Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Recipe Diem – Receive the Day

On Thanksgiving Day we acknowledge our dependence. ~ William Jennings Bryan

One of my favorite prayers in the Prayer Book is one from the Order for Compline:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other's toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Book of Common Prayer, p. 134

It is a reminder that the world in which we live, the lives we live – all that we are and all that we have – is all the sheer gift of God. It is not something we can seize or hold. We can only receive and give thanks. This receiving is not passive but rather an active attentiveness to each moment as the irreplaceable, intimate gift of God. We thank God who wonderfully created us and still more wonderfully redeems us. It is no accident that the central practice of the Church is the Eucharist the root meaning of which is thanksgiving.

The prayer from Compline is also a reminder that we are dependant on each other’s toil. The notion of an autonomous individual, rugged or otherwise, is a false one. It is fundamentally absurd. We are born into, and dependent upon from start to finish, a web of relationships. We always and only live at the hand of others. Part of the discipline of active, attentive gratitude is giving thanks for everyone else. Margaret Visser writes, “Gratitude is always a matter of paying attention, of deliberately beholding and appreciating the other.”

Thanksgiving is a good reminder to be paying attention and deliberately beholding and appreciating others as we acknowledge our dependence. So, this Thanksgiving, thank God for his unfailing sustaining providence. And thank all those other folk on whose toil your life depends. Thank family and friends. But also thank everyone who had a hand in making your Thanksgiving feast possible: those who planted, those who harvested, those who processed and packed, those who drove the trucks and those who loaded and unloaded the trucks, those who stocked the shelves and those who checked out the groceries. Thank the power company electrician who makes sure the power gets to your home – sometimes in inclement weather. And thank sister turkey and brother pig for the sacrifice of their lives for your nourishment. And thank all who participate in one way or another in the web of mutual dependency.

Of course, the third Thursday of November is but a particular, public reminder of our dependence on God and one another. May we learn the discipline of active attentive gratitude day in and day out. Recipe diem.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist, PARTS VI & VII

PART VI – Transformation

The sacraments can be understood as where the body of Christ “happens”. In baptism a new member of the body is “made” by incorporation. In the Eucharist the body happens in more ways than one. It is the feast by which we remember the life, death, and resurrection of the one whose historical body was broken for us. It is the feast in which the bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. And it is also the feast by which the body of Christ, the Church, is both re-membered and fed on the body of Christ in the bread and wine.

This understanding of Eucharist as transformation is expressed on page 316 of the Book of Common Prayer, “[I]n these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another.” To partake of the Eucharist is to submit to the process of being both ingodded and inothered. This is what Augustine was getting at in his well-known exhortation, “Behold what you are. Become what you see: the Body of Christ, beloved of God.” (Homily 57, On the Holy Eucharist). Augustine adds that when we consume the body of Christ in the bread and wine, we do not so much transform that food into our bodies, as we are transformed by it into his body.

Participation in the Eucharist is not simply about experiencing God’s consolation. It is that. But it is much, much more. It is about transformation. It is part of our conversion process on the way to what the Eastern Christian tradition calls theosis – our being made capable of being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 2:4) - capable of bearing the absolute love, goodness, beauty, and joy of God. We expect to be transfigured, or as Dante would have it, transhumanized into glory.

We cannot, and dare not, expect that transformation, while good and desirable, to be easy or painless. Indeed the imagery of scripture suggest otherwise. Through Jeremiah, God promises, “Therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Behold, I will refine them and test them, for what else can I do, because of my people?’” (Jeremiah 9:7, Cf. Zechariah 13:9 & Malachi 3:3). I suspect that, however wonderful the image of beautiful silver, shining brightly might be, the ore does not necessarily welcome the heat of the crucible. In John 15:5, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” But, before that, in verse 2, he promises, “Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, God takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit God prunes, that it may bear more fruit." We rejoice in the promise of more fruitful lives. But, does the branch necessarily welcome the pruning? In truth, we do people a disservice if we invite them to the Eucharistic table as if there was no promise (and warning) that it entails refining, pruning, and transformation.

PART VII - Whose Table?

It is sometimes suggested that since the Eucharistic table is God’s table it is not for us to decide who can participate. But, given the logic of the liturgy, one might more reasonably suggest, that because it is God’s table, we should not be glib in our own participation nor in inviting others to participate. Indeed, one might wonder if an open invitation is not more presumptuous in its certainty of our own adequate knowledge and goodness, or at the very least, that it presumes a particularly cheap grace. It suggests a notion of God that is altogether domesticated and sentimental.

Annie Dillard famously warns against presuming that God is tame:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” - Teaching a Stone to Talk

If, as we often claim, we “believe what we pray” (lex orandi, lex credendi – the rule of prayer is the rule of belief), we would do well to attend to the logic of the liturgy which suggests a certain caution in coming to the Lord’s Table. As Moses drew near to the strange sight of the burning bush, he was commanded to remove his sandals for he was on holy ground. Just so, symbolically as we move through the Eucharistic liturgy, we stop periodically to remind ourselves that we are approaching holy ground and that doing so is an awesome thing. The One into whose presence we are coming is awe-inspiring and, while not wholly unknown, remains a mystery beyond our comprehension. We are aware that in our ignorance, we are like children playing with nitroglycerine. We are also aware of our failure to live lives of love and truth and trust, and thus of the distance between us and God. As noted before, the Exhortation found before the Rite of Holy Communion found in the Book of Common Prayer warns against coming to the Eucharistic table unprepared.

The liturgy is like an elaborate spiral dance in which we symbolically circle around and around the altar drawing closer and closer to the great mystery of the Eucharist. At intervals along this spiral dance, we stop to "take off our sandals" and acknowledge our ignorance and sinfulness. And we ask for God’s mercy as we proceed deeper into the holy mystery. In the Collect for Purity, we ask God to cleanse the thoughts of out hearts that we may perfectly love God and worthily magnify his holy Name. And we dance a little closer. Then we sing the Gloria, the Kyrie, or the Trisagion; each of which asks again for God’s mercy. And we dance a little closer. After hearing God’s word read and proclaimed, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor and receive the promise of God’s forgiveness. We exchange the peace, recognizing that we cannot go to the altar of the Prince of Peace unless we are being and making peace ourselves. And we dance a little closer. In the Sanctus we declare that we know the one in whose presence we are is holy. And we dance a little closer. Before the breaking of the bread, we say the Lord’s Prayer in which we again ask for forgiveness. And we dance a little closer. Again and again, we acknowledge that we do not really know what we are up to, that the One with whom we are dealing is holy, and that we are ignorant, sinful and broken people in need of mercy. By God’s amazing grace we are invited and encouraged to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). But that confidence is born in baptism and is not the same as presumption. Our liturgy reminds us that we are all always in need of mercy if we are to gather in the Presence.

As "stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Corintians 4:1), it is indeed the Church's vocation to see that those who come to those mysteries are aware of what they are doing and assure that they are prepared through initiation into those mysteries via baptism.

Next: PART VIII, Hospitality

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist, PART V

Before the Rites of Holy Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer there is An Exhortation to examine our lives that we might "share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries." The Exhortation reads in part:

But, if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.

For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord.

Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 316

Though not often read, this exhortation is part of our formal understanding of what we are about in participating in Eucharist.

PART V – Under Judgment

Participating in the Eucharist entangles us in particular loyalties, responsibilities, and accountabilities. There are expectations placed on the eucharistic community and its members. Are they living in communion with one another as the body of Christ such that partaking of his body and blood makes sense? Are they living together into the deep reconciliation God is working in Christ? Are they bearing one another’s burdens? The burden of one another? Is their common life reflective of scriptural mandates like those in Matthew 5 – 7, Luke 6, Romans 12, Philippians 2, Ephesians 4? Is their life together “a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair”? To participate in the Eucharist is to enter into such expectations. With such expectation comes judgment.

1 Corinthians 11 emphasizes that partaking of the Lord’s Supper carries with it serious expectations. That text is about how those who take part in the feast of Christ treat each other as members of the body of Christ. That is what discerning the body means. Unless we take seriously our belonging to one another and caring for one another, we have not discerned the body and our communion is false and our claim to be in communion with Christ, suspect. Thus the Eucharist is as much an act of commitment and accountability as is baptism.

The parousia is to be a time not only of redemption but of judgment, when the “world” – meaning that part of creation which refuses the sovereignty of Christ – will be overthrown. As the sacrament which anticipates the parousia now, the Eucharist is also placed in the context of judgment. Those who do not “discern the body” and become a member of Christ risk condemnation along with the forces that oppose Christ. The failure to “discern the body” refers not only to the body on the table but the ecclesial body as well.

William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, p. 235

Beyond the responsibility for, and accountability to, one another as members of the body of Christ into which we are absorbed in the Eucharist, there is a call to mission. To partake in the Eucharist is to participate in the passion of Christ. It is not a matter of simple passive receiving. Feeding on the body “broken for you” and drinking from the cup, “shed for you” implicates us in the mission to be ourselves broken and poured out for the sake of a hungry and thirsty world. As our Lord told James and John, baptism and Eucharist go together and both implicate us in his life and passion. (Mark 10:35 – 45).

To share in the Eucharist is to be entangled with the body of Christ and the mutual obligations and expectations that come with that belonging. Baptism initiates us into that belonging and the pre-baptismal catechumenate prepares us for the obligations and expectations of belonging. Eucharist nourishes us in that belonging and calls us to live into it ever more deeply.

The fact that many who are baptized members of the Church do not understand the responsibilities that go with discerning the body is a shortcoming of the Church’s catechesis. The fact that all too often the Church does not live into those responsibilities is a scandal that places it under judgment. Inviting people to partake of the Lord’s Supper without being clear about the expectations laid on those who participate places them under a particular judgment unawares and is neither responsible nor particularly hospitable.

Next: PART VI - Transformation & PART VII - Whose Table?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist, PART III & PART IV

"No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church." Canon I.17.7 of the Constitution & Canons of The Episcopal Church

This canon affirms that the communal expectation and practice of the Episcopal Church regarding Holy Communion is in communion with the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church." Here are parts 3 & 4 of my ongoing sketch of a defense of the expectation and practice of this canon.

PART III – Community vs. Association

The Eucharist is a communal meal, hence its other name, Holy Communion. That communion is not simply a matter of our communing with God. It is also an expression of and means toward the communion of the gathered body of Christ.

It is consequential whether we believe the divine-human drama centers on the individual or on community and relationship. While not strictly a matter of either/or it does matter where we put the emphasis. Are we essentially individuals who associate with other individuals for one reason or another or are we persons shaped in community in which case belonging is essential?

Historically, Christianity has emphasized community and belonging. Part of the Church's rejection of Gnosticism has to do with the latter’s appeal to esoteric knowledge focused on individual enlightenment separate from the communal traditions and communal disciplines.

In an American, post-Enlightenment context shaped by the ideology of individualism, the difference between real community and an association of individuals can be hard to appreciate. Inviting anyone to partake of the Eucharist, “wherever they are on their spiritual journey” puts the emphasis on the individual and her or his personal spiritual journey rather than on our being members of one another with responsibility for, and accountability to, one another. The Church cannot counter the ideology of individualism by reinforcing that ideology in its central communal practice.

The God we come to know in the history of Israel and the mission of Jesus always works through a people. Christianity is about belonging to a people shaped by particular ways of being and believing. Our communion is not just an individual spiritual encounter, but communion with, and commitment to, a very physical body gathered in space and through time.

PART IV – Fellow Citizens

That belonging is belonging to one another. It is also belonging to “another country”. We are citizens of heaven and of the kingdom of God (Philippians 3:20, Ephesians 2:9). One of the things we need to look at more carefully is how we understand ourselves in a post-Christian/post-Christendom context. Another reason inviting the unbaptized to Communion is problematic is that it seems to be, ironically, a Christendom move in a post-Christendom situation. Under Christendom, the Church acted as the chaplain of a (presumed) Christian society which included everyone. When, out of long habit, the Church continues that role in a post-Christian context, the distinctive practices, disciplines, and beliefs that are the marks of membership become an embarrassment. To continue to serve as society’s chaplain, it becomes imperative to minimize the particulars of Christian discipleship and emphasize the generic spiritual journey of all citizens of the larger society.

Where our true citizenship lies is a question both the religious right and the religious left in America tend to get wrong. Baptism is our naturalization into a nationality other than that into which we are born (1 Peter 2:9). The creed is our pledge of allegiance. And Eucharist is the characteristic privilege and responsibility of citizenship that shapes us as a people and calls us to live as members of the body of Christ with each other and in the world. As William Cavanaugh writes in Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ:

In the Eucharist one is fellow citizen not of other present “Chileans” [or Americans] but of other members of the body of Christ, past, present and future. The Christian wanders among the earthly nations on the way to her eternal patria, the Kingdom of God. The Eucharist makes clear, however, that this Kingdom does not simply stand outside of history, nor is heaven simply a goal for the individual to achieve at death. Under the sign of the Eucharist the Kingdom becomes present in history through Christ the heavenly High Priest. In the Eucharist the heavens are opened, and the church of all times and places is gathered around the altar. p. 224

The Church is a body of people who are citizens of another country and the Eucharist is one of our constitutive practices. It incorporates us into a body whose loyalties are often at odds with other loyalties. That Christians all too often subsume Christianity under other loyalties does not negate the responsibility to seek to get our loyalty (that to which we are faithful) straight. It is also incumbent upon us to be honest with others that participating in the Church’s characteristic citizenship meal entangles them in particular loyalties, responsibilities, and accountabilities.

Next: Part V - Under Judgement

Friday, November 13, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist, PART II

A couple of years ago, I was invited to serve on a panel at Seabury-Western Seminary discussing the practice of inviting those not yet baptized to the Eucharist. I was asked to serve as one committed to the traditional discipline of not doing so. This is the second post of a series of reflections prepared for and growing out of serving on that panel.

PART II – Inclusion vs. Renewal & Incorporation

Jesus famously welcomed sinners and outcastes into his movement. But, it is easy for moderns to ignore the particularity of Jesus and his ministry in ways that are misleading. Simplistic modern appeals to his inclusiveness miss some of the contours of what Jesus was about. He was not a generic spirit person teaching universal truths about God to generic people. Nor was his summons simply inclusive without context or expectation.

There is no reason to suppose that Jesus did not accept the particularly Jewish belief that God had chosen and called Israel to bless the nations even as he recalled Israel to that mission and ultimately fulfilled it himself. Nor was his summons to enter the kingdom a generic welcome of any and all regardless of repentance and the embrace of particular commitments (Luke 15:1-10).

Jesus’ movement was a Jewish renewal movement. His mission was to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6, 15:24). His words and actions need to be understood in that context. Whatever symbolic fellowship meals he shared were limited to those already members of the covenant people of Israel. They make sense, as several parables indicate, as prophetic enactments of the wedding banquet of Yahweh and Israel. They took place in the context of the story of Yahweh’s courtship of Israel. Jesus welcomed the outcastes of Israel and called all Jews to repent of their neglect of their particular call to be holy and to be the light of the world. From within Israel, he gathered around himself a renewed Israel represented by the call of twelve disciples paralleling the twelve tribes.

Though Jesus showed interest in and compassion toward Gentiles and hinted at their eventual incorporation, he did not gather them into his movement. As one would expect of an observant Jew of his time, there is no indication that he ever ate with Gentiles - outcaste or otherwise. There is no reason to suppose that the multitude that was fed miraculously was anything other than a Jewish multitude. It was the fragments of Israel that Jesus gathered into the baskets of his movement.

It was only after Easter and Pentecost that the Church, as a New Israel, was understood to be open to Gentiles as it became more and more clear that the old divisions had been overcome by the breaking in of the Kingdom of God through Jesus’ death and resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Now Gentiles, as the “wild olive branches,” were welcome to be grafted onto the “cultivated olive tree” of Israel, and become part of the New Israel (Romans 11:17-24). Thus the Church is not a generic faith community, but an extension of a particular people. Gentiles were welcomed, but only by means of repentance and baptism through which they were identified with Christ and incorporated into his body, the Church.

Baptism early on came to be seen as analogous to circumcision by which new members are incorporated into the covenant community (Colossians 2:12-13). Given the parallels between the Passover meal and the Lord’s Supper, baptism would be the logical expectation of those who wished to come near and keep the feast of this people of the new covenant (Exodus 12:48). It is about the formation of a people with normal boundaries and normative practices. To miss this is to make Christianity less Jewish than it is.

Next: PART III – Community vs. Association & PART IV – Fellow Citizens

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist

A Sketch of an Argument for the Logic
of the Traditional Discipline


When we are baptized into Christ, we are made a member of his body, the Church. As the body of Christ, the Church is called to witness to and be a sign and foretaste of the kingdom of God. The central sign and practice of this body is the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the body of Christ, the Church, is nourished by the body of Christ in the bread and wine. We remember what God has done in Christ and anticipate God’s restoration of all things in Christ. And we participate in Christ and are nourished by his body and blood. The Church is thus a Eucharistic community living in remembrance and anticipation, nourished by its participation in Christ along the way. But, partaking of the body of Christ in the Eucharist also entails judgment. Is the community - and its members - living eucharistically as the body of Christ?

It is the ancient understanding of the Church that this act of remembrance, anticipation, and participation only makes sense as a practice of those who have been baptized into Christ. And that has been the traditional discipline of the Episcopal Church. Some in the Episcopal Church, though, question this traditional understanding and discipline. Thus, it has become the practice in many places to "open" Eucharist to the unbaptised. While this is well-meant, I suggest that such a practice undermines what the Church and Eucharist are about.

What follows is a sketch in several parts of a defense of the logic of the traditional discipline of expecting those who partake of the body of Christ in the Eucharist to be baptized members of the Church which is the body of Christ and living into its discipline.

PART I – Baptism and Jesus’ Disciples at the Last Supper

One question that is often posed is whether or not the disciples gathered around Jesus at the Last Supper were themselves baptized. The answer is that, in all likelihood, they were. Andrew was certainly a follower of John the Baptist (John 1:40) and thus presumably baptized. Even more significantly, Jesus is recorded as baptizing (John 3:26), or at least having his disciples baptize (John 4:1). Whether by John or after responding to Jesus' call, they were baptized before the Last Supper. And, of course, significantly, Jesus himself was baptized.

John's baptism is arguably irrelevant to subsequent Christian practice and we see the early Church understanding it as inadequate (Acts 19:1-7). But, the evidence that Jesus – or at least his disciples on his behalf – baptized those who wished to respond to his call suggests that Jesus was not bashful about making distinctions between those who responded to his summons and those who did not and marking that distinction in public ritual.

While the practice of baptism has its roots in John's and Jesus' practice, it is somewhat other. Since we are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; our baptism is not the same as John's or even that of Jesus and his (pre-Easter) disciples. It is an Easter event. And it is the risen Jesus who commands his followers to make disciples and baptize. Our baptism – and our baptismal discipline – has its roots in the historical practice of Jesus, but it is different in as much as it is an Easter event.

The same is true for the Last Supper. It was the Last Supper, not only because it was the last meal for Jesus before his execution, but because there had been other meals before. But, like Baptism, the Eucharist participates in the Resurrection. Whatever symbolic meals Jesus might have shared in during his ministry, the Eucharistic meal is more than a repetition of what Jesus did before the crucifixion. It is an Easter event. It is a participation in Jesus’ resurrection and an anticipation of our resurrection and the new heaven and earth. Baptism is how we are incorporated into the resurrection, or, at the very least, into the body of witness to the resurrection, and logically precedes the typical meal by which we are nourished in the resurrection life.

Next: PART II – Inclusion vs. Renewal & Incorporation

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Immortality or Eternal Life?

In a provocative essay for the New York Times, philosopher Todd May suggests, “This is the paradox death imposes upon us: it grants us the possibility of a meaningful life even as it takes it away.” He begins by pointing out that, as essentially forward-looking creatures, the finality of death offends us. But, he goes on to argue that without death, life would lose its shape and become formless. He alludes to a story, Immortality, by Jorge Louis Borges in which immortal beings become unconcerned with their lives or surroundings. Immortality, which he characterizes as one damn thing after another would be boring.

Once you’ve followed your passion — playing the saxophone, loving men or women, traveling, writing poetry — for, say, 10,000 years, it will likely begin to lose its grip. There may be more to say or to do than anyone can ever accomplish. But each of us develops particular interests, engages in particular pursuits. When we have been at them long enough, we are likely to find ourselves just filling time. In the case of immortality, an inexhaustible period of time.

I suppose he’s onto something. If immortality is just mortal life extended indefinitely there might not be much to commend it. Our limited mortal selves cannot bear immortality in that sense. Borges gets at this. As does Anne Rice in the desperate and lonely immortality “lived” by the vampire, Lestat. Living forever in the sense of life as we know it is less attractive than might be assumed at first.

But, as a Christian, I have to say that is not my hope. Mere immortality is not the same thing as eternal life. The Bible is surprisingly circumspect in describing just what eternal life means. But there are hints.

First of all, the Christian hope is not to avoid death. Death is indeed the hard reality under whose shadow we live. But, we confess that the one who is Life itself entered into that hard reality and took it upon himself and died a mortal death on a cross. Still more, we confess that Life transformed the reality of death through resurrection. So, now the shadow of death is the shadow cast by the cross with the light of resurrection glory shining from beyond.

Because we hope for resurrection, our hope is not for our exhaustible and exhausting lives extended over inexhaustible time but for life transformed. Thus, one of the most enduring images of that hope is the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom in which all that makes it a curse for so many to be born is transformed into health and harmony. Similarly, the vision of the New Jerusalem in the Revelation to John points to the healing of all that corrupts and destroys along with all within and without that keeps us from complete and mutual joy. Our hope is for all creation, perhaps all of history – and us in it – to be transformed.

We do not hope for this life extended beyond death. Rather, we expect to be transfigured, or as Dante would have it, transhumanized. We expect to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 2:4) capable of enjoying God who is Eternal Life and capable of being in-joyed by God.

Our passions and interests are limited because we are finite and the things we love are finite. But, if our loves and desires can be caught up in the love and desire that is God, they become endless and endlessly desirable. The great fourth century theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, put it this way

Because there is nothing above to break the impetus of the soul, and because the very nature of the good is to attract those who look up toward it, the soul rises always, extending itself forward through the desire of heavenly things, as the Apostle says [Philippians 3:13], and its flight will lead it always higher. Desirous as it is never to renounce the summits which are above itself, and in view of what it has reached already, the soul is given a movement of never-ending ascension, and it finds always in its past achievements a new energy for soaring higher; for spiritual activity alone has the propriety of nurturing its strength while expending it, and not to lose, but rather to increase it through exercise.
(The Life of Moses II 225 – 226)

Unlike mere immortality, the Christian vision of eternal life is not just an extension of this life which would surely become tedious if not altogether unbearable. Beings of such immortality would understandably sooner or later become unconcerned with their lives and surroundings. But eternal life is receiving the capacity for eternal joy and enjoyment. In eternal life there is no boredom or loss of interest and passion.

We get a glimpse of this in those saints who have been able to love the finite things and people of this world as icons through which they have loved God who is infinite and infinitely desirable. Seeing things and people as icons of the Eternal, the saints have engaged their eternal desirability. By God’s grace, following the example of the saints, we can hope not just for immortality beyond death, but for foretastes of eternal life even now. And we can begin to engage our lives, the lives of others, and our surroundings as means by which we enjoy and are enjoyed by the God of Eternal Life. In so doing, perhaps our capacity for passion, interest and caring will be nurtured even while being expended, and increased through exercise – preparing us for eternal life.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Saints Sunday -- 11/1/09

Every now and then I visit the Wade Center at Wheaton College. I like to sit and read and sometimes work on a sermon in the museum there. The museum

showcases memorabilia and rotating wall displays which highlight selections from our collection of books, letters, manuscripts, and artifacts” related to seven British authors: Owen Barfield, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Dorothy L. Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.

There are some big items: an actual wardrobe from C. S. Lewis’ childhood home (complete with fur coats and a sign warning that the Wade Center will not be responsible for any one who might try to enter), a desk from his office at Magdalen College of Oxford University, and the desk on which J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit. In display cases, one can see a pair of glasses once owned by Dorothy Sayers; a pipe and tea mug that belonged to Lewis along with a mug that he likely used for other beverages; and the honorary MA diploma awarded by Oxford to Charles Williams along with the mortar board he wore upon receiving that diploma.

I confess that for me it feels like a pilgrimage destination, a shrine full of holy relics. Except for Barfield who I have not read, each of these authors has inspired and nourished me spiritually. Each has expanded my imagination, which is another way of saying each has enhanced my capacity for faith, love, and wonder. When I am there I feel their presence and my faith is encouraged.

As you know, I am particularly fond of Charles Williams. Though he is not an officially recognized saint, his effect on those who knew him gets at what all the saints are about.

The poet, W. H. Auden, who attributed his conversion to Christianity to Williams, wrote,

for the first time in my life I felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity. I had met many good people before who made me feel ashamed of my own shortcomings, but in the presence of this man . . . I did not feel ashamed. I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving.

"Transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving" is another way of saying sanctified or made holy. The saints we celebrate on Saints days and today, on All Saints, are those Christians who stand out as exhibiting exemplary holiness. Which is to say that by God’s grace they are particularly transparent to God’s goodness. Saints are fragrant with the aroma of heaven. That transparent goodness and fragrant aroma changes those with whom they have contact.

And even more is changed. Upon learning that his friend had died, C. S. Lewis wrote that when he tried to combine the idea of death with the idea of Charles Williams he found that "it was the idea of death that was changed."

The saints anticipate – embody even – a glimpse of the splendor of resurrection glory. A glory that is stronger than death.

Because the glory of God is stronger than death, those who have been received into the fullness of that glory are never completely removed from us. Though they have "ascended the hill of the LORD" and "stand in his holy place" having received their blessing and reward from the King of glory, they continue to encourage those of us still making the ascent up the hill of sanctification. We are knit together in a great fellowship with them with threads stronger than death.

Among other things, this is what is meant when we affirm in the Apostles' Creed that we believe in “the communion of saints”. Those who God has "tested and found worthy of himself", those who he has refined like gold, still shine forth in our midst. The saints "run like sparks through the stubble" of this world igniting our imagination and our expectation of another world where all will be made new and the stench of sin, disease and death will be no more. They enhance our capacity for faith and love. Through them the Holy Spirit can transform us and inspire in us the desire to be persons who are incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving.

And so we rejoice in their fellowship and run with endurance the race that is set before us that we might, together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away.