Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Marching Towards the Light: A Retreat Postscript

On our retreat one of our members shared with us the account of a monk at a Monastery whose responsibility was the tending of the graves in the Monastery Cemetery.  One grave had no headstone, but the monk had placed flowers on it along with the other graves.  Why?  It was his own grave and he lived with a sense of his own mortality and the hope of eternal life.  We are all marching towards that eternal light.

            This was sharply focused on our last Morning Prayer with the Sisters in the Monastery Chapel.  I drove from the Retreat Center to the Monastery with one of our members who has a little difficulty walking, only to find some confusion.  The Monastery door was locked and no-one was available to answer the bell.  We walked around to another entrance, up a short flight of stairs, and headed for the elevator to the Monastery Chapel. 

            The elevator door opened immediately but the elevator was full; three paramedics and one of the Sisters were accompanying an older Sister who was strapped into a gurney.  As they came out of the elevator and passed by us the older Sister on the gurney smiled pleasantly at us and said, “Good morning,” almost as though there was nothing wrong.

            Morning Prayer had already begun when we took our seats.  The Sisters were singing the Morning Hymn and as they began to chant the Psalm I could hear the “beep, beep, beep” of the ambulance backing up and bearing the older Sister away.  Apparently her blood pressure had shot up to 200.

            Together, Sisters and Oblates, we continued to sing Morning Prayer.  We are all of us marching towards the light and our heavenly home.  God grant us the grace, like the Sisters of St. Scholastica, to continue marching towards the light unafraid, with a song on our lips, and our hearts fixed on the Resurrected Christ in whom is all our trust and hope.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


The Pentecostal Scholar Simon Chann of Singapore has made some surprising statements, surprising because they come from the Pentecostal expression of the Christian Faith. The statements, as I read them through my own filters, are:  “Worship is not just a function of the Church, but the Church’s very reason for being;” and “What is the mission of the Trinity?  And the answer to that question is communion.  Ultimately all things are to be brought into communion with the Triune God.  Communion is the ultimate end, not mission.  Communion …is ultimately, seeing God and seeing the heart of God as well, which is his love for the world.” [i]   

That takes me back to the rhythm of personal renewal reflected in the flux and reflux in the writings of Van Ruysbroek.  As we empty ourselves in the service of God and in the warfare between the kingdom and the world we reach the end of ourselves and personal Depletion.  We, then by pure grace and pure gift return to him.  Being restored by communion with God we flow back out into the world, sharing in the self-emptying and incarnate love of the Logos, the Christ, even Jesus, whom we adore.  We then flow back into the world and into the holy warfare of making disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name, and into communion with, “the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything the Logos has commanded, for lo, he is with us always even to the end of the age.”  In an act of further Incarnation he is not only with us but in us, even in our own self-emptying mission into the world. 

In Hebrews 12:22, he tells us that we have come to join in the heavenly communion…and together, hand in hand, “have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.  We have come to the thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the Church, the Church of the first-born.  We have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.  We have come to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, to the sprinkled blood that is our at-one-ment with the Triune God who loves us. 

In coming we receive a Kingdom that cannot be shaken.  Thus “let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire,” and all that is not holy love within us will be burned up that we might be purified, and thus purified and united with his holy love we flow back into the world, his own creation which he loves and seeks to restore to himself. 

The other paradigm that fits with this is the classic “God initiates and man responds.”  God in his love, reconciling justice and mercy, sends the Logos incarnate into the world.  We ourselves are ransomed by his action: “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit” (Psalm 49:7-9), and “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (Psalm 49:15).  We receive our at-one-ment and in holy and exuberant joy are drawn out of ourselves, out of our locus in the world, and drawn into the holy fellowship of the saints and angels, and for a few moments, by grace often repeated, we are united with him and with his redeeming love.  That is the first motion. 

The second is this: Now that we are in him and he in us; we, with joy, join in his redeeming work and through us and our love he reaches out to the world around us.  This happens, even to the extent, that Paul can state an oft experienced pastoral reality and say: “I make up in my own body that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ on behalf of the Church, which is his body” (Col. 1:24).

This empowering union becomes a complete reality in the sacramental union that we celebrate in Holy Eucharist.  Gathered ‘round the altar in the fellowship of saints and angels, we kneel, and in humble adoration we receive the body and blood of Christ.  Do not explain away his simple, but profound, declaration, “This is my body.  This is my blood.”  Most of the American Protestant world misses the reality claiming perversely that it is a memorial only.  That is a phenomenal and costly error.  There is a reason why the proverbial mega-church is a mile wide and a quarter of an inch deep. 

There is little cost to Christ, or to us in such bloodless gatherings.  In the body and the blood we receive the very substance of God incarnate.  He who is one substance (homoousios) with the Father as regards his Godhead, becomes of one substance with us, not only in His incarnation, but also in the giving of His body and blood.  He becomes one substance with us as regarding His manhood and His Godhead, which is undivided (Council of Chalcedon Definition, 451 AD, as applied to the Eucharist)[ii].  We receive him Himself, more than the mere experience of praise, more than in the discipline of daily offices, we receive Him and enter into a mutual indwelling with the Holy God.  It receiving Him we take him in us back into the world.

Peter Kreeft remarks, “How irrational to swallow a camel and strain at gnat!—to believe the greater miracle, the oneness of the man Christ with God, and not the lesser one, the oneness of the bread with his body.  If God can leap the infinite gap into man, he can surely leap into the appearances of bread and wine.” [iii]

For that matter, how irrational to believe that that God can leap the infinite gap into man, and not believe that through Christ he can make that infinite leap into each one of us.

Every Sunday we are dressed in white and surrounding the altar, we lift up holy hands as liturgists (leitourgos - liturgist = minister) in praise and worship of Him in the liturgy of communion, in the heavenlies, receiving again his very substance. 

In those moments sacramentally and really we feed upon the body and blood of the Christ who said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (John 6:56).  And again, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation, a communion, a fellowship, a koinonia, in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break is it not a koinonia in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (I Cor. 11:16-17). 

We do not come to worship to be entertained.  If anything we are the entertainment for the Lord.  Now united with him, in union with him, we join in his holy mission out into the world.  Through such worship, ministry, liturgy, through the body and the blood we receive the Spirit of power. 

Hence in our congregation, before the sermon we pray, “Holy Spirit, it is your purpose to reveal to us the living God and his only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord: Pour on us the fire of your love.  Warm our hearts, challenge our minds and gently draw our wills along your paths, that your presence and power may quicken our love, deepen our joy, and equip us to meet the challenges of our daily lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  This happens not only through proclamation, but also through the union of word and sacrament.  We proclaim the Word to the world, and draw those who are being saved into union with him in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. 

St. Paul expresses this mission of the church in this way: “I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:15-16).  The language is sacramental language.  The minister is the liturgist, the priestly service is precisely that which the priest does Sunday by Sunday as the liturgist of God at the altar.  The word for offering, is prosphora, that which is offered on the altar of God.  This offering is sanctified, made holy by the Holy Spirit, the Ruach Elohim of the Old Testament and the New. 

The offering that we offer is actually the “offering of the Gentiles.” specifically the fruits our work of evangelism.  In love and adoration we present to the Father those whom we have brought to salvation in his Son Jesus Christ.  This offering is possible only through Christ, and is a work directed by the Holy Spirit.  What strikes me is the awesome responsibility we bear in this matter.  If we are insensitive to the call of the Spirit, we will be left standing on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza while the eunuch makes his way back to Candace the pagan queen unconverted. 

Worship, communion with the God of love should awaken the love of God within our hearts.  When that does not indeed happen it signals that our communion with God is actually abortive and all our religious posturing is precisely that.  We are hypocrites, in the Biblical sense of that word, wearing the assumed mask of piety.  To us, then the Christ will say, “Would that you were either cold or hot!  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth (Rev. 3:15,16).  If you think that is harsh, consider this, that without Christ as his ransom, the eunuch will go to hell, and we will have no offering to bring to the Father.

The two paradigms are completed in our personal and corporate experience, in the flux and reflux, the rhythm of personal renewal, and in the responsive action in which God initiates and man responds by returning his love to him, and joining his love in his ministry and warfare in the world, the kosmos.

[i] (Christianity Today, June 2007)
[ii] “The Definition of the Union of the Divine and Human Natures in the Person of Christ” in The Book of Common Prayer, p. 864
[iii] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 274

Copyright © 2012 Robin P. Smith