Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Rhythm of the Days and Seasons of our Church Year

One of the things I am reminded of at two of the greater transitions in the Church Year, After Trinity/Pentecost to Advent and After Epiphany to Lent, is that at its best, as Derek, reminds us again and again, the lectionary is a key to understanding the formation of us by the Church Year.

Transition is gradual. The lectionary texts start taking on the themes of Advent before Advent, and the same with Lent. Preparation is already underway in the trifecta of the Cloud of Witnesses. Preparation is already underway in those formerly numbered weeks.

This is how we are formed and normed by the Incarnation, to the oneness and totality of Jesus Christ's conception, birth, life, teachings, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit, and coming, always coming to us explicitly in psalm and canticle and prayer, word and bread and wine, and hiddenly in life everyday and in all of God's creation, until finally, when as Tutu writes, we shall reach a tipping point, and Christ hidden and at work always and everywhere shall burst forth full bloom and we see the Little One in every face and the great Cloud take on flesh before our eyes in the blinding light of Love.

This all gets me to the point of this post. The Advent Sours, those people who go into apoplexy if you dare sing a Christmas hymn in the Advent season, need to take a chill pill. I write this as a former Advent cranky-pants extraordinaire. This sort of thing is a little like an anachronism. Sort of like those in a perfectly pristine sanctuary of 21st Century America trying to recreate in exact replica the rites of 14th Century Hereford cathedral (never mind that local practice in parishes was probably quite unique, and never mind the dogs and horses and stink). Singing carols and hymns in Advent as preparation for the Nativity is longstanding and finds support in all sorts of popular practices if we dare to look at dramas, local customs, and the like. Advent after all has a multivalent character, looking toward Nativity, looking toward Parousia, bleeding into and being bled into by the trifecta of the Cloud of Witnesses, and even carries with it more than a tinge of the Cross and the promise of Resurrection and the goodness of Creation afire by God's Holy Spirit.

The central concern of many sour folk, a very catholic concern, is that the American Reformed tradition's elimination of the liturgical year has led us to a socio-cultural rhythm of the commercial days of Christmas starting after Black Friday, if not earlier, and ending Christmas Day--just when the Days and Season of Christmas are beginning. Commerce swallows up both Advent and Christmas and forms us! And not to the Incarnation! We lose expectation, waiting, preparation, and a bit of penitence (yes, I think, a bit of penitence as much as joy characterizes this season, disagreeing with some of my former professors in this regard. I recommend using the first Collect everyday just as Ash Wednesday's is used in Lent.). But this swallowing up is only so by our own actions and habits. We have been formed in competing ways. That is the catholic concern, and rightly so. But rather than rail and whine and get all pissy, let's take responsibility for this, rather than slam someone down for singing, What Child Is This? Better a hymn to the Incarnation than not. We do not know how God might move a heart to faith by that long stretch of holiday favorites usurping regular radio programming unto Christmas Day.

As Dr. Michael B. Aune noted of Candlemas last year in a magnificent sermon, this is a day already portending Lent. He mused, perhaps we Twentieth Century folk have compartmentalized our Days and Seasons of the Church Year in ways our ancestors in the faith would not--because they knew better. To hear, Lo, How A Rose at Rejoicemas is a welcome relief, a bit of Christmas, and more than a bit of Marian piety for we who swing that way.

Nativity reaches into Parousia, and vice versa. Purposely. As I wrote in my last post, the Nativity is put-to-promise on God's word to us that in the End the fullness of God shall be visibly, completely, fully All in All. Nativity should reach into Parousia. And just so, Parousia should reach into Nativity. God is with us! God is with us, indeed! God has not gone absent in the meantime contra popular cultural tales of being left behind. Though often hidden, unknown, even despised, God in Christ is present, working, redeeming, creating anew through, with, and in flesh. And calling we who are Church to say so. Everyday! Nativity reaching into Parousia is also a reminder that flesh matters. Flesh is fit for showing forth God, as the Damascene writes in defending icons. Yet, crap still happens. Flesh bleeds. The Cross is present, too. Folks still are starving in the streets. People are now dying from wars. Creation groans from our pollution and waste. And we hear God say, "I send you." Flesh matters, love Me in the flesh.

So, if we must offer a liturgical solution so that Advent gets its due in an overly commercialized cultural context, rather than become Advent Sours, I recommend revisiting the possibility of an earlier start to Advent, say the Sunday after St. Martin's Feast. After all, catholic practice, the want to make the Incarnation encountered here and now in proclamation and sacrament, is known to respond to the contextual realities of flesh.

We tried just this solution this year at the seminary. What I have noticed is that the longer Advent season has led on my part to a bit of melancholy, perhaps depression if not despair, and impatience for Christmas to arrive. One person noted, there are consequences for making such changes in the calendar. Yes, there are. And a bit of melancholy and blues, not just contemplation and give aways, are precisely how it should be in Advent. The long seeming slow decay to despair that otherwise haunts this season in a world of hunger and fear and hate makes way to the Promise that we and all flesh shall behold God, in the Child, and Though, With, and In Us and All Flesh. And in this mean time of tensions, when we know Him only explicitly in remembrance of His death and by proclamation, a longer Advent reminds us as does the Nativity to "Love Him in the World of the Flesh." (W.H. Auden, For the Time Being).

Sunday, December 12, 2010

At the Heart of Anglican Catholicity is the Incarnation: Devotion to the Theotokos

Anyone who has read my ramblings over many years know that I tend to resist labels, partially because labels can get in the way of learning from those with whom you disagree and partially because the categories Anglicans tend to work in do not fit very well or have become ossified by their most ardent adherents so that I associate:

Anglo-Catholic not only with the sensuous worship without which I cannot live, but also with some serious 19th Century theological errors related to Baptism and Eucharist; with a tendency to focus on an autocratic if not tyrannical authority of the episcopate to the exclusion of the rest of the Body in Council, sometimes in ways, as of late, that show inclinations toward Roman ecclesiologies at odds with our messy (because alive and engaged with flesh) lived Anglican ownhood (to draw from Auden); with a museum curator's habit in collecting liturgical artifacts that at the same time makes dismissal of any creativity or recycling necessary to make the Incarnate One known in our time, place, and culture even as is lauded the creativity of other times, places, and cultures; and with a don't ask, don't tell tendency that kills members of the Body and is justified for the sake of the greater good in an imperial interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12. While lauding the flesh of the Incarnate One, I have sometimes found a tendency to denigrate the flesh of others, whether women or gays, in the name of theology and beauty. Such seems at odds to me with the Incarnate One in his fullness, of whom we too are members.

What I have come to realize is that these things are not the markers of one who is catholic; many in fact, are conditions of temperament, time, and place, and culture. But as I lit the candle before the icon of the Virgin of the Sign at seminary this last week, made the Sign of the Cross, and said the Ave Maria in Latin, I could not avoid the catholic label in some fashion. Some have thought me Catholic (that is, Roman or Anglican) for such devotion, but I have explained that no, such devotion is just catholic. Just catholic. Meaning simply ordinary, common, universal. The sensuousness of it all in the best of High and Anglo-Catholic worship is the inspiration of imagination, to vision, to a world as seen through the Image of God, Jesus Christ. A truly catholic worship should inspire creativity as response and even as offering liturgically in hymnody, art, poetry, and the like.

I do not flee to Mother Mary because she stands in for Jesus. As Anglicans we did away with any sense that mediation or merit is other than Jesus Christ's. And rightly so. I go to her because in her as like no other, Holy Wisdom was, and is, and comes. She is the one pregnant with promise and possibility. My connection to the Theotokos is not for need of mediation, but it is for comfort and friendship and intercession and inspiration as members of the same One Body, for we are of hers by Him and through His. Like other saints, I have a relationship with her. I talk to Mary, yes, I talk to Mary, often. In hard times and easy, she listens, embraces, and challenges, pointing me to Christ, as if to tell me pray, "Be it done unto me, according to your word." And she really likes, not just loves, her gay children, btw.

At the heart of an Anglican catholicity is the God who gets himself dirty, humbles (makes himself earthy) Godself out of love for us into all the ordinary and messy places of life unto birth in a manger, our theologia incarnationis again. Not that the manger is where it will end in some gross nostalgia, for the Cross already looms in Herod's evil order and Rome's imperial foot-on-neck, but because at the Crib everything is already won. God is become one of us! Today! as the antiphon for the Magnificat declares for Christmas days. In the Word become flesh the powers of sin and death are subjected no matter how they whisper lies otherwise in the meantime, and in this Child, our humanity and indeed all flesh is shown its true dignity as that fit for deity. The promise of Easter arrives in a Crib: God will never let us go! So it has been from the Beginning, when God began to create...

And just so, the promise of the End is given in the Beginning. We were and are ever spoken into being through God's Word, as Maurice noted--the powers never had a chance. Even before his birth in time, we were and do belong to the Word. That is precisely why what feels to be the close of the Church Year is also its beginning. The promise of the Consummation found in the All Saints Octave and its afters, in Adventtide, and Saptientiatide is found in the Nativity and the entire swath of Presentations through Candlemas. That given and promised in the Nativity of the Word of God shall be finished in the Consummation, when that same Wisdom, Jesus Christ, who fills all things in his risen humanity, is All in All, hidden, unknown, even despised, and always at work, shall burst forth full bloom upon us all unawares and overtake all that separates us from ourselves, one another, the whole of creation, and God:

One day, the Gospel tells us, the tension gradually accumulating between humanity and God will touch the limits prescribed by the possibilities of the world. And then will come the end. The presence of Christ, which has been silently accruing in things, will suddenly be revealed—like a flash of light from pole to pole. Breaking through all the barriers within which the veil of matter and the watertightness of souls have seemingly kept it confined, it will invade the face of the earth….Like lightning, like conflagration, like a flood, the attraction exerted by the Son of Man will lay hold of all the whirling elements in the universe so as to reunite them or subject them to his body....[1]

Yes, we live in the tension of the meantime of promise, feeding on him who we know only explicitly as proclaimed Word and ingested Sacrament, but we shall see face to face. But this feeding nevertheless opens our eyes to a creation ever being spoken into being by this One, ever groaning forth shoots of light, and so the catholic Christian gives each due reverence, even praying that God remember a Holy Thorn Tree cutdown without thankfulness or purpose when others would scorn:

Blessed are you, O God, Creator of the universe,

who was, and is, and will ever be our only life: Receive into your care this holy thorn tree, daughter of that which you gave to the people of Glastonbury to twice yearly bloom as remembrance and sign of the incarnate deity and risen humanity of your Son; Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

By Word and Sacrament, we may read Christ in his Other Book from hurtling Asteroid to braying Zebra. For me, the Mystery of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, and of the Body nurtured by him, and the promised fulfillment of all creation in the Consummation is no where better discovered than in Mother Mary. I cannot help but see that promise most fully in the she who birthed the Creator of earth, and sea, and sky:

Mother of Christ, hear thou thy people's cry
Star of the deep and Portal of the sky!
Mother of Him who thee made from nothing made.
Sinking we strive and call to thee for aid:
Oh, by what joy which Gabriel brought to thee,
Thou Virgin first and last, let us thy mercy see.

[1] Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 266.