The Advent’s liturgical style is a distinct one. We are, as is said, a “High Church”. This makes us rather unique in these parts, and is one reason that many of our members come to the Parish from a considerable distance in spite of the fact that a nearby church would be more convenient. And yet we are a varied and diverse group of people – thank Heaven! – one sign of which being the many different ceremonial ways by which members participate in worship. A number of people, particularly newcomers to the Parish, have asked me about these, and so I am including this brief article to explain a few of the liturgical acts you may have noticed at the Altar or in the pews around you.
We should begin by thinking about ritual and ceremonial themselves. We have to do this because both these things have become strange to many people in today’s secular world. Often they are regarded only as ornament, things not important in themselves. What is important, it is thought, is the reality or truth or feeling to which they point or which they seek to express. The ritual is only the outward trapping in which that reality has become clothed: do away with it; the reality remains. This idea, enticing as it may be to many people, is a mistake. The fact of the matter is, rather, that the more significant a reality, the more necessary are the rituals and ceremonials needed to express it. Words are inadequate us when involved in the really important things in human life. At those points we must join ritual, ceremonial, symbol to the words. One obvious example of this is human love. When we are deeply in love with someone we discover that that short phrase, “I love you,” – precious as it is – is not enough. Words cannot capture what we feel, and we are forced to do something more to express ourselves: an embrace, a kiss, a gift, a nickname. These are part of the ceremonial of romantic love. Viewed from the outside they may appear trivial, inconsequential, but from the standpoint of one in love they are deeply important, for the reality of love is beyond expressing by words alone.
Nowadays we call this “body language,” and, fortunately, we are beginning to rediscover and appreciate its power in our lives. Often it does more than simply express various human realities. Indeed, in many instances it is able to enhance them and heighten our awareness of their presence. Through a kiss, for example, we not only demonstrate our feeling of love but also make very real and tangible that love between ourselves and our beloved. Ritual and ceremonial, then, in varying decrees have a twofold function: to express and to enhance.
A liturgical example would be the practice of kneeling. How expressive is this posture of man’s place before the Almighty God in prayer. How greatly it enhances a prayerful attitude. Perhaps this is why many people feel uncomfortable when they are asked to pray in another posture, for kneeling just “feels right”. And yet the practice of kneeling is a rather new thing in the Church’s ritual. For the first thousand years – and still the case in the Orthodox Churches – standing with hands raised was the normal posture for prayer. Kneeling caught on in the Western Church as it was influenced by the ceremonial of European feudal society; one knelt before one’s superior. It has remained with us in the West because it does well what ceremonial is supposed to do: express and enhance the reality to which it points.
There is one other function of ritual which we ought to think about before we go on to consider some of the things that are done in Churches. This function is to enable us to participate more fully in what is going on. The worship of the Church is not a spectator sport. The Hebrew and Greek words which mean worship originally indicated actions: the Hebrew means literally “to prostrate oneself,” the Greek means “to bow down.” A later word which is uniquely Christian, liturgy, points to the same thing. It means a common work, something which we do together. As the Bible and tradition understand it, then, worship is an action and requires participation. To participate is to enter into the worship; to sit back and watch, as if going to Church were like going to a lecture or to the theatre, is to miss the point, and, by the way, is bound to disappoint us. (Let’s face it: even the best of preachers have their bad days; even the best of choirs sometimes fall flat.) To worship is to enter into an activity, and it is precisely the Church’s ritual and ceremonial which enable us to enter. At times it thrills us. Other times it makes a point, dramatically, about our Faith. Often it demands that we do certain appointed actions in order that we become a part of what’s going on.
It is an error to identify ritual or ceremonial with any particular church or denomination. Each one has its own and the variety is enormous. The silence and austerity of a Quaker meeting, for instance, is just as much a ritual act as the most elaborate catholic liturgy. The practices that we shall consider now are chosen because they are traditional and are most often part of the worship of parishioners at the Church of the Advent.
BOWING. The significance of bowing is obvious, as it is part of the ritual of common courtesy even in today’s world. We bow slightly when we meet someone and shake their hand. We bow as we pass an acquaintance in the street. It is a gesture of acknowledgement and respect. In Church people bow toward the Altar when they enter or leave their pews, acknowledging it to be the focal point of the Church’s worship and the symbol of Christ’s sacrificial life. A bow is made to the Cross as it passes in procession and at the name of Jesus or of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Some bow toward the Bishop as a sign of respect and a recognition of his authority in the Church, just as they bow toward the Celebrant in procession to acknowledge his role as presider at the Holy Table.
GENUFLECTING. A genuflection is made by keeping the body erect and touching the right knee to the ground. Originally it was a gesture of deference towards a superior in the court ceremonial of the Roman Empire and was adopted by the Church in the West. It is commonly made by people on leaving or entering their pews when the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist is present on the altar or is reserved nearby. It is an affirmation of Christ’s real presence in the Sacrament. At the Advent we genuflect at the words, “and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man,” in the Creed, to acknowledge the mystery of the Incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ. We do the same at the words. “and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” when the Prologue (1:1 – 18) of St. John’s Gospel is read.
THE SIGN OF THE CROSS. The Cross, of course, is Christianity’s fundamental symbol. From the earliest time it has been used by people as a mark of their devotion to the One who died upon it. Together with the Altar, the Cross above it serves as a focal point in most churches, and it is worn as a pendant over the heart by many people. Our lives as Christians begin with this symbol, for it is part of the rite of baptism for a priest to mark us with the Cross.
As early as the second century tracing a cross upon themselves is mentioned as a gesture Christians made in worship and during prayer, when they awoke in the morning or went to bed at night. It is usually done by touching the right hand first to the forehead, then to the breast, then to the left shoulder and to the right (or in the Orthodox Churches, the right should and then the left). This practice is very, very ancient, but it is hard to say what its significance is in any precise way. Perhaps this gesture is just another one of those things that “feels right” – to mark oneself with the Cross, the symbol of Christ’s death and self-giving love for us, an action reminding us of what the Faith is all about. When this gesture should occur is also hard to specify, for the practice varies from church to church and individual to individual. It may be made at the beginning or at the end of prayer, at the end of the Gloria in excelsis and the end of the Creed, whenever the Trinity is mentioned, at the words, ‘but deliver us from evil’ in the Lord’s Prayer, and in threefold form over the forehead, the lips, and the heart before the solemn proclamation of the Gospel in the Eucharist. (In this case it is often accompanied by the silent prayer: “May my mind, my lips, and my heart give praise to the Lord” or “May my mind ponder, my lips proclaim, and my heart receive the Gospel of Christ”.) Sometimes it echoes, so to speak, the sign of the Cross made by a bishop or a priest when blessing or pronouncing Absolution to remind ourselves that blessing and forgiveness have their origin in the Cross.
* * * * *
What should you do? The old rule of thumb in the Episcopal Church used to be: kneel for prayer, stand for praise, sit for instruction. And though this was not followed in all instances, it is not a bad rule to remember if you are puzzled. But what about those other things I’ve just mentioned? Well, the best criterion is to do what “feels right”. Perhaps you might want to try some of these things for a time and see if they work for you. As the old farmer said, “Can’t hurt. Might help.” If they do, fine. If they don’t, discard them. The point is to do something which is natural for you, and personally expressive, and which, again, “feel right”, and thereby to enter as fully as possible into worship. That is our chief duty as believers, and as Scripture teaches, it is from worship “in spirit and in truth,” with heart and soul and mind that all other Christian virtues and blessings proceed.
Every service of Christian worship is a drama – a drama in which we enact, proclaim, and, as well, participate in the mighty acts of God. That’s what we are doing this morning; that’s what we do each time the Holy Communion – the Eucharist – is celebrated. Our drama today will be a little different, for we shall stop the action at certain points to explain its significance. We are doing this so that all of us may come to a deeper understanding of our worship and its meaning and, thereby, may participate with more enthusiasm, understanding, and joy – and ultimately with greater spiritual benefit.
Right now the stage is empty. The principal actors have not yet entered – though you and I are here and we are also actors in the drama. (Remember that. Never forget it. We too, are actors in the drama. We stand. We sit. We kneel. We speak and sing. We make various gestures which allow us to participate, enter into, and be involved in the drama of the Mass.) Soon, however, the principal players will arrive. They will make their entrance in procession as we sing a hymn.
There’s more to this entrance than just getting them in where they ought to be. It’s rather like the rising of a curtain as a play begins. The curtain begins to rise and we know that suddenly we shall be carried into another world, the world created by the play. The Entrance Hymn with its procession is just like that. It’s a sign. It signals to us that here in Church we are about to be swept into another reality – another world – not the ordinary world we live in day to day – but the extraordinary world of God, our world as He created and intended it to be.
II. After Entrance Hymn. Prayer Book: Rite I, pp. 323 – 325; Rite II, pp. 355-357
Ever since the Resurrection of our Lord, Christians have gathered together week by week, sometimes day by day, to perform one particular action – remembering His death and receiving His life with bread and wine and prayer. Many things in the Church have changed, but this one act has remained basically the same. It has been thought so essential that Christians have often risked their lives and sometimes lost their lives just to do this thing. It has been performed in innumerable different ways from the simplest gathering with bread and wine to the most complex and ornate ceremonial. It has been known by many names: the Holy Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Essentially, however, the action is the same, and it’s not at all forcing a point to say that the observance of this act is one thing that has formed a bond of continuity over the many centuries of the Church’s existence and across the painful divisions that separate Christians. The various Churches may think differently about the Eucharist and many perform it in different ways, but most agree that it is necessary and fundamental and commanded by our Lord.
A priest cannot celebrate the Eucharist alone. The Church forbids this, for the Liturgy is not a private thing. The Eucharist is the Church’s Act, and it can only take place in a community, performed communally by a part of the whole Church. Again, it is a drama: many people participating together in one action. From earliest times it has been called the Liturgy, from leitourgia, a Greek word which roughly translated means “work,” specifically, public work, a work of the people. The Eucharist is the Church’s work par excellence. In it the Church does all those things which make the Church what it is: it hears the word of God in the Scriptures, praises God for His majesty and love, offers prayer for the necessities of life, and partakes of the Sacrament of bread and wine which the Lord has ordained. The Liturgy is the Church’s work, and in this work the Church becomes in a very real and obvious sense what it is: God’s people, the Body of Christ gathered to acknowledge His real and living presence in Word and Sacrament and to feed upon the grace and power which Christ gives us through Word and Sacrament.
If a priest occupies a prominent place in the celebration of the Liturgy, this is because the Church has singled out particular persons to be her instruments and preside in the carrying out of this particular action. This morning Father Wood is our presider, the celebrant, of the Liturgy. He performs this function in the name of our Bishop who is the normal presider at every act within his jurisdiction. We have symbolized this already by the Processional Cross which brings the principal ministers into the Church. The Cross here is said to be a sign of the Bishop. The Bishop leads his people into the Church and to the Altar where they will meet Christ.
The celebrant, then, is the Bishop’s deputy in the Liturgy and, as such, has a specific function, a particular role, in the liturgical drama. The ancient vestment which he wears, called a chasuble, indicates this role. Supporting parts in the drama are played by the Deacon and Sub-deacon, who also wear vestments which indicate their function as assisting ministers. They and others at the Altar may be conspicuous by their dress, but they are no more important than you and me in the congregation. Because . . . again . . . the Eucharist is the action of the whole Church. It is always together that the Eucharist is celebrated – by a body, by a community. The congregation’s participation in hymn, in response, in prayer is absolutely essential.
The procession has entered now. The stage, so to speak, is set and full. And we begin our work by blessing God. The ordinary world around us does not bless God. The every-day world largely ignores God. But in this other world, this extra-ordinary and essential world of the Liturgy, God is indeed blessed. This sets the tone. “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” we say, “And blessed be His Kingdom, now and forever.” We then pray to God to prepare us for what is to come. We ask Him to send His Holy Spirit into our hearts – to make our intentions pure and to enable us to praise and love Him with all our being. Afterwards we acclaim and praise Him – merciful and glorious, glorious in His mercy and love for man. Depending on the season, one or the other or sometimes both of two very ancient hymns – dating from the fourth century – follow immediately. The Kyrie eleison (from the Greek for “Lord have mercy”) or the Gloria in excelsis (from the Latin for “Glory to God in the Highest”). Both of these come from the East and have been a part of the Church’s worship from earliest times. The Kyrie has a double emphasis. It was originally a shout of praise directed towards God or even an earthly ruler. It is like the Biblical words “Alleluia” or “Hosanna”. It can be understood as the joyful cry “The Lord is merciful!” In another context it can be understood as a plea for mercy from God. The Gloria which often comes next is a wonderful and ecstatic hymn of praise to God acclaiming His splendor and His majesty in Christ. Its tone is one of jubilant celebration, so much so that during the more somber seasons of Advent and Lent we leave it out of the Liturgy – to return on the great feasts of Christmas and Easter.
The Kyrie and Gloria ended, the celebrant calls us to prayer and prays on our behalf the collect for the day. This is a short prayer which refers to the feastday we may be observing or to the lessons which will next be read. It collects together or summarizes the themes which will be the focus of the liturgy.
III. After The Epistle. Prayer Book: Rite I, pp. 325 – 326; Rite II, pp. 357-358
The action of the Eucharist consists of Word and Sacrament. Both are fundamental parts of the life and faith of every Christian. At this point we are engaged in the Service of the Word. We have just heard a reading from the Old Testament – those books which record the history and yearning of the Hebrew people and which look forward to Christ – and from the Epistles – letters of instruction written to members of the early Church. This first part of the Service, together with the sermon, has its origin in the worship of the ancient Jewish Synagogue. Like that it is primarily a service of teaching and instruction.
Here at The Church of the Advent and in most Churches lay people who are members of the congregation read the first two lessons. One particular reading, however, has by an early tradition always been reserved to the clergy: the solemn reading of the Gospel. Doubtless you’ve noticed that we read the Gospel lesson at Mass in a manner very different from the lessons. For instance, the singing of a hymn or a chant and a procession precede this reading. Much more solemnity, more ceremony is involved in the proclamation of the Gospel. Why is this? Again, because the structure of our Christian faith is two-fold,Word and Sacrament. This doesn’t simply describe what Christianity is from the outside, but from the inside: how it works as a religion. It means something important and profound: that we seek and find Christ’s presence in the Word and in the Sacrament. At the reading of the Gospel Christ makes Himself present to us in his Word just as surely as he was present with his disciples two thousand years ago. For this reason before and after the proclamation of the Gospel we hail and acknowledge not the reading, but Christ himself, the Word of God, who is mystically present in these words of Scripture. We stand at the reading of the Gospel and face the Book in order to be addressed and encountered by the One who comes to us in His Word. “Glory to You, Lord Christ,” we say. Because the reading or singing of the Gospel is such a special act, it is reserved for members of the ordained ministry – a priest, a bishop, or a deacon. The Gospel Book, itself a symbol of Christ, is brought in the procession to the midst of the Church to symbolize the coming of the good news of Christ to His people.
At a Solemn Eucharist, the book is censed. The use of incense is deeply rooted in the Scriptures and in the traditional practice of the Church. At this point in the service it is derived from the practice of the ancient Roman Empire in which incense was carried before important personages as a mark of their rank. And so, before the reading of the Gospel we greet our Lord, our King, with incense – a mark of the respect and homage which He deserves.
IV. After the Gospel. Prayer Book: Rite I, pp. 358-359; Rite II, pp. 358 – 359
The lessons have been read; the Gospel proclaimed. At this point in a normal service the sermon would be preached. Afterwards we respond to God’s Word to us in Scripture and sermon by declaring our common faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. This is an outline of belief which the Church adopted some 1600 years ago in a council at Nicaea, a town in present-day Turkey. It was chosen then to be and probably still is the best statement of what Christians believe – a summary of the meaning and hope of the Faith. In the Creed we affirm our belief in the mighty acts of God for our salvation – acts of power and love – the reason we are here today.
V. After the Creed. Prayer Book: Rite I, pp. 359-360,; Rite II, pp. 383-395
The Liturgy continues with prayer. Prayer, for the Church and for every Christian, is like the bloodstream and the blood. It joins everything together and it brings life. Without blood the body dies. Without prayer our faith becomes boring, sterile, and dead.
In the intercessions we present to God in prayer our own needs and necessities, and the particular needs of those close to us, family or friends, who may be sick or troubled, and the needs of the Church and the world. Then in prayer we confess our sins – those acts in our lives which have denied and stifled Christ’s working in us and have taken us away from Him.
Christ promised to the Church the power to bind and to lose, that is, the power to forgive sins in his name. The celebrant, then, on behalf of the Church pronounces over us the Absolution, a formal declaration of the forgiveness of our sins which Christ promises and gives to every Christian. And then, assured of Christ’s forgiveness, we greet one another in His name. It is sin that separates us one from another. It is sin that destroys the peace between us. In Christ our peace is restored.
VI. Before the Offertory.
In the early years of the Church’s life, if you had not yet been baptized, at this point in the Mass you would be made to leave the building. The Liturgy of the Sacrament, the second part of the Eucharist, was considered too sacred for the eyes of those who had not been initiated into the mystery of Christ’s Redemption. The unbaptized were expelled and in some places the doors to the Church were locked. It was with great seriousness and even awe that the early Christians regarded the miracle of the Mass.
The action of the Liturgy now moves from the pulpit and the lectern – the place of the Word – to the Altar – the locus of Christ’s sacramental presence, as bread and wine are brought forward in the Offertory and prepared.
We are accustomed to think of the Offertory as the Collection – the collection of our offerings of money which we return to God as stewards, in thanksgiving, for the support of His Church. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this and the practice is to be encouraged! In the beginning, this was not the case. In the ancient Church money played no part in the Offertory. Rather the Offertory consisted of the gathering together and bringing to the Altar of bread and wine – bread and wine which often each person brought individually to the Church.
Bread and wine and the Offertory itself are powerful symbols. In the first place, bread and wine represent in microcosm the whole life of humanity – the life and work of men and women in the Creation, which God has entrusted to man’s care. The bread is not merely grain; the wine is not merely the juice of the grape. They are more than that. They go beyond simple nature. Rather, they are grain and grapes which have been transformed by human life and work. In the second place, we may see the Offertory as a symbol of the Christian life itself – these elements of bread and wine, like the life of the Christians, are given to up God to be received back infused and alive with the presence, and life, and grace of Christ. Members of the congregation – representatives of us all – bring forward the gifts which we shall receive back changed and transformed and which by the grace and power of Christ will transform us.
At a Solemn Eucharist incense is used at this point. Here the symbolism is very Biblical and Jewish, with its origin in the practice of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. The incense represents prayer ascending to heaven. The gifts of bread and wine, those serving at the altar, and the congregation are censed to signify that all of us together are being swept up into that movement of prayer and offering which is the Eucharist.
After the Offertory. Prayer Book: Rite I, pp. 333 – 338: Rite II, pp. 361-376
This last part of the Liturgy – its climax and conclusion – stems from the last supper of Jesus with his disciples. Strangely enough, we don’t know a great deal about the particulars of this meal, which has so often been repeated. The Gospels don’t tell us much. What we can say for certain is that Jesus commanded the Church to “Do this in remembrance of Me” and that Christians have remembered his command and repeated this meal over and over throughout the centuries. Their experience has always been this: that He was present with them when they obeyed His command.
This part of the Eucharist – the Liturgy of the Sacrament – begins with the celebrant’s exhortation to “Lift up your hearts.” “Be joyful,” the priest tells us, “Sursum corda!” “Lift up your hearts.” The key to the meaning of the Prayers to follow lies in what the celebrant says next: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” for the Eucharistic Prayer is primarily a giving thanks to God for His acts of power in creation and redemption. This is, after all, just what Jesus did at that Last Supper: “He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it . . . he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them.” This same action – the giving of thanks – is the celebrant’s and also our action in the consecration of the gifts of bread and wine. For this reason we call the consecratory prayer “The Great Thanksgiving.” In fact, this strange Greek word “Eucharist” which we’ve been using means exactly that – to give thanks.
We give thanks to God first by repeating in the Sanctus the hymn which Isaiah the prophet heard sung around the throne of God – “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might.” Next, we praise the one who will soon come to us in the Sacrament of his body and blood, repeating the words of the crowd which greeted Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday – “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” And in the prayer of consecration we give thanks to God for His mighty work in Jesus, the Christ. We pray that He will bless the gifts of bread and wine – that they may become the Body and Blood of Christ; that we, being made holy by the Spirit, may find our real food and real drink in His Body and Blood. This is the Christian sacrifice, the holy sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in which we recall thankfully the sacrifice of God in Christ. Here at The Church of the Advent the tower bell is rung at certain points during this prayer, namely at the Words of Institution: “This is my body. This is my blood.” The bells have their origin in the medieval Church. Their function was then and is now to alert us and focus our attention on the central mystery and miracle of the Liturgy – the coming of Christ to His people. The bells are rung and the celebrant lifts high the host and chalice for all to see.
In the Episcopal Church we believe that something really occurs to the bread and wine when they are consecrated by the priest and the Church. In this we are joined by the great and historic tradition of Christianity – by the Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Churches, and several of the Reformed Churches. Some say that the Liturgy is only a kind of memorial: we eat bread and drink wine and remember Jesus when we do it. Certainly that’s true, but in the Anglican Communion we claim that there is more to it than that. We believe that when we gather together and give thanks over the bread and wine, Jesus Christ – as he promised – will make himself present to us, sacramentally, in the bread and wine. This is the faith of the Church. Moreover, and most important this has been the experience of the Church from the very beginning. The bread and wine become sacraments – instruments, signs effective in themselves – by which Christ Himself gives us his presence, and his power, and his life. God in Christ is always working to be near to us – to be close to us, and with us. He is, of course, continually present to us at every time and in every place, but in the Holy Communion He is as near to us as the food we eat and the wine we drink.
VIII. After the Communion. Prayer Book; Rite I, pp. 339: Rite II, pp. 365-366
We have received Christ’s Body and Blood. What else is there now to do, but again give thanks? We do so in a concluding prayer and the Liturgy ends as the celebrant blesses us and we are dismissed. We have celebrated the drama of God’s mighty acts; we have partaken of the Body and Blood of his Son; we have been swept into the extraordinary world of the Liturgy. We are dismissed to go out into the everyday world and take with us what we have received here, to spread abroad the love and power and presence of Christ. And what is our response to this? Once again – and how appropriate that these are the very last words spoken in the Mass! – “Thanks be to God.”
A Note about the term Transubstantiation
Many people equate the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist with the theory of Transubstantiation. They are, in fact, not exactly the same thing. The doctrine of the Real Presence asserts what the Church has believed, taught, and experienced since earliest times, i.e. that Christ is really and truly present to his people in the Sacrament of the Altar. Transubstantiation is one theory among the many which seek to explain how Christ is present; to articulate the mechanics, so to speak, of His presence. It was developed in the thirteenth century by St. Thomas Aquinas in order to combat rather crude theories of the Eucharist that gave rise to superstition. St. Thomas’ explanation depended, as did his theology, on the philosophy and metaphysics of Aristotle.
By the time of the Reformation an intellectual reaction had taken place against St. Thomas’ thought, which had become the official teaching of the Roman Church, and also against the Aristotelianism upon which it is based. Luther and the English Reformers protested that Aquinas’ doctrine of transubstantiation per se can nowhere be found in Scripture or the early teaching of the Church. They were right; it can’t. It was, in their view, an illegitimate development which was a departure. They never, however, denied the doctrine of the Real Presence; indeed, they defended it. It was not until the second generation of the Reformation came along that this fundamental and scripturally-based doctrine was questioned and by some denied.
Even if we regard the doctrine of Transubstantiation as simply one way of explaining the gift of Christ’s Real Presence in the Mass, there is still some value in continuing to use the word. All accounts of how Christ is present – even those which the Continental and English Reformers came up with – attempt to make it clear and undoubted that a miracle is taking place in the bread and the wine. For some in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, Transubstantiation – in a metaphorical rather than metaphysical sense – remains the best term to point to this miracle – the mystery of Jesus’ Real Presence with his people, veiled in bread and wine.
Be that as it may, a good way to end this discussion is to quote verses on the matter attributed to a very clever and crafty lady, Elizabeth I.
His was the word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that word doth make it,
That I believe and take it.
For many people – even many Episcopalians – the style of worship at the Church of the Advent will be unfamiliar, perhaps even rather strange. These questions and answers are intended to address some of the points that most frequently puzzle visitors and newcomers.
Where do our customs come from?
Worship at the Church of the Advent reflects our foundation in the tradition of the “Oxford Movement.” Beginning in the 1830s, several Church of England clergy, in reaction to what they perceived as the laxity and spiritual lifelessness the Church in their day, started a renewal which came to be known as the Oxford Movement (because most of them were associated with Oxford University). They advocated a restoration of the pattern of Catholic worship, devotion, and spirituality which originated in ancient times but was lost during the Reformation. The recoveries included an ornate liturgy, private confession, devotions addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and monastic orders, as well as the use of the name “Mass” for the service of the Eucharist.
Why do we call ourselves “Anglo-Catholic”?
The word “catholic” comes from a Greek word meaning “universal” and originally referred to essential beliefs held by all Christians. Over the course of history, as a result of various schisms and the consequences of the Protestant Reformation, it has come to identify Christians who hold a specific set of theological and sacramental views. Today, “Anglo-Catholic” describes the beliefs and practices of Episcopalians (Anglicans) who follow the ideas and practices born from the Oxford Movement.
Why is the worship so formal?
In addition to ceremonial recoveries, scholars of the Oxford Movement also led a rediscovery of classical Catholic theology, which included an elevated view of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in which we believe Christ to be really present to us in the sacramental bread and wine – His Body and Blood. From a Catholic viewpoint, worshipping Christ present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist is an experience so profound that words become inadequate and ceremonial gestures, such as the Sign of the Cross and genuflections, serve to express some of what we cannot put into speech.
Is everyone supposed to make all these gestures?
Not unless you want to. The Sign of the Cross and other ceremonials are outward signs of reverence; expressions of deeply personal belief and practice. They are not requirements of our liturgy or “tests” for membership. If you feel comfortable with them, use them by all means. If you have questions, one of the clergy would be glad to explain these customs to you.
What are all the people at the Altar doing – why all the fancy vestments?
Our liturgy employs a number of ministers, ordained and lay, in roles that enhance our worship. The principal actors in the drama of the liturgy are the Sacred Ministers of the Mass – the Celebrant, Deacon, and Subdeacon. Their liturgical roles and distinctive vestments date back to early Church tradition. The Celebrant presides at the service and consecrates the bread and wine; the Deacon proclaims the Gospel and assists in the ministration of Communion; the Subdeacon reads the New Testament lesson and also assists at Communion. The Celebrant and Deacon are always ordained clergy; the Subdeacon is customarily a layperson who has been specially licensed and trained for this ministry. The other servers and choir play supporting roles in the action of the Mass, all of which draw the focus of attention to the liturgy of God’s Word and Sacrament. The vestments we use not only define the roles of the servers, but also express the corporate nature of our worship by minimizing individual distinctions.
Why do we use incense in the services?
The tradition of using incense in the liturgy goes back to ancient Hebrew worship, as recorded in the Psalms: “Let my prayer be set forth in Thy sight as the incense” (Psalm 141:2). As this verse suggests, incense symbolizes the prayers of the faithful rising up to heaven as the smoke rises to the rafters. Incense also appears in the Bible in association with visions of the Divine, most notably in the book of Isaiah and the Revelation to St John. The smoke itself is associated with purification and sanctification; thus, we cense the consecrated elements of the Eucharist to show that they are set apart, and when we cense people we are not only symbolically “purifying” them but also acknowledging that they are set apart by their Baptism.
Can I receive Communion here?
All baptized Christians are welcome at our Altar. In accordance with the Canons of the Episcopal Church, any person who has been baptized with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit may receive Communion in this Church. Please feel free to speak to one of the clergy if you have any doubts or scruples in this regard.
We hope this information deepens your understanding and enjoyment of our worship. If you have other questions about our liturgy or ministries, please speak to one of the clergy.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
We’re waiting for Joaquin this weekend, so perhaps it’s ﬁtting that we’re sort of in the eye of Hurricane Francis today. It is a “Francis Fest” at the Advent – keeping the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, blessing beasts this afternoon at 3 (Francis would’ve dug that). Plus, in the wake of Pope Francis’ whirlwind American tour, we begin a 2-part Entr’acte series on his encyclical Laudato Si. Francis to the left of me, Francis to the right . . . .
I’ve been reading Omer Englebert’s classic biography of St. Francis of Assisi, and Francis was, indeed, a remarkable man. Though his life sometimes gets lost in legends, Fr. Englebert says:
Francis is universally admired, but he has not always been universally understood. As with Jesus Christ, another universal ﬁgure, Francis’ admirers often try to remake the saint in their own image. Modern romantics are beguiled by Francis the nature lover, the man who talked to the birds. We have Francis the social worker, the humanist, the lyric poet, the drop out. At the other extreme, Francis is viewed through the prism of religious sentimentality. The Poverello – the “little poor man” – charms us with a sweet gentleness. Or he chills us with his fasts, his stigmata, his heroic and unfathomable asceticism.
What about us? Say there’s a biography of us or our parish – what gets written? “Religious sentimentality?” Do we charm or chill? How do we see ourselves? And most important — how does God see us?
I had lunch with a parishioner this week who told me a pastor friend of his served a church that had spent almost a decade working on their “mission statement.” Having meetings, discussion groups and questionnaires, cobbling together this document to describe what that church was about. But when someone started yet another conversation with him about that mission statement, the pastor stopped them and said:“I’ll tell you right now what our mission is: Be the church on Claremont Street” or whatever street they were on.
When the biography of the Advent is written, what will they say? Have we been the church?
Put a pin in that question, and let’s look at this famous passage from Micah. It’s a courtroom scene, believe it or not. The prophets are sometimes called God’s “covenant lawsuit messengers,” their job was to indict Israel for breaking their covenant with God. That’s how they made their bones, holding a mirror up to the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, so that they saw themselves as they really were. Look at the beginning of chapter 6:
Hear what the Lord says:
Arise (“All rise – Hear ye, hear ye”) plead your case before the mountains . . .
for the Lord has an indictment against his people,
and he will contend with Israel. (Micah 6.1-2)
At that point, Micah could’ve gone in any number of directions to indict Israel – he could’ve started naming off the Ten Commandments one after another; he could’ve gone through all 613 commandments in the Hebrew scriptures. Instead, he said – He (God) has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you . . .
love mercy, and
walk humbly with your God. (6.8)
Today I want to look at those three terms – justice, mercy, humility – let them be a mirror for us. And ask: If our mission is “Be the Church on Brimmer Street in Boston,” how are we doing?
First: Do justice
This word – mishpat or “justice” – is one of God’s attributes, the one that repeatedly aligns him not with the powerful, but with the poor. In Exodus, God fought against the Egyptians who pressed the poor Israelites into slavery. Then when Israel enjoyed privilege and “crushed the heads of the poor,” God judged his own people. (Amos 2.7) Proverbs 14.31: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” The Dutch journalist and theologian Abraham Kuyper puts it this way:
When the rich and the poor oppose each other . . . both the Christ, and also just as much His apostles after Him as the prophets before Him, invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury, and for the suffering and oppressed.2
Some call this God’s “preference for the poor,” and that’s about when people of means look at me like I’m coming at them with a pitchfork. I’m not saying God doesn’t care for the rich just as much as the poor – the Bible is clear: “God is no respecter of persons.” (Acts 10.34) But what I am saying is this: It matters how we treat the poor. Whatever inﬂuence we have, any status or position or resources – none of that is ours by right. Rather, they are gifts of God, and we hold them in trust for those in need. Micah indicted God’s people for corrupt business practices that disadvantaged the poor (6.10-12), for seizing the property of the poor (2.2, 9), and one way we know we are being the Church on Brimmer Street is if we are caring for the poor.
Second: Love Mercy
This word is chesed, and it’s one of the most important words in the bible. It’s the word for God’s covenant love for his people. “Justice” is horizontal and points us toward other people; “mercy” or chesed is vertical and points us toward God. The question here is whether we are keeping our covenant with God, and it’s so much broader than simply justice to the poor – this is aimed directly at our hearts. Are we so smitten by God’s love for us that we’re compelled to love him in return with all our hearts, our souls, our minds, our strength. Do we love God enough to keep Sabbath and not overwork (that one indicts me every time)? Do we thirst for time with God in prayer, at mass, inconstant recollection of his place in our lives every minute of every day?
And third: Walk humbly
This last one really encompasses the ﬁrst two. Some versions say “walk circumspectly” or “walk wisely,” but what it really means is to bring our whole lives into conformity with God’s will. To really mean it when we pray “Thy will be done on earth – in our homes and lives and in this community – as it is in heaven.” That takes careful attention to be sure God has access to every room in our hearts – that we haven’t walled off parts of ourselves where we demand that our will be done rather than his.
Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with our God.
One last point: In the run-up to verse 8, Micah asks rhetorical questions, each one more extravagant than the last:
With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil? (6.6-7a)
Sacriﬁces, ritual – that’s religion. But God isn’t all that impressed with our religious exercise. He wants our worship, to be sure, but look closely at the next line:
Shall I give my ﬁrstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (6.7b)
The answer is, quite obviously, no. Even if we made every appointed sacriﬁce, even if we sacriﬁced our ﬁrstborn, that could never cover our sin. But He has shown you, O man, O Church of the Advent, what is good – At the cross, he showed you. God did give his ﬁrstborn for our transgression, the fruit of his godhead for the sin of our souls. In return, he asks not for religion. Be the Church on Brimmer Street. Not to earn God’s favor, but because he loved us even to the cross. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. He loved us ﬁrst; love him in return.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
1. Omer Englebert, St. Francis of Assisi: A Biography (Cincinnati, Oh.: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1979): 1-2.
2. Abraham Kuyper, Christianity and the Class Struggle (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Piet Hein, 1950): 27, 50 (quoted in Gary Smith, Hosea, Amos, Micah, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001): 433).
I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that many of the things we were taught and learned as small children stay with us for the rest of our lives. Drummed into our heads when we are five or six or seven or eight, they stay there.
One that will certainly never leave me is this: Stop, look, and listen. I heard it from my parents. I heard it from my teachers. I heard it from the principal of my school. Stop, look, and listen. We heard it and we were made to repeat it again and again like a mantra.
It’s about crossing the street, of course, and not getting hit by a car. In those times the world was a kinder place – so much more innocent and secure than today – and getting hit by a car was just about the only thing that was a threat to a child. We all walked to school, and crossing streets on the way, we were commanded to put into practice that which we had heard and repeated so often. Stop. Now look – to the right and to the left. And listen – is there a car coming from around a curve? Stop. Look. And listen. After that you can go.
I’m not sure how careful it made me as an eight- or nine-year-old, but it must have worked. I made it through childhood, and here I am. Good advice, it seems, to a kid on his way to school.
Good advice also to a Christian as he or she seeks to grow in their life with God.
Stop. This is the fourth commandment, isn’t it? “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” ( Exodus 20:8 ) For what is the Sabbath, if not a time when one stops and does no work? The Sabbath, as a day, was consecrated to God, but remember, as Jesus teaches, it was made for man. Made, indeed, that man might come to know God. And even though as Christians we no longer observe the Sabbath as did the ancient Jews, there must be Sabbath-time in our lives. There must be a time when we simply stop . . . and let be.
The spiritual life is about being: our being and our being-with-God. Doing is secondary; being is first and it is the foundation of the spiritual life. In fact, busy-ness, busy-ness, doing and doing and never stopping is a hindrance to, if not the end of one’s spiritual life. God commands Sabbath because man needs Sabbath. “Be still, then, and know that I am God.” ( Psalm 46:10 ) Be still then, and know that I am God – not you. For, of course, doing, busy-ness is egotistical. It is all about me. I am busy. This is what I do. And I must do it. So much depends on me. But when we stop, and there is Sabbath, the world does not end. It keeps on going, and I am put in my place. Very little depends on me; everything depends on God. “Be still then, and know that I am God” – not you.
There is an emptiness in all of us. A void which can only be filled by God. It is part of our glory as human creatures – that we can be fulfilled by nothing less than God. It is also part of our pain – that we are not complete, something is lacking, each one of us is unfinished and unfulfilled. This realization is the beginning of the spiritual life. Without it we are simply stuck. And all too often we are stuck in an endless round of doing and doing and busy-ness. We hope all that action will fill the void, and to be sure, it often obscures it, but the void is still there and we may well find ourselves exhausted, frustrated, not fulfilled – until we stop, until we are still with God and yearn to be with Him more and more. Until we acknowledge our emptiness and Sabbath-time puts us in our place.
* * * * *
Stop, look, and listen. I remember another thing from childhood. If I was mopey or feeling sorry for myself or complaining, my mother would take me by the shoulders, look me in the eye, and say to me, “Young man, count your blessings.” There has never been a wiser admonition, and in fact there is a name for this in spiritual theology: recollection. And it means simply to look, to look back, to recollect how richly and how often God has blessed you. Look at what God has done for you. Look back at how faithful and loving and forgiving He has been, how His justice has always been tempered by His mercy. Look back on the gift of life itself and the abundance of your life (and each of us here today lives in an abundance which most cannot imagine). Look back on the times when God has supported you – gotten you through, when things were difficult or dangerous. Look back on the times when God has prevented you from doing something stupid or destructive. The times when God seems to have thwarted the just and logical consequences of your willful ego. Look back at how He has accepted you as you are and offered you the grace to become better. Look back at the Cross where God gave His Son for you, Himself, to bring you back to Him. Look. For the faithfulness and love of God in times to come is assured by His faithfulness and love in times that are past.
* * * * *
Stop, look, and listen. Remember the story. ( II Kings 19:9 – 12 ) The prophet Elijah was alone and everyone was after him and against him. “They seek my life, to take it away,” he cried out to God. He fled to the desert and hid in a cave and prayed that he might die. And then there was an earthquake. There was a wind, and there was a manifestation of fire. Big, loud, noisy things, that demanded attention. Things often identified with God. But this time God was not in them and He did not speak through them. Finally, there was a still small voice. And it was in the stillness that God spoke, and it was through the stillness that Elijah heard.
The world is a noisy place, my brothers and sisters. Cares, concerns, responsibilities, successes, failures – all these are a distracting clamor which can deafen us spiritually and drown out the voice of God. God speaks to us – He does – but often we cannot hear Him for the noise. God speaks to us – He does – but often we do not recognize His voice . . . unless we stop and create a Sabbath-time in our lives; unless we cease from doing and doing, so noisy in itself, and rest in the stillness of our being; unless we rest in our being-with-God.
God speaks to us, but we cannot hear Him or we do not recognize His voice . . . unless we look and count the many blessing which have been His words to us. Life itself, abundance in life, mercy, forgiveness, acceptance, the grace to grow. God’s blessings are His words to us and His language is the language of love. We need to hear those words now and always; deep in our souls we need to learn the gracious and grace-filled words of God’s speech.
“Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out.”
There is great diversity in what we call the New Testament, and the reason for this is simple. It’s not one book, but, as we all know, it is a collection of writings – written at different times, in different places, by different persons, for different reasons. There are the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – which present events in the life of Jesus. They are placed at the beginning, but were probably the last to be written. There are the various epistles which are the earliest writings. These are letters of exhortation and instruction to members of the Church in various cities – most are by the Apostle Paul. Others bear the name of John, Peter, James or Jude. There is one, Hebrews, whose author, it has been said, is known only to God. Acts tells the story of the Apostolic Church, and finally there is that strange and fascinating book, the Revelation or the Apocalypse, which is a vision and a hymn and a promise and a warning. All these were written down over a period of less than a hundred years, but it was not until the middle of the third century or even later that they were brought together to become the New Testament as we know it and read it today.
With this in mind, we should not be surprised to learn that there are different and, occasionally, even contradictory points of view in the New Testament. Jesus, as Matthew presents him, is very different from the Jesus of the Gospel of John. Paul’s understanding of Christianity emphasizes things which the Epistle to the Hebrews completely ignores. All bear witness to the event and the significance of Jesus, but each views this from a different perspective, from a different angle, through a different lens, so to speak.
And so, the thought and the teaching of the New Testament are multi-faceted and rich – each author presents us with a unique way of understanding that which the writer believes to be the central and most important event in the history of the world.
This morning I want us to think about one particular theme, one facet of New Testament theology. It is not peculiar to any one writer, but is used by several, again in different ways. Nor is the theme I want us to think about a consistent theory; it is rather an image, a picture, a paradox which is intended to guide our thought and devotion, and, indeed, our life. It has to do with the feast we are celebrating today – the Feast of the Holy Cross. And the image is this: the Cross as a battlefield and our Lord Jesus as a warrior, as, in fact, the Victor in that battle. Let me say that again: the Cross as a battlefield and our Lord Jesus as God’s warrior, as, in fact, God’s Victor in that battle. And the implication for us is this: that to those who give their allegiance to Jesus as their Lord, his Victory, is also their Victory.
This is an unusual idea, and certainly to people outside the Church and the Faith it is a puzzling, if not ridiculous idea. How can the Cross be a battle? It’s an execution. And that death in Jerusalem so long ago – how can it have been a victory? Moreover, how can that possibly have anything to do with us today?
It looks like nothing more than tragedy – just another obscene injustice, just another notch in the tally of human perfidy. There was nothing new then about a good and innocent man being put to death. And certainly there is nothing new or exceptional about this now. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we’ve gotten so used to this that it seems almost an everyday occurrence. We are today accustomed to, almost at home with evil, sin, death, betrayal and injustice on such a grand scale, how can this cynical killing in Jerusalem so long ago be any different from all the rest?
Scripture and the Church have no logical answer to such a question. Rather, there is a response. And the response is a proclamation. And the proclamation is based on the experience of those who do acknowledge Jesus as their Lord, and who, therefore, know His Victory, experience his Victory as their own.
And what they know and proclaim is this: that the Cross of Jesus was more than just one death among many. Indeed, below the surface, what was going on there was a contest between God and everything that opposes God and opposes you and me. There, on the Cross, those things which we call evil, sin, the devil, the destructive and demonic powers in this world – there, on the Cross, they tried to wrench away from God the One who was totally dedicated to God. There, they unleashed their full fury – pain and emptiness and hatred and death – on Jesus, the One who had come to bring humanity back to God. But, there, on the Cross, Jesus was faithful. Even there, the object of hatred, assaulted by pain and the certainty of death, His dedication would not be broken. He was obedient, “obedient even to death,” Paul tells us, “even death upon a cross.” ( Phil. 2:8 ) He, Jesus, in His obedience and death, reversed things, turned them around. By his faithfulness, He himself nailed to the Cross all those things which were against us and against God. The Epistle to the Colossians tells us, “having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them” on the Cross. ( 2:15 ) Through obedience and “through death,” says the Epistle to the Hebrews, “he destroyed him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.” ( 2:15 ) He “led captivity captive,” proclaims St. Paul. ( Eph. 4:8 ) And finally, “Now is the judgment of this world. Now shall the ruler of this world be cast out,” he shouts as He enters the battle of the Cross.
And in that battle God, through Jesus, shows us who He is and what He does.
The Cross reveals the face of God in Jesus.
The Cross reveals the Heart of God.
The Cross makes clear to all mankind the infinity of His love.
Hail Holy Cross, our life and our hope!
Hail to the Lord Jesus! God’s victor and the triumph of His love.
This morning I want us to think about something none of us likes to think about very much. That may not be an engaging beginning for a sermon; even so, it is, I think, a fact of life that we ought to think about such things. If we don’t like them, it is probably because they express a truth which is difficult for us, and which we have been avoiding. And we all know, don’t we, that the more truth, the better off we are, even if we don’t like it.
What I want us to think about is a phrase from the Gospel we heard this morning. A saying of Our Lord – something Jesus says again and again. It goes like this. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” I don’t like to hear that, and I doubt that you like it any more than I. There are many things that we all would prefer to hear: comfortable words from Scripture, we might call them. Words which ease our troubles and bring us reassurance and peace. Surely, that comfort is part of our religion? After all, don’t we call it “good news”?
And yet, from time to time, we are forced to hear something else – something not comfortable; rather something disturbing and unsettling like that all too familiar verse from the Gospel. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Those are hard words, and if we are at all serious about our faith, they bother us. Bother us, I think, because we know that they too, along with comfort, are part of the message of Scripture, and they bother us because we know that what they tell us is inescapable, unavoidable, because it is true.
Jesus said many things like this: he told us, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth: I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother … and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.” Or in another place he says to a young man – and he is speaking to us as well – “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and come, follow me.” Those are hard words, aren’t they? Very hard.
I suspect, though, that they are not nearly so hard for us as what we just heard, this saying about the cross and taking up one’s cross. Those former words are all about giving up – giving up family, giving up possessions – and strange as it may seem, we can always imagine giving up something and going on with life almost as before. But in what I want us to consider, we are told that we must take something on . . . and what we must take on is a cross.
There are many crosses in human life. In fact human life is marked by a cross. That’s part of what it is to be human – to be one who bears a cross.
Sometimes those crosses are not ours. We are often called to bear the cross or help to bear the cross of another person. A wife. A husband. A son or daughter, a friend. There are times when we are obliged by love or friendship or vocation to take up a cross that does not belong to us. We don’t ask for it. We don’t want it any more than they, but love or duty presents us with that cross and we take it on.
At other times it is simple proximity that obliges us – a stranger on a train or a plane in distress, a drunk in a bar who spills out his heart to you and you take on the cross of someone whose name you never know, the victim of an accident, a lost child, a deranged person in the street. Another’s cross can come to us and we find ourselves involved in it for no other reason than that we are there and they are there. Remember. Simon of Cyrene stood by the road to Jerusalem watching the rabble as they hounded and taunted a man carrying a cross on the way to his execution. And then, Simon was handed the cross. As far as we know, before this he had nothing to do with Jesus, but he took that cross. He was just there.
But in what we are thinking about today, our Lord is not talking about taking on another’s cross. (Certainly, that is something he would expect us to do; that’s something he did.) What he tells us, however, is that we must take up our own cross. And that may be a somewhat different task, for to acknowledge a cross as one’s own is part of its agony and part of its pain. A cross which you know is your own is a very heavy burden.
I wish I could tell you that our religion promises us no crosses. There are some who will tell you that – that a cross in your life is just a mistake or a blunder or that you can somehow bypass the crosses that will surely come to you. There are some who say – and we have all heard them – that being a Christian is a sure promise of success and profit and happiness according to the standards of this world. That’s rather cheap, I think, and even if we hadn’t heard the Gospel this morning, we would still know that that’s not true. It’s a lie and not what our religion is about at all. Christianity never promises us that there will be no crosses. Indeed, it assures us that there will be crosses. And one thing that our Lord steadfastly insists is that you can’t get around your cross, you can’t bypass the cross/crosses that come to you in life.
Do you remember the Gospel? “Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and the scribes and be killed . . . and Peter took him and began to rebuke him.” Peter, with the best of intentions, wanted him to deny his cross, to get around it somehow. And Jesus answers Peter in the strongest possible terms – we rarely see him so angry – “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God but of men.”
Satan? Peter . . . Satan? Yes, it is Satan who would have us ignore our cross. It is the demonic and the evil that tempts us always to take what seems the easy way out – to try to get around whatever cross is part of our life. And if we try it, if we do ignore that cross, then Satan has won. Our crosses; our cross is a fact. To ignore or try to get around it is to become more securely bound to it. We become dominated by what we try to wish away.
The cross is there. You have it in your life; I have it in mine. It is a fact about us. It comes to us in many ways and at many times in our lives:
Through the death of someone we love.
Through failure. Poverty. Illness. Addiction. Prejudice. Mental suffering.
Through not being loved and through not loving. Not being understood. Being rejected.
Through things within our psyche which we cannot change. Disappointment.
The changes which come with age.
Loneliness. Hatred . . . You know the cross, and so do I.
* * * * *
Our Lord never promises that in this life there will be no crosses. What he says to us is this: to face it, to take it up, and to follow Him. And if we face it, if we take it up, and if we follow Him, He does not take it away. No, no, no. He does something better. He meets us at that cross, and He takes us through it and beyond it.
My brothers and sisters, there is no cross that will ever come to you in life which He has not known. You will never be alone at your cross; He will always be with you. One of the places He has most surely promised to be is there.
And remember this: your cross is never an end. (It is the Devil who tells you that, who summons you to despair and would have you depressed, dominated and destroyed by your cross. The Devil would have you crushed by it, or would have you ignore it and pretend it is not there, for the end result is the same.) The Lord Jesus asks you to face your cross and to take it up and to seek Him there and finally to follow. For He will lead you and take you through it, and beyond it. And He will never leave you.
We can do no better than to end with the words of Paul the Apostle: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That is His victory.
That is his power being made perfect in weakness.
And it is our victory, as well.
And that, Good People, is the reason we call the Gospel . . . Good News!
I want you to join me in a science experiment. Raise one index finger if you will at arm’s length like so. Close your right eye and observe where your finger appears against a fixed point in the distance, perhaps the pulpit here where I am standing. Now open the right eye and close the left. Notice how your finger appears to have moved relative to the position of the pulpit. Your perspective on it has shifted. You can put your finger down now.
Scientists have a name for this phenomenon; it’s called the parallax effect. I bring this up because parallax is a word that comes from Greek, and in today’s reading from the epistle of James, we get the one and only time that the New Testament uses a Greek word related to our term “parallax.” In today’s reading our translation uses the word “variation” as the English equivalent of the Greek parallax. James says “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” So James is saying that with God there is no parallax effect. What I want to try to explain today is why James says this, that with God there is no variation, no parallax.
It will help to begin with some context. Immediately prior to today’s epistle reading, James has been exhorting his audience to remain firm in the faith; it seems that he addressed groups of believers who were subjected to hardship—probably not persecution of the most violent kind but difficulties nonetheless.
Amidst such trials James claims boldly that those who endure difficulty are blessed, for it is those who persevere and withstand testing that will receive eternal life from God. The reward of eternal life is given to those who love God and whose consistency in loving God even amid trials is what produces their endurance.
We have probably heard some version of this thought ourselves, that trials make for maturity, that if we can withstand opposition then we will be all the stronger for it and rewarded with improved character. Maybe at some point in your childhood your father said something like, “deprivation is good for you. It builds character.”
Yet James recognizes that our perspective on being tested can easily shift; trials and tribulations are subject to the parallax effect. Right before today’s verses he cautions his audience not to blame God when faced with difficulty and advises us instead that each person is tempted by his own desire. Why does he say this? What’s the connection between being exhorted to endure trials and not to blame God?
I think he says this because he realizes that our failure to love God in such a way as to make us endure difficulty can easily be turned into blame against God: If God did not want me to fail, why did he put me to the test in the first place? Isn’t it God’s fault after all that I was subjected to trials? With one slight shift in perspective, one parallax shift, what looked like an opportunity for blessing and strengthening through opposition becomes an obstacle, a reason to complain.
And this is the thought that I think motivates James’s powerful proclamation at the beginning of today’s reading: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
What could this possibly mean? I think this is the beginning of James’s solution to our problem of endurance: We are meant to love God no matter what opposition we face, and yet that very opposition is a potential stumbling block; trial can be an excuse to reject God and fall by the wayside. How can we keep to the right path when we are beset on all sides?
By staying focused on the fact that God is the giver of every perfect gift. For James, God’s goodness is utterly complete, and because God is so entirely good God has no ulterior motives in putting difficulties in our way. Our difficulties in life, which are very real, are from God’s perspective only opportunities for our improvement, for our becoming more holy, more like God. With God there is no parallax shift: There is no dark side to testing, only the means of our becoming more mature in our faith. If we do not take these opportunities for what they are, that is our own fault and not God’s.
It is no accident that James’s preferred metaphor here is of light: God is the Father of lights in that God created light; indeed the creation of light is God’s first creative act. The sun and moon are God’s creation and further specification of light into greater and lesser.
Interestingly even the ancients observed that the sun and moon are subject to the parallax effect; even these great lights in the sky appear different to us depending on our perspective. Similarly the moon is cast in shadow for most of its cycle. But James says with God there is no parallax; there is no shadow. While everything in our earthly experience, even the mighty heavenly bodies, rise and fall, are eclipsed at one time and shine more brightly at another, God’s nature is never to change.
God is the dispenser of unqualifiedly good gifts, and to give good gifts is God’s constant nature. This again is by implied contrast to human gifts. Like difficulties in life that can be either opportunities for maturity or occasions for failure, so too the gifts that humans give can differ according to our perspective. For every humanly bestowed gift also carries its shadow-side. That promotion at work makes for more responsibility and anxiety; the increase of wealth brings complications and further costs; the solution to one dilemma presents yet more problems. Even here, a seemingly good gift is subject to the parallax effect: Looked at another way, a gift is just a new burden.
With one little parallax shift, the good gifts that we enjoy can appear different; they can occasion doubt and questioning. I never should have moved here, the winter is terrible. Why did I take that job anyway? It’s totally unfulfilling and tedious. Why did the boss give me that promotion? I am a failure at it, and now everyone at work can see how inadequate I am.
It is not so with God. We can expect that everything we genuinely need—not the things we want, but the things we genuinely need—is provided by our father in heaven, who never changes depending on our perspective and never ceases to give gifts that are wholly good.
Chief among these is the gift of nothing less than new birth. And this is why James calls God a father, for by God’s power are we born anew. The pre-eminently good gift that comes from above is the gift of new and unending life; as Jesus told Nicodemus, this is the birth that comes “from above.”
There are three things to notice about the all-important gift of new life: Who it comes from, how it comes about, and what’s the point of it. First, this gift of new birth comes from God; it comes at God’s decision, not ours, just as our natural birth came about with no contribution from us. Our parents act to bring us to birth; we have no power to bring ourselves into existence, nor do we have any power to give ourselves the gift of birth from above.
Second, this new birth comes about by means of the word of truth, the word that was incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, the word of truth that we read in Scripture, the word that we hear echoed in faithful preaching.
Finally, this new birth is in fulfillment of a purpose, it has a point, and the point is that we who receive new birth may become the first fruits of God’s creation. Now it will help to know that in the Hebrew Scriptures God commanded the people of Israel to present an offering of the new crops as what was called the “first fruits.” The first fruits were to be dedicated especially to God, while the rest of the crop was to be used for ordinary consumption; the first fruits had to be the very best of the crop; and the first fruits were offered as an annual reminder that God continues to provide for all the needs of the people.
This is the character of the new birth as well: We are given the gift of life in expectation that we will not be given over to profane pursuits but will be holy; we will be transformed by the word of God into exemplary people; and our own sanctified lives will be witness to the faithfulness of God to supply every good and perfect gift that we need.
This is what connects the first few verses of our reading today with the final admonitions to be quick to listen, slow to speak, to bridle our tongues, and to be rid of wickedness in favor of meekly receiving the implanted word. Every good gift that we need is provided by God, but we must receive this gift and then act upon it.
If it is the word of truth that brings about new birth, no wonder James proceeds to offer so many counsels about hearing and speaking. We must be quick to listen because it is by listening that we are receptive to this word of truth. How can the word of truth be implanted in me, implanted like a seed that blossoms into new life, if I refuse to hear it?
By the same token we must be slow to speak ourselves, for the noise of our own chatter drowns out the still, small word that God is speaking. Again James uses a sort of agricultural metaphor here, calling us to be rid of the “rank growth of wickedness,” the foul weeds that would choke the tender shoot of the word of God just as it is struggling to grow to maturity in the soil of my own being.
James warns us that if we fail to bridle our tongues, to get our speaking under control, then we deceive our own hearts. I suspect this is because the tongue, our power of speech, is itself also subject to the parallax effect. For what better way is there for me to deceive myself than to claim in words one thing while doing another? The tongue is the organ of duplicity, for it is by my words that I can most effectively dissemble who I am. With the lies of my tongue I can appear one way from one perspective, while appearing differently from another.
James insists that we must not be quick to speak and must instead be always ready to listen, but he also insists that we cannot stop there. Real religion is not about what I say I believe – which is always open to doubt – real religion is about what I do.
This is the part where we act upon our reception of the perfect gift of God. For one thing, we control our speech. As we have just seen, James thinks that the word of truth is available for us to hear and act upon, but to hear it we must silence our own vain talking. Second, we have to care for those who have no one to protect or comfort them in their distress. We all face adversity, but we must not just hear the outcries of our neighbors, we must tangibly assist one another to overcome difficulty. Finally, we must keep ourselves free from worldly corruption. As we have seen, worldly goods always carry a shadow side; they are always susceptible to doubt, always capable of seeming different from what they are when our perspective shifts.
There can be no compromise here between the shadowy goods of the world and the perfect goodness of God. To receive and act upon the word of truth, to receive and act upon the ultimate gift of new life is to part ways with the world and its goods.
The reason we experience the parallax effect is because we have two eyes. With one eye closed things look one way; they appear differently with the other eye closed. God alone is without variation or shadow due to change, and so God alone and God’s perfect gift of new birth must be pursued with single-minded devotion. We must, so to speak, see as if we had only one vision, one task, one un-shifting perspective.
The one gift that is not open to doubt is the gift of life that comes from above, from God. That gift that is nothing other than God’s own life, God’s own self, the divine life that never changes and never ends.
Yet we cannot have one eye on God and the other eye on some other gift that we would very much like to have. We can only love God as the one gift that must be loved without hesitation and without qualification. We cannot say, Yes, Lord, give me the gift of new life, but I will also need to be free of hardship. We cannot say, Yes, Lord, but I also want to be rich. We cannot say, Yes, Lord, give me yourself but don’t make me care about others in distress. We can only say, Yes, Lord, yes, Father. Give me yourself.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan stay with you a long time. It’s D-Day, Allied troops are storming the beach at Normandy and they’re met with a barrage of mortar and automatic weapons fire. The ocean runs red. Spielberg’s movie barely got an R rating because of overwhelming violence. One writer said “it knocks the wind from the viewer as a total sensory attack, something to be endured.” War is hard to watch. Especially so for modern Americans, because it’s largely outside our experience – we have no frame of reference for “warfare.”
Today, as we finish our trip through Ephesians, Paul comes around to the subject of warfare. Remember – this incredibly important letter was to Christians in the city of Ephesus, a diverse, cosmopolitan port city, with a kind of acceptable civic or public religion, but where Christians were a distinct minority in a culture hostile to their beliefs. As we come to the last little section in chapter 6 – the familiar (perhaps too familiar) part about the armor of God – Paul doesn’t pull his punches. Christians are in a war, he writes, so we must armor up if we want to survive. Each of these 11 verses deserves its own sermon, but we only have today, so I want us to see briefly (1) the reality of our war; (2) the state of our war; and (3) the weapons of our war.
First, the reality of our war – Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (6.11-12) Some of us cringe involuntarily at this. It sounds weirdly primitive; excessively militaristic. Modern persons tend to spiritualize our war, to make it a metaphor, to dismiss it as retrograde or anachronistic, the sort of backward thinking we grew out of at the Enlightenment.
But if we aren’t in a real war, here’s our problem: What do we do with evil? It’s on the front page of every paper – in Charleston, SC, a man sits in a bible study for an hour, then he pulls out a gun. Seventy-one bodies recovered from a truck in Austria, a fraction of tens of thousands of refugees desperate to escape war in Iraq and Syria.
Is that metaphor? Or evil?
Several years ago Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University wrote a book called The Death of Satan. This is his opening line: “A gulf has opened in our culture between the visibility of evil and our intellectual resources available for coping with it.” We see evil, but we’ve jettisoned the intellectual ability to understand it. We’ve outgrown the idea of the Devil, of evil, of sin. That’s why Paul’s description of the powers and powers and “spiritual hosts of wickedness” sounds strange to our ears. In 1941, C. S. Lewis wrote:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
Paul says we have to be clear: There really is a war. Evil is real, the devil is real, and pretending everything bad in the world is just the result of unjust social systems or environment or bad parenting or aberrant psychology – that doesn’t accurately describe the situation we’re in. This war is real.
Second, the state of that war – Two subpoints here: First – This war is over but ongoing. The victory is secure, but not everybody knows about it yet. In January 2014 a man named Hiroo Onada died. His obituary was in the New York Times. In 1944, Onada was a 20-year-old soldier sent to a remote island in the Philippines called Lubang to fight a guerrilla war against invading forces.
It happened with a simple command. As he related in a memoir after he [surrendered and] went home [to Japan], Lieutenant Onada’s last order in early 1945 was to stay and fight. Loyal to a military code that taught that death was preferable to surrender, he remained behind on Lubang Island, 93 miles southwest of Manila, when Japanese forces withdrew. [For 3 decades]
. . .
Caught in a time warp, Mr. Onada . . . was one of the war’s last holdouts: a soldier who believed that the emperor was a deity and the war a sacred mission; who survived on bananas and coconuts and sometimes killed villagers he assumed were enemies . . . .
Nobody told him the war was over, so he kept fighting until 1972. Scripture says evil and death and the Devil have been defeated – through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus – but the mop-up operation continues. Our war is ongoing, and will end only when Christ comes to reign.
And second: This war is unrelenting. Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. (6.10) Our version leaves off the first word of that sentence – Other translations insert the word “Finally” – “Finally be strong . . .” – but the best Greek manuscripts actually say something like “henceforth” or “from now on.” Paul means that evil doesn’t take a break. We must armor up day after day after day, because the devil doesn’t take a holiday.
Third (and with criminal brevity), the weapons of our war – There are six pieces of armor we’re told to put on, each of which deserves a sermon all to itself. But just in bullet form:
The girdle (belt) of truth – Most commentaries say “the truth” means both “true doctrine,” the revelation of God in Christ and in Scripture; and it means personal “truth, “sincerity” or personal “integrity.” That’s the belt that holds the rest of the armor in place.
The breastplate of righteousness – Again, this means 2 things – a “status” (we are declared righteous at baptism by the grace of God); and it means living out that status, “righteousness of character and conduct.” We live our our righteousness in Christ by becoming more and more what we already are.
“Gospel boots,” or having on our feet the readiness of the gospel – The gospel gives us our footing, a place to stand, whenever we’re attacked and accused by Satan.
The shield of faith – The word means not a small round shield, but the long one covering the whole body, made of wood and hide and iron, designed to put out flaming arrows, what John Stott calls “the devil’s darts . . . accusations which inflame our conscience with what (if we are sheltering in Christ) can only be called false guilt,” or “unsought thoughts of doubt and disobedience, rebellion, lust, malice or fear.”
The helmet of salvation – Martin Luther once carved into his desk the words “I am baptized.” That assurance of salvation guards our thoughts and minds like a helmet.
And the sword of the spirit – This is the only offensive weapon, a machaira, a short sword, something for hand-to-hand combat, when the enemy is close.
Those are the pieces. But one last point: Paul says Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his strength, and put on the full armor of God. The weapons are God’s, we fight with his strength. But we have to put it on. That’s how the Bible always gives our marching orders – it’s both/and, how grace and works fit together, how the armor and fight are the Lord’s, but we’re called to stride into the fray ourselves, to go out and do the works God has given us to do.
Remember this: We have to fight, every day of our lives. Fight against evil in the world and in ourselves. But the battle has been won, and the victory is sure. I’ll close back on the beach at Normandy, in the words of another pastor:
On the cross was the real D-Day. On the cross is where Jesus came fully face-to-face with the enemy himself. On the cross Christ defeated death. It’s all over. He became, by dying, the one who had won.
The battle is the Lord’s; ours is to put on his armor and join the fight.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
1) Matt Barone, et al. “The 50 Most Hard-to-Watch Scenes in Movie History,” http:// www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/05/most-hard-to-watch-scenes-in-movie-history/saving-private-ryan (last visited 28 August 2015).
2) Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1995).
3) C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Collins, 1982): 3.
4) Robert McFadden, “Hiroo Onada, Soldier Who Hid in Jungle for Decades, Dies at 91,” New York Times 17 January 2014 (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/18/world/asia/hiroo-onodaimperial- japanese-army-officer-dies-at-91.html?_r=0) (last visited 28 August 2015).
5) John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: God’s New Society, TBST (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1979): 279.
6) Ibid., 281.
7) “The Armor of God,” sermon preached by Andrew Field at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City on September 6, 1998.