Work as to the Lord

Nearly every church and clergyman is doing a lot of stuff online now during the global pandemic.  I don’t mean to overload anyone with devotional resources, but I since I have a history of sharing occasional reflections on a lesson from the Daily Office lectionary here already, it seems alright to do so now.

“Work as to the Lord” is my brief homily on Ephesians 6:1-9, which is the New Testament lesson in Evening Prayer today.

Happy Friday!  Keep the fast, pray the litany.  Work as to the Lord.

Hymn: Cross of Jesus, cross of sorrow

Passiontide doesn’t start, technically, until the 5th Sunday in Lent, commonly called Passion Sunday, but we’re going to look at a passiontide hymn today.

Cross of Jesus, cross of sorrow,
Where the blood of Christ was shed,
Perfect man on thee was tortured,
Perfect God on thee has bled.

This is a phenomenally theological opening for a piece of music.  The mystery of the incarnation is explored, wherein we see Jesus as fully God and fully man.  The cross, particularly, is his place of suffering and sorrow.  One may wish to say that Jesus technically suffered only with respect to his human nature, but the hypostatic union (or the perfect conjoining of divinity and humanity in his singular person) is such that all the experiences of Jesus, be they human or divine, are fully shared in both natures.  Thus we are perfectly right in saying that God bled on the Cross.

Here the King of all the ages,
Throned in light ‘ere worlds could be,
Robed in mortal flesh, is dying,
Crucified by sin for me.

The scope of that first scene on the cross is widened massively in both directions through time.  First it points backwards into eternity past, wherein we see the eternal reign of God and the sharing in power and light that the Son has always had with the Father.  And then it points forward from the cross to you and me; we are recipients of the grace of that death.  He died for the sins of real people, not just for some abstract cause, however noble.

O mysterious condescending!
O abandonment sublime!
Very God himself is bearing
All the sufferings of time.

This third stanza just takes a moment to reflect in wonder on what has thus far been said.  After all, if Jesus was just God and not man, such suffering would be abstract, meaningless, even a mockery of real human suffering.  And if Jesus was only man and not God, the gravity of his condescension and abandonment of divine rights would be nullified.  The cross is only significant because the God-Man himself died there.

Evermore, for human failure,
By his passion we can plead;
God has taken mortal anguish;
Surely he will know our need.

Now we get a more explicit application, or lesson, from the theological assertions and emotional outpouring of this hymn.  Because Christ has suffered and died specifically for the sins of the whole world, we can plead for the forgiveness of all our sins based squarely and solely upon that death.  Not only can we be sure it is a valid and sufficient sacrifice for our sins (because Jesus is God), but we can also be sure that God is sympathetic to our plight (because Jesus is man).

Once the Lord of brilliant seraphs
Winged with love to do his will,
Now the scorn of all his creatures,
And the aim of ev’ry ill.

Up in heav’n, sublimest glory
Circled round him from the first,
But the earth finds none to serve him,
None to quench his raging thirst.

This is an unusual turn for a hymn.  Normally the “application” verse that turns to the self is the last one.  And four verses is a pretty standard length, at that.  But instead we get these 5th and 6th verses after, in which we meditate further on the glory of Christ and his undeserved death.  Both of these stanzas contrast the eternal glory he enjoys in heaven with the scorn and abuse he received on earth.

The hymn ends with a verbatim repeat of verse 1.  The structure of the 7 stanzas are thus somewhat chiastic:

1: Cross & hypostatic union
– 2 & 3: meditations on the mystery of Christ’s two natures
– – 4: Application
– 5 & 6: meditations on how Christ is treated in these two realms
7: Cross & hypostatic union

Annunciations to Mary and to the world

In the 2019 Prayer Book, Luke 1:26-38 is the New Testament reading at Morning Prayer on March 25, as well as the Gospel lesson for the Communion service on this holy day – The Annunciation to Mary.  It may be obvious, but it’s easy to miss, that we are now nine months ahead of Christmas Day, the exact relative timing between this gospel story and the birth of Christ.  I’ve written about its timing before, and how it can assist our reading of Scripture in the daily lectionary, compared it to other Marian holy days, and even shared a hymn appropriate for the Annunciation.  So my backlog of blog posts provide quite a few opportunities for devotional reading.

I also put together a trilogy of theological explorations of various doctrines concerning our Lady, soberly examining the biblical and traditional foundations behind a few popular beliefs.  So you can read about typologies of Mary in the Old Testament and their theological implications, the motherhood of Mary from various angles, the significance of the virginity of Mary, and the potential extent of the blessedness of Mary.  If you like to learn and study, there you go, have fun!

Rabbit trails aside, let’s settle down with the text mentioned at the start.  The angel (traditionally considered one of the Archangels) Gabriel appears to Mary with a message.  Gabriel has appeared before, to prophets like Daniel, and will promptly appear again to Joseph.  As one great hymn puts it, Gabriel is the “herald of heaven”, always appearing with a message, invariably about the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus.  While there is a lot about angels that we simply don’t, and can’t, know, the angelic role of messenger is one that is very informative for the Christian calling – we, too, in our own ways, are messengers or ambassadors or witnesses, proclaiming to the world in some fashion or another that Jesus is here.  Just as Gabriel appears, surprises Mary, and gives her good news, so too do we go about the world with surprising news that’s hard to believe: God loves his world such that he came among us in the humblest of ways!  We proclaim a Jesus who is great, and is called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God has given to him the throne of his father David, and Jesus will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.  Gabriel’s message to Mary, almost verbatim, is the message of the Church to the world to this day.

How will this be?”  How can we proclaim the reality of Christ to a world that so rarely seems interested in listening to us?  This is hard question and the answers look different, according to the situation.

Sometimes we must wield the hammer of the Law – identifying the sins of the people and pointing out the dire demands of divine justice.
Sometimes we must apply the salve of the gospel – announcing the prodigal love of a merciful God.

Sometimes we need to proclaim the truth with emotion – that through our fervency the world will realize how serious we are.
Sometimes we need to proclaim the truth with carefully reasoned argumentation – that through such apologetics we may show ourselves a people who are thoughtful and wise, even “scientific” in the truest sense.

Whatever the details, the underlying reality is the same: God is a worker of miracles.  He made the barren womb bear life, the made the virgin womb bear life, “for nothing will be impossible with God.”

At the end of the day, our posture before God is perfectly embodied in Mary’s response at the climax of this text.  “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  Car puns aside, this is Mary’s fiat.  The first fiat is God’s, in Genesis 1: fiat lux, “let there be light.”  That is how the old creation begun.  The new creation begins in the second fiat from the Second Eve, the mother of all re-living, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum, “let it be to me according to your word.”  This is then simplified and codified forever in the Lord’s Prayer: fiat voluntas tua, “thy will be done.”

I daresay there is no holier, no more humble, prayer than this.

Learning the Daily Office – part 11 of 12

Well, you’re a regular at the Daily Office, now, that’s awesome.  You want to pray more?  Even more awesome!

Step One: Pray a Psalm followed by the Lord’s Prayer.
Step Two: Add a Scripture Reading
Step Three: Add more Psalms and Lessons
Step Four: Add the Apostles’ Creed
Step Five: Add Canticles
Step Six: Add the Confession
Step Seven: Add some Prayers
Step Eight: Add the Invitatory
Step Nine: Add the Collect of the Day
Step Ten: Add the Closing Prayers

Step Eleven: Supplement it with Occasional Prayers

After reading the three Collects and Prayers, and before the closing sequence of prayers, there is a line where further prayers are invited.  You could add your own prayers, on the spot, if you so choose.  Perhaps you’ve already been doing that.  But you could also be drawing upon a larger collection of Occasional Prayers and Thanksgivings, that start on page 641.  There are 125 prayers in that list, which is a lot to take in.  Most of the classical prayer books provided a smaller list of extra prayers, tacked onto the end of Morning Prayer, but the list has grown so large that it’s been moved to a sort of appendix location where you can draw upon it regardless to the particular Office you may be saying at the time.

If you want to go about using the Occasional Prayers in an orderly manner, feel free to use the outline provided in a previous article.

Celebrating Hope with Psalm 114

Rather than dispensing liturgical advice or insight today, I’m just going to pass along some help for your prayers this evening. Let’s look at Psalm 114…

Leorningcnihtes boc

Evening Prayer on the 23rd day of the month sees Psalm 114 leading the Psalms Appointed for that Office.  It’s a short psalm, which is always helpful for those who are new to praying the psalms, and it explores the theme of hope in a curious way.

It begins and ends with pairs of verses that address something that God has done:

1 When Israel came out of Egypt,
and the house of Jacob from among a people of foreign tongue,
2 Judah was God’s sanctuary,
and Israel his dominion.

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 Who turned the hard rock into a pool of water,
and the flint stone into a springing well.

These book-ends frame this Psalm as a celebration of deliverance.  It looks back to the time of the exodus from Egypt, and proclaims…

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Isolated Worship

So now that most of the country is under heavy restrictions of social distancing to slow the spread of this latest disease, churches everywhere are having to reinvent their approach to public worship.

As Anglicans, I cannot repeat this enough – we have a built-in feature of our tradition that SHOULD make this incredibly easy: the Daily Office.  The Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer don’t require a priest to lead them, they don’t require a sermon, they can be observed alone or in a group.  If we had bothered teaching our congregation the Office beforehand, they would be in excellent shape to keep up those disciplines on their own right now at home.  All we’d have to do is send them sermons, homilies, and reflections to aid their reading of the Scriptures in the meantime, and make the occasional plan for distributing communion, house to house.

Many of us have not taught them to pray the Office, however, partly because too many of us clergymen don’t pray the Office ourselves.  But thankfully, in this internet age, there are excellent resources to help people.

The best is “Daily Office 2019” which beautifully and accurately puts together the Morning and Evening Offices for you.  It even has the little Family Prayer devotions on a separate page.

The second-best options are the livestreams that many churches are offering now.  This approach is a two-edged sword.  On one hand, people get to see their (or another) church location, hear familiar music, and their favorite preacher(s).  But the downside is that it makes worship even more of a spectator sport than usual.  Our culture already has a problem with treating worship as a commodity, rather than an activity or discipline or offering in which each one participates, and livestreaming the liturgy (in part or in whole) will very easily play into that misconception and problem.

So, please, for the love of your congregation, or fellow laity, depending upon who you are reading this, teach others to pray the Daily Office so they can learn how to feed themselves.  Worship via livestream can be a great-tasting experience, but it’s mere spoonfeeding compared to what people can receive in praying the Offices alone or in small groups!

An Evening Hymn for Healing

Before church worship service cancellations were confirmed, I had a hymn in mind to bring to my congregation to sing this weekend.  It’s #249 in The Book of Common Praise 2017.  Although it’s in the Evening section, I was going to appoint it for Sunday morning because of its excellent treatment of a subject often under-represented in classic hymnody: healing.  Let’s check it out.

At even, when the sun was set,
The sick, O Lord, around thee lay.
O in what diverse pains they met;
O with what joy they went away!

It begins, you can see, with an acknowledgement of the many biblical stories of miraculous healing performed by our Lord Jesus.  It isn’t spiritualized into the healing of the sin-sick soul, but actually about physical healings, which is (I think) a rarity.

Once more ’tis eventide, and we,
Oppressed with various ills, draw near.
What if thy form we cannot see?
We know and feel that thou art here.

O Savior Christ, our woes dispel,
For some are sick, and some are sad,
And some have never loved thee well,
And some have lost the love they had.

The fact that it is now evening is pretty irrelevant to the prayer of the song, really.  It’s just there to maintain a poetic continuity between the first two stanzas.  What we’re tackling here, primarily, is the acknowledgement and offering of our various forms of sickness (physical, emotional, spiritual) and the prayer for Christ to dispel such woes from us.  The statement that we “know and feel” God’s nearness perhaps betrays the 19th century romanticism (compared to the more-subdued-emotions lyrics of the previous two centuries), but it’s not over the top by any stretch.

The next verse narrows in on our spiritual condition as fallen human beings:

And none, O Lord, have perfect rest,
For none are wholly free from sin;
And they who fain would love thee best
Are conscious most of wrong within.

This is a difficult truth to admit – those who most truly and earnestly love God are the most aware of their sinfulness and unworthiness before him.  It is, therefore, revealing of an imperfect (or even false) love when someone is apparently on fire for Jesus but has little sense of the gravity of his or her own sin.

The final two verses turn the focus away from us and onto Christ our Lord.

O Savior Christ, thou too art man;
Thou hast been troubled, tempted, tried;
Thy kind but searching glance can scan
The very wounds that shame would hide.

Thy touch has still its healing pow’r;
No word from thee can fruitless fall;
Hear, in this solemn evening hour,
And in thy mercy heal us all.  Amen.

Never put Jesus’ humanity in the past tense; his incarnation is not one-and-done, but a union that lasts into eternity.  That’s how he is our Great High Priest, as the epistle to the Hebrews explains in detail.  And yet, as God, he sees and knows all our wounds and sins.  He can still heal; his word never returns to him empty (cf. Isaiah 55:11).

This is, for sure, a very good song to bring to our attention during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Turn Antecommunion into a generic “prayer service”

wrwMany Anglicans have a love of importing liturgical and extra-liturgical devotions from other traditions into our own.  Anglo-Catholics brought in the liturgy of the palms and the Easter Vigil and the imposition of ashes before any Prayer Book (re-)authorized them.  Evangelical Anglicans have framed special worship services entirely around preaching.  And Charismatic Anglicans have brought in “prayer services.”  Today we’re looking at how such a prayer service could be licitly formed, based upon the rubrics of our own 2019 Prayer Book.

First of all, you need a day that isn’t Sunday.  That way you have freedom to pick the readings and collect practically at will.  Next, you need to use the Holy Communion service but turn it into Antecommunion (that is, omit everything after the Offertory).  Let’s walk through how this could work.

#1 Start with a music set, of course.

Lots of music is essential to charismatic worship.  Sure, sometimes it’s random, but normally there is a progression to the songs that are chosen:

  1. Start with something chill and average-sounding while people are still getting settled,
  2. follow with something loud and upbeat to help people get excited,
  3. maybe next have a slightly slower song with meatier lyrics to dig into,
  4. then crank it up to the “biggest” song of the set, forming a sort of climax to this part of the worship experience.
  5. After that, choose a slow or quiet song, or simply ad-lib for a few minutes, so people can bask in the glory of the Lord and offer their own praises and prayers spontaneously over the keyboard vamp.

I’ve written before that I do not generally approve of this approach to worship music.  But Weird Rubric Wednesday is a mix of satire and education, so let’s roll with it.

#2 The “liturgical” stuff

Following the letter of the law in the 2019 BCP, some sort of Acclamation, or “seasonal greeting” must be said, followed by the Collect for Purity.  Then follows the Summary of the Law (the Decalogue would be too long and perceived as too “formal” for a prayer & praise service) and the Kyrie.

#3 Praise the Lord

The Gloria in excelsis may be substituted with “some other song of praise”.  This is probably not the time for a full worship set, though you could put Step 1 here instead if you prefer.

#4 The Collect & Lessons

Away from Sundays and the Holy Days mandated in the Prayer Book calendar, the celebrant is free to choose just about any set of Propers desired.  For a prayer & praise service you probably want to choose one of the Various Occasions from page 733, such as “Of the Reign of Christ” or “For the Unity of the Church” or “For the Mission of the Church”.

Of course, there’s musical opportunity along the way here, too.  A common pattern I’ve observed is to split a song before and after the Gospel lesson.

#5 Preach

The sermon follows.

#6 Pray

The Creed can be skipped, if it’s neither a Sunday nor a Holy Day, so you can go straight to the Prayers of People.  And as we’ve explored before, technically anything is possible here.  This can be pastor-led or congregation-led, spontaneous or planned, spoken or sung.

#7 Confession & Absolution

I have yet to find any rubric that allows this to be omitted in the 2019 liturgy, so confess you must.  In my experience, charismatic Anglicans prefer the words of the “Renewed Ancient Text”, on page 130.

Alternatively, since this is basically the end of the liturgy, you might want to take advantage of the permissions of the Additional Directions and move the confession & absolution near the beginning of the service as a “Penitential Order”, so you can keep all the “liturgical” stuff in one place, and enjoy the pentecostal freedom of prayer & praise thereafter.

#8 The Peace & Dismissal

Antecommunion ends at this point.  Might as well have a closing song or two, and a spoken dismissal from the minister.

– – What did Fr. Brench just do? – –

I think it’s no secret that I’m not super positive about charismaticism being imported into the Anglican tradition.  I’ve seen some liturgical abuses result, and some sketchy theology and historical teachings promulgated as a result, much like how the Anglo-Papists skew our history to further their own ends, and the Anglo-Puritans provide their own slant regarding the establishment of Anglicanism.  Every modern “stream” is guilty of this.

So I wrote this partly as satire, but partly in realistic acknowledgement of what can actually be done in accord with the Prayer Book.  Both the 1979 and the 2019 afford a number of freedoms and points of technicality that open wide the doors to many different possibilities.  On one hand this is a bad thing – it makes the concept of “common prayer” nearly impossible to achieve when so many different interpretations of the same liturgy are possible and licit.  On the other hand, the flexibility of this book is a blessing – it provides a common ground where widely diverging traditions can share a basic common touchstone.  The charismatics will want to strip it down and add more music and prayer, the evangelicals will want to keep it simple and spend more time preaching, the anglo-catholics will want to ornament and ritualize it further.  But the basic texts remain in common.

Thus I outline this prayer & praise service not just to satirize but also to instruct and encourage.  If you are of a mind to hold a charismatic prayer & praise service in an Anglican church, don’t just make it up yourself!  Use the prayer book’s liturgy as the starting point.  I, myself, may not like the final product, but at least you’re using the book we have in common, and submitting to the authority that resides over us both.

Learning the Daily Office – part 10 of 12

So you’ve heard about the Daily Office, specifically the Anglican tradition of daily prayer and scripture reading, and you want to enter into this beautiful and formative tradition?  Great, grab a prayer book and go!  Except, maybe someone already said that and you don’t know where to start… or worse, you did try it and it was just too much?  The length of the Office was overwhelming and the contents too complicated to navigate when you’ve got no experience with liturgy.  We understand, we’ve all been at that place before!  Some just don’t remember it as well as others.

Diving into the full Prayer Book life of worship doesn’t work for everyone; sometimes you have to work your way up toward that discipline, adding one piece at a time as you grow comfortable with each feature and learn how to “do” them all.  This post series is basically a twelve-step program to help you advance in the life of disciplined prayer from zero to super-Anglican.  The pace is up to you – the goal of this sort of spiritual discipline is consistency, not “how much” you do.

Step One: Pray a Psalm followed by the Lord’s Prayer.
Step Two: Add a Scripture Reading
Step Three: Add more Psalms and Lessons
Step Four: Add the Apostles’ Creed
Step Five: Add Canticles
Step Six: Add the Confession
Step Seven: Add some Prayers
Step Eight: Add the Invitatory
Step Nine: Add the Collect of the Day

Step Ten: Add the Closing Prayers

The last thing to add to the Daily Office are the closing prayers at the end of the service.  These are the same in both morning and evening: a General Thanksgiving, a Prayer of St. John Chrysostom, a quick dialogue, and a final “grace” or “blessing” (on pages 25-26 and 51-53).

Historically, most of these have been optional prayers to tack onto the end of the Daily Office, and most of them remain optional even in our new Prayer Book.  And indeed it may make more sense to omit the Prayer of St. John Chrysostom when you’re praying the Office alone, since it makes reference to the gathering of people in prayer.  Nevertheless, be sure to read it from time to time anyway, because even though you may be praying alone in the physical sense, you are indeed praying in spiritual unity with untold thousands of fellow Anglicans.

If you’re so inclined, the first of the three closing sentences (sometimes called “graces” or “blessings”) is an excellent opportunity to make the sign of the cross, at the three-fold name of God: Father (up), Son (down), and Holy Spirit (left, right).

Summary

You are now praying the entire Daily Office, by the book, without omission.  If you’re doing this comfortably, you can (and probably should!) invite others to join you.  Include your family, or invite some other church members to join in with you!  Maybe even talk to your priest about doing this in the church itself.  Historically, every parish church was supposed to provide the daily rounds of prayer in full, after all.  Wouldn’t that be amazing if God’s people once again could be so moved to daily corporate prayer?

A colorful week ahead

If you look at the Calendar of Commemorations in the 2019 Prayer Book, you’ll find a few Saints Days of particular note in rapid succession this week.

  • Tuesday the 17th commemorates Saint Patrick, bishop & apostle to the Irish.
  • Wednesday the 18th commemorates Saint Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem and teacher of the faith (or “Doctor of the Church” in Roman terminology).
  • Thursday the 19th is a red-letter day, the feast of Saint Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary and Guardian of our Lord Jesus.
  • Friday the 20th commemorates Saint Cuthbert, abbot and missionary bishop of Lindisfarne.
  • Saturday the 21st commemorates Thomas Cranmer, the first reformation Archbishop of Canterbury, author of the first Prayer Book, and martyr.

Of all these days, only St. Joseph’s Day is an official break from the Lenten fast; the rest are optional commemorations that you and your church may or may not choose to observe.  The Saint Aelfric Customary names all of these particular commemorations as “minor feasts”, the highest rank of such commemorations, and thus to be given pride of place in any midweek eucharistic celebration.

The way these observances are probably going to look in my household, for example, is that I’ll replace the purple candle on the family prayer table with a white one for Tuesday through Friday (each a saint’s day), and a red one for Saturday (a martyr’s day).  It’ll then go to a pink candle after that – for the 4th Sunday in Lent!  ‘Tis a colorful week indeed.