Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Gift of the Stranger

I preach regularly here at St. Mary Magdalene that God is working in the hearts of the people in our neighborhood, training their hopes and desires, and that by grace he may well lead these strangers to us. I also pray regularly for the same: that God would be at work in the people of St. Vital, drawing them unto Himself, and that if it might be pleasing to Him that He would send them our way.

I'm conscious that this is a little bit different than thinking of the stranger as a person with spiritual needs that the church might fulfill. I don't mean to say that people will not have spiritual needs, or that the church shouldn't make some effort to fulfill them. There is, however, an important difference in emphasis. Rather than placing pressure upon the local worshipping community to be a kind of spiritual boutique according to our own efforts, the emphasis is on God's work in the stranger. It recognizes His prior action in the lives of others, before we might even meet or see them. It also recognizes that God might continue his transformation of the church, preparing us to see His work in the stranger before we get too anxious about our ability to meet the needs, or the perceived needs, of others. To pray for God's work in others, and that we might see that work when it is shown to us, places us in a receptive and perceptive mode, rather than a kind of consumerist exchange mode.

(This is not an apology for the passivity of the church, by the way. Engaging a neighborhood in simple service, and meeting needs in accord with Christian discernment, is essential to being the church. So is engaging in all the different ways we might actively invite others into the embracing love of God in Christ through the church. Neither of these is to be ignored by an emphasis on God's priority in the work of service and evangelism.)

What I didn't quite realize, until recently, is how this kind of emphasis would affect me. There's been some recent evidence that God is doing exactly the work that I pray for. God is working in extraordinary ways in the hearts and minds of the people of St. Vital. And God is sending them our way. What this has meant is that, rather than being caught in a concern for some supposedly spiritual remedy to some kind of perceived spiritual malaise, the stranger is arriving as the pure gift of God. God has worked some miracle in the life of another person, and has entrusted them to us and into our care.

I can't say just how personally transforming this has been. God is gifting me, and us, with the stranger. God has set to work in training the desires of those whom we do not yet know, and is sending them to this little neighborhood parish. He has prepared our hearts to receive. God is doing a great work.

I have been convinced to see differently. The stranger is not a spiritual consumer. The stranger is a pure, delicate, and precious gift given by God Himself.

It leaves me humbled to know that He would be so gracious.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Easter Sunday

Flowering the Cross

The Procession of the Flowered Cross

Photos by John Chan, 2009

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Good Friday

Photo by Preston Parsons, Good Friday, 2009

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Tuesday in Holy Week

Photo by Preston Parsons. Bavarian Crucifix, 12th century, detail. Louvre, Paris.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

A Meditation on the Centurion at the Foot of the Cross

A lot can be made, and a lot has been made, about the precise words of the centurion at the foot of the cross. The rub seems to be that there is no definite article in the greek, leading the NRSV to translate the centurion's saying as "truly this man was God's Son." Being Greek, the centurion probably didn't mean to say that "truly this is the Son of God," a phrase we might hear more comfortably. As he saw Jesus draw his last breath, and die on the cross, what the centurion probably meant according to Greek idiom, is something more like "wow, this guy is a real hero."

And after Jesus gives out his pathetic cry, and dies relatively quickly, it's even possible that the centurion says what he says with sarcasm. Sarcasm may well have been appropriate. This crucified, humiliated, and now dead man was nothing like he was made out to be. "This guy? You mean him? He's the King of Israel? Yeah right. Some hero."

But Mark has been careful to build his case for the divine sonship of Jesus, leading us to hear the centurion's sarcastic remark in a particular way. The first thing we hear in Mark's gospel is that what we are reading is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. At Jesus's baptism, when Jesus comes up out of the water and the Spirit descends upon him, a voice comes from heaven saying "you are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased." And then again, when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, a mysterious voice comes from the cloud and proclaims that "this is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"

Not only that, the spirits and demons knew him. Mark writes that as Jesus traveled, "whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, 'You are the Son of God!' " Later, when Jesus was met by the Gerasene Demoniac, the unclean spirit shouted out to him, "what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?"

So what do we make of this? Ought we to interpret the phrase as consistent with the proclamation of the divine voice, and the words of the demons? If this were true, then Mark, or later redactors, would certainly have supplied the definite article, making this utterance linguistically consistent with the others. That way we could glory in the sudden conversion of the centurion. But the phrase remains inconsistent with the others.

We can say with some confidence that the centurion meant to say something different than what we hear from the narrator, the voice from heaven, and from the mouthpieces of the demons. The phrase remains ambiguous, even if Mark's audience, and us too, will hear and interpret it as consistent with the rest of the gospel. Does this mean then, that what the centurion says any less true, even if he wasn't aware of the full meaning of what he was saying?

That would be to bark up the wrong tree entirely. Instead, the statement of the centurion can be heard both ways, and that this is intentional and significant.

Because of the centurion at the foot of the cross, proclaiming the divine sonship of Jesus with derision and sarcasm, we take away something important about the limits of our understanding and the nature of worship and proclamation. When we come to worship, and as we rehearse the divine life in the liturgy, we may well not, and probably don't, entirely understand what it is we're saying and doing. To place the whole burden of truth on our personal understanding – or lack thereof – is to misunderstand the nature worship and proclamation.

To place the whole burden of truth on our own personal understanding would be to to place an expectation upon our intellects that they will never live up to. It's certainly not a matter of leaving you mind at the door, but rather a recognition that we are always growing into something in worship, and that we are always growing into the fullness of the truth of God and Christ in the proclamations of the liturgy. It's a recognition that we never think alone, any more than do the secular humanists, philosophers, or cultural demagogues who also think within a particular tradition of discourse. The church thinks within the apostolic kerygma. We think with a church that proclaims Jesus as the Son of God, always growing into the fullness of what that means from time to time, and from age to age. If the proclamations of the liturgy were to rest entirely on the capabilities of our naked and bare intellect, we would exclude children; we would exclude anyone with cognitive disabilities; we would exclude me, as someone who hasn't grown as fully into the meaning of Holy Week as the widows in the parish of St. Mary Magdalene. There are many who have participated in Holy Week far more times than I have, and I'm quite sure that they are living and understanding it far more deeply than I am.

We can utter the truth without entirely understanding it, because our own understanding does not exhaust the truth of God, and the liturgy that strains and presses upon the limits of the individual intellect is a sign of the fullness of that truth. In our liturgical actions, our public reading of scripture, and in our recitation of creeds, we show and reveal something that is predicated on God's revelation of himself through the apostolic kerygma and embodied in the church at worship. The truth of our liturgical proclamations don't rest on our individual comprehension of them, but rather on God's revelation of himself in them, through the worshipping church that spans the centuries.

Alternatively, to reduce worship and liturgy, or the reading of scripture, or even the creedal dogmas to the limits of our own understanding would be to abandon our own growth into a story, and into the life of a God who is far larger than we can imagine. Ours is a God revealed in the particular actions of Jesus, in a particular time and place, and though he dies an ignominious death on a cross, remains the Son of the living God, and is revealed as such by way an ignorant soldier.

That we might comprehend the fullness of this.

"Truly this man was God's Son." In these words, even though they may be proclaimed in ignorance, and even as we strain to comprehend their meaning, we nevertheless find the fullness of truth.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Holy Week

Holy Week is nearly upon us, a time when we join together and mark the most significant of celebrations in the whole liturgical calendar.

We begin this Sunday morning at 10:30am with Passion Sunday. We will hear the passion of Jesus according to Mark, but we will begin with the Liturgy of the Palms, celebrating the triumphant entry of the Messiah into Jerusalem with palm branches and a procession. The tension between the celebration of the Messiah's entry into Jerusalem, and the immediacy of his crucifixion, makes this liturgy rife with irony, and makes for a good opportunity for personal reflection on how we both celebrate Jesus in our lives, even while we often reject him.

The Great Triduum of Easter, one liturgy over three days, begins on Thursday at 7:30pm with Maundy Thursday. We will begin with the washing of feet. This is certainly uncomfortable for many of us, myself included. Be comforted that it is only for those wishing to participate, though I would encourage you despite your discomfort, as a gentle reminder that the Christian life can call us out to sometimes doing uncomfortable things. We will continue with a eucharist that remembers the last supper in particular. We will finish worship with the stripping of the altar, and our own departure into the night.

The Great Triduum continues on Good Friday morning at 10:30am, with prayers and the meditation on the cross.

The Great Triduum ends on Saturday evening,at 9pm with the Great Vigil of Easter. (Even though we call it a vigil, don't think it lasts all night! We will end around 10:30pm.) This is truly the high point of the whole liturgical calendar, when we celebrate the resurrection with the first eucharist after Good Friday. The Vigil is a candle-lit service that includes the renewal of our baptismal vows and a chanted eucharist. If you worship once in the year - this is the service to be at! We will end the Triduum on this night with our resurrection party right after worship, hosted by Karen and I, with champagne, sparkling apple juice, cheese and crackers.

On the Sunday of the Resurrection we will begin worship with the flowering of the cross, a visual reminder of how, even through the ugliness and shame of crucifixion, eternal life has come to us in Jesus's resurrection. If you think of it, bring some fresh flowers - but if you forget, we will have some extras for you.

Palm Sunday: April 5th, 10:30am

Maundy Thursday: April 9th, 7:30pm

Good Friday: April 10th, 10:30am

Easter Vigil: April 11th, 9pm

Easter Sunday: April 12th, 10:30am

The Parish of St. Mary Magdalene, 3 St. Vital Road, Winnipeg Manitoba

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Course Offering at University of Winnipeg

Collis Machoko is a Zimbabwean Anglican priest currently serving in Rupert's Land. He spoke at St. Mary Magdalene not long ago - this course will be fascinating and worth your time.

I have a call into the Department of Religious Studies to see about auditing as I will be unable to attend all the sessions. If you're interested, get in touch with the department here.