Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Offering Mass for an intention

The Red rule of the SSC states that "The Brethren are asked to wherever possible offer Mass for the Society." Offering mass for a particular intention always seemed highly objectionable to me. It seemed to really make the mass into a re-sacrificing of Christ, in the most objectionable way. The Eucharist, after all, is only a part of the one sacrifice of Christ, and as such it already has a purpose to which it is dedicated - the redemption of the world, and the establishment of God's new covenant people, the Church. To offer mass for a particular intention, seemed to suggest that mass is offered for the sake of getting God to grant some particular request, rather than to participate in the "Full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice" of Calvary. It seemed, in other words, to trivialize the Eucharist, and to suggest that if I offer more Eucharists, my prayer becomes more effective, as if the value of Christ's sacrifice could be magnified.

I have more recently begun to come around on this particular question, but I can't say I fully understand it. A question from a friend, gave me the opportunity to think about this in more depth, and so I thought I would share my thoughts here, and invite comments from others.

As I understand it, since the mass is traditionally understood as being one with the sacrifice of Christ offered once and for all on the cross, the mass is itself a sacrifice offered by the Church in union with Christ. Whenever a particular priest celebrates, he does so not for his community alone, but on behalf of the whole Church, the catholic Church, throughout the world, living and dead. So, through the Holy Spirit's ministry, each mass participates in the one great sacrifice of Christ on the cross which constitutes and sustains the Church. Each particular offering of the mass, through the Holy Spirit's power transcends its own particularity.

At the same time though, each mass remains somehow a particular, distinct event - in this time and this place, offered by a particular priest, on behalf of a particular congregation, and a presbyter does not stand apart from the needs, sorrows and joys of his particular community. So, while the Mass is already an all encompassing sacrifice, sustaining the life of the universal Church, and is offered "for the life of the world" as Fr. Alexander Schmemann put it quoting John's gospel, a particular priest offers up the mass to God on behalf of the his own congregation. A priest does not offer the mass on behalf of a nebulous, "Universal Church" but on behalf of the catholic Church in this place, at this time.

While of course the mass is for the whole Church, each priest has a special care for his own community, and a special duty to bring their prayers and needs before God. That, in a sense, is the essence of priestly vocation: to go in and out before God with the needs, thanksgivings and prayers of the people. This is what all of us are called to do in the priesthood of all believers, but the presbyter is specially called to represent that vocation, in the midst of the congregation. This ministry is most fully and manifestly exercised when he offers the holy sacrifice, and so that is also the most appropriate context in which to bring the people's prayers before God. Because while the mass is, as I have put it, universal, and transcends the particular, sustaining the whole Church catholic, it also sustains and gives life to each particular community, precisely as a particular community. In an incarnational and catholic ecclesiology, the particular and the universal are not opposed, but contained within each other, admittedly somewhat mysteriously. For this understanding of catholicity, I am drawing on the thought of Met. John Zizioulas and Archbishop Michael Ramsey.

That, as I understand it, is what it means to offer mass on behalf of a particular intention. Where I see a danger in the practice, is when it eclipses the universality and completeness of Christ's sacrifice, and of the mass itself. I think this is what happened in the middle ages, when you got abuses like priests who earned a stipend doing nothing but offering mass for the soul of some dead nobleman. This turns the mass into some kind of magic, as if offering more masses, more often, would somehow convince God to answer prayers, rather than trusting in the one atoning sacrifice of Christ.

However, I think that if it is kept in proper perspective, it is thoroughly appropriate for a priest to bring the needs of the people before God, in the context of the mass, joining their prayers to those of the whole Church. In addition, I would say it is important that we not let sacrificial imagery become the only language we use to describe the Eucharist. The Eucharist is also a meal, a foretaste of the wedding feast of the lamb, where Christ is the host. St. Paul uses this meal imagery to great effect in 1 Cor. 10-11. Because the Eucharist is a true mystery, we need all the metaphors and analogies we have at our disposal from Scripture and the tradition as we seek to understand and articulate it. Those are my thoughts, hope they are helpful, or at least interesting. Let me know if anything sounds off or crazy in them. I am no expert, and that is just where I have come to in my own musings on the subject.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Wisdom, let us attend.

I ran across this on an Orthodox website, but I think that it has much broader implications for converts to various churches. I really love this, and think there is a lot of wisdom in it.

Letter to a New Convert

Dear “John”,

I understand that you are on the way to becoming Orthodox. I know nothing about you, beyond the fact that you are English.

Before we go any further, there is one point I should make clear. I have not been told why you are about to convert, but I assure you there is no point whatsoever if it is for negative reasons. You will find as much “wrong” (if not more) in Orthodoxy as in the Anglican or Roman Churches.

So – the first point is, are you prepared to face lies, hypocrisy, evil and all the rest, just as much in Orthodoxy as in any other religion or denomination?

Are you expecting a kind of earthly paradise with plenty of incense and the right kind of music?

Do you expect to go straight to heaven if you cross yourself slowly, pompously and in the correct form from the right side?

Have you a cookery book with all the authentic Russian recipes for Easter festivities?

Are you an expert in kissing three times on every possible or improper occasion?

Can you prostrate elegantly without dropping a variety of stationery out of your pockets?

OR…..

Have you read the Gospels?

Have you faced Christ crucified? In the spirit have you attended the Last Supper – the meaning of Holy Communion?

AND….

Are you prepared, in all humility, to understand that you will never, in this life, know beyond Faith; that Faith means accepting the Truth without proof. Faith and knowledge are the ultimate contradiction –and the ultimate absorption into each other.

Living Orthodoxy is based on paradox, which is carried on into worship – private or public.

We know because we believe and we believe because we know.

Above all, are you prepared to accept all things as from God?

If we are meant, always, to be “happy”, why the Crucifixion? Are you prepared, whatever happens, to believe that somewhere, somehow, it must make sense? That does not mean passive endurance, but it means constant vigilance, listening, for what is demanded; and above all, Love.

Poor, old, sick, to our last breath, we can love. Not sentimental nonsense so often confused with love, but the love of sacrifice – inner crucifixion of greed, envy, pride.

And never confuse love with sentimentality.

And never confuse worship with affectation.

Be humble – love, even when it is difficult. Not sentimental so called love – And do not treat church worship as a theatrical performance!

I hope that some of this makes sense,

With my best wishes,
Mother Thekla
(sometime Abbess of the Monastery of the Assumption, Normanby)

Mother Thekla wrote the above in 2009 when she was 91 years old.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sermon on the Call of Levi in Mark 2

this sermon was preached last Friday in the Trinity Chapel. I am always nervous about posting my sermons on the blog, but I got a lot of positive responses to this one, so I figured I would put it up.
He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”

(Mark 2:13-22 ESV)

By tradition, Levi the tax collector is the same person as the Evangelist Matthew, one of the twelve. But Levi was a tax collector, and as you all know tax collectors were not popular people. Pharisees didn't like them, because they associated with Gentiles and were ritually unclean; common people didn't like them because they were collaborators with an occupying government, and they were usually extortionists. So when Jesus, rather publicly called Levi to come follow him, he was doing something that would have shocked everyone watching. Jesus was not acting like a respectable Rabbi, and he was associating with someone who should have been shunned.

But he doesn't just call Levi, he calls him to a meal. Now just so you know that I have actually done some exegesis of this passage, the Greek is quite ambiguous about where this meal happened. It says "as he reclined at table in his house" and probably this means Levi's house, but, in fact, it might be Jesus house. Whoever owned the house, whoever provided the food, its clear enough that it's Jesus who is at the center of this meal. Wherever Jesus goes, he is the host - or the bridegroom as he puts it - and it is his banquet that Levi, and all the other tax collectors and sinners who are tagging along have been invited to.

And of course, in Jewish culture, eating a meal with people was a very big deal. You couldn't eat with unclean people without risking becoming unclean yourself. The Pharisees were naturally concerned to see a popular teacher like Jesus associating with this class of person, but Jesus doesn't seem to have been particularly worried. These are the people he came to call. It's interesting, in the parallel to this passage in Luke's gospel, Jesus says he came to call sinners to repentance. But here he just says "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."

When Jesus called Levi, as far as I can tell from the text, Jesus does not call him first of all to repent - at least not in any obvious sense. He doesn't say, quit being a lousy tax collector, he just says, "follow me." He doesn't wait for Levi, or the other sinners to clean up their act, or get better, he just calls them to come have a meal with him. He offers them his friendship. Not because of who they are, or because they are particularly good people - they aren't - but because of who Jesus is. He is the bridegroom, and he's come to celebrate his marriage feast, and he has invited everyone.

The Pharisees got frustrated with Jesus disciples for fast, but that's because Pharisees don't understand who Jesus is, or what the kingdom of heaven is like, and they don't understand what it is like be a Levi, a sinner who knows he is a sinner, and is called anyway, to come be friends with the Lord himself.

Now most of us are doing some kind of fast during lent, so I guess the Pharisees should be happy. But I think there are two ways of fasting. The Pharisees fasted, because they wanted to be good people, to be the right sort of people, the people who kept the rules. Jesus disciples could only start fasting when the bridegroom left, and the banquet was over. We fast, not because we are trying to keep rules or because we want to be the right sort of people, but because we are living in what at Trinity we like to call the already and the not yet. The bridegroom is absent, from us, so we live in the not yet. Lent, especially, is a time when are called to remember that we are like Levi, and like all the sinners that Jesus called; that we have been called, although we are not good people, or clever people, not because of anything special about us, not because of who we are, not even because we were looking for Jesus, but because, as one of my favorite hymns puts it, "Jesus sought me when a stranger." We fast to remind ourselves that we have nothing to offer of ourselves, and that all our hope is in Jesus. Jesus didn't wait till Levi repented to be his friend, but Levi became both an Apostle and Evangelist. Levi was changed and transformed, by that invitation of Christ's "follow me."

The only reason that any of us have anything to offer the world is because we have heard that same invitation, and like Levi we have responded. Speaking only for myself, that's the only reason I have the nerve to stand up here and preach - because I'm not going to go into the laundry list of my sins, I know how sinful I am. Every time I see my name on the chapel schedule to preach, I find myself thinking "I can't preach a sermon to these people. I know that I have nothing to offer them, nothing to say to them." But I can say, "Jesus sought me when a stranger."

That is what our fast reminds us of. There's another way though, that our fast is different from the Pharisees: it is, paradoxically, a joyful fast. Because even though we live in the not yet, waiting for the wedding feast of the Lamb, we still have a foretaste of that feast. We live in the already as well as the not yet. Even in lent, we keep a sense of the Easter joy.

Christ is absent, in some sense yes, but he also promised that he is with us till the end of the age, in his Holy Spirit. And in that same Spirit, he invites us again and again, every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, to a share in that wedding feast which is to come. He doesn't ask us to be perfect, or to clean up our act first. He just asks us to come follow, to come taste and see that the Lord is good. St. John Chrysostom, summed up much better than I can, what I am trying to get at, in his Easter sermon. He said:

You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!

The table is rich-laden: feast royally, all of you!

Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.

So as we go through Lent, let us be fed by that feast, and look forward to that Easter Joy. Let's remember that Jesus sought us when we were strangers, and seeks us still. Then we will have something to offer to the other sinners and tax collectors like ourselves that we meet.

+In the name of the Father...

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Consolations


Well, I'm not gonna lie, it's been a rough week around these here parts. Just a lot to do, and not a lot of time in which to do it, plus a sleep cycle disrupted by various causes. However, I received a minor consolation today. A large, unexpected and weighty package arrived at my door today as I was rushing late to class. It was, I discovered, a whole stack of the current edition of the Intercession Papers of the Guild of All Souls, of which I am now a member. Thus, I have made a further small step in my slow, and highly eccentric quest to join every single Anglo-Catholic devotional society out there. The mission of the Guild is described on the website as follows.

Founded in England in 1873, the GOAS is a Prayer Guild within the worldwid
e

Anglican Communion which seeks to promote the Church's teaching in regard to the Faithful Departed:
• Intercessory prayer for the Dying and for the Repose of the Souls of the Departed.
• To encourage Christian customs at burials, especially the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
• To promote the two great doctrines of the Christian Creed: "The Communion of Saints" and "The Resurrection from the Dead."

Basically, we do that by praying for the dead, as listed in the intercession papers. I actually think that the Guild has one of the more important and worthwhile ministries of all the AC devotional societies out there, because it is a genuine ministry of charity, praying for the souls of the faithful departed. Besides which, the Resurrection of the Dead is a doctrine that tends to be neglected in contemporary American Christianity, so good on the Guild for promoting it.

Also, the Guild maintains a ministry of providing requiem mass vestments to poor parishes. Since I expect to be in a poor parish one day, I am particularly grateful for this ministry.
And, since I received a whole stack of these intercession papers, I have plenty to share with friends, should you happen to be interested - also membership is free for Seminarians o{]:-)