (a word that shares the same root as the word temporal).
Our Collect for today concentrates on the themes of temporality and eternity. Translated from the Gregorian Sacramentary in the sixteenth century by Thomas Cranmer, it bids us to pray about time in terms of our finitude and God’s infinity: ‘Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.’ I would say this is definitely a hard task that can only be accomplished with God’s help, thus why this Collect has itself stood the test of time, being prayed in the Anglican Church for close to five hundred years. What are these temporal things we need to pass through and what are the eternal things we do not want to lose?
In the book The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, Frederick Barbee and Paul Zahl write: ‘Do you ever see your life, in hindsight, at least, if not during the events when they actually happened, as an obstacle course? What should have ended well, did not. And the ending cast a shadow over everything, even the good things that preceded it?’[iii]I imagine that most of us here have had at least one bad month, week, or day in our lives where nothing has quite gone the way we expected or desired and it seemingly snuffed out the fire in our hearts. Certainly I! The SSJE Rule of Life acknowledges that: ‘Powerful forces are bent on separating us from God, our own souls, and one another through the din of noise and the whirl of preoccupation.’[iv] Fear, Shame, Guilt, Blame, Misinformation, and Misunderstanding are often the secret ingredients in a toxic cocktail that we drink thinking it will be an elixir to anesthetize our pain. If it was not hard enough to navigate our own particular orbit, we have a national and international community that seems to be fraught with turmoil. Racism, Xenophobia, Elitism, Homelessness, Addiction, Narcissism, and the myth of self-sufficiency whirl about us like the perfect storm. We turn to social media in the hopes of finding community and connection but end up further isolated, posting sound-bytes that feed narcissistic self-righteous attitudes and then not sticking around to face the alienating consequences. These constructs are of our own making, the temporal fabrications of temporary creatures who have not the wit nor the time to repair them. And so, we navigate through a minefield, trying to find our way through without taking a step that could alter our lives within a decade, month, week, day, or split-second.
So, what are the eternal things that we are want not to lose? The one thing that comes to mind for me is love. Not sexual love necessarily (or what is known as eros in Greek), although it is a wonderful thing (and I dare say, temporal). The love that I am referring to is the love that, in the words of St. Paul: ‘is patient and kind; not envious, boastful, or arrogant. Love that does not insist on it’s own way. Love that is not irritable or resentful. Love that rejoices in truth not wrong doing. Love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’[v]This is a love that is sacrificial at its core. The gospel writer of John says: ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’[vi]This is the love on which Jesus says hangs all the Law and the Prophets: love of God and love of neighbor as self. It is what is known in the Greek as agape. Agape love is eternal because it originates in God and is God’s very essence. And where do we find this love?
It seems almost impossible that we who are housed in temporal bodies could even contain, much less hold on to, things eternal. But, many temporal things point sacramentally to the eternal (a sacrament being and outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace). You could certainly say this chapel is iconic of this concept. When you enter, you literally undergo a ‘conversion experience.’ That is to say, you walk through the door into a narthex, and your stride is broken and you have to turn to cross a threshold. Once you cross this threshold, you enter into a space where two concepts of time conjoin: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is physical, temporal time; that of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, etc. The rounded arches at the back of the chapel are in the Romanesque style (ranging from the 6th to 11th centuries). Once you cross the gate, you are flanked by pointed gothic arches (prevalent from the 12th to the 16th centuries). This journey through Chronos points and leads to Kairos. Kairos is God’s time, the critical moment of decision. The altar representing the Body of Christ and the Baldachino, the place where heaven and earth come together. We lift up our hearts and minds and all that we are in offering to God and here God becomes present to us in these gifts of bread and wine: the bread broken for us, the wine poured out for us. It is the re-membering of the ultimate sacrifice of love given by Jesus on the cross, forever joining the eternal to the temporal, and by grace the temporal to the eternal.
It is here that we come to know that we are made in the image of God, with the same capacity of eternal, abiding, transforming love. The presider says, ‘Behold what you are,’ in which we respond, ‘may we become what we receive.’ Temporal containers of eternal love. We take and eat with the assurance that little by little, with each approach to this eternal banquet table, that God’s mercy is increased and multiplied so that we may indeed pass through the things temporal and hold on to things eternal. St. Paul says: ‘See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.’ Our founder Fr. Benson said about the Eucharist: ‘As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us.’[vii] In this transformative journey through the temporal, with Jesus as our ‘ruler and guide,’ we become able to hold on to the things eternal and in our transfiguration, we can help to transform the world.
John Koenig goes on to describe avenoir, and equates this travel towards approaching memory as headed in the direction of child-like innocence, generocity, and wonder. I close with his words:
‘You’d remember what home feels like, and decide to move there for good. You’d grow smaller as the years pass, as if trying to give away everything you had before leaving. You’d try everything one last time, until it all felt new again. And then the world would finally earn your trust, until you’d think nothing of jumping freely into things, into the arms of other people. You’d start to notice that each summer feels longer than the last until you reach the long coasting retirement of childhood. You’d become generous, and give everything back. Pretty soon you’d run out of things to give, things to say, things to see. By then you’ll have found someone perfect; and she’ll become your world. And you will have left this world just as you found it. Nothing left to remember, nothing left to regret, with your whole life laid out in front of you, and your whole life left behind.’[viii]
[i]Koenig, John. “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.” The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Tumbler, www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/.
[iii]Zahl, Paul F.M., and C. Frederick Barbee. Collects of Thomas Cranmer. William B Eerdmans Publishing, 1999.
[iv]The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. Chapter 27: Silence
[v]1 Corinthians 13:4-7
[vii]The Religious Vocation: Of Communion, Ch. XII, pp. 160-161
The Spirit spoke, Philip ran, the Eunuch asked, teaching began, water appeared, the chariot halted, baptism happened, lives were changed.
In my experience, conversion and discipleship are rarely this efficient but the elements, the rhythm, the signs are familiar. I recognize the irreducible miracle of spiritual mentoring and good teaching because I have received it. Faithful women and men have come alongside my messy, ordinary life at just the right moment. When God shows up between a mentor and a seeker, the sum is infinitely greater than the parts and everyone is changed forever. Who was your Philip? Who is your Philip today?
Is it any wonder that the account of the Ethiopian Eunuch is a template for the ancient Christian discipleship process, what the church calls “the catechumenate?” The word “catechumen” is from Biblical Greek, meaning “one who sounds out something.” The catechumenate is a supportive and encouraging environment in which an inquirer makes a series of informed decisions to journey through to Christian initiation. We see here, in this passage from Acts, the dynamic interaction between community, scripture, and sacrament that produces a living ecosystem in which transformation and growth occur.
When the people of God are listening, paying disciplined attention to the Lectionary, bringing their deepest longings into Liturgy and looking out for signs of Life, then the Holy Spirit calls seekers to appear, teachers to emerge, Christians are formed, and vocations are discerned. For seekers to turn and bring their longings toward the Church, the Church must be intentionally showing and sharing the Gospel with the world. If the church is to be a sign of Life — a magnet for the God-given longing in all people to reconcile with God and with one another — then the Church must speak its abundant life in the terms of the times. As Anglicans, we are at our best when we engage the signs of our times with the signs of eternal life.
We are now two weeks into a season of the church called Epiphany. Having grown up in a different Christian tradition, I admit that the meaning of this period of the church year alluded me for quite some time. When I first came to the Episcopal Church, I had never heard of Epiphany. Like being a postulant and novice in a monastery, becoming acclimated to the richness of a new tradition can take some time. We learn by entering into the life slowly, absorbing little by little all that tradition has to teach us. There usually comes a moment when the nature and purpose of a particular practice will become apparent and make us exclaim: “Eureka! I got it!” While an epiphany seems like a sudden and random event, the truth is epiphanies happen after a significant period of time when a final tidbit of information gathered brings something into focus. While the ‘Eureka effect,’ (the sudden elation one experiences when having an epiphany) makes this event appear to be random, in actuality it is the end of a long process. Epiphany (from the Greek) literally means manifestation.
Earth is crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God…1
One of the catch phrases of the recent political landscape has been “It’s the economy, stupid.” It sounds like something Jesus might have said in one of his crankier moments. Jesus was very concerned with money and had a lot to say about it.
About this time of year parishes all over the country are having “Stewardship Sunday”. (Perhaps that’s why some of you are here!) Vestries are preparing annual budgets and figuring out ways to economize. Some preachers are reminding people of the Biblical standard of the tithe. People are wondering if that means 10% before taxes or after.
When I think of the early martyrs I often think of Tertullian’s words, “The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church.” (Apologeticus Ch. 50) That simple sentence contains the answer to many questions about the martyrs’ willingness to face death.
Ignatius of Antioch was one of those martyrs, a century earlier than Tertullian.
1 Sam. 3: 1-20; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Cor. 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
This is surely one of Jesus’ more obscure sayings. “Very truly I tell you,” he says to Nathanael, “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” The reference is to Jacob’s dream in Genesis when he sees angels on a ladder ascending to and descending from heaven. But what can it possibly mean? We need to do a little detective work.
So, why not start in Paris? I’m not a regular in Paris, but have managed to get there three or four times. On one visit way back when I happened to go into a book store—an old-fashioned book store (remember book stores?). Very high ceilings with shelves all the way to the top, ladders to get up there. The overflow in stacks on tables, even on the wood plank floor. The fragrance of old leather bindings in the air. It happened to be a Left Bank version of what we would call a “New Age” bookstore: all the world religions, and then some. Theosophy, Anthroposophy, astrology and numerology and the occult, etc. etc.–all the more exotic for being in French. There in the Christian section of the store a little book jumped out at me (have you ever had books jump out at you?) “Le Symbolisme du Temple Chrétien”. The symbolism of the Christian temple. By someone named Jean Hani. I bought and read it.
1 Cor. 11:23-29; Jn 6:47-58
Today we are keeping the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, historically called Corpus Christi. On this solemn feast day we acknowledge and celebrate the meaning of the Holy Eucharist wherein we are spiritually fed by the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ under the forms of consecrated bread and wine, and fed also by the prayers of the whole Church.
All of the Post Communion prayers that we use during the year recognize the importance that the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist has for us, but there is one of those that I think particularly points up that importance in ways that go beyond our daily spiritual nourishment to touch on the cosmic dimensions of what takes place when we have participated in this Holy Sacrament. That is the prayer that begins with the words, “God of abundance”.