The Death of the Church and the Birth of the Virgin

Sermon for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Church of St Anne, Jerusalem (birthplace of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

Church of St Anne, Jerusalem (birthplace of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

At the end of the 3rd chapter of Genesis, everything seems to collapse. In our beginning, God brought forth creation from nothing except his Love and Word. All was beautiful, true, and it was good. On the sixth day, as the crowning jewel to this masterpiece, God created the human person. Different from water, the plants, and even the creeping animals and winged birds, man reflected something in God himself. There was a rational mind, an immortal soul, the design to holiness, and he was the steward of all creation.

In order that man might fully experience his love, God gave him free will. He had the capacity to act or not to act. To love or not to love. To obey or to rebel. This gift said something about the giver. If God were to deny the human person the freedom to receive his love or to reject it, it wouldn’t be a free gift of love. If God removed the freedom to rebel, love wouldn’t be a choice and then it wouldn’t really be love.

And in the 3rd chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve, the icon of humanity’s first parents, rebelled. Their disobedience set a pattern of behavior that would become the plague on all their children. They sinned, they hid, and they blamed. 

In the words of the poet John Milton:

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate.
Earth felt the wound; and nature from her seat,
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.
Back to the thicket slunk
The guilty serpent; and well might; for Eve,
Intent now wholly on her taste, naught else
Regarded.

Intent wholly on our taste, nothing else regarded, all is lost.

Read in isolation, this story of the Fall is incomplete. It feels like a morality play that could have come from the folk wisdom of Greek mythology of Grimm’s Fables, especially with the talking snakes, forbidden fruit, and a God who walks like a man and seems ignorant of what Adam and Eve had done. But we aren’t meant to read this in isolation. 

For Christians, all of Holy Scripture, Old and New Testaments, are read through the lens of Jesus Christ Crucified. Fr John Behr, a brilliant patristics scholar and Orthodox priest, has been very helpful in his writings reminding me that when the Gospels and Epistles speak of Jesus Christ accomplishing things according to the Scriptures, they are talking about the Old Testament. This is why St Paul says he desires to know one thing and one thing only - Jesus Christ and him crucified, for the Crucified Lord is the key that unlocks the mysteries of all Scripture. Calvary is the center of our faith and his truth radiates both to the future and to the past. 

In isolation, Adam and Eve can feel like a cartoon. It can feel like the founding document of oppressive patriarchy that continues to govern the blaming of women for the faults of men. But it’s not meant to be read in isolation.

Paradise may have seemed to be lost. And things were bad, no doubt. Milton’s poem describes all of nature sighing. But all was not lost. In the very moment of judgment was the promise of redemption:

“The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head and you will strike his heel.’”

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This verse in Genesis 3 is known as the protoevangelium, or the first gospel, the first proclamation of the Good News. It’s the first proclamation of the Gospel because we are told that the woman’s offspring will strike the head of the serpent, destroying it. The end of evil has already been declared. But it will not come from the wife of Adam, it will come from the New Eve.

Read from the perspective of the Cross, a powerful harmony unfolds. The Old Eve was brought forth out of the Old Adam. The New Adam, Jesus Christ, was born of the New Eve, Mary. 

The Word of God was begotten of the Father, without a mother. The Incarnate Word was born of a woman, without a father.

The Old Eve disobeyed the command of God. The New Eve said, “Be it done to me according to thy word.” The Old Eve was beguiled by the serpent and he tormented her children for thousands of generations. The New Eve stood on its head, and her Son ended his tyrannical reign of evil.

Eve, of her own free will, disobeyed. Mary, of her own free will, said yes. 

We celebrate her birth because she was prepared by God (“the Lord is with thee”) to close the door to the curse of human sin by opening her womb to the New Adam. She is not our Savior, but she is the image of what it means to be saved. By saying yes, she conceived Jesus in her heart before conceiving him in her womb. At the wedding at Cana, she told the servants to do whatever he told them. She was at the foot of the cross. And she was in the Upper Room waiting on his Holy Spirit. 

That is the Christian life - to receive the Lord Jesus in our hearts, to do whatever he tells us, to kneel before his Sacrifice on the Cross, and to pray for his Holy Spirit. 

All was not lost. Nothing is impossible with God.

Today we bring into the household of God two precious children. A cynical voice might ask what kind of a world are we bringing new life into? They might even ask if it is just to bring new life into a world that is so uncertain and where each week we seem to find a new low in devaluing human dignity. 

They might ask what kind of a Church is initiating them into Christ? This past week, the latest statistics for the Episcopal Church were released and they are bad. The Episcopal Church is losing people at a mortal rate. Let me put it this way: there are more Episcopal Churches with an average Sunday attendance of 10 people or fewer than churches with an average attendance of 300 or more. St Timothy’s is in the top 250 of all Episcopal Churches in terms of attendance. And we aren’t huge. 

In both our world and in the Church, it seems as if nature is sighing and that we are intent wholly on our taste, naught else regarded. Paradise feels lost. 

Sometimes we must endure banishment in order to turn our gaze toward real hope and not the manufactured salvation that only extends our exile. The world may seem lost, but tomorrow’s mass shooting and next week’s exploitation of the innocent has already been nailed to the cross with Our Lord. The Church may seem weakened, but she cannot, and she will not, die.

Are we ready to ask the Lord to help us to hear, “Nothing is impossible with God”?

The Nativity of the Virgin is our gift. Her birth reminds us that Paradise is never lost and that the most desolate of situations, the most impossible of circumstances are the preferred canvas for God to reveal a masterpiece. Her birth reminds us that, through faith in her Son, we can and will find the seeds of hope in the face of exile.

Her fidelity stands on the head of evil and her Son crushes its head.

Are we ready to ask the Lord to help us to conceive the Lord in our heart, to do whatever he says, to kneel at the Cross, and to pray for his Holy Spirit. Are we willing, are we ready to say, with the Mother of the Church, “Let it be done to me according to thy word?”



Forming an Anglo-Catholic Parish

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Based on average Sunday attendance, St Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina is one of the largest (and depending on how narrow you wish to define Anglo-Catholicism, it may be the largest) Anglo-Catholic Churches in the Episcopal Church.[1] Yet, the church was not founded in the wake of the Oxford Movement. It was not endowed by an eccentric benefactor/benefactress for the purposes of perpetuating the Catholic faith. Nor was there a groundswell among the membership calling for incense and the Angelus. 12 years ago, the parish would easily be described as ‘broad.’ Colleagues and seminarians will frequently ask me how St Timothy’s became what it is today in such a short amount of time. Depending on your perspective, it was an accident or Providence. I trust it was the latter. 

For those who have asked about forming a parish in the Catholic tradition, I’m not sure there is a formula other than conviction and constancy. 

I am convicted for the Catholic Faith.

For hundreds of years, the Church has called women and men to holiness and has given them a rhythm of life that has produced heroic faith and virtue. The Holy Spirit, through the Church, has formed saints. I do not know why I would deviate from this witness. I am a convert to the Episcopal Church because of her Catholic pedigree and practice. Confused, or even embarrassed, as she might be at the present moment about her Catholicity, I firmly believe the Episcopal Church is very much a real part of the Catholic Church. I am firmly convinced (thanks to Saepius Officio) that I am a Catholic Priest. And I mean with a Big C.

It is not only an article in my faith, it is an article of the faith: I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. As soon-to-be saint John Henry Newman wrote in the second Tract for the Times, “Doubtless the only true and satisfactory meaning is that which our Divines have ever taken, that there is on earth an existing Society, Apostolic as founded by the Apostles, Catholic because it spreads its branches in every place; i.e. the Church Visible with its Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.”

It is because I believe in my heart and am intellectually convinced of this that I have led St Timothy’s deeper into her own Catholic identity. My intention was not to give her an identity that wasn’t hers to begin with. She is Catholic because she is a part of the Church. I cannot separate Christianity from Catholicity. For me to do anything else would be fraud. My advice for priests wanting their people to go deeper into the Catholic faith is that they need to believe it, and if they believe it, they must live it. Parish experience across traditions has shown extraordinary generosity and goodwill among Christians. They wanted to be loved and led. Fr. Hope Patten did not inherit a Catholic parish at Walsingham. But he loved his people, and like all real relationships, we learn to love what our beloved loves. Isn’t that why we are called to love one another – because God loves them?

St John Vianney as the patron of parish priests is our model. He wasn’t brilliant, quite the opposite. He wasn’t talented by any modern measurement. He certainly wasn’t original. But he loved his people and he loved the Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. That devotion and holiness taught the Catholic faith better than a campaign or program.

I, nor anyone in my parish, would argue that I am remotely near the ideal parish priest. I can be moody, passive-aggressive, impatient, and sensitive (to name a few), but I pray I have been devoted to the people in my care over these past 11 years. Over this time, they have learned to trust me as I them. I have learned to trust that if say my prayers, in time, they will join me. They have learned that if they join in my prayers, over time, they will become their own.

If a priest wants his people to live the Catholic faith, he must live the Catholic faith. If I want my people to pray, I must pray more. I must say the Office, even on days off, even on vacation.  If I want my people to embrace discipline and self-denial, I need to be there first. Am I temperate in food and drink? Do I take care of myself? Do I fast and abstain according to the precepts of the Church? If I want my people to examine their conscience and confess their sins, do I do the same? Do I let them know, for the sake of accountability and not accolades, that I do the same? Do I admit when I’ve been lax in any of these responsibilities? If I want them to tithe, do I? I cannot say a word in a finance meeting about the budget unless I am giving at least 10%.

Nine years ago on Ash Wednesday, we began the rhythm of saying Morning and Evening Prayer publicly. It was initially designed as a corporate Lenten practice for the staff, we would begin our day with Morning Prayer and end with Evening Prayer. Once Lent was over, I kept it going. A few months later, I added the daily mass. There would be stretches of time where it was just me. With no one to answer mass, I would say the office. I would get discouraged, I would get lazy, but I felt that I must push through. I don’t remember when, but it was some months later, we reached the tipping point and we had a critical mass for mass. I cannot now remember the last time I had to cancel mass and just say the office due to no one coming. It is in our nature to test boundaries, to see if someone is serious and if it really matters to them. As priests and leaders, if we are convinced of the truth, we must hold the course. If you want a daily mass, you must first have the Daily Office. As priests, we are set aside for the altar. This is our life. We cannot flatter ourselves with the lie that we are too busy or too important to say our prayers every day. I’m sure the Archbishop of Canterbury has a more complicated diary than I, and I’m sure Pope Francis has more to worry about than either of us. Yet both begin their days in prayer. Am I really more important with more things to do than the Archbishop or the Pope?

If we are not convinced that the church is Catholic and that her teaching forms saints, our insecurity will be exposed. We will be tested and tried. The accusations will focus on the externals. Catholicism, Anglican, Roman, or Eastern, is not about the vestments. It’s our fault the Anglo-Catholic movement is often parodied as gin, lace, and backbiting. The cut of your chasuble should serve as the frame for our sacrifice and not the substance of our focus. The complaints will center around the incense or the chanting or the vestments or Mary, but that’s not really it. The real charge is whether or not we believe this to be true. For if we do not, we’ll change. That’s my advice. Everyone’s context is different, yet the faith is the faith. If we are convinced in the Catholic faith, we will practice the Catholic faith, and our parish will have Catholic people.

My experience has not always been pleasant. I have lost members, some of those came as a real and painful surprise. I have endured an anti-catholic email campaign designed to cripple my ministry. And to this day, I will feel or hear resistance because something is “too Catholic.” The hardest lesson is to not take it personally. Even if it is meant to be personal, do not take it as such. The Catholic faith calls us to carry our cross and endure humiliations. How we endure hardship is as much, if not more, a part of our teaching on following Jesus Christ than anything we’ll deliver on the sacraments or in Bible study. Often times I wonder when someone complains about something as “too Catholic” if what they are really saying is it’s “too religious.” I’m not so sure if the anxiety is not about incense or chanting, but what this might demand of me. Jesus lost perhaps all of this disciples save the Twelve when he doubled down on his assertion that unless one eats of his flesh and drinks of his blood, they will have no life in them (John 6). It was just too much. We cannot resent those who do not fall adoringly into our parish; that would be to take it personally.  Rather, we re-double our efforts. We pray all the more. These are all lessons I continue to learn. “It is good that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes” (Psalm 119).

But the transformation has been real. From 2007 to our current average Sunday attendance, we’ve experienced 58% growth (206 to 325). In that time, we’ve baptized 160 and buried only 95. For the past six years, we’ve operated a homeless shelter in our parish hall for 122 nights a year. We’ve created a law enforcement chapel and hospice that is open 24/7. We’ve created the Society of St Joseph of Arimathea and have provided cremation for 43 children and are in the stages of preparing a cemetery and national shrine.  Our acolyte corps has 35 children and youth, and five priests and deacons have been ordained from the parish in the past ten years. And now, we are on the verge of a major renovation to our nave and sanctuary.

All of this has happened, in my firm belief, because of conviction that Jesus Christ is real, he is really present in the Holy Eucharist, and through his Church, and he calls us to holiness. The homeless shelter in our parish hall flows from the Tabernacle as the home of Jesus Christ in the sanctuary. That’s not a trite paraphrase of Bishop Frank Weston, it is the truth. The daily adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament makes room in our hearts to make room in our parish. Praying for the dead moves us to care for the dead. Caring for the dead moves us to care for the living. Saying our prayers together daily grafts us into a different rhythm, one that keeps time not by hours and a frenetic pace, but by the Office, Feasts, and Fasts. 

If you, as a priest, want your parish to live into their Catholicity, do you believe it yourself? Are you willing to endure and sacrifice what naturally comes with such a journey, one that takes the people of to what they need rather than what they want?

Say your prayers at the church. There’s no reason to delegate this to someone else. There’s no reason to wait until people will join you. Why wouldn’t the parish priest be at the altar saying prayers daily? 

Teach the faith. Teach the Bible. Teach the Sacraments. Teach Aquinas, Augustine, Athanasius, and Antony. Those are just in the A’s. 

Pray the mass. It’s not a performance. Slow down. I think it was St John Vianney who said that if the priest knew what he was holding in his hands, he would die. Pray for that kind of faith. If you pray the mass, the people will catch on that it’s a prayer. If you adore Our Lord on the altar, they will realize something’s going on. Once this happens, celebrating ad orientem (if that’s your goal) will be a non-issue. 

Make your confession regularly. My goal is once a month. Of late, I haven’t kept that discipline and I must work through issues of distance and logistics. Those are explanations and not excuses.

Keep the feasts. The Catholic faith is taught best by the rhythm of prayer. Who cares if you have one or two show up? Who cares if you have no one show up? Just say the Office. It won’t be long before you’re not alone.

Preach beauty. We live in an ugly time. Then again, every generation has lived in a period of ugliness. The Church provides a glimpse of the beatific vision, the beauty of holiness. It is this beauty that lifts us from the mundane, the mediocre, and the macabre. But remember, vestments, spaces, incense, all of this is beautiful, but it is a means to usher us deeper into Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is not the means to usher us to Watts and Co. When Anglo-Catholicism becomes about the cut of our chasuble or the quality of our lace, we’ve strayed to fabric and not faith. 

Love your people. Love them enough to correct them. Love them enough to be corrected. Love them enough that they become enough for your ambition. 

The outreach, the education, the growth, all of it will and should flow from the prayers of the priest and people. Not only that, but the outreach, education, and growth will be authentic. 

In time you’ll discover that you don’t have to make your parish Catholic. It already is. 






[1] To be absolutely clear, this is not a boast, but more than anything a demonstration at how small the Anglo-Catholic movement has become. May I boast in nothing but the cross of Jesus Christ.




Dog Daies

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This week has been brutally hot. Every day easily climbed into the 90s. The dog days of summer are here. According to earlier editions of the Book of Common Prayer, the dog days of summer, literally, are here. The 1552 and 1559 editions of the Prayer Book record this Sunday, July 7, as the beginning of “Dog daies.” Honestly, it’s in there.

The star Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky (our sun is clearly the brightest star in the sky). The name means ‘scorching’ in reference to its brilliance and it shines in the constellation Canis Major, the big dog, hence the developing connection with “dog days” (see the logo for Sirius radio below). The helical rising of Sirius, it’s appearance above the horizon, has long been associated with calamity. The flooding of the Nile corresponded with the rising of Sirius, people experienced illness and mental breakdowns, and...it was hot! These are the dog days. The days end on September 5, essentially marking the time between July 4 and Labor Day as the days of the most heat.

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Of note, the Prayer Books of 1552 and 1559 mark other astronomical occurrences in the kalendar. August 15 is when the sun is in the constellation Virgo. To restate, August 15 is when the sun is in the constellation of the Virgin. August 15 is also the Feast of the Assumption Virgin Mary, the festival that celebrates Jesus Christ taking his mother to himself in heaven. The Son is with the Virgin.


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Last Rites

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He died as I said, “Depart O Christian soul, out of this world.” That’s never before happened to me and it was a parting gift from this lovely, devout man.

People are curious, but are nervous to ask what happens, at least as the Church is concerned, when we die. Families know to call the priest but are often unsure what they are calling us to do. Confession, unction, and Holy Communion (viaticum) constitute the “last rites” of the Church: sacramental strength before our soul is separated from our bodies in death. Very often, at least in my experience, it is not possible to administer all three. In the majority of cases, the dying person is asleep or not communicative, making confession impossible and/or they are unable to eat, making reception of the Holy Communion impossible, leaving only the final anointing with the oil of the infirm (extreme unction).

Ideally the room is to be prepared with candles, holy water, and a crucifix. Again, most of the time such preparations are not possible due to time and other considerations. I keep a violet stole in my car and I used to keep a small crucifix as well. That crucifix is now buried with a man who kept it and held it constantly after I anointed him before his death last year. Yesterday, when I received the call that this servant of God was declining faster than anticipated, I took a crucifix down off the wall, grabbed the oil, cotta, and stole and quickly went to him.

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As there is no liturgy called “Last Rites,” the priest must make decisions. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer has liturgies for Reconciliation of a Penitent (confession), Ministration to the Sick (anointing), and Communion Under Special Circumstances (viaticum). A similar arrangement is found in the traditional Roman Ritual. While the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has traditional prayers for the dying (taken from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which I should add, also includes absolution), the prayer for anointing in the face of death is wanting. The prescribed words that accompany anointing do not mention the forgiveness of sins but rather state that the person is anointed with oil in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The optional prayer that follows is wonderful in cases where there is hope for recovery, but not necessarily in the face of impending death. While the line “restore you to wholeness and strength” certainly implies spiritual wholeness and strength, in the case of a dying person I prefer the traditional formula for anointing, “By this holy anointing may the Lord forgive you all the evil you have done." [Of note, the Church of England removed “restore to wholeness and strength” in Common Worship’s Ministry with the Dying, a prudent move.]

The translator’s preface to the 1964 Roman Ritual acknowledges that the rites assume ideal circumstances and while acknowledging that ideal circumstances are often just ‘ideal,’ the preface chastises priests for not doing their part in keeping the fullness of the rite. I think there is real merit to the knuckle slap. It’s not too much effort to put on the cassock, cotta, and violet stole and it’s not too much effort to bring a crucifix, even in situations requiring immediate attention.

In yesterday’s case, as his breathing was very shallow, I knew I didn’t have time for the full traditional rite but I did place my wall crucifix on his chest, put on cotta and stole, and immediately anointed him with the traditional words. Confession and Communion were not possible. In placing the crucifix before them, I ask the person to unite their sufferings to that of the Crucified Lord and call on the Name of Jesus in their hearts. This is very likely the context for Julian of Norwich’s Revelations as she gazed upon the crucifix as she received the ministrations of the Church in her illness.

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The Litany for the Dying followed the anointing. It is powerful and sobering and it is good for the family to join the petitions. The Litany follows the structure of the Great Litany and concludes with the Agnus Dei, Kyrie, Our Father, and Collect. It was after the collect asking for God’s deliverance from evil that I again touched the forehead of this servant and made the sign of the cross. His breaths had been far apart but his head was warm.

“Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;
In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;
In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;
In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.
May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.”

I finished with the prayer of commendation and we noticed his color had changed. The breathing had stopped. He obeyed the command and gave up his spirit. It was finished.

As the Church calls is, a happy death.    

Dead but not Absent

As unbelievable as it sounds, I have lived nearly a quarter of my life without my mother. Today marks the 9th anniversary of her death.

Grief is a labyrinth with strange contours. I miss my mother and think about her nearly every day, although I don’t think about her as often as I used to. I think about her when my children do something spectacular or stupid, knowing that she would find great pleasure in both. I think of her when something notable happens for me personally. If she were alive, I know she would celebrate with me in a manner that is unique to motherhood.

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Mementos of her life and legacy are nearby. Her paddle (she was an elementary school principal) hangs in my office, a tangible sign of tough love. Her nameplate sits on my desk at home and the accolades of her heroism that were given after a shooting at her school are framed in the hallway.

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I miss her but I don’t feel absent from her. One of my favorite pictures of us together is from 1994. It was taken at my high school as I was about to leave with my teammates for football camp in the mountains. I didn’t want to go, not because of the two-a-day practices or lodging with five other boys in a tiny room, but because I would be absent from my mama. I was homesick before I left home. If you look at the picture, you can see muscles around my mouth tensed to hold back the quivering of the lips. I was anxious about her absence.

When St Augustine’s mother, Monica, was near death she told her sons, “Bury your mother here.” They were quiet and struggled too, in the face of impending absence, to keep their lip stiff. Augustine’s brother assured Monica that they would take her back to her home country and bury here. This angered Monica. Augustine writes, “She looked in my direction and said, ‘See what he says’, and soon said to both of us ‘Bury my body anywhere you like. Let no anxiety about that disturb you. I have only one request to make of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be.’”

Remembering this request from Monica, I remember my mother at the altar of the Lord, where his Sacramental Presence fills her physical absence. I pray, as Augustine did for his mother, that she has been received by Christ’s mercy and will go from strength to strength in the service of perfect freedom. If she is in Him and I am in Him then, through his love and grace, we are not absent from one another. Rather we are closer now than we were when she was alive. Therefore we do not grieve as those without hope…

While it would be fun for my mother to see my daughter win the Athlete of the Year award or hear about my adventures in London or see the boys grow like weeds, I am not sad. Her gaze is toward something more glorious. She is not absent. How could I be sad about that?

St Augustine wrote: “I dedicate my heart, voice, and writings, that all who read this book may remember at your altar Monica you servant and Patrick her late husband, through whose physical bond you brought me into this life without my knowing how. May they remember with devout affection my parents in this transient light, my kith and kin under you, our Father, in our mother the Catholic Church, and my fellow citizens in the eternal Jerusalem.”   

Me too. Please remember, of your charity, Eleanor. A sweet soul and loving mother and friend. Who was, is, and shall be, very much present.

Incensatio super oblata

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One of the curious features of the High Mass is the form of censing of the oblata - the offerings of bread and wine that will become the Body and Blood of Our Lord. The priest makes three signs of the cross over the bread and wine and then three circles, two counter-clockwise and one clockwise. Artistic renderings of this act are everywhere and, indeed, serves as the logo of this website.

Atchley in A History of the Use of Incense in Divine Worship shows that the oblata were incensed as early as the 9th century and it was common by the 11th century. The traditional manner of three crosses and circles was prescribed at Cluny. 

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What I have always wondered was why the three crosses and the three circles. Clearly there is Trinitarian symbolism, but more specifically, why two circles one way and a third the other? In 1905, Passionist Father Arthur Devine wrote the following:

As by the oblations is signified Christ offering Him self willingly to undergo His Passion and Death, so by the incensation of the oblations is signified that voluntary oblation of Christ so sweet and pleasing to His Heavenly Father. The fragrance of the incense, which is emitted from the thurible, designates how pleasant and acceptable was the oblation of Christ to His Eternal Father. In this mystical sense are the words Incensum istud a Te benedictum ascendat ad Te, Domine to be explained and applied. For Christ offered to His Father is the mystical incense of the sweetest odour to God odore suavitatis (with the odour of sweetness). Also the bread and wine offered in the Mass, and after wards changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, will be that same mystical incense of the sweetest odour to God the Father. To this mystical signification the ceremonies of the incensation seemed to be directed. For, in the first place, when the priest incenses the oblations he makes three crosses over them with the fuming thurible, by which is signified that Christ offered, on the Cross, to His Father three things most pleasing and acceptable namely, the Person of Jesus Christ, His holy Soul, and most pure Body. Then with the thurible the celebrant makes three circular swings around the oblations, and this he does in honour of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and to signify that this pleasing and acceptable sacrifice can only be offered to the Holy Trinity or to God alone. By the circular swings is signified the eternity of the Divine Persons. Two of these are made in the same direction and one in the adverse direction, which is interpreted as signifying the Eternal Father as proceeding from no other, the Eternal Son as proceeding from the Father by generation, and the Holy Ghost as proceeding from the Father and the Son, not by generation, or formal likeness by virtue of His procession, but by eternal spiration and love. The aforesaid circles are made around the oblations to signify that the Father and the Holy Ghost are present with the Son in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist by circumincession, or the inseparable in dwelling of the Persons of the Trinity in each other. 

So - the first swing is for God the Father, who proceeds from no one. The second swing is for God the Son, who proceeds by generation (not creation). The third is the Holy Ghost who proceeds not in generation as in the Son, but by spiration as the love between the Father and the Son.

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Why We Stay Away

As the parish priest closes a Sunday, he replays in his mind the faces from the morning. He strives to remember the names of the visitors, the dates that quickly given about coming medical procedures, and he tries to forget any petty verbal jab or passive-aggressive confrontation. He also reflects on the faces he didn’t see. How many Sundays has it been since they were here? Are they traveling? Are they ill? Is something wrong?

The cut of a blade that is double-edged never heals. We should not be distracted by those who aren’t there at the expense of those who are; we know this. Yet we are also troubled by the stern admonition of the prophets and Our Lord himself who was quick to leave the 99 and snatch from certain danger the 1. We are not operating a commercial enterprise, needing the patronage of consumers happy consumers and yet, we are.  

The percentage of those who have received the faith from a previous generation is declining faster than even the most pessimistic cares to admit. The fastest growing faith is no faith at all. The church’s response? Give them what they want. But what do they want? They don’t know. Therein lies the catch. No matter what new thing we offer, the returns will, ultimately, continue to diminish.

Nearly 200 years ago, Blessed John Henry Newman asked the exact same question.

“Does it not seem a plain nature instinct,” he asked, “that every one should seek his own good? What then is meant by this unwillingness to come for the greatest of goods, life; an unwillingness, which, guided by the light of Scripture and by experience, we can confidently affirm to prevail at this day as widely and as fully as in the age which Christ said it?”

The Scriptural context to which Newman refers is John 5.40, “Ye will not come to Me, that ye might have life.” The context of his comments is from a homily preached (date unknown) on the First Sunday after Easter, as every priest knows, both liturgically and numerically, as Low Sunday.

Newman is a brilliant thinker; this we know. He was unique even among intellectual luminaries of his company. His gift for perception as a pastor, however, often goes unnoticed. He continues to develop the problem:

“Here is no question of a comparison of good with good. We cannot account for this unconcern about Christ’s gift, by alleging that we have a sufficient treasure in our hands already, and therefore are not interested by the news of a greater. Far from it; for is not the world continually taking away its own gifts, whatever they are? And does it not thereby bring home to us, does it not importunately press upon us, and weary us with the lesson of its own nothingness? Do we not confess that eternal life is the best of all conceivable gifts, before which none other deserve to be mentioned? Yet we live to the world”

 There is nothing new under the sun. The temptation, of course, is to give more information. How often have priests heard this from devoted lay leaders and how often have we spoken these words ourselves? If they just understood what the Church expects, they would come. If they just knew what the parish expenses were, they would give. If they just understood how rampant (fill in the social ill), they would serve. But that is not the answer. Rabbi Edwin Friedman would call this the Fallacy of Expertise. The answer is not simply more information.

Newman beat us to it. “And others fancy that if the doctrines of the Gospel were set before them in a forcible or persuasive manner, this would serve as a means of rousing them to an habitual sense of their true state. But ignorance is not the true cause why men will not come to Christ.”

To be clear, we are not given permission to judge hearts, for we can’t. We have no business declaring what is a weed and what is wheat. We are called to do the only thing we can do, acknowledge the presence or the absence of fruit. The fruit of the faithful Christian, Newman articulates, is the longing for and reception of the Blessed Sacrament. In his homily, he does not seek to condemn any soul, rather he does the only thing he can: acknowledge the presence or absence of the Christian. To downplay the importance of mass attendance is to reject any serious trust in the Sacramental Presence of Jesus Christ. Priests want their people in mass not because they receive a certificate from the bishop or a financial bonus from the vestry. We know that when we are at mass, we are in His Presence.  

“If then a man does not seek Him where He is, there is no profit in seeking Him where He is not. What is the good of sitting at home seeking Him, when His Presence is in the holy Eucharist?”

Having said that, Newman makes his case and it is a pill that does not go down easily. “The true reason why people will not come to this Holy Communion is this – they do not wish to lead religious lives.”

He anticipates the next objection that there are other reasons why Christians avoid mass, “Allow as much as we will for proper distrust of themselves, reasonable awe, the burden of past sin, imperfect knowledge, and other causes, still after all there is in most cases a reluctance to bear, or at least to pledge themselves to bear, Christ’s yoke; a reluctance to give up the service of sin once for all; a lingering love of their own ease, of their own will, of indolence, of carnal habits, of the good opinion of men whom they do not respect; a distrust of their perseverance in holy resolves, grounded on a misgiving about their present sincerity. This is why men will not come to Christ for life; they know that He will not impart Himself to them, unless they consent to devote themselves to Him.” 

Here Newman makes an interesting move. As harsh as it might be to hear for all readers, it is worth reading for he tells the truth. We are content in our brokenness. We are lazy and undisciplined. We think we are doing just fine, thank you very much.

“They may be told of their Lord’s love for them, His self-denying mercy when on earth, His free gifts, and His long suffering since; they will not be influenced; and why? Because the fault is in their heart; they do not like God’s service. They know full well what they would have, if they might choose. Christ is said to have done all things for us; “Far from it,” say they, “He is not a Mediator suited to our case. Give life, give holiness, give truth, give a Savior to deliver from sin; this is not enough: no, we want a Savior to deliver in sin…We want to do nothing at all, and then the gift will be free indeed. If our hearts must be changed to fit us for heaven, let them be changed, only let us have no trouble in the work ourselves…Let Christ suffer, but be it ours to rejoice only. What we wish is, to be at ease; we wish to have thing our own way; we wish to enjoy both this world and the next; we wish to be happy all at once. If the Gospel promises this, we accept it; but if not, it is but a bondage, it has no persuasiveness, it will receive no acceptance from us.””

Granted, Newman paints with a broad stroke, but the resulting picture is detailed enough to be recognizable. And how is the Church complicit in this? How are we not? Stream online, no need to come. No confession during Easter, who sins anyway? Churches are closing, the building doesn’t matter. Communion before baptism? Sure! Cohabitation before marriage, why not? Creed is offensive? We don’t ask you to check your brain at the door.

Blessed John Henry Newman, ora pro nobis.

His brush isn’t only for the nominal. He rightfully warns those who are present every Sunday. How casual are we at the altar? Do we even think about what is happening and Who is Present? Newman doesn’t worry about those who worry about their unworthiness in receiving communion. It’s those who aren’t worried who are in danger of an unworthy reception.

Postcommunion is just as dangerous. My portrait emerges from this stroke. How quickly does my mind leave the Sacramental sphere after I receive the Host? How quick is my tongue? How fast to my thoughts turn to cynicism?

 Newman doesn’t give a simple answer to the problem. That’s something we would try to do. The remedy is the Holy Spirit, of whom we can neither command nor coerce. He leads us, we do not lead him. Yet we can deny him. We can minimize him. We can mock him. We do all of that by rejecting the power and necessity of a religious life.

It is the Holy Spirit who warms the most frozen of hearts. It is the Holy Spirit who comforts and heals. It is the Holy Spirit who brings us the Sacramental Presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

At the close of Sunday, the priest should not make the day’s attendance all about him. While he can drive people from Church, it is the Holy Spirit who draws them to Church. He is wise to understand the difference.

Nothing to do but adore | March 11, 2019

Before the Blessed Sacrament, we have nothing to do but adore.

The First Sunday in Lent is a marathon; it always is: 3 masses, the Great Litany in Procession, and finally Evensong and Benediction. All on a day with one less hour. It is work and, as we are often reminded, that’s what the word liturgy means. But prayer and work are not mutually exclusive. One can pray while remembering what to say and do and what comes next. What can adore Our Lord while keeping an eye on the acolyte who might be getting faint while kneeling; but it does take some mental and spiritual discipline.

Before the Blessed Sacrament, however, we have nothing to do but adore. I long for Sundays when Benediction ends the cycle of prayer. It is one of the few times where everyone is still. The choir is not looking at music. I am not looking at the missal. The congregation is not fumbling through a bulletin or Prayer Book. We are all on our knees gazing upon the mystery that is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. 

I used to be conscious about the duration of silence between O Salutaris and Tantum Ergo. Not anymore. I now collapse in it. I welcome the smoke to blur everything around me so my thoughts can be only on He who is before me.

Our minds are like computers. We can’t just pull the plug to shut it down. Well, we can, but it’s not wise. It takes a process to quiet the thoughts and the dialogue and the anxiety. I can fell the mental programs shut down. During Psalm 53, I feel the process beginning. Psalm 54 I’m starting to let go of my post-mortem of the morning. At Psalm 55, I am paying attention to the words. By the Magnificat, I am no longer looking at my watch. When we come to O Salutaris, there’s no other place I’d rather be. At the Divine Praises, I am truly praising the Divine.

Am I tired? Yes, but it the most satisfied way. Am I anxious? Not now. I have nothing to do but adore.

Stations of the Cross, March 8, 2019

I always begin Stations of the Cross the same way I begin the Rosary - with dread. 14 stations. 5 mysteries. This is not going to be quick. Yet, every time, every time, they end the same - I don’t want to stop.

For the first Friday in Lent, I was stunned that nearly 20 came for Evening Prayer and Stations. Usually the number begins to creep up as we approach Holy Week, but it’s never started this strong. I do hope it continues. I was pleased that a young parishioner brought 2 kids she was babysitting. I brought my 3 kids. They now know this is their Lenten discipline! People familiar and never-before-seen were there. This is my constant hymn to anyone who will listen - people are hungry for devotion and prayer.

Since Stations are a devotion, everyone does them differently. This year we are using the text from the Anglican Service Book including the verses from Stabat Mater between the stations. Our house practice is to have volunteers read the devotion between the versicles and responses (I read those and the prayer for each station). It is moving to hear these words in different voices from all ages.

Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019

I look forward to Lent the way I used to look forward to football season. The anticipation energizes me. I enjoy the preparation. Most of all, I love it because the season demands something from me. Every season of the Church, properly observed, makes demands on us. These demands aren’t for the sake of themselves; by demanding more from us, the Church prepares us for a deeper experience of the Mystery of Faith. Ascetic comes from the Greek meaning exercise. Perhaps this is why I look forward to Lent they I way I used to welcome football – it is intense, and rewarding, spiritual exercise.

I am not unlike many a young (ish), male, Anglo-Catholic, embracing the traditional disciplines and practices of our faith the way other young (ish) men embrace the Marine Corps. We enter the journey expecting to be forged in the fire of prayer, devotions, liturgies, self-denial, etc. We also know that few will join us, making it even more appealing. We are the Few. The Proud. The Marines with Maniples. As such, we fight the temptation to make Lent more about what we are giving up than why we are giving it up. We can get competitive with one another and social media doesn’t help. All of it, rooted in pious intentions, quickly devolves into narcissism, completely betraying the Ash Wednesday Gospel of Matthew 6.

Last year I asked my Oblate Director (I’m a Benedictine Oblate with St John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota) what I should do to make my Lent really austere. Tell me what you do, I asked. Give me the full monastic routine. I imagined hair shirts and a diet of cabbage water. My Director reminded me of what St Benedict wrote in the Rule: the life of a monk should always have a Lenten character. There are no heroic special rules during Lent. We should increase our diligence in these practices and add something sacrificial to them, but we should not distill 345 days of laxity into 40 days of super intense Christianity. That’s the spiritual equivalent of a crash diet. It might work for a short time, but we’ll be back where we were in no time, or maybe even further away from the heart of faith.

So for me, my Lenten discipline is slightly different from the rest of year. For food, I continue meat abstinence of Fridays and I restrict calories. I’ve been on a restrictive diet since January, so there’s no real change during Lent. I will certainly add Stations of the Cross to my Fridays and other devotions. I need to examine my calendar and make more time for silence, reading for the sake of reading (and not preparing for some parish duty), writing, and Eucharistic Adoration.

On Ash Wednesday, I was happy. Lent had arrived and I was ready for some discipline to tame my unruly will and my wayward thoughts and habits. I was ready for the promise of a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ. But Lent is a long season. I prayed that I would cooperate with the Holy Spirit.

There were seven liturgies and devotions on the first day of Lent. Seven times I day do I praise thee: Morning and Evening Prayer, Shrine Prayers, Rosary, and 3 masses – 8:30am, 12:00pm, and 6:00pm. I have such a good group of servers and faithful volunteers and I must brag (can I do that?) on my parish. They must know by now that the 6pm mass is going to be long. I can’t do a major celebration in under 90 minutes. And yet, they came. Ash Wednesday is always a curious day in terms of attendance. Other than Christmas and Easter, it is the single largest non-Sunday attendance day of the year. We were the same at 8:30am (21), down a fair amount at 12:00pm (83), and up at 6:00pm (157). 261 people on a Wednesday is 81% of our average Sunday attendance. I imagine that many parishes have a similar percentage.

Just before the noon mass, I walked to the narthex to check with the ushers. As I approached the narthex door, I could see through the glass a man that I had met two weeks earlier. I have coffee at Starbucks with our divinity school intern, Luke, every Monday morning after mass. Two Mondays ago, a man noticed my cassock and started a conversation. I have seen him at various coffee shops over the years. He’s clearly a character and makes the rounds, making his presence known wherever he goes. He asked which church I was attached to and told me he is formerly of the Italian mafia and hasn’t been to church in years. I told him Lent was coming and now was the time. He brushed it off and talked about his time in Vietnam and various other stories. At the end of the conversation he did, however, ask for a card. I found one and wrote the times of the Ash Wednesday masses and gave it to him, never expecting him to actually come. To my shock, he did. Thankfully, I remembered his name and he embraced me in the narthex. Later, I was told that he never did enter the church. He stayed in the narthex for about 20 minutes and left. I imagine that was the first time he had been in a church in decades and the narthex was as far he could go that time. Maybe the next time he will make it to a pew. Who knows? A few weeks after that he might make it to the confessional. And after that? The altar.

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This is one of the reasons why I am not in favor of “Ashes-to-Go” (I’m not going to make the argument against it here; frankly, I’m not sure anyone is interested!). After mass, a simple lunch of tomato bisque and broccoli with some of the altar party. This would be my meal for the day. I would augment with a protein shake in the morning and one before bed. Instead of Ashes-to-Go, I did Ashes-on-the-Go and went to the hospital to visit a parishioner who specifically requested the imposition of ashes. We did a shortened version of the liturgy in the hospital room and I imposed ashes on his head. “Remember, O man, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return,” has a different meaning for an octogenarian in the hospital. Another hospital visit and then back to the church for Evening Prayer, Shrine Prayers, Rosary, and the final mass.

After the final mass and I was asked to explain Ash Wednesday to our overflow homeless shelter guests. I did, and imposed ashes on two guests. It’s the closest I ever come to Ashes-to-Go, but I will argue the comparison is weak. I walked through the door at home just before 9pm, 14 hours after I had left. If I wanted a rigorous Lent, the first day didn’t disappoint.