Sunday, May 27, 2018

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit

With the end of the Easter season, the Paschal Candle has been banished to the Baptistery, and the Resurrection icon’s place has been taken by a 15th-century portrayal of the Holy Trinity [photo]. Its theme is the familiar story in Genesis of the patriarch Abraham’s three angelic visitors, a visit subsequently interpreted in Christian tradition as an image of the three persons of the Trinity. In it, the second Person - the Son, the Word, who reveals God to the world - is portrayed prominently in the center, pointing outward into the world. The Father seated to one side, looks lovingly at the Son, who in turn looks lovingly at the Father, while the bright-robed Holy Spirit is seated on the other side. The three Persons gaze at each other in mutual loving communication, into which we in turn are also meant to be drawn by the Son.

Well, you might say, that’s all very nice, but what of it? For so many (maybe most) of us, the Trinity sometimes seems somewhat abstract – a doctrine duly believed in, of course, but not something otherwise given too much thought to.

But this is in spite of the obvious fact that we were all baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. On that occasion, we – or our parents and godparents - all made a profession of faith in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one which we repeat regularly when we sing the Creed at Mass. Meanwhile, our sins have been forgiven in the sacrament of Penance, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Those of us who are married have exchanged wedding rings in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The principal prayers of the Mass are mostly addressed to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. And we have all, over and over again, been blessed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In short, our entire religious lives, both individually and collectively as a Church community, have been defined, formed, shaped by this awesome Trinitarian mystery of who God is, that defines God’s ongoing relationship with us and ours with God.

Admittedly, the words we use to talk about the Trinity, words like one “nature” and three “persons,” used not as we use them in ordinary language, but as technical terms of philosophical language, may seem somewhat abstract.

The so-called Athanasian Creed, which used to be recited the Church’s daily prayer today and on many other Sundays as well, uses rather repetitive, dense-sounding, liturgical language to speak of the Trinity, for example:

The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal.

And that is just one small excerpt! Even so, however abstractly or densely we have learned to talk about the Trinity, the doctrine of the Trinity remains our fundamental – and uniquely Christian – insight into who God is.  Created in God’s image and likeness, we all have a built-in, natural, longing for God. But who God is - who God is in himself - is something we could never have come to know on our own.  That had to be revealed to us by God himself. And God has done so, revealing who he is in himself – one God in three distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We do not worship three gods, but one God – a unity of Persons in one divine nature or substance. Each of the three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is truly God, each distinctly God, but existing eternally in relationship to each other: the Father to the Son, the Son to the Father, the Holy Spirit to both.

At the same time, the Trinity also expresses something fundamental about how God acts outside himself, how he acts toward us. Who God is in himself is how God acts; and thus how God acts in human history reveals who God ultimately is. Already in the Old Testament, God was revealing himself – as Moses testified in today’s 1st reading [Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40] as one who repeatedly reveals himself in how he acts toward us.

It is, of course, the Son, consubstantial with the Father, who for our salvation came down from heaven, and who, seated at the right hand of the Father, has sent the Holy Spirit upon his Church, making her the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Led by the Holy Spirit – as Saint Paul told the Christians in Rome [Romans 8:14-17] and through them tells us - we have become true sons and daughters of God the Father and joint heirs with Christ.

The Holy Spirit unites us with the Father in the Body of Christ, the Church. Through the sacraments, Christ continues to communicate the Holy Spirit to the members of his Church. Filled with the same Holy Spirit, we who receive Christ’s body and blood are transformed into one body in Christ, participants in the mission of his Church.

That mission is nothing less than to make disciples of all nations - in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit [Matthew 28:16-20].

Homily for Trinity Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 27, 2018.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Praying the Creeds

I was happilyy impressed several weeks back when the congregation at Barbara Bush's funeral was invited to recite the Creed together as part of the funeral service. One of the many wonderful things about Anglican worship is the prominent inclusion, as a consistent practice in Anglican services, of one or other of the traditional creeds.

The imminence of Trinity Sunday reminds me that this feast was traditionally not only the end of Easter Time but also the day most associated with the so-called "Athanasian Creed," which used to be recited at the Office of Prime on that day (and until 1955 also on many other Sundays of the year). Properly entitled the Symbolum "Quicumque Vult," the "Athanasian Creed" was ascribed at times to Saint Athanasius (c.296-373), but was actually composed in Latin, probably in Gaul, perhaps a century after Athanasius. Ascribed to him because of its strong affirmation of Trinitarian belief, it was Western in both origin and usage. Authorship aside, it remains a remarkably resonant creedal proclamation, fittingly associated with Sundays. (Verses 1-28 are focused on the Trinity; verses 29-44 are primarily christological.) 

The "Athanasian Creed" is just one of the three creeds traditionally used in the Western, Latin liturgical tradition. The creed commonly called the Apostles Creed (Symbolum Apostolicum) used to be recited daily at Prime and Compline. That medieval usage continues in the Anglican daily offices of Matins and Evensong. (I remember how, when I was at Windsor Castle on sabbatical in 2005, we would always turn to face the altar when reciting the Apostles Creed during those daily offices in Saint George's Chapel.) The inexplicable hostility to the liturgical use of creeds on the part of 20th-century liturgical reformers resulted in the Apostles Creed's complete disappearance from the Divine Office in 1955. 

The third creed, sadly now the only one still used in the liturgy, is, of course, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (photo), composed originally in Greek and thus the only creed used in both the Western and Eastern Churches. In the Eastern rites, the Creed remains a regular part of every Divine Liturgy. In the Roman Rite, however, its usage has been much diminished. Formerly used on all Sundays and very many feasts, it is now confined solely to Sundays and "Solemnities." Traditionally one of "the parts of a Sung Mass," the Creed is nowadays more widely recited rather than sung, even in otherwise "sung" celebrations, a dramatic rejection of centuries of liturgical practice, inexplicable except as one more consequence of 20th-century reformers' dubious legacy of hostility to the traditional prominence of creeds' in the liturgy. (Not long ago, it was even worse! For example, in the 1980s I can recall attending Sunday Masses at which the Creed was routinely omitted!)

Lex orandi, lex credendi. Liturgy has always been at the heart of what we do as a Church. Increasingly it may well become the only thing we do - the only experience of Church and religion most people will have in their lives, as an ambient Catholic and Christian culture and the cultural institutions that in the past shared responsibility for forming individuals, families, and society as Catholic Christians continue to weaken and disappear. . The proclamation and profession of an articulated faith in the liturgy, something previous centuries could perhaps take for granted, will therefore be that much more important a part of whatever liturgical experiences people have..

Thursday, May 24, 2018

About That Wedding Sermon

Some 27 or 28 years ago, I attended an Easter Mass at which the preacher began by walking down the church's main aisle pushing a shopping cart with the figures (from the Christmas crib set) of the three wise men. At the pulpit he took them out and began his homily which was structured around telling them the rest of the story, what had happened after they had returned home from Bethlehem. The preacher was a very talented and creative priest, and his performance was superb. To this day, I (and others who were present) can remember it. At the time, I thought it was a very good homily. It probably was. But I honestly don't really remember any of the content. It was the entertaining gimmick that made it memorable, and it is that (not the substance of his message) that we all remember. The obvious lessons I took from that (and other similar experiences) were that a cleverly creative and entertaining homily by a talented preacher will likely be very well received, but that what will be remembered will likely be how clever and entertaining he was - in other words, the preacher not the message

It is less than a week now since the Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry, delivered his now famous address at Britain's royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. He and his talk have been widely praised and perhaps as widely criticized  On the merits, I probably come down somewhere in the middle, there being in my opinion both much to praise in his talk and some things not to praise.

I am no expert on wedding homilies. Other than the (utterly unmemorable) ones I myself have delivered, I have had occasion to listen to very few. From what I have heard, however, from what I have been told by other preachers, my sense is that many wedding homilies try to be highly personal, displaying the preacher's personal knowledge of the couple, perhaps with stories gleaned from conversations at the rehearsal dinner the night before. Compared to that approach, Bishop Curry's sermon was certainly a more traditonal sermon with a real religious message, in fact a good and serious message (even if a bit belabored in its length). Whether it qualified as an effective message about the meaning of Christian marriage or just some generic form of comfortable Christianity can continue to be debated; but it was, as I heard it, a Christian message, however obscured that might now be by the preacher's style and all the responses, which have focused almost entirely on him and his impact on his audience. 

Certainly that suggests the one critique that is easiest to make - that this controversy itself suggests that the sermon has been received primarily as a performance and is being evaluated accordingly. It is primarily the performance (and the preacher himself) that is being either praised or criticized. How many times in the last week have I heard or read that the Bishop's preaching style was so different from what would be more typical at such a formal occasion? That has been said in praise, as well as a critique.  How many times in the last week have I heard or read impressions of its impact both on the congregation in Saint George's and on its world-wide audience. The question of whether the style was appropriate to the occasion is not an illegitimate one, although one has to assume that the royal family's decision to invite him was not made in ignorance of his preaching style. And, if his hearers were reacting (whether positively or negatively) primarily to the preacher himself and less (if at all) to his religious message, that may well be his fault for having preached the way he did. But it may also as much reflect a widespread ignorance of and discomfort with specifically Christian and even more generically religious language and ideas on the part of not a few of those listening - both within the Chapel and beyond its walls.

This highlights an important point about such sermons - that they could actually become evangelizing moments, but are not very likely to do so. That can happen only if the the Christian story (whether the Christian story about marriage specifically or the more general Christian story) is presented attractively, but also clearly - in other words, if the message overwhelms the experience rather than being overwhelmed itself by the aesthetics of the preaching experience. That, it seems to me, was what the then Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, tried to do at the 2011 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. His talk was much, much shorter, much less a display of the preacher's virtuosity and more about something the hearers probably needed to hear - an authentic proclamation of a Christian message about marriage in the modern world. He spoke of bride and groom "making a new life together so that life can flow through them to the future."  (There was no Teilhard de Chardin in his homily, but he did begin with words from Saint Catherine of Siena, whose feast day it happened to be - "Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.") 

William being destined in due time to become king, his wedding was, of course, a much more formal, official state occasion, a factor which should also to be considered before admitting any gratuitous criticism of his younger brother's obviously much less formal event!

Most of us will never preach at a royal wedding or any other occasion with a worldwide audience. But many of us do preach on occasions which bring in many somewhat uninterested or incomprehending listeners. Weddings and funerals, for sure, but also Christmas and Easter. That is why I have always disliked Christmas Eve "Children"s" or "Family" Christmas pageant-Masses, which increasingly seem to me to be such a lost opportunity. Such celebrations are filled with visitors who may be there only for that one occasion. But, instead of hearing an attractive, if challenging, adult message about the meaning of the Christmas story, they are as likely to see and hear confirmed what they already suspect - namely that religion is kid-stuff, possibly very good for children but of little relevance to actual adult life.

But, back to the wedding! In my opinion the only seriously problematic thing about Bishop Curry's talk was its length. If his homily had been, say, half the length it turned out to be, my guess is that reactions would have been different. Like most preachers, he could probably have said most of what he needed to say in half the time anyway! And he would more likely have held his hearers attention, thereby avoiding the appearance of discomfort in the congregation. While practically everyone in the world now knows that he preached about "love," maybe more people might remember his serious and challenging message about love if the homily had been short enough to hold their attention. (I suppose he understood he was going on too long. Hence his presumably humorous aside to the wedding couple that he knew he had to end so that they could get married. That could have been a nice touch - but only if he had actually stopped at that point!)

All in all, I think some of the praise has been excessive - and some of it apparently a somewhat mean-spirited way of mocking the royal family. The criticism, I think, has also been somewhat excessive (except on the issue of length). Some of it too has been somewhat mean-spirited, as if any deviation from some supposedly set pattern of formality were ipso facto offensive. 

A couple of years form now, will anyone remember Bishop Curry's message about love? Or, as happened with that Easter Magi homily, will the preacher himself and the responses he generated be what will be remembered instead?

The message I take away from all this is that it is always problematic when anyone (especially a preacher) draws too much attention to himself - especially when the event is really so obviously meant to be not about you at all!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Impeachment Obsession

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. (The Constitution of the United States, article II, Section 4).

Like so many provisions of our 18th-century Constitution, this one remains subject to multiple competing interpretations. Impeachment's actual role in American history has been modest, a consequence of the few occasions it has been applied, all of which may or may not reflect what the Framers may have actually intended or expected.

Like so much of our American constitutional and legal tradition, impeachment originated in inherited British practice, according to which the House of Commons could accuse someone of a crime leading to a trial in the House of Lords. Since this process did not require royal assent, it could be used by Parliament against officers of the Crown even if they enjoyed the  monarch's support. The monarch him(her)self, however, was above the law and so could not be impeached. Hence the Constitution specified explicitly that the President too would be subject to this process, along with all other "civil officers."

One danger that some might have feared from this would have been that impeachment of legitimately elected Presidents might become a congressional habit and thus evolve into a de facto parliamentary form of government. That has not happened, however. In fact, very few impeachment trials have actually taken place - 19 in all, 15 of federal judges, of whom eight were convicted and removed from office. (One was subsequently elected a member of the House of Representatives, which may say something about how his impeachment was popularly perceived.)

Only two presidents have actually been impeached - Andrew Jackson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Andrew Jackson was arguably one of our very worst presidents. Even so, he was acquitted by one vote, after which his case became a kind of parable against politically motivated impeachments. That was certainly how it was presented to us in school 60 years ago, a view reinforced by JFK's account in Profiles in Courage. The impeachment of Bill Clinton was very obviously politically motivated by a hyper-partisan, out-of-control Republican Congress. Democrats rightly rallied around the President. So there was no serious chance of his ever being convicted by the Senate, and indeed Clinton left office as one of the most popular modern presidents. As the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler (D-NY) has observed, the Clinton impeachment fiasco "showed that a determined majority in the House could impeach a President without legitimate reason." But the electoral price the Republicans paid for their behavior in the 1998 election, Nadler notes, showed that "people disapproved" of what the Republicans did. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) agrees that the Clinton impeachment "blew up in our [Republicans'] faces and helped President Clinton." Impeachment, Graham argues, "has to be bipartisan, or it's going to be a failure."

Yet, in today's even more hyper-partisan atmosphere, impeachment talk has become the rage again in some quarters. One donor, Tom Steyer, has made it a major plank of his platform and apparently has a mailing list of more than 5 million people. Hopefully, most Democrats will resist this temptation! It seems reasonable to guess that the best cause the Republicans could attach themselves to in this election year could be persuading their voters to come out and re-elect Republicans, if only to avoid another hyper-partisan impeachment that would attempt to negate the previously expressed will of the electorate! 

And it is not as if there weren't a lot of important policy issues that the Democrats could run on! Why, one wonders, would any party imperil its case with the voters by tying itself to a possible impeachment which would likely fail in the Senate anyway or, at best, would merely saddle the country with Mike Pence?

In the wake of the Andrew Johnson fiasco, few ever expected impeachment to be employed against a president again, except in the most extreme case of criminality or malfeasance. Watergate precedents notwithstanding, that is the way it probably should stay. Judges have lifetime appointments. So impeachment is obviously the only available avenue when a judge proves unworthy. Presidents, however, are elected; and so, absent an extremely compelling case of criminality or malfeasance, broadly recognized as such in society, the will of the electorate (even if originally distorted by the Electoral College) deserves to be upheld for the allotted term (after which an unsatisfactory president may either retire voluntarily or be involuntarily voted out). The alternative of undoing an election would, on the contrary, be even more divisive, even more de-legitimizing of our political process, and even more subversive of our essential civic institutions.

The present Administration's contemptible campaign to subvert and de-legitimize institutions like the FBI has already succeeded in creating a constituency prepared to believe that an effort at impeachment would be nothing more than an illegitimate partisan attempt to undo an election (a repeat of the 1998 Republican-led Clinton impeachment effort). Indeed, in today's NY Times, Frank Bruni cited a CBS News poll that several weeks ago showed that fewer Americans believed Mueller’s investigation to be legitimate (44 percent) than to be politically driven (53 percent)! 

Given the likely partisan make-up of the Senate for the foreseeable future, such an effort would probably fail anyway, at even greater cost to our national unity, to civility, and to the perceived legitimacy of our political processes and our essential civic institutions.

It is our institutions - all of them - that need strengthening. Healthy, properly functioning civic, social, and political institutions are the best remedy against executive malfeasance, which is why their weakness at the present juncture is so lamentable and dangerous. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

"The Birthday of the Church"

This year, the Jewish and Christian calendars coincide, much as they did then, when (according to the Gospel of John) Jesus was crucified on the eve of Passover (14 Nisan). Just as Good Friday fell again this year on Passover eve, Shavuot and Pentecost likewise coincide this year, both occurring today, Sunday, May 20, which makes this a good occasion to recall and highlight the connection between them.

Pentecost is a Greek word referring to the 50th day – originally the 50th day (the 6th day of Sivan, the 3rd month) after Passover and in Christian usage the 50th day of Easter. Its Hebrew name, Shavuot, means “weeks,” a reference to the seven weeks that began with Passover. Shavuot was the second of the three great pilgrimage feasts in the Jewish calendar and originated as a joyful thanksgiving for the early summer harvest, when two loaves, made from new flour, would be offered to God as the first fruits of the grain harvest. To commemorate this, Jews now eat two meals on the day of Shavuot — an earlier dairy meal, and then later a festive meat meal.
Over time, Shavuot became primarily a commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which (according to Exodus 19) happened early in the 3rd month, seven weeks after Israel’s escape from Egypt. Recalling this, on the first night of Shavuot (this year, Pentecost eve), Jews throughout the world keep an all-night vigil dedicated to receiving the Commandments anew. The Book of Ruth is read. Ruth, of course, was King David's grandmother. She was also originally a Gentile.

The modern Roman Missal provides for a Pentecost Vigil, an option which is, I suspect, seldom used. In the early Church, however, Pentecost paralleled Easter as a baptismal feast. Out of that evolved a Vigil liturgy on Saturday morning, which (until its abolition in 1955) replicated much of the traditional Holy Saturday morning rite. Celebrated in violet vestments, it began with repeating 6 of the 12 Holy Saturday prophecies and the blessing of the baptismal font, followed by the Litany of the Saints, all just like on Holy Saturday. The vigil concluded with a festive Mass (in red) which anticipated Pentecost, just as the Easter Vigil seven weeks earlier had concluded with a festive Mass anticipating Easter. All that is gone now, of course, along with the Pentecost Octave that previously paralleled the Easter Octave.

Just as summer fulfills the promise of spring, the giving of the commandments fulfilled the promise of nationhood, of which the exodus event itself had been but the beginning and of which David's kingdom would be the flowering. So too, the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost fulfilled the promise of the resurrection, transforming the disciples from frightened friends of an absent Jesus into faith-filled witnesses testifying to the whole world, Gentiles and Jews alike.

Pentecost is often called “the birthday of the Church,” since it was as a direct result of their having received the gift of the Holy Spirit during the festival of Shavuot that followed Jesus’ Ascension that the apostles began their mission – the Church’s mission – of preaching the Gospel to the whole world - thus fulfilling and completing the promise of Easter and carrying it out into the world of day-to-day life and work.

Liturgically, Pentecost marks the transition from Easter Time to Ordinary Time – the time of fulfillment, the time of the Church, when the promise of the resurrection takes effect in daily life. Just as the new life promised by spring continues into summer, the new life promised by the Risen Christ continues in our world in his Church. In that sense, Pentecost is the annual liturgical observance of what happens every week with the transition from Sunday to Monday. From our Sunday celebration around the unleavened bread which has become the body of our Risen Lord, we are sent forth, to renew the face of the earth as one body and one spirit in Christ, as the Risen Lord’s permanent presence in the leavened bread of our daily lives in the world.