Testing the Spirits

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3, ESV throughout).

I am in the midst of lesson preparation and filming for a series on Romans.  I want to be about that work; I need to be about that work.  But, I find myself, like Jude, compelled to a different task at the moment — one that I consider necessary.  My attention was diverted toward it and away from Romans by several promptings, not least an important essay by ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach on “Neo-pagan Anglicanism” in the newly published book The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism (McDermott, Gerald, ed. Crossway, 2020.).

It was the Archbishop’s reflection on the Holy Spirit in his contribution that provided the impetus for my own thoughts.  I must quote a lengthy section of his essay.

The Holy Spirit, according to neo-pagan Anglicanism, is what feels right for the moment, not actually a distinct person of the Godhead who calls the believer to repentance from sin and transforms the believer into biblical holiness and righteousness.  I say “what feels right” because there seems to be no revealed boundaries for the Holy Spirit in neo-paganism.  For example, while the catechism in the 1979 BCP of the Episcopal Church clearly says that one recognizes truths taught by the Holy Spirit “when they are in accord with the Scriptures,” the Episcopal Church continues to embrace teachings and practices opposed to Scripture.  I remember hearing the Episcopal bishop of Atlanta explaining to his diocese why he voted to affirm the consecration of a bishop who had divorced his wife and was partnered with another man:  “I followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”  Apparently he had rejected the Anglican tradition’s insistence that the Holy Spirit does not contradict Scripture.  In contrast to that tradition, the neo-pagan Anglican believes that the purpose of the Holy Spirit is to motivate the people of God to love, accept, and welcome everybody without insisting, as the gospel does, on repentance from their sins (pp. 91-92).

It might have been enough simply to let that excerpt from Archbishop Beach’s essay stand alone, without my comments, had other promptings not been present.  

There is a spirit of error loose in this time masquerading as the Holy Spirit and leading even the faithful astray:  delusion presenting as truth.  It has ever been so:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world….We are from God.  Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us.  By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error (1 John 4:1, 6).

So, this is the presenting question for me:  How do we test the spirits, whether they are from God?  When a brother or sister claims direction by the Holy Spirit, when we ourselves feel a “stirring of the spirit,” how do we know?  How do we avoid delusion?

Volumes can and have been written on this.  Entire spiritualities, e.g. the Exercises of St. Ignatius, have developed around this discernment of spirits.  I have nothing so grand in mind, but rather only a few practical suggestions for testing the spirits.

First, the Holy Spirit will never lead one to reject the ancient, consensual interpretation of Scripture.  Let me state that more explicitly:  If the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church in its various communions — Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican — historically agree on an interpretation of Scripture, that is because the Holy Spirit has revealed and sealed that interpretation.  The Holy Spirit will never lead one to reject that agreement.  Rather, the Holy Spirit will work with individuals to confirm the truth of the Church’s corporate understanding.  Anyone moving away from orthodox doctrine — the faith once for all delivered to the saints (cf Jude 3) — is not being guided by the Holy Spirit.  When in doubt, the Vincentian Canon provides a good check of orthodoxy.  It is a threefold test of catholicity and thus orthodoxy:  that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.    If a doctrine is geographically limited and not accepted throughout the churches, it fails the test.  If a doctrine is novel and in disagreement with the ancient tradition of the Church, it fails the test.  If a doctrine is accepted by only a small group within the Church, it fails the test.  The Vincentian Canon is not perfect or foolproof, but it has proven its validity and usefulness throughout the generations and is a good starting place in the testing of spirits.

Does that mean that the Holy Spirit can never do “a new thing”?  That the Holy Spirit is imprisoned by the past?  Certainly not.  But the “new thing” will not be a contradiction of what has gone before, but rather a fulfillment of it.  When accepting the Gentiles qua Gentiles as followers of Christ seemed to be a radically new and thus suspect thing, James insisted that is was instead the fulfillment of ancient promises only now fully understood by the revelation of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 15:1-21).  Moreover, there was conciliar agreement.  So, yes, the Holy Spirit may reveal a new fulfillment of Scripture in our day.  But, the Spirit will also lead the Church — the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church — to conciliar agreement.  In the absence of such agreement, one cannot state with any confidence that the Spirit is leading.

Second, the Holy Spirit will never sow discord in the Body of Christ.  As St. Paul emphasizes to the Church at Ephesus:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:1-6).

Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit:  Where discord is present in the Church, where unity is strained or broken, the Holy Spirit is not leading.  Not to reopen old wounds, but that is the testimony of our own recent history and ongoing struggles in the Anglican Communion.  Several provinces — the The Episcopal Church USA (TEC) chief among them — departed from the faith once delivered to the saints.  And what was the result?  A tear in the fabric of the Anglican Communion and discord in countless local parishes.  It is not possible for TEC to claim direction from the Holy Spirit when rejection of orthodoxy and disunity are the results of its actions.  What is true on a global level is just as true on a parish or personal level.

Then Paul continues by enumerating Christ’s gifts to the Church given through the Holy Spirit:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Eph 4:11-14).

There is an order and a teaching authority in the Church that derives from the Holy Spirit for the building up of the Church.  Consequently, the Holy Spirit will never lead one to oppose those leaders exercising their authority on behalf of the Church and in keeping with the consensus faith of the Church.

Related to this, the Holy Spirit will never lead one to reject the rightful judgment and possible correction of the Church.  Even St. Paul submitted his apostolate, his vocation, and his gospel to the authorities in Jerusalem for discernment and validation.

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me.  I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain (Gal 2:1-2).

This humility of submitting oneself to the judgment and authority of the Church is a hallmark of one led by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit will never lead one to rejection of rightful authority or to the arrogance of refusing correction.

Lastly, and on a positive note, the leading of the Holy Spirit is evidenced by the absence of the works of the flesh and by the presence and increase of the fruit of the Spirit.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desire of the Spirit are against the desires of the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.  Now the works of the flesh are evident:  sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things life these.  I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:16-25).

There is nothing novel here; God forbid.  This is simply sound wisdom from Scripture for testing the spirits and for avoiding error and delusion.  It is not novel, but it is essential.


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Through the Lens of the Resurrection

A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer: 17 April 2020

(Mark 11:1-26)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

With great and due respect to our bishops and the Liturgy Task Force who gave the church the holy gift of the Book of Common Prayer 2019, I still maintain there is no perfect lectionary: not the one we have been given, not its predecessors, not any that will follow it if the Lord tarries and the Prayer Book is revised. Perfect lectionary is a liturgical oxymoron.

So, I’m not overly surprised to be discombobulated by the Gospel lesson appointed for today; it is a quirk lying at the intersection of an imperfect lectionary and the church calendar. Here we are in Easter week — a week already made surpassingly strange by pandemic and isolation — and the lectionary plunges us headlong and backwards into the pre-Passion narratives of St. Mark: the Triumphal Entry, the cursing of the fig tree, and the final cleansing of the Temple. This retrograde motion presents us with a challenge and an opportunity bundled together: to read this narrative, and the entire Gospel of Mark, through the lens of the Resurrection. That’s likely what St. Mark intended all along; his abrupt ending is perfectly designed to compel the reader to re-read, to figure out what’s going on and to look for the clues that answer Mark’s central question: Just who is this man, Jesus?

As I read the Gospel, the Triumphal Entry has the feel of carefully staged and choreographed theater with just a thin veneer of improvisation. A donkey just happens to be in the right place at the right time. The stage hands and extras graciously allow the disciples to take the creature based solely on their word and promise, “The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.” Many in the crowd following Jesus just happen to have cut palm branches in the fields on their way into town. As for the “spontaneous” shouting — well, somebody had to start it; someone had to give voice to what was playing out here, somebody in the know. The Triumphal Entry a spontaneous event? That stretches my credibility. This event happened in this way and at this time precisely because God wanted it to happen in this way and at this time. Nothing is left to chance; God has his way. And that is a Resurrection reading of these Holy Week events: God inexorably working out his will through stubborn and sinful humans each vying for his or her own self-interest, yet each — in the mystery of God — contributing perfectly to the panorama of God’s purpose.

The Triumphal Entry is an inaugural parade — a king coming in royal procession to take his throne in the royal city. So the crowds shout:

Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest (ref Mk 11:9)!

Hosanna: the crowds keep using that word, but I do not think it means what they think it means. Hosanna: “save us,” or “save, we pray.” Save us from what? From the Romans, of course. For the brutal oppression of occupation. From bone-crushing poverty and spirit-crushing taxation. From fear that God has abandoned his people, broken his covenant, or lost his power. Hosanna: save, we pray. Indeed.

Of course, there will be a battle; that’s what rival kings and kingdoms do: Jesus and his rag-tag band of followers against Pilate and Herod and the assembled might of Rome — a new Judas Maccabeus. Is that what the crowds expect — that Jesus will now use the power he previously reserved for opening blind eyes, making the deaf hear, raising up the crippled, cleansing lepers, and casting out demons — that same healing power to now destroy Israel’s enemies in clear contravention of his own words, “love your enemies and bless those who persecute you”? Is that really what the crowd expects? Probably. Maybe. Honestly, I doubt they have even thought that far or that deeply. This is an emotional, gut level response that so easily bypasses the brain.

When we read the Hosannas today, we do so through the lens of the Resurrection. Yes, there was a battle, the only truly epic, life-or-death battle ever waged from the foundations of the world: the Light of the World, the Life of Men versus the accuser, the father of lies, and his foot soldiers death and hell. The shouting crowds had no idea, but we do through the lens of the Resurrection. It was like no battle and no battle strategy they could have conceived: winning by losing, living by dying, reigning by submission — giving up all to gain all. This is reading the Triumphal Entry through the lens of the Resurrection.

And then there is the fig tree. I love trees and I’ve always felt a bit sorry for this one. Jesus looks for figs out of season; it is time for leaves, not ripe fruit. Who goes to the apple orchard in April and grows angry when there are no Granny Smiths on the trees? No wonder the disciples were a bit confused by it all. Jesus uses this as an enacted parable about faith and prayer and forgiveness. Do not doubt in your heart. Pray, believing and forgiving everyone with whom you hold a grudge, and even mountains can be rooted up and cast into the sea.

But, can we read even this strange little tale through the lens of the Resurrection? The Resurrection heralded the dawn of new creation — St. John is crystal clear about that in his Gospel — the dawn of new creation and the beginning of the end of the curse that has covered the old creation like a pall.

Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you (ref Gen 3:17).

In a fallen and sin-infested creation, we expect trees without fruit: bitter figs, wormy apples. But in the new creation?

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him (Rev 22:1-3).

Forget barren trees in the new creation. This one tree produces twelve different kinds of fruit and is in perpetual abundance. Even its leaves have healing powers.

The real problem with the barren fig tree is simply that it failed to submit to its Creator, it failed to bear fruit for the Master Gardener, it failed to anticipate and participate in new creation. Where Jesus is — where the Resurrection is — there is no room for barrenness. This tree remained part of the fallen, sin-infected creation when it was invited into the glory of the Resurrection. And the Resurrection stood in judgment of it. Through the lens of the Resurrection, this barren tree gives us a glimpse of the judgment against all persistent barrenness and a glimpse of new creation abundance to come.

Well, time fails us now; the cleansing of the Temple is another tale for another homily. I close with a quote that has been attributed to so many different people — Leslie Newbigin and William Sloan Coffin among them — in one form or another. It is the essence of reading not only the Gospels, but our lives and our times — this time — through the lens of the Resurrection. When asked if he were optimistic about the state of the world, the reply came:

I  not optimistic, but I am hopeful. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, you know.

That is reading through the lens of the Resurrection. Amen.

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On This Day

On This Day
Fr. John A. Roop

ADOTS Good Friday Liturgy: 10 April 2020
(John 18:1 – 19:37)

Let us pray.

Both here and in all your churches throughout the whole world, we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.  Amen.

I STAND BEFORE CALVARY and the cross today much as Abraham Lincoln stood before Gettysburg, only infinitely more so: called upon to speak but knowing full well that no words are adequate and perhaps none are necessary. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence,” comes to mind. For no words can hallow the sacrifice of this one man — betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified. It is his sacrifice that hallows all things, these feeble, frail, and foolish words of mine included. But, speak we must. The day, our hearts — and pray God, the Spirit — compel us.

On this day, Adam dies — Adam and all his sons and daughters — as the LORD God had commanded the man saying:

You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die (Gen 2:16-17, ESV throughout).

On this day Abel is slain at the hands of his brother, and his blood cries out to God from the ground.

On this day the fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of heaven open and the waters prevail and every living thing on the face of the ground is blotted out.

On this day sulfur and fire fall from heaven to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the plain.

On this day Isaac is bound on the altar and no angel stays Abraham’s hand as the knife falls and the son — the only son of the father — is slain.

On this day Joseph is betrayed and sold by his own brothers.

On this day there rises a new king over Egypt — one who does not know Joseph — one who sets harsh taskmasters over the children of Israel to afflict them with heavy burdens.

On this day the first, the last, and every Passover lamb is slaughtered, and yet the death angel comes: not to the firstborn sons of Egypt only, but to Israel and to the world.

On this day every death ever died, dies in the person of one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified.

On this day every sin ever committed — every bending of the heart and knee before every idol, every act of hatred and murder, every lustful thought and secret adultery, every theft, every lie, every act of faithlessness and cowardice — every sin ever committed is borne in the person of one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified.

On this day every prayer ever offered, every lament ever wailed, every hope ever held out against hope is heard and answered by one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified.

On this day the history of the world reaches its climax and the fate of the world hangs in the balance as the righteousness, the covenant faithfulness of God, is revealed for all to see — in heaven and on earth and under the earth — in the person of one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified.

On this day, the Lamb of God slain from the foundations of the world, spreads out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace: one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified.

On this day God destroys the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning, for in the folly of the cross the wisdom and power of God are revealed: one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified (cf 1 Cor 1:166 ff).

We are not ashamed of this Gospel — of the paradox and mystery of one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified — for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (cf Rom 1:16-17)

And so, on this day we proclaim Christ and him crucified — stumbling block and folly, yes — on this day and always we proclaim Christ and him crucified, for Calvary is the center of the world, the cross is the fulcrum of redemption, and Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is worshipped and glorified, one God, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection:  Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Our King and Savior now draws near;

O come, let us adore him.

“Those preparing weekday liturgies are encouraged to limit the number of commemorations, especially in Advent or Lent, in order that the spirit of the season be maintained” (ACNA Texts for Common Prayer II).

These are the calendar instructions in the Book of Common Prayer.  Translation:  in the season of Advent, do not fill the weekday services with so many saints’ days that you lose the spirit and themes of Advent itself.  Focus on the forest (the season), not on the individual trees (the days).

So, what is this spirit of Advent that the Book of Common Prayer deems so important?  What are the themes of Advent?

Advent heralds the changing of the ages; something old is passing away and something new is coming.  Change of this Advent magnitude isn’t easy.  Cultures clash.  The powerful do not relinquish dominance willingly.  The rich do not open their vaults and distribute their wealth readily.  Humans do not — and cannot — usher in utopia by their own efforts.  Advent heralds the in-breaking of God to accomplish these things, the coming of the Kingdom of God.  That is why Mary sang in the Magnificat:

He has shown the strength of his arm;

     he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has brought down the mighty from their thrones,

     and has exalted the humble and meek.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

     and the rich he has sent empty away.

None of this had yet happened when Mary sang, but she saw it coming, not in full, but in part:  an inauguration of that which would be complete only on the last, great day.  So, she waited with hope.  Advent heralds the action of God in the coming great reversal, in the turning of an upside down world right side up again.  And it calls us, like Mary, to sing and to wait and to hope.  That is the spirit of Advent:  a changing of the ages with coming judgment on the old world order — God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven — and a commitment to wait and watch and hope for this great in-breaking of God.

This is important.  This is our future and our hope.  The Kingdom of God in its fullness is still in our future, and Advent is the primary season in which this orientation toward the future takes theological center stage.  That orientation must not be lost, so the Book of Common Prayer instructs us to limit observance of saints’ days during the weekdays of Advent and to focus, instead, on these great Advent themes.

And yet, today, in the heart of Advent, we observe the feast day of St. Thomas — not as an optional observance, but as one required by the prayer book calendar.  Why St. Thomas?  Why in the middle of Advent?  We remember Thomas because he was one of the Twelve and because his story features in the Gospel story.  Why in the middle of Advent?  The answer to that question is more complicated.  In the Roman Catholic Church the feast of St. Thomas is observed on July 3.  In the Greek Orthodox Church, it is October 6.  Only in the Western churches, like ours in the Anglican Communion, is the feast day observed on December 21, in the midst of Advent.  I am not certain why, and my limited research hasn’t provided any explanation.  I would like to believe that we observe the feast of St. Thomas in the middle of Advent because his story is an incarnation of the themes of Advent.  His feast doesn’t detract from Advent; it puts flesh on the spirit of Advent.  Let me explain.

We rarely call Thomas just Thomas; it is almost always Doubting Thomas — that title coming from one isolated episode in his life.  We don’t typically treat others that harshly.  We don’t call Moses Murderer Moses, though he did kill at least one Egyptian.  We don’t call David Adulterer David, in spite of his sin against Bathsheba.  We don’t call Elijah Sulking Elijah, though he did whine to God about being the only righteous person left in Israel.  We don’t call Peter Traitor Peter, though he did deny the Lord not once, but three times.  We don’t call Paul Persecutor Paul, though he did ravage the church.  The only other person in Scripture named this harshly — at least the only other one I can think of — is Rahab:  never just Rahab, but always Rahab the Harlot.  And that is grossly unfair.  She was really Rahab the Faithful or Rahab the great-grandmother of King David, the ancestor of our Lord.  But no; unfairly, it is always Rahab the Harlot.  And, unfairly, it is always Doubting Thomas.  

Let’s read Thomas’s story again, with a bit more background this time.  Even though the ending of Mark’s Gospel is a bit controversial, I’ve selected it because it is a concise summary of events and Luke corroborates Mark’s summary.

Now when [Jesus] rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.  She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept.  But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

After these things he appeared in another form to two of them [Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus], as they were walking into the country.  And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them (Mk 16:9-13, ESV throughout).

In each case, “they” signifies the Apostles.  In spite of two separate eyewitness accounts of the resurrection, the Apostles did not believe.

Now let’s pick up the story in John’s Gospel.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 21:19-23, emphasis added).

When did the disciples believe in the resurrection?  When they saw Jesus, specifically, when Jesus showed them his hands and his side:  not until.  And now, Thomas enters the picture.

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”  But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:24-25).

It is this encounter that changes the Apostle’s name from Thomas the Twin to Doubting Thomas.  But what really does Thomas ask for?  Only that same proof which the other disciples have already received:  an appearance of Jesus still bearing the marks of his crucifixion.  Thomas is no more a doubter than the rest of them were; they have simply seen proof that he has not.

Now, what has any of this to do with Advent?  The very next verse — not even all of it, but just the first sentence — makes the connection.

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them (John 20:26a).

Eight days later.  If Thomas really doubts the resurrection, if he firmly disbelieves the others’ story, in short, if he is really Doubting Thomas, then why is he still with them eight days later, risking his life with the other followers of the crucified Messiah, followers who had seen Jesus?  Call him Disappointed Thomas if you will:  fair enough.  Call him Disillusioned Thomas if you must:  a reasonable name.  Call him Discombobulated (Confused) Thomas if you want:  certainly true.  But don’t call him Doubting Thomas; that is unfair to him and to the story.

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them (John 20:26a).

There is the Advent story incarnate.  Thomas is waiting and watching and hoping for the in-breaking of God, for the coming — for the advent — of Jesus wondrously bearing his glorified wounds.  Thomas is waiting and watching and hoping for the turning of the ages, for the Kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven.  Thomas is waiting and watching and hoping that the Magnificat has really come true:  that God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; that he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the humble and meek; that he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away.  This is not Doubting Thomas; this is Advent Thomas.  Thomas should be the patron saint of Advent — the one who, in spite of disappointment and disillusionment and confusion hangs on in hope, waiting and watching for the Lord.

Advent calls us to wait and watch and hope for the coming of the Lord, and to do all this without having seen the risen Jesus, without having put our fingers in the marks of the nails and our hands in his wounded side.  It calls us to be not Doubting Thomas, but Advent Thomas.  And it is not always easy, because sometimes we find ourselves disappointed, disillusioned, and discombobulated.  It has, after all, been two thousands years of waiting.  Can we keep waiting and watching and hoping?  St. Peter recognized this problem in his own day.  What he wrote then, remains true:

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved.  In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.  They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming?  For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pe 3:1-4).

These are the true doubters; scoffers, Peter calls them.  And what does Peter tell us — not doubters, but those who are sometimes disappointed, disillusioned, and discombobulated?

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.  The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed (2 Pe 3:8-10).

This is an Advent message.  The coming of the Lord may seem delayed in human terms, but only for the sake of repentance, only so that many might live.  But the day is coming:  a day of sudden appearance, a day of the dissolution and renewal of creation, a day of judgment.  And what are we to do in the meantime?  How do we live in Advent.

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!  But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pe 3:11-13).

Eight days later, the disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them.  Two thousands years later, the disciples are inside again, and we are with them.  Thomas has taught us to wait.  As with Thomas, the end of our waiting will be the appearance of the Lord in power and great glory, the Lord come to judge the living and the dead:  the final Advent.  As we wait and watch and hope, we also live in holiness and godliness, “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.”  And, when we see him, we will, like Thomas, proclaim, “Our Lord and our God.”

Our King and Savior now draws near;

O come, let us adore him.  Amen.

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The Glory of Thisness

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow:  they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith (Mt 6:28b-30, ESV)?

I have no deep or well-developed theology of holy places; I know only that they exist.  There is one in Conyers, Georgia at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.  I meet God there as often as I can — not in the earthquake or the wind or the fire — but in the silence of prayer-hallowed space and heavenly light that defies description or photograph.  There is another in Maggie Valley, NC at the Living Waters Catholic Reflection Center.  You wouldn’t imagine God there, in a converted strip motel from the 60s, but he is.  And in that holy place he has shaken me to the core.  It is a place of glory and of burden.

I have recently discovered another holy place just outside my office window at church.  Weather permitting each morning around seven o’clock, I take a chair and a prayer book and a cup of coffee to this little, fenced in side lot and meet God there for Morning Prayer.  The lot is tidy and cared for, but just beyond the fence is a wild area:  overgrown and teeming with birds, squirrels, rabbits, and things I only hear rustling but never glimpse.  Angels dance in the tops of the trees there; some say it’s just the wind, but I say angels.  The birds sing their praise and even the crows join in; some say it’s just mating calls and territorial disputes, but I say praise.  The lilies of the field (clover) grow and remind me of the providential care of God; some say weeds, but I say lilies.

One particular lily (clover) beckoned for my attention this morning, swaying this way and that in the breeze (or was it the angels again?).  And I was caught up in the mystery and glory of thisness.  God created this flower for purposes known only to him.  God created this tiny bee, giving and receiving pollen from this clover, on this morning in this side lot at this church for this priest saying this morning office at this moment.  There is always a theological danger of making God too small.  But there is the equal and opposite danger of making God too big, too distant, too uninvolved.  From time to time we must be re-awakened to the scandal of particularity, to the glory and mystery of thisness.  The God who called the universe into being, also called this clover into being.  The God who in the beginning said, “Let there be light,” said it again this morning.  The God who so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, also so loved (and so loves) this  person staring back at you from the mirror and this person sharing breakfast and life with you and this person sleeping under the overpass and this colleague and this student and this waitress, and this and this and this:  the mystery and glory of thisness.  If God is not in this holy place — wherever you happen to be right now — then he is, I think, nowhere.  If God is not in this very moment — whenever you happen to read this — then he is, I think, nowhen.  But he is:  everywhere present and filling all things, treasury of good things and giver of life — omnipresent and yet particular.  This place is holy.  This moment is sacred.  This breath is gift.  This life is grace.  This is the glory and mystery of thisness.



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God and the Gatlinburg Fire

New Growth

New Growth

On the morning of 23 November 2016, thick smoke from the Chimney Tops 2 fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) blanketed the nearby town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The wind was picking up that morning in advance of a storm front, and around 1:00 p.m. the National Weather Service issued a high wind warning for the region; wind gusts in excess of 80 miles per hour were expected and, indeed, came. These winds lifted and carried embers from the Chimney Tops toward Gatlinburg and, by 4:00 p.m., with new fires encroaching on the town, the authorities issued a voluntary evacuation notice. Two hours later they made evacuation mandatory. By 8:30 p.m. structures in and around Gatlinburg were engulfed and residents and visitors were evacuating along roads bordered by flames on both sides, with heat so intense that tires melted. Statistics only hint at the real loss: over 17,000 acres of the GSMNP charred; 2460 structures damaged or destroyed; 14,000 people evacuated; and, at present count, 14 fatalities. We have recently learned that – allegedly – two teenage boys set the fires deliberately, a foolish and/or evil act of arson.

I have lived all my life in the presence of these mountains, in the valley town of Knoxville. I have hiked their trails in all seasons. I have spent many pleasant days in Gatlinburg and not a few unpleasant hours stuck in traffic trying to get there. The mountains and the town are such a backdrop to my life – and to the lives of so many of us — that I sometimes take their presence as an unchangeable given: but no more.

I serve as an assisting priest in a parish in Knoxville. Some of our parishioners live on the outskirts of the fire zone. Some have family and friends who lived through the fire – most, to my knowledge, spared from physical injury and major, material loss: Thanks be to God. But few of those affected by the fire are spared from questions: Why would kids do this? Why was one house “spared” while the house next door was destroyed? Where was God in all this? (Yes, we ask this because we live in the Bible Belt, because, for the most part, we are a believing people.) How can we help? (Yes, we ask this because we live in the Volunteer State; it’s who we are and what we do.) What do I say to my neighbors who lost everything, while I emerged mainly untouched and unharmed? What do I do now?

People sometimes assume that, as a priest, I must have answers for all the difficult spiritual questions raised by such a disaster, or at least that I have access to a theological tradition that has such answers. Not really, not so much: I have the same Bible, the same Prayer Book, the same hymns and the same questions as everyone else. I have had, perhaps, the gift of time to think through and pray through these issues more than many, and to see what the fathers and mothers of our faith have discerned. So, while the best response to this disaster may be silent listening, sincere prayer, and tangible acts of charity, I will venture some tentative thoughts with the prayer that God may use even foolish words to bring healing.

First, this fire tells us nothing in particular about God; don’t look for him there. If – as preliminarily reported – the fire was an act of arson, it was sparked by evil, by foolish boys under the influence of the dark powers of this present age, and certainly not kindled by God. But, we can be sure that God was present in the moment the boys set the fire: his Spirit interceding with theirs to avert their deadly actions, but, in the end, granting them the same dignity of human freedom which he grants each one of us, which he granted our first parents in the Garden when they set the fire of sin to the whole world. God is never absent in the moment of decision, though he is often ignored. Evil, and not God, is responsible for this fire and for every destructive act that plagues creation.

In words from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP 1979, p. 831) we pray:

O Merciful Father, who hast taught us in thy holy Word that thou dost not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men: Look with pity upon the sorrows of thy servant for whom our prayers are offered. Remember him, O Lord, in mercy, nourish his soul with patience, comfort him with a sense of thy goodness, lift up thy countenance upon him, and give him peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I have offered this prayer many times recently because it reminds me and those with whom I worship that God truly does not willingly afflict or grieve his children. God’s unfailing disposition toward his children is love. God’s unfailing action toward his children is mercy. God’s unfailing will toward his children is salvation. The capricious God who hurls lightning bolts willy nilly, who toys with humans, who fans the flames of fire, who arbitrarily punishes this one and blesses that one, is a pagan myth and not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – certainly not the one God revealed supremely in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. I think the person whose house was lost, whose family member or friend was injured or killed, needs these words. I think the person whose house was spared and whose family members are safe needs these words. I think all those who struggle, in vain, to find the hidden hand of God in the fires, to find his sovereign will in the flames – in short, to justify this as an “act of God” – need these words. Can I say it plainly? God is not to blame for this or any evil. We live in a fallen world of our own desecration, a world under the influence of fallen powers – some human and some spiritual. We live in a wounded creation, whose out-of-kilter convulsions shake the earth and cast up giant waves, whose disordered cycles withhold rain for some and send torrential floods to other, and yes, whose forests provide cool shelter and kindling for infernos. None of this chaos is God’s will.

So, is all this meaningless after all – devoid of God? Absolutely not! God is never the author of evil; rather he is always in the midst of it, battling it, bringing forth all possible good from it, through it, and in spite of it. Doesn’t the cross tell us that? In the midst of the greatest evil, God was working to bring forth the greatest good. In the midst of death – in fact, precisely through death – God was bringing forth life. In the mystery of providence, while God did not will or cause this fire, God will use it to bring forth good in ways we cannot begin to imagine. God is never helpless before his creation or his creatures. There is nothing that will ultimately thwart his will, though for the present moment he allows his creatures to act freely and sometimes foolishly and sometimes malevolently; all that is mystery beyond our understanding. But, this we know: Christ has won the victory over all the powers of evil and death; his resurrection proclaims this truth. One day, that victory will be fully implemented and the defeated dark powers will be finally destroyed. Until that day, evil will convulse the world, breaking out here in fires, there in tsunami, one day in racism, another in terrorism. But, the Spirit will break out also, bringing forth new creation amidst the old – renewing and transforming the old.

So, to my brothers and sister affected by the recent fires I say this: whether you were spared or lost everything, God loves you and desires nothing but your good; never doubt this, and when you waver, look at the cross. Where evil is present, grace abounds all the more. Seek God: in prayer, in silence, in the company of his people, in worship with the church, in the Body and Blood of Christ. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself – through your prayers, by your acts of aid and charity, with listening ears and open hearts. Join with the Spirit in the renewal of this fallen world in every way possible: work for justice, make beauty, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, live the Gospel in all places and in all times and in all ways. And pray, beloved, pray, now in Advent and in every season: Come, Lord Jesus, come.


Photo:  Wikimedia Commons

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The Advent O Antiphons

stainedGlassHorizSmallFollowing is the text of a lesson I taught at Apostles Anglican Church on Sunday, 11 December 2016.  It is not intended to be read straight through, but rather to be used day-by-day from 17 December through 23 December as a meditation on the One who came and is to come.

The Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent (Thomas Cranmer)

Lord, we beseech thee, give ear to our prayers, and by thy gracious visitation lighten the darkness of our heart, by our Lord Jesus Christ.

 O Antiphons:     An Advent Devotion

When psalms and canticles are said, sung, or chanted in worship they are often preceded by a short refrain that often expresses the theme of the liturgical season; this refrain is called an antiphon.  For example, in Morning Prayer, the Invitatory Psalm (often the Venite or Jubilate) has a range of seasonal antiphons including:

In Advent
Our King and Savior now draws near:  Come let us adore him.

On the Twelve Days of Christmas
Alleluia.  To us a child is born:  Come let us adore him.  Alleluia.

From the Epiphany through the Baptism of Christ, and on the Feasts of the Transfiguration and Holy Cross
The Lord has shown forth his glory:  Come let us adore him.

In Lent
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy:  Come let us adore him.

From Easter Day until the Ascension
Alleluia.  The Lord is risen indeed:  Come let us adore him.  Alleluia.

The typical order of the antiphon and psalm/canticle resembles a sandwich with the antiphon as bread and the psalm/canticle and Gloria as the meat and cheese:


If the psalm is chanted, the antiphon often has a more varied and complex tune than the psalm tone.

Advent has a special series of antiphons that accompany the Magnificat (The Song of Mary) at Evening Prayer, from 17-23 December – a different antiphon each day.  Because each of these antiphons begins with the interjection, O, they are collectively known as the O Antiphons (or the Great O Antiphons).  It is a highlight of the year when these are sung in churches and monastic communities worldwide.

The O Antiphons are ancient, originating no later – and probably earlier – than the 8th century.  They are a product of the Western church, written in Latin.  But the real origin of the Antiphons lies in Scripture; they are filled with Biblical images and allusions that focus on various names and characteristics of Christ, the one who came and is to come.  Each of the O Antiphons is a prayer; like the closing prayer of Revelation, each is addressed to Christ and, in various ways, contains the plea, Come, Lord Jesus.

The O Antiphons offer a wonderful way to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s first advent and to stir our longing and hope for his second advent.  As an Advent devotion, you might find it helpful to pray the Magnificat each day, framed by the appropriate O Antiphon for the day.  Simply say the antiphon, then pray the Magnificat, then say the antiphon again.  Since the Magnificat is associated with Evening Prayer, you might do this before or after the evening meal, or just prior to bed, though any time will do.  You might also choose to sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel.  Each of its verses is a metrical version of one of the O Antiphons.  In the Hymnal 1982 the verses are labeled by day – 17 December through 23 December – to correspond to the appropriate O Antiphon.  However you might choose to use these Antiphons, I believe they will enrich your Advent reflections upon the One who came and is to come.

In a moment, we will consider the text of each antiphon.  But, before that, I would like you to hear the first of the O Antiphons with the Magnificat.  I will be using the version of both from the service music for The New English Hymnal.  Simply click on the link below.

O Wisdom

O Sapientia (O Wisdom) and Magnificat

O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High,
and reachest from one end to another,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

My soul doth magnify the Lord;
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded:
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from hence-forth:
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me;
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him:
throughout all generations.
He hath put down the might from their seat;
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He, remembering his mercy,
hath holpen his servant Israel:
as he promised to our forefathers Abraham and his seed forever.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son:
and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be:
world without end.  Amen.

O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High,
and reachest from one end to another,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

 O Antiphons

With this background, and having heard how the Antiphons and the Magnificat “work together,” we can now consider the texts of the individual antiphons.  This version of the Antiphons and Magnificat are in more contemporary language.

O Sapientia (O Wisdom): 17 December

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

The wisdom literature in Scripture personifies Wisdom as the creative power of God; it was through and by Wisdom that God created and ordered all things.  Wisdom is not an abstract idea or principle, but a person.  The apocryphal book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) and the canonical book of Proverbs offer clear examples of this personification:

All wisdom is from the Lord,
and with him it remains forever.
The sand of the sea, the drops of rain,
and the days of eternity—who can count them?
The height of heaven, the breadth of the earth,
the abyss, and wisdom—who can search them out?
Wisdom was created before all other things,
and prudent understanding from eternity (Sirach 1:1-4).

22 “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth,
26 before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30     then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man (Proverbs 8:22-31).


Consider this Second Temple description of Wisdom as an antetype.  With what, or with whom, would we identify its fulfillment?

With the advent of Christ, the Church recognized him as the personification of Wisdom, the one for whom Wisdom was a symbol.  Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, the one by whom and through whom all things are created and ordered, the very source and substance of wisdom.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col 1:15-20).

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:20-24).

O Sapientia calls on Christ, the wisdom of God, to teach us the way of prudence (wisdom) – not the wisdom of the philosophers and not the wisdom of the world, but of the ancient wisdom of God.

O Adonai (O LORD):  18 December

O Adonai, and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Adonai is the Hebrew term for LORD.  When you see Lord written in all capital letters – LORD – in our Old Testament translations it is a rendering of Adonai.  But, interestingly, Adonai is not what would be found in the Hebrew text.  Instead, you would find the personal name of God – YHWH – which we sometimes write and say as either Yahweh or Jehovah and translate as I Am.  To the Jews, the personal name of God was/is so holy, so revered that it must not be uttered aloud or written.  So, when YHWH is intended in the text, Adonai is substituted.

This Antiphon identifies Jesus with the most holy name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God who revealed himself and his name to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, who liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, and who gave the Law on Sinai.  And it calls on Jesus to come and redeem his people – us – with an outstretched arm just as Adonai redeemed the Israelites from Egypt.

In one of the most dramatic scenes in the Gospel of John – a confrontation between the Jewish authorities and Jesus – Jesus claims for himself the personal name of God, claims to be Adonai, YHWH:

56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple (John 8:56-59).

Jesus, I Am, YHWH, Adonai:  this is the one to whom we sing in the O Antiphon:

O Adonai, and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.


From what do we need to be redeemed?  Of course, there is a theological answer, but there is also a personal answer.  From what do you need to be redeemed, right now, in this moment?  Guilt?  Fear?  Sin?  Anger?  This Antiphon calls us to examine our lives and perhaps to pray for Adonai to continue his work of redemption in us.

O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse):  19 December

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples:
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.


Do you remember David’s plan to build a temple for the Lord?

  1. How did that work out?
  2. What did God promise David?

In 2 Samuel 7, God refuses to let David build a house for God, a temple.  Instead, God promises to build a house for David, son of Jesse – a dynasty to rule Israel forever.  But, things did not go smoothly in the kingdom.  David sinned with Bathsheba and God promised discord in David’s family from that time forward and a division of the kingdom.  David’s son Solomon expanded the borders and material wealth of the kingdom, but also initiated a decline in true worship by introducing the foreign gods of his foreign wives.  His foolish son, Rehoboam, refused to listen to wise and mature counselor and precipitated civil war that divided the kingdom, north and south.  There was still a king of the house of Jesse on the throne, but now ruling only over two tribes, collectively known as Judah.  Within 350 years Judah had become so politically corrupt, so morally bankrupt, so far from God that it fell to the Babylonians.  The house of David seems to have crumbled; the dynastic tree of David cut down to just a stump.  Listen to how this selection from Psalm 89 describes the situation:

20 I have found David, my servant;
with my holy oil I have anointed him,
21 so that my hand shall be established with him;
my arm also shall strengthen him.
22 The enemy shall not outwit him;
the wicked shall not humble him.
23 I will crush his foes before him
and strike down those who hate him.
24 My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him,
and in my name shall his horn be exalted.
25 I will set his hand on the sea
and his right hand on the rivers.
26 He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father,
my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’
27 And I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth.
28 My steadfast love I will keep for him forever,
and my covenant will stand firm for him.
29 I will establish his offspring forever
and his throne as the days of the heavens.
30 If his children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my rules,
31 if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
32 then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with stripes,
33 but I will not remove from him my steadfast love
or be false to my faithfulness.
34 I will not violate my covenant
or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
35 Once for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David.
36 His offspring shall endure forever,
his throne as long as the sun before me.
37 Like the moon it shall be established forever,
a faithful witness in the skies.” Selah

38 But now you have cast off and rejected;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust.
40 You have breached all his walls;
you have laid his strongholds in ruins.
41 All who pass by plunder him;
he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
you have made all his enemies rejoice.
43 You have also turned back the edge of his sword,
and you have not made him stand in battle.
44 You have made his splendor to cease
and cast his throne to the ground.
45 You have cut short the days of his youth;
you have covered him with shame. Selah

46 How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire (Ps 89:20-46)?

Is all hope lost?  Has God forsaken his covenant with David of the house of Jesse?  No.  Let’s jump ahead to the end of the story, to Revelation 5:1-5:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Rev 5:1-5).

The Root of David – Radix Jesse – is none other than Jesus Christ, who died, who rose again, and who reigns forever, an everlasting King from the house of David, from the root of Jesse.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples:
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.


God seems to delight in bringing forth life and growth from “dead” stumps, in giving new hope when all seems lost.

  1. Can you think of some Biblical examples of this?
  2. Where has God done this in your life?  Where do you need him to do it now?

Perhaps this O Antiphon is a good prayer for anyone struggling with hopelessness.  The Root of Jesse stands as a sign that God rescues his people, that resurrection follows crucifixion.

O Clavis David (O Key of David):  20 December

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel:
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in the shadow of death.

Key of David, Scepter of the House of Israel, the one who shuts and no one can open and who opens and no one can shut:  this imagery begins in Genesis and develops throughout Scripture.  In his final blessing to his sons, Jacob says to Judah:

“Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons shall bow down before you.
Judah is a lion’s cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples (Gen 49:8-10).

Judah holds the scepter, the ruler’s staff over all sons of Jacob – over all Israel.  But, there is a hint that Judah’s rule goes beyond Israel to include the obedience of “the peoples,” i.e., of the nations.

And, then, in Revelation 1:12-18 we read:

12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades (Rev 1:12-18).

The first and the last, the one who died and is alive forevermore, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, is the one who holds the Scepter of the House of Israel, for he reigns over all things.  He holds the Key of  David because he and he alone has the power to open and shut Death and Hades, and no one can oppose his will.  It is this one, Jesus, to whom we pray:

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel:
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in the shadow of death.


  1. Do you remember any mention of a key or keys in the Gospels?  See Matthew 16:13-19.
  2. How might this relate to the Antiphon?  Can we see the Church – and perhaps even ourselves – in this Antiphon?

 O Oriens (O Dayspring/Morning Star/Dawn):  21 December

O Morning Star, splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Oriens – morning star or dawn.  We cannot hear this without thinking of the Canticle of Zechariah in Morning Prayer, so appropriate for Advent.  Let it be our commentary on this Antiphon.  Notice the reference to the breaking dawn from on high as we reach the conclusion of the canticle.

16   The Song of Zechariah     Benedictus Dominus Deus
  Luke 1: 68‑79

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the
shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.

In his own way, Zechariah sings the O Antiphons:

O Morning Star, splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Rex Gentium (O King of the Gentiles/Nations):  22 December

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

Rex Gentium – King of the Nations, King of the Gentiles:  this characteristic of the identity and mission of Christ was central to Paul’s understanding of the Gospel and of his own vocation.  Here is how he describes it in Ephesians 2:11-22:

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph 2:11-22).

For Paul, this is absolutely crucial and non-negotiable.  If the Gentiles are not included under the Lordship of Christ (Rex Gentium), if they do not form one, single body with the Jews, then the Gospel is emptied of its power.

So it is, around the throne in the Revelation of John we hear this song to the King of the Nations – A Song to the Lamb (BCP 1979, p. 93):

Splendor and honor and kingly power
are yours by right, O Lord our God,
For you created everything that is,
and by your will they were created and have their being;
And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain,
for with your blood you have redeemed for God,
From every family, language, people, and nation,
a kingdom of priests to serve our God.
And so, to him who sits upon the throne,
and to Christ the Lamb,
Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor,
for ever and for evermore (Rev 4:11; 5:9-10, 13).

Christ is Rex Gentium, the king of all nations:  every family, language, people and nation – a single kingdom of priests.

And so we pray:
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.
O Emmanuel (O God With Us):  23 December

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior:  Come and save us, O Lord our God.

We come at last to the most familiar of the names of Christ associated with Advent, Emmanuel – God with us.  Isaiah prophesies his coming:

17Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (Is 7:17).

Matthew is clear that this prophecy and this name apply to Jesus of Nazareth, even before his birth:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

So, when we pray through the O Antiphons, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we seek the return of God-with-us:  not that he is now absent from us, but we seek him in his fullness.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior:  Come and save us, O Lord our God.


My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.


These O Antiphons begin on 17 December and are sung the week prior to Christmas as a final act of preparation for the first advent of Christ.  There is a secret hidden in the arrangement of the Antiphons.  If we take the first letter of each of the Antiphons we have the sequence SARCORE.  Now, arrange this backwards with one strategic space inserted and we have ERO CRAS, Latin for Tomorrow I Come.  The O Antiphons begin with hope and plea:  Come, Lord Jesus.  They end with promise:  Tomorrow I come.  They give the church a beautiful way to draw Advent to a close and to lead us into Christmas worship of the One who came and is to come.

Photo:  John Roop, Window at Monastery of the Holy Spirit

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A Contrarian View: Christmas-during-Advent

Bless me, for I have sinned. Through my fault, through my fault, through my own most grievous fault, I have willfully begun listening to Christmas music in Advent, and – God help me – I probably will continue.

Anglicans, among whom I gladly make my home, honestly can be a bit prickly, a bit fastidious at times, myself chief among sinners. Nowhere, it seems, does this tendency rise more prominently to the fore than in Advent – well, in discussions of Advent and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in about equal measure. I’ve lost count of the number of times Facebook Anglicans have reminded me already that THIS. IS. NOT. CHRISTMAS. To which I want to reply, LORD. HAVE. MERCY. or, more truly, GET. A. LIFE. (Enough of the capital letters and one word sentences, already!)

Look, I like Christmas music: Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, the Carpenters, Mannheim Steamroller, George Winston, Narada, Windham Hill, and the list goes on. I can’t play all this beautiful music in only twelve days and I find no reason to limit myself. On my Advent playlist you’ll find Advent At Ephesus (glorious), Gregorian Advent (contemplative), some version of Lessons and Carols (wonderfully Anglican), The Gift (Tingstad and Rumble), Mannheim Steamroller Christmas, Narada Christmas, December (George Winston), Miracles (Kenny G.), In Quiet Silence (Society of St. John the Evangelist), and a holiday mix of classic, secular Christmas standards: yes, all this on my Advent playlist. I am expansive; I can live in two calendars simultaneously: Christmas-during-Advent.

And, I put up the Christmas tree right after Thanksgiving:  no, not the Advent Tree – the Christmas Tree. It is beautiful and the ornaments represent a lifetime of memories. I want to add that beauty and joy to my life before, during, and after Christmas. I choose to worship the Lord in the holiness of beauty (and yes, this is an intentional misquote) in Christmas-during-Advent.

In Phil Rickman’s novels, Merrily Watkins, vicar of Ledwardine and exorcist of the Diocese of Hereford, doesn’t mind so much when people use Jesus Christ as an expletive. “At least it keeps the name in circulation,” she says. I feel the same about the Christmas-during-Advent season. At least it keeps the name in circulation in an increasingly secular society. Yes, at the malls we may hear I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas ad nauseum, but we also hear Silent Night and Joy to the World, and that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps there is some subliminal evangelism taking place. At the very least, the name of Jesus Christ is kept in circulation in a culture that is too often deaf to it and too rarely utters it. Yes, commercialism can blur our focus on the Story, but it can also take the focus off ourselves and temporarily manifest as generosity, selflessness, and compassion. I suspect that in the Christmas-during-Advent season, many people drop loose change into a Salvation Army kettle who never think about or give to charity during the remainder of the year, and that’s not a bad thing. I wonder if some other world religions have Christmas envy, wishing their faith had made such inroads into secular culture. Do you really know any B’hai carols or Taoist hymns? But I’ll bet many adherents of B’hai or Taoism can sing Christmas carols.

Now, don’t misunderstand my seasonal inclusivity. I love Advent in all its pre-Christmas purity as much as any prickly Anglican; it is, to me, one of the most meaningful seasons in the church year and one of my favorites. I try to enter into it fully and gratefully. I simply refuse to use it as a cudgel to bludgeon my other secular or non-liturgical friends, or even my Anglican brothers and sisters. Several years ago, my family and I began a discipline of Advent fasting. By the fourth week in Advent – trust me on this – you wouldn’t want to come eat at our home, unless you are vegan (Lord, have mercy). But, if you invite me to your home for a Christmas-during-Advent party, I will gladly eat whatever you set in front of me, thanking God for your hospitality and his abundant blessings. You will never know I’m fasting and I will never mention it. I will even (force myself to) enjoy the sumptuous, party fare before returning to hummus and rice cakes. If you ask me, I’ll even bring my guitar and play Christmas music; I’m particularly proud of Christmastime Is Here, from a Charlie Brown Christmas, by Vince Guaraldi – great jazz chords. Why should my observance of Advent sanction scruples that lead to rudeness? You’re eating that during Advent? Sorry, I don’t sing Christmas songs during Advent! Why is your tree already up during Advent? I don’t want to be the Grinch who steals joy because his heart is three sizes too small. I want to be the changed Scrooge who truly keeps Christmas all year, even during Advent.

In church and in my heart, I observe Advent: wreath and candles, lessons, O Antiphons – the works. At the mall, on the street, in my friends’ homes, in my music and in my home, I celebrate Christmas-during-Advent with all the trimmings. I have no trouble doing both. So, please, I beg you, dear purist, prickly Anglican friends: LEAVE. ME. ALONE. to observe Christmas-during-Advent. (This is written with a gentle and loving smile on my face.  Receive it in like manner.)

May you have a holy and blessed Advent as we remember the first advent of our Lord in great humility and await his second advent in great glory. Our king and savior now draws near: O, come, let us adore him.


Image:  Public Domain

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Anglican Pastor

Fr. Greg Goebel, Canon to the Ordinary for the Anglican Diocese of the South, is the founder, editor, and contributing writer of Anglican Pastor (www.anglicanpastor.com), an online source of articles and reflections whose goal is to

“…explain Anglican experience, and provide the Anglican Pastor’s perspective on worship, faith, and life. Writers for this site are active Anglican priests, and the focus and scope of the material is based on experience in the parish.

Anglican Pastor started from the thought that writing for the parish could be shared with others, so that it might be useful outside of the parish. The first site was “Rector’s Notes” which then became Anglican Pastor. Even though it began with one writer, it has evolved into a team writer approach. We always write from the pastoral perspective, but we choose various topics and areas. We also invite contributing and guest writers from time to time.

We hope this is a site you can use and share with new Anglicans, or anyone who wants to hear about our way of being Christian” (excerpted from http://www.anglicanpastor.com/about).

Canon Greg+ has graciously offered to host First Blessings on Anglican Pastor.  Beginning on 13 October, previously published posts will appear on Anglican Pastor, one each day for 13 days.  Following that, I plan to post twice monthly, God willing.

As Canon to the Ordinary, Fr. Greg+ was instrumental in shepherding me through the discernment and ordination process.  It is a blessing to me to continue our association in this new way.

I invite you to join me at Anglican Pastor.  I have always found the writing there to be theologically and pastorally rich and helpful.

I also plan to maintain the separate First Blessings site for those rare occasions when I wish to post an article that might not be in keeping with the ethos of Anglican Pastor or the interests of its readers.  Frankly, I cannot imagine what that would be, but you never know.


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A Baptismal Affront

Thebaptismal font Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ (Article XXVII).

For several reasons — Clara and James prominent among them — I’ve been thinking much about baptism lately.  These two beautiful children recently became my sister and brother in Christ:  a little water, a little oil, some vows made by parents and Godparents, some prayers offered and the courts of heaven and Apostles Anglican Church resounded with joy.  Every baptism is a mystery and a wonder, perhaps especially the baptism of an infant.  But the concept and practice of infant baptism is also an affront.  It assaults and insults me with the claim that this precious new life is but dust and will one day to dust return, that death is the common lot of all men because all men bear the consequence – if not the guilt – of Adam’s sin, and that true life depends on new life in Christ. “You must be born again – of water and the Spirit,” Jesus said and says still, and the church insists this applies to all – “innocent” children and hardened adults as well. Infant baptism weighs in the balance and finds wanting all our cherished convictions about human nature: that each child is a tabula rosa on which we may write only the good and pure, or that men are inherently good and pure from birth. Instead, every baptismal font proclaims that every infant presented there is a cracked and tarnished icon of God: an image bearer, yes, but one with the perfect image of a holy God distorted by every selfish and errant choice made by every ancestor far and near, throughout the genealogy of all the world – begotten in sin, born in sin, and living in a sin-conditioned world. Every helpless, speechless child carried to the water by others, spoken for by others, speaks volumes to us all: you are broken and you are helpless and you are utterly dependent on the gift and grace of Another. Baptism is never more fully sacramental than when an infant is presented, for there the work is clearly and solely God’s: no false pride of adult choice or will or wisdom – just helpless acquiescence to the weak ministrations of men and the mighty acts of God. Such a baptism shames us in our weakness and glorifies God in his strength, a strength shown chiefly in the stooping down of love.

If you do not find infant baptism an affront, I think you are not paying attention. It is a slap in the face of our culture – of any culture. And precisely in that lies the truth and the power and the beauty of this sacrament; it shows the depth of our vanity and the breadth of God’s love. We cannot walk – as the Prodigal – to Him, yet He runs – as the Father – to us. We cannot repent – as the good thief – and yet He promises us paradise this day and every day. We cannot say the words of the vows, yet we hear God speak – a thunderous whisper – This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased. If you do not find infant baptism an affront – and a joyous and marvelous gift of our gracious God – you are not paying attention. Thanks be to God for this sacrament.

Infant baptism is no less sacramental than adult baptism; it is not merely a sign or seal of something that will or might happen later.

Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God (Article XXVII).

Something happens when an infant is baptized, and I find no reason to suppose that that something is different in degree or kind from what happens when an adult is baptized:  new birth, new creation, forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Holy Spirit, full membership in the body of Christ.  If not these things, then what?  If not these things, then why bother?

Some argue that an infant cannot have a personal faith in Jesus Christ and therefore cannot fully receive all the blessings of baptism.  Perhaps the child receives only the promises of good things to come upon his or her adult affirmation of faith?  I cannot agree.  There was faith abounding at the baptism of the infant:  the faith of the parents and Godparents that God loves this child even beyond their own human love, the faith of the church that proclaims the Gospel in Word and Sacrament and that intends for this child to be baptized, the faith of the priest who prays the prayers and pours the water and anoints with oil.  Most of all, there is the faithfulness of Jesus into whose death and resurrection this child is baptized.  Yes, at this moment it might be vicarious faith.  But so was the faith of Mary and Martha that resulted in life for Lazarus.  So was the faith of Jairus that resulted in life for his daughter.  So was the faith of Tabitha’s friends that resulted in her life.  Need we multiply examples?  God honors faith.  For some — adults obviously — baptism might be the result of a personal faith.  For others — infants — baptism might be the beginning and source of faith.  God alone knows; we have no need to.

In his book A Place of Healing for the Soul, Peter France writes about his own struggle with faith before and even during his adult baptism into the Orthodox Church on the Island of Patmos:

Fortunately for me the Orthodox Church accepts that nobody is ever completely ready for or worthy of a sacrament.  The ceremony that was taking place was a help in getting there rather than a celebration of arrival.

Is an infant ready or worthy of baptism?  Of course not, but then, who is?  If France is correct — and I think he is — then baptism for an infant is a help in getting there — getting to a personal expression of faith in Christ — rather than a celebration of arrival.  It is for all of us.


Photo:  Public Domain.

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