holy cross announcements for friday, april 1, 2016

Happy Easter! There will be a festal luncheon served in the parish hall after the Easter Sunday mass. All are welcome! There is no charge.

There will be no weekday masses during Easter Week (March 28 – April 2).

Low Sunday (April 3) is the first Sunday of the month. We look forward to welcoming back to Holy Cross the Schola Cantorum Stella Solae. There will be a festal reception (but no brunch) after mass in the parish hall. All are welcome!

The vestry will meet after mass on Low Sunday

holy cross sermon for palm sunday, march 20, 2016

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The best liturgical books say that a sermon “may” be preached at the principle mass of Palm Sunday. This is partly due to this liturgy’s being rather longer than usual. But its also because this liturgy – perhaps more than usual – sort of speaks for itself, in “words without words.”

With this mass, and the “liturgy of the palms” that precedes it, we enter into Holy Week, which will reach its climax with the events of the “Triduum” – the great “Three Days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday / Easter. These liturgies are all very different from what we do throughout the rest of the year. They are in fact unique. Each of them we only celebrate once a year. On Maundy Thursday: the Pedilavium, the stripping of the altar, and the Gethsemane Vigil at the altar of repose. On Good Friday: the veneration of the cross, the solemn collects, the reproaches of Jeremiah, and the mass of the presanctified. And on Easter Eve: the blessing of the new fire, the singing of the Exsultet, the reading of the prophecies, and the blessing of the baptismal waters.

All of these rituals are very ancient, their origins lost in the mists of the “disciplina arcani,” of the earliest years of Christianity, when Christians had to practice their faith secretly, sometimes literally underground. But more to the point – and as I am forever insisting with respect to the mass itself – these rituals have been given to us by God as the principle means of participating mystically in the life of Christ, of being incorporated into him. These things aren’t just edifying options; but they constitute life in Christ, and as such are, in a very real sense, the same thing as salvation. I say all of that by way of saying: I am glad you are here this morning, standing among the Lord’s disciples, bearing witness to his entrance into Jerusalem, and hearing of his impending passion. And I hope that you will come, if at all possible, to the liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve – to accompany the Lord on the way of his suffering.

Maybe more than anything else, to me, today’s liturgy is disorienting. The vestments even change colors perplexingly part way through it. It has a festal character, and then suddenly, as it were out of nowhere, five days too soon, we’re hearing the account of Jesus’ suffering and death.

But this way of entering Holy Week is “meet and right.” Because we are embarking upon a weeklong ascent of Mount Calvary, climbing spiritually up to the “highest, thinnest pinnacle” of creation. And when we get to the top where – in the words of one of the meditations from the Carmelite Stations of the Cross that we have been using his year – when we get to the top, where we had hoped to see a clearer light, we are confronted by the cross, by this instrument of torture and death. And this is the Grand Disorientation. A disorientation on a cosmic scale – the revelation that the only open road to heaven lies through the center of the cross, that there is no way around it, no avoiding the issue. It is truly a “mundus inversus” – a world turned upside down. Though, of course, a great part of the point is that the world was actually upside down before; only now is it being put right side up. But this reorientation of everything, of setting the world at last on its proper foundation, requires a cosmic shakeup, and we naturally find ourselves disoriented – at least if we have engaged these events prayerfully, meditatively, and patiently.

Pope Benedict wrote in one of his books:

The ultimate goal of Jesus’ “ascent” [of Mount Calvary] is his self-offering on the Cross, which supplants the old sacrifices; it is the ascent that the Letter to the Hebrews describes as going up, not to a sanctuary made by human hands, but to heaven itself, into the presence of God (9:24). This ascent into God’s presence leads via the Cross – it is the ascent toward “loving to the end” (cf. Jn 13:1), which is the real mountain of God. (Benedict in Jesus of Nazareth vol. 2)

So this disorientation is salutary. It reminds us that the way to heaven is not something that we could have devised for ourselves. And so it reminds us that journeying along this path will mean that we will need to let go of preconceptions, prejudices, all kinds of personal “baggage,” and cultivate PATIENCE, passivity, a willingness to be acted-upon, in imitation of the Crucified. No doubt many of the same people who shouted, “Hosanna!” as Jesus entered the City of David, a very short time later, we hear, are shouting “Crucify him!” Perhaps their hopes had been dashed by the arrest and condemnation of their great Liberator.

I want to leave you with this simple question: in order to climb Mount Calvary, what do you need to let go of?

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

annnouncements for friday, march 18, 2016

FROM THE RECTOR:

Dear Friends,

Holy Week begins this Sunday with the Liturgy of the Palms. The great “Three Days” – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and HolySaturday / Easter – are in truth the apex and center of the Christian year. I encourage you to participate if it is at all possible for you to do so. This is not something extra that some Christians do. It is rather exactly what Christians are meant to do. These liturgies are the means that God has given to us to participate in the mysteries of our redemption. Please note the service times. I have heard it said that no one who experiences these liturgies fails to have their faith deepened, and my own experience attests to this truth.

Make time this coming Holy Week to participate in the way of our Lord’s suffering and death, that you may experience the grace of his resurrection in a more profound way.

Pax,

Fr. Will +

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

Pitch in this Saturday, the feast of Saint Joseph (March 19)! We will have a Holy Week sacristy work day after the 10:00 am mass. Come help polish the brass and get things ready for Easter.

Sunday, March 20: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Dallas Half Marathon will be in our area again this year.  There will be roads closed near downtown and west Dallas, but not directly affecting the area directly around the church.

Tuesday, March 22:  There will be no mass at Holy Cross. The mass of collegiality will take place at the Cathedral of St. Matthew on that day at noon.

Please note our Holy Week service times:

  • Palm Sunday: Liturgy of the Palms and High Mass 10:30 am
  • Maundy Thursday at 7:00 pm
  • Good Friday at noon
  • Holy Saturday at 9:00 pm.
  • Easter Sunday mass will be at 10:30 am, as usual.

 

holy cross sermon for the fifth sunday in lent, march 13, 2016

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In today’s Gospel we hear the story of one of the Lord’s women disciples (traditionally identified as Mary Magdalene) anointing his feet with “costly ointment of pure nard,” and wiping his feet with her hair. The text indicates that the ointment was worth three hundred denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage for a laborer in Jesus’ time, so 300 denarii was about a year’s salary for a normal person. It was expensive ointment.

Judas Iscariot, who will shortly betray Jesus to his death, asks why the ointment was not sold and the proceeds given to the poor. The text implicitly suggests that Judas’ disingenuousness here is consistent with his character, and that it is a harbinger of the betrayal that is to come.

But Jesus responds somewhat cryptically. He says: “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” Just as Judas’ words foreshadow his betrayal of Jesus, so the act of anointing Jesus’ feet portends his death – “Let her keep it for the day of my burial,” he says. The anointing of a body was the final ritual before burial.

The name of this day in the Church calendar used to be “passionSunday.” That name has now been applied as a kind of subtitle toNEXT Sunday. Next Sunday, in the Book of Common Prayer, is called “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.” Be that as it may, today we begin to see signs – like budding flowers in spring – that Lent is drawing to a close. We begin to be reminded, liturgically, that, as Jesus says later in this same chapter of John’s gospel, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” (John 12.24).

The anointing of a body was the last ritual before burial. And so this anointing we hear of today signifies that Jesus’ earthly ministry is drawing to a close, that all is about to be accomplished. And it will be accomplished on Good Friday, when the earthly life of the only Son of God will be fulfilled and starkly finished, as he is “crucified, dead and buried.”

But what lessons may we draw for our own lives from this passage about the anointing of Jesus’ feet with costly ointment? Firstly we may deduce something about worship. The action the woman performs is oriented entirely toward Jesus. She gives no thought to herself or to anyone else. In Matthew’s version of this story, the Lord says of the woman that “she has done a beautiful thing to me,” (Matthew 26.10). Beauty is often extravagant and costly. And so this episode reminds us of our primary “bounden duty and service,” which is, namely, according to the words of our liturgy, the worship of God in the person of Jesus. We may be about other things as Christians, but we are PRIMARILY about THIS.

And so it is not a scandal when Christians sometimes spend extravagant amounts of time, energy and, yes, money on the worship of God. One might think of an iconographer or an artist – historically these were usually monks and nuns – who works very carefully for a very long time to produce an image of our Lord that is then hung in a church, in order to make the place where God dwells more beautiful, and to edify those who come there to worship him. The artist COULD have spend that time doing something else – working in a soup kitchen or a clinic for the homeless. But our Lord’s words might just as appropriately be applied to such an artist as they are to the “Mary” in today’s Gospel: “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me,” and “she has done a beautiful thing to me.”

Think of actual pieces of sacred art around the world: the image of Our Lady of Częstochowa in Poland, or Our Lady of the Pillar in Spain, or Guadalupe in Mexico, the Holy Infant of Prague, the many myrrh-flowing icons of the Christian East, and even the items of sacred art here at the Church of the Holy Cross – or think of the restoration of the altar here at the church, or the holy water stoups at the back, or the beautiful new set of green vestments recently given by the estate of Martin and Helen Russo, or the image of our Lord carrying the cross over the altar of repose. All of these artistic creations were dedicated to the glory of God. Moreover, how many believers down through the centuries have found healing or had their faith strengthened and their loyalties confirmed by worshiping God, by venerating his saints, in and by means of these pieces of sacred art?

I remember visiting Mt. Athos – the epicenter of Eastern monasticism – and being struck by the offerings that people had left at various icons, as a testament to this very phenomenon. In some cases, as the offerings accumulated over the centuries, the monks had strung them up on the icons themselves – pieces of money and jewelry, pocket watches and the like. At other Christian shrines invalids have left crutches and wheelchairs as a testament to the healing they received from God there – such as is the case at Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal, or at the principal shrine in Midland, Ontario, of the martyrs of north America, some of whose relics are in our own altar here at Holy Cross.

When we dedicate our time, our energy, and our money, to the glory of God, we participate, in a hidden way, in the action – the dynamism – of the cross, because we are making sacrifices, even though they may be small ones, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls – and this is precisely what Jesus does, in a monumental way, on the cross. On the cross, he offers the whole of his life for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Nor let us forget that whenever we worship God at mass, according to Scripture, we bear witness to this one supreme sacrifice for the glory of God: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” (1 Cor. 11.26).

“Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial,” for “she has done a beautiful thing to me.” “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

Lastly, when the Lord says, “The poor you always have with you,” he doesn’t mean that it is okay to forget about the needs of others but, on the contrary, this is a reminder that the kind of love Mary demonstrates by anointing his feet, by doing this extravagant and beautiful thing to Jesus, is the kind of love that does NOT forget the poor, but operates along side the poor and is, as such, an act of solidarity with them, because it is done at one’s own expense. One makes oneself in some way a little poorer every time one makes a sacrifice for the glory of God.

And so here at Holy Cross we do a number of things to help those who are in need. We give food away, we help out at Services of Hope. We sponsor kids for the St. Michael’s Conference, we give money to the Rector’s Discretionary Fund which gets spent on utility bills and medicine and bus passes and such.

But all of these things are done along side of, and are subordinate to, the main thing, “our bounden duty and service,” the proclamation of the Lord’s death in the sacrifice of the mass until he comes again. This is our primary purpose, the very reason that we exist as a community. It is what we owe to God, the debt that we cannot pay other than by means of this peculiar participation in the work of the cross. This is how we crouch on the floor with Mary, anointing the Lord’s feet with costly ointment from the substance of our lives, and wiping his feet with our hair.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

holy cross sermon for the fourth sunday in lent, march 6, 2016

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today we heard the parable of the prodigal son. There is a standard interpretation of this story – the verses just before the parable make it clear that Jesus means us to understand it as a lesson in what it means to repent, and the season of Lent is an especially good time to think about repentance.

We are all, in various ways, prodigal sons and daughters, squandering our inheritance and taking it for granted. To understand this, we first have to understand what our inheritance is, what we have received from our Father. The gift that we have received from God, most fundamentally, is God himself, in the person of his Son. “Take, eat; this is my Body.” Think of the one whose Body this is: it is the Body of Christ, in whom, as Paul said, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” (Colossians 1.19).

Consider the implications of this. What an incredible gift! “All the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” in Jesus Christ. It is God’s will to bestow on us the gift of his very own self. This same Jesus Christ, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, gives himself to us – not least in the sacrament of his Body and Blood – so that everything that he is by nature, we may become by his grace. Jesus says to us: “Take; eat. This is my Body – EVERYTHING that I am, I give to you. All that is mine is yours.” The implications of this should shake us to the core. But our casual attitude toward the sacrament is proof that we take it for granted. How carefully do we maintain custody of our thoughts at mass? How carefully do we honor the Lord with our bodily posture? Do we kneel? Do we genuflect? Do we look up and adore? Do we arrive in time to prepare ourselves prayerfully, to comport our minds and our hearts?

When I was an undergraduate, I was a sacristan at All Saints’ Chapel at Sewanee. During Lent, the associate chaplain would hang up a sign in the sacristy that said, “Slow down; Quiet; Its Lent.” I’ve often thought it might be a good idea to put up a sign on the door of the church saying, “Slow down; Quiet; You are coming into the presence of the Creator of heaven and earth.”

The Father said to the elder son, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” (Luke 15.31). We have been given a great gift in the substance of God’s only Son. But maybe sometimes we are in the position of the elder brother. This is the attitude of “religious” people, and it shows that there is a corresponding danger on the other end of the scale. “[H]e was angry and refused to go in [to the feast]. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, `Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’” (Luke 15.28ff).

We have to be careful not to allow our carefulness to become an idol, an end in itself. Sometimes we ARE careful; sometimes we do have pious, religious feelings. Sometimes we do pray as we ought. But our very piety serves a greater purpose: communion with God. The elder brother’s problem is that he is focused on the wrong thing. How easy it is for our minds and our hearts to wander onto the wrong thing! He should be focused on what he has received, on his own relationship with his Father. But he gets distracted by what he takes to be an injustice, and perhaps by envy and pride. But in fact, the reconciliation of his brother has nothing to do with him. At least not in the way that he thinks.

The blessings that other people receive do not detract from us in any way. God’s grace does not work like that. If he gives you a gift, that does not mean that he then has less to give to me. Therefore the correct attitude towards the flourishing or the reconciliation of our brothers and sisters is rejoicing. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found,” (Luke 15.31f).

In the Rector’s Study Group on Sunday mornings, we have been discussing Fr. Tom Hopko’s “55 Maxims for Christian Living.” Three relevant ones that we recently discussed are these:

  • Don’t compare yourself with anyone
  • Be defined and bound by God alone.
  • Give advice to others only when asked or obligated to do so.

God works in the lives of others in ways that are almost always completely inscrutable to us. So it’s just not possible to make any inferences about their lives based on our own lives. Everyone is fighting battles that are unique to themselves. The best we can do is, as St. Paul said, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those who weep,” (Romans 12.15).

But – sometimes and in some ways – we’re in the position of the Father in the parable. Paul says that “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and GA VE US THE MINISTR Y OF RECONCILIATION,” (2 Cor. 5.18). This fact flows from our being in the position of the elder brother. The father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” “All that is mine is yours.” And one of the things that is mine – and therefore yours – is the job of reconciliation, of welcoming home other prodigal sons and daughters.

The parable says that the younger son eventually, “came to himself [and] said, `How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!’” (v. 17). But we live in a world where many people have not yet come to themselves. Many don’t even REMEMBER that there IS a “house of the father.” They think that living in spiritual poverty in a pig pen is all that there is to life. The parable says that the younger son “gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property…” It’s a long journey into a far country. And, as I said, we live among many people who don’t even remember that there is such a place as the Father’s house. All they know is famine and poverty, and they DO gladly feed on the pods that the swine eat – fascinated by the slop of pop culture, or the mud- slinging and wallowing of politics, or any of a million pointless or nasty distractions. So much of our energy and money, as a civilization, is devoted to what amounts to shoveling cultural slop, making it more easily accessible, distracting people from what really matters with greater ease and efficiency.

With respect to other people wallowing in the mire, people who don’t even remember that there is a house of the Father, our job is to wait and pray and hope; and to do what is in our power to bear witness to a better way, to remind people of the Father’s house, maybe to INVITE them to the Father’s house, to the feast prepared for them, to remind them of the patrimony that is theirs in the only Son of God, Jesus Christ.

“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” “Take; eat; this is my Body.”

 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

holy cross announcements for friday, march 4, 2016

Announcements:

Our Lenten program continues this Thursday (March 10) with a discussion of what it means to speak of God as the “Holy Trinity.” We begin at 7:00 with Stations of the Cross and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. A light, vegetarian supper is provided. All are welcome.

Hagiographies:

perpetuaMarch 7: Perpetua and Felicitas and their Companions

Vibia Perpetua was a noblewoman who lived in Carthage (in what is today Tunisia, in north Africa). Felicitas was a slave belonging to Perpetua’s family. Both were Christian catechumens preparing for Baptism when they were publicly denounced as Christians in the year 203 AD. A rescript of Emperor Septimus Severus had made it illegal for Romans to convert to Christianity. Felicitas and Perpetua, along with three others – Revocatus, also a slave; Saturninus; and Secundulus – were arrested, along with another, named Saturus, who deliberately announced before the judge that he too was a Christian. Before they were taken to prison, all received the sacrament of Baptism. In prison, where the Christians continued to pray fervently together, Perpetua and Saturus both had ecstasies and visions of their deaths. In one Perpetua saw herself ascending a ladder, at the top of which was a green meadow, full of grazing sheep. And in another, she saw a deacon named Pomponius leading her to the arena, and saying to her “Do not fear, I am here with you, and I am laboring with you.” The jailor, a Roman soldier named Pudens, who had gotten to know and to admire the bravery of these Christians, allowed them to be visited by their friends and family. Indeed Perpetua and Saturus wrote recorded their experiences while in prison, and delivered these writings to their fellow Christians, while the accounts of the martyrdoms themselves were written down by their friends who were there (the writings of Perpetua and Saturus, as well as the eyewitness account of their sufferings, were put together, and have survived; they are today freely available in English on the internet). Perpetua’s father, who was a pagan, tried to convince her to deny Christ and sacrifice to the pagan gods, as did the judge at the trial, but Perpetua resolutely refused. Felicitas was pregnant when she was cast in prison, and there gave birth to a daughter, who was adopted by a Christian woman, the day before the execution of the martyrs. Secundulus died in prison, but the other five were, of course, found guilty, and were condemned to be torn by wild beasts at the festival in honor of the emperor Geta’s birthday. When the day came, Perpetua and Felicitas were brought out together, and stripped naked, and scourged. As they were being led away after the scourging, Perpetua covered herself, for modesty, with the scraps of her torn robes, and took time to arrange her hair, because disheveled hair was a sign of mourning for Roman women, and Perpetua viewed her impending martyrdom as the most glorious moment of her life, and wished to look the part. The two were then thrown into an arena with wild bulls, which tore them, but did not kill them. Meanwhile, the men, Saturninus, Revocatus, and Saturus, were scourged and thrown severally before a wild boar, a bear, and lastly a leopard. Saturus went last, and the wild boar, rather than killing the him, turned on its handler and gored him to death. The bear refused to approach Saturus; but the leopard savagely attacked him. As he was being torn by the leopard, he kept crying out “Saved and washed! Saved and washed!” The leopard was called off before it had killed Saturus, and looking up, he saw their Pudens, the jaior standing by. He asked Pudens for a ring, which Saturus took, washed it in blood from his wounds, and returned it to Pudens, saying “Farewell, and be mindful of my faith; and let not these things disturb you, but let them confirm you.”  Saturus was taken to the place where Felicitas and Perpetua were lying, themselves torn apart by the bulls, all gravely injured. The crowds called out for them to be finished off, and all three of them stood and walked by themselves to the place where the gladiators waited for them. They exchanged the Peace, as at mass. Saturus was pierced through by a sword, and died. Then Felicitas. But Perpetua, after being stabbed between her ribs, was yet not killed. The young gladiator who had stabbed her began to be afraid, but Perpetua took his hand, and placed his sword at her own throat, and with a final stroke, killed God’s holy martyr. The Christians of Carthage collected their bodies, and placed them reverently in a shrine, where mass was offered, until in the fourth century, when the practice of the faith was made legal, a great basilica (now destroyed) was erected over their tombs. In the late 1800’s, an archaeologist discovered a Latin inscription in the Basilica, which reads “Here are the martyrs Saturus, Saturninus, Revocatus, Secundulus, Felicitas, Perpetua, who suffered on the Nones (7th day) of March”. Felicitas and Perpetua were so admired by ancient Christians, that their names were placed in the Roman Canon of the Mass, and so they are named during the mass to this day.

 

gregoryMarch 9: Gregory of Nyssa

One of the “Cappadocian Fathers” – the others being Gregory’s brother St. Basil of Caesarea, and their friend St. Gregory Nazianzus – St. Gregory was born early in the 300’s in what is now Turkey. He came from a very devout family, illustratative of how holiness is infectious: one of his grandparents died a martyr, both of his parents  are revered as saints (St. Basil the Elder and St. Emmelia), as well as at least three of his siblings (St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Macrina, and St. Peter of Sebaste). Gregory’s grandmother, St. Macrina the Elder, had studied with St. Gregory the Wonderworker, who was himself a student of the great Egyptian teacher Origen. Gregory of Nyssa studied philosophy early in life, and at the behest of his elder brother, St. Basil, bishop of Caesarea, Gregory was made the bishop of the nearby town of Nyssa. He was a prolific writer and teacher of spirituality. He was present at the ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381, where he was a fierce opponent of the Arian heretics (who said that Jesus was not divine). Many of Gregory’s writings have survived. Some of the most beautiful are his devotional works and commentaries wherein he develops the doctrine of Christian mysticism. Gregory died around the year 387.

 

40 martyrsMarch 10: The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

These forty martyrs were members of the 12th Roman Legion (called Fulminata – “wielders of the thunderbolt”). The emperor Licinius began a persecution of Christians during his reign, and these 40 Roman soldiers openly professed their faith in Christ and were condemned to death by the local prefect in the town of Sebaste (on the south-east coast of modern Turkey) in the year 320. They were condemned to be stripped naked and left on a frozen pond during a bitterly cold night. A warm bath was prepared on the shore of the lake for any of the Christians who cared to renounce the faith. One soldier did renounce the faith and ran to the baths. But one of the guards set to watch the Christians saw a vision of heavenly light over the 39 remaining, and on seeing this the guard himself immediately confessed Christ, stripped off his robes, and joined the 39 on the lake; and so their number remained 40. When dawn came, the stiff bodies of the Christians (some of whom were still alive) were burned, and the ashes cast into a river. Other Christians gathered the remaining fragments of bones, and distributed the relics to many churches. Hence the memory of the 40 holy martyrs remained alive, and devotion to them became very popular in the ancient Church. Basil of Caesarea (Gregory of Nyssa’s brother), who was a near contemporary of the 40 Martyrs, preached a sermon on the anniversary of their deaths at his church in Caesarea, near Sebaste. This sermon survives, and what we know of the 40 martyrs comes from it.

holy cross sermon for the third sunday in lent, february 28, 2016

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Silo’am fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

In today’s Gospel we hear about two contemporary events in Jesus’ day when people were killed unjustly. We ought first to note that Jesus points to a worse fate than bodily death, which he says is the result of impenitence. So we ought to repent of our sins.

One of the episodes that the crowds ask Jesus about is an instance of what the philosophers call “moral evil” – the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. In other words, they were murdered. And the others – the eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them – were victims of what the philosophers call “natural evil.” They were simply victims – not victims of someone’s evil action, but of a freak accident. They were killed before their time, without any reference to justice at all, and by no one’s agency. Like victims of disease or a natural disaster.

These kinds of considerations are fodder for what is called “theodicy” – the branch of philosophy that deals with the problem of the existence of God and the problem of evil. The word “theodicy,” by the way comes from a book under that title by the 17th century German philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, in which he addresses the question.

The question, in short, is how can there be evil in the world if God is all good and all powerful? How can there be hurricanes and volcanoes and wars and stuff – how can an all good, all powerful God allow innocent people to suffer on the grand scale that we see them suffering in the world? This question appears to be in the background of the conversation in today’s Gospel between Jesus and his interlocutors. The mind does not like to admit this kind of unjust suffering and death – it’s a problem – so those who are talking to Jesus suggest that the victims must have done SOMETHING wrong; there must have been some justice in their deaths somewhere. Surely. But Jesus says no. They were no worse sinners than you or me.

Many answers have been propounded to the question down through the centuries. How can there be so much suffering when God is all good and all powerful? My advisor at Yale, the philosopher Marilyn Adams, is the author of two books on this question. As I say, its such a puzzling line of philosophical inquiry that it has become a cottage industry unto itself.

One of the best and most striking attempts to deal with the problem of God and the existence of evil comes from the long section in Dostoevsky’s book, “The Brothers Karamazov” – the section called “The Grand Inquisitor,” an extended dialogue between the brothers Ivan and Alyosha.

And by a stroke of good luck (actually we Christians don’t really believe in luck, because we don’t believe in randomness) – by a stroke of God’s inscrutable orchestration of things, Bp. Robert Barron will deal with this very question in the Lenten series thiscoming Thursday evening. The title is “Providence and the Problem of Evil.”

But its more than just an intellectual exercise. And if you have ever been the victim of injustice yourself, or have ever had to suffer something for no good reason, or for no apparent reason at all, you will know what I mean. Or – what may be worse – if you have ever had to stand by helplessly and watch as someone else, maybe someone you love, has had to suffer – you will know what I am talking about. In what was to me the most moving section of the Grand Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamazov, Ivan brings up the example of children suffering abuse. How can God allow it? How can he not intervene?

The short answer is: I don’t know. God’s counsels are famously his own, and they are inscrutable. We very often simply don’t know his reasons for doing or not doing things. But we’re told that, his great and inscrutable mysteriousness notwithstanding, God is GOOD. He loves us. And indeed – though it can sound like a platitude – in the end, all will be well. The 14th century English mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich, asked Christ in a vision about all of this – the mystery of sin and suffering, and why he doesn’t step in and put a stop to it. And the Lord responds to her by leaving the mystery intact, but assuring Julian that, in the end, the mystery will be revealed, and that all who suffered in faith will rejoice in seeing the disclosure. She said, “Here I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly keep me in the faith… and that at the same time I should take my stand on and earnestly believe in what our Lord shewed in this time—that ‘all manner [of] thing shall be well.’”

T.S. Eliot took up Dame Julian’s vision in “Little Gidding,” the fourth of his “Four Quartets,” where he writes:

“Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us – a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.”

And this puts one in mind of the sentiment expressed by C.S. Lewis – and others – that while it may be unclear how exactly it can be that our prayer can affect God, what is clear is that prayer can change us, and change us for the better, change us in a saving way. “…the purification of the motive / in the ground of our beseeching.”

While the mystery of suffering in the face of God’s goodness and omnipotence, as I say, remains intact, I fall back on the stark reality, the stark historical fact, of our own church’s dedication: the holy cross. The cross sort of swallows up the mystery of suffering, not through a logical syllogism, nor through anything that is really satisfying to the intellect on its own terms. God doesn’t answer the question, but he participates in the suffering. He comes to earth and suffers in the person of Jesus. And what is more, the Father witnesses the suffering of his only Son. So the mystery of unjust suffering is answered by an even deeper mystery: the mystery of God’s own suffering and God’s own bereavement.

A distraught woman called me up after the shooting at the elementary school in Sandy Hook a couple of years ago, saying she was having a crisis of faith thinking about all the dead children, and all the unimaginable grief of the parents of those children. What does God have to say about that? she wanted to know. I told her I didn’t know, but that Scripture bears witness to God’s PARTICIPATION in that grief. Not just in an abstract way, but God the Father watched – whether helplessly or not, none can know – but God the Father watched his only Son tortured to death in the hot sun on a hillside outside Jerusalem. And to suggest that God the Father did not somehow grieve and mourn and suffer seeing the death of his Son, it seems to me, is to stretch the meaning of the word “Father” past the breaking point.

And the word of the Gospel is that THAT suffering – the suffering of Jesus on the cross – can bring all suffering into right relief. It can be not only a balm, but a transformation of our suffering. When our suffering is united to the suffering of the crucified, it is caught up into it; it becomes a battle line in God’s slow victory over the great and final cosmic enemy, death itself.

It may not be ultimately satisfying to the intellect, but it is satisfying to my SOUL to know this. And in a way, as the church father Tertullian said, “Credo quia absurdum.” I believe it BECAUSE it is absurd:

“The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And, [he was] buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen

holy cross sermon for the last sunday after the epiphany, february 7, 2016

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today is the last Sunday before Lent. The traditional name for this day is Quinquagesima, which I just like saying. It’s a Latin word that means “Super Bowl Sunday.” Just kidding. It’s a Latin word that means “fiftieth,” because today is the fiftieth day away from Easter .

And today’s Gospel lesson – the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus – we find already an intimation of the resurrection glory of Easter. A little glimpse, a little foretaste, is given to Peter, James, and John.

 

But standing between us and the resurrection lies the season of Lent. What is Lent? The word is related to the word “lengthen,” and its rooted in the primary realities of creation, because this season of the Church’s year coincides with late winter and early spring, when the days begin to get longer, to “lengthen.”

Lent will begin on Wednesday of this coming week. “Ash Wednesday” we call it, because at the mass on this coming Wednesday evening, we will have ashes sprinkled on our heads and hear the priest remind us that we were formed of dust and that we will return to dust. It’s a sober reminder, and if you’ve never experienced it, I encourage you to come. It’s the first day of Lent – and it is a day of fasting and abstinence from meat for Christians (BCP p. 17). And just as I encourage you to keep the feasts of the Church’s year, so I encourage you to keep the fasts and, apropos of this coming week, I encourage you to fast on Ash Wednesday. That doesn’t necessarily mean not eating anything at all – and in particular if you have medical reasons that would make fasting dangerous, you should not fast. But barring that, please do keep the fast. Go without a meal and go without meat on Wednesday, as an intentional act of self denial for the glory of God. Fasting creates an emptiness inside of us that God can occupy. And remember that Jesus told his disciples to fast (cf. Matthew 6.16-17). Fasting is not optional for Christians.

So Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday. What is Lent? It is the forty day period that leads to Easter. If you tally up the days, you will find that there are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. That is because we don’t count the Sundays during Lent in the tally. The whole of Lent is a period of self-denial and repentance, and the Church has always maintained that every Sunday is a feast of the resurrection, and you can’t fast when you’re feasting. So the six Sundays during Lent are subtracted from the 46 total days, and the result is 40 days of self-denial leading up to Easter – the season of Lent.

The number 40 – for reasons I’m sure God understands – is associated in the Bible with periods of preparation.

 Before Jesus began his public ministry, he spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and praying. And the Christian practice of Lent is a conscious imitation of that. Similarly, the children of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness, being prepared by God to enter the promised Land. And there’s a little hint about these connections in today’s Gospel reading. When today’s Gospel says that Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah about his coming “departure” at Jerusalem – the Greek word for “departure” used in that verse is “exodus,” which subtly connects what Jesus is doing with what Israel was doing before. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Jesus is fulfilling the history of Israel, and establishing a pattern for the Church, the new Israel.

Christians have been doing this – preparing for Easter with 40 days of self denial – for a very long time, maybe from the very beginning. St. Leo the Great, writing in the 400’s, says that this practice was taught by the apostles themselves (P.L., LIV, 633). And St. Athanasius of Alexandria, writing to the members of his church, about a century earlier, in the year 339, encourages them to fast in some form for the forty days leading up to Easter, because that’s what Christians everywhere else in the world did: Fast! he says, “so that while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt don’t become a laughing-stock by being the only [Christians] on earth who do not fast but instead take our pleasure during [the 40] days [of Lent],” (“Festal Letters”). So there’s another reason to keep a holy Lent – so as not to become a laughing stock.

But as I mentioned, fasting is not an end in itself. And really “keeping a holy Lent” means more than just “giving up something for Lent,” as is popularly said. I have prepared a guide to keeping a holy Lent, and I hope everybody will take one home and really pray about it and really do it.

As I have said, Christian self-denial is about creating an emptiness inside of us that can then be filled with the things of God. That’s why fasting and prayer go together in the Bible. For example, in the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel says, “I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes,” (Daniel 9.3). That in itself is a pretty good synopsis of Lent. Prayer, supplications, and fasting. And he even mentions the ashes of Ash Wednesday.

And note that we modern Americans, even Christians, have a tendency to look on these rituals of the Church as being kind of weird. I mean things like the ashes of Ash Wednesday, or incense, or candles, or holy water. But we need to get over that. The fact of the matter is that all of this stuff – and more besides – has been the NORMAL way that Christians have practiced the faith from the very earliest days of Christianity. Lately some Christians have gotten away from it, but NOT using these things is what is abnormal. Using them is the normal way. The people of God have been putting ashes on their heads without interruption for a VERY LONG TIME, all the way back to Old Testament times, as the reference in Daniel attests.

Be that as it may, Daniel also attests another feature of self-denial in God’s economy – namely, that it goes with prayer. “I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” Lent, considered as a period of intentional self-denial, is for the sake of SEEKING HIM – seeking the Lord. And it goes together with “prayer and supplication.” Self-denial empties us. Prayer and supplication fills us. You can’t pour the Lord’s stuff into your life – into your heart and mind – if your heart and mind and body are filled with other stuff. You have to get rid of the extraneous stuff in order to become full of the Lord’s stuff. We are like vessels – Scripture even speaks of us as being like vessels – we are like buckets. If you are full of sand, you can’t be full of water.

So, Lent is about CREATING SPACE. Whatever you “give up for Lent” needs to be accompanied by some mirroring thing that you take on. So, for example, say you give up watching the nightly news for Lent. Spend that time reading Evening Prayer, or reciting the Rosary, or doing SOMETHING prayerful that will draw you closer to the Lord. Or say you give up eating meat throughout Lent, or maybe you give up meat on Wednesdays and Fridays (you shouldn’t be eating meat on Fridays outside of the Easter season anyway – that is not something Christians do). Then you should use your abstinence from meat as an opportunity to remind yourself that the food you are eating, and indeed all the good things in your life, come from God. And you should take a moment to thank him, sincerely, from your heart, for those good things.

These are just examples, and the handout I have provided has more thorough guidance. But the point is this: we are coming to the period in our year when we take extra time and effort denying ourselves, becoming empty, so that God can fill us.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

holy cross announcements for friday, february 5, 2016

Announcements:

Sunday, February 7th:   If you have saved your palms from last Palm Sunday, bring them to mass this Sunday and place them in the narthex. They will be burned to create the ashes for the Ash Wednesday liturgy.

Tuesday, February 9th (mardi gras):  God willing, there will be king cake and sherry served after the noon mass.

Wednesday, February 10th:  Ash Wednesday mass and the imposition of ashes will be at 7:00 pm.

Thursdays during Lent, we will have Stations of the Cross and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, beginning at 7:00 pm. Afterward we will adjourn to the parish hall for a light, vegetarian supper, and a discussion of the “Mystery of God” – led (via video) by Bishop Robert Barron.

Attention cooks! A sign-up sheet for Lenten suppers is on the bulletin board in the narthex. If you can assist with a supper, please do sign up!

Hagiographies:

martyrs of japanFebruary 5: The Martyrs of Japan

St. Paul Miki and his companions, were twenty-six Christians who were martyred by the shoguns of Japan after refusing to renounce faith in Christ on February 5, 1597. They included six European Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits priests, and seventeen Japanese laymen. All were crucified and pierced through with spears at Nagasaki. 250 years later, when European Christians returned to Japan, they found that faith in Christ had survived underground, without the assistance of clergy or books, among a number of Japanese.

scholasticsFebruary 10: St. Scholastica

Born at Nursia (modern Norcia), a small town in Umbria, in central Italy, Scholastica was the twin sister of St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism. These holy twins were born around the year 480, the children of a Roman nobleman. According to Pope St. Gregory the Great, writing in the late 500’s, St. Scholastica was consecrated, like her brother, to God in virginity, and became the superior of a community of nuns not far from Monte Cassino, the great abbey founded by St. Benedict. Pope St. Gregory says that once a year Scholastica would visit Benedict, and that they would spend the day together, praying and discussing the things of God. Gregory says further that on Scholastica’s final visit to Benedict, as the sun was setting and Benedict began to take his leave, Scholastica begged him to stay. Benedict refused, whereupon Scholastica closed her eyes and prayed to the Lord, and immediately a fierce storm arose, which prevented Benedict from leaving. He rebuked Scholastica, who replied “You refused my request, but God has heard me; go ahead and return to your monastery if you can.” Benedict recognized the hand of the Lord, and the twins spent the rest of the night in holy conversation. Three days later, Benedict had a vision of his sister’s soul flying up to heaven in the form of a dove, and shortly thereafter, news reached him that St. Scholastica had indeed died at that very hour. Scholastica is patron of convulsive children, and is invoked with respect to storms and rain.

holy cross sermon for the third sunday after the epiphany, january 24, 2016

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Last Sunday we heard the Gospel story of Jesus first miracle at a wedding at Cana of Galilee, where he turned water into wine. And the Sunday before that we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, at the hands of his cousin, St. John the Baptist. Both of those stories represent intimations of the glory of God being manifested in the person of Jesus. They are like divine light breaking through fissures in the surface of the material world, and as such they are “epiphanies” of God, disclosures of his power and light within the world.

Today’s Gospel lesson is about the beginning of Jesus’ mission. It is as though, after these first early – we might almost say tentative – intimations of Jesus’ identity in the Gospel lessons of the past two weeks, Jesus is here getting about the task for which he was sent into the world, for which he was born. He is getting on with the task of redemption that will reach a climax in the sorrowful mysteries of his death and passion.

Today’s Gospel begins by saying that Jesus returned “in the power of the Spirit into Galilee.” His being “in the power of the Spirit” is, as it were, a carry-over from his baptism. Of course Jesus, at every moment of his existence, and in every fiber of his being, communes intimately with the Holy Spirit – being the second Person of the Holy Trinity and therefore subsisting eternally in this intimate communion with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. As we hear in the conclusion of many of our prayers, Jesus liveth and reigneth with the Father and the Holy Spirit, “EVER,” one God, “world without end.” That means that this is his way of being forever, from eternity. He never ISN’T thus.

So when Scripture speaks of Jesus being anointed by God with the divine Spirit, or when we hear, as in the story of Jesus’ baptism, that the Holy Spirit descended on him – we should understand that to mean that Jesus, although he dwells with the Spirit of God in an eternal intimacy beyond comprehension, nevertheless WITHIN TIME – WITHIN THE WORLD – AS A MAN – Jesus is manifested to us as being anointed in a temporal way. Theologians would say that this anointing of Jesus with the Holy Spirit is an immanent manifestation of an eternal relation of the divine economy.

Be that as it may, the Gospel today wants us to see that Jesus is moving through the world impelled by a divine dynamism. God is at work in him. That is what it means to say that he “returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee.” He is not acting capriciously; he is not doing things on a whim. Rather, God himself is at work in and through Jesus. What Jesus is doing, he is doing deliberately , prudently , wisely , according to the inscrutable counsel of God. He is doing exactly what God wants. Nothing more, nothing less. Jesus says elsewhere, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me,” (John 6.38).

I want to draw your attention to the fact that each of us has been sealed by the same Holy Spirit in whose power Christ moves at every moment of his being. This is a central fact of our baptism. We are baptized “with the Holy Spirit” (see John 1.33, Luke 3.16, Matthew 3.11, and Mark 1.8). As such, too, we are incorporated into Christ’s Body; we are made “members” of it.

But what does this mean? It means that we have access to the same dynamism, the same power, the same HOLY SPIRIT, that impels Christ’s actions in the world. The same Spirit in whose power Jesus “returned into Galilee,” the same Spirit that informed every action that he undertook, that moved him to redeem the world by his life, death, and resurrection.

So we have to learn to allow ourselves to be empowered by the Spirit. And this means not allowing ourselves to be empowered, impelled, motivated, by caprice or whim or the flesh or envy or greed or anything else. The myriad forces that are at work in the world – that underwrite the actions that we see all around us – it is our job to eschew these, to foreswear their influence in our lives. We have to shut our ears to their voices, to become quiet, and to listen for God’s voice. We have to say, in prayer, “Lord, what would you have me do?”

Particular circumstances don’t really matter. The question is always the same: “Lord, what would you have me do?” You’re sick: Lord, what would you have me do? You have some financial issue: Lord, what would you have me do? You have trouble with some family relationship, or in your marriage, or at work, or at school: Lord, what would you have me do? Someone is harassing you: Lord, what would you have me do? You find some circumstance distasteful: Lord, what would you have me do?

And here’s a hint, in every circumstance: the answer is never boastful or greedy or proud or envious or havoc- making or violent. If someone is annoying you and you feel impelled to smash them in the face, you can pretty safely conclude that THAT impulse is not from the Lord. That is NOT what he would have you do. The answer is always supernatural – in almost every sense of that word. Someone is annoying you, and you feel impelled to reach out to them, to reinforce their dignity, to make it clear to them that they are forgiven and loved and valuable. That’s a supernatural response. If you want to know what to do, meditate on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians (13.4ff):

“Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…”

This way of being – which we might call, in a kind of shorthand, “life in the Spirit” – elicits a special sensitivity from us. It asks us to try and recognize how God is moving in the lives of other people, and even through the lives of animals and the being of inanimate things, because the whole cosmos is suffused with God’s glory, and as Paul says, God is in the process of redeeming EVER YTHING (not just mankind) in Christ (Colossians 1.20). We have to train our eyes to see redemption everywhere and in everyone, and to cooperate actively with it. This is deep.

 

By way of explaining what I mean, I want to conclude with a passage from a book by a French (Orthodox) theologian named Olivier Clement:

“The world is not a prison but a dark passage — an opening through which to move, a passage to be deciphered within a greater work. In this work, everything has a meaning, everyone is important, everyone is necessary. It is a work that we compose together with God.

“…One of our daily tasks is precisely to awaken in our selves the power within the depths of our heart. Usually, we live in our heads and in our sexuality, with our hearts closed off. But only the heart can serve as the crucible in which our understanding and desire are transformed. And though we may not reach the luminous abyss, sparks may fly from it, and our hearts burn with an immense yet gentle shudder .

“We must recover the meaning of this unemotional emotion, this unsentimental sentiment, this peaceful and overwhelming resonance of our whole being we feel when our eyes are filled with tears of wonder and gratitude, ontological tenderness and fulfilled silence. It is not merely the concern of monks; it is humbly and partially the concern of us all.”

What are you doing to train yourself to see the power of God’s Spirit at work in your life and in the lives of others, and in the world around you? Are you praying in an intentional and disciplined and daily way? Are you reading God’s Word? Are you really seeking Jesus in the holy Eucharist? Are you examining your conscience regularly – and not just in a perfunctory way? Are you confessing your sins? Are you asking God for good things for yourself and for others? Are you PAYING ATTENTION and staying recollected? Are you keeping the fasts and abstinences of the Church? Are you forgiving your enemies from your heart, and praying for them?

In such ways we can “recover the meaning of this unemotional emotion, this unsentimental sentiment, this peaceful and overwhelming resonance of our whole being we feel when our eyes are filled with tears of wonder and gratitude, ontological tenderness and fulfilled silence.” Let us reacquaint ourselves with the power of God’s Spirit that has been given to us through Jesus Christ.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

%d bloggers like this: