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.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Saint Philip and Saint James, Apostles

May 1 has been observed as the feast of the Apostles Philip and James on the Western church calendar since the 560's-570's when their supposed relics were moved in Rome. Little is known about these two disciples. Philip is mentioned several times in the Gospels- bringing Nathaniel to Jesus, finding the boy with the loaves and fish, asking questions in the Farewell Discourses. The James honored on this day is not the son of Zebedee and brother of John; he is James the son of Alphaeus. A few have suggested that he was James the kinsman of Christ to whom the Epistle of James is attributed, but this view does not seem convincing to me. In any case, James (Jacob) was a common name of the time.

These two apostles, although not famous, certainly had a function to fulfill. Like the others, they learned directly from our Lord, they went out preaching the kingdom before and after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Despite their human flaws and presumed fearfulness during Holy Week, they followed the risen Lord and were part of the foundation of the Church. They did what we see Philip doing in the Gospels: they brought others to Christ. So on their feast day, we remember and give thanks for their apostolic ministry.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Third Sunday after Easter and Saint Mark the Evangelist

This year, the Third Sunday after Easter falls on April 25; so it is also the Feast of Saint Mark the Evangelist. Saint Mark can have precedence; that is, in the Prayer Book tradition, it is a biblical commemoration whose collect and lessons can displace those of the ordinary Sunday calendar. Before focusing on St. Mark, here's a short comment on the Sunday. The Gospel for the Third Sunday after Easter is the first of three selections taken from the "Farewell Discourses" of Christ in the Gospel of Saint John. The theme of today's selection can be seen in these words: ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy (St. John 16: 20b). What a great summary of the Holy Week-Easter experience of believers. In fact, it could be a commentary on the whole Christian experience of earthly life and redemption.

Saint Mark is a figure mentioned a number of times in the New Testament. He seems to have been the John Mark who was a cousin of St. Barnabas and who accompanied St. Paul on a missionary journey. During the journey Mark turned back, and on a second journey, Paul and Barnabas disputed over whether to take Mark (Acts 15:37-40). Later, Paul and Mark were reconciled, and Paul refers to him in several letters (Philem. 24; Col. 4:10; I Tim. 4:11). St. Mark also worked with St. Peter (I Peter 5:13), and according to several ancient writers, used Peter's teaching as the source for the Gospel according to St. Mark ( e.g., Eusebius, II.15). Eusebius also says that Mark was the first to establish churches in Alexandria, Egypt (II.16).

Most writers consider the Gospel according to St. Mark to be the earliest of the four Gospels. It is also the shortest, and except for certain manuscript issues, the simplest. This Gospel focuses on the activities of Christ's public ministry and especially on His Passion. It highlights our Lord as the Suffering Servant who gave Himself to save God's people.

As we commemorate St. Mark and his work, we can learn more than history. According to tradition, he spent many years following Christ, and although there may have been some problems with St. Paul, St. Mark went on to be reconciled with the older leader, assist him, and contribute greatly to the wider mission of the Church. While we are far from the apostolic period, we can learn much from his personal example and even more from the Gospel he recorded. Like him, we can serve the Lord who died and rose for us, and we can contribute to Christ's continuing work in the Church.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Second Sunday after Easter

Because the traditional Epistle (I St. Peter 2:19-25) and Gospel (St. John 10:11-16) for this Sunday both referred to Christ as Shepherd, a popular name for the day has been "Good Shepherd Sunday." Over the centuries, the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd has been a very popular one. From ancient tombs to quaint Victorian church windows to modern religious art and Bible story books, the picture of Christ as the great and good shepherd has been used many times. Thinking of Christ as our caring shepherd is comforting, but sometimes, our views have been a little too sweet and sentimental. For, in the biblical tradition, a shepherd is a strong and forceful figure who embodies tough love for his flock and fights off dangerous enemies.

In the Gospel from St. John 10, our Lord shows us such a strong shepherd. Of course, it is Eastertide, the season to stress Resurrection. Therefore, St. John 10:17b may be in the back of our minds: I lay down my life that I might take it up again. Christ has taken up His life again; He is risen. However, the Prayer Book selection for the day develops other themes. Even as we celebrate the great event and gift of Resurrection, we must never forget that it is based on sacrifice. The truly Good Shepherd (that is, Jesus Himself) gives His life for His sheep. He is not some hireling who is only present when it is convenient or advantageous. He does not run from dangers such as wolves. He faces evil and gathers His flock. He even seeks out His sheep who are in other folds. And all those who are truly His recognize Him and follow Him.

Do we recognize Him? Do we realize what He has done and keeps doing for us? Do we allow Him to gather us so that we may follow Him? If we are His, we do all these things- not by our own merit as sheep prone to wander, but through our Shepherd's gracious saving power. By His Resurrection, He has shown us that His Sacrifice for us was not in vain; He has shown us just how great His saving grace and power really are!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Anglican Catechism

As Anglicans and others consider Anglican identity, it seems to me that a key expression must always be a catechism. Catechesis or instruction goes back to the beginnings of the biblical tradition. Such instruction is, to give one Old Testament example, cited in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. "Hear, O Israel..." Basic instruction permeates the New Testament and abounds in the ancient Church Fathers. It continued in the Middle Ages, although in many times and places the quality of the instruction was poor.

During the Renaissance and Reformation, there was a renewal of interest in sound basic instruction among Christians of various perspectives. Many of them used the question and answer format that people have often come to associate with catechisms. Martin Luther in particular produced two Catechisms: a longer one as a basic theology manual for pastors and teachers, and a shorter one for the instruction of ordinary Christian children and adults. So it is not surprising that from shortly after Henry's break with Rome Anglicans started to produce basic forms of instruction. The Bishops' Book (1537) and The King's Book (1543) both contained sections on the Creed and the Commandments.

Thomas Cranmer produced a very short Catechism which was included with the Confirmation rite of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. This simple instruction is on the Creed, the Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. Later, two Deans of St. Paul's, Nowell and Overall, worked on expanded Catechisms and some of their material on the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper was included in the 1604 revision of the BCP. With a few modifications, this brief Anglican Catechism has remained the same over the centuries. Some people have continued to call for further additions, and these tendencies have been seen in newer catechisms among some Anglicans.

While I recognize that much more should be considered in a modern confirmation or inquirers class, I have always admired the relative simplicity and brevity of the traditional Catechism. It focuses on the core material of Christian teaching which most people can remember over a long period of time. Much of the phraseology needs commentary or modification for contemporary Anglicans [for updated language, one might consult the online source An English Prayer Book, http://churchsociety.org/docs/english_prayer_book/16_EPB_catechism.pdf or one might get a copy of An Anglican Prayer Book, https://www.anglicanmarketplace.com/shop.php?category=books&itemID=233]. In whatever way Anglicans and other Christians decide to approach the mechanics of instruction, people still need to learn the Creed, the Commandments, the Lord's Prayer and basic concepts about the two Gospel Sacraments. In fact, the need for basic catechesis is probably greater now than at any point since the start of the Reformation.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

First Sunday after Easter

This Sunday after Easter has often been called "Low Sunday." The origin of that title is debatable- perhaps because the celebration is lower-key liturgically, perhaps from the Latin laudes in a hymn. All too often, the name has been appropriate because of the attendance or because of the attitude of those present. However, this should still be a joyous time of the church year. This point was made in an interesting way in a recent post called "Throwing Easter Away" at http://creedalchristian.blogspot.com/2010/04/throwing-easter-away.html

The traditional Gospel for Easter I (St. John xx.19-23) continues to point us to the true joy of the Resurrection. Even after the initial reports of Christ's Resurrection, the disciples were not so joyful; they continued to hide in fear. They were certainly afraid of problems from the Jewish and Roman establishment, but maybe there was also an element of guilt in their fear. After all, the disciples had not been very strong in faithfulness and loyalty. Maybe they were anticipating a stinging rebuke from their risen master. In such a situation, Jesus came and said, "Peace be unto you." A wish of peace (shalom) was a normal greeting, but for these fearful disciples, it was more. It was the moment that they really became aware of Christ's Resurrection; it was also the moment when they started to overcome their own failures. Then our Lord repeated the words, "Peace be unto you." This time there was also an empowerment with the Spirit and a commission. Just as the Father had sent His only begotten Son, so the risen Son was sending the disciples. Just as Jesus forgave the failures of the disciples, the disciples were being sent with His Gospel of forgiveness for others.

So today's Gospel should bring us joy. In Word and Sacrament, modern disciples can still meet the risen Lord Jesus. The crucified one who lives again comes to bring us true peace. He offers believers in the Resurrection the peace of His presence and the presence of the Holy Spirit. He brings us the peace of His new life, His love, His forgiving grace. And He expects us as His disciples, His Church, to rejoice in these gifts and go forth to share the message with others.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Easter Week

This has been a strange week in certain ways because the whole family has been on break from school and work, and the weather has been great. So my schedule has been somewhat chaotic. Yet, the Easter theme of Resurrection has been in my thoughts, not only during the Daily Office but also at random moments during the day.

The Second BCP Collect for Easter Day has come back to me repeatedly:
O GOD, who for our redemption didst give thine only-begotten Son to the death of the Cross, and by his glorious resurrection hast delivered us from the power of our enemy; Grant us so to die daily from sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through the same thy Son Christ our Lord. Amen.

The same events viewed with somber anticpation during Holy Week are now viewed with glorious joy. The very real Cross was not the final word. Christ's Resurrection has overcome the Enemy, our risen Lord transformed the universe, and He can continue to transform us day by day. He lives, and therefore we may truly live- now in our daily lives filled with ups and downs, and throughout eternity in His gracious presence. Alleluia.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Easter Day- He is risen!

The Paschal Feast, Feast of the Resurrection or Easter is the high point of the liturgical year. Because of its central importance, it is sometimes difficult to discuss. The words of the Scriptures and the greatness of the liturgy always seem so far beyond my comments. Anything that I say or write is only a momentary glimpse of the great and joyous mysteries that Christians celebrate on this day. Jesus of Nazareth is the risen Christ! The one who suffered terrible physical and spiritual agonies to save us from our sin has risen from the dead to offer us new life, in this world and the next.

Easter is the great dividing point in human history. The Resurrection is, among other things, the seal of divine approval upon the earthly life, ministry and death of Jesus. It is the key event that transforms a band of disheartened and defeated disciples into faithful witnesses and ministers of the Good News. All the Gospel accounts of His Resurrection and all the Epistle commentaries and exhortations about it are written from the standpoint of faith in the risen Lord. They are also written to inspire and strengthen that same Resurrection faith in others.

In the traditional Books of Common Prayer, the first Easter Gospel (St. John 20. 1-10) refers to the importance of faith. The initial reaction of the women at the empty tomb and of the apostles who hear the women's report is not faith. The first reactions are fear, hesitancy, amazement and curiosity. Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved (traditionally identified as John) run to see for themselves. Peter goes in first to see the grave clothes. "Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw and believed" (St. John 20:8). The empty tomb is important. It is an real event that must not be denied or ignored. It is an integral part of the New Testament message. Nevertheless, acknowledging the empty tomb is only a first step. This first step must be followed by the second step shown by John; that is, the empty tomb demands the response of belief or faith.

So on this Easter, let us renew our faith. let us accept with faith what the empty tomb tells us about Jesus. He is unique. He is not merely someone who recovers from physical death. Others may have experienced resuscitation; He has experienced Resurrection. He has overcome the forces of evil, destruction and death for all time, for all who truly believe in Him. He is the Word of God incarnate, the Messianic King, God the Son. By overcoming death, He has (in the words of the collect) "opened unto us the gate of everlasting life." Christ lives, and because He lives, we also may truly live in union with Him.
Alleluia. The Lord is risen indeed; O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.

Easter Even

This Saturday has had several names- Holy Saturday, the Great Sabbath and in the Book of Common Prayer, Easter Even. In the ancient church, it was a day without a celebration of the Eucharist. It was a day for quiet reflection. Slowly a variety of traditions grew up because of the preparations for the great celebration of the Resurrection. Many of the traditions were related to the preparation of candidates for Baptism and the Blessing of the New Fire and the Paschal Candle.

The Prayer Book simplified or removed most of those traditions. Before the days of widespread liturgical experimentation, Anglican practice on Easter Even was low key. A few Anglicans seem to have performed Baptisms toward evening, but the main services became the Daily Office and an Ante-Communion (just the Liturgy of the Word from the Order for Holy Communion). The Epistle for this day from I Peter iii has two important themes: Christ's Descent to preach to the departed spirits and the spiritual benefits of Baptism. The Gospel from St. Matthew xxvii.57-66 completes the Passion account with the burial of Jesus and the watch over His borrowed tomb. As we await Easter, this is a day to reflect upon the physical and spiritual realities of our Lord's death on our behalf.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Good Friday

This day has had many names including Paschal Day, Great Friday, Holy Friday and in the English tradition Good Friday. Since the early years of Christianity, it has been observed by fasting, prayer and the reading of Scripture. Christians have developed and used a variety of special devotional practices such as the Solemn Collects and Lessons, the Veneration of the Cross, the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified, Stations of the Cross, a series of readings and meditations on Christ's Words from the Cross.

I always remember with fondness the Good Friday practices of the small 1928 BCP parish where I was first curate and then rector many years ago. Morning Prayer would be said in the church at a time when people were heading out to the office or on errands. At noon, there would be the Litany followed by the Ante-Communion (that is, the service of the Word from the Order for Holy Communion) with a homily and closing prayers. The church would remain open for personal prayer and interspersed with other Prayer Book devotions such as the Penitential Office, Psalms and the Bidding Prayer until 3 o'clock. Around 5:30 or 6:00 as people were heading home, Evening Prayer would be said. All these Prayer Book devotions were simple, centered on Scripture and for me, really led to a sanctification of time.

Whatever devotions an Anglican or any other Christian observes on this day, the key element, of course, is the Passion story from the Gospels, in particular the account from St. John 19. And whenever I read or hear this passage from St. John, I am always struck by St. John 19:30, "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost." "It is finished," that is, Christ's first earthly mission is complete (the Resurrection is bound to this work but it is a new and glorious chapter). His suffering and death were the goal of His incarnation and public ministry. As He had humbled Himself to come down from heaven and become one of us, so He humbled Himself to the end. He who committed no sin was numbered among the transgressors; He offered Himself as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world. But He did not just take away the sins of the world in general; He offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice to take my sins and your sins. If we accept His sacrifice with living faith in Him as our Savior, then this day truly does become Good Friday.