Note to readers: Liturgical entries on this blog are based on the traditional calendar of the Books of Common Prayer and the traditional one-year Eucharistic lectionary. If you follow a newer calendar or three-year lectionary, there are variations in names for some Sundays and in the readings.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Circumcision of Christ

Throughout liturgical history, the Church seems to have had difficulty dealing with January 1. In ancient times, there was some fear of the paganism associated with the secular new year. After December 25 became the feast of the Nativity, it seems that the first of Janary was sometimes simply the end of the octave. In other places, the date was a feast of the Virgin. Slowly it became the feast of the Circumcision (and in some places Naming)of the Christ Child, and in traditional Anglican Prayer Books it remains the Circumcision. With late 20th century liturgical revisions, the Roman Catholic Church returned to the Marian feast, and some Anglicans and others stressed the Holy Name of Jesus.

While it is certainly appropriate to honor the Virgin in this season, and while the meaning of our Lord's name certainly deserves attention, the traditional Prayer Book name for this day also brings up several significant points. 1)Christ's Circumcision has been viewed as a foreshadowing of His later sacrificial work. Even as He became part of the covenant, He shed some of His blood for the cause of redemption. 2)Circumcision brings home the truth of the Incarnation in a special way. Although the Child of Bethlehem came to identify with and redeem all humanity, He also came in a specific form- a first century Jewish male. He took upon Himself the covenants with Abraham and Moses. He fulfilled the Law perfectly as He deepened its meaning and added new aspects of grace. 3) Christ's physical circumcision points to our need for "circumcision of the heart, in the spirit" (Rom. 2:25, 29). "For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh" (Phil. 3:3). We Christians "are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ" (Col. 2:11).

So let us contemplate the two together: Christ's physicial circumcision and the spiritual circumcision offered to believers. As we begin a new calendar year, may we renew our dedication. Let us strive anew to put away evil ways and to be faithful to the new covenant.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Holy Innocents Day

Once again the ancient calendar of the Church tempers our worldly tendencies in celebrating the Nativity of Christ. St. Matthew 2 tells us about the cruel act of King Heriod. In an attempt to eliminate the threat of Christ to his worldly power, the king ordered the execution of male children in Bethlehem under two years of age.

Thus, we see that the first Christmas was not all filled with kindly sentimentality. Even as angels, shepherds and wise men from the East greeted the Saviour's Birth, the forces of evil, destruction and death were still at work. The Christ Child became the object of hatred, and His innocent contemporaries were killed. Despite the many and great works that God has done to redeem human beings, our world is still the same. Many people do not welcome the good news of the divine child, and many still destroy the innocent to preserve personal power, wealth, comfort, convenience, etc.

Nevertheless, despite the existence and strength of evil in the world, God's work was not stopped. For all the evil he did, Herod did not succeed in destroying the incarnation of God's truth, love and grace. Herod's kingdom faded away, but the work of redemption in Jesus Christ continued. And so it is to our day. There is indeed much evil in the world, and it does cause much suffering, even of the most innocent. But God's work of redemption is not defeated. It continues and will continue to the end of the age and beyond.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

It is certainly appropriate that we remember St. John on the third day of Christmas (and this year the first Sunday after Christmas). The BCP collect reminds us of the light that we encounter in his writings. In particular, St. John is the one who highlights the mystery of the Incarnation and teaches us most explicitly that our Lord Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. May His divine light illuminate during this holy season and always!

St. Stephen

Today is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church. For some people, it seems incongruous to celebrate a martyrdom on the day after Christmas. From a mundane perspective, such a observance may seem like a downer. Yet, since the early days of the church calendar in the fourth century, the feast of the Nativity and that of St. Stephen have been bound together. From a spiritual and theological point of view, the juxtaposition is subtle and fascinating. As in humility, God's Son is born on earth, so in humility His servant Stephen has his heavenly birthday. And even the birth of Jesus to be our Redeemer is inseparable from the work of redemption leading to the Cross. So there is joy, the feasting does continue, but the joy is not mundane. It has a profound and and serious meaning. It points us to what C.S. Lewis in the Narnia Chronicles calls the "deep magic"- salvation through sacrifice. We rejoice in faith and love because the divine work of redemption for us sinners continues in a variety of manifestations.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Feast of the Nativity

Finally, it's Christmas Eve, and for both secularists and traditional Christians, Christmas is at hand. Soon there will feasting and opening of packages across the land, and those who have not been saying it all month will say "Merry/Happy Christmas" (or for some the generic "Happy Holidays"). Yet that is about as far as the common elements go. For the popular culture tells us that Christmas is about over. It's easy to understand why people may feel that way. Indeed, even those of us who truly appreciate Christmas can be glad that the commercial and media season is ending. A month of holiday sales, shiny packages, secular winter songs, reindeer cartoons and so forth is too much.

However, for traditional Anglicans, this is not the end of Christmas. In fact, it is the beginning. The first celebrations of Christ's Mass will occur after sundown, and the twelve days of Christmas begin. And the twelve days are not about partridges in pear trees and other strange gifts. The twelve days celebrate our Lord's Nativity, the surrounding events and the meaning of the Nativity for our faith. We need to focus on this great and unique event. Jesus the Christ, God the Son incarnate, the eternal Word, was born of the blessed Virgin Mary in Bethlehem. This historical event is more than a birthday celebration. It has the greatest theological and spiritual significance. Christ has come "to save us all from Satan's power." And He can still "cast out our sin and enter in" to be born anew in our hearts, minds and souls.
So as Christmas truly begins this evening, let us look beyond all the pleasant mundane distractions of the holidays. Let us find some times of reflection to center upon the Incarnation of the One who has come, still comes in Word and Sacrament and will come again to save us. Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Church Calendar- Advent

As a child of ten, one of the things that first drew me toward the traditions of the Church was the church year. It taught me to appreciate order and beauty in the proclamation of the Christian message. Over the years, this appreciation eventually led to an appreciation of the Book of Common Prayer and the catholic aspects of the Anglican tradition. As an adult, the church calendar has often led me into periods of renewal as we have moved through the ecclesiatical seasons reflecting on the different themes of the Gospel.
I have been thinking on this during this Advent. We have begun the cycle anew. The glimmers of light from the prophets come to us sinners in our darkness and call us to repentance and renewal. No matter where we are in our Christian journey, the darkness of the fallen world and our fallen nature threaten to hide divine truth. Yet, the light still flickers, and we anticipate even greater light as we look forward to celebrating the Incarnation of the One who is the Light of the world.

"Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light..." (Collect for Advent).