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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Thursday before Easter, commonly called Maundy Thursday

The Thursday in Holy Week has a long history and a number of liturgical associations- preparing for confirmation, the blessing of holy oils, the washing of feet, the stripping of altars... And of course, the commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist is central in the mind of most people. The Prayer Book epistle from I Corinthians xi contains St. Paul's version of the words of institution. These simple words are at the heart of Christian worship. Theologians have often discussed and disputed the exact meaning of the words. Without denying the importance of sacramental theology, certain simple affirmations seem clear. First, Jesus Himself began and commanded His disciples to continue this action. Secondly, He related it to His self-sacrifice that was about to take place for human salvation. Thirdly, this commemoration of His death also points to His continuing presence as a living Lord who will come again in glory.

Although I have read much theology over the years, on Maundy Thursday (and on many other occasions as well), the main point is experiential. As I think about and participate in the Lord's Supper, I sense what He has done for our/my salvation, I know His continuing presence through the blessed bread and wine, and I receive His grace to continue the journey in faith. The beautiful gift of Holy Communion exceeds any theological essay that I can write about it. So I simply conclude, "Thank you Lord".

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Sunday next before Easter, commonly called Palm Sunday

So this last Sunday in Lent is commonly called Palm Sunday, even by some from Protestant groups that do not observe the rest of Lent. The triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem at the beginning of the first Holy Week started being observed publicly in Palestine in the early fourth century. Interestingly, however, Books of Common Prayer from 1549 until the 1928 revision did not call it Palm Sunday. Over the centuries after 1549, the Gospel for Advent I was the time that the story of Christ's triumphal entry was read at the Eucharist among Anglicans. The 1928 BCP restored the title Palm Sunday, and it included the account from St. Mark 11 for an alternate Morning Prayer lesson. Of course, those who want to bless palms must use the 1960 Book of Offices, the Priest's Manual or some other source.

Certainly, the story of Christ's entrance into Jerusalem should be remembered. The event was rich in symbolism. He came on a donkey as a peaceful king from the ancient East would come to be enthroned. And the children and humble people present that day welcomed and praised Him. He deserved the praise and recognition. He was the true king of God's people, the Messianic deliverer. Unfortunately, the crowds did not really understand Him. They did not really accept His spiritual way of being a leader. They were looking for a political deliverer, and when the crowds were disappointed, they would quickly turn on Jesus and accept His crucifixion.

Thus, the Palm Gospel for the day naturally leads us to the Passion Gospel which is central on this day. In fact, except for the alternate option on Maundy Thursday, all the Gospel selections for this week are from the Passion accounts. The events that we commemorate this week are key to to whole Christian message. The Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ are the greatest acts of God for our salvation. Without them, Jesus' birth and ministry lose significance. Without them, we have no hope of redemption from our sins, no hope of eternal life. A faithful response to the events of Holy Week and Easter are central to what it means to be Christian. So let us take time all this week to listen, read and meditate on these painful but mighty acts of God.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Annunciation of the blessed Virgin Mary

This feast is often neglected because it is a weekday, because it falls during Lent and perhaps because the event also receives attention during Advent. 25 March was first mentioned as a possible date for the Annunciation in the third century, and its observance developed and spread over several centuries. In medieval England it was known as "Lady Day," and until the mid-eighteenth century in England, it was the beginning of the New Year.

Of course, the basis for the observance of the Annunciation is in St. Luke i.26, "And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin esposed to a man whose name was Joseph , of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary." Hopefully, we know the rest of the story. She was humble and obedient to God, and although she was fearful and amazed, she accepted that she was to bear the one who was both Messiah and Son of God. The blessed Virgin is certainly a great example of holiness and faith, the greatest example ever, aside from her unique son.

The significance of the Annunciation is admirably tied into the other events of redemption by the collect of the day:

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 into the glory of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

So on this Thursday after Passion Sunday and before Palm Sunday, we have multiple aspects of the message of Christ's Gospel brought together. The One announced to the Virgin is the same One who suffered, died and rose again to save us. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Fifth Sunday of Lent, commonly called Passion Sunday

Despite the 1928 BCP subtitle for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, I am not sure how commonly it is called Passion Sunday anymore. This title was sometimes used in the Middle Ages, re-entered Anglican usage in the nineteenth century and first occurred in the American Book of Common Prayer in 1928. It was used in Roman liturgies until the 1960's when the title was shifted to Palm Sunday.

The theme of Christ's Passion is related to both the traditional Epistle (Hebrews ix.11-15) and Gospel (St. John viii.46-59) for Lent V. In particular, the Epistle stresses the great and unique sacrifice of Christ. By offering Himself, He purified believers, and thereby through Him, they are able to offer living works to His praise and glory. And eventually, those who remain faithful will "receive the promise of eternal inheritance."

As we enter Passiontide (the last two weeks of Lent), let us keep these themes in mind. We are not contemplating dead events of ancient history, and our religious disciplines of the season must not degenerate into some kind of dead self-justifying works. As we think of Christ's sacrifice, we must realize that His great work of redemption is already operative on our behalf. He is already enabling us to worship Him, to do the good deeds that He wishes and to hold fast to our eternal hope in Him.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Fourth Sunday in Lent- Refreshment Sunday

Over the centuries, this Fourth Sunday in Lent has had a number of associations, and the BCP collect and lessons reflect some of these. Perhaps the oldest association was an Eastern celebration of the Holy Cross, which may be reflected in the Epistle choice mentioning Jerusalem. One popular name, "Refreshment Sunday," refers to the Gospel about feeding the five thousand. In traditional Roman use, this was also the Sunday known as "Rose Sunday" with rose rather than violet vestments (and also the tradition of a golden papal rose sent to distinguished leaders of society). Finally, in medieval England, this Sunday became known as "Mothering Sunday" because of visits and special offerings for the mother church of each diocese. In some parts of England, the mothering theme developed to allow servants, apprentices and students to visit their mothers on this day.

All of these tidbits can be interesting, and the Epistle and Gospel certainly say important things to us. However, my thoughts are drawn to the collect:

GRANT, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Although the mood of Lent lightens a bit before we move on toward Passiontide, we must keep remembering the gravity of our sins and our need for divine grace.

Thirty-nine Articles of Religion: A Personal Perspective

One of the many ironies of Anglicanism is the position of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. A statement meant to promote relative harmony in the sixteenth century Church of England (1563,1571) has occasioned much debate and recrimination over the years. In recent times, many Anglicans of various persuasions (especially most latitudinarians/liberals) have tried to distance themselves from the Articles. Yet, although differing in the interpretation of certain details, most low church, centrist and high church Anglicans throughout history have affirmed the Thirty-Nine Articles. Since at least 1662, they have been printed with the English Book of Common Prayer and Ordinal (and since 1801 with the American Book of Common Prayer). Furthermore, when non-Anglicans (from Baptists to Roman Catholics) write about Anglican doctrine, they always seem to mention the Articles along with the Prayer Book. So whether Anglican individuals or groups appreciate the Thirty-Nine Articles or not, it seems to me that they are an inescapable part of the Anglican heritage and identity.

For me personally, the Articles are a highly valued part of the Anglican heritage. After the Prayer Book Daily Office and Holy Communion services, the Articles were one of the first things that attracted me to Anglicanism. I found them and still find them rooted in Scripture, consistent with the ancient catholic faith and filled with valuable insights on faith from the Reformation. While certain phrases are historically dated, the Articles as a whole still proclaim a positive Anglican summary of the Christian Faith. They distinguish the Anglican perspective from the views of other religious groups, and at the same time, they allow for variety in emphasis and interpretation. Through the Articles and the Prayer Book, it seems that Anglicanism has a solid foundation. Indeed, if Anglicans really took the Articles and the Book of Common Prayer seriously, I do not think that there would be any need to try to negotiate some new Anglican covenant.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Third Sunday in Lent

In today's gospel from St. Luke 11, let us focus on one saying. In Luke 11:23, Christ says, "he that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth."
This statement calls for an exclusive loyalty to Christ. It does not allow for sitting on the fence, and such an exclusive commitment makes many people a bit uncomfortable in our age that adores tolerance and relativism. In our age, most people probably prefer a more tolerant-sounding verse from St. Luke 9:50, "he that is not against us is for us."

Indeed, there are times, places and issues when tolerance and openness are appropriate. However, there are other times, places and issues such as in Luke 11 when the situation is different. In this case, a number of people were trying to avoid commitment. Christ performed great works right in front of them, but they still refused to support Him. Some suggested that He Himself might be in collusion with evil forces, and others pretended to be neutral. At that point in His ministry and under such clear-cut conditions, neutrality was no longer a viable alternative. When bald-faced evil opposed the Holy One, there could be no disinterested bystanders. Failure to support Christ against evil was the same as supporting evil itself.

We still see these two types of situations in the world around us. In some situations, anyone who sincerely shares our faith in Christ and works to bring about Christ's goals is on the same side we are. As long as people oppose evil in Christ's name and for His sake, it isn't our place to stop them. In such situations, we need an open, tolerant attitude.
However, when Christ and His disciples have a direct confrontation with evil, people are called upon to make clear-cut choices. They must decide whether to support Christ or not support Him. In such situations, trying to maintain neutrality becomes opposition to Christ.

There are spiritual and moral absolutes in the universe, and Scripture is very clear on many basic matters. Sincere believers in and readers of Scripture know this. On some matters, one side is right and the other side is wrong. Sometimes, evil may throw out a smokescreen, but we must not be confused or misled. At such times, there is no middle ground.
So for Christians, not all issues are debatable. God through Scripture has settled certain things. For example, committed Christians can sometimes disagree on whether to pursue some new or risky medical treatment or to allow nature to take its course. But for Christians, the deliberate injection of poison for the purpose of ending a life is murder.
To take another example, believing Christians may have differing interpretations of sacramental theology while remaining believers. However, denying that Christ was a historical person who died for sin and rose to bring new life will always be unbelief, no matter how many modern thinkers disagree.
When it comes to the basic moral principles and the basic teachings about the saving work of Christ, true believers are on the same side. These are ultimate choices that we all must make. In these cases, we either stand with Christ or His enemies. May God grant us the wisdom and grace to make the right choices.

On Thomas Cranmer

Recently, I have noticed several comments about Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) on different Anglican websites. These comments reflect a variety of perspectives. For some Anglicans, Cranmer has been the great hero, the Reformation leader that they look to rather than to Luther or Calvin. For other Anglicans, he has been a literary genius but a theological villain who corrupted Henrican catholicism.
I do not claim to be a Cranmer scholar, but over the years I have read a lot about him and some excerpts from his writings in addition to the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer. All this has led me to muse about my opinions on this famous Archbishop of Canterbury and Oxford martyr. For me, his role in Anglicanism is subtle but still very important.

He lived in a turbulent period when the structure of medieval western catholicism was breaking up into various Reformation and Counter-Reformation bodies. His life, his ministry, his liturgical work, his theology and his death were part of this turbulence. He was an academic who became involved in the struggles of ecclesiastical politics. Unfortunately in my opinion, he also really believed that kings and princes were divinely appointed instruments in ruling the Church. Such a view led him into many compromises, and in his last days, this view confronted him with the dilemma of choosing between loyalty to his Queen and loyalty to his theological interpretation of Christian Scripture and tradition. He went back and forth in his statements on certain theological details, but in the end, he affirmed his convictions and died at the stake as an Anglican martyr.

Theologically, Cranmer appears to have moved through a number of theological phases. At different times, his views had affinities with Renaissance Catholic, Lutheran and Swiss Reformed teachings. However, it seems to me that there is a consistent underlying base in his thought, a base that he passed on to Anglicanism through the Book of Common Prayer (including the basics of the Catechism), the Articles of Religion, some of the Homilies and personal influence upon his Elizabethan successor, Archbishop Parker.

What is that theological base? It is two-fold: respect for ancient catholic tradition and rejection of many medieval Roman developments. Cranmer tried to follow Scripture and the ancient Church Fathers while rejecting universal papal authority, certain theories of the Mass and the cult based on the merits of the saints. All the details of his personal interpretations were not accepted as binding by the Church of England. Thus, the 1552 Prayer Book and the Articles of Religion were changed in a more moderate direction (1559, 1563, 1571). Nevertheless, Thomas Cranmer did strive to pass on the heritage of an English Reformed Catholicism. In this Reformed Catholic perspective, he was followed by Parker, Jewel, Hooker and the Caroline Divines, as well as by countless Anglicans down to our time.

Friday, March 05, 2010

WHAT IS AN ANGLICAN? Another Short Answer

A few months ago, an Anglican friend and I were discussing the wide variety of groups and individuals that call themselves Anglican. While there has been diversity in Anglicanism since the sixteenth century, the extremes seem to have grown further apart in recent decades. Those at the extremes might be good and faithful Christian individuals, but I sometimes wonder why they are Anglican.

In the course of this discussion, my friend asked me, "If someone only wanted to hear five items, could you identify the basics of Anglicanism in five points?" After a brief hesitation and reflection, I replied that for me they were as follows:
1) loyalty to the Holy Scriptures as revealing all things necessary for salvation,
2) really believing in a literal way the Apostles', Nicene and Athanasian Creeds,
3) accepting the importance of the historic orders of ordained ministry: bishop, priest/presbyter and deacon,
4) believing in the central importance of the two dominical Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist as real means of Christ's grace,
[I acknowledged at this point that I had ended up paraphrasing the Lambeth Quadrilateral]
5) regular use of a liturgy rooted in the ancient Church and in the Prayer Book tradition.

I have thought of that discussion many times over the last few months. My answer was not very creative or original, and there are words in my answer that I could develop considerably. My answer did not highlight the key issue of personal faith in Christ, and more needs to be said about Christian morality. In addition, there are other things that appeal to my personal theology, sense of English church heritage or ecclesiastical esthetics. Yet, for a short answer, these five points do cover a lot of what it means to be an Anglican Christian. They allow for variety, but they preserve essential core beliefs, values and practices. They are generally Christian while they also pick up some key issues of an Anglican perspective.