One of the greatest gifts of liturgy, much like a powerful poem or memorable speech, is the way a simple succinct phrase within it can sometimes reveal a depth of experience or emotion that is almost beyond words to truly capture. Just a few words, expressed in just the right way at just the right time in just the right circumstances, can express an intimate knowledge and awareness that says to the hearer “I think I know some of what you are feeling, what you are going through…I’ve been there.”
One such phrase comes within one of the “Additional Prayers” that appear toward to the end of the pastoral service for the The Burial of the Dead:
Father of all, we pray to you for those we love, but see no longer: Grant them your peace; let light perpetual shine upon them; and, in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work in them the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Those eight words “for those we love, but see no longer” capture for me all the tender and bittersweet emotions for those persons especially dear who have ended their time on this planet, and yet still very much alive in my heart. Those eight words speak of special loved ones never again to be gazed upon this side of paradise, except in the mind’s eye and perhaps glimpsed in the most fortunate and happiest dreams.
Earlier this week, on November 1, many liturgical churches celebrated the “Feast of All Saints” most often referred to as “All Saints Day.” It is considered one of the high holy days of the Anglican tradition and is a time to pause and pay special attention to that “great cloud of witnesses” that have come and gone before us on this earthly journey. Often in the All Saints Day service, the names of all the parishioners who have died in the previous year are read aloud, one by one, as a way of remembrance.
The next day, November 2, is the companion feast of “All Souls Day” or the “Feast of the Faithful Departed.” It is more widely recognized in Latin America than the United States. Whereas All Saints Day is more corporate and global and historical, celebrating “that vast multitude that no one can number,” the emphasis during All Souls Day is more personal, intended to honor a particular loved one or small set of intimate loved ones. The Feast of the Faithful Departed is celebrated with such things as listening to music they especially liked, or preparing and enjoying the food they found especially satisfying, or wearing an article of their clothing or carrying a personal item they treasured. It is a common practice to place a picture of the departed by a candle for the day.
Most often in most Episcopal churches in the U.S., the two days are celebrated as one on “All Saints Sunday” — which happens to be today. It seems an especially appropriate time then to embrace such a prayer as the one above, and indeed, to let it embrace us.
(An earlier version of this post was written in Advent 2014, but has been significantly revised and reposted here in Advent 2020 to ask whether we can “Rejoice, always!” even in the time of Covid.)
Two days ago was “Stir-up” Sunday — an irreverent nickname some of us “Whiskeypalians” give the Third Sunday of Advent, based on the (pun intended) “stirring” words of the opening collect:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
The more traditional name given “3 Advent” is Gaudete Sunday, from the first word of the introit of the Latin mass: “Gaudete Domino semper, iterum dico, Gaudete!…” or “Rejoice in The Lord always! Again, I will say, REJOICE!” That line comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phil. 4:4), a young church he seemed to have particularly loved on the east coast of Greece. (The ALL CAPS are mine…not sure whether his shaky pen writing ancient Greek on papyrus did the same.)
Writing from a Roman prison, a remarkably emancipated Paul suggested to this fledgling flock of new believers, and maybe to all of us in 2020, that we should “Rejoice, always. Again I say, rejoice! …The Lord is at hand.” And in the same breath, he speaks of a “Peace of God that passes all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). On the one hand, it can be seen as an utterly absurd notion, especially in times like these. But for generations of Christians ever since, it has proven to be more than a notion and somehow utterly true.
The Third Sunday of Advent also traditionally recognizes and celebrates Mary and her deep joy, hence the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath now illumined in her honor. And so the question is posed: on this Gaudete Sunday or “Rose Sunday” or “Stir-up” Sunday in 2020, is it possible to “rejoice in the Lord, always”? How can we follow, in such a year of turmoil and disease and death, Paul’s admonition to embrace an ineffable Peace and the “bountiful mercy and grace” of a “stirred-up” Lord?
At the beginning of Advent, I would likely have seen such a call as too much. And still it may be.
Indeed, just this week our nation passed 300,000 dead from this ravenous virus. Three hundred thousand chairs at last year’s Christmas tables will now be as empty as the hearts of those loved ones having to stare at them. And yet, also this week, nearing the end of this loooooooong and dismal year, there seems to be actual news about which we can in fact rejoice.
Thanks be to God – and thousands of researchers, scientists, healthcare workers and tens of thousands of volunteers willing to be guinea pigs in dozens of studies worldwide — vaccines are here! There’s a long way to go of course, but now the hope that seemed so far off is (as Paul reminded the Philippians about The Lord) “at hand.” That glimmer of light at the end of the proverbial Covid tunnel does not appear to be a train coming in the opposite direction.
For sure, we have this year been “sorely hindered” as the collect says, “by our sins” of neglect or ignorance or arrogance or all of the above — and more. Especially when looking at this nation, I confess that a daily dose of 9/11-sized deaths has, I greatly fear, made me numb, asleep to something too horrible to contemplate. To truly fathom the ongoing loss is crippling, and so out of a survival protection mode, I change the channel or click the next link. I suspect I’m not alone.
The power of powerful prayers like Sunday’s “Stir up” collect can bring me back, though, as can hearing once again the paradoxical Truth of a real Peace that does in fact simply pass human understanding. My lawyer-brain’s inability to make sense of it fails to make the Reality of It any less true. To delve into such Mystery behind a stirred-up, Rose-colored Gaudete Sunday is to be able to withstand the pain of knowing that much of 2021 will be too much like 2020, especially in the beginning. Throughout it all, though, the “Gaudete Sunday” of 3 Advent bids us look for, and indeed rejoice in, the “bountiful grace and mercy” to “speedily help and deliver us,” from a “stirred-up” Lord that indeed is close “at hand.”
Today marks the last Sunday of the traditional church calendar year. Mainline liturgical churches start all over again next Sunday with the First Sunday of Advent (moving from “Year A” in the Common Lectionary into “Year B” for those keeping score). Traditionally this last Sunday After Pentecost is known as “Christ the King” Sunday, and indeed it is a time for reflecting on the passage of time, and a time to imagine the end of time, and how Christ Jesus is to establish his reign for all time.
In 2020, the concept of “king-ly” power on earth has become anachronistic at best. In America especially, the notion of a God-appointed monarchy and ruler (despite what might be suggested in some circles, thankfully isolated) is a particularly prickly subject. After all, our nation was founded by getting rid of a king’s power over our “free and independent states.”
Maybe that is one reason I find it difficult to wrap my heart and soul around the moniker “Christ The King.” Not only that, but beyond my contemptuous aversion against authoritarian monarchs of any stripe, the discussion of “Christ the King” is often presented as an apocalyptic story of that one cataclysmic day when suddenly “the Rhapsody will cometh” with lots of horsemen on fiery chariots and cherubim and seraphim singing endlessly to “the Lamb upon the throne.” Such an existence, regardless of all the “green screen” special effects that might have to come with it to keep up with the book of Revelation, might well be infinitely better in so many ways than our current state of being in 2020. Even so, my sardonic and distrustful lawyer-brain cannot come close to believing in a “second coming” that is somehow filled with the literal emptying of graves, accompanied with clouds of fire and the sun turning to black and seven angels with seven trumpets pouring out seven bowls of God’s wrath.
The older I get, the more I’m thinking that maybe the “second coming” of Christ, the establishment of “Christ’s Kingdom” has very little to do with what the world might look like when God tries to out-do the latest CGI and VFX in the next Avengers release. Rather, I am more and more drawn to a cock-eyed notion that the true “second coming” of Jesus has much more to do with what the world might be like powered by the force of Love.
When I get all worked up, as I often do, over the world’s absurdities and cruelties (especially these days with the inability or unwillingness of so many people accepting or even acknowledging facts that they might find unpleasant or inconvenient to their myopic selfishness), it comes to me as sheer Grace to be reminded of the kingdom that Jesus conveyed to his disciples and followers over and over again. Even standing condemned before Pilate, knowing surely that crucifixion lay ahead with the answer he was about to give, Jesus quietly and simply but defiantly replied to Pilate (and to the millenia of generations to follow) regarding the question of whether in fact he felt he was a king…
“My kingdom,” he said, “is not of this world.”
And so it is that followers of Jesus in this world, the only one we really know and are forced to walk around each day, are left to ponder what to do with this world. Can it be that THIS world – here and now – is the one that is to be built into the “Kingdom of Heaven” that Jesus spoke about so much while walking in this world?
I have heard it said that the term often translated in English Bibles as “Kingdom of Heaven” in the New Testament can also be translated as “Realm of Love.” If indeed that is the case, then THAT is something even my lawyer brain can not only accept, but fervently yearn will bring about an everlasting reign for “Christ the King,” a veritable “second coming” of tough, powerful, radical and relentless love.
An obscure verse from the traditional iconic hymn for this Sunday says it well, I think:
Crown Him the Lord of peace, Whose power a scepter sways From pole to pole, that wars may cease, And all be prayer and praise. His reign shall know no end, And round His pierced feet Fair flowers of glory now extend Their fragrance ever sweet.
Palm Sunday is the last Sunday in Lent, and ushers in the most solemn and sacred week in the Christian calendar. For most Christians around the world, this Palm Sunday and “these 40 days and 40 nights” of Lent in 2020 have been the most disturbing, perplexing and challenging of our lifetimes.
Folks that know me, know that I am an unapologetic Anglophile. For me, there has always been something radiant and powerful about the English language, with words well written and spoken well, that can bring power and breathe life and somehow touch the soul. And so yesterday on this most extraordinary Palm Sunday, it was not only appropriate but perfectly timed for Queen Elizabeth II to speak well a few words extraordinarily well written. For only the fifth time in her long reign, HRM addressed
Passion Sunday 2020…the year palms were daffodil stems, and hosannas were shouted online.
her nation on a day that was not Christmas Eve. She candidly shared her concerns about the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, and acknowledged very dark and difficult days lay ahead. Yet, with the authority of a woman who has lived through many dark days, she assured them of brighter days beyond.
While the Queen may have been speaking only to her (mostly) united kingdom within the United Kingdom, her words carried much-needed Truth far beyond British borders:
I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future…
While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us.
We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.
Simple. Direct. Sparse. Every word, practically every comma, packed with pregnant meaning. Even with pauses for the compelling videos that accompanied her remarks, the entire message took barely four minutes.
The words of well written liturgy can also bring surprising and powerful impact, often at times when mysteriously they seem most needed. Liturgy, at its very best, often uses the same type of succinct language to pack a punch that can alter not only one’s outlook on the day, but also at times the course of one’s life.
A few hours before the Queen spoke yesterday, I had one such moment while “attending” with a dear friend a Palm Sunday service being broadcast (as almost all are now) over the internet. While it would be an exaggeration to say it was life changing, it nonetheless reminded me — in just eleven words and twelve syllables – of the assurance that we on this lonely planet are not left to face this worldwide disease alone:
… We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
There, quietly tucked away in the middle the General Thanksgiving toward the end of the Rite of Morning Prayer, was a phrase that I suspect I’ve read, said, heard and prayed a thousand-plus times in my 64 years. Never have those sublime words “means of grace” and “hope of glory” resonated more than in this unusual “online” worship on this most unusual Palm Sunday morning.
Throughout human history, despite the bitterly abundant examples of cruelty and depravity and greed that we humans are fully capable of inflicting upon one another, it IS true – and I think more evident than not – we humans also exhibit compassion and caring and sacrifice. Last week was the 52nd anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. who spoke of the “long arc of history” and how it bends toward justice. When I contemplate such things, I often talk of “my better days” and how on those days I am blessed to believe such things might in fact be true. And I might even be led, on particularly blessed days, to conclude that this human tendency must somehow be influenced by a Loving Creator. And on those rare times, like on a Palm Sunday morning, I am offered a glimpse that perhaps — against all common sense and reason – this Loving Creator passionately and intensely and intimately loves ME. It is a notion that feels like the deepest of all desires, yet often more than I can bear.
Regardless of any of that, one thing I do know is I’m not nearly a good enough lawyer to argue persuasively against the truth of the indomitable nature of the Human Spirit. Time and time and time and time again it has prevailed.
The Queen, in her sovereign resolve, reflected that “though self-isolating may at times be hard, many people of all faiths, and of none, are discovering that it presents an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect, in prayer or meditation.” And so it has been during this strange Lent of 2020, and so it will be during this Holy Week, and throughout the spring season ahead in weeks that we Christians call “Eastertide.”
I heard someone say the other day say that it is times such as these, where there is turmoil and distress and fear, and a dreaded sense of hopelessness, that God seems to do God‘s best work.
There are countless examples in the Scriptures, from Joshua to Jonah to Joseph and dozens of others, where the darkest of days turn bright and out of death comes new life. The biggest and best such example, of course, is the story of this Holy Week, and its triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem leading to bitter betrayal and ghastly crucifixion, but ultimately turning into everlasting life that has forever changed the world.
We humans indeed mysteriously do have and have had (and, perhaps, been given) throughout the centuries “the means of grace, and the hope of glory.”
The General Thanksgiving (BCP Morning Prayer, Rite 2)
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
A little more than two years ago, I wrote a blog piece that resonated with a lot of readers. Its impact surprised me a little, but maybe it shouldn’t have. The piece was entitled Dogs and Tears, and it spoke to something I’ve come to find is one of the most difficult parts of the human experience — the grief over the loss of an beloved animal.
In it, I reflected on a letter I tried to write months earlier to a friend who had to end the suffering of his family’s 16-year old dog a few days before Christmas, and how “I tried to offer — as best I could — some sense of awareness that his mourning and suffering over an animal was as real and as raw as any grief that any human suffers in this life.”
The “best dog on the planet” is no longer confined by it. She has an infinitely larger yard now in which to frolic.
the caption “Best dog on the planet.” A few hours ago, that dog left this planet — and a big-ass gaping hole in the hearts of my adult son (who has known her since he was eight), and his mother (with whom my son and the memory of Sandy will now forever live), and me.
Early this morning, I was in a devotion group of fellow faithful strugglers when the question was posed, “What’s the one question you want to have answered?” It took me an entire second (or less) to come up with the one at the very top: Is there — in fact — a heaven? I have asked that question before in this blog: “Will, one day, I wrap my arms once again around my father and my mother, and say hello to an older brother I never really knew, who at age 10 left me and my sister and a shocked small community that loved him so? And will he be an older brother, or a little boy?” Who, on earth, knows? Continue reading →
While thumbing through the hymnal, as I sit in the stark stillness of a Good Friday morning, words jump off the page…
Ah, keep my heart thus moved to stand thy cross beneath, to mourn thee, well-beloved, yet thank thee for thy death.
I’m a word-guy. I love words, and love to find that “right word” especially; that difference between “lightning” and “a lightning bug” as Twain put it. I make my living (such that it is right now) mostly through words, putting them together in such a way that might prove most persuasive and beneficial for my clients. Yet, this day is just one of those days in which my words fail. Words of others, though, often knock me down.
Sometimes on Good Friday, I try (because that’s just what I do) to put into words my feelings on this day, with its mixture of hopelessness and hopefulness, desperate and concurrent. Would that I might be ableand willingto just let the moment be, to let Good Friday just happen, to just “sit with it” and let the bitter joy of Jesus’ crucifixion silently speak whatever it wishes to speak. But I can’t, or won’t.
In that way, I am like Peter I suppose, always seeming to interject words when they just aren’t necessary. “Lord, it’s good that we are here…” he eagerly “informs” Jesus at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:4), or “Lord, you’ll never wash my feet,” he indignantly protests at the last supper, and then a breath later, “…Then Lord, not only my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (John 13:8-9). I too want to capture this moment, to try to put into words what I fee sitting in a dark silent church with a dear friend for an hour vigil early this Good Friday morning.
But on Good Friday all I really can do — the best I can do — is indeed just sit in silence. On occasion I feel moved to pick up the hymnal and amble through its pages glancing at the hymns of Jesus’ passion and let the poets do what they do best.
Without any music or voices to embellish or distract from them, the written whispered words of hymns seep into my soul…
168 O Sacred Head Sore Wounded
In thy most bitter passion
my heart to share doth cry,
with thee for my salvation
upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, well-beloved,
yet thank thee for thy death.
585 Morning Glory, Starlit Sky
…Therefore He who shows us God
Helpless hangs upon the tree
And the nails and crowns of thorns
Tell us of what God’s love must be.
Here is God, no monarch He,
Clothed in easy state to reign.
Here is God, with arms outstretched,
Aching, spent, the world sustain.
And of course, there’s that hymn that thoroughly overwhelms me every time, not only for John Ireland’s sweet and simple and perfectly aligned tune, but most especially for sheer beauty of Samuel Crossman’s heart-warming and heart-wrenching words…
458 My Song Is Love Unknown
My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I,
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh, and die?
Here might I stay and sing,
no story so divine;
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like thine!
This is my Friend,
in whose sweet praise
I all my days
could gladly spend.
It would be disingenuous for me to say (life being what it is and all) that “all my days I could gladly spend” like I do on this Good Friday, in this “sweet praise.” But I will spend this one, at least, singing silently of “my Friend,” and with more than a few tears of grief and joy be thankful for this friend who on this day died for me.
At a recent communion service, I was mindlessly thinking of everything BUT such things as “unity, constancy and peace.” Contemplation of God’s unfathomable Love was, well, unfathomable.
Then, suddenly my mind actually heard the words the Celebrant was saying, and I focused on the ending phrase of one particular sentence (from Eucharistic Prayer A): “…Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace.”
Unity Constancy and Peace — Strange Names for Goldfish?!? …Stranger thoughts on a Sunday morning.
And I thought how those would be great names for goldfish…or maybe names of children at some tree-hugger commune. I smiled quietly but after that, didn’t give the phrase much thought.
Then, just a day or two later, I “just happened” to read a commentary to a morning devotional online, and was struck particularly by the writer’s lament. She worried about dwelling in her house of “resentment, anger and fear” and I instantly thought about those three words from the Eucharistic prayer that had made me grin just a few days earlier. While I can never say for sure, I’d like to think that just maybe I was taken back to that funny little moment about fishy names by some Holy Guidance. Maybe what was “given” to me, when thinking of “unity, constancy and peace” was a counter to that unholy trinity of “resentment, anger and fear.”
The holy triune of “unity, constancy and peace” has been on my mind even more in these last weeks.
It has been almost a month now since the horrific event that occurred in a city that I dearly love. On June 17, 2015, nine parishioners extended faithful hospitality to a very sick young man in Charleston, South Carolina, and paid for it with their lives. In the days since, gallons of ink and gigabytes of data have been used by all manner of writers trying to make sense of something that can never make any sense.
The only small thing I can add is to note how the surviving members of the mass shootings at “Mother Emanuel” AME Church are exhibiting EXACTLY those God-favored qualities of “unity, constancy and peace.’ And it strikes me that seeing those three qualities in action can truly lead us all to a stronger faith.
The events in Charleston, and more particularly its blessed aftermath of forgiveness,mercy and grace, are tangible examples and evidence to this jaded trial lawyer of a Divine Good in this Universe. Beyond all reason or logic or science, this Loving Life Force has the capacity to somehow transform horror into hope, tragedy into triumph, and victims into victors.
And once again, the gift of Liturgy can serve as an expression of such mysterious Grace. One other thing struck me in freshly considering this well-worn and too-familiar phrase.
The order in which these words appear — “unity” first, then “constancy” and finally “peace” — seems by itself to be a divine design. That is, the first when combined with the second are precursors and prerequisites which can lead to the third.
Beginning with Unity, and the realization that those things that divide communities and souls are so much smaller than those things that unite.
And that sense of oneness, when applied and nurtured with Constancy…
This has been the tried and true standard “go to” benediction of choice for generations. And for good reason. It is, after all, awfully hard to do better than Paul himself at his best.
This familiar phrase comes from the fourth chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. I have always found it somewhat odd that the writings of Paul seem to be at their most passionate, their most poignant, their most hopeful, when his situation seemed the most hopeless. At the time he wrote this affectionate “love letter” to the fledgling church in Philippi, Paul was in a Roman prison, an enemy of the most powerful government the earth had ever known. There was no earthly reason to be of good cheer. No earthly reason.
But as bound and broken and confined as Paul’s body might have been, his spirit was wonderfully and wondrously free. He gives to his friends in that small town on the east coast of Greece the rather silly advice to “Have no anxiety, about anything…” (Phil. 4:6.) Rather, he urges them to try a different approach, to simply pray about “everything,” and to “let your requests be known to God.”
If if they could but do that, says Paul, to honestly, fervently, deeply pray to our Loving Creator about their anxieties (and I can only imagine what all they had to be anxious about!) Paul promised them that a marvelous thing would happen:
“And the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Centuries later, this “marvelous thing” has comforted and strengthened and sustained generations, and his words have become the fondest of parting wishes at countless worship services.
Two stories. Both true…
When I was three, my older brother died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was only 10. I remember Tommy a little, but not much. Blessfully (I think), I don’t remember anything about his death.
Decades later, after we had moved her into assisted living, my mom and I were having a very rare conversation with about Tommy’s death. I shared with her that I had long wondered how she even functioned after losing her first-born. How did she and my dad go on, not just to survive after Tommy’s sudden death, but to raise that beautiful boy’s younger sister, younger brother (me), and two more sisters yet to be born?
“How did you do it, Mom?” I asked her. “I don’t know, Michel,” she told me, “I really don’t… What I remember is this phrase kept coming back to me. Over and over, I kept hearing the phrase, ‘The Peace of God that passes all understanding…’ PEACE. God’s peace. Beyond understanding. Over and over…”. She looked off in the distance for a second.
And then she looked right at me, and I never will forget what she said. “And I wrapped that phrase around me like a cloak!”
Somehow, some way, it got her through.
Thinking that my dad might approve of this passageAnd there — circled and underscored, with arrows and squiggly lines for emphasis — was that very passage I was seeking. In my dad’s very distinctive handwriting, he had penned the entire four verses on the opposite page.
I’m not sure such things pass all human understanding. I’m damn sure that it passes mine.