Saturday, March 30, 2013

Holy Saturday: Huddling as the Church Dies

On Holy Saturday not too long ago, I was in regional Australia hoping to participate in the Triduum, or at least Easter celebrations, in a local Anglican Church. My expectations for solemn niceties were not particularly high -  finding an Easter Vigil, in any form, was the hope.

The parish in question had two centres - beautiful historic buildings - in neighbouring towns, where services were normally held every Sunday, some hours apart. Let's call them St Peter's and St James'. It turned out that they did not in fact celebrate an Easter Vigil at either Church, but that wasn't the principal difficulty of their liturgical life that weekend.

There was a parish website for St Peter's and St James', but there was absolutely no information about services for Holy Week and Easter on it - other parts of the site suggested there had been no updates for close to a year. Ecclesiastical space junk on the internet is a fairly common phenomenon, and a common story often lies behind it: some parish member or cleric was once sufficiently digitally savvy to create a web site for their parish, but somehow unable to impart their skills or enthusiasm, and the site became redundant when they left.

In this particular case however a lack of digital talent or commitment wasn't the sole or only problem. I went to the actual sites and buildings, to find the service times. Each Church bore a clear attractive sign, a few years old admittedly, with the regular pattern of services (for each centre alone, and not for the other - the aforementioned web site is offered…). Neither had any signage or other information to indicate that there would be any additional services for Holy Week, or any changes to time or venue.

That Holy Saturday however there was an elderly lady doing flowers at St Peter's, who wasn't aware of any special arrangements but kindly found a pew sheet from the Maundy Thursday service for me, which had the other services of the Triduum. This revealed there was in fact no service on Easter Day at St James', but only a "combined service" at St Peter's, at the regular time there. So - there was no Sunday service on the highest day of the Church's year at a Church where the Eucharist is celebrated every other Sunday of the year. And no-one who wasn't already party to some other mysterious source of information was going to find out. It was deemed more important for the existing members - or at least some of them, a committed few privy to the changed arrangements - to "combine" than either to celebrate Easter visibly in the second community, or to welcome others.

The phenomenon of the "combined service" is typically a tragic symptom of misplaced effort. While its instigators imagine they are giving the good folk of the Church a shot in the arm, in truth this medicine is palliative care, the sort given only when you know it will hasten the patient's demise. It's all over when public worship is abandoned for some purpose related to the lives of the already-convinced and committed, few as they may now be. For this particular crew, the feast of the resurrection had become a matter of huddling behind closed doors for comfort - and in secret - rather than flinging them open on a day when many Australians do still wonder about faith and life, and even venture out in search of them in a Church.

Of course huddling behind closed doors is indeed part of the Paschal story. The liturgical car-crash here was a Holy Saturday moment, but scheduled for Easter Day. The tragedy at St James' speaks for itself - but to regard it with despair would also be to enter into the spirit of the wrong day. The Holy Saturday phenomenon is not, after all, irrelevant. We are too quick to breeze past the reality of silence and oblivion as we move from the unambiguous pain of the Cross to the redemption and renewal of Easter.

So too must the Church itself as an institution face its Holy Saturday reality. Australian Anglicanism as we have known it is dying in large part. Those who regard themselves as its physicians, even while they quietly (or not so quietly) bemoan the intransigence or conservatism of the laity, are often really smoothing the pillow with well-intentioned but half-baked programmatic moves based on a debased sense of "community". Church is about community, but gospel-centered and mission-shaped community, or else it is simply Rotary or Probus with candles; and those worthy organisations have some comparable problems.

That the structures of institutional Christianity are falling apart in many is not the fault solely of the good people at St Peter's and St James', or of clergy who have long been better trained at huddling than at hustling. We in the West generally face a collapse of the assumptions and institutions under which the Church has taken shelter for centuries. Huddling on Holy Saturday is a perfectly understandable thing to do. But to confuse the joy of the resurrection with the comfort still offered by our few fellows is no answer.

Neither, admittedly, is assiduous implementation of some alternative program based on better research about Church growth and death a clear answer, nor is updating the web site. Answers will only come when we have spent longer in the present and coming Holy Saturday of the Church; after which, we may yet find that even in the place our fears and despair are most focussed - in death itself, and the tomb - there and only there, we encounter good news we could not anticipate, and new life afterwards.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Second-hand Robes, or: Jesus, Justin and Jorge Maria Get Dressed

[From a sermon for Palm Sunday 2013 for the Canterbury Fellowship at the Chapel of Trinity College]

In the last week we have seen the installations of new leaders for the Roman Catholic Church and for the Anglican Communion. Much attention has been paid to the ceremonial, to the words spoken, to the politics involved. But every Anglican knows the really important question in either case was this: what did he wear?

Clothes do matter. It is a common factor to these and many other rituals that we clothe those whose status changes differently from before. Those who sniff at the wearing of odd garments for such special occasions usually haven't considered that brides, judges, or footballers all dress in ways that would otherwise look strange - we live by signs and symbols, and not all symbols are words.

Pope Francis' simplicity, including of dress, has already been compared favourably by some with the alleged predilection of his predecessor for Prada shoes - a myth, as it turned out. Archbishop Welby's robes at his installation were second-hand, passed down from a former bishop who had been one of his teachers, and refurbished. So as each of these new leaders has come to a new place and a new episcopal office, the responsibilities placed on their shoulders are reflected not just in special garb, but in how they wear it.

In the two Gospels that are part of today's liturgy (Luke 19:28-40; Luke 23:1-49) Jesus also comes to the place where he has been called to a new kind of ministry, and he too enters with a procession. In this case clothes are cast off at first, placed first not on his shoulders but over a colt and on the road itself. Like Justin Welby at his installation, Jesus is questioned about the significance of his ministry and identity. Eventually, he too is clothed in an "elegant robe".

But of course between the people casting their cloaks to the ground and Jesus being clad in his new garb, things have changed. This new clothing is not intended as a sign of glory but is a mocking assessment of the kingship that Jesus has claimed or is perceived to have claimed. 

Yet the most striking act of clothing Jesus undergoes in his passion is actually that of being un-clothed, stripped, not only of all pretension or ornament but of comfort, of dignity itself. The loincloth that artistic depictions generally allow the crucified Jesus is probably as real as the former Pope's Prada shoes - a fancy for our needs, not his. In fact Jesus was displayed naked on the cross as an unadorned object of shame. He will only be clothed again in the shroud of his entombment.

In the face of this stripping at the centre of what comes to constitute Christian faith, some might cast their minds back to the panoply of those recent liturgical events with questions about its appropriateness for the service of this naked Galilean. These may be fair questions. But they should not be posed merely to those whose pomp is a little greater than our own, at least on one day or another. It is posed to us as well.

In his letter to the Galatians St Paul reminds his readers that "as many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Gal 3:27). If we were inclined to forget today's Gospel and what it means to be clothed with Christ, Paul to the Romans writes "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" (Rom 6:3).

Whether or not Paul and the Galatians did so, we know that literal stripping and re-clothing of the newly-baptized was common soon after that time in the ancient Church. Candidates for baptism were stripped as Jesus had been stripped, and went into the waters of baptism without comfort or dignity, like Jesus. Perhaps none of us here underwent such a literal emulation of Jesus in our own baptism, but we have all nonetheless entered into what he did.

There are remnants of this ceremonial re-clothing in those babies' baptismal gowns sometimes passed down through families across generations. But the robes that Christian ministers wear in the liturgy are also, first and foremost, those new white garments gained in baptism. Only some of us here today wear them , but our garb symbolises what pertains to us all.

So too, underneath gold and silk and lace in the great ceremonies of recent days, the servants of God Justin and Jorge Mario were clothed in the same white garment, the alb, that reflects their having been baptised into his death and taking Christ for second-hand clothes. How each of those new prelates will wear their offices remains to be seen; but the question is also for each of us. Will we take off our own cloaks and cast them before Jesus as he arrives; are we willing to be stripped of pretense, and to accept the strange gift of being clothed with him?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Gospel according to Gash-Bil-Bethuel-Bazda, or: Moses and Monty Python

[from a Sermon on Numbers 21, given at the Trinity College Chapel, Lent 4 2013]

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life includes a scene set in a chapel not unlike this one, where a headmaster is reading from what purports to be scripture:
...And spotteth twice they the camels before the third hour, and so, the Midianites went forth to Ram Gilead in Kadesh Bilgemath, by Shor Ethra Regalion, to the house of Gash-Bil-Bethuel-Bazda, he who brought the butter dish to Balshazar and the tent peg to the house of Rashomon, and there slew they the goats, yea, and placed they the bits in little pots."
This bizarre and hilarious narrative obviously reflects boarding school chapel services endured by the group, and which we would like to think were hopelessly caricatured; the reading tonight from Numbers was however a bit Pythonesque - Oboth, Iye-abarim, and the Wadi Zered are not major tourist destinations, nor is Sihon King of the Amorites a household name. If you listened closely, there was at least a place called "Beer" where you could get a drink.

Choral Evensong involves reading the Bible - the actual Bible, not just bits of it from here and there, that is, but the whole thing. The first Books of Common Prayer compiled in the 16th century from which this service is taken included a daily lectionary - wherein the whole of the New Testament was read through twice a year, the Old Testament (which is longer) once, and the Psalms every month. The idea was that clergy and people, or at least some of them, would gather day by day in Church and that the whole of scripture would be heard by them as a sort of grand narrative accompanied by prayer. In reality of course most people get to Church less often, and even those who attend regularly on Sundays could sometimes find themselves confronted, seemingly out of nowhere, with texts which may seem puzzling, unedifying, or just boring.

This is because the Bible - the real Bible - was not assembled as a self-help book or philosophical text or historical novel. As a varied collection of documents, written over centuries in different languages for different purposes, its beauties and profundities are complex, and not always self-evident.

Because of this it is tempting to read the bits we like, or which are more accessible, or if all else fails then at least to read passages that are shorter. The pattern of readings at the celebration of the Eucharist, where the sacrament itself is the focus and therefore it and the readings are intended to interpret each other, is closer to that. It's ironic though that Churches that claim the highest and most uncompromising view of scriptural authority usually don't read it liturgically in great quantity at all.

The truth is that reading the Bible - actually reading it I mean, not picking at its more appetising bits for spiritual nourishment or mining it as a source for your own agendas - is often a difficult thing.

The Book of Numbers can exemplify this. Numbers - which gets the name we use from its inclusion of various numerical lists - is the fourth of the five so-called books of Moses, the first books of the Bible, which begin promisingly enough back in Genesis with engaging mythology and stirring epic, but then seem to get bogged down for chapters at a time, maybe in the second part of Exodus, with legislation, ritual instruction, or, as today, obscure quasi-historical details of a community long gone. Numbers in particular seems to be a grab-bag of traditions and stories which, taken up close such as we do even reading a whole chapter, are confusing.

But there is a grand narrative on which these details hang; Numbers tells the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert - the Hebrew name of the Book is not "Numbers" but "b'midbar", "in the wilderness" - after their liberation from slavery in Egypt, and sketches a pattern of failure and redemption that besets them until they reach the promised land. The passage we have heard is late in that story, and actually depicts some turning points in the Israelite refugees' quest for a safe home.

But so what? What can or should we glean from this ancient narrative of redemption? The question is not new. From 1800 years ago, in the mid-third century, we have a series of homilies on Numbers given by Origen of Alexandria, who while not a household name today was arguably the most influential interpreter of scripture in the ancient Church. Origen was preaching along with just such a chapter by chapter reading as that of the Book of Common Prayer, his congregation enduring the verbal journey through the scriptural wilderness with him; and clearly he and they asked some of the same questions about "why" and "so what." Parts of it, he says, are "so difficult that we can hardly arrive at a coherent explanation of the historical account" (Homilies on Numbers 13.3.1)

He answers the question in a way I have already hinted at - we have to read the story as in some sense our story too. Of this chapter "the history" he says "is clear, but let us ask the Lord to enable us to discern something worthy in the story's inner meanings" (1.4.2).

Part of that is personal; as Origen says "we are those who want to pass through this world so that we can come to the holy land which is promised to the saints" (12.4.5). The experience of Lent and Easter is also intended as a means of engaging in that same narrative, of seeing ourselves as people given the freedom to seek truth and life. Part of that is Christological; that is, Christians see these stories also as interpreting and interpreted by the struggle of Jesus and his triumph over sin and death. Part of it is social; a recognition that there are other asylum seekers, other refugees, and that homelessness, want and oppression are part of our world too.

None of these readings are self-evident; you have to choose to find yourself, or Christ, or today's wanderers and refugees, in the text. This is called "faith". A faith of sorts is necessary to read any kind of literature; a reader has to be open to seeing her or his life and world in a poem or a novel when opening the book, because that openness is a condition of reading and hearing what the text may have to offer. This is no less the case, and indeed more so, of the Bible. "Faith" here does not mean first subscribing to doctrines that others have drawn from the text; it means being willing to be a reader and hearer of the Word that is spoken in it.

Like our story, this story has its dry moments, its confusing parts, its repetitive cycles, its disjunctures. Like our story, however, it has a structure and meaning. Lent and Easter are themselves ways of re-telling the same story, of wandering and temptation and failure, followed by redemption and fulfilment. So is scripture.

Quotations from Origen, Homilies on Numbers. Edited by Christopher A. Hall. Translated by Thomas P. Scheck. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2009.