Spring is here! Easter is only a week away. The daffodils are getting ready to bloom outside the church, and I’m pretty sure the tulips are coming up as well. For me, these are simple and joyful reminders of the Resurrection of Jesus.
I sent a letter to everyone in the parish directory with details about all the Holy Week services. If for some reason you didn’t get it, let me know!
I promised to highlight a couple of ways that folks can participate in Holy Week services from home, but I was beat to the punch. Thanks to Toni Meiers and Katie Gentile, our weekly email impresaria, you will find several wonderful ideas highlighted in the Acts of the Apostles. Remember that however we worship, from home or in the church building, we are being gathered together by God’s grace. Through our one baptism, we are one body—Christ’s—with one Lord, Jesus.
I hope you enjoy the warmer weather this week. I look forward to worshiping with you, either in person or online, during this holiest time of the year. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me with any questions, thoughts, or concerns!
Last Sunday after church we had a lovely conversation about Esther DeWaal’s book Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. Our discussion of Christian monasticism was wide-ranging across the topic of Christian monasticism in general, and I enjoyed it very much. In the course of the conversation, I tangentially remarked (as I am wont to do) about the importance of the Eastern monastic prayer practice known as the Jesus Prayer. This prayer developed out of the Desert Monastic tradition that I wrote about last week, and it is another bit of vital monastic wisdom, that is fitting and easily adaptable for our own contemporary non-monastic lives. So, I thought I would write a bit more about the Jesus Prayer and commend it to you for exploration in your own spiritual journey.
The Jesus Prayer is simple and short: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Sometimes even the “a sinner” part is left off. The prayer is biblical. It is based on several passages from the Gospels. Luke 18:38, for example, when a person seeking God’s healing power cries out as Jesus passes by: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” That story provides the context and the essence of this simple and profound prayer. The Jesus Prayer is the simple, memorable, and frankly, powerful cry of a soul to its Creator and Savior and Lord. The cry results in Jesus hearing the supplicant, stopping, having compassion, and healing this person in need.
The practice of the Jesus Prayer answers the impulse to follow St. Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing.” Monastics often pray the Jesus Prayer continuously, over and over again throughout the day. The experience of this has been that over time—with consistent and patience practice—the Jesus Prayer becomes a prayer that prays itself, meaning that is constantly “running” in the background of your mind and heart.
As I said, the Jesus Prayer developed out of the Desert Monastic tradition. One Desert Father recommended to his disciples the notion of using “arrow” prayers, short, powerful prayers that are useful for avoiding temptation. The idea is that they are “arrows” used as a counterattack against the demonic forces that desire to see the spiritual downfall of all humans. The Jesus Prayer is such a prayer because not only is it short and easy to remember at any time, it also invokes the name of Jesus. Scripture straight-forwardly teaches that there is power in the very name of Jesus Christ. In John 16, Jesus tells his disciples to pray in his Name and their prayers will be answered. In Luke, the disciples are amazed when they are able to cast out demons using the name of Jesus Christ. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul writes: “Therefore God also highly exalted [Jesus] and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). There is transformative power in confessing the name of Jesus, this power is operative in the Jesus Prayer.
The Jesus Prayer is often used with the aid of a prayer rope (commonly called after their Russian name “chotkis”). The prayer rope helps to count the prayers, but it also gives your hands something to do while your mind is praying. Prayer ought to be multi-sensory and connect the body, mind, and heart. Traditionally, this is a circular rope made with black wool and tied with special knots. I like the legend that surrounds their creation. The story goes like this: one day a desert monastic was praying the Jesus Prayer and each time the prayer was prayed they tied a knot in a rope. A demon observed this and secretly began untying the knots as soon as the monastic would tie them. In order to confound the demon, the monastic developed a special complex knot made of dozens of crosses and tied with special prayers to prevent the demon from being able to untie it. Prayer ropes today are often made and sold by monasteries and each one is tied with this complex and prayerful knot. Prayer ropes come in a variety of sizes. I like the ones that have 33 knots (one for each of the years Jesus lived on the earth before the crucifixion) and can be worn on the wrist. If you want to find a prayer rope for yourself, you can find a number of monasteries that sell them on the internet. It is a worthy thing to support monasteries through their online gift shops. My favorites come from this monastery in Arizona.
Monasticism began in the desert. In the 3rd century Christianity was changing. In its first two centuries, Christianity was a small, underground and persecuted movement. But, in the 3rd century that changed dramatically, as the Emperor Constantine first decreed that Christianity would be officially tolerated in the Roman Empire, and then elevated Christianity to a preferential place in the Empire. Suddenly, being a Christian was cool. It quickly became the religion of the elite and those who had or wanted to have status in Roman society. In the first two centuries, martyrdom at the hands of the empire was an important part of the identity of the church. When that changed, the authentic spirituality of the Church (apart from those who were just looking for power or status) found that it needed to refocus. The new focal point became the desert. Starting in the 300s, many people from every social class heard the call of the Gospel in a radical way. They sold all their possessions, and they took off for the desert. At first it was just solitary hermits—ultimate experts in social distancing—but as the movement took off communities of people who shared a common life of prayer and service began to form. The epicenter of this movement was the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. Some of these early monastic communities are still around, for instance, St. Catherine’s Monastery near Mt. Sinai. Over time, the wisdom and teaching of these desert monastics was collected and distributed in collections of sayings. This material makes for excellent Lenten reading. Notably, this was a movement in which thousands of women participated and had leadership roles. While, male monastics have often been the focus of subsequent study and devotion, there is much evidence that women played a very prominent role in the early desert monastic movement.
Three excellent examples, worthily deemed Desert Mothers, are Sarah, Theodora, and Syncletica, They are commemorated in the Episcopal Church’s calendar on January 5th. Of the thousand women monastics whose names were recorded, and the thousands more who remained anonymous, these three were included in the collections of monastic wisdom known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Forty-two sayings out of just over one thousand are attributed to these women. Yet, their contributions to monastic wisdom are both significant and in continuity with the tradition as a whole.
The Sayings preserve twenty-seven examples of Syncletica’s wisdom, more than all but seven of the Fathers and Mothers who appear in the collection. Syncletica’s sayings are characterized by a pragmatism that tempered the most extreme displays of asceticism, and a realistic understanding of human nature. In line with much of desert monastic wisdom, Syncletica taught that humility is central to the monastic life, “Just as one cannot build a ship without nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility.”
As a scion of a wealthy family and widow of a Roman tribune, Theodora began her time in the desert disguised as a man, hiding from any deferment she may have received. Eventually she became the Amma (literally “mother,” i.e. spiritual leader) of a community of women near Alexandria, where she was sought for spiritual council by many prominent monastics and clergy, including the Patriarch of Alexandria (the most prominent bishop in the area).
Sarah was a hermit who lived near Scetis in the northwest Nile Delta of Egypt. She was so devoted to prayer during her 60 years as a hermit that, it is said, she never once looked up from praying to take in the view of the Nile visible from her hermitage. Once, a group of male monastics visited Sarah with the purpose of humiliating and demeaning her. Their assumption of superiority over female monastics exposes their spiritual pride for what it is. When they confronted Sarah and ironically chided her for being a prideful woman, she said to them, “According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.” She is also recorded as saying to (presumably the same) monastic brethren, “It is I who am a man, you are the women.” Whatever we moderns might make of her gender politics, Sarah’s sayings demonstrate that she refused to allow the gender bias of others to interfere with her own piety and vocation as a spiritual guide and teacher.
It is long past time to understand and appreciate the pivotal role of women in monasticism, spirituality, and every other aspect of the Church’s life and faith. It is beneficial to learn from the examples of Sarah, Theodora, and Syncletica and heed their wisdom, which transcends their ancient monastic context and speaks to our own. It is fitting to venerate these saintly women for their holiness and their devotion to prayer. They do the one job of every true saint—they point us toward Jesus Christ.
This Note has been adapted from an article that I wrote for the Living Church.
The vestry met last Sunday and the property committee had a meeting Wednesday. A number of property related concerns were discussed, from the fact that all this snow is going to mean a big bill from the from company that plows our parking lot to a number of repair and maintenance projects at the church and at the rectory. Of course, I am never content NOT to turn everything into a theological reflection, so this got me thinking about our parish property in relationship to the themes of Lent and especially in relationship to the theme of monastic wisdom for non-monastic people like you and me. The first thing to say is that we can be grateful for our beautiful 70 year old church building. It is a gift from God and, like all such gifts, it requires good stewardship on our part. We have to care for it, or it will fall apart.
One of the marks of Christian monasticism is that monastics take several vows. These vows differ slightly depending on which Order or “flavor” of monasticism is being considered. The Most common in the Western Church is a monastery that follows the Rule of St. Benedict. This flavor of monasticism calls for three vows: fidelity to the monastic way of life, obedience to the rule and to one’s abbot/abbess (the head of the monastery), and stability. It is this last vow that comes to mind in relationship to the maintenance of our property and to our parish in general. Simply put, the vow of stability means that someone promises to stay put. Benedictine monks or nuns do not move around much. Most commit to staying in the same monastery for their entire life as a monastic. This is because they recognize that there is spiritual value in staying in one place. It is good for one’s soul to be content with the circumstances at hand, and to commit to cultivating a place for the long haul. There is a certain humility involved. Also, it gives one the opportunity to really pay attention to your surroundings, to your soul, and finally to God. This is counter-cultural in a society, like ours, that is extremely mobile. I mean, here I am writing 1500 miles away from the place where I was born! But, the whole notion of a parish is founded on the principle of stability—on a commitment to a singular place, a singular, bounded area, a neighborhood.
I love the way that Eugene Peterson paraphrased the beginning of the Gospel of John in The Message: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14). Jesus became human and lived in a specific, bounded place and time; he moved into the neighborhood! We too find ourselves in a particular context, and our call is to be disciples of Jesus where we are at. We are called to move into the neighborhood and incarnate the Body of Christ right there in the place we find ourselves. We are called to cultivate our place to make it a place to belong. Our parish is a particular outpost of God’s kingdom that is located here, in Penn Wynne, straddling two counties and two townships, situated near a park, with a small wood behind it. A stream flows under our parking lot and right across the front of our church building (buried underground). Our buildings matter in the grand scheme of things because of the incarnation. Our buildings represent the (literal) concrete embodiment of God’s grace. They are a vow of stability that our church has made to the neighborhood. They say, “we are here for you, and we’re sticking around.” As the context for countless church services and life events, our building has a special place in our hearts and imaginations. This is good.
The pandemic has, of course, forced us to see our church building much less. I spend less time there than I did before the pandemic, and I know there are some of you haven’t set foot inside the building in almost a year. With travel restrictions and increased danger, most of us have not move around as much as we are accustomed to. Even so, our call is the same—to be disciples of Jesus where we are at. To cultivate our limited circumstances as an outpost of the Kingdom of God. Right now we have the opportunity to be more attentive. To humbly accept our circumstances and limitations and to really pay attention to where we find ourselves physically and spiritually.
We take awe-filled and wonder-full things for granted all around us every day. The monastic wisdom of stability—of staying put, invites us to be present in a grace-filled, incarnational way to the place where we are at; to see how God’s kingdom is moving into the neighborhood, our backyard, our living room. Let it also inspire us to make our neighborhoods and homes better. Let it inspire us to pray—“In Penn Wynne or Havertown as it is heaven.”
So, here’s a strange sounding, but truly profound spiritual practice for you: Have you ever stopped and paid absolute, total attention to just 1 square foot of your backyard? Try it! Find a patch of grass and spend a very intentional 30 minutes, focusing all your senses on nothing else. Listen to the sounds of your backyard. Look at the muddy, messy, wonder that is all around you. Leave your phone inside. You are guaranteed to be astonished at the near infinite amount of fascinating, incredible, mind-blowing details packed into such a small, ordinary place. You will come away more grateful to your Creator and more at peace with yourself.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday this week (see the Ash Wednesday plan here). I’ve chosen to center our Lenten offerings this year around a theme: “Monastic Wisdom for Non-Monastics in an Anxious World.” Ok, it’s a long-winded theme, but stick with me.
I am aware that our perceptions and notions of monks and nuns are going to vary widely. Some of us were educated in Roman Catholic schools where you had monastics teachers. I know that some of you had excellent experiences, and some not so much. Others of you will know that there is a long tradition of monasticism in Anglicanism, and might be curious about that or other traditions. Others may not have any reference point or knowledge of monasticism outside of bits and pieces picked up at church or from popular culture. Monasticism is a pretty wild idea, actually. The idea that there are people who feel called to make some kind of commitment to live a different kind of life, “in the world, but not of the world,” together in a community (or as a hermit), following a rule of life that includes enormous amounts of prayer and study, holding personal possessions in common, and agreeing to be celibate—all of this is very counter-cultural. Monasticism may seem like a rarified pursuit, far removed from the experiences and concerns of us, and our parish. In reality, I believe the opposite is true. There is much profound wisdom in the Christian monastic tradition that has a great deal to do with us in our current situation. This can offer us a lot of wisdom, solace, and strength during this extended period of pandemic related crisis. So, I am not asking anyone to become a monk or nun for Lent. Instead, I am inviting us all to explore how monastic wisdom can enrich our own lives as we live them in our present circumstances.
The core commitment and center piece of monasticism is also the inspiration and centerpiece of the Book of Common Prayer: daily prayer. The Book of Common Prayer was designed to take the monastic cycle of daily prayer and put it within the reach of non-monastic Christians like you and me. This cycle of prayer is called the Daily Office. During the pandemic, many of us have rediscovered the power and joy of one of these monastic prayer offices called Compline. During Lent, I am inviting everyone to explore the Daily Office as it is given to us in the Book of Common Prayer. This Office includes Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer (said around dusk), and Compline (said at bedtime or roundabouts). For some, this daily prayer practice will be new. I would suggest trying out each of these services in turn. The easiest way to start might be joining us for nightly Compline. There are also many apps, websites, podcasts, and books that can help you understand how to use the Book of Common Prayer on your own, and I will be posting links to these resources here: www.holyapostlespa.org/lent. Some might want to try to pray more than one Office every day during Lent. Some might want to try praying them all, at least once in a while. To facilitate this, I will be leading the entire Daily Office on Tuesdays during Lent starting February 23rd. Morning and Evening Prayer will be livestreamed to our YouTube channel. Noonday Prayer and Compline (both quite short) will be prayed on Zoom using the same link that we use for Compline now. The schedule can be found below. There are also many other online opportunities to join other communities in daily prayer, including Holy Apostles and the Mediator, the Diocesan staff, and many parishes in this diocese, and indeed, around the world. As we go along, I will be finding and sharing some of these opportunities (feel free to send me ones that you have found). I encourage you to pray these services with me, and/or explore the riches of this essentially monastic tradition on your own.
We are also reading a book together this Lent. The book is called Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict by Esther DeWaal. This book, which is written for non-monastics and for non-specialists, will help us explore one of the many monastic traditions and bodies of wisdom, Benedictine Monasticism, from the perspective of what it has to say to us in our context. There will be two opportunities to discuss this book together via Zoom on Sunday March 7th and Sunday March 21st, after the morning service.
One piece of Benedictine monastic wisdom is that spirituality must be balanced. It must fit holistically and realistically into one’s life. This year, with online school and childcare shaping and limiting my schedule, leading a weeknight class during Lent isn’t going to work for me and my family. My dance card is full, as my grandmother used to say. But, I hope that reading this short, insightful book will be a rewarding experience instead of our normal “Soup Group” class and discussion.
I will use my weekly Notes from the Rector to highlight some other aspects of the broader monastic tradition and look for other resources to share with you. For instance, there are a number of fascinating documentaries and fictional movies about monasticism that you might find interesting. I’ll share some of them with you as we go along.
God willing, during Holy Week (schedule below) we will be able to continue to have limited in-person gatherings. The exact details of our services will need to be flexible and take into account what is happening in our world and community. One way or the other, we will hold our Holy Week services as well as other Lenten devotions such as the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary (perhaps), and the all-night prayer vigil starting on the night of Maundy Thursday.
I look forward to this journey of preparation for Easter with all of you. Lent is a time of introspection and self-reflection. It is a time of study and fasting. It is a time of taking up things that are valuable and real, and letting go of illusions and other things that hinder us on our journey toward God. I am always available to listen to your spiritual concerns, hear your confession, and offer God’s absolution. I can also easily arrange for another priest to hear confession if that is preferable. Lent is a particularly good time for this sort of internal spiritual work. I’m here if you need me.
2021 is slipping away so quickly, it seems. It’s almost time for Lent. Ash Wednesday is February 17th. Following diocesan guidelines, the vestry and I have decided to move forward with the distribution of ashes in a way that mitigates the risk of potential coronavirus transmission. There will be three opportunities to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. The first will be “Ashes to Go” in the morning. Between 8am and 9:15am, you will have the opportunity to drive or walk to church, where you will find me standing near the parking lot. To avoid contact, I will use a Q-tip to impose ashes on your forehead, and will say the familiar words from the prayer book. We’ll all be wearing masks (maybe even two masks) the whole time, and my ashen Q tips will be single use.
There will also be two more traditional Ash Wednesday services at 12:15 and 6:30PM. These services of Eucharist will also include the imposition of ashes by Q-tip in the same manner. Services will limited to 20 people, and you will need to sign up in order to come.
Anglicans have often been a little skeptical of ashes anyway. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the first to include the option to impose Ashes on Ash Wednesday, and including this option was very controversial at the time. Many Episcopalians at the time felt like the idea of Ash Wednesday violated Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 6: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them… whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting” (in order to build in some intentional irony and self-reflection, Matthew 6 is the Gospel reading for the Ash Wednesday service). On the other hand, many others have felt that the visceral, fragile, and potent reminder that ashes provide us is important, nonetheless. This strange ritual reminds us of our own mortality, of the mortality of our loved ones, and even the mortality of the people that we see walking around us. It is physical reminder of the fragility and preciousness of life; the need to trust in God; the need to care for and cherish others; the need to live life now, with what we’ve got, while we’ve got it; to not take tomorrow for granted—ashes on the forehead really do it for some folks. It can be a powerful and holy way to begin Lent, that season of preparation before the glory of Easter.
So, I am offering this weird symbol to those for whom it is important. I do believe that physical things, like ashes, like candles, can communicate important things and can ultimately help us receive God grace in our lives. When it comes to the sacraments—the waters of baptism, the bread and wine of Eucharist—my confidence and commitment are magnified significantly. Ultimately, this is because I believe that God became human in Jesus Christ and made material things, matter, matter. They matter in such a way that transcends our fragility and mortality and touches upon the divine. I’m staking my life on that. I believe in all of this so much that I’m willing to hang out outside in the cold and put ashes on your forehead with a Q tip. That being said, the safest thing is to watch the service online, especially for those of us who are might be particularly vulnerable to serious illness because of coronavirus. We’ll take every precaution, but there’s always risk. So, I’ll be here if you need me. But ashes or not, regardless of me or you or what we do, God’s love for us is always nearby. God is always very near.
We are preparing to elect two new members to our vestry next Sunday at our annual parish meeting. This slate of candidates includes:
Linda and her husband John have been members of CHA since 2016. Linda is the Pre-K Assistant Teacher at Plymouth Meeting Friends School. She has been an integral volunteer for so many things at CHA, from gardening projects to pancakes with Santa. She also serves on the Altar Guild. Linda is a member of the Daughters of the King and is interested, with several others, in starting a chapter of DOK here at CHA. John and Linda live in Wynnewood.
Jean and his wife, Katie, joined CHA in 2019 after moving back to the area from Florida. Jean and Katie have deep roots in this community. Since the pandemic prevented us from meeting normally, Jean has been instrumental in building and facilitating the technology we’ve needed in order to conduct our services virtually. A talented musician, Jean has used his talents combined with his technical skill to help create our virtual choir offerings. Jean works for Electronic Arts. Jean and Katie live in Havertown.
We will also vote on a motion to allow Suzanne Lees to continue serving on the vestry for two more years. At last year’s annual meeting, Suzanne was elected to complete the last year of Kevin Cavanaugh’s vestry term. Given the challenges we have faced together in 2020, Suzanne has graciously volunteered to stay on the vestry and complete a typical three-year term. I hope very much that we will vote to keep Suzanne. She is a gift to this parish, and I am grateful for her willingness to continue to serve. Her continued vestry term will provide much needed stability and continuity as we face 2021 and, with God’s help, emerge on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic.
Thank you to all three vestry candidates. I hope that all members of the parish will be able to join us online next Sunday, January 31, for our annual parish meeting.
A Note on Vestries
The vestry and rector serve as the leadership of this parish together. The vestry system is unique to the American branch of the Anglican Communion (The Episcopal Church). During our colonial period, the Church of England operated in the American colonies under the direct authority of the Bishop of London. There were no bishops on American soil until after the American Revolution. There were also no seminaries, and colonies eventually experienced a dire clergy shortage. The vestry system developed out of this necessity. In order for parishes to survive, they needed to have strong lay leadership. Especially in colonies like Virginia where the Church of England was the Established Church, parishes were not just church communities they functioned as geographical entities (similar to the old system of counties and parishes in England). The parish vestries that developed, then, did not just administer the temporal affairs of the parish church, but also, in many cases, served as civil administrators of the entire geographical parish. From this history, our contemporary vestry system has developed. Unique to Anglicanism, (and also to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and many “Mainline” denominations), a vestry in the Episcopal church is tasked with hiring a rector in consultation with the bishop.
Vestries are a testament to a fact just as true today as it was in colonial America, and indeed everywhere at every time: the church’s backbone is strong lay leadership. The New Testament puts this in theological terms. All baptized Christians are called to be in the “priesthood of all believers” (1 Peter 2:5). We are all ministers of the Gospel, and essential parts of the Body of Christ, the Church. Our role as priests, under Jesus the Great High Priest (Hebrews 7), is to pray for and bless this world, and by our lives, to bring this world closer to God’s Kingdom. That’s the cosmic picture. The local picture seems more mundane. During the pandemic the vestry met monthly on Zoom and passed numerous emails back and forth, conducting the business of the church. Don’t be fooled. The work of the vestry is profound, essential, and beautiful. It is nothing short of committed, loving members of this local congregation quietly doing God’s work day in and day out. I am so grateful.
In my sermon last Sunday I said that partisan politics is not the business of the Church. Instead, I posited, the Church is a politics all of its own. I want to use a few of these Rector’s Notes to act as footnotes to back that statement up, and to elaborate on it especially from Scripture. Mostly, I want to meditate on some passages of Scripture that are undeniably political and yet point to what I would call God’s politics, or, in the language of Scripture: the Kingdom of God. God’s reign is in direct contrast to many of the political machinations that we humans have come up with over the millennia. In these explorations, I am taking the long view. Yes, I think Scripture speaks to our pressing current situations, but it does so “sidelong.” It is with an understanding that God’s timing is not humanity’s and that political brokenness is not something that is new (even if it is urgent). So, without naming names, or drawing conclusions that each of you can draw on your own, I want to begin in the first book of the Bible, Genesis.
The Tower of Babel
Genesis 11:1-12 relates the well-known, but not well understood, story of the Tower of Babel. It’s worth reading again since it may have been awhile (the last time it came up in the Sunday lectionary was Pentecost, June 9, 2019).
The story is set in the distant past when humans were first gathering together and building cities. It relates how a group of humans migrated to the plains of Shinar (also known as Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq and Iran). They developed the technology to make bricks by baking mud and adding bitumen, and they created mortar to hold them together. This technology allowed them, apparently for the first time ever, to start building a city. As the crowning achievement of this city, they began building a great tower. They wanted to the tower to reach to the heavens, “in order to make a name for themselves.” They all spoke the same language. God sees what they are doing and says something fascinating. We are meant to imagine God enthroned in God’s council, surrounded by the heavenly hosts. That is why God is speaking as if to a group. God says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” That’s exactly what happens and, as a consequence, the overly ambitious building project is abandoned. The people are scattered around the area, each one looking for the others who speak their language. Each one is struggling to be understood and to be heard.
The theological and ethical point of this story is that God judges the pride and hubris of humanity. One of the most remarkably consistent messages in Scripture—from Genesis to Revelation and almost every book in-between—is that prideful people will always come under God’s judgement in the end, but that God will always be merciful to those who have humility. The tower of Babel story supports the notion that chaos and division are the consequences of pride as it is carried out in the public square. From the perspective from which the story is told, God’s judgement means that God scrambled the languages. From a human point of view, and from the perspective of history, it is easy to see that prideful leadership always results in division and chaos. We recognize both God’s judgement and the natural consequences of pride are the same. As St. Paul puts in Galatians, “you reap what you sow.”
Anthropologically and archeologically, the story of Babel is interesting because it seems to be set in a period of human history, around 12,000 to 20,000 years ago, when humans first began building cities and establishing civilizations on a large scale. Two new human inventions supported the rise of the first cities in Mesopotamia, subsistence agriculture and slavery. Archeology suggests that the first cities in Mesopotamia built around this time included large pyramid type buildings that towered over all the other buildings. Scholars suspect that such a building is what the writer of Genesis had in mind in the story of the tower of Babel. Called, ziggurats, these ancient buildings were temples for the worship of a several ancient deities. In a fascinating concurrence, these structures from the Near East look and probably functioned remarkably similar to pyramids that were constructed in Central and South America by early Meso-American civilizations, though the latter were built thousands of years later.
But, what does this story have to do with politics, particularly the politics of today’s Church? A clue is found in the lectionary. As I alluded to earlier, the story of the tower of Babel is read on the Feast of Pentecost in lectionary year C. There is a reason for this. The lectionary invites us intentionally to contrast Babel with the story of the Day of the Pentecost and the founding of the Church found in Acts 2. You’ll remember that on that day, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’ disciples who had gathered in the upper room. When the Holy Spirit arrived, they began speaking in other languages (among other things). This is called glossolalia, and it was mentioned in last Sunday’s readings as well in relationship to Baptism (Acts 19:1-17). On Pentecost day, the disciples spoke in other languages. In Jerusalem for the Passover and its attendant festivals, there were members of the Jewish diaspora who were from many parts of the ancient world and spoke a variety of languages. When these folks heard the disciples and understood what they were saying in a variety of different languages, they were amazed and many of them believed their message about Jesus.
At Pentecost, God was constituting a new community—the Church—a new society, a new city even. This new political body was a reversal of the chaos and discordance of Babel. The Tower of Babel represents God’s judgement against human pride and hubris, but God’s judgement is never the final word. God’s mercy always is. In contrast to a society that is founded on pride and human hubris, God founds a different kind of community, the Church. The Church can only be founded on the self-giving love of Jesus, and on a new and mysterious kind of power: the power of the Holy Spirit. This spiritual power does not coerce or use violence to achieve its ends. Rather the power of the Holy Spirit is the power to meet others where they are, use the language they use, and invite them to experience Jesus’ love for themselves. It is the power to constitute a society based on the principles of the Gospel. When the Church relies on this power (even though this power seems like weakness to this world) the Church cannot fail. When the Church, through pride or fear, resorts to other forms of power such as nationalism or violence, it stops being the Church that God intends. Its witness to the saving grace of Jesus is strongly diminished and it needs to turn around.
I am not going to rush to capture all my thoughts regarding the attack on the Capitol building which happened on the Feast of the Epiphany. I was horrified and outraged. But by themselves, my emotions don’t mean much. Horror and outrage will only go so far. The real work lies on the other side. But, I’m not going to rush past all that toward the construction of a grand analysis, solution, or even a cogent essay of any kind. I have much to process as we all do. For now, I am going to offer one thought and plead one cause.
Holy Apostles is our local incarnation of Body of Christ. St. Paul tells us that we are all members of one body (Romans 12). A member of the body attacking another member of the body is analogous to one of the most dangerous aspects of the coronavirus for a lot people, especially those who are otherwise healthy. The virus tricks the body’s immune system into attacking the body itself. In the same way, the virus of hatred and division (a spiritual, cultural, and political malaise) is tricking the body of Christ into attacking itself. This cannot be. Now more than ever, we need to love each other and stick by each other. We do not need to completely agree with each other, except in one case—that we are members of the Body of Christ. Don’t believe our society that claims the only thing that matters is being right, that the “gotcha” moment is what counts. The only thing that matters is the love of Jesus that transforms the world. In the FINAL analysis, the moment that counts is when you were baptized into the Body of Christ, transformed and saved by the grace of God. We need to be careful what we say to each other, especially on social media. Social media gives us a false sense of removal from the real consequences of our words. It tricks us into thinking we can say whatever we want; to be more forceful, mean, and cruel than we would ever dream of being in a face-to-face conversation. I confess to you my siblings in Christ, I am guilty of this more times than I can count. The love of Jesus is calling us to be different. Grace and peace are not won by winning on the internet.
This doesn’t mean we should not have real conversations about the issues which threaten to destroy the country in which we live. Going forward, after the outrage and horror subsides, we’re going to have to figure out ways on the grassroots level to talk about this stuff in ways that honor God and honor our sacred obligation to love each other as Christ loves us.
Several weeks ago I wrote about angels in this space and promised to write more. I wanted to link some of the descriptions of angels that we can find in Scripture to our actual liturgy and practice as Christians. I am trying to get at what angels actually have to do with you and me in our lived experience. I want to start with an early Christian theologian and reader of Scripture who took all the various references to angelic beings in Scripture and in other sources, ancient Jewish literature for example, and systematized them into categories. Now, boxing such things into categories is satisfying but dangerous. Nevertheless, I think these categories of angelic beings are interesting and can, at least, give us a framework in which to think about them, as long as we aren’t too dogmatic about it.
This framework is from a 5th century text called the On the Celestial Hierarchy, by a person who is now known as Pseudo-Dionysus (long story behind the name). Here are the categories of the heavenly host according to this text, grouped in three groups of three: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones; Dominions, Virtues, Powers; Principalities, Archangels, Angels.
Immediately you’ll notice that angels and archangels are at the end of the list. While we might colloquially refer to all these creatures as angels, the heavenly beings that function as messengers, (for that is what the word “angel” means) represent a small portion of the heavenly host. The ordering begins with those beings closest to the eternal presence of God almighty and work “outward” to those whose function in God’s economy take them to various aspects of the material world and human interaction. As messengers and defenders of humanity, archangels and angels appear closest to us in the heavenly ranks.
I don’t have the space in this week’s “Note” to write about all 9 ranks of the heavenly host, but I will at least write a little about the first two and the last two, particularly with what they have to do with our worship here on earth. Think of this as a commentary on our Sunday Eucharistic liturgy. With the Christmas story fresh on our minds, we remember that the angel (messenger) of the Lord visited shepherds with Good News of great joy, and then was joined by a multitude of the heavenly host—perhaps not just angels, but others from the ranks of heaven—who sing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth…”. This proclamation of the heavenly host forms the basis for the standard opening hymn of our Eucharistic liturgy, called the Gloria. Since it is the proclamation of the angels and, traditionally, the archangels such as Gabriel, the Gloria makes perfect sense as the opening of what is called the Liturgy of the Word. This is the first half of our service, in which we proclaim the Good News of God’s salvation week after week by reading Scripture, preaching the sermon, and reciting the Creed. The Liturgy of the Word is the message of the angels over and over again, amplified by human voices. The Liturgy of the Word is followed by the Liturgy of the Table (the altar), and that is where we next meet with heavenly beings.
Here is a really important moment in our Eucharistic liturgy. To set the scene: we’ve gathered together our gifts, including the elements of bread and wine and, in the offering, we’ve offered them to God “from whom all blessing flow.” There is an opening dialogue (“The Lord be with you”) which establishes the fact that we are joining our prayers together and that, with the consent of those gathered, the priest is representing the prayers and thanksgivings of the entire assembly. Then comes a paragraph called a “proper preface” which usually sets the scene, the liturgical season, etc. and answers the question, Why is it “a right and good thing always and everywhere to praise God”? Then comes the moment I am thinking about. The culmination of the proper preface is always the observation that we humans are joining our Eucharistic prayer with the ongoing praise and prayer of the “angels, the archangels, and all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to the glory of Your [God’s] name: Holy, Holy, Holy…”. They’re joining us, or rather, we’re joining them and the liturgies of humans intersect with the liturgy of the angels.
Along with the angels and archangels, whose message we joined during the liturgy of the Word, the company of heaven actually refers in particular to seraphim, cherubim, and thrones, the first three ranks in the list I shared above. This becomes clear when we examine the biblical sources for this part of the Eucharistic prayer.
As a note, “seraphim” is Hebrew and translates to English as “burning ones” (yes, it is plural). There are many mentions of seraphim in Scripture but one in particular pertains to the liturgy of the Eucharist, Isaiah 6:1-5:
In the year that King Uzzi′ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Notice that seraphim stand above the throne of God and have six wings. The seraphim’s role is to eternally stand vigil near God’s throne and to sing endless praise to the mighty One. Similar are the cherubim. Cherubim are described in the book of Ezekiel to creatures with four wings, and four heads: the heads of a lion, a human, an eagle, and ox (Ezekiel 1:5-11; compare this to the creatures who adorn our pulpit and who represent the four gospels). These obviously do not look like cuddly babies with dainty wings that were popularized by renaissance painters. Cherubim have a variety of roles ascribed to them in the Old Testament, but the most significant one seems to be the bearers of the throne of God. In Ezekiel, God’s throne is depicted as a flaming chariot that is drawn by the cherubim. In Exodus, God tells Moses to recreate a material copy of the throne room of God that Moses experiences atop Mt. Sinai. Moses does this and builds the tabernacle, with the Ark of Covenant being God’s throne. On top of the Ark of the Covenant are two golden cherubim upon which God’s glory resides.
In Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, John the author receives a vision of the heavenly throne room that is similar to Isaiah’s vision.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
“Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
Here, John sees living creatures whose attributes combine Isaiah’s description of the seraphim, Ezekiel’s description of the cherubim, as well as Ezekiel’s description of another creature named, thrones, which are living wheels with eyes that form the chariot/throne of God. These creatures not only worship God the Father, they worship the Lamb who was slain, who is at the right hand of God. The Lamb is Christ who is the eternal sacrifice, once offered for the salvation of the whole world. Christ is there on the heavenly altar (of which the ancient tabernacle is a copy), and Christ is made present in our midst in the Eucharist. At that moment, earth and heaven are joined, righteousness and mercy kiss, and our voices truly are joined with the hosts of heaven in eternal praise.