Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Saturday

Perhaps the least-observed liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer is the Liturgy of the Word for Holy Saturday. On the nineteen consecutive Holy Saturdays during which I was a priest in charge of a congregation, I had a captive audience for this event, as I gathered the members of the Altar Guild for worship prior to their getting started decorating the church for Easter. It is somewhat ironic that, as a diocesan bishop, I no longer have such a captive audience, and I miss it. There is something sweet about this very brief "liturgy of the tomb." 

On each of these nineteen occasions, rather than delivering a homily of my own, I simply read this ancient anonymous sermon. You've no doubt seen it; I posted it in previous years, and it's rather ubiquitous in the Christian blogsphere today. But it's just as moving as it was the first time I encountered it. Wish I could preach like that! Drink it in.

Something strange is happening-there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

“He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him: ‘And with your spirit.’ He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’

“I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

“For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

“See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

“I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

“Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”

–From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday 

Friday, April 22, 2011

God So Loved the World

The sixteenth verse of the third chapter of St John’s gospel is so verbally iconic of the entire Christian narrative that even its “address” is an icon in its own right. There’s actually a song that includes in its lyrics the words “John three-sixteen” … several times. A few years ago, it seemed impossible to view a major sporting event without spotting a huge poster being held up by someone, just saying “John 3:16.”

This is somewhat unfortunate, I think. The mere reference to these words has become a sort of shibboleth, a tool that can be abused as means of being judgmental. I think now of another song from my childhood, one that spoke of two possible “sides” with respect to one’s relation to God, and posing the question, “I’m on the right side, on which side are you?”


As I listen to (what I hope is) the prompting of the Spirit on this Good Friday, I find myself more drawn to John 3:17":

For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.

I’m not gong to weigh in on the Rob Bell controversy over “Is there a Hell?”; I’ve only read the headlines, not the articles. But I can testify from my own experience that there are Christians who seem a whole lot more interested in Hell and how hot it is and how long after death it takes to get there and precisely who’s headed that direction than they are in the love of God and how to spread it. Fifteen years after seeing it, I recall being dumbstruck by a scene in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. A dour Scottish Presbyterian minister is presiding at the burial of one Bess McNeil, who, before departing this life, made some less than laudable choices in her behavior. Looking straight into the grave at the coffin, he declaims, “Bess McNeil, ye are a sinner, and for your sins ye are condemned to Hell!” (Imagine it with a thick Scottish accent.) He appeared to like his job just a little bit to much in that moment.

So I’m aware in this moment of how much God’s project in sending us Jesus is about saving us, not about condemning anyone. Indeed, it’s precisely aimed at combating condemnation. Why? Because he loves us. Of course, that very love means he holds our free will in such high regard that he will not coerce us into loving him back, not annul the choices we make that separate us from him, such separation being the very definition of Hell. But I suspect that whoever’s in Hell is not there because it’s God’s idea.

The music in thenvideo is by Sir John Stainer, taken from his canata The Crucifixion. Yes, it’s rather oozingly Victorian, and that’s not everyone’s taste. I happen to like it … in regulated doses, at any rate. But the performance, you have to admit, is stellar.

Remember. John 3:17.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Technology Note

I'm suddenly finding an unexpected level of comfort praying the Daily Office completely from my iPad.

It requires two apps to make it a fluid and satisfying experience: iBCP and Lectionary. And it would not be possible without the multi-tasking feature on the iPad, accessed by double-clicking the Home button. 

It requires knowing a handful of page numbers in the Prayer Book to get started. But in the spot where the Collect of the Day comes, it only takes clicking on two hyperlinks to find it, and then you can use the Back button to return to MP/EP.

The mechanics of doing this are scarcely more invasive (and may be even less so) than dealing with a Prayer Book (or office book) and lectionary (or Bible). It allows some actual praying to get done.

Holy Participation in Holy Mysteries

Palm Sunday is coming right up. Lent seemed to take forever to get here, but then, once here, it has sped by. Of course, it's been a little weird for me personally, what with getting made a bishop ten days into it. The transition has distracted me from the more normal rhythm of the season.

But here we are, nonetheless. The historic western liturgy for Palm Sunday is, by any stretch, slightly incoherent at first glance. This incoherence is encapsulated right in the title of the day in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer--The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. Here's an interesting, if useless, bit of historical trivia: In the 1928 Prayer Book (and earlier editions), the Fifth Sunday in Lent was subtitled Passion Sunday, but none of the propers had anything to do with the Passion. The following Sunday was styled Palm Sunday, but there was no mention of the Triumphal Entry or anything to do with Palms, though there was the long reading of St Matthew's version of the Passion. So the incoherence is nothing new.

The current rite takes two distinct but cognate liturgies and puts them in a sequential temporal relationship with each other: first the Liturgy of the Palms and then the Liturgy of the Passion. This sequence makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, since, in the biblical narrative, the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem takes place before--five days before, to be precise--our Lord's Passion. 

But here's a place where our intuition can get us into trouble if we're not vigilant, because it's tempting to infer from this liturgical-sequence-mirroring-historical-sequence that the mysteries in which we participate through the liturgical sanctification of time ought to be, and indeed are, a reenactment of historical time. Maundy Thursday gives way to Good Friday which gives way to Easter, just as the Last Supper gave way to the Passion, which then gave way to the Resurrection. We too easily assume that the liturgies of Holy Week are of the same genre as the reenactment of a Civil War battle.

We assume wrongly, however. Liturgy is an eschatological and mystical participation in the Paschal Mystery. And the Paschal Mystery, while faceted--or, we might even say, segmented--is a unitary whole. It encompasses the incarnation, birth, life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of the Son of God, along with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the ongoing life of the Church, and the prefigurement of the whole thing in the Old Testament. Participation in part of it is participation in all of it. Reenactors of the Battle of Gettysburg can pretend that they don't know how it ends; in fact, the ability to so pretend is what makes the whole endeavor possible. 

But Christians cannot forget that Jesus is risen from the dead. 


And our liturgical life does not call us to set aside such knowledge, even on Good Friday. Christians are appropriately solemn and awestruck on Good Friday. But if we shed tears, they are tears of gratitude, or tears of remorse, never tears of grief. 

This may all seem like a fine distinction, but it is manifestly not a distinction without a difference. Only in the light of just such a distinction does what the church calls us to do this Sunday make any sense. If we see it simply as the reenactment of a historical sequence of events, then the reading of the synoptic Passion (from Matthew this year) seems out of place, an interloper, a chance to exploit a captive audience, many of which will not bother to show up the following Friday to hear John's account of the same events. 

But if we wear our mystical and eschatological glasses to church on Sunday--or even if we can just tap into the frame of mind in which we would read poetry--then it will not only not be jarring, it will make consummate sense. In the parish hall, our lips will shout "Hosanna in the highest!" In the church, maybe twenty minutes later, those same lips will shout "Crucify him!" It would be a remarkably insensitive soul that would not be brought up short by the starkness of that juxtaposition. And precisely in that moment of being brought up short, we know the power of liturgy to take us into territory our rational minds are appropriately wary of, but which is necessary for us to traverse if we would find wholeness.

I'll see you at the cross.