Category Archives: Newsletter Articles

Articles published in St. Saviour’s Voice and St. Andrew and John’s Net Tender

Magic

Twenty years ago when the first Harry Potter books were published, they re-ignited a controversy about the proper attitude of Christians toward magic, or more accurately, stories about magic.  As much as I dislike pronouncements about “the proper attitude of Christians toward” pretty much anything, a recent review of an entirely different fantasy book series got me thinking again about magic.  So once again, dear reader, I find myself twenty years out of fashion.

Let me begin by saying that I really like the Harry Potter books.  I resisted them when they came out, but when I was drafted as a summer camp chaplain I decided I had better read the books as a matter of cultural literacy.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the books are well-written and engaging, that they challenge readers with age-appropriate ambiguities and authentic characters.  I found myself in conversation with middle-schoolers referring to muggles and quidditch.  I was not particularly worried that these books were drawing children into the Dark Arts.

At the time, the argument seemed to be framed between those who believed that exposing children to a fantasy world of magic was opening the door to demons, and those who saw these books as an epic of good versus evil, with echoes of Christian themes of self-sacrifice and love conquering death. Author J. K. Rowling was either the next C. S. Lewis, creating Christian allegory accessible to modern readers, or was a cunning wolf in sheep’s clothing, whose ripping yarns slip under our radar to normalize witchcraft.

I think both these arguments miss the point.  Stories of magical forces and people who can harness them are as old as humanity, told by Christians and adherents of every faith and no faith. These stories seem to fill a human need for fantasy, for narratives that don’t follow everyday rules of reality.  I don’t believe that fantasy stories in and of themselves need to be demonic or idolatrous:  witness the fantastic medieval legends of the Lives of the Saints.

By the same token, stories of cosmic good and evil, self-sacrificing heroes and fearful villains, are hardly unique to Christianity.  Just because a story makes a sharp distinction between the white hats and the black hats does not mean that it is Christian at its core.  In fact, one of the heresies that the church had to fight in its early years was the Manichean idea that the universe was governed by opposing good and evil forces in equilibrium. This model has more to do with comic books than with the God of scripture who declares all of creation to be very good.

Oddly, the thing that first began to make me uncomfortable with the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” was the way that the stories deal with Christmas.  Of course, Christmas has long ago become a secular holiday for many in England and in the US, but something seemed missing in a story of cosmic good and evil when Christmas day is about nothing more than knitted jumpers and paper hats, when even the wise Dumbledore has nothing meaningful to say about the day when the earthly and heavenly worlds are gathered into one.  This absence was most stark for me in the last book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry and Hermione spend Christmas Eve in a churchyard, looking at gravestones and hearing Christmas carols being sung in the church.

Like many stories set in the modern world, Harry Potter has no room for God.  If this were a mundane story about kids at boarding school and their eccentric teachers, that might not be a problem.  But these are stories all about the fundamental forces of the physical and the spiritual world, about the relationship between humanity and…  what?  Magic is presented as a power running through the universe, a power that some beings can control, but ultimately a power that belongs to us.  Magic seems to have no source other than itself, and exists to be bent to human will, good or evil.  A human being who has access to magic has no need of God.  If God exists at all, he is something for the muggles in the chapel at Christmas, and has nothing to do with the heroes’ struggle to wrestle control of the world away from the dark wizards who use power for selfish ends, and preserve the same power for the good wizards who use it to do what they think is best for everyone, muggles included.

Ultimately, this is a Gnostic worldview, a philosophy that orthodox Christianity has been battling for two thousand years.  Gnosticism teaches that the world we see is an illusion, that the real battle between the powers of good and evil is fought beyond our sight, but that with secret knowledge and training an elect few of us can understand what is going on, and even turn those powers to our own ends.

Christianity believes that all power belongs to God, that God may sometimes use us to exercise his will in the world, but that we do not use God’s power to exercise our will.  That was the error of Simon the Magician in Acts Chapter 8:  he thought he could franchise the Holy Spirit.  That is the error of some preachers who teach that we can goad God into granting us prosperity. Mutatis mutandis, this is also the worldview of a particular kind of materialistic science that believes we can perfect the world if the people in power are clever enough.

I don’t believe that reading Harry Potter will turn children into Satanists, or even atheists.  But neither would I be comfortable with a Harry Potter themed Vacation Bible School.  I don’t believe Harry Potter is hostile to God, nor do I think that it is crypto-Christian.  Sadly, like much of the modern world, I think that Harry Potter finds God too irrelevant to worry about.

May the power of God be so manifest in our lives that we may teach the world God’s love.

Politics as Usual

As political ads begin to shout at us, as we draw closer to the midterm elections in November, there seems to be a new round of questioning about how Christians should vote, or how they should think about political issues, or even whether Christians should take part in the political process at all.  Last month the Christian Millennial magazine Relevant published an editorial titled “Voting Your Faith: How Should Christians Vote?”[1]  The New York Times published an Op-Ed this week by the Rev. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, titled “How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System?  They Don’t.”[2]  At the same time that “Christian” is declining as any sort of default identity in our culture, the post-Christian world struggles to place Christians into some sort of political, ideological box that they can understand.  Christians are conservative, right?  Well, then, Christians are pro-life, right?  Even more narrowly defined traditions like Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mainline Protestants are far from monolithic, and one is often more likely to find common ground across denominational and party divisions than within the group with which one is supposedly identified.

Following God has never overlaid neatly with ideologies or political movements.  In the Old Testament, Joseph and Daniel held high posts in pagan governments that were inimical to their religion.  There were debates in the early Church about whether Christians could cooperate with the Empire at all, and later debates over whether a good Christian could ever oppose a duly anointed earthly King or Emperor. As late as the 19th Century, popes wrote encyclicals condemning the errors of rationalism, modernism, liberalism, and “Americanism” which included religious liberty and the separation of church and state.[3]

Modern political ideologies tend to understand the world and divide themselves in ways that don’t necessarily align with the concerns of the Gospel.  Valuing all human life as created in the image and likeness of God may draw a person to oppose abortion and euthanasia on one hand, while also opposing the death penalty, working for prison reform and universal health care.  A voter presented with the platforms of the primary parties or ideologies is unlikely to find one that aligns completely with her Gospel priorities, so is stuck with what New Monastic writer Shane Claiborne calls “choosing the evil of two lessers.” [4]

It may seem obvious to many of us that Jesus would definitely vote the same way we do.  After all, Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and preached Good News to the poor.  Of course Jesus would vote for N.  But there are many ways to love our neighbor.  Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry, but he did not establish a health plan or a welfare state.  Is it more loving to teach our neighbor how we think he should live so that he might be happier and healthier, or to enable him in a life that he has chosen, but which looks unsustainable to us?  Even when we agree on the fundamental message of love, people of good will may faithfully disagree on how to live out that message.  Yet almost daily, in the press and even in our own community, our own parish, I hear people disparage the faith of those with whom they disagree:  How could someone call themselves a Christian and vote for X?

Jesus taught us to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God.  That has led some Christians and some religious leaders to decide that it is not appropriate for Christians to participate in politics.  In a democratic republic like ours, though, participating in the political process is one of the primary ways that we can effect change in the world, one of the ways that we can love our neighbor.  By the same token, some non-religious people insist that it is inappropriate for a political leader to be guided by the teachings of religion in her leadership.  For those of us who are called to seek and serve Christ in all persons, however, it is inconceivable that that call would not inform every decision and every interaction in our lives.

As followers of Jesus, we do not have the luxury of sitting out the political process, withdrawing to our monasteries to keep ourselves unspotted from the rough realities of human life.  Neither may we demonize those who disagree with us and insist that ours is the only right way.  When different ideologies and labels overlap but don’t align, we must be sure that our primary identity is not that of Republican or Democrat, of Progressive or Conservative, of Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.  If we belong to Christ, then we are one in Christ Jesus.

[1] https://relevantmagazine.com/issues/issue-95/voting-your-faith/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/29/opinion/sunday/christians-politics-belief.html

[3] Pius IX, Encyclical Quanta Cura and Syllabus Errorum (1864), and Leo XIII, Encyclical Longinqua oceani (1895), accessed at Wikipedia.org, October 2, 2018.

[4] Relevant.

Mission Possible

I imagine that many folks reading this will have been part of the process of writing a Mission Statement for some church, board, committee, or other organization.  In my experience, it usually involves a long period of self-study and soul-searching, followed by small and large-group conversations, at least one of which is usually about the difference between a Mission Statement and a Vision Statement.  After considerably wordsmithing, a single highly polished sentence is crafted which seems to touch all the things discussed.  It is announced publicly, with promises that it will be used as a rubric to guide decisions in the future:  it may be added to publications, website and signage so that it cannot be forgotten.  And then, more often than not, it is mostly ignored.

There are a lot of reasons for this.  In some cases, I think that we don’t really know ourselves as well as we think, or that we don’t want to say out loud what we actually know.  In other cases, we don’t know or really want to know about the world around us where we might be expected to actually live out our mission.  Sometimes we may be unrealistic about what we can actually do, or we may be too timid to commit to much of anything at all.

At least in the mainline church, I believe that one reason that Mission Statements are so often meaningless or irrele­vant is a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of Mission.  The word mission has taken on a rather ambiguous connotation in the Church because of its association with Christian missionary activities over the last few centuries.  We don’t want to talk about mission if it means the sort of cultural imperialism that imposes western cultural norms along with a particular version of Christianity, often at the cost of destroying indigenous ways of life.

We don’t want to do mission if it means going where we’re not invited, imposing “our views” on other people.  And so we carefully construct Mission Statements with all the sharp edges sanded off:  watered-down versions of our Baptismal Covenant that couldn’t possibly offend anyone.

I believe that the fundamental misunderstanding here is that mission is something we design.  One may decide to go on a journey, but one is sent on a mission.  Mission is a sending that comes from something or someone outside ourselves.  Remember the old television series “Mission Impossible” (I’m afraid I don’t know if this occurs in the more recent films)? The main character was given a cassette tape with the message that began, “Greetings, Mr. Phelps.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”

We have been given a Message with numerous missions we can choose to accept or ignore.  At Creation, God sends humankind on a mission to be fruitful, and to be responsible for every living thing.  A few generations later, God sends Abram and Sarai and their descendants on a mission to leave home and travel to a new land, and to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.  Again and again, in person and through the prophets, God gives messages to Israel, saying in effect, “Greetings!  Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”

Through Jesus, God sends us on a mission to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and imprisoned.  Through Jesus, God sends us out to make disciples of all nations, to bap­tize and to teach.  In the Holy Spirit, the Church is called to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ (BCP p. 855).  In the Spirit, Saints are given missions in every generation, if they choose to accept them.  Mission is all around us.  Mission is being the church.

And this brings us back to our initial discussion of Mission Statements.  One can certainly spend a weekend retreat hashing out a Mission Statement.  But the fact is, we publish a mission statement every time we adopt a parish or diocesan budget.  You’ve probably heard me say before that a budget is (or should be) a mission document, and in fact is a much more realistic statement of our priorities than any sweet slogan we can dream up.

Think about it: a budget is a statement of where we plan to use our resources and our energy.  A budget that emphasizes immediate human need says that we are a church who has accepted the mission to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.  A budget that emphasizes evangelism says that we are a church that has specifically accepted the mission to make disciples. By the same token, if our budget is primarily focused on keeping the lights on for those who show up on Sunday morning, that says something about our sense of mission as well.

Of course, one great difference between our mission and “Mission Impossible” is that we don’t necessarily expect to complete our mission in our lifetimes.  The mission we have chosen to accept is ultimately God’s mission, God’s project with humanity, and as such is measured in God’s time, not ours.  We live in joyful anticipation of that great banquet when the “Mission Accomplished” banner is draped across God’s Kingdom.  In the meantime, we accept our rôle in God’s mission, in faith that it is not only possible, but already at hand.

Any place along the river

As a seminarian, I travelled to Palestine as part of a group organized by St. George’s College, a ministry of the Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem.  Like millions of Christian pilgrims for generations, we visited the shrines that commemorate events in the life of Jesus and the early church:  the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Nativity in Bethlehem, Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum and around Galilee, and the Passion and Resurrection in Jerusalem.  Visiting the sites certainly provided a clearer historical understanding of scripture, and while some spots felt uncomfortably like tourist traps, at many there was a definite sense of holiness, of a powerful connection to the miraculous events that unfolded there.

One of the standard stops is a spot along the Jordan River in Galilee where pilgrims can wade in the water to renew their own baptism near the spot where Jesus was baptized by John.  We were encouraged to bring empty bottles so that we could carry home water from the site of Jesus’ baptism.  Our tour guide, a wonderfully knowledgeable and devoted Palestinian Christian man named Iyad, happened to mention that this site with its bus parking lot and stone steps down into the river was relatively new:  that the site that had historically been venerated as the place of Jesus’ baptism was a few miles up the river, but that the old location had become too dangerous during the wars between Israel and Syria, so that the Israeli tourism ministry had simply built a new access point in a safer spot.  One of our chaplains, a monk with the Society of St. John the Evangelist, smiled and said, “That’s okay.  We’re Episcopalians.  We have a sacramental understanding, so that any place along the river is as good as any other.”

I didn’t completely understand what Brother David was saying, but I dutifully filled a plastic liter bottle with Jordan River water and carried it home in my overstuffed luggage, along with all the olive-wood tchotchkes I had bought as gifts and souvenirs.  When I got home, as instructed, I filtered the water twice through coffee filters and boiled it for five minutes (The Jordan is not any cleaner than any other river in a populated area).  I decanted it into little glass bottles, some of which I gave as gifts, some of which I still keep in a box in my office.

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about what Brother David said:  that as people who practice a sacramental theology, any place along the river is as good as another, and in fact, any river is as good as the Jordan.  It’s true, of course:  we believe that any piece of bread can become the Body of Christ, that any cup of wine can become His blood.  More than that, when we participate in the sacrament, time and space collapse:  we are celebrating the feast with every Christian throughout the world, every Christian who has ever lived or ever will live, “with all your saints, from every tribe and language and people and nation, to feast at the banquet prepared from the foundation of the world.”  We may fill the bowl of our font with water from the sacristy faucet, but that water unites the person being baptized to Christ just as surely as if she were standing in the Jordan River two thousand years ago.

So why are we drawn to holy places – to the places where we believe that holy people have walked or miraculous things have happened?  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is built on the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb, revealed to Empress Helena when she visited in the fourth century CE.  Hundreds of years later, more modern-thinking church historians found Helena’s claim dubious, but more recent archaeological studies seem to support the likelihood of this location for a first century Jewish tomb.  Has the holiness of the spot changed?  Would the holiness of the spot change if we had absolute archaeological proof that it was or wasn’t the site of the Resurrection?

One often hears reference to churches or shrines which have been hallowed by hundreds of years of prayers of the faithful, and it is certainly true that one can feel a sense of connection to faith history in such places.  But do we honestly believe that God hears prayers from Iona Abbey more clearly than from the fish-and-chips stand up the road?  That kind of superstition about the power of particular places or particular objects to put one in touch with the Divine has more to do with magic than with the Gospel.

The fact is, every place is made by God.  Every place is holy, because God is here.  We cannot make any place more holy than it already is, no matter how many thousands of years we pray there.  If I splash a little water from a little glass bottle into the font along with the water from the sacristy faucet, it doesn’t make the water any holier and it doesn’t make the child any more baptized than she would have been otherwise.

So why do it?  Speaking for myself, it has more to do with reminding myself of what it means to be a sacramental people.  It’s a reminder that, with or without the Jordan water, all who are baptized are baptized into the life of Christ.  It’s a reminder that the water isn’t really that important, that I am not doing anything particularly important as I cup water onto a child’s head; that the important, world-changing work is being done by God in the Holy Spirit and was done by God through Jesus Christ a long time ago.  It’s a reminder that any place along the river is as good as any other.

Remember

When I was a kid, we lived a few blocks from the town cemetery – our Midwestern version of the burial ground next door to St. Saviour’s.  On nice days, I would sometimes ride my bike over to the cemetery and stroll through the headstones (bikes weren’t allowed inside the gates), looking for the oldest dates I could find, wondering about the stories of people who had lived in the same town a hundred or more years before me.  I remember feeling a sort of amazement that I could walk up and touch the grand obelisks and mausoleums with the names I recognized from the wealthy families of our town, as well as the tiny worn stones that might just say “mother” or “baby.” These stones seemed like links to an unimaginably remote past.

I also remember feeling a kind of awe at seeing a brand-new headstone or a freshly covered grave. Someone had really just died: someone’s father or sister, someone I might actually have known.  I got a strange shiver from the idea that these were not relics of a historical character from the remote past, but someone just like me.  The community of the dead is always open to new members.

Although we may forget to notice it on a weekly basis, the walls and windows and floor of St. Saviour’s church function as a similar community of the dead and a memento mori for the living.  Some of the memorials are grand and expensive, testifying to the wealth and prestige of some of our forebears.  Some are small and simple:  a name on a small brass plaque, or even just a set of initials.  Some recite the deeds and fine qualities of those they commemorate; some simply mark the bare fact that a person was here, that someone wanted to remember her.  Some are from the remote past, well beyond living memory, while others are our contemporaries, the loss still fresh.

Most of us would like to think that we will be remembered.  One of the cruelest Jewish curses is that one die and be forgotten, as though he never had been born.  But what exactly do we hope that future generations will see and think when they see our name on a tarnished piece of brass?  Surely there is more to it than vanity:  we hope to be remembered in death as we want to be known and acknowledged in life. We hope that the graven stone that says “I was here” will somehow fix our memory to this place; will ensure that we remain parts of this community even beyond death.

But of course, it is not carved stone and embossed brass that marks our membership in the Body of Christ, but the living water of baptism through which we are adopted as children of God. Water will wear away the hardest stone, but baptism marks us as Christ’s own forever.

At our recent parish meeting, some expressed concern that most of our walls are full and that we need to make sure there is room to memorialize this generation for the ages to come.  In the vestry meeting that followed we had a wide-ranging conversation about the intention and meaning of memorial plaques:  Are they strictly for the purpose of recognizing donations to the church?  What about those who have given their time and energy to the church for their whole lives?  Who decides which gifts and which lives are worthy of a plaque?

The most important result to come out of that vestry discussion was the realization that we need to discuss these questions further and more broadly.  Our parish bylaws (adopted July, 2002), make it clear that any plaques in the church are to recognize specific gifts given to the glory of God, not to memorialize individuals. The bylaws further make it clear that unrestricted gifts (other than part of a capital campaign) are not to be recognized by plaques.

I hope that we can have a conversation about memorials and gifts at our Annual Meeting on June 24. In the meantime, take a walk through St. Saviour’s – or if the weather is nice, stroll through the burial ground next door.  Read the names, touch the stones.  Remember.

Before and After.

Once again, the church is out of step with the world’s calendar.

If the World pays any attention at all to Easter (which it seems to do less and less) it understands it as a single day, a Sunday that falls some time in the spring according to a complicated formula that no one really understands.  It may be a time to buy new clothes, a time for children to hunt for eggs, a time to eat disgusting pastel marshmallow chicks and hollow chocolate bunnies.  It may be a day when folks who seldom go to church decide that they ought to, but even that vestigial urge seems to be waning.

If the World pays attention at all, it might remember that many Christians have extra, kind of weird services in the week leading up to Easter.  The World might even notice that some Christians observe a longer season of Lent before Easter (or talk about why they don’t observe it).  In any case, though, it’s all over after brunch on Sunday, and the World can get back to business on Monday morning, right?

Well, no.  Easter isn’t just a day (which, incidentally, is set as the Sunday following the full moon that falls on or after the Vernal Equinox, in case you were wondering).  Easter begins with the Gloria in Excelsis in the middle of the Great Vigil on Holy Saturday night, and continues for fifty days, ending on the Day of Pentecost.

Okay, fine, the church says that the Easter season continues through the spring.  We use the fancier hangings on the altar and we don’t have to say the Confession every week. But it’s not like anything is really different, is it?

Well, yes it is.  Easter is a watershed.  That moment when we say “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” and the lights come up and we ring the bells – that is a hinge in time.  That is the great Singularity.  Before that moment, we are subject to the World and its powers and principalities, and after that moment we are raised with Christ to eternal life, reconciled through him to God our creator. That moment last Saturday night is the moment: the same as that moment two thousand years ago when the stone rolled back and Jesus stepped triumphantly from the tomb.

But wait a minute.  That moment two thousand years ago happened once.  That moment at the Great Vigil happens every year.  How can we be sinful on Friday and redeemed on Sunday, when the same thing happened last year?

We know that in God, all times are one.  But even putting that aside, I think there is something more significant here.  It’s not as though we get our spiritual oil changed at Easter, and then gradually accumulate sin and guilt like gunk in an engine over the course of the year, only to have it flushed out and refilled again next year.

We are swimming in sin every day of the year.  But more importantly, we are redeemed by grace every moment of every day.  We live on the Easter side of that great hinge, so we are reconciled to God in spite of sin – simultaneously justified and a sinner, as Brother Martin once wrote.

So it makes sense that Easter, the great before and after, can happen again every year.  Every year, we are saved again, reconciled again, raised from death into life again.  Every day, whether it is a Friday in Lent or a Sunday during the Great Fifty Days, we continue in dire need of God’s saving grace.

We live it every year. Every day is the great before and after. Every moment is the moment.

March Madness

When we moved to Mount Desert Island (in the month of May), a local friend told us, “Start watching the police beat in the Islander in March.  That’s when it starts getting weird around here.”  True to form, March newspapers in the past few years have included: a story of “shovel rage” – a local resident moved to throw snow at a town truck and strike it with his shovel in frustration that the sidewalks were not being cleared quickly enough (no damage was reported, and no arrests were made); a report of a man calling police from the maintenance shed at a golf course, claiming that he was being chased (there was onbly one set of footprints in the snow); a motorist slamming on his brakes because the car behind him was following too close, causing a rear-end collision and damage to both cars; a resident calling police to say that someone had been rude to her over the phone; and a report of a woman walking down Main Street in her underwear.  One of my favorite recent local-interest items, the disappearance of a tub of scallop gonads from a car at the Somesville One Stop, actually occurred in November, but in a nice bit of symmetry, made it onto Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” in March of 2013.

Of course, many of the reports in the police beat are not funny at all.  I can’t quote statistics, but it seems as though calls for domestic assault, OUI and other drug and alcohol-related crimes are high in late winter – or maybe it’s just that it’s not obnoxious tourists getting drunk in hotel parking lots, but our own folks getting into trouble near to home.  It’s no secret that winters here are long and dark, and that cabin fever is a real danger.  When Cap’n Nemo’s in Bass Harbor burned down in a few years ago, a thoughtful local reminded me to be on the watch for domestic disputes, as the folks who had previously found their social outlet at the neighborhood bar would now have to spend time in small houses with their spouses and children.

For many folks, March is also the time when the money put aside from summer jobs starts to run thin:  the oil tank is empty, the refrigerator is empty, the rent is due, the light bill is due, and there is no paycheck on the horizon until May or June.  In the best years, there is no margin for error for those who rely on a seasonal economy, and in years with long, cold winters, there is little hope of making the summer money stretch far enough.  Both Island pantries have unfortunately become regular parts of the winter economy, and I can vouch that requests for assistance from the clergy discretionary funds peak in the late winter.

March is when it starts getting weird (or perhaps weirder).  But today, most of us have some sort of shelter, some source of heat and light, and some opportunity to get out of the house occasionally.  Imagine life in northern Europe in the Dark Ages, when many folks lived in one-room huts, heated with a wood or peat fire.  Only the wealthy could afford glass for windows or candles for light.  Food was stockpiled in the fall, with no effective means to preserve it.  In this setting, winter is not just depressing and stressful; it is actually life-threatening.

The days start to get a little longer after Christmas and the midwinter solstice, but not nearly fast enough.  Spring is months away, and any sort of harvest well beyond that.  Late winter is a season when time seems to slow down, when death seems to be all around, and it’s hard to remember that new life will ever be possible.  A time when we count the days until we can crawl out of our winter cocoons, our stagnant little tombs, and celebrate resurrection and the triumph over death’s finality.

The Christian tradition of Lent, of counting off the forty lengthening days before Easter, recognizes the reality that rebirth doesn’t come without death, that new life doesn’t always come when we are ready for it.  March would be easier if we could spend it under a sunlamp, or if we just sang happy songs and ate lots of chocolate.  Lent would be easier if we could just jump straight to Easter.  Many of us can afford to head south in March to someplace where the sun shines and the earth isn’t a bog of frozen mud.  Some of us can afford to heat our houses to 73 and leave all the lights on.  We can afford to create the illusion that winter has no hold on us, that death has no hold on us.

Those of us who spend Lent counting the days until the resurrection know that it is actually death’s hold that is the illusion.  Resurrection life doesn’t necessarily come when we want it.  But it comes.

An invitation to an above-average Lent

On Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, one of his long-running schticks was the moral superiority of places that suffer through long, cold winters.  Keillor never missed an opportunity to disparage southern California and other places that “don’t have seasons,” and his “News from Lake Wobegon” tended to judge those who spend winters in Florida or Arizona as slightly suspect.  Winter builds character, according to this thinking, and avoiding it shows a lack of moral fiber.

The church year has its own seasons, and some traditions seem to treat Lent like February in Maine:  something one chooses to suffer through, with the vague sense that the suffering itself is what makes it good for you.  Of course, the winters we have nowadays are nothing like what we had back when I was a kid, and neither is Lent.  Back then, we knew something about penitence!

Confession, repentance and penitence are all worthwhile things, but they are not all that Lent is about.  Lent began in the early Church as a period of preparation before the great celebration of Easter; those who hoped to be baptized and join the church at the Great Vigil spent (at least) forty days in study, prayer, fasting, and self-examination.  Remember that the church in those days was persecuted or illegal in many places, so that one needed to think long and hard before taking the fateful step of presenting oneself for baptism.  Remember also that the unbaptized left the room after the scripture readings and prayers:  Holy Communion was a mystery only for those who had shown a serious commitment to follow Christ.

As Christianity became the established religion of the Empire, baptism became much more ubiquitous, and preparation for it less arduous.  As time went on, however, an increased focus in the Western Church on human sinfulness led to a more mechanistic economy of sin.  Penitence, the honest acknowledgement and turning away from one’s sin, was replaced by Penance, self-inflicted punishment in exchange for the church’s promise of absolution.  Lent became a time of sometimes morbid self-mortification, on the assumption that God desires and approves of our suffering:  that suffering, like cold winters, builds character.

In reaction against this sort of masochism, some Christian traditions have abandoned Lent altogether, or have reduced it to little more than the switching of green hangings for purple. But just as Garrison Keillor finds something unwholesome about year-round sunshine, I think there is something missing from a church year that doesn’t include a season of study, prayer, fasting (in whatever form it takes), and self-examination.  Identifying oneself as a Christian is perhaps not as risky as it was in the second century, but we still need to think long and hard about what it means to live out that commitment.

Fasting, like penitence, can become a parody of itself when we focus exclusively on what we’re “giving up for Lent.”  Perhaps a healthier way of thinking about Lent is as a time to examine our lives for those habits and behaviors that come between us and God; those idols that demand the time and energy that could be better spent on our relationship with God and with God’s people in the world.  Seen this way, Lent is less about giving something up or improving ourselves, and more about making time and space for God in our lives.  It is about stewardship of our time, energy and attention.

Idols don’t have to be evil things in and of themselves; even good things can become idols if they come between us and God.  For example, we may load up our leisure time with so many enriching activities and worthwhile causes that we “just don’t have time” for daily prayer and meditation.  We may be so frugal and self-denying that we find ourselves anxious about finances and resenting the pledge we made to the church in faith.  Or we may notice that lots of time calling out injustices on social media can feed the demons of hatred and fear, alienating us from our brothers and sisters and making us forget the love that creates justice.  Turning away from these habits is not about making ourselves miserable – it’s about making room in our lives for the real joy that comes from relationship with God.

And let us not forget genuine penitence!  I would remind you that the Rite of Reconciliation (sacramental confession and absolution) can be a restorative, liberating practice.  The two forms that begin on page 447 in our current Prayer Book are intended as a framework and a first step in a process of repentance, not as an act of self-abasement and penance.  This ministry is always available by appointment, but Lent is a particularly appropriate time to lay aside those things that trouble us as we prepare to meet our risen Lord at Easter.

Why do we read what we read when we read it?

One of the real blessings of our current model of shared ministry among the parishes of MDI is the opportunity for congregations to hear multiple different preaching voices from month to month (Actually, I’m a little jealous of you in that regard:  I only get to hear preaching from my talented colleagues on Fifth Sundays, and sometimes I get a little tired of the sound of my own voice).

The lectionary, however, provides a thread of continuity from week to week and among congregations.  The lectionary is more than just a reading list.  At best it can be an interpretive tool that encourages us to juxtapose passages of scripture that we might not otherwise, and to participate in conversations among the different voices of scripture.  At worst, it can allow us to skip over difficult or uncomfortable passages, or encourage anachronistic or even anti-Jewish interpretations of the Hebrew Scripture.

The idea of a set scripture reading for each week goes back at least to the exile of the sixth century BC when the writings of the Torah were being compiled and when the pattern of synagogue worship was being established by the Scribes.  Early Christian congregations adopted and adapted the Jewish synagogue practice, adding the reading of open letters among congregations (the Epistles)  and later the retelling of stories and sayings from the life and teaching of Jesus (the Gospels).  While consensus developed around the canonical books of scripture in the Western Church in the third century, the scripture read each week varied widely from diocese to diocese until quite recently, especially during the “Ordinary” seasons of Epiphany and Pentecost.

Our current three-year lectionary is largely a product of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962-1965).  Prior to this point, most lectionaries for worship repeated every year, and included only a small portion of the Bible, with the assumption that Christians were reading the Bible systematically on their own at home.  Goals of this new Mass Lectionary were to encourage the reading of more of the Bible in worship, and to ensure reading from the different parts of the Bible each week:  Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel.  Each of the three years in the cycle is organized around a semi-continuous reading of one of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), with readings from John’s Gospel incorporated mostly into Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas.

A version of the Catholic Mass Lectionary was included in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  The current Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) was adopted with minor modifications by the Episcopal Church for trial use in 1994, and as the official lectionary of the church as of the first Sunday of Advent, 2007.  It is used by many mainline Protestant denominations, and it is good to know that many of our Christian brothers and sisters are reading and responding to the same scriptures as we are each week.

One noticeable difference between the RCL and earlier lectionaries is the option of two different tracks through the Hebrew Scriptures during Ordinary Time.  The track which was included in the 1979 BCP is driven by the Gospel reading for the day; readings from the Old Testament are chosen specifically to complement typological themes and images from the Gospel.  The newer track is a more nearly continuous reading through big chunks of the Hebrew Scriptures from week to week.  The advantage of the “complementary” track is that it (theoretically) makes preaching easier, as readings are already grouped around a theme, but at the cost of chopping up the Hebrew Scriptures into out-of-context snippets and more or less forcing the interpretation of Jewish scripture through a Christian lens.  The advantage of the “continuous” track is that it allows the Old Testament stories their own integrity, but it makes connections less tidy.  The intention is that a parish pick one track and stick with it throughout the cycle, as it doesn’t make much sense to have a continuous reading if you are dipping in and out of it.  At St. Saviour we have followed the continuous track for the last several years.

Finally, a note of caution.  Even with the three year, multi-track lectionary, there are huge parts of the bible that we don’t ever read week to week.  It can be argued that some passages are not particularly edifying (long genealogical lists, fine points of the purity code, chronicles of forgettable kings).  Other passages, though, seem to have been left out because they are troubling:  violent, misogynistic, nationalistic, or otherwise telling a story we’d prefer not to hear.  For a fuller picture of humanity’s relationship with God, I invite you to check out the parts we leave out:  the verses before and after the appointed readings, and especially any “holes” cut out of the middle of passages.  And then ask yourself, “Why do you suppose we don’t read that?”

Tim ruins Advent for you

A mischievous older priest once told me, “When someone says ‘We’ve always done it that way,’ it usually means ten years, but seldom longer than the tenure of the last rector.”  The fact is that many of our practices that we think of as ancient are in fact quite recent compared to the life of the church, and some of our most beloved Advent and Christmas traditions are among them.

The Advent wreath is perhaps the tradition most associated with the season, and the combination of evergreen boughs with four candles seems to be such an apt symbol for the season that it is easy to assume that it is an ancient or at least medieval tradition.  In fact, the Advent wreath was invented in 1839 by Johann Wichern, a German Lutheran pastor at a mission school in Hamburg.  The children at the school would ask every day how long it was until Christmas, so Pastor Wichern affixed four large white candles and 24 small red candles to a wagon wheel, lighting one candle successively each Sunday and weekday.  The custom caught on among German Lutherans and spread to German Catholics in the 1920’s, but was not seen in the United States until the 1930’s, or in England until the 1960’s.

Until very recently, the Advent wreath was considered a nice tradition for the home, but not necessarily something one would observe in church.  The only mention of the wreath in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is in the “Additional Directions” for candles at Evening Worship on page 143: “During Advent, the lighting of an Advent Wreath may take place after the Prayer for Light.”  The Book of Occasional Services, the priest’s guide for special occasions, is even cooler:  under the heading “Concerning the Advent Wreath,” it sniffs: “When used in the church, no special prayers or ceremonial elaboration beyond what is described on page 143 of the Prayer Book is desirable.”

The Advent wreath is really a sort of ritualized form of the Advent calendar, but it seems that we owe that tradition to restless 19th-century German Lutheran schoolchildren as well.  The Advent calendar was designed as a teaching tool with a Bible verse hidden behind each window, intended to edify (and pacify) children who were eager for Christmas.  Contemporary versions with chocolate or even jewelry behind each window serve the same purpose for impatient adults.

And any conversation about the Advent wreath has to address the burning question (sorry, couldn’t help it) of the correct color for the candles: should they be violet, blue or white, and should the third Sunday’s candle be pink?  In fact, the idea of uniform liturgical colors is modern:  before the liturgical revival of the late nineteenth century, the “standard” colors for vestments and paraments varied widely from one church to another.  Parishes who could afford it might try to match their colors to those used in their own cathedral, but most held only to the practice of using the “best” vestments for major feasts, “second best” for lesser feasts, and “everyday” for everything else.

One can search through the entire 1979 Book of Common Prayer and not find any mention of specific colors for seasons or feasts.  The colors that we think of as standard are generally those adopted by the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II.

The question of violet or blue for Advent dates from the Oxford Movement in the Church of England.  In an effort to emphasize the Catholic roots of Anglicanism, certain Anglo-Catholics encouraged the revival of the “Sarum Rite:” the liturgy as celebrated at the Cathedral of Salisbury in the 11th century.  In fact, little is known about the actual practice of the Sarum Rite, and even less of it was ever adopted into modern practice, with the exception of the use of “Sarum blue” for Advent instead of violet.  Some cynical folks have suggested that “Sarum blue” was invented by makers of liturgical furnishings, who could thus sell a fifth set of vestments and paraments to every church.

The Hanging of the Greens (or the Greening of the Church), the decoration of the church with evergreen boughs on the first Sunday of Advent, also seems to date only to the early 20th century in the US, although the tradition may be much older in northern Europe.  Evergreens like cedar, pine and holly which keep their green leaves through the winter are used as symbols of eternal life in scripture, and in fact were common symbols of rebirth in pagan religions as well.

And of course, the Greening is closely related to the Christmas tree.  The tradition of decorating a tree with fruits, nuts, sweets, and small toys for Christmas seems to date to the 15th century in Germany, Poland, and the Baltic lands, although the use of trees in religious ritual (or even the worship of trees themselves) is very ancient:  witness the prophets’ long campaign against sacred groves and asherah poles throughout the Torah.  By the 18th century, the Christmas tree was seen as a particularly Protestant tradition, as compared with the Catholic Nativity Scene or crèche.

The crèche itself is an interesting case.  St. Francis of Assisi is credited with staging the first Nativity pantomime in 1223, inspired by a journey to Bethlehem.  The pantomime became popular (as did almost anything having to do with Francis), and staged scenes with statues or figurines instead of live actors and animals were easier to deal with.   As was standard in medieval religious art, the manger scene includes overlapping narratives:  the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger, the visit from the shepherds, and the rejoicing angels from Luke, as well as the Star of Bethlehem and the visitation of the Magi and the offering of their gifts from Matthew.  Like many churches, we don’t move the Magi into the scene until Epiphany, perhaps as a way of untangling the separate stories.

Knowing too much of the background and provenance of our Advent and Christmas traditions may seem to diminish them: what we thought was ancient and eternal may in fact be recent and invented.  But that need not be a problem. We believe that Christ is incarnate and the Spirit continues to speak, and God does something new in every generation.  What makes something a tradition is not that it is old, but that it is worth handing down.  What makes something worth handing down is that it continues to speak, continues to be a channel of grace, continues to point beyond itself to the mystery it embodies.