Faithfully Stay the Course

February 24th is Saint Matthias Day in the traditional liturgical calendar. Some churches and provinces have moved him over to May 14, closer to Ascension Day and Pentecost, where his story in Acts 1 fits right in from a biblical-narrative perspective. But we’ve still got him in late February, usually in Lent. It’s always nice to have a feast day in Lent – we get a little break from the penitential tone! – but there’s also something appropriate about observing this Saint during Lent: Matthias is only one of the twelve Apostles because he was selected to replace Judas, the traitor.

There are two lessons that I’d like to draw from this liturgical observance (and from Acts 1:12-26).

  1. Apostolic authority is a critical point for the unity of the Church.
  2. Every Christian must faithfully stay the course of the faith.

On the point of apostolic authority, this is something I like to try to mention during Ascensiontide but often don’t have time – (there is a lot of fantastic theology and lessons about Jesus and his ministry to us to tease out in that brief mini-season, and I seldom have opportunity to write or preach about ecclesiology then) – the eleven considered it vitally important that they replace Judas and restore their number to twelve apostles. Jesus had just told them that while it was not for them to know “the times or seasons” concerning the Kingdom of God, but that they would “receive power” when the Holy Spirit would descend upon them. And this wasn’t entirely in the future; Jesus had already “breathed on them the Holy Spirit” giving them authority to forgive and retain sins. In that authority they’d already been entrusted with, they took it upon them to select and ordain a new twelfth man – Matthias. St. Peter even quotes Psalm 109 to acknowledge the necessity of this act: “Let another take his office.” And in the Greek, the word translated “office” is the source for the word “episcopate” – the office of an overseer, or bishop.

They knew that when the Holy Spirit would descend upon the whole church (on the day of Pentecost) the leadership had to be ready. Ancient Israel was founded with Twelve Tribes, and the New Israel was to be re-founded with Twelve Apostles – this was a very self-conscious and -aware decision, they knew the significance of what they were doing.

And, although the nature of the authority of those first Apostles is different from the authority that has been passed down among the Bishops ever since, the apostolic role of the bishops assembled is still critical for the church today. On their own, bishops might be little more than super-priests, pastors of megachurches, or of multi-site churches. That’s where cynicism from tired or burned church-goers (or skepticism from presbyterians and congregationalists) thrives. The real power, or authority, of the bishop is not so much in the individual as in the episcopacy as an institution and a group. One bishop can go astray about as easily as one priest or pastor, honestly. But a group, or college, of bishops, is another matter. Yes, a group can be corrupted too – we consider the entire Roman Church to be in error for example. But a church is at its best when its bishops speak together with one voice, in accord with the Church global and temporal.

An example of this was just demonstrated last month when the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America concluded a year of deliberations concerning the issues of ministering to people with same-sex attraction. It’s one of the greatest ministry challenges of our time, and must be met with careful biblical attention and loving attention to the situation of people today. Their excellent statement can be read online here.

But of course, there are always people who want to add their own nuances, pick at words, and even twist or re-cast what has been said. No small online furor has followed, muddying the waters and making some people wonder what the exodus from the Episcopal Church was all about if we’re just going to re-tread the same ground all over again. One of the angles of corrective response is an article in which a respected Anglican examines for us the nature of the teaching authority of bishops as a unified body. I commend that reading to you also!

But this also leads us to the second point about the election of Matthias to be the new 12th Apostle – he was “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us“. And, critically unlike Judas Iscariot, Matthias faithfully stayed the course. He did not falter from the way of Christ; he remained constant like the other eleven.

Other Scriptures read on this day attest to this also: Psalm 15 asks the hard-yet-important question of who can dwell on God’s holy hill; Philippians 3 gives us the example of “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus“. Simply put, there is a way that leads to life, and a way that leads to death. Judas chose the latter for himself; we must choose the former. Yes, salvation is not simply about what you choose – the real work of salvation is Jesus’ death on the Cross for the sins of the world, but if you reject his sacrifice on your behalf then you’ll have to find another way to pay for your sins… and there isn’t one.

The story of St. Matthias taking Judas’ office, or episcopacy, is a sobering reminder. Please, faithfully stay the course of the faith. In Christ alone is salvation wrought, and only his Body (the Church) offers him to us.

A Series of Related Commemorations

The calendar of commemorations in our new Prayer Book today lists three women: Lydia, Dorcus, and Phoebe. Normally, as you may be aware, only one commemoration per day is the norm. Sometimes if a group of people were martyred together they’ll share a date, and sometimes (even more rarely) a few people with similar legacies are remembered together. This “affinity group commemoration” phenomenon is mostly a feature of the Episcopalian calendar since 1979, though some rare examples of these entries have carried over into our calendar and/or can be found in other traditions also.

Just for one example, Lydia has been commemorated as a Saint in many traditions over the years, but her feast day varies widely. The Romans remember her on August 3rd, various Eastern churches commemorate her on March 27th, May 20th, or June 25th. Some Lutherans celebrate her on October 25th. We, with some other Lutherans and the Episcopalians, have her down for January 27th.

What is particularly interesting about this date for commemorating Lydia and Dorcus and Phoebe (since we don’t have clear traditions of when they died, which would be the normal date for a Saint’s Day) is that they are on Day Three of a three-day series of commemorations. January 25th is the Conversion of Saint Paul, January 26th is for Saints Timothy and Titus, and January 27th is for Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe. This string of remembrances is a real “Book of Acts Party”, I once joked, and makes a lot of sense. Together these six people form a sequence both historical and missiological:

  1. God calls Saul (eventually to be known as Paul) to faith in Christ
  2. Paul ordains ministers (Timothy and Titus) to continue his work
  3. More people convert (Lydia, Dorcus, Phoebe) and continue the advance of the kingdom

Thus this trio of celebrations is worth pointing out to our fellow church-goers as a biblical and liturgical reminder of the call of the Church to make disciples and grow. The different roles are important to note, because sometimes we assume that “mission” and “evangelism” is best done by professionals – or least by particular individuals with special zeal and drive. Saint Paul was an extraordinary individual, Timothy and Titus were bishops, they can be most inspiring but also very difficult to relate to. This is where the three women may come in helpful.

Lydia was a wealthy woman, who lived in Thyatira, in Roman Macedonia. She was essentially the first European convert to Christianity. She was already a “worshiper of God”, which means she was probably familiar with basic Jewish teachings and believed in the God of Israel, but (most importantly) “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” and she and her household were subsequently baptized. She heeded the Gospel, brought her family along, and then supported the ministry of Paul and his companions with her considerable means. Believing in the mission of the Gospel and supporting it with hospitality and finances is no small thing!

Dorcas, also named Tabitha, was a devout woman faithful in Christ and abundant in good works. Her ministry of providing for the poor and needy made her most beloved in her community and when she died many people showed St. Peter the clothing she had made for them, beseeching him to pray for her and raise her from the dead, which he did. Her resuscitation “became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” Thus even though she did directly participate in “evangelistic outreach” as we might call it, her good deeds gave her a positive reputation that, when recognized by the Church, brought many to share the faith she proclaimed. The light of her good deeds was seen, and many others came to the Light as a result.

Phoebe, finally, is a person of some controversy in modern Christian circles. She is described as a “διάκονον” from which we have the word Deacon. Some argue she was a Deacon in the formal ordained sense, like the men in Acts 6. Some argue she was a Deaconess in the context of the Early Church’s practice: a non-ordained minister who assisted with the baptism of women and works of mercy in the community. Others take the word in its general sense – a “servant of the Church”. Whatever the precise interpretation of this word, we know that Phoebe was an active member of the Church at Cenchrae (probably a village near Corinth) who traveled to Rome, perhaps along with the letter that St. Paul had written to them. She was to be received “worth of the saints” and to be helped in whatever she might need, because she was a “patron of many” as well as of Paul himself. A patron indicates she probably was rich, like Lydia, and provided financial and/or hospitable support for the traveling apostles and the local church. As a woman of means, perhaps she was able to be active in other ways – supplying the church and the ministers, caring for the sick, bringing alms to the poor, or any number of other services for the cause of the Gospel.

So we remember today the great contribution of these three women; their service to the Gospel and the Church was incalculable and their names endure forever through the Scriptures and the liturgical calendar. It is helpful for us to commemorate people who made a great difference through seemingly “ordinary” means… maybe just maybe we can be inspired to spend and be spent for the cause of Christ, ourselves.

Video: the Holy Days in the Prayer Book

The video series I started a year ago nears its conclusion. Here is a summary of how the Holy Days (commonly, the Major Feast Days) fit into the Christian Calendar.

Subject Index:

  • 00:00 Definition & Major Themes
  • 05:20 Historical Features
  • 10:13 Walk-through in the 2019 Prayer Book
  • 15:36 Daily Office & other features
  • 17:36 The Collect for All Saints’ Day

Links for further reading:

Singing through Hallowtide

Hallowtide is one of the nicknames for the period of time around All Saints’ Day – perhaps most especially from All Hallow’s Eve (October 31st) through the Octave of All Saints’ Day. Indeed, we do kind of need a name for the phenomenon of how modern Prayer Books direct that we should observe All Saints’ Day on the first Sunday in November. Last year we looked at that in a brief write-up here, so this year we’re taking a more devotional tack.

There are two groups of hymns to consider when looking at how to sing our way through Hallowtide: hymns about the Church Triumphant and hymns about the Church Expectant (or At Rest). You may be familiar with the Roman pair of All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day on November 1st and 2nd, honoring the Saints in heaven on the former and praying for the souls in purgatory in the latter. Obviously, the Anglican tradition does not teach the Roman doctrine of purgatory, so we have no need of All Souls Day. But many Anglicans today do observe a Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, looking at the mournful side of death (the other side of the coin in All Saints’ Day where we celebrate victory amidst death). So as we sing through Hallowtide we should consider both of these angles along the way.

Here are the hymns appointed in this Customary’s “daily hymnody” plan, remembering that the hymn numbers refer to Book of Common Praise 2017 or Magnify the Lord:

There are, of course, plenty of other appropriate hymns out there that you could draw in. These are just the ones that I selected from one hymnal for this particular week; there are others are scattered throughout the year on particular saints’ days.

After Hallowtide, you may also wish to consider some national hymns on November 8th through 11th, building towards Remembrance Day (Intl.) / Veteran’s Day (USA).

King Alfred the Great: a Saint?

Our Prayer Book’s calendar of commemorations lists today “Alfred the Great, King of the West Saxons and Reformer of the Church, 899.” This may stand out because most of the saints and commemorations seem to be churchmen – bishops, monastics, and other ministers. There are a few kings and queens, though, and Alfred is the only English one known as “the Great”. Why was he great, and why is he considered a saint?

One of the new features of the 2019 Prayer Book is the way it handles the calendar of commemorations: people are not simply named, but also labeled or described. King Alfred was a “Reformer of the Church” who died in 899AD. It may perhaps be best to understand his “reforming” role in a larger context.

Throughout his life, King Alfred was battling Danish invaders, the perennial threat to the British Isles throughout the early Middle Ages. Alfred won some important victories after some difficult defeats, yet also organized some significant rebuilding projects that saved not only the kingdom of Wessex, but Anglo-Saxon culture as a whole. He built a system of burgs (forts) to form a tangible border of defense, and he built church schools to form a new educated generation of teachers and priests. He maintained armies and built ships to counter the threat of barbarism from without and he maintained a court school to counter the threat of barbarism from within. He supplied bishops with copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s book Pastoral Care, to help ensure their ministry was carried out well, and he translated (or had others translate) many important Latin works into (what we now call Old) English. We still have copies of the West Saxon Gospels to this day!

Interesting, Alfred became known as “the Great” in the 16th century when the English Reformers started drawing upon his work and legacy in the vernacular and found it a useful counter to Papal claims for the supremacy of Latin and the supposed antiquity of its doctrines. Alfred, among others, show us an early English church that did not preach the excesses and heresies of late medieval Rome.

There is, of course, much about Alfred’s life that we don’t know with much certainty. He did, at least, have a biographer who knew him personally, which is an advantage over many historical figures from that long ago, but that doesn’t prevent the growth of legend and inference over time. Nevertheless, what we do know is that he was a good king who tried to take care of his people both in safety and in culture. He did good things for the preservation and rebuilding of the church amidst and after the devastations of war, and for that we Christians (especially of the English Church) have been very thankful ever since.

Getting uncomfortably close to Jesus

It’s the feast of St. James of Jerusalem today. We’ve got a brief round-up prepared for this holiday, plus a little devotional.

This year, meanwhile, we’re looking at the New Testament lesson appointed for Morning Prayer on this major feast day: James 1. Specifically, just the verse first.

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greeting.

St. James 1:1

Compared to all the other New Testament Epistles, this really stands out. To the casual reader it doesn’t even sound like he’s writing to Christians! But this makes perfect sense when the reader considers two key things about his context.

  1. It was universally understood among the first Christians that the kingdom of Israel was being re-founded around the throne of Jesus as King. The New Covenant, further, brought a new rite of entry into the covenant people: baptism instead of circumcision. Gentiles, therefore, were eligible to join Israel with unprecedented ease! When James writes to the “twelve tribes”, he means the “Israel of God”, the Church, which St. Paul refers to in Galatians 6:16.
  2. James was based in Jerusalem, so when he wrote to his fellow believers elsewhere they were naturally considered “the Dispersion”, literally, those who weren’t in or near Jerusalem.

That said, St. James of Jerusalem did have a distinctly Jewish view of Christianity. His epistle, of all in the New Testament, reads the most like an Old Testament treatise, drawing heavily on biblical Wisdom literature and the Law of Moses. He speaks of the apostolic testimony, of course, and makes references to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, but the tone is very much reflective of someone who was raised Jewish and continues to live according that culture.

Despite this strange character compared to the majority of the New Testament’s wide-eyed perspective towards a Gentile-inclusive future, the epistle of James gives us an unexpectedly close portrait of the world in which Jesus walked. He kept the Law, he lived under the Old Covenant (thus fulfilling it), his cultural references were almost 100% parochial Jewish. Although James’ language doesn’t represent the majority tone of the Apostolic witness, it does bring us very close to what one might have experienced had one walked with Jesus during his earthly ministry.

This “awkward Jewishness” about James is compounded when you consider one of the few references to him in the Gospels. Natives of Nazareth expressed their unbelief regarding Jesus in this way: ““Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?”  And they took offense at him” (Matthew 13:54b-57a). One of the reasons (or excuses) that some people rejected Jesus was that they knew his family and relatives. They were “too close” to him to take him seriously.

And that sort of thing can be a challenge for Christians, sometimes, too. We know about his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. We hear about his relatives, including this James. They’re unapologetically Jewish, undeniably 1st-century Roman Palestinians. And still we exalt and worship that Jesus as God-in-the-flesh. St. James can bring us very close to Jesus, and sometimes that can be a little uncomfortable. It’s somehow “safer” to imagine Jesus in isolation, with no mother, no relatives, just a man descended from heaven. But, thank Him, that isn’t who he is; he’s a real person from a real lineage and race and region.

Holidays about Angels

Today is the feast of Holy Michael and All Angels, according to the 2019 Prayer Book. Throughout the world, many churches are celebrating ‘Michaelmas’ right now. St. Michael is understood (from texts like Jude 9 and Revelation 12:7) to be the chief or captain of the angelic hosts, an “archangel”. Thus, with Michael, we celebrate today also all the other angels who serve God in their mysterious and wonderful ways. This holiday can be traced to the 5th century when a church near Rome was dedicated to St. Michael’s name, and by the 9th century St. Michael’s Day was a widely celebrated feast day.

But this was not always the only angelic feast day. Other churches, particularly in the East, have had feast days for other angels for centuries. Only in the 1920’s did Rome pick up a couple of these holidays: Gabriel on March 24th (sensibly the day before the Annunciation!) and Raphael on October 24th. These did not last long, though; the Roman calendar rolled them into St. Michael’s Day in 1969, though some hardy folks still hang on to that brief-lasting calendar. There is also a roughly-1,000-year-old tradition of honoring the ministry of the Guardian Angels on October 2nd.

But the Prayer Book tradition has typically been one of brevity and simplicity. We have one official feast day for all the angels today, September 29th.

Why Holy Cross Day in September?

Happy Holy Cross Day! Is that what we’re supposed to say? I mean, yeah, the Cross is where Jesus died a horrible painful death, that’s not super-happy is it… wait a minute, how is Holy Cross Day any different from Good Friday? Why do we have an extra Good Friday in September?

Perhaps we need a little history to make sense of this. To borrow from Wikipedia,

According to Christian tradition, the True Cross was discovered in 326 by Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was then built at the site of the discovery, by order of Helena and Constantine. The church was dedicated nine years later, with a portion of the cross.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_the_Cross

September 14th, then, is the day that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was consecrated. Although, in the West, this day also commemorates St. Helena’s discovery of the Cross beforehand, as well as the restoration of the relics to Jerusalem in the 7th century after a brief Sasanid Persian invasion.

For Anglicans and Lutherans, however, who generally prefer their liturgy reformed around the primacy of Scripture, this feast has been focused less on the tradition of the True Cross (which may or may not be entirely historically accurate) and more on the significance of the Cross itself. There is, after all, quite a history of devotion (or veneration veneratio, which is of a lesser degree than worship latria) to the Cross and its relics; the Cross is the instrument by which Christ redeemed the world. He didn’t “just die”, he was nailed to a real physical piece of wood. Some have found this an opportunity to meditate upon the inclusion of nature itself in the Gospel, such as in the great Old English poem Dream of the Rood. Similarly, when the author of the Wisdom of Solomon was reflecting back on Noah’s ark, he also foreshadowed the Cross when he wrote:

It is your will that works of your wisdom should not be without effect;
therefore men trust their lives even to the smallest piece of wood,
and passing through the billows on a raft they come safely to land.
For even in the beginning, when arrogant giants were perishing,
the hope of the world took refuge on a raft,
and guided by your hand left to the world the seed of a new generation.
For blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes.

Wisdom 14:5-7

And so, in harmony both with this ancient spirituality and a renewed focus on the Scriptures, we have Holy Cross Day in our calendar. It is like a repeat of Good Friday, but instead of looking at the pain and suffering of Christ, as such, we are looking at the glorious work of God in the world. Instead of a day of fasting, mourning, and penitence, this is a feast day. We celebrate with awe the wonder of the Gospel, and the tactile reality of the Cross, a “tree” as St. Peter once described it, literally grounds this remarkable theological event in natural reality.

With that in mind, let’s conclude with a brief comparison of the Scripture readings for Good Friday and Holy Cross Day.

Good Friday, in the Holy Day lectionary, gives us:

  • Genesis 22:1-18 or Isaiah 52:13-53:12, which are a typology and prophecy, respectively, of Jesus’ death
  • Psalm 22:1-11(12-21) or 40:1-16 or 69:1-22, which are songs of suffering and lament
  • Hebrews 10:1-25, which deals with the high priestly sacrifice of Jesus
  • John 19:1-37, which is the Passion of the Christ

Holy Cross Day, however, gives us these readings at the Communion service:

  • Isaiah 45:21-25, which is a universal call to turn to Christ for salvation
  • Psalm 98, one of the joyful celebrations of God’s salvation and praiseworthiness
  • Philippians 2:5-11, an exhortation to imitate Christ in his humility even unto death on the Cross
  • John 12:31-36a, where Christ speaks of his glorification and drawing all men unto himself when he is lifted up on the Cross

So you can see that Holy Cross Day has a focus on glory and celebration that Good Friday lacks. They share a call to “behold”, to gaze upon the crucified one, and the Cross itself as his instrument, and they also share a call to follow Christ – Philippians 2:5-11 in particular is also the Epistle for Palm Sunday, which falls into the same pattern as these. But ultimately this is not a day to mourn the death of Christ but a day to celebrate the victory of Christ. The crucifixion, after all, is a deeply rich event, worthy of observance in many different ways from many different angles. Good Friday is particularly concerned with his suffering and our sins that drove him there; Holy Cross Day is particularly concerned with the triumphal glory and power of God displayed in that same death.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the Cross
that he might draw the whole world to himself:
Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption,
may have grace to take up our cross and follow him;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting Amen.

Anticipating the next day’s feast

We just celebrated St. Mary Magdalene a couple days ago, and this Saint-filled end of the month is about to bring us to one of the twelve apostles, St. James.

Last year we looked at St. James Day with a nod to the Collect of the Day and a couple of the Scripture readings associated with this day.  That’s worth a quick re-read in preparation for tomorrow’s holiday.

For today, though, I’d like to remind you of a tradition that has been a subtle part of Prayer Book practice, though not always explicit: the “Eve of” a holy day.  You may be familiar with the Easter Vigil, or Christmas Eve.  You may also be familiar with the fact that many (most?) Roman churches have a Saturday evening Mass in addition to Sunday morning.  All of these are examples of “liturgical time” starting a day on the evening before, rather than on the morning of.  This is part of the Church’s Hebrew legacy, wherein every “day” begins at sundown – though in Christian liturgy we only tend to do this for Sundays and other feast days.

The 2019 Prayer Book, explaining the calendar on page 687, makes this much explicit:

Following ancient Jewish tradition, the celebrations of any Sunday begins at sundown on the Saturday that precedes it.  Therefore at Evening Prayer on Saturdays (other than Holy Days), the Collect appointed for the ensuing Sunday is used.

It does not go on to say that we are to apply this principle to the other Holy Days.  But such an extension of the rule is not forbidden, and some Prayer Books in the past have operated that way, so it is a traditional option that we are free to make use of.

In short, applying these rules, here are the Collects of the Day for the Daily Office this weekend:

  • Friday Evening: Collect for Saint James Day or Proper 11
  • Saturday Morning: Collect for Saint James Day
  • Saturday Evening: Collect for Saint James Day
  • Sunday Morning: Collect for Proper 12