Daily Office: Friday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (The Martyrs of Japan)

Morning Prayer: Ps. 69 | Gen. 24:1-27 | John 7:1-13
Evening Prayer: Ps. 73 | Heb. 12:3-11

After listening to the most recent of Derek Olsen’s Psalmcasts (which you can find here!) yesterday, one of the first things which I was struck in this morning’s psalm is the use of quotation marks. As Olsen notes, the Hebrew text that the psalter in the BCP is a translation of does not actually include quotation marks, or any punctuation at all, so the inclusion of particular punctuation marks is always a choice by the translator. Indeed, the RSV version of the psalms does not include any quotation marks at all for Psalm 69. It’s an interesting exercise, when reading a psalm like today’s, to remove or change the placement of the quotation marks and see how that affects the meaning.

This might be a bit of a stretch, but it seems to me like the use of quotation marks in the BCP Psalm 69 serves to distance the imprecatory elements, especially v. 24-30, from prayer to God. By ending the Psalmist’s words in v. 14 “But as for me, this is my prayer to you, at the time you have set, O Lord” end with a colon and then including v. 15-21 in quotes, the translator suggests that those verses specifically, rather than the psalm as a whole, comprise the Psalmist’s prayer. This means that the Psalmist’s call for his enemies’ violent destruction need not be counted as prayer per se. Given the Christian consensus that v. 24-30 is not exactly what Jesus had in mind when he enjoined us to pray for our enemies, this makes it a little bit easier to use this psalm devotionally, although I wonder if it alters the likely original meaning of the psalm in its historical context.

Now, I am not arguing that such an interpretive decision is necessarily wrong — one cannot translate without making interpretive decisions, after all! I also want to stress that this is very much an amateur analysis; the translators may have had something else in mind entirely when making the decision about these quotation marks, though I do believe that the effect I describe is real, whether intended or not. Moreover, even if the translators included the quotation marks specifically to downplay the strength of the imprecatory verses, that is not necessarily a bad decision; the question of how we Christians use difficult bits of Scripture liturgically or devotionally, especially the so-called imprecatory or cursing psalms, is a very real and difficult one. But it is important to know that this particular translation of Psalm 69 (like, again, all translations of Psalm 69), does involve some very real decisions on the part of the translators that meaningfully effect our experience of this psalm.

Daily Office: Friday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (The Martyrs of Japan)

Daily Office: Thursday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (Cornelius the Centurion)

Morning Prayer: Ps. 7o, 71 | Gen. 23:1-20 | John 6:60-71
Evening Prayer: Ps. 74 | Heb. 11:32-12:2

A brief note on the Gospel reading: in his marvelous The Stripping of the Altars, on late medieval and early modern traditional religion in England, Eamon Duffy notes that the liturgical piety of pre-Reformation English Christians was so powerful that it reshaped even how they viewed events in Scripture. Thus, to use a particularly appropriate example given Tuesday’s celebration of the Presentation/Candlemas, images of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple and meeting Simeon and Anna would often be depicted as Candlemas processions: just as late medieval English Christians would process around their churches, candles in hand on Candlemas Day, so too were Simeon and Anna shown carrying candles. For me, growing up in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in a congregation that usually worshiped using Divine Service II  from Lutheran Worship, it’s hard not to hear Peter’s response to Jesus’ question about whether he and the rest of the apostles wish to leave Jesus in the tones of the Alleluia Verse I sang week after week before the Gospel reading was announced: Alleluia. Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia, alleluia. There is something powerful about the way in which liturgy, repeated week after week, sinks into your bones, and the way in which the use of Scripture in liturgy shapes our understanding or experience of Scripture.

The image of the “great cloud of witnesses” from the Letter to the Hebrews is one of my most favorite ones to use to ponder the saints and the Church Triumphant more broadly. Of course, the witnesses to which the letter writer refers are not Christian saints but rather the Old Testament worthies who kept the faith without receiving their reward until the coming of Christ (Heb. 11:39-40). But if you’ll permit me to use the reference to refer to Christians past as well, the letter-writer gives us an important part of a theology of sanctity. Growing up in a more-or-less broad church Lutheran congregation, I didn’t have much exposure to the notion of saints as a child, beyond a vague worry that their excessive veneration by Catholics may have threatened those same Catholics’ eternal salvation (I was both a rather pious and a rather anxious child, as this story suggests). It was through later exposure to Catholicism through the Catholic Worker movement, my discovery of high-church Episcopalianism, and my academic work in monasticism and medieval theology that I found myself encountering these strange creatures and indeed being enjoined to ask for their prayers! I’ve spent some amount of time reflecting on saints and sanctity and would like to spend more; this seems like a good time to do so.

With no further ado: for the letter-writer to the Hebrews, an important function of the “great cloud of witnesses” is to inspire. Now, one need not believe, say, that the saints intercede for us to God to agree: at the most basic level, the examples of the heroes of faith of the Hebrew Bible, of the New Testament, and of the Church challenge us to, like them, “lay aside every weight…and…run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” The letter-writer seems to believe that these examples are helpful in ways that the example of Christ or non-narrative moral or theological commands or injunctions are not. I tend to agree: following the recent retrieval of virtue ethics, I agree that the most compelling account of the moral life is in terms of narrative rather than abstract laws or commands, and saints can seem approachable in ways that the formidable moral perfection of Christ sometimes does not (although, I should add, that in seeking to emulate the saints we really are seeking to emulate Christ, insofar as what we emulate about the saints is indeed their following of, and even union with, God in Christ). More on this to follow.

Daily Office: Thursday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (Cornelius the Centurion)

Daily Office: Wednesday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (Anskar, Archbishop)

Morning Prayer: Ps. 72 | Gen. 22:1-18 | John 6:52-59
Evening Prayer: Ps. 119:73-96 | Heb. 11:23-31

There is something of an embarrassment of riches in today’s lections — it’s all so good!! From the Sacrifice of Isaac to the beautiful eucharistic language in Jesus’ sermon on Himself as the bread of life to the selection from the famous “great cloud of witnesses” passage in the Letters to the Hebrews…it’s rather hard to know what to focus on, or what to say, given the voluminous history of Christian reflection on these very passages.

In light of this, I’ll talk about the saint commemorated today:

Anskar, the Apostle of the North, strikes me as a decidedly important saint for our times. As Holy Women, Holy Men relates, Anskar devoted his life to difficult and dangerous evangelistic work among the pagan Danes and Swedes, but the results during his lifetime were rather unimpressive, frustrated by ecclesiastical and imperial political difficulties, although he was able to consecrate the first Swedish bishop. Yet a few generations later, the first seeds which Anskar planted would bear fruit, and later missionary efforts would yield the Christianization of Scandinavia.

For me, and I think many others in the Church today, especially those in the old mainline denominations, our contemporary moment often feels, to quote the Collect of the Day, like “the day of small things.” So many of our congregations are aging and shrinking. Our seminaries are closing or merging or riled by dispute and discord. I know priests and pastors who have toiled tirelessly for the Gospel with, it seems, little effect. And as I discern a call to the ministry for myself, I worry at times about figuring out how to tame my own urge for accomplishment and cope with feelings of discouragement. St. Anskar reminds us that though we, like him, may not live to see the results of our work for the Gospel, “when [God has] begun a good work [He] will bring it to a fruitful conclusion.” If an apparent failure like Anskar can become the Apostle of the North, let us trust God that even in the moments where the Church feels weak and declining, God will not let it fail and may bring abundant life and grace into being through the work we do in ways we cannot anticipate and indeed may not ourselves see.

I’m reminded of a prayer by the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, which you can find in The Violence of Love:

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Having evaded dealing with the actual lections, let me commend to your listening Benjamin Britten’s Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac. You can find a performance of it on YouTube here.

Daily Office: Wednesday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (Anskar, Archbishop)

Daily Office: Monday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (Brigid)

Morning Prayer: Ps. 56, 57, 58 | Genesis 19:1-29 | John 6:27-40
Evening Prayer Psalms and Lection replaced by the appointed Psalms and Lections for the Eve of the Presentation

[TW: Sexual Violence, Rape]

Some of the readings from Genesis over the last weeks, and today’s in particular, have been pretty tough going for me. It’s been a reminder that, despite the continuity that Christians claim with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs,* the moral universe that they inhabit is one that is alien and frankly shocking to the modern reader. For me, it’s often difficult to figure out where good news or moral guidance or anything useful at all, honestly, is in these stories. The story of Hagar and Ishmael, say, reads to me as morally unintelligible at best and profoundly immoral at worst. While Abram and Sarai’s sadness over their childnessness is perfectly comprehensible, Abram’s particular concern about the future of his line (see Gen 15:2, say) is quite hard to relate to, at least for me, and certainly the solution they devised is hard to countenance; by contemporary standards, Hagar was almost certainly raped insofar as she had no choice but to have sex with Abram at her mistress’ command, to say nothing of the treatment of Hagar and her son after Ishmael’s birth, or God’s (God’s!!) command that Hagar return to her jealous and cruel mistress! Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a vividly imagined account of the toll that such a role would take on women like Hagar; it is an excellent book but an emotionally difficult read. Now, to be fair, one might cynically (but, Kyrie eleison, not unjustly) note that fathering children by one’s slaves was in fact something of a venerable white Christian tradition, but the point remains that any rendering of Abram and Sarai’s actions as moral is pretty much impossible within the moral universe that at least most of us share.

And then there’s today’s account of the destruction of Sodom of Gomorrah. Of course, this is an account which Christians have made use of for thousands of years to condemn certain sexual practices particularly associated with sex between men. Many Christians today continue to use it to condemn LGBTQ people and gay men in particular.** Now, there are, in my opinion, myriad problems with such a reading. Just to name a few, Ezekiel 16:49-50 suggests that the primary sin of Sodom was a lack of hospitality, especially towards the poor – “she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” – which re-frames the story as less about same-gender sex as such and more about the appalling lack of hospitality which the men of Sodom showed to the divine strangers in their midst (by attempting to gang-rape them). Then, there’s the whole problem that the very notion of a stable gay identity central to contemporary debates about Christianity and same-gender sexuality simply didn’t exist until a few hundred years ago; I don’t think anyone reads this text and argues that literally all the men in Sodom were gay in the sense that we understand the world today (to put it a bit crudely, it’d be hard to sustain a city that way!) and Lot himself assumes that the lust of the men in question could be redirected away from his visitors towards his daughters. Of course, this is not to suggest that this passage is in any way affirming of same-gender sexual practices or what we today would call homosexuality/LGBTQ identity/whatever — it’s obviously not! — just that things are a bit more complicated exegetically than the typical use of this passage would suggest.

But I don’t want to spend the rest of this post on the use and misuse of this text in current debates about Christianity and sexuality; rather, I want to argue that even for those who take the traditional position on Christianity and same-gender sexuality, this is a tough, foreign, and even repellent passage. It’s worth highlighting, although it was uncomfortable for me to read this morning and is uncomfortable to write about now, that Lot’s solution to the mob’s demand is to offer them his daughters (without consulting them, as though they were his property, as indeed they were) to be raped and abused in his guests’ place. One can, no doubt, explain Lot’s actions in terms of norms of hospitality in the Ancient Near East; perhaps one can even sympathize with Lot to an extent, torn between the ethical duty which the hospitality code demanded (that is, that his guests be protected at all costs) and whatever natural affection he had for his children. But at the end of the day, we contemporary American Christians don’t actually follow ancient hospitality codes anymore; if anything, my intuition is that most of us, to turn the story of Lot into a (rather ghastly) hypothetical of the sort beloved by a certain species of moral philosopher, would choose to save our children rather than our (adult) guests. Further, though the trope of paternal control of daughters, and of their sexuality in particular, does still have a great deal of power in contemporary society, my sense is that hardly anyone would suggest that daughters are the property of their fathers to the extent that a father could justly offer them as sexual objects to a rapacious mob, as Lot does.

So what are we supposed to do with this? At one level, the story does have a somewhat happy ending: the divine visitors intervene and prevent harm from coming to Lot’s daughters and God judges the evil of Sodom’s men immediately (and, one must admit, rather satisfactorily). Yet even here the modern conscience, made nervous by notions of collective guilt, can’t but think about the women and children of Sodom who perished alongside the men: did they deserve to die for the sins of their men? Yet it is a happy ending of a sort, one which the similar story in Judges 19 wholly lacks. Don’t read that one right after eating.

If one’s desperate to find something satisfactory, one could perhaps make Lot’s wife’s actions into an allegory of the spiritual life: there’s a hoary old organizing saying that says that the movement is like a shark: if you don’t keep moving forward, you die; does Rahab have a similar message for those pursuing union with Christ? Yet this feels to me like something of an evasion rather than a resolution of the problem. And one could, I suppose, find some rather compelling evidence for a theory of total depravity in this passage. But beyond that, how are we Christians to read this account as anything other than an awful ancient story with moral stakes we either don’t understand or disagree with?

*N.B.: the precise nature of that continuity is, of course, deeply contested, both among Christians and between Christians and Jews. The passages we’ve been reading from Hebrews are, among other things, an early Christian attempt to sort out that exact question!

** It’s worth noting the conservative Christians often argue that it is note LBGTQ people qua people but in fact particular sexual practices that are condemned; the relationship between sexual practices and identity, the use of and subsequent problematization of hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner rhetoric in Christian discussions of same-gender sexual attraction and sexual practices are all important but well beyond the scope of this post.

Daily Office: Monday in the Fourth Week after the Epiphany (Brigid)

Daily Office: Tuesday in the Third Week After the Epiphany (Timothy, Titus, and Silas), 1/26/16

Morning Prayer: Ps. 45 | Gen 15:1-11, 17-21 | John 5:1-18
Evening Prayer: Ps. 47, 48 | Heb. 9:1-14

Psalm 45 is a psalm quite nearly begging for a typological or anagogical reading. The literal sense of the psalm is nearly devoid of religious content – the note in my Bible suggests that it was likely an ode for a royal wedding – yet when read figuratively, given its resonance with Christian tropes of heaven as marriage-feast and the marriage relationship as figure for the relationship between Christ and the Church, it is rich indeed. Indeed, such a reading of this psalm goes back to the beginning of the Church — Hebrews 1:8-9 refers verses 7-8 of the psalm to Jesus. The King, in this allegorical reading, is Jesus Christ, “anointed” by God; the princess is the Church — so the psalm can be read to depict the relationship between Christ and the Church, or better yet, the final entry of the Church Triumphant into heaven at the end of days: “with joy and gladness they are brought, and enter into the palace of the king.” The point here is not that the psalm is really about Christ and the Church, but simply that it can be and has frequently been read as such. Indeed, such a reading strategy has been key to Christians making devotional use out of the psalms, and is particularly helpful in finding religious value in some of the more difficult ones (the history of monastic interpretation of Ps. 137:9 strikes me as a particularly good example of this). I wonder what the scholarship is on early Protestant interpretive strategies for dealing with the Psalms. On one hand, Protestants, especially Reformed ones, made great liturgical use of psalmody, yet Protestant suspicion of Catholic scriptural hermeneutics and focus on the “plain sense” of scripture seems like it would limit their interpretive options. Something to look into, at any rate.

Update: Turns out that the vast majority of the Christian tradition would have strongly disagreed with the notion that the literal sense of Psalm 45 is short on religious meaning! See The Literal Sense is a Tricky Thing.


Daily Office: Tuesday in the Third Week After the Epiphany (Timothy, Titus, and Silas), 1/26/16

Daily Office: The Conversion of St. Paul, 1/25/16

Morning Prayer: Ps. 19 | Isaiah 45:18-25 | Philippians 3:4b-11
Evening Prayer: Ps. 119:89-112 | Ecclesiasticus 39:1-10 | Acts 9:1-22

The account of the conversion of St. Paul is one of the most  famous conversion narratives in the history of Christianity, and with good reason: Saul of Tarsus, sworn enemy of the nascent Christian Way, bound to Damascus with the authority to cleanse the synagogues of Christian heretics, encounters none other than the Risen Christ in the form of a heavenly light and voice. From that moment on, Paul becomes the greatest Christian evangelist, travelling throughout Asia Minor and Greece and ultimately to Rome, spreading the Jesus movement beyond its base in Judea and Galilee to the Jewish diaspora and Gentiles as well.

In appropriate fashion, given Paul’s theology — or at least Paul’s theology as interpreted by Augustine and the Reformers — his moment of conversion is one marked by a sort of irresistible grace, an irruption of the Divine into his life. At portrayed in the the Acts of the Apostles and as Paul himself recalls (see Galatians 1), there is no question of Paul desiring such a profound reorientation of his life – he was on the road to Damascus to rout the Christians from the synagogues there! – or participating in it in any particularly meaningful way; he is literally “cast to the ground” by the power of the Resurrected Jesus, able to utter nothing more than a terrified “Who are you, Lord?”. There is no spritual quest here. No Augustine, moving from Manicheanism to Neo-Platonism to Christianity, driven by an urgent desire for wisdom and peace. No Luther, obsessed by his sinfulness, wracking his brains for ever-more-trivial sins to confess to an exasperated and concerned confessor until at last stumbling onto the doctrine of salvation by faith through grace.  No: we simply have a zealot who is quite literally knocked off his path by God.

What, then, does this mean for how we should be? For someone like me without the experience of a profound, nigh-instantaneous conversion, this story is at first glance difficult to relate to beyond the reminder that God can work in unexpected and even disconcerting ways. To be sure, this passage could be enlisted to do some work for a doctrine of God or of grace or of election, but it is rather hard to divine a moral lesson from the Road to Damascus, unless one seeks to read a (dubious, in my opinion) profound openness to God’s reorienting work in Saul’s exclamation “Who are you, Lord?” Saul is a passive agent here; he doesn’t really do anything so much as have things done to him.

If one is looking for a moral examplar in this story, the person who springs most to mind is not St. Paul but rather Ananias. Saul, remember, is headed to Damascus to persecute Ananias and those like him. Small surprise that Ananias is originally none-too-pleased about the notion of going to see Saul to heal him from his blindness. He had plenty of reasons to feel that way. Ananias may simply have been concerned about his own survival. Stephen’s martyrdom must not have been far from his mind — could one fault him for imagining a similar ending to his encounter with Saul? Or perhaps, looking at things pragmatically, he figured that Saul was likely the greatest enemy of the church and a blinded Saul was a less effective persecutor than one with full use of his senses — so , if through simple inaction, morally blameless by any typical standard, he could save his fragile community, few would fault him and many would praise him. Yet he goes. Goes to the house of the man who was likely his greatest enemy, a man he had good reason to be fearful of and a man he had no reason to aid, and prays that he may be healed and that the Holy Spirit may come upon him, trusting in the God who improbably promised him that Saul “is a chosen instrument” of His.

There are, to my mind, several lessons to take from this. All of them are rather difficult, especially for someone like me with a rather belligerent politics and a suspicion of the ways in which the preaching of Christian love of enemies by rich to poor, whites to blacks, and so on have aided in legitimating an unjust social order. The first and most basic lesson has to do, simply enough, with loving your enemies. It is remarkable to me, and a testament to both his trust in God and his charity, that Ananias consented to do good to Saul at all, given his numerous good reasons for wishing him ill.  Now, the application here is not necessarily straightforward; the question of the sort of aid you are obligated to render your enemies, particularly when your enemies are more powerful than you and when providing certain kinds of aid may put you and your community at risk is a complicated one. It’s worth noting that Ananias does not go to heal Saul until he is told by God that Saul is His instrument to spread the Gospel. But regardless it is clear that Ananias is willing to love his enemy.

This love of enemy goes beyond simply wishing him well (hard enough for me!) and even doing well by him (yet harder!). In praying that he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, Ananias goes beyond caring for his persecutor to welcoming him into his own community. In my experience, people who have suffered for their politics or religion are often less than gracious at welcoming newcomers, particularly former opponents of the community. There’s often a sense that these newcomers haven’t paid their dues, or that they’ve won the benefits of belonging without the blood, sweat, and tears of their predecessors. Certainly I have felt this way over my organizing career. Now, even on a purely pragmatic level, this is clearly a self-defeating attitude. Any good trade unionist will tell you that over the the course of a union drive or a contract campaign, you’re going to need to win over workers who were originally tepid on the union or opposed to it, and many have treasured stories about formerly staunchly anti-union workers who became union militants. Yet it is one thing to recognize it as a self-defeating impulse, it is quite another to conquer it. But Ananias does. I want to be part of a church and part of a labor movement that, like Ananias, has conquered this impulse, has figured out how to genuinely welcome enemies (be they enemies of the Gospel or of the Movement) into our parishes and locals. Repentance and conversion are important, of course, but so is a joyous welcome on our part rather than suspicion or petulance. We don’t want to be like the obedient son angry at the welcome the prodigal is returning; we should seek to be like Ananias.

To conclude, I want to move briefly from the moral sense to the typological (I believe — I’m a little rusty on my types of Biblical allegory!). Be aware that this is a bit less tightly argued — I’m riffing here! — and will focus on Saul’s blindness and sight in relationship to the trajectory of his conversion. The motif of blindness to sight in which this story in the broadest sense fits is a common one in depictions of the spiritual life (“I was blind but now I see,” etc.). But even the more specific trajectory of Paul’s vision — first, seeing normally, next seeing God and being struck blind, and then having his sight restored — is one not without precedent. The experience of both darkness and light in the encounter with God (or, better put, a journey from the normal light of human reason into the darkness of God – often a darkness caused by God’s brightness – and perhaps through the darkness into light) was a commonplace in the medieval theological tradition, especially those aspects of it we now (rather unhelpfully) call “mysticism” or “mystical theology.” To the best of my knowledge, however, Saul’s blindness was not usually used as a type for the spiritual journey in medieval theology; the ascent to Mt. Sinai (where God appears in the darkness of a cloud) was much more commonly used. (I would be excited to be proved wrong on this point, though!) Non-Christian theological and philosophical systems also make use of the motif: think of Plato’s allegory of the cave, where once the man ascends from the cave (where he can see, he thinks, normally) into the light of the sun, he is blinded by its brightness and only gradually retains his sight.

In light of all this (see what I did there?), I want to offer a rather loose typological account of the Conversion of St. Paul: Dramatic irruptions of the Divine into human life occur. They may tend to occur to disciplined religious practitioners (Saul was certainly an expert practitioner!) but, as the unearned, unpredictable gift of God, they can occur to anyone (Saul was an enemy of Christ!) and certainly are due no one. One cannot earn them (think The Cloud of Unknowing here). Yet by themselves, these experiences simply produce blindness. Staring God face-to-face does not actually help you make sense of the cosmos and your place in it, and  perhaps even fails to help you make sense of God — in the face of God’s awesome divinity, the most natural result is to be overcome, to be blinded, to be cast down on the ground. It is through the ministrations of the Church (as represented by Ananias) that sight can be restored; a community of faith, especially one that includes spiritual elders, is  needed to make sense of ecstatic, ‘mystical,’ experiences, to integrate them into the story of the work God is doing in the world and to equip the ‘mystic’ to tell her or his story for the edification of the Church and the evangelization of those outside it.

Daily Office: The Conversion of St. Paul, 1/25/16