28 February 2006

Paczki Day

I find myself falling into this trap every year, and this year is no different. The trap? Time to party before the fast.

But that's backwards, isn't it! You fast to feast. You don't feast to fast.

Yet the corrupted nature loves to try to cram in as many "forbiddens" (and even take in as many sins) knowing that tomorrow you will worthily lament the sins and acknowledge the wretchedness.

Yet isn't this completely contrary to the spirit of the fast? For the Lenten fast exists not so that we can be bad before we are good. Rather, it is given so that we might learn, each day of the year, to discipline our bodies and reign in our passions and control our selves. In other words, we fast not to shape up for 40 days, but to remind ourselves how we really ought to live for 365.

This doesn't mean you can't eat a paczki. It does mean that restraint is the order of the day--even today.

27 February 2006

Defective Fallen Nature?

On this blog, a commenter has stated that the Orthodox have a defective understanding of the fallen nature. As that thought was rolling around in my head, I came across the following from another reader of this blog that I thought would be of interest here.

Chris Jones wrote elsewhere:

The Orthodox Church certainly does not deny the doctrine of original sin. Where they differ from the usual Western, Augustinian formulation of the doctrine is as follows: They do not teach that we share in the guilt of Adam's sin. Instead they teach that sin and death have damaged us in such a way that we cannot do other than sin. But only when we actually sin do we bear the guilt of it. Not bearing the guilt of Adam's sin does not mean, however, that we could somehow attain salvation apart from grace. The fall leaves us in a state of sin because we are separated from God and bereft of grace, and are incapable of repairing that separated condition from our own strength. That remains true despite the fact that we are not personally guilty of Adam's sin. The second point where the Orthodox differ is on the manner in which "original sin" is transmitted. The "fully Augustinian" position is that original sin is transmitted through sexual reproduction, on account of the concupiscence involved in sexual intercourse. The Orthodox do not teach this, but are pretty agnostic as to how original sin is transmitted. They point most often to our mortality itself as that which makes sin inevitable. As the writer to the Hebrews says, fallen humanity may be describes as all those who through the fear of death were all their lifetime in bondage to him that had the power of death - that is, the devil. (Hb. 2:14 & 2:15)

Counsel that Gives Pause

Somewhere 50,000 feet up, between Dallas and Atlanta, I happened upon this sentence from St Maximos the Confessor. I found it to be most humbling, calling to mind the many times I've not followed the saint's counsel--especially when reading blogs.

The words are from the last sentence in St Maximos' introduction to The Four Hundred Texts [Sentences] on Love. This particular translation is from the latest translation of the Philokalia.

If a man reads this or any other work not to gain spiritual benefit but to track down matter with which to abuse the author, so that in his conceit he can show himself to be the more learned, nothing profitable will ever be revealed to him in anything.

25 February 2006

Lesions & Tumors

It's not always good to point out the flaws in your mother--especially when those flaws are rather ugly. However, it is not only good but necessary to urge your mother to seek medical attention when she exhibits the symptoms of deadly cancer. And to urge her sometimes means to point out ugly lesions and tumors.

The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, in which I was nutured in the Faith, exhibits the symptoms of deadly cancer. And they get uglier, and more noticeable, all the time. Take, for instance, the answer given to a very important question in the Q&A section of the February 2006 Lutheran Witness (the official periodical of the LCMS).

The question (which doesn't appear in the online version) asks "who is allowed to bless the wafers and wine for distribution at Communion." It occurs because, since 1989, the LCMS has officially permitted lay presidency; i.e., that the unordained may celebrate the sacraments and serve as a "lay minister." The questioner mistakenly believes that this lay celebration occurs only in small rural churches so that "if the church is located in, say, ... Detroit ..., only an ordained minister has this privilege" of being the celebrant.

It is my understanding that the answers provided in this regular column are always vetted through the LCMS Commission on Theology & Church Relations. This one begins with laying to rest the misconception of the double standard (to which I add my attestation; for the nearest LCMS parish to my own in inner-city Detroit is served by an unordained man). The answer then goes on to defend this heretical and ungodly practice--and in the most disingenuous way.

In the first place, the answer quite simply (and most deliberately, I suggest) ignores Augustana XIV which forthrightly confesses that no one may preach or teach or administer the Sacraments in an Evangelical-Lutheran Church unless he is called according to the rite (i.e., ordained).

Because of this, the answerer decidedly forgets the history of congregations (or scattered faithful men and women) in remote locations who refused to take it upon themselves to exercise the pastoral office, but rather yearned for and rejoiced at the arrival of a pastor riding his "circuit" who would then perform baptisms, weddings, and administer communion for that remote band.

Worse of all, however, is the common gnostic error of supposing one can have the Word of God apart the Lord's ministry; which is carried further by the lie that the Lord never really instituted a ministry. The defense for such heresy is a refusal to distinguish between the unworthy (i.e., impious or immoral) priest from the false prophet. Following the only sensible reading of Scripture (i.e., the Tradition), Apology VII/VIII takes great pains to state that one must flee the false teacher while one may continue to receive Holy Communion from the man whose personal sanctity is in question. In short, immorality does not equal heresy.

Based on this gnostic logic, the unordained are not seen as false or heretical but merely as no different or better than the impious and immoral. Or, truth be told, such is not even considered. For a disincarnate, disembodied Word--regardless of where it sounds--is the final trump card. Hence the argument that "it is the Word of God's promise attached to the elements that grants these great blessings to those who believe."

Such gnostic logic urges one uncharitably to speculate that someone has considered--or is considering--offering the sacraments via a weblink. For, after all, if the "word" is all that matters, then why have a person present at all--especially when many have already adopted the habit of distributing communion by merely passing around the plate.

And so the tumor grows, and the lesion worsens.

Home Again, Home Again

After some R & R and a chance to see my brother in Dallas, I've returned home to Detroit. For me, R & R means only the most necessary communications--otherwise I don't get "R" or "R."

Now that I've returned, I look forward to answering comments and posting more of my considerations.

13 February 2006

Earnestly & Fervently

For those utilizing the historic Western lectionary and the Western way of calculating Easter--that is, for a handful of traditionalist Lutherans, the Anglo-Catholics, Tridentine Catholics (but not the Western Rite Orthodox)--Septuagesima began yesterday. In other words, it's 9 weeks (or roughly 70 days) until Easter. (Go here for an overview of the Septuagesima season.)

This is truly a unique time in the Church Year. For the per annum color of green gives way to the purple of Lent; yet the fast has not yet begun. So how do we keep these days?

As recounted in Dom Prosper Gueranger's "The Liturgical Year," we have this advice from a sermon by St Ivo of Chartres (a 12th century saint):

During these days, we must do what we do at all seasons of the year, only we must do it more earnestly and fervently: we must sigh and weep after our country [heaven], from which we were exiled in consequence of having indulged in sinful pleasure; we must redouble our efforts in order to regain it by compunction and weeping of heart. ... Let us now shed tears in the way, that we may afterwards be glad in our country. Let us now so run the race of this present life, that we may make sure of "the prize of the supernal vocation." (Phil 3.14) Let us not be imprudent wayfarers, forgetting our country, and preferring our banishment to our home. Let us not become like those senseless invalids, who feel not their ailments, and seek no remedy. We despair of the sick man who will not be persuaded that he is in danger. No; let us run to our Lord, the physician of eternal salvation. Let us show Him our wounds, and cry out to Him with all our earnestness: "Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak: heal me, for my bones are troubled." (Ps 6.3) Then will He forgive us our iniquities, heal us of our infirmities, and satisfy our desire with good things. (Ps 102.3,5)

Scripture & Tradition

Much time and ink (or pixel) is expended on the relationship between the Scriptures and Tradition. The common misunderstanding, on both sides of the fence, is that these are two separate things. I propose that, in fact, they are not. Rather, they are one in the same.

By that, I do not mean that Tradition is nothing more than the words found in the Bible. Nor do I mean that the words in the Bible are simply a starting point for Tradition. Rather, to say that Scripture and Tradition are of a piece means that they cannot be thought of separately; nor can they be torn apart. Rather, they are (if I may) of the same essence; i.e., consubstantial.

Before submerging into deeper waters, let me borrow a working definition of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. The late Prof Dr George Florovsky (as quoted by Prof Dr John Behr) says that "Tradition is, as Florovsky put it commenting on Irenaeus, Scripture rightly understood." Or, as Behr himself says, "tradition is essentially the right interpretation of Scripture." With their adherance to a quia subscription to the 1580 Book of Concord, Evangelical-Lutherans hold to this same definition. For them, the Book of Concord is what all others call Tradition; yet it is not separate from the Scriptures but, as one theologian once put it, the lens through which we read the Scriptures.

Now, into deeper waters. To help clarify the confusion of Scripture and Tradition as two separate things, let me suggest that the relationship between Scripture and Tradition is no different than the relationship between the Second and Third Persons of the Holy Blessed Trinity. The Second Person is forthrightly called "the Word of God which became flesh." (Jn 1.14) And the Third Person is the Breath of God handed down (or, if I may, "traditioned") to the Apostles so that they might rightly know and interpret the Word which is Jesus. (Notice: Jesus Himself says that He gives the Spirit to bring to [right] remembrance all that He said; that the Spirit will teach the things to come; and that the Spirit is theTruth's Spirit.)

What I'm arguing for, then, is this: like Jesus and the Spirit, Scripture and Tradition are consubstantial. Yet, also like Jesus and the Spirit, they have separate "hypostasis" since they can be distinguished. Yet distinguished does not mean separated. And neither does it mean "acting apart" or "acting in opposition." So like Jesus and the Spirit, Scripture and Tradition cannot be at odds with each other. They must work in concert. When they don't then either Tradition is not Tradition; or Scripture is not being rightly read.

There is, of course, much more than can and should be said about this challenging topic. But for now, I simply propose this consubstantial understanding or relationship between Scripture and Tradition.

Invisible Visibility

C. F. W. Walther, first president of The Lutheran Chuch--Missouri Synod, once presented and explained a series of theses entitled "The Evangelical Lutheran Church [is] the True Visible Church of God on Earth." Contrary to his title, he did not point to any actual communion. Rather, he pointed to the doctrine of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church as it is expressed in the 1580 Book of Concord.

A contemporary antagonist, J K Wilhelm Löhe made the same move in his "Three Books Concerning the Church." Like Walther, he doesn't identify a particular Lutheran communion as the true visible church, but rather a set of documents which, when confessed and practiced, reveal where the true visible church may be found.

I've always found this move not only dissatisfying, but also slightly disingenuous. Not that these pious men were purposefully disingenous. Swimming in the morass of what 19th century Lutheranism had become, they were genuinely trying to call the Lutheran Church back to its roots and urging it to live up to its own confessional standard. However, in their heralding, I find it significant that they could not or would not say, "Here, in the inter-communion of these churches--here is where this true visible church is."

To be sure, Walther honestly attempted to make the LCMS that communion which was in this "true visible church." However, I again find it significant that he refused to say that his own communion--together with whatever communions the LCMS was in communion with--constituted that "true visible church."

In the end, then, what he and Löhe (and others) argued for was what I would call "invisible visibility." In other words, the true church is manifest--but only in a way that no one can see it. To my way of thinking, this is rather a dis-incarnate way of identifying the ecclesial Body of Christ.


I feel like a baseball player who's trying to figure out what to do with this flat thing they call a bat in a strangely run game called (of all things) cricket. Why? Not only am I new to blogging, I'm also new to reading blogs. So I'm clueless on the protocols and, especially, the "blogging tradition." So here comes this blog-tagging game, and I'm it. Thanks, Fr Weedon.

Four Jobs I've Had:
Butcher's janitor
House painter/Roof layer
Priest, O.M.

Four Movies I Watch Over and Over Again:
Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Finding Forrester
Drowning Mona

Four TV Shows I Watch:

I really don't watch much TV. But when I do:
Who's Line is it Anyway
History Channel (whatever's playing)
M*A*S*H reruns

Four Places I've Lived:
Mankato MN
Peoria IL
Milwaukee WI
Juniata NE

Four Places I've Vacationed:
San Lorenzo CA
Mesquite TX
Colorado Rockies
San Bernadino CA

Four Websites I visit daily:

The Roman Breviary
Weedon's Blog

Four of My Favorite Foods:

Prime Rib & Lobster
Duckhorn 2002 Merlot (fruit)
Fine Cigars (vegetable)
Lagavulin 16 yr old Scotch (grain)

Four Places I'd like to be right now:
My chair, reading St Maximus the Confessor or St Cyril of Alexandria
Eighth Day Books
HoHoKam Park
Listening to Pope Benedict XVI preach

Four Bloggers I'm Tagging:
Ben Anderson
Ben Harju
Ben Johnson
Dave Petersen

This is The Body of Christ

Quoting myself from Addendum III

Therefore, we ought not simply point at one congregation and say, “This is the Body of Christ.” We also ought to point at a group of congregations—churches in communion fellowship with each other because of Christ’s sacramental presence—and say, “This group of churches, this communion fellowship, this institution is the Body of Christ.”

So Our Lord’s churchly presence is not unlike His physical or sacramental presence. Because Our Lord took flesh, we can and must point to Jesus and say, “This man is God.” Because of Our Lord’s Word and Spirit, we can and must point to the consecrated bread and say, “This bread is Christ’s Body.” In the same way, we can and must point to a communion fellowship that holds to the true faith and say, “This is the Body of Christ—God’s church on earth.”

Congregations & Church

The danger with a congregational polity is that, sooner or later, someone will believe that this is the way things really are. And so the Church will be reduced both perspectively (where it is from where I sit) and existentially (where it is for me now).

The problem with this perspectival and existentialist (that is to say, congregationalist) undestanding of church is the same as the problem with saying that the blessed dead are dead to us and our concerns; namely, there is no sense in communion beyond ourself (which, eventually, must be reduced to "communion beyond myself"). In other words, to reduce the defintion of Church to "local congregation" is individualistic and isolationist. But worse yet, it does violence to the organic view of the Church as Christ's Body (St Paul) or as children of God (Old Testament).

A friend of mine has recently remarked that "[t]he genius of the Lutheran Confessions is to identify every congregation of baptized believers, even as small as two or three, gathered by the Holy Spirit around the office of Christ that preaches the Gospel of Christ and administers His Sacraments, as a genuine manifestation of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church in its fullness."

Now, certainly there is truth in this remark. For it is most certainly true that where two or three are gathered, there is Christ in the midst--and therefore, the whole Church on heaven and earth. We admit as much when we confess that the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven joining in our Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. However, when one sees that there is truth in a remark, one must quickly ask, "Is that all? Is that the fullness of the Truth?"

Using St Paul's primordial definition as understood through St Ignatius et al., I would suggest that a full understanding of Church includes what might be termed a "trans-parochial communion." In other words, right-believing, right-worshipping congregations must be organically (and not simply noetically) in communion with all other right-believing, right-worshipping congregations. To do otherwise is schism. And for a right-believing, right-worshipping congregation to be in communion with heretical congregations (heretical, that is, whether in proclamation or in practice) is to be heterodox--"other than right-believing."

This "trans-parochial communion" has historically been defined as communion among the bishops who hold to the apostolic tradition. This tradition is not "custom" or "cultural baggage" but, as St Paul says, the prayed kerygma (lex orandi, lex credendi) of the apostles (see 2 Thes 2.15; 2 Thes 3.6); or, in a word, the Holy Spirit. For it is the Third Person of the Trinity who bound together the apostles, and their converts, in one fellowship united in the same faith and liturgy (Acts 2).

When we look at the Twelve on Pentecost Day, we see not twelve little congregations who happen to have the same thing. Rather, we see one Church which will shortly be diffused in twelve or more places. And they remain one Church precisely because they remain not noetically, but actually, organically and ontologically in communion. And that is how it should be--that we Christians are not simply knitted to the folks we see on Sundays at the place we've chosen as our safe-haven; but that we are knitted together into one body and communion in which all the saints participate in the divine nature. And that body is Christ. And His Body is the Church.

12 February 2006

Today's Sermon

Below is an excerpt from today's sermon based on the parable of the workers in the vineyard. To read the entire sermon, subscribe to ZIONNEWS.

Like the landowner in today’s Gospel, our heavenly Father goes out time after time, hour by hour, to beckon us into His Church; to summon us to return to His home; and to urge us to tend His garden—just as He first created us to do.

Time after time, hour by hour, Our Father calls us to Himself. First He uses patriarchs; then prophets; then St Johnthe Baptizer; then the holy apostles. And now, in these last days, He issues His loving invitation through bishops who retain the apostolic faith and remain in communion with the saints. Through these preachers, and through faithful priests, parents and laymen, Our Father continues to extend His mercy. No one can question His persistence. No one can say that He’s not done enough.

Yet grumbling is often heard. The grumbling that says that our benevolent Master has not been benevolent enough. The grumbling that insists that we, who deserve nothing, deserve more. And so we hear the grumbling, complaining, moaning and whining of the dissatisfied, the ungrateful, the lazy and the complacent. And often the mouth that produces such grating and annoying noise is our own. For like those workers we believe that the Father is dealing with us not out of mercy, but out of justice. And we want our just desserts. We demand fair treatment. We insist that the Lord study our case, confident that He will conclude that He should give us even more.

Beware of what you demand from the Lord. Beware of being your own lawyer—especially in the Lord’s field. For a vineyard is not where lawyers practice; a church is not a courthouse; and demanding justice and fairness requires that sympathy and mercy be set aside. And beware of turning your Father into your Judge. For He has already made a judgment on your behalf—a judgment to set aside your sin, and to sacrifice His Son, and to re-send His Spirit. He has already judged that, to save your life, He must not deal with you as He really ought; rather, He must have mercy.

Let us consider the mercy of Our Father. He gives it to us through His Son in His Holy Spirit. Let us consider this unforced work that the Trinity has performed for our salvation—and that He continues to perform in us so that we might not lose what He has given; so that He might return us to the kingdom that we walked away from.

Let us consider the mercy of our great God and Savior. Consider how full and rich it is. For His mercy gives us our bread, His mercy blesses us with home and family, His mercy allows us to continue drawing our breath, and His mercy wards off the devil and delivers us from evil.

11 February 2006

Mercy -- To Us, For Others

I can’t decide which is harder—to say “I’m sorry” or to say “I forgive you.”

Based on my own personal experience as well as the experience of observing and encouraging parishioners, I know that both statements are very difficult to say with conviction. This is especially true when the hurt is deeply felt; or when you’re embarrassed, ashamed or frightened by what you’ve done.

When that’s the case, it’s a lot easier for us to ignore the situation or seal ourselves off from others. It’s a lot easier to make like nothing happened, and hope the problem goes away. And it’s a lot easier to hold a grudge, or blame someone (or something) else for the wrong we’ve done.

On the one hand, we’re afraid that if we apologize it won’t be accepted; or worse yet, that another confrontation will occur. And on the other hand, we’re afraid that if we forgive, then the other person will think everything’s back to normal, or that the offense meant nothing.

Do you see how much we are controlled by our fears? Our fear of talking to another person keeps us from apologizing. And our fear of being abused keeps us from forgiving.

Because of our fears, we falsely assume that it’s best if we simply don’t deal directly with the person who wronged us—or who we wronged. Oh, we’ll complain to others and talk about what someone has done (or not done) to us. But we falsely (and, often, stubbornly) believe that it’s easier and better—for them and you—just to avoid the other person.

I’m convinced that we so easily avoid the hard thing of saying “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” because we’re so practiced at it. How many people do you avoid at work or in your family simply because you can’t bring yourself to say “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you”? How many grudges do you carry? How many times have you left or avoided an event just because the other person was there—and you didn’t want to (or were afraid to) run into them?

Yet that is not how the mercy of Our Lord calls us to act. Precisely because that is not how Our Lord acted toward us.

Consider this: When Adam & Eve, when Cain, when the children of Israel, or when the Jewish leaders offended Our God and Lord, did He simply write them off? Did He ignore and avoid them? Did He run from them, or act as if they didn’t exist? Or did He seek them out, and reach out to them, and extend His forgiving hand, and offer the way to make amends? In short, did He do whatever it takes to achieve reconciliation?

Granted, in many of these instances—to get our attention or theirs—Our Lord speaks harshly and sternly. But even that is better than avoiding and ignoring. And so even Our Lord’s harsh speaking and threats are motivated by His mercy for us—and His desire to be reconciled to us.

Love and mercy—that’s what motivates Our Lord God to sacrifice His Son on the cross. For love and mercy are at the heart of reconciliation. His love for us—each of us—moves Our Father to do whatever He can to reconcile us to Himself. And this He does, even though we are the ones that wronged Him—and that continue to wrong Him (especially when we wrong each other).

Do you see what great lengths our heavenly Father goes to in order to repair what we damaged, and to bridge the gap between us and Him? St. Paul reminds us that “He did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all” (Rom 8.32). And in another place, the Apostle reminds us that God send His pastors and priests to us in order to accomplish His ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5.17-20).

We are grateful that Our Lord does not treat us as we treat each other; that He continually offers us reconciliation in His Son; and that He does not take the easier road, but does the most painful and necessary thing. In short, we are grateful for His mercy and love.

But do we understand that being reconciled to God means that we also ought to be reconciled to each other; that we ought not let grudges linger; that we ought not hold things against anyone else—especially if he or she is of the household of faith? For that is the point when St Paul pleads with us to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5.20). God has already reconciled us to Himself. For us to be reconciled to Him, we ought to be reconciled to one another.

That means we need to do the hard thing by saying either “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.” (Have you noticed that often you need to say both?) And it also means that we need to put away our fears by saying those words to all who need to hear them—Christian or not; stranger or loved one; member or non-member.

For to this you have been called by the mercy of God: to live in the mercy that He has shown and given and poured into you.

Of course that’s not easy! But it is necessary. And, most importantly, it is our Life in God.


I had a parishioner once encourage me to repeat my sermons every so often. "After all," said he, "we all like to watch reruns of our favorite TV shows."

Others have encouraged the same with the reasoning that my sermons tend to be rather compact in use of language and thought, and so there is benefit to a second hearing.

Therefore, extending this advice to this forum, from time to time I'll be "re-running" a few items that have been first made available, over the years, at the ZIONNEWS email list. I hope those who have seen them before don't mind seeing them again.

10 February 2006

Interceding Saints

NOTE: I've built this post off the first part of a sermon I preached on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (the Gospel of Jesus changing the water into wine).

The holy Apostle Saint James reminds us to pray to the Lord for one another because the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much (Jas 5.16 KJV). If that is true—if the prayer of a righteous man is so beneficial, so helpful, so advantageous to us—then how much more so the fervent prayer of the most righteous person of all; the one hand picked by the Father to give flesh and give birth to His only-begotten Son? If the fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much, how much more so the fervent prayer of the all holy Mother of God?

In the account of Jesus' miracle at Cana, we see that the Blessed Virgin's prayer avails much. We see the benefit of her intercession on behalf of who attend the wedding at Cana. For surely, she prays for them. It’s not a long prayer. It’s not an eloquent prayer. But it is a prayer nevertheless when St. Mary says, They have no wine. And her prayer is no different then when we pray, plead, sigh, or cry out to the Lord and say, “Lord, we’re in a tight spot. We don’t know where to turn or what to do next. We’re trying hard to do the right thing—to live as you want us to. But we’re weak and at our wits end. Have mercy, Lord, and help us.”

It is a great comfort to know that whenever we pray to the Lord, whenever we cry out, the saints join us in prayer. They pray with us. They intercede for us. And if that episode at Cana is any indication, the Blessed Mother of God leads their prayers, and urges the saints and angels on—all for our sake. And, in fact, I will be so bold as to say that the intercession of the saints, led by the holy Mother, is one of the ways in which the Holy Spirit makes intercession for us. As St Paul says, the Spirit helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And since the saints—and all the faithful—pray in the Spirit, it is through their prayers that the Spirit intercedes for us.

It is a great comfort to be reminded, in liturgy and hymn, that the saints intercede for us. For it reminds us that we never pray alone. But more than that, when it seems as if the Lord has not heard our prayer; when it feels as if He has brushed our concerns aside as too petty and too insignificant; when it looks as if He won’t come through for us, as if we’re too much bother for Him—then the prayers and intercessions of the saints lead us to greater faith in the Lord since we have the Apostle’s forthright promise that the prayers and intercessions of these holy righteous saintly men and women of God avail much.

Yet the focus of our comfort better not end simply with the acknowledgement that the saints pray for us. For the emphasis is not on "the prayer of the righteous," but on the "avails much." Therefore, the prayers of Blessed Mary and the prayers of all the saints point us forward to the hope of our salvation, and to the means by which the Lord answers all our prayers. For what happens at Cana? After Jesus hears the prayer of His mother, He then changes the water into wine.

In the same way, hearing the prayers of the righteous men and women on our behalf, Our Lord acts for our good. Not, mind you, because they told Him to and He got off the stick. But He acts in concert with their prayers. They say, "Lord have mercy"--fully confident that He will--and He is merciful--knowing that they've asked.

Lutheran Hymns & Prayers to the Dead

I've sung (and loved) these hymns for years. Yet only in the past 3-4 years have I really taken notice of what I've sung. But, I would guess, that is not so unusual. Otherwise familiar stories (like the Good Samaritan) would not cause us "ah-ha" moments when we see something we hadn't seen before--even though we could recite the story verbatim.

Two hymns, in particular, have intrigued me recently. I'm intrigued not as much by the particular words as by who is addressed by those words. These hymns are "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones" and "Oh, How Blest Are Ye Whose Toils Are Ended."

What's intriguing is found when I ask this question: "To whom are we speaking when we sing the words in these hymns." For "Ye Watchers," the answer is that we are not addressing God at all. Rather, we are speaking to the angels (stanza 1); the Blessed Virgin Mary (stanza 2); the Old & New Testament saints (stanza 3); and then either the "friends" standing next to us or the "friends" who have preceded us in death (stanza 4). In either case, we're not speaking to any member of the Holy Trinity. Rather, in at least three if not four of the stanzas, we're speaking to "dead folks"--those who are alive in the Lord even though their years on earth have ended. And throughout the hymn, we are entreating or praying for them to reamain faithful in their prayers to the Holy Blessed Trinity.

In "Oh, How Blest," we are likewise speaking to "dead folks"--in this case, those dear to us who have preceded us in death (i.e., the Faithful Departed)--until we reach the final stanza. In the first five stanzas, we are not asking anything of the Blessed Dead as much as we are rejoicing at their heavenly repose while bemoaning our continued mortality. In the last stanza we finally address Our Lord Jesus, begging Him to come soon to release us since in Him alone do we receive the "joy and rest appointed."

In both of these fine hymns, we are addressing the blessed dead. In the first, we pray to the saints asking them to continue their intercessions to God. In the second, we proclaim to the Faithful Departed our joy that they are released from the cares of this life, and our desire to be reunited with them quickly.

09 February 2006

Wheat & Tares II

Here is the homily I preached at yesterday's Mass, which resumed the Mass for Epiphany V. It weaves St Augustine's intrepretation of the parable with that of St Isidore of Pelusium, who suggests that the tares are the evils that live within the person.

So that our faith may be firmly grounded in Our Lord and His Word, so that we may not lose heart but trust in God against the evidence of what we see and feel around us, and so that we might know and understand the relentless determination and persistence of the devil—that is part of the reason why Our Lord tells us the parable of the wheat and the tares. For Our Lord knows that our faith is weak and that we are easily discouraged. And He knows that the devil haunts us continually and wishes us to be in misery. And He knows that the life of the Christian is a life of constant cross-bearing. And He knows how easy it is for us to give into our despair, to shake our fist at God, to take the path of least resistance, and to see our faith and religion not as what matters most but simply as one of many segments of life that pull us in several directions.

So for this reason, Our Lord reminds us that with the faith He gives also comes many trials and frustrations, temptations and crosses, often at the hands of our family and companions in the faith. For where Our Lord plants the good seed of faith, there the devil plants the weeds of false hopes and fears. And where the Lord plants the good seed of His righteousness within us, there the devil plants within us the weeds of doubts and despair. But most of all where the Lord plants the good seed of sons of the kingdom who live from true faith and love in Him, then here comes the devil planting the weeds of wicked men who plot and strive against us and whose desire it is to uproot our hope in God. Or perhaps you can better understand it this way: “Where God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel.”

The parable Our Lord tells, then, comforts us by telling us that what we endure, what we must bear, what others may do to us is nothing new or unexpected. For if the church of God in Jerusalem crucified God’s own Son, why should we fare any better? And if one of the Lord’s own disciples betrayed Him, why should we be surprised when we are betrayed by fellow Christians? And if the Lord’s disciples forsook Him and fled, do not be surprised when men and women you know and trust slink away from you and do not hold your hand in your darkest moments. Only do not let such a temptation overtake you. But pray to the Lord that He give you the strength and courage to stand firm in the faith and to be His aid and comfort to your brothers and sisters in the Lord when their hour of need comes.

That is the first thing that we learn in today’s Gospel. And the second is much more profound and yet also much more comforting. So you must pay attention especially to these words: “No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them.”

What else can that little sentence indicate except the never-ending mercy of Our God and Lord? For He does not deal with us as He was dealt with. He does not say, “Better that one die than that the whole church is wiped out”—as Caiphas said before Our Lord’s trial. Instead, Our Lord is so sure of His Word, so sure of His promises, so sure that the devil with all His might and power and subtlety and cunning cannot and will not undo His elect—so sure is Our Lord of His victory over death and the grave that He allows the wicked to stand with the good, even as He also allows sin to adhere to our flesh while He feeds us with His own flesh and blood.

“Let both grow together”—both sin and righteousness, both the just and the unjust, both faith and despair. “Let them both grow together,” Our Lord says. “For My Word, My promise, My Gospel, My preaching, My Sacraments shall prevail. My saving Word shall not be overcome or undone, but shall continue to fight fearlessly against the assaults of the devil and for the good of all those who put their trust in Me. Let them both grow together, for the living shall praise Me and I will not allow My holy ones to see corruption. And who knows—perhaps the wicked will still be converted by the faith and love of the good; perhaps My light shall shine through the faithful so that they might bear the fruit of good works for the salvation of the unjust; and perhaps their patience and perseverance in the faith will be the true and lasting witness that will cause the unconverted to return to Me. If not, so be it. But because I desire not the death of man but that he turn from his sin and live, for this reason let them both grow together.”

Take heart, then, in the parable that Our Lord tells us today. He does not wish to discourage you, but to encourage your steadfast faith in Him. And in doing so, He strengthens and preserves your godly hope, even as He continues to feed and nourish His faithful and righteous by means of His Son’s own broken body and shed blood.

Parables & Ecclesiology

Several parables of Jesus have been applied to ecclesiology—the Church’s understanding of herself. One is the parable of the wheat and tares (Mt 13.24-30).

This parable is misunderstood if it is interpreted to mean that the tares are wicked priests or badly behaving Christians. As St Augustine points out, the Lord later says, “The field is the world” (Mt 13.38). Therefore, “He doth not thereby directly speak of the Church, [so] we may with good reason understand the seed of evil-doers to be the hereticks, since in this world they are mingled together with the good, not in one common Communion, but only under one common name of Christian.” (Liber Quæst. Evang. in Matth. cap. 11, tom. 4)

In other words, in this parable the Lord indicates that he mercifully permits heresy to grow up alongside the Church. However, this mercy does not give Christians permission to remain in communion with heretics. Quite forcefully, St Paul reminds us that communion with heretics is prohibited. (See, for example, 2 Thes 3.6 & Titus 3.10 esp in the KJV). Where those in heretical communions ought to go is another question for another day…

The misunderstanding of this parable, however, coincides with a similar misunderstanding among Christians—a misunderstanding fueled, I would suggest, by a flattening of the word “sin” coupled with a fiercely held belief in the primacy of the invisible church.

The misunderstanding goes something like this:

  1. The church in its visible manifestation is not perfect.
  2. That imperfection is seen by the bad actions of Christians.
  3. Those bad actions range from moral imperfections (meanness, impiety, abuse) to false teaching (heresy).
  4. Nevertheless, the church’s communion is not invalidated by those bad actions since the Lord says, “Let the wheat and tares grow together.”

The error in this syllogism is in the third point: the equation of moral imperfections with false teaching. In Apology VII, the 1580 Book of Concord rightly distinguishes between “wicked priests” (i.e., impious and immoral men) and “false teachers” (heretics). The former are in view when Luther talks about “the devil and his grandmother” giving a valid communion; but the latter we are to flee from with all haste since they deliberately, persistently, and willfully deny the faith.

If one flattens sin to include any breach (however small) of any of the commandments (as if the order doesn’t matter), then there is no reason to flee heretics. And if the church is primarily invisible (i.e., its visible manifestation is secondary and occurs only in a select faithful “local congregations”), then fleeing heretics and false teachers is simply a matter of creating a new bureaucratic structure.

However, what if the Church is the ecclesial Body of Christ with all the same characteristics of the incarnate Body of Christ (as St Paul suggests in Rom 12 and 1 Cor 12)? What if ecclesiology is christology not simply noetically but actually? Is it possible, then, that heresy is not a virus within the body but a cancerous growth which must be quickly and surgically removed? And if excision is not possible, might this suggest that the "body" in which one finds himself may not be the true body after all?

Or, to return to the parable, is it possible that while the wheat and tares remain in the world, they must not (in fact, cannot) commingle?

07 February 2006

Dispensing with "Allelulia" until Easter

Pr David Petersen reproduces a piece from Pius Parsch concerning the disappearance of the word "Alleluia" in the Western liturgy during Septuagesima Season, Lent and Passiontide. And Pr William Weedon reproduces a wonderful meditation by O. P. Kretzmann on this uniquely Western Christian practice. Using rationale similiar to the Eastern churches, Luther questioned this practice of dispensing with the Alleluia, but Lutherans have maintained it nevertheless.

Parsch mentions that "considerable ceremony" accompanies the dispensing of the Alleulia in some places. While no ceremony is indicated in the latest Liber Usualis, the Tridentine Secular Breviary, or the Monastic Diurnal, the Anglican Breviary indicates that on "Alleluia Saturday" (the day before Septuagesima Sunday) an 11th century hymn entitled "Alleluia, dulce carmen" is to be sung. (Go here or here for an Enlgish translation.)

I commend this hymn to you for your devotion.

All the breviaries mentioned above, however, agree that in the closing versicles the following is said: "Let us bless the Lord, alleluia, alleluia." Then they add: "Henceforth Alleluia is not said until Holy Saturday [at the Great Vigil of Easter]."

What happens then at those places in the Mass and Divine Office when Alleluia is usually sung? At the Mass, the "Alleluia" (following the Gradual) is replaced with the Tract. At the Divine Office, in the opening versicles the "Alleluia" is replaced with "Praise be to Thee, O Lord, King of eternal glory."

06 February 2006

(Spiritual) Fathers & Sons

I find it rather curious that St Andrew, one of the Twelve Apostles, was first a disciple of St John the Baptizer. The curious thing is not that St Andrew was a disciple of St John. The curious thing is that St John the Baptizer had several other disciples, and not all of them followed Jesus as quickly as St Andrew did. In fact, some are still with St John at the time of his death. The curious thing, then, is why St Andrew feels compelled to leave St John the Baptizer, while the other disciples of St John feel no similar compulsion.

As you know, it’s not an easy thing to switch allegiances. And I’m sure it wasn’t an easy thing for a disciple to leave one rabbi (teacher) in order to join himself to another. After all, a disciple was more than a student. Especially in St Andrew’s day, a disciple was seen to be a spiritual son. In other words, the relationship between disciple and rabbi was as close as the relationship between a father and son.

Because of this, a disciple usually lived with his teacher and followed him wherever he went. You see, the disciple did not latch onto a rabbi so that he could learn facts about religion. A disciple wanted to learn the religious life—he wanted to learn not so much what to believe, as much as he wanted to learn how to live the faith. And to learn the “how,” you had to observe the way the rabbi spoke and lived and dealt with people, as well as what he said.

That’s what St Andrew did. With St John’s consent, St Andrew placed himself in St John’s service so that he could learn the life of holiness from this pious rabbi. St Andrew willingly and freely gave himself over to St John. And St John, in turn, took him in as his spiritual son. And as it is with good sons, St Andrew strove to be obedient and to please his spiritual father—not just in what he said, but also in everything that he did.

The relationship of father and son ought not be easily broken; and it ought to remain for life.

Now this is the curious thing—St Andrew easily and quickly breaks with St John the Baptizer, and latches onto Jesus as his “new” spiritual father.

But why? Because he listened faithfully, carefully and obediently to St John—his spiritual father. Here’s how it happened.

John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, John said, “Behold the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard John speak, and they followed Jesus. One of the disciples who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. (Jn 1.35-37, 40)
From this, we can conclude that St Andrew switched rabbis (from John to Jesus) because he believed his spiritual father. After all, St Andrew had been carefully listening to all that St John the Baptizer said. And before this episode took place, St John had said, “There is One among you whom you do not know. It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.” (Jn 1.26-27)

So when St John the Baptizer says, “There He is, the Lamb of God; the One I was talking about; the One whose way I’ve been preparing; the One whom you should prefer”—St Andrew hears, believes and then acts upon his rabbi’s words. In other words, St Andrew switches allegiances simply because he is obedient to his spiritual father. The preacher says, “There is the Christ,” and the loyal disciple joins himself to Him.

A second curious thing, however, is that not all of St John’s disciples did what St Andrew did—at least, not as quickly and as obediently. In other words, not all spiritual children heeded the voice of their spiritual father, especially when he said, “There is the Christ. He is the Way. Go to Him!”

We know this because, when St John the Baptizer was in prison about to be executed, he sent two of his remaining disciples to Jesus. So that they would not be embarrassed, he told them to ask their question as if it was his question. So they said to Jesus, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Mt 11.3)

These two disciples ask this question not because St John has his doubts, but because they are still not sure about what their spiritual father has told them and preached to them and taught them during his time with them. So, once again, St John points them to Jesus. Once again, the spiritual father says to his spiritual children, “Over there with Him—that’s where you need to be.”

I’m sure that St John the Baptizer rejoiced when St Andrew quickly heeded the words of his spiritual father. I’m equally convinced that St John continued to pray for the others who didn’t act as quickly, hoping that one day they too would have the courage to heed the counsel of their spiritual father.

04 February 2006

Favorite Lines from Movies

"I have long feared that my sins would come back to haunt me, and the cost of them is more than I can bear" -- Mel Gibson (The Patriot)

"Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers" -- Paul Newman to Tom Hanks (The Road to Perdition)

"I don't wanna be a Cathlick. I wanna be a Nethidist like mommy." "And why is that, honey?" "So I can pray whatever I want" -- Sloane Momsen to Mel Gibson (We Were Soldiers)

"I'm not a doctor. I never went to medical school. I'm not a lawyer, or a Harvard graduate, or a Lutheran." "Frank? Frank? You're not a Lutheran!?" -- Leonardo DiCaprio with Amy Adams' response (Catch Me if You Can)

"Two years ago you were a passionate churchman. Now you're a passionate Lutheran. We must just pray that when your head's finished turning, your face is to the front again." -- Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons)

"Don't mind her. She's French-Canadian. Some days she's Canadian. Can be quite pleasant. Today she's obviously French." -- Robert Taylor (Vertical Limit)

Exegeting John 13.27

For various reasons, we are prone to read episodes and statements in the Scriptures--and especially those by Our Lord--assuming a tone of voice that is too often ours.

For example, in St John 13.27, "Jesus said to him, 'What you do, do quickly.'" Quite apart from whether Jesus is speaking to Judas or Satan-in-Judas, one needs to ponder what tone of voice Our Lord uses when He says what He says. Is He being snide and sarcastic? Is He challenging Judas, and telling him to get the sin over with?

That's how we tend to hear these words--especially if they are spoken rather than chanted. For the wonderful thing about chanting the Gospel is that our (conscious or subconcious) interpretive inflections are left behind. But that's another topic...

To assume that Our Lord is speaking like we do is to assume that He's letting His passions get the best of Him--that in His human nature, He's prone to get snappy and irritable.

If we acknowledge, however, that the Son of God became as we are, except without sin; and if we confess that, above all else, the Lord is merciful, then perhaps there's another way to read St John 13.27. Perhaps Jesus is not laying down the gauntlet or issuing an ultimatum--to Judas or Satan-in-Judas. Perhaps Jesus is urging Judas to do quickly what Our Lord has, for three years, taught him to do, and which Judas knows full well; namely, to repent by turning aside from his betraying plot.

To my way of thinking, this "tone of voice" seems most appropriate to Our Lord. Which means that He's not showing Judas the door; rather, He's pleading with him to reconsider and to "come home."

Why Conversi ad Dominum

Here's one of several reasons:

What in the early Church and during the Middle Ages determined the position of the altar was that it faced East. To quote St Augustine: "When we rise to pray, we turn East, where heaven begins. And we do this not because God is there, as if He had moved away from the other direction on earth..., but rather to help us remember to turn our mind towards a higher order, that is, to God." This quotation shows that the Christians of those early days, after listening to the homily, would rise for the prayer which followed, and turn towards the East. St Augustine always refers to this turning to the East in prayer at the end of his homilies, using a set formula: Conversi ad Dominum ("turn to face the Lord").
In "The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background" (p. 80) by Msgr Klaus Gamber (Una Voce Press, 1993).

Lutherans and the Canon

It is universally known that Martin Luther excised the Roman Canon from his revisions of the Mass. There are other changes he makes, but that excision coupled with the allowance or even promotion of the vernacular, are the most noticable.

It is also universally known that, until 1930, one cannot find a single Lutheran Kirchenordnung (a legal document containing, among other things, the specifics on the celebrating Mass) or hymnal/missal that contains anything that resembles an historic Canon or Eucharistic Prayer. (For the moment, let's side-step the intriguing Edwardian Prayerbook, which was accused of being Lutheran.)

What is not commonly acknowleged is that the 1580 Book of Concord does not condemn all anaphora, canons or eucharistic prayers. Rather, in several places it condemns only the Roman Canon. This make senses since the Roman Canon was the only Canon in use in the West at the time of the Reformation.

The curious thing, however, is that the Reformers--and particularly Philipp Melanchthon in the Apology--go out of their way to commend one anaphora or canon in particular. In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (XXIV.88, 93), the Confessions praise the anaphora used in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and prefer it to the Roman Canon.

What I conclude from this, then, is that the Reformers did not oppose the use, per se, of every anaphora, canon or eucharistic prayer; they simply opposed the Roman Canon in use in their day. (Why they opposed the Roman Canon, understanding that opposition and its theological legitimacy is for another day.)

03 February 2006

Transfiguration--This Soon?

Unique among all other communions, most Lutheran churches transfer the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord to the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. I'm not sure when this custom began, and whether the Lutherans took it over from some medieval use. However, it does fit nicely between Epiphany (the manifestation of Jesus as God) and what the Germans call Fastenzeit (the time of fasting).

Prior to 1969, the Latin churches used one of the Transfiguration accounts (Mt 17.1-9) as the Gospel reading for Reminiscere, the Second Sunday in Lent. However, as I said, the Lutheran churches transfer the entire feast.

If one follows the calendar in use during the Reformation, then this Sunday is the Sunday on which Lutheran churches will celebrate the Transfiguration. If one follows the modern Latin calendar, then Lutherans will celebrate the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

In either case, here is a marvelous meditation on the account of the Lord's Transfiguration. It is by St. Anastasius, a 7th century Abbot of the monastery of St Catherine on Mt Sinai.

02 February 2006

Irksome Things

1. Altering Altar
2. Using "The Lord be with you" as an everyday greeting
3. Taking potshots while hiding behind anonymity
4. Announcing the rubrics
5. Complaining to the wrong person
6. Caricaturing the "other side"
7. Hymns that drag
8. Asking "What's wrong with them" instead of "What's wrong with us/me"
9. Not having the courage to lovingly confront another
10. People who make lists of "irksome things"

01 February 2006

St Ignatius of Antioch

Yesterday we commemorated St Ignatius at Antioch during Holy Mass. Here is the brief homily I preached:

Our Blessed Lord Jesus never asks us to do anything that He has not already done for us, and is most willing to do in and through us.

St Ignatius knew this. So he is not engaging in rhetorical bravado when he pleads with the Romans not to do him the kindness of preventing his execution. So the holy man declares: "Let me be fodder for wild beasts--that is how I can get to God. I am God's wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ. ... [So] pray Christ for me that by these means I may become God's sacrifice."

St Ignatius has learned well today's Gospel. For in it, Our Lord says that a grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die, so that it may arise producing an abundant crop. The grain of wheat is Our Lord Jesus Christ. And He's talking about His death--that He must suffer and die so that, in His resurrection, all men and all creation may be re-created. For that's the only way it works: Life Himself must be swallowed by death so that those destined to die might live through death into eternal life. And that's the abundant crop--the men and women who are raised up in His resurrection. They are the abundant crop; and just as all creation is tied in with them in their death, so all creation is tied in with them in the Lord's resurrection. This rising of men and women in Christ--it is occurs chiefly in the waters of Holy Baptism. But it can also take place when they are baptized in their own blood. As was St. Ignatius--and the thousands of martyrs that have come before and after him.

Notice that St Ignatius does not describe his martyrdom baptismally--with images of water. And neither does Our Lord. Instead, following Jesus, St Ignatius speaks in terms of grain, wheat, flour and bread. And the climax are these words: "Pray that I become God's sacrifice." In other words, "pray that I'm worthy to be accepted by the Father because I'm tied into THE sacrifice, which is Our Lord Jesus."

For that's where St Ignatius finds his hope; and that's what he looks toward. Not his death, but the death of his Lord. And not the sacrifice of his body, but the self-sacrifice of God's Son who then, in His sacrifice, blesses, consecrates, approves, makes worthy and deems acceptable whatever sacrifice we bring according to the Lord's will. For our sacrifices--even our sacrifice of self--is worthless and selfish unless it is blessed by Our Lord. And so we beg the Lord to send down His Holy Spirit to bless the meager sacrifice we present--just as St Ignatius begged the Romans to pray Christ to bless the sacrifice he offered of himself.

Let us then strive, by the mercies of God, to imitate the constancy of St Ignatius' sacrifice and faith by presenting our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service. For by His grace and through the intercession of the blessed martyr, shall we then be worthy to "get to God" as this holy bishop did.

Another way to avoid what I really ought to be doing...

Okay, Pr Higgins, you can now remove me from your list. :)