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

A Saint-filled couple weeks have begun

In the back of my mind, there are three times of year that stand out as being particularly saturated with significant Saints’ Days: Christmas, mid-November, and late July.  I haven’t studied the sanctoral calendar closely to see how accurate these impressions are, but I think it’s worth pointing it out now that we’re in one of those periods of time.

Consider this.  Three major feast days are just ahead:

  1. St. Mary Magdalene (22 July)
  2. St. James (25 July)
  3. The Transfiguration (6 August)

Among the Optional Commemorations there are four coming up that this Customary particularly highlights as feasts to be kept:

  1. St. Gregory of Nyssa (19 July)
  2. The Parents of the Virgin Mary (26 July)
  3. Sts. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha of Bethany (29 July)
  4. St. Joseph of Arimathea (1 August)

There are also some classical Saints’ days worth considering:

  1. St. Macrina (18 July)
  2. St. Margaret of Antioch (20 July)
  3. St. Thomas a Kempis (24 July)

And a few more recent folks remembered in our calendar:

  1. William White (17 July)
  2. William Reed Huntington (27 July)
  3. William Wilberforce (30 July)

Huh, maybe I should’ve named this post “Williamtide”, haha.

Let us also consider jotting down a new name into our calendars, remembering another faithful servant who ran his course well:

  • 17 July: J. I. Packer, Priest and Teacher of the Faith, 2020

May their memories ever be a blessing to us all.

The Collect for St. John’s Nativity

Today we celebrate the birthday of Saint John the Baptist!
We’ve looked at this holy day in the Church Calendar before; here you will find three brief takes on the significance of this feast: Happy Birthday, John the Baptist!  You can also read a little about his life and of some lectionary history for his feast day here.

This year, I’d like to look at the Collect for this Day.  Here it is in the 1662 Prayer Book:

ALMIGHTY God, by whose providence thy servant John Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Saviour, by preaching of repentance; Make
us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching, and after his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

For the most part, this is the same as what we’ve got in the 2019 Prayer Book today.  The first half is virtually identical; only the word doctrine is now swapped out for teaching, which means the same thing, though the connotations have changed slightly.  Today the word doctrine more often is used to refer to a specific area or type of teaching, rather than biblical-theological teaching as a whole.  So that’s a subtle language update that helps preserve the original meaning of this prayer.

It’s also important to note that doctrine/teaching is paired with a holy life.  An unvirtuous teacher is not a good Christian example, neither is a virtuous man with sloppy theology.

The “purpose” section of the Collect, in the second half, is a bit more rearranged, however.  We pray that we may follow John’s doctrine and example so that…

that we may truly repent (2019)
that we may truly repent according to his preaching (1662)

Both versions start with this, and rightly so!  The call to repentance was the most obvious and prolific subject of his preaching that we find in the Gospels, most especially in Luke 3.  The phrase “according to his preaching” is not in our text of the prayer, probably dropped for its redundancy with the subject of his doctrine/teaching in the previous phrase.

boldly rebuke vice (both)

This is the second purpose for our following his teaching and life.  This, too, was a major part of his recorded preaching, as the identification of vice and sin is rather necessary for a genuine call to repentance.  The difference is that the modern prayer puts this second while the 1662 prayer puts this in the middle of the list.

patiently suffer for the sake of truth (2019)
patiently suffer for the truth’s sake (1662)

Third in the modern prayer and last in the old, suffering for the cause of God’s truth is part of St. John the Baptist’s example.  Being last in the 1662 form of the prayer, this has a place of subtle emphasis; it’s the last thing we hear, a sobering “last word on the matter”.  John was a martyr, after all, and many, many others would soon follow him.

and proclaim the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord (2019)

Absent from the traditional collect is the theme of proclaiming the advent of Jesus.  Some might read this to be pretentious: John the Baptist was a unique herald, The Forerunner, specially imbued by the Holy Spirit to “prepare the way of the Lord” and point people to his relative, Jesus, when his ministry began.  We are not called or qualified to anything on par with that!  But we do proclaim the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord, even though we don’t know the day or the hour of his return, nor even have a promise that he will return within our lifetimes.  The return of Christ is a reality that permeates the New Testament epistles, and has also characterized the liturgy (particularly that of Holy Communion) ever since as we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  So we follow in John’s footsteps in this ministry of proclamation, albeit on a different level of the scale.

 

St. Alban, Britain’s Protomartyr

Today is the commemoration of Saint Alban, one of the early British Saints whose name appears in the calendar of the 2019 Prayer Book.  His death date is listed as “c. 250” – the c. is for circa, Latin for “approximately”.  In this particular case, this approximation is more of an average… dates given for his death in early sources have discrepancies ranging from 209 to 304.  Also, if you’re curious about the word “protomartyr,” it means “first martyr”, or more technically, first recorded martyr.

You can read his abridged hagiography on Wikipedia if you like; two of our major sources on his story are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and The Ecclesiastical History by St. Bede – both are major source of information for Christianity in Britain in the first millennium A.D.  In short, Alban was a Briton who harbored a Christian priest hiding from state persecution.  Alban came to respect the priest’s faith and holiness and converted to Christ also.  When soldiers came to arrest the priest, Alban put on the priest’s garments and offered himself in the priest’s place.  His self-sacrificial subterfuge was soon found out, but he was tortured and eventually executed instead of the priest anyway.  On the way to his execution a river was miraculously dried up so the execution party could avoid a crowded bridge and a spring appeared to quench his thirst, both incidents heavily reflecting stories of Moses and Jesus.

The tricky thing about hagiographies, of course, is that this is a very stylized way of writing which only gets more elaborate over the course of history.  And even if the religious content was not an issue, there is also the simple reality that we don’t have a lot of original information from this many centuries past.  It may be that these miracle tales are historically accurate, but it’s also very likely that these stories have been told and retold in particular ways and with particular embellishments to teach the hearers something apart from the actual history of these Saints.  I would suspect, for example, that the crossing of the river on dry ground and the appearance of the water-spring are additions to the “real” history of Saint Alban, added not make Alban look super-special nor to trick posterity into believing a lie, but to illustrate the virtue of Alban’s faith by adding biblical allusions to the crucifixion of Christ and the Exodus led by Moses.

You who read this probably already know: I love history.  I even wrote a short article entitled Why History Matters a few years ago.  You might be puzzled, then, why I’m so positive about sharing a hagiography that even I admit is probably not strictly historically accurate?  The answer is this: we learn from hagiographies in much the same way we learn from history.  These old writings bring us into worlds that are different from our own, where people think differently and conceive of similar ideas in dissimilar ways.  How we understand and relate to history is very different from how they understood and related to history before them.

So as we go through Saint Alban’s Day, I encourage you to give thought to the witness of those who would die for the faith, for the name of Christ.  Regardless of what historically happened on his way to his execution, his example of truly committed faith is instructive and inspiring.  And, I daresay for most of us comfy Americans, a healthy humbling shock.

As we remember martyrs according to our Prayer Book (from page 637),

Almighty God, you gave your servant Alban boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

The June Major Feasts

Most months of the year have about three major feast days; June is right on the average with that number: Saint Barnabas on the 11th, The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist on the 24th, and Saints Peter and Paul on the 29th.

Being in the first half of the month, Saint Barnabas’ Day often lands close to Trinity Sunday or Pentecost.  While this can sometimes cause a little trouble with displacing the Ember Days or transferring Barnabas away from those highest of Sundays, it also makes a lot of sense to celebrate him in proximity to the Day of Pentecost.  The reason is simple: the book of Acts is associated with the season of Eastertide as well as the Day of Pentecost, so there’s a biblical-chronological sense to getting to the story of Barnabas on the heels of Pentecost.

The Nativity (birth) of St. John the Baptist, meanwhile, is in June for historical reasons; it’s linked with the dates for the Annunciation to Mary and the birth of Christ.  You can read more about that here!

Saints Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome.  It happened at different times, possibly in different years, although both within a few years of one another in the mid-to-late-60’s.  Their martyrdoms have traditionally been observed together on the same date, June 29th.

Among the Optional Commemorations there are a few that the Saint Aelfric Customary would highlight as Minor Feasts:

  • 1 June: St. Justin Martyr, one of the first major apologists
  • 14 June: St. Basil the Great, one of the Cappadocian Fathers, great theologians
  • 22 June: St. Alban, the first martyr in Britain
  • 27 June: St. Cyril of Alexandria, a key leader at the Council of Ephesus
  • 28 June: St. Irenaeus, a major 2nd century Christian writer