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, December 31, 2010

St. Sylvester- 31 December and the Circumcision of Christ- 1 January

The last day of December has long been the feast of St. Silvester/Sylvester and is listed as a "black letter day" on the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Calendar. Sylvester was Bishop of Rome or Pope from 314 to 335 A.D. He became Bishop of Rome right after the Emperor Constantine issued his Edict of Toleration for Christianity and so served during a time of great change for the Church. Sylvester sent legates or representatives to a council at Arles in southern France in 314. This council tried to resolve the Donatist Schism. He also sent legates to the Council of Nicea in what in now Turkey in 325. Of course, this council, which became known as the First Ecumenical Council, defended the reality of the Incarnation against the Arian Heresy. In doing so, it issued most of what became known as the Nicene Creed.

Many later legends about Sylvester are not trustworthy and seem to have been excuses to justify medieval papal temporal powers. Sylvester, however, is an example of a faithful bishop striving to defend the Faith during a period of upheaval in the Church and in the larger society. His feast day also became important for Christians seeking another observance in place of pagan New Year's Eve celebrations.

As indicated in last year's post, the first of January has been associated with several liturgical observances over the history of the Church. Although the association began some time earlier, from the ninth century, the Roman rite commemorated the Circumcision on this eighth day of Christmas. Books of Common Prayer from 1549 through 1928 continued this emphasis; the 1962 Canadian BCP contains this theme along with the octave and new year themes. (By the way, January 1 was not observed as New Year's Day in the English-speaking world until the 18th century.) Stressing Christ's circumcision fits in with the reality of the Incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth, God the Son, was a real Jewish male who humbled Himself, continued the covenant with Abraham and came to fulfill all righteousness.

This year, I would also look at another emphasis- the name of Jesus. Some recently revised Anglican calendars have actually changed the title of the feast, but one also finds this emphasis on the name in the traditional Gospel and the Epistle. In St. Luke 2:21 , we read that at the circumcision the child "was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb." In the Epistle from Philippians 2:9, we read, "God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow..." Of course, Jesus, Greek IESOU, Aramaic YESHUA, Hebrew YOSHUA, was a common Jewish name, meaning "The LORD saves."

In the particular case of this holy child, the common name takes on special significance. For this child born in Bethlehem is the Lord Himself come to save His people. And Christ's work to accomplish the heavenly Father's plan for human salvation is what gives Him a name above every name. What better way for us to begin the New Year than by praising His holy name and giving thanks for the salvation that has come in the Christ Child!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Anglican Catechism- Exposition Pt. 4

We now come to the forth and final section of the traditional Anglican Catechism included in the Prayer Books. This section on the Sacraments was added in 1604 on the basis of work by an Elizabethan Dean of St. Paul's, Alexander Nowell, and the Jacobean Dean of St. Paul's, John Overall.

Question. How many Sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church?
Answer. Two only, as generally necessary to salvation; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.

Comment. The number of sacraments has been a subject of discussion for centuries. Sometimes the disagreements have just been a matter of word use or definition; sometimes the disagreements have been part of a more general difference in theology. Part of the problem is that the word "sacrament" is not a biblical word; so simplistic proof-texting does not work. Another complication is that a person's view of the sacraments is tied to other issues such as one's theology of the church and of worship, as well as to individual religious experience.

As in many areas, the Anglican perspective embodied in the Catechism seems to reflect a middle way. It rejects the Roman Catholic Profession of Faith from the Council of Trent (1564) which states clearly that there are seven sacraments. The Anglican Thirty-nine Articles and Prayer Book Catechism say that there are only two sacraments generally necessary for salvation. The other five commonly called sacraments are not like Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Some of these rites follow apostolic practice, and they have some value as states of life. However, they had been corrupted in the medieval church and should not be exalted too highly. Most of them are referred to by traditional Books of Common Prayer (except that anointing of the sick was removed in 1552). These rites are not accorded the same status as Baptism and the Supper of the Lord/Eucharist. The two dominical sacraments have a significance for all believers and are explicitly commanded in the New Testament.

Question. What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?
Answer. I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.

Question. How many parts are there in a Sacrament?
Answer. Two; the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace.

Comment. The definition of a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace" is ancient, going back to St. Augustine of Hippo. Sacraments are both means of grace and pledges of grace; that is, they actually bring grace into our lives, and in a visible way, they promise the continued working of God in our lives. Sacraments are not magical spells which cause an automatic result, but they do confront recipients with God's call and divine grace, and they do require a response.

Question. What is the outward visible sign or form in Baptism?
Answer. Water; wherein the person is baptized, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Question. What is the inward and spiritual grace?
Answer. A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.
Question. What is required of persons to be baptized?
Answer. Repentance, whereby they forsake sin; and Faith, whereby they stedfastly believe the promises of God made to them in that Sacrament.

Comment. At the beginning of the Catechism, Baptism is mentioned briefly from the viewpoint of Christian identity. Here the doctrinal basics are considered. Christian Baptism is unique; it is different from all other rites of initiation, acts of repentance, washings, blessings, dedications, etc. - whether in other religions or in Christianity. The outward and visible sign was instituted by Christ and can not be changed. There are two essential parts of administering the sacrament- the water and the words "in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost/Holy Spirit." The inward and spiritual grace is death to sin and rebirth to righteousness through grace (Rom. 6).

Question. Why then are Infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform them?
Answer. Because they promise them both by their Sureties; which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform.

Comment. In infants, the capacity for response is limited and must be postponed. Nevertheless, the promise of grace is extended to the children of believers as St. Peter indicates in Acts 2:39 . As children in a family of believers, they will automatically be confronted by the necessity of responding to the Gospel. So it is also fitting that baptismal grace be offered to them at a tender age.

Question. Why was the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper ordained?
Answer. For the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ, and of the benefits which we receive thereby.

Question. What is the outward part or sign of the Lord’s Supper?
Answer. Bread and Wine, which the Lord hath commanded to be received.

Question. What is the inward part, or thing signified?
Answer. The Body and Blood of Christ, which are spiritually taken and received by the faithful in the Lord's Supper.

Question. What are the benefits whereof we are partakers thereby?
Answer. The strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the Bread and Wine.

Question. What is required of those who come to the Lord's Supper?
Answer. To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, stedfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God's mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.

Comment. The Catechism explanation of the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion or Eucharist is fairly short, but it does include a great deal. The externals include bread and wine consecrated by a bishop or presbyter using Christ's words instituting the sacrament. There is an act of remembrance of Christ, but the sacrament is a living memory, not a superficial memorial. The inward part is the Body and Blood of Christ. The 1662 English BCP says "verily and indeed taken"; the American BCP from 1789 through 1928 says "spiritually taken." Although the emphasis is different, both views are true: in some sense, Christ is truly present with the sacramental elements; His true or real Presence is also spiritual, not grossly carnal. Most Anglicans have avoided detailed speculation about how Christ is present; they have simply accepted the comfort that our Lord comes to us in a unique way in this holy meal which He commanded. His Presence nourishes our souls as bread and wine can nourish our bodies. To receive these great benefits, we should prepare ourselves: repentance, intent for renewal, a living faith in Christ, thanksgiving for His sacrifice and love for others. We can never be worthy of this great gift, but we are called to approach it in a worthy or appropriate manner.

With this part of the exposition, we conclude our consideration of the traditional Anglican Catechism. We have looked briefly at our identity as Christians, the Apostles' Creed, the Commandments, the Lord's Prayer and the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. These matters concern the core of Christian belief and practice- not just for Anglicans but for orthodox believers of all times and places. There are certainly other things to think about and do (indeed I hope soon to include an addendum on the Church and the Ministry). Yet if all Christians could maintain a constant devotion on the basic matters included in the traditional Catechism, then we could make greater advancements in our spiritual life and and in our mission in the world.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

St. Stephen, St. John the Apostle, Holy Innocents

Today is the First Sunday after Christmas, but on the traditional calendar, the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr takes precedence. The three days after Christmas (the second, third and fourth days of Christmas) are feast days with propers in the Book of Common Prayer. For brief posts on these days from last year, click the label for Christmas:

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Day

There are many ironies associated with the celebration of Christmas and even with the word "Christmas" itself. Although it is important theologically, this feast is not one of the oldest on the church calendar. The Easter feast of the Resurrection, Pentecost and Epiphany are all more ancient festivals of the Faith. The Feast of the Nativity on December 25 seems to have originated at Rome in the early 300's, perhaps as a Christian way of counter-acting pagan winter festivities. The name "Christmas" is a uniquely medieval English term for "Christ's Mass" (of course, one would hope that every mass is a Christ's mass). From 1549, versions of the Book of Common called it Christmas Day, but in 1662, the official heading became "The Nativity of our Lord, or the Birthday of Christ, commonly called Christmas Day."

In recent decades, the English-speaking world has seen discussions on keeping Christ in Christmas and on whether it is even appropriate to say "Happy/Merry/Blessed Christmas" in a public context. One of the ironies is that some of the most outspoken contemporary defenders of Christmas are the evangelical descendants of the Puritans who certainly did not like the word "Christmas" and often objected to observing the day. Another irony is that some of those who love saying "Merry Christmas" are mainly thinking of a sentimentalized commercial and tribal nature festival, not of a time for Christian worship.

Personally, I like most of the carols, some of the other songs and a few old movies. And I certainly like to eat. Nevertheless, in December, I often find myself longing for more simplicity, tranquility and time for meditation. The Scriptures from the Daily Office and the Eucharist are multi-faceted and profound; they deserve more time for study, reflection and inward digestion than most of us give- even at church.
The medieval missals provided a set of proper lessons for Christmas Eve and three sets for Christmas Day- for midnight, daybreak and during the day. In 1549, Archbishop Cranmer reduced the three sets to two, and in 1552 to one set- keeping the daytime Gospel from St. John 1. In 1892, the American BCP provided a second set, restoring the set originally intended for midnight which includes the Gospel from St. Luke 2.

Both the Gospel selections (St. John 1:1-14 and St. Luke 2:1-14) provide keys to our thoughts about Christmas. John's theological reflection and Luke's devotional narrative focus in different ways upon the coming of the Savior, who is God the Son, the eternal Word, made flesh. So the Nativity of our Lord or Christmas is above all a celebration of the good news that God loves us and wants to save us from our sins. He was willing to pay a great price to reach out to us in a way that was concrete and meaningful to human beings. Although it is from a different perspective, Christmas is about the same historical process of redemption that we celebrate on Easter and all other Christian festivals. And if we do not at some time recognize our need and accept God's gracious offer of salvation in Christ, then all of the holiday good cheer is empty and meaningless. If, on the other hand, we focus on and accept God's gift in the Christ Child, then we can experience a truly happy Christmas, even amid the ups and downs of a fallen world.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Anglican Catechism- Exposition Part 3

In previous posts, we looked at basic beliefs and commandments. Now we come to the aids for living the Christian life. A basic part of any religious life is prayer, and for Christians, prayer is above all the Lord's Prayer or the "Our Father."

Catechist. My good Child, know this; that thou art not able to do these things of thyself, nor to walk in the Commandments of God, and to serve him, without his special grace; which thou must learn at all times to call for by diligent prayer. Let me hear, therefore, if thou canst say the Lord’s Prayer.

Answer. Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. Amen.

Comment: Of course, the Lord's Prayer has been at the heart of Christian devotion since the disciples first asked Jesus for guidance. Although translations have varied slightly in their wording, the version generally followed by Christians has been the one in St. Matthew 6:9-13 . In many ancient New Testament manuscripts, the final statement of praise or doxology is missing. Thus, we have the abbreviated form several places in the Book of Common Prayer. But since a doxology has often been included since the early centuries of Christianity, the BCP also includes it in places.

As many scholars have observed, this prayer shows some relationship with other ancient Jewish patterns of prayer. Yet, it is more concise, and it stresses the Fatherhood of God. As with other common Jewish daily prayers, the Lord's Prayer may have well been said by the disciples from the beginning three times a day: morning, early afternoon and evening/night. This could well be at least part of what Acts 2:42 means when it says that the early Christians "continued ... in prayers." And by the time of the Didache (ca. 100), saying the prayer three times a day was explicitly enjoined (ch. 8).

Question. What desirest thou of God in this Prayer?

Answer. I desire my Lord God, our heavenly Father, who is the giver of all goodness, to send his grace unto me, and to all people; that we may worship him, serve him, and obey him, as we ought to do. And I pray unto God, that he will send us all things that are needful both for our souls and bodies; and that he will be merciful unto us, and forgive us our sins; and that it will please him to save and defend us in all dangers both of soul and body; and that he will keep us from all sin and wickedness, and from our spiritual enemy, and from everlasting death. And this I trust he will do of his mercy and goodness, through our Lord Jesus Christ. And therefore I say, Amen, So be it.

Comment: The phrasing of the Lord's Prayer is such that it has sometimes been divided into an address followed by seven petitions, ending with the "amen" of assent:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
1) Hallowed be thy Name.
2) Thy kingdom come.
3) Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.
4) Give us this day our daily bread.
5) And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us.
6) And lead us not into temptation,
7)But deliver us from evil.

The address to God as Father is based on the Christian condition; through Christ, we sinners are adopted as children of God. The first three petitions concern the worship and rule of God. We may see them as related to the first four Commandments. The Catechism summarizes them in these words: I desire my Lord God, our heavenly Father, who is the giver of all goodness, to send his grace unto me, and to all people; that we may worship him, serve him, and obey him, as we ought to do.
As is the case through a long tradition of interpretation, the "daily bread" of the fourth petition is taken to refer to all physical and spiritual sustenance: And I pray unto God, that he will send us all things that are needful both for our souls and bodies.

Although the fifth petition about forgiveness is of central importance, the Catechism considers it so clear that it is quickly summarized. In previous centuries, people in western societies knew well that they were all sinners who needed divine forgiveness. They were also familiar with the Christian idea that those needing forgiveness should be willing to extend the same to others. Since the mid-twentieth century these ideas have been attenuated and the consciousness of sin has been lost by many. Therefore in our day where the awareness of of the gravity of sin is not as common, we should stress this petition a bit more.

In the sixth petition, we pray that we may not fall into temptation. Knowing our own weakness of body, mind and soul, we ask divine guidance to avoid trials which may become occasions for sin. And then in the seventh petition, we ask for deliverance from evil- both from particular evil events and from the spiritual forces of evil that oppose God's purposes for our lives.

If we follow some texts, we may include an ancient ascription of glory to God; otherwise, as in the Catechism version, we conclude the prayer with the ancient Hebrew "amen" which expresses our confidence in the accomplishment of the divine will.

At this point, we finish the Catechism that was in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. However, the seventeenth century saw the addition of the section on the Sacraments. In another post, I hope to discuss these basic parts of the Christian life.

St. Thomas the Apostle- 21 December

The traditional date for the feast of St. Thomas is 21 December (although the Latin rite changed the date to July during its liturgical revision of the late 1960's). Thomas, whose name means "the twin," is one of the Twelve and is mentioned several times in the Gospels. He is probably most remembered for being absent from the group of disciples on Easter Sunday when the risen Jesus manifested Himself (St. John 20: 19-25). Thomas was doubtful and demanded physical proof. A week later, Thomas was present when Jesus came to the disciples. The apostle then confessed his faith in a way stronger than others because he affirmed Christ as "My Lord and my God" (St. John 20:28).

Thomas is an example who reminds us that doubt can deprive us of some of the joys of faith; he is also an example that Christ can overcome doubt and use former doubters as trustworthy witnesses to spread the Faith. Thomas is a strong witness to the physical reality of the Resurrection. And as we think of his confession of faith just before Christmas, Thomas is also a strong witness to the Incarnation. For the crucified and risen Jesus is also God the eternal Word made flesh- our Lord and our God.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Advent IV

The Fourth Sunday in Advent continues the theme of Christ's coming. The Collect asks the Lord to "come among us." It keeps up the penitential emphasis of the season by praying that He will overcome our sins, and that He help and deliver us by His grace and mercy.
The Epistle from Philippians 4:4-7 has a somewhat lighter tone but still reminds us that "the Lord is at hand." Because of Christ, we do have a true reason to rejoice. Despite our sinfulness, we have hope because of the peace that God brings through Christ.

The Gospel from St. John 1:19-28 is another reference to the preparatory message of John the Baptist. When the Jerusalem authorities send representatives to ask who he is, John refuses the usual titles. He will only admit to being "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" (John 1:23 ; Isaiah 40:3). He makes the way ready for the Lord; he baptizes with water to represent repentance and cleansing from sin. But the One coming after John is much greater. He is the reason for John's work of preparation, and He will bring the redemption that John's ministry only anticipates.

And that One, Jesus the Christ, is the One whose way we prepare this week. As Advent draws to a close, there are many preparations for the celebration of Christ's Nativity. Among all the things that we make ready, let us focus on the spiritual preparations. We need to pay more attention to prayer, meditation on Scripture and renewed efforts to run the race set before us. As we get ready to celebrate Christ's first coming in humility, let us also remember that He keeps coming to us. In His holiness, He naturally brings judgment upon our sin, but He also offers us grace and mercy. And we also anticipate the time that He will return in glory to bring even greater joy and peace to all who truly have faith in Him.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Advent Ember Days

According to the Book of Common Prayer, the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after December 13 (the black letter day traditionally associated with the early martyr St. Lucy) are Ember Days (see 1928 BCP p. li; 1662 BCP p. 31). As always, we pray for those about to be ordained as well as for an increase of the Ministry and for guidance upon those who already serve the Church in various callings. There is the general set of propers for the day in the 1928 BCP (p. 260), and there are selections for Morning and Evening Prayer in the 1943 lectionary for the third week of Advent. This past Sunday's Gospel about the ministry of John the Baptist is also related to the Ember Day theme.
In light of this season, we think of the work of all who prepare the way for the Lord. May all ordained ministers and other Christians work together to prepare the way as Christ comes into our hearts anew; may we also prepare for His future coming in glory.

Advent III

The Gospel for the Third Sunday in Advent (St. Matthew 11:2-10) continues the theme of Christ's Coming by referring to the ministry of John the Baptist. When the imprisoned John sends followers to clarify the mission Jesus, our Lord responds by citing the fulfillment of Messianic prophecies (Isaiah 29:18, 35:5-6, 61:1). Our Lord also speaks of the work of John the Baptist as the Forerunner, the messenger who comes before the Lord to prepare His way (Malachi 3:1).

Among the many ways that we can apply this selection, the Collect for the Day provides an interesting approach.
O LORD Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee; Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

This collect calls upon Christians, especially the ordained ministry (by the way, this is the week of the Advent Ember Days), to continue preparing the way of the Lord. As John did at Christ's First Coming, we need to call others- and ourselves- to repent and to prepare hearts for Christ. We also look ahead to Christ's Second Coming to judge the world. We continue to hope that through grace we will be an acceptable people, a people prepared anew each day for our Lord's holy presence.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Blessed Virgin Mary- 8 December

This week the calendar of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer includes two "Black Letter Days." Such days are some of the ones commonly observed by the western church before the Reformation. Since they are not directly based on events in Scripture, the BCP does not provide them with liturgical propers. The eighth of December is one of these days, a day traditionally called "The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary." Many Anglicans have been a little hesitant to commemorate this day because we do not accept papal interpretations of her conception.
Nevertheless, the day is part of Prayer Book tradition, and it is certainly appropriate for us to remember the blessed Virgin and honor her on a regular basis, especially during the season of Advent. The greeting of the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation echoes in our minds: St. Luke 1. 26-28.
AND in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a Virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the Virgin's name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women.

While most Anglicans have viewed some traditions about Mary as excessive and without scriptural basis, we also know that she was indeed "highly favoured" and "blessed among women." Her role in God's plan was unique. It should be respected, and she should inspire us to deeper devotion.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Advent II

The Collect, Epistle and Gospel for the Second Sunday in Advent bring up several themes. The Gospel from St. Luke 21:25-33 continues the Advent theme of Christ's Coming by concentrating on His second coming in judgment. The Epistle from Romans 15:4-13 emphasizes the Christian hope for redemption in Christ. And both selections make reference to Christ's words and the Scriptures. It is this theme of the Scriptures that is most emphasized in the collect for the day.

This collect or short prayer was first included in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and remained at this place in the church year until the revisions of Anglican liturgy during the 1970s. It provided an emphasis on Scripture that used to characterize all Anglican groups. Anglo-catholics, High Churchmen, Evangelicals and Broad Churchmen differed in interpretations, but traditionally all affirmed the authority and centrality of Scripture. Unfortunately with the arrival of revisionist theology in the late twentieth century, a modernistic world view dominated, and the emphasis on Scripture declined. For many contemporary Christians, Scripture has just become a prop. They still use it on Sundays, but they view it as merely a collection of ancient words either to be ignored or to be twisted into support for outlandish secular ideas.

So we need to reaffirm the centrality of Scripture as the greatest treasure in the heritage of the universal Church. Scripture was revealed, recorded and handed on to guide the Church, and we must take the words of the Bible seriously. These ancient words are still the living Word of God through which we confront Christ, the eternal Word. There are some passages that are not easy, but the main points are clear- and have been clear since the days of the Apostles. Let us devote ourselves to reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting these holy words which do provide us with such a blessed hope.

The Collect
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.