A Note from the Rector – 8/23/20

This week marks the end of my third year and the beginning of my fourth as rector at Holy Apostles.  How the time has flown! I remain deeply grateful to be here doing what I love to do, alongside people who I love, in a place that I love.  

Of course, none of us imagined what we would face together as a parish in 2020.  I won’t bore you (or condescend) with obvious descriptions of how difficult this year has been, or of what challenges this Fall will bring us.  Instead, I will share a lengthy quote from a speech given by CS Lewis shortly after World War II.  I thought of this passage, while sitting at the Jersey shore (I first typed “beach” but then corrected myself).  Faced with the awesome and awful power of the Atlantic Ocean one cannot help but contemplate the connection between beauty and goodness.  Right?  The fact is this world is heartbreakingly beautiful. If it were not so, pandemics and other terrible adversity wouldn’t hurt so much. The pathos of life is born out of its contrasts. Whether you are contemplating the grandness of the ocean, or all the splendor, life, and diversity that can be found in one square foot of your backyard, if you have eyes to see you will find beauty. That beauty raises questions about what is good and true, and about how we should live (and die).

Here’s what CS Lewis has to say on that subject:

“We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.

That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that ‘beauty born of murmuring sound’ will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet.

For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in.”

-C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 1949/2001), 42-3.

The Transfiguration: A Note from the Rector

August 6 (the day I am writing this) is the Feast of the Transfiguration.  The pivotal event is Jesus’ life is narrated in the three Gospels: Mark. 9:1-9, Matthew 16:28-17:9, Luke 9:27-36.  The story is mysterious.  Christ takes the disciples, Peter, James and John with him to the top of Mount Tabor.  There, they are overshadowed by a cloud.  Suddenly Jesus, his face, and even his clothing shine with a bright and terrifying light.  Moses and Elijah are seen next to him, conversing with him.  A thundering voice from heaven declares, “This is my son, my beloved, listen to him!”  

The disciples are rightly terrified.  Peter, not really knowing what to do, suggests that they build a tabernacle or shelter for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  It is almost as if Peter wanted to crystalize this wondrous moment, to hold onto it and keep it from ending.  But that is impossible, for this moment on top of the mountain is just a fleeting glimpse of some greater glory that Peter won’t be able to comprehend or even articulate until much later.

Mount Tabor was one of my favorite destinations when Deb and I visited the Holy Land in 2019.  After a long, twisted van ride up the mountain, we entered the enormous, early 20th century church that is built amongst the ruins of a more ancient church and monastery.  Ironically, within the church there are three altars, the main altar dedicated to Christ, and two side chapels which are dedicated to Elijah and Moses.  The 20th century architects seem to have intentionally followed St. Peter’s suggestion and built a tabernacle for the three participants of the Transfiguration.  Every church building, including that Church of the Transfiguration, is built holding a fundamental tension.  On the one hand, places can be holy places, and buildings can point us toward the transcendent.  On the other, the mysterious presence of God, and the radiance of Jesus Christ are wholly beyond our ability to enclose within any space whatsoever, beyond are ability to fully comprehend or articulate.  Of the resources that we humans try to use to articulate God’s mystery, artistic beauty—lovely architecture, art, music—might be the truest.  But even these expressions ultimately fall short.  

The Transfiguration should be understood as a glimpse into the future.  At a moment in the narrative of Christ’s life, when he “sets his face toward Jerusalem” and begins his final journey toward his destiny, which includes betrayal and death, the Transfiguration foreshadows the way the story ends: we see a glimpse of Christ in all his resurrection glory.  Some images of the event highlight this theological truth by depicting Christ on the mount of Transfiguration with the wounds of his future crucifixion visible in the midst of his radiant glory.  

We, too, see our future.  Though we remain on this side of the “veil of tears,” Christ has promised not to leave us in this state.  He is God’s Son, and the Beloved One. We should listen to him. Even now, through Christ, God is in the midst of transfiguring all that is broken, confused, and lost.  And that includes us.

If you are in the mood, I invite you to listen to a song about the Transfiguration by the singer and songwriter, Sufjan Stevens.  A practicing Christian, Stevens’ music often contemplates biblical imagery and themes and, in so doing, translates them for his broad popular audience.  You can find Stevens’ song, “The Transfiguration” on Youtube.  

If you’re like me, once you start listening to music on Youtube, it’s hard to stop.  So, here is Stevens along with Chris Thile singing a haunting version of the Good Friday hymn (Hymn 158, in our hymnal), “Ah, Holy Jesus.” The audience joins in.  It is striking that it is a recording of an NPR radio show, not a church service.  God’s glory, also known as Christ’s radiance, also known as True Beauty can be glimpsed almost anywhere.  

A Note from the Rector – 5/17/20

Today we observe Rogation Sunday, which is always the Sunday before the Feast of the Ascension (Ascension is this Thursday, May 21st).  Rogation comes from Rogare which is the Latin verb “to ask.”  Rogation is a time to ask for God’s blessing on agriculture and the resources of creation.  It recognizes these resources as gifts from God upon which all humans rely for life.  This aspect of Rogation days has often been marked, especially in Anglicanism, by a special form of procession called “beating the bounds of the parish” in which the parish congregation led by the priest would encircle the boundaries of the parish (usually a defined neighborhood or village), stopping at points to read Scripture and pray.  Especially In rural areas, an important part of these processions was to visit and bless farmlands and agricultural operations.  

This forms a Spring bookend to traditions of Autumn harvest blessings and of offering a portion of the fruits of our labor to God in thanksgiving for God’s blessings.  The Rogation Day trip around the parish is probably the origin of the Easter home blessing tradition.  For the last several years, our version of the Rogation Day celebration has included a procession to Wynnewood Valley Park next door, where we’ve read Scripture and offered prayers and blessings over God’s good creation that is represented there. 

Rogation-tide has also been a time to ask God for protection from calamities, including the ending of plagues and protection from natural disasters.  Here, it is important to remember that the Church has weathered many a pandemic in its 2,000 years history, and much more besides.  A special form of prayer arose in response to these calamities called the Litany.  The Litany as we know it originated probably in the 5th century.  Some scholars trace both the Great Litany and the first Rogation procession to a bishop named Mamerte who lived in 5th century France and held a Rogation Day procession with a call and response type prayer to ask God’s protection during a looming disaster.  The exact nature of the disaster, interestingly, is contested.  Some contemporary sources say it was a volcano threatening to erupt, others that it was a series of calamitous earthquakes.  One source claims it was an on-going attack on the city of Vienne by a demonic pack of wolves.  Whatever the case, the Rogation procession around the town and the tradition of praying the Litany as a petition for God’s protection has long been a tool in the Church’s toolbox of prayer.  It’s sort of like that giant monkey wrench you pull out when your home plumbing project takes a serious turn and you don’t have time to mess around anymore–that’s the Great Litany.  Rogation processions and litanies were common in Europe during medieval and early modern outbreaks of the Black plague.  In 1544, the Great Litany was the first part of the Latin Liturgy to be translated (and heavily edited) into vernacular English by Thomas Cranmer.  Cranmer was in a hurry to bring his version of the ancient prayer to the public as a response to England’s devastating wars with Spain and France.  Five years later Cranmer finished the first Book of Common Prayer, which stands at the fountainhead of our own style of worship.  

All that to say, it seems especially appropriate to keep the tradition of Rogation Day this year during this pandemic.  As part of our 10AM service this Sunday, we will have a small Rogation procession led by me and my quarantine-mates (my children).  I’ll pray the Great Litany–you’ll be able to follow along at home–while the kids march along with a processional cross and Deb records the whole thing on a camcorder.  It could be a solemn moment, a bizarre spectacle, or a complete disaster.  Probably it will be a little bit of all three.  However, pleading for the renewal of all creation and asking God for protection against grave dangers and an end to our affliction–all this is not a joke, and our intentions will be in the right place.  

There is another way you can participate in the celebration of the Rogation Sunday from your own home. Below is a short Scripture reading and prayer that you can pray alone or with your quarantine-mates in your own garden.   

Rogation Sunday Garden Devotions

Leader                          Blessed be the God of all Creation

Others (if present)       The Lord, our God, makes all things new

A reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 8:19-23)

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray

Gracious God, along with all your creation we wait with eager longing.  Help us to be revealed as your children. Let us fulfill our small part in the great work of reconciling all things to you.  Let this garden be a sign of that day when creation is freed from its bondage to decay.  Bring order, growth, and tranquility to this place.  Send your blessing on this garden, on all the plants in my [our] care, and in all the creatures who visit and whose lives are sustained here as I am [we are] sustained here.  This we pray in the name of the Resurrected Lord, whom Mary Magdalene recognized as a gardener on Easter morning, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

A Note from the Rector – 4/28/19

Christ is risen!  The Great Fifty Days of Easter is underway. I am grateful for the beautiful Holy Week and Easter day that we celebrated together.  During that time, I had three separate conversations with folks about vestments, particularly, the fancy looking cape thing that I wore on Palm Sunday and for the Easter Vigil.  In church-nerd speak, that thing is called a “cope.”  It comes from the same family of Latin words from which we get the words cape, cloak, chapel, chaplain, and a Capella.  In response to these conversations and questions I am going to use a few of my “Notes” to explore the meaning and purpose of the vestments that we use in our worship.  I will get back to the cope, but for the sake of clarity I want to begin at the beginning: what are vestments, why do we bother with them, and from where did they come? 

Simply put, vestments are garments intended specifically for use in the Church’s liturgy.  Their use ultimately derives from the worship of ancient Israel (take a look at Exodus 28 for a fascinating description of Israel’s priestly garments).  Their almost universal use in churches, and in some cases the shape and form of the garments themselves, dates back to at least the 4thcentury (have you noticed that a lot of churchy things date back to the 4thcentury?), although they have undergone a lot of development over the years. Today, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and some Methodists and Baptists use some form of vestment.  The question is, why?  

I’ll discuss two interlocking reasons for the use of vestments in worship.  The first is beauty.  Our neighbor, Beth El/Beth Hillel on Remington Road has a beautiful rendering of Psalm 96:9 on their wall.  It is a verse that has guided the imagination of many Christian traditions as well, it says, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”  Holiness, which means the condition of being set apart for use by God, is beautiful in all its forms.  God has set apart each and every Christian to be God’s agents of reconciliation, to be witnesses to Christ’s resurrection, and to worship and honor the glory of God. Just as holiness is beautiful, so should beauty point us toward holiness, and toward our Creator.  This orientation toward God is also the purpose of worship.  Worship, then, should also be beautiful.  A lot of what we do in our worship is done with the intention of being beautiful.  I believe that God loves and revels in beauty. Just take a look at the natural world. Also (duh), beauty is attractive to our fellow humans, and thus beauty has a role in evangelism.  So, beautiful worship is discipleship (orienting us toward God), evangelism (attracting others to the faith), and most importantly, pleasing to God.  Beauty is why we have stained glass windows, it’s why we have a good organ instead of collection of kazoos.  It’s also a big part of why we have vestments.  

The other main reason we have vestments is more important, though.  This reason is also present in that verse from the Psalms: holiness.  Try not to think about this in terms of morality, i.e. whether someone who is holy is “better” than anyone else in a moral sense. That isn’t what holiness is about. Holiness simply means set apart. In the case of humans, it is something done to us, not something we do.  Therefore, holiness does not signify worth or goodness, and is certainly not something to brag about.  We do use this word a little differently in reference to God, but that’s a topic for another day.  

As I said, all Christians are set apart; made holy by virtue of our baptism into the life and body of Christ.  Scripture puts it this way: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).  All Christians are priests.  Vocational priests and other ministers are called and ordained (set apart) merely as symbols and tokens of that fact.  

Priests, deacons, and bishops wear vestments in that capacity, as symbols and signs of the priesthood of all Christians.  Vestments are not about setting the minister apart from the congregation in some qualitative sense.  They’re not just meant to be fancy clothes in order to make me feel fancy.  Rather, vestments are symbolic of the fact that liturgy itself is a time, place, and activity which are set apart, demarcated from other time and other activities.  Liturgy, the worship of the church, is special.  It is holy.  The priest is a symbol for the whole people of God, and vestments are symbols of the set apart-ness of the activity that we come together to complete on Sunday mornings (and other times!).  

For me personally, vestments are practical.   There is a ritual to putting on vestments.  There are particular prayers prayed as the different garments are put on (the prayers are posted on the wall of the vesting sacristy).  Putting on the vestments is how I “put my game face on.”  It is how I prepare for worship; how I remove myself from my other roles and identities and forget my own cares and worries.  They are a tangible way of assuming my liturgical role as a symbol of God’s people, and—only by the working of the Holy Spirit—a conduit of God’s grace.  Vestments, then, are an important part of my spirituality and help me to do things that I have been called here to do.  

So, that’s why we have vestments in the first place.  In future weeks, I will discuss a little bit about the symbolism and history of particular vestments—including that fancy cape thing I was wearing the other day.