Happy Twelfth Day of Christmas.
That would make this evening, of course, Twelfth Night, an observance that inspired the title of Shakespeare's play. It is the Eve of the Epiphany, one of the seven occasions styled Principal Feasts in the (American) Book of Common Prayer. Our liturgical celebration of the feast at St John's will take place tonight, with a Mass and dinner.
Among other things, Epiphany is a celebration of the universality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The significant descriptor of the Wise Men (the primary symbol of Epiphany in western Christianity) is that they were not Jews, and, hence, represent all who are not Jews. Even though God is in a covenant relationship with the people of Israel, and his Messiah--the anointed One, the Christ--became incarnate as a Jew, what the Christ accomplishes is for the sake of all people everywhere in every time. One of the marks of the Church is that it is "catholic"--from the Greek kata holos, "according to the entirety." That mark is diminished to the extent that we fail to find ways to effectively communicate the gospel across languages and cultures.
One of the candidates for ordination that I helped examine this week is a young man from an Asian country--his English is passable but not fluent--whose primary ministry at this time is doing front line evangelism among a specific Muslim population in a California city. I am completely in awe. Since my subject area for examination is Liturgy and Church Music, I questioned him some about how he uses music in settings where the Hymnal 1982 would be a virtually worthless resource. He acknowledged the power of music in the process of evangelization and faith formation--a fact which Christians have recognized at least as far back as St Augustine of Hippo--and said he tries to find music that is already part of the culture in which he is working and see if it can be adapted to his purposes. It's a tricky endeavor, because one never knows what unspoken associations people may have with the music that might turn out to make its use counterproductive. Yet, Martin Luther used the same technique, adapting popular German drinking tunes to sacred texts. They became the chorales that Bach turned into high art some 200 years later.
Another ordinand was an older gentleman who already has a thriving prison ministry, and believes himself called to continue that work as a priest. This is a demographic segment that, for the most part, will not naturally be drawn to the Anglican ethos at such time as they may rejoin mainstream society. Once again, I am in awe. I would never be able to come close to doing what either of these guys is up to for the sake of the Kingdom, bearing witness to the universality, the catholicity, of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And this all puts me in mind of a question that has gnawed at me for some time. North American Anglicans are not very good at being a "peasant" church. We don't know how to be "blue collar." It isn't so much lack of desire or conviction. It's simply that, with some local exceptions, we just don't know how. We have a lot to offer those who are college educated, those who have an affinity for the fine arts, as well as English majors and Anglophiles. We minister among this demographic segment naturally. We could do it in our sleep. But with the Country & Western, or Hip-Hop, or Mariachi crowd (I'm not talking about musical tastes with these categories as much as a holistic cultural vocabulary), we're clueless.
Doubtless some will say, "Get yourself a praise band and sing praise choruses." But I'm not really talking about the sort of folk who are flocking to Willow Creek and Saddleback-style mega-churhes. A lot of them are educated professionals. I'm talking about people who are, by reason of education or ethnicity or economic status, more marginal than that. I don't know of any liturgical-sacramental church that does a good job evangelizing and retaining large segments of such populations. The Roman Catholics, of course, do so to some extent, because of cultural interia among Hispanics and some Asians (and, to the extent that any are still culturally marginalized: Italians, Poles, Irish, and Germans). But even they are nervous about the inroads made by Evangelicals and Pentecostals.
I'm a "High Church" Anglican. I'm not talking about an affinity for certain liturgical practices, but a conviction that an ecclesial culture that is fully sacramental, eucharistically focused, and episcopally-ordered represents the fullness of what God wills for his people, and that churches that lack any of these elements are impoverished for doing so. With such convictions, there is no option of simply saying "different strokes for different folks" and letting the Assemblies of God have all the cowboy Christians, while we wait on the sidelines to skim off the few who pick up a book on church history and "get it." Episcopalians have too long been ecclesiastical scavengers in that way.
If we take seriously the message of Epiphany, and the importance of Catholicity, we will find a way to do better.