O magnify the Lord with me

Tuesday in the third week of Advent
Zephaniah 3:1-2,9-13; Psalm 34:1-8; Matthew 21:28-32

Psalm 34:3 (RSV)
O magnify the Lord with me,
  and let us exalt his name together!

choir stallsFrom St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Psalm XXXIV)
Stir up then love in yourselves, brethren; and call to every one of yours, and say, “O magnify the Lord with me.” Let there be in you that fervour. Wherefore are these things recited and explained? If ye love God, bring quickly to the love of God all who are joined unto you, and all who are in your house; if the Body of Christ is loved by you, that is, if the unity of the Church, bring them quickly to enjoy, and say, “O magnify the Lord with me.”

These are timely words for Episcopalians, we we draw near to our triennial General Convention this summer. Just now, the first of many legislative reports has been released. Already, people are hurling attacks and choosing sides. It would be well for us to treat one another within the church with love. Surely those with whom we disagree also love Jesus Christ and desire the health of the church?

To be sure, I might feel that others are wrong — on these issues or on any number of other issues. But I try (not always with success) to keep two things in mind. First, it is possible that I am the one in error. Second, even as a critique the positions of others, I need not attack other people, nor need I ascribe malice to their motives.

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He hath first bestowed mercy

Monday in the third week of Advent
Numbers 24:2-7,15-17a; Psalm 25:3-8; Matthew 21:23-27

Psalm 25:7
Gracious and upright is the LORD; *
  therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

Bapistry in Duomo FlorenceFrom St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Psalm XXV)
The Lord is gracious, since even sinners and the ungodly he so pitied, as to forgive all that is past; but the Lord is upright too, who after the mercy of vocation and pardon, which is of grace without merit, will require merits meet for the last judgment. “Wherefore he will establish a law for them that fail in the way.” For he hath first bestowed mercy to bring them into the way.

We Protestants may squirm a bit at the way St. Augustine suggests that we will need to produce merit fitting for Judgement Day, after having received God’s grace. Incredibly faithful, intelligent people have been battling this out for millennia: does our salvation come through grace or works? We’ve mostly come down on the side of grace, and I think that rings true with the scriptures. I’m grateful for this reading.

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Stir up thy power, O Lord!

The second of my meditations on collects for an Advent quiet day offered at St. Stephen’s, Providence. The first meditation is here and the third one here.

Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent
Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

stir up collectA couple of weeks ago, I was on vacation in Lisbon. Wherever I go in the world, I always enjoy visiting churches, and so I made it a point to visit the grand cathedral in Lisbon. You can pay a few Euros and visit the Treasury, and so I did that. There were lovely late medieval vestments and all manner of shiny liturgical items. It was glorious.

As I was staring into one of the display cases, I noticed an ancient illuminated missal. My Latin isn’t particularly good, but I can usually recognize and sometimes even read ecclesiastical texts. I noticed one of the books was open to the collect for the First Sunday of Advent. With large illumination, the collect began EXCITA. Even with my inadequate Latin, I could gather that was “Stir up”! Excita! I was a bit captivated by that Latin word. I kept thinking about it. Excite! Stir Up!

When I got back to the hotel, I did some Googling, because I was curious about a collect for the first Sunday of Advent that began “Stir up!” It turns out, as some of you may know, that four of the five collects at the end of the liturgical year once began Excita! in much of the Western church. Apparently, the framers of medieval liturgical books thought the people needed some end-of-year, end-of-time stirring up. Our collect for the third Sunday of Advent finds its origin among the earliest medieval liturgical sources, one of those ancient end-of-the-year “stir up” collects.

I haven’t really stopped thinking about “Stir up!” in the last couple of weeks. For some reason, I can’t quite let it go. I am captivated by the idea of God stirring us up, of being stirred up by God’s power. It really suggests we won’t be left the same, that things will get mixed up in us and in the world through God’s power. I think of the swirling nothingness at the beginning, out of which God brought all Creation into being, and how God’s creativity continues in the world. Stir up thy power!

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Cast away the works of darkness

This is the first of three meditations on collects I offered today for an Advent quiet day at St. Stephen’s, Providence, RI. The second meditation is here and the third one is here. It was a delight to share time with folks there and to enjoy their gracious hospitality.

darkness and lightThe Collect for the First Sunday of Advent
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This is sometimes known as the Advent collect, and until our current prayer book, it was to be used every day of Advent. Some of us may use it devotionally each day or even in corporate worship through the season. This is fitting. In so many ways, this collect perfectly captures Advent — both our recollection of the First Advent of Christ in humility and our hope for the Second Advent of Christ in glory.

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Meditate on his law

Friday in the second week of Advent
Isaiah 48:17-19; Psalm 1; Matthew 11:16-19

Psalm 1:1-2
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
  nor lingered in the way of sinners,
  nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
Their delight is in the law of the LORD, *
  and they meditate on his law day and night.

Santa Miniato al MonteFrom Tertullian’s Against Marcion (Chapter XIX)
“In that law would he meditate day and night.” It was not in severity that its author promulgated this law, but in the interest of the highest benevolence, which rather aimed at subduing the nation’s hardness of heart, and by laborious services hewing out a fealty which was (as yet) untried in obedience: for I purposely abstain from touching on the mysterious senses of the law, considered in its spiritual and prophetic relation, and as abounding in types of almost every variety and sort. It is enough at present, that it simply bound a man to God, so that no one ought to find fault with it, except him who does not choose to serve God.

We Americans love to talk about our rights, but we’re not so good at owning up to our responsibilities. It’s not very different in our faith. How easy it is to talk about what we receive, but how rarely to talk about our obligations. We’re especially good at an antinomian, no-law-all-grace faith. In this faith, we talk about how much God loves us, but we almost never talk about what God expects of us. We talk about how Jesus reached out to the margins, but we don’t talk about how Jesus challenged every person he met to repent, to be transformed (“Go and sin no more!” or “Stand up, take your mat and walk!”).

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Greatness without end

Thursday in the second week of Advent
Isaiah 41:13-20; Psalm 145:1-4,8-13; Matthew 11:7-15

Psalm 145:3
Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *
  there is no end to his greatness.

Prayer in JerusalemFrom St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Psalm CXLV)
“Great is the Lord, and very much to be praised” (verse 3). How much was he about to say? What terms was he about to seek? How vast a conception hath he included in the one word, “very much”? Imagine what thou wilt, for how can that be imagined, which cannot be contained? “He is very much to be praised. And of his greatness there is no end;” therefore said he “very much:” lest perchance thou begin to wish to praise, and think that thou canst reach the end of his praises, whose greatness can have no end. Think not then that he, whose greatness has no end, can ever be enough praised by thee. Is it not then better that as he has no end, so neither should thy praise have end? His greatness is without end; let thy praise also be without end.

This will be a short one. My sense is that in our church today, we too often focus on what’s in it for us. Why is church good for us? What will it make us do for the world? What are the effects of liturgy on us and on our world? But St. Augustine helpfully spins it all around. It’s not about us at all. It’s all about God.

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My burden is light

Wednesday in the second week of Advent
Isaiah 40:25-31; Psalm 103:1-10; Matthew 11:28-30

St John the Divine NaveMatthew 11:28-30
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

From St. Ambrose, Concerning Repentance (Book I)
So, then, the Lord Jesus refreshes, and does not shut out nor cast off, and fitly chose such disciples as should be interpreters of the Lord’s will, as should gather together and not drive away the people of God. Whence it is clear that they are not to be counted among the disciples of Christ, who think that harsh and proud opinions should be followed rather than such as are gentle and meek; persons who, while they themselves seek God’s mercy, deny it to others…

You’d think it would be pretty simple for us Christians. Like Jesus, we should reach out to all people. Like Jesus, we should offer the refreshment of the Good News of God’s redeeming love. But it turns out we’re not so good at this. We exclude all manner of people, sometimes overtly and sometimes in subtle ways. Liberals love to shun conservatives. Conservatives love to shun liberals. Not to mention our miserable failure as Episcopalians to create church communities that look as racially and economically diverse as our society. If we were offering the easy yoke of Christ’s love to all, our churches would look like our communities.

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Take heed lest thou live ill, and chant well

Tuesday in the second week of Advent
Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 50:7-15; Matthew 18:12-14

Psalm 50:14
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving *
  and make good your vows to the Most High.

Censing the tomb of ChristFrom St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Psalm 50)
For now some one or other, because God had said to him, “Immolate to God the sacrifice of praise,” and had enjoined in a manner this tribute, did meditate to himself and said, I will rise daily, I will proceed to Church, I will say one hymn at matins, another at vespers, a third or fourth in my house, daily I do sacrifice the sacrifice of praise, and immolate to my God. Well thou doest indeed, if thou doest this: but take heed, lest now thou be careless, because now thou doest this: and perchance thy tongue bless God, and thy life curse God. O my people, saith to thee the God of gods, the Lord that spake, “calling the earth from the rising of the sun unto the setting,” though yet thou art placed amid the tares, “Immolate the sacrifice of praise to thy God, and render to Him thy prayers:” but take heed lest thou live ill, and chant well.

Augustine warns of a great danger in the Christian faith–that we do a splendid job of worshiping Jesus in church and lousy job of being his followers in the world. It’s an occupational risk, and it’s a challenge the church has faced from its inception. Jesus had plenty to say in his time about religious people whose lives did not show forth what they professed with their lips.

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The voice of Christ is peace

Monday in the second week of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 85:8-13; Luke 5:17-26

Psalm 85:8-9
I will listen to what the LORD God is saying, *
  for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
  and to those who turn their hearts to him.
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
  that his glory may dwell in our land.

Chi Rho mosaicFrom St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Psalm 85)
The voice of Christ, then, the voice of God, is peace: it calleth unto peace. Ho! it saith, whosoever are not yet in peace, love ye peace: for what can ye find better from me than peace? What is peace? Where there is no war. What is this, where there is no war? Where there is no contradiction, where there is no resistance, nothing to oppose. Consider if we are yet there: consider if there is not now a conflict with the devil, if all the saints and faithful ones wrestle not with the prince of demons. And how do they wrestle with him whom they see not? They wrestle with their own desires, by which he suggests unto them sins: and by not consenting to what he suggests, though they are not conquered, yet they fight. Therefore there is not yet peace where there is fighting. …

What peace then is that which men have here, opposed by so many troubles, desires, wants, wearinesses? This is no true, no perfect peace. What will be perfect peace? “This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53). Persevere in eating much; this itself will kill thee: persevere in fasting much, by this thou wilt die: sit continually, being resolved not to rise up, by this thou wilt die: be always walking so as never to take rest, by this thou wilt die; watch continually, taking no sleep, by this thou wilt die; sleep continually, never watching, thus too thou wilt die. When therefore death shall be swallowed up in victory, these things shall no longer be: there will be full and eternal peace. …

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Be not afraid

Friday in the first week of Advent
Isaiah 29:17-24; Psalm 27:1-6,17-18; Matthew 9:27-31

light in church of the holy sepulchrePsalm 27:1
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
  the LORD is the strength of my life;
  of whom then shall I be afraid?

From Explanation of the Psalms by Cassiodorus:
“Whom shall I fear?” means “I shall fear no one”; fear of the Lord had ensured that he could fear no other.

“Be not afraid.” Jesus said that about as often as anything. With the Lord as our light and salvation, what, indeed, do we have to fear? God has our back! Particularly as Christians, we know that God’s power is stronger even than death itself. If the worst that could happen is we die — and we don’t have to be afraid of that — then what is there to fear?

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A house built on the rock…of doctrine

Thursday in the first week of Advent
Isaiah 26:1-6; Psalm 118:19-24; Matthew 7:21-27

House on a RockMatthew 7:24-27
Jesus said, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

From John Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew (Homily XXIV)
“For the rain descended,” saith Christ, “the floods came, the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon the rock.”

By “rain” here, and “floods,” and “winds,” he is expressing metaphorically the calamities and afflictions that befall men; such as false accusations, plots, bereavements, deaths, loss of friends, vexations from strangers, all the ills in our life that any one could mention. “But to none of these,” saith he, “doth such a soul give way; and the cause is, it is founded on the rock.” He calls the stedfastness of his doctrine a rock; because in truth his commands are stronger than any rock, setting one above all the waves of human affairs. For he who keeps these things strictly, will not have the advantage of men only when they are vexing him, but even of the very devils plotting against him. And that it is not vain boasting so to speak, Job is our witness, who received all the assaults of the devil, and stood unmoveable; and the apostles too are our witnesses, for that when the waves of the whole world were beating against them, when both nations and princes, both their own people and strangers, both the evil spirits, and the devil, and every engine was set in motion, they stood firmer than a rock, and dispersed it all.

And now, what can be happier than this kind of life? For this, not wealth, not strength of body, not glory, not power, nor ought else will be able to secure, but only the possession of virtue. For there is not, nay there is not another life we may find free from all evils, but this alone.

This parable invites any number of useful readings. Today I am captivated by John Chrysostom’s reading — that the rock of which Jesus speaks is doctrine. It’s not a usual reading of this parable in today’s church.

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Cast them at the feet of Jesus

Wednesday in the first week of Advent
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Matthew 15:29-39

Mountains by the Sea of GalileeMatthew 15:29-31
After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

From Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Book XI)
Let us then cause to go up along with ourselves to the mountain where Jesus sits — his church — those who wish to go up to it along with us, the deaf, the blind, the lame, the maimed and many others, and let us cast them at the feet of Jesus that he may heal them, so that the multitudes are astonished at their healing; for it is not the disciples who are described as wondering at such things, although at that time they were present with Jesus, as is manifest from the words, “And Jesus called unto him his disciples and said, ‘I have compassion on the multitudes.'”

Origen reads this story with an allegorical flair. This story isn’t just about a mountain, for that mountain represents for us the church. We disciples are encouraged to bring along with us great crowds, especially people who are in need of healing. In the church, Origen says, crowds of people will be healed by Jesus Christ and thus these same crowds will be astonished. It isn’t us, the disciples, who need to be astonished. It is the crowds for whom these deeds are done.

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