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The Book of Psalms and Starting Over

This morning I saw something which refreshed my heart and filled me with hope.  I had seen this particular sight countless times–literally.  I cannot begin to count how many times I have seen this sight.  This morning, as I started to pray the office of Morning Prayer, the Psalm readings for the day began with verse 1 of Psalm 1.

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

It’s not my favorite verse, nor even my favorite Psalm, but I am relieved and refreshed every time I read Psalm 1 in the Daily Office.  It means that we are doing something that is incredibly important and thoroughly Christian: we are starting over.

The Daily Office is ancient means of praying and reading Holy Scripture which, in the form that I use, cycles through the entire Book of Psalms every seven weeks, as well as the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament at different intervals throughout a two-year cycle.  It may come as a shock to some, but I do not always manage to pray the Daily Office like I am suppose to.  Generally, I pray Morning Prayer when I get up in the morning and Evening Prayer before I leave the church office and head home, but sometimes stuff happens.  Occasionally, important ministry opportunities interrupt and I am praying with someone in crisis, but at other times I have really bad reasons like… I just don’t want to.  Sometimes I feel guilty about missing my prayer time and the readings that go with it. That is why I love it when I see Psalm 1 in the Daily Office readings.  It’s the time to start over!

In the 3rd chapter of the Book of Lamentations, we hear that the mercies of The LORD are new every morning and that His compassions never fail.  I know that I need that and love being reminded that today, this morning, here is an opportunity to start over and do it again better.  God gives each of us that opportunity and it’s more than just checking off boxes when saying our prayers.  Sometimes we really mess up.  Sometimes we spend years of our lives living in sin and leaving a path of destruction and broken lives behind us as wide as any hurricane.  Sometimes our actions our deliberate, intentional, thought out, and even evil.  Nevertheless, God’s mercies are still there for us whatever morning we realize depth of our wrong, repent and turn to Him.  His compassions have always been there for us.  God love the world so much that while we were yet sinners God sent His Son to die for us. (Romans 5:8)

This is what our 21st century secular world completely fails to realize.  Perhaps it stubbornly refuses to admit the possibility that people can be forgiven and change because it means that they would have to channel their anger elsewhere.  Every Sunday I stand in front of the Altar of God and administer the Body and Blood of Christ to fallen and broken sinners like myself who have been redeemed and washed clean by the Blood of the Lamb.  I remind myself that none of us are judged by the worst thing we have ever done but by the righteousness of Christ Jesus.  I hope that, if I am ever judged by society, it will be long after I am dead and for the sum total of my life’s contribution, not for a single tweet or a series of mistakes.  Today too many seem all too keen to make a judgement and condemn someone so that they are permanently removed from society’s dialogues.  In some cases this manifests in “cancel culture,” in others it’s through the tearing down of statues, in others it’s through the changing of the history and literature books.  As Christians,  we must reject this.

We know that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory.  (Romans 3:23)  We know that David was an adulterer who doomed the husband of his mistress to death.  We know that St. Peter denied knowing Our Lord three time.  We know that St. Paul hunted down and murdered Christians for their faith.  Knowing all this, we acknowledge that David was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22) and that Saints Peter and Paul were the pillars upon which Our Lord built His Church.  We, too, are not limited by our mistakes but empowered by the redemptive glory of the God who raised the dead and overcame Death and the Grave.  If He could accomplish all that, He can overcome all of your sins and make a saint out of even me or you.

This morning, as I began the office of Morning Prayer and read the first verse of Psalm 1, I remembered God’s mercies again and again.  May God give each of us the grace to start over and the grace to allow others to do the same.

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Spoiling a Legacy Just When We Could Have Used It

Mark Hamill is not a fan of his recent roles in the last two Star Wars movies and he has not been keeping that opinion to himself.  Finding actor an who criticizes his own character and the studio producing his films, while his role in the franchise is still 0n-going, is a rarity, but this is especially unique considering that Hamill has brought to life one of the most iconic science-fiction characters of the last forty year, the Jedi Luke Skywalker.

A quick search of YouTube will find countless videos of Hamill  expressing his dissatisfaction that iconic “Legacy Characters” were never reunited on screen before their deaths.  He laments, along with the fans, that his character had only the briefest of scenes, barely a cameo, in the franchise re-igniting The Force Awakens.  Most of all, it seems to me, he is disappointed that the character that made it onto the big screen in The Last Jedi was nothing like he envisioned for the character he made iconic over the last four decades.  I wholeheartedly agree.

One of my very first cinematic memories is that of my great-grandparents (God rest their souls) taking me to see Return of the Jedi when it was in the theaters in 1983.  I was six.  I remember that Grandpa Looker was grumpy because the movie, by today’s standards a meager two hours and 16 minutes, was long enough back then that he had to go add more change to the parking meter!  I remember Luke Skywalker embodying both heroism and mystery as he strode, hooded and cloaked, dressed all in black, into the crime lord’s palace to rescue his friends.  Even after he fell into the trap, he displayed resolute confidence, standing on the scaffolding, hands bound, moments from being pushed to his doom, as he warns Jabba the Hutt that there was still time for the crime-lord to “free us or die.”  I can feel the incredible John Williams’ soundtrack resound in my mind as I relive the fight that followed.  In hindsight, the scene is not without its flaws; but as a six-year old boy, it was the greatest scene ever put on film.

Towards the end of the movie, Hamill’s Luke Skywalker turns himself into the Emperor and Darth Vader to protect his friend, fights to rescue his father from the Dark Side, and finally throws down his lightsaber, refusing to choose the path hatred and fear.  That was some mighty zen stuff for my little six-year old brain!  You could fight, but not be angry?  You could win by not fighting?  Ultimately, it was Luke’s suffering that brought his tormented father back from the Dark Side and defeated the Emperor.  That was profound cinema for some popcorn sci-fi!

Confession time: I was not raised in the Church.  I grew up in the Middle-East and Christianity was not really part of my upbringing.  I did not have a prolonged experience of Church until I was sixteen years old.  It was very new to me.  Around Christmas of my senior year in high school, I first visited the congregation where I am now the senior pastor.  That congregation was and remains a part of a denomination that is both Evangelical, Charismatic, and Sacramental.  It was the first time I ever really encountered a priest.  Even more, these priests (and many others in the congregation) had the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Had I grown up in the Church, I probably would have had many historical and literary examples of godly and saintly living.  If you go to any Christian book store you can find “Lives of the Saints for Kids” or biographies of famous evangelists and preachers throughout history.  I did not read those books growing up.  When I received my call to the priesthood in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, my role-models for priestly ministry were the brothers in Christ who became my peers and colleagues.

If I am really being honest, Hamill’s Luke Skywalker largely informed how I think about my walk of faith as a priest.  Yes, as silly as it seems, it is true.  To a small extent, it still is.  Those memories from childhood still form a foundation from which college, seminary, and two decades of ministry have built upon.  I still think about the faith of that man dressed all in black who walked into the enemy’s palace with total calm and total confidence.  In Star Wars they called it “trusting in the Force.”  We just call it Faith.   I think of that man in black throwing down his lightsaber and rejecting evil.  It made an impact.

I can totally understand why Hamill would be disgruntled at what’s become of that hero in recent days.  When Disney bought Lucasfilm, including all the rights to Star Wars, and Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford all agreed to be in the new trilogy of movies, fans were ecstatic!  I remember watching the trailer for The Force Awakens over and over again because it looked so good.    Initially, fans were thrilled with The Force Awakens when it premiered in 2015.  It was the first time we had seen these characters together in 32 years… except they were not together again.  Luke did not appear until the very final scene and, spoiler of spoilers, they killed off Harrison Ford’s Han Solo.  Still fans were generally forgiving of that.  Skywalker’s final scene left an incredible cliffhanger and Ford had been begging for his character to die for 35 years.  Most likely, it was the only way he agreed to come back.

Then came The Last Jedi and, to make an ugly story short, fans were divided.  Some loved it and some hated it.  Social media went berserk.   One actress left social media altogether because of the sheer amount of negativity which she received.  Russian trolls were blamed for the movies bad reviews.  Ugliness abounded.  From a certain point of view, some of that ugliness was justified.  The movie reveals that Luke Skywalker, one of the greatest and most iconic science-fiction heroes of all time was scared of the power of his nephew so he attempted to murder him in his sleep.  Having ignited his blade, he realized, “this is the worst idea EVER!” and paused.  At that moment, his nephew, Leia and Han’s son, fought Luke off and then proceeded to kill all of the other apprentices and join the totally-not-the-Empire First Order.  In penitence for trying to murder his nephew/apprentice in his sleep, getting all of his other apprentices murdered, losing his nephew to the Dark Side, Luke disappeared to an ancient Jedi hermitage where he can hide out for years and years, growing a surly beard, and guzzling green milk straight from a sea monster’s teat.  It’s horrible.  Skywalker does return in the end to confront his nephew in an impressive fight scene, but that scene culminates with Skywalker’s death.

As an English teacher for over fifteen years, I taught students to read between the lines and look for messages.  The message in The Last Jedi is terrible.  The hero becomes a would-be child murderer, responsible for the slaughter of all those under him, and then, rather than dealing with the consequences of his actions, he runs and hides.  Now this may well be realistic.  People fail.  They fail catastrophically.  They blame others or just run away.  That’s reality.  But we don’t to go movies to see reality.  We don’t even watch “Reality TV” to see reality.  When we go to movies we want to see heroes achieve the impossible and succeed over insurmountable obstacles, even overcoming death itself at times.

What Disney and The Last Jedi did to Luke Skywalker is tragic.  They took one of the most iconic, heroic figures of science fiction, a figure who had endured in the hearts and minds of fans for over forty years, and they spoiled him.  Theories abound about why they did it and what their motives could have been, but it’s clear that the Luke Skywalker, at the end of The Last Jedi, is no mentor and no role-model.  Mark Hamill is right to be disgruntled about how they’ve treated this character which he brought to life and made famous.  I’m disgruntled with him.  The forty year-old me would have liked another role-model like the six year-old me had back in the day.

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A New Day

Time has a funny way on sneaking on past you when you are not looking.  Just yesterday I said I needed to take a break from writing The Hilltop Shepherd’s Watch in order to focus on some other elements of my life for a while.  That was five years ago.  Nothing ever really slowed down.  I never found time to go back to writing.  I have time now.  I’m going to make getting ideas out of my head  and “in print” a priority for a season.  We will see how it goes.  I haven’t looked to see if I still have any subscribers from half a decade ago.  If I do, hopefully, they’ll be glad to see me again.  If not, I’ll be picking up some more very soon.


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Catalog of Entries on the Apostles

For a recent assignment in one of my Bible classes I invited my students to review some of my writings regarding the Apostles before realizing the web-site lacked a search engine.  So I added this site to help them find the Apostles relevant to their research.  Of course, Judas Iscariot has no feast day.  Then I realized that I somehow managed to forget to write an entry on St. James the brother of St. John.  So here are articles on ten of the Apostles…  Should anyone be concerned, I invited the students; I am not insisting they read my blog.  Their grades do not depend upon favorable comments listed below!


St. Peter has two main feasts that concern him.  The first is The Confession of St. Peter (celebrated on January 17th) and the second is The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (celebrated on June 29th).

St. James (the Brother of John)–Whoops.  Somehow I missed St. James.

St. John celebrated on December 27th

St. Andrew celebrated on November 30th

St. Phillip celebrated on May 1st

St. Bartholomew celebrated on August 24th

St. Matthew celebrated on September 21st

St. Thomas celebrated on December 21st

St. James the Less celebrated on May 1st

St. Jude (aka Thaddeus) celebrated on October 28th

St. Simon celebrated on October 28th

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St. Crispin Revisited

“This day is call’d the Feast of Crispian.”  So spoke Henry V in Act IV, scene iii of Shakespeare’s immortal play and so it is today.  Saints Crispin and Crispinian, his brother, were shoemakers of Roman decent, who fled persecution for their faith and ended up in the city of Soissons.  There they worked as shoemakers, cobblers and leatherworkers while preaching the Gospel to the Gallic Franks.  On October 25th, 286, the two brothers were tortured and beheaded for their faith.  In 1415, on October 25th, King Henry V faced absolutely insurmountable odds when staring down the French army.  Of course, we know that through God all things are possible (especially when aided by Welsh longbows and French pride).  Before going into battle, King Henry gave a rousing speech that Shakespeare rendered as one of the most famous speeches in all literature.

This feast has come into the CEC Calendar, I think, primarily due to its association with the St. Crispin’s Day Speech prior to the Battle of Agincourt.  For years we thought of ourselves as “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”  We had a mentality that we were viciously outnumbered but, by God’s grace, we could bring down the strongholds of the Devil.  Perhaps it would be a good thing today to recall that mentality.  We are certainly fewer than we were a handful of years ago.  Whether or not we are happier is highly subjective.  The enemy still remains and we still have a call on our lives and on our denomination.  I do believe that, in days to come, our spiritual descendants will look back on days like these and look with admiration on men and women who served and planted churches with men like Adler and Bates;  Holloway, Jones, Epps, and Simpson; Hines, Davidson and Kessler.  People will one day ask us what they were like.  Our children will say, “I heard him preach once.  It was amazing!”  And we, old men by then, “will strip our sleeves and show our scars” and say I was there.  We need to not look at the work we do with the eyes of today.  We must look to the work we do with the eyes of our sons and daughters, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  We do not sow into the kingdom for our sakes.  We labor in the fields for theirs.  Psalm 128 says, “He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing in his sheaves with him.”

We may look with envy on the other parishes in other denomination and covet their building, or lust after their endowment, or just wish we had one-tenth of their parishioners.  We should, in those moments, remember the words of Westmoreland, whose statement prompts good King Henry’s speech.

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

The Martyrdom of Ss. Crispin and Crispinian
The Martyrdom of Ss. Crispin and Crispinian

Note: I originally drafted this in October of 2009 and yesterday, thanks to Fr. Reid Wightman, remembered what day it was, revised it ever so slightly, and decided to publish it once more.


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On Eucharistic Adoration

A colleague of mine, Canon Glenn Davis, recently posted an article on his blog entitled “The Error of Eucharistic Adoration.”  A few of his statements piqued my interest and prompted me to respond.  The good canon concludes his article by stating, “Eucharistic adoration as a belief and practice is erroneous: it does not reflect the teaching of the Bible or life of worship found in the Ancient Church. The practice is not promoted in the Orthodox East and is not consistent with full and complete participation in the Holy Eucharist.”  I fear his conclusion overreaches his premises.  Here is why:

As his article begins, Canon Davis gives a clear and concise explanation of the Roman-Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and correctly attributes the language of the doctrine to Aristotle rather than the Bible.  As clear and concise as it may be, it is a bit of a red herring.  The veracity or erroneousness of the Roman-Catholic doctrine is merely tangential to the Biblical teaching.  In each of the Synoptic Gospels, Our Lord, at the Last Supper, declares, “This is My body.” (St. Matthew 26:26; St. Mark 14:22; and St. Luke 22:19)   Furthermore, St. Paul reiterates those words in his discussion of the significance of the Eucharist to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 11).  While St. John omits the precise wording of the Synoptic Gospels, the Evangelist chooses instead to include a lengthy discourse from Our Lord on the necessity of partaking of His body.  Some of the most challenging statements in that chapter include Our Lord proclaiming, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world,” (v. 51) and “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (v. 53)  Note that in none of these passage do the words “symbolically,” “metaphorically,” or “allegorically” appear.  Along those same lines, those disciples who had followed Jesus and seen His miraculous works did not turn away and walk with Him no longer over a misconstrued metaphor. (v. 66)

These Scriptures form the basis for the doctrine of the Real Presence.  This doctrine teaches that Our Lord is really and truly present in the Holy Eucharist.  This is a doctrine which he Charismatic Episcopal Church affirms when it states: “At the center of worship is the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion) in which we believe is the real presence of Christ.”  Transubstantiation is a Roman-Catholic attempt to rationalize and explain a miracle.  Whether their explanation is right or wrong makes no bearing on the miracle itself.  The miracle remains whether they explain it accurately or not.

To be certain, Canon Davis is correct when he asserts that the modern practice we see in many churches today began in the High Middle Ages.  He then leans upon the Vincentian Canon to assert that since Eucharistic Adoration cannot pass the Vincentian litmus test it lack “Genuine Catholicity” and thus is at least heterodox in not fully heretical and even idolatrous.  Let us examine this claim more carefully.  The Vincentian Canon is a name given to a test of Catholic orthodoxy derived from writings of St. Vincent of Lerins.  In his work the Comonitoria, St. Vincent wrote, “Care must especially be had that that be held which was believed everywhere (ubique), always (semper), and by all (ab omnibus).”

This is a preposterously high standard by which nothing may really stand under scrutiny.  Everywhere?  Always?  By everyone?  That excludes even the Nicene Creed?  It was not written until 323 and not finished until 381.  Even at that, Eastern and Western Christians proclaim significantly different versions of the Creed.  If one holds the Vincentian Canon as the be all and end all of Catholicity, then nothing stands and those who proclaim the Nicene Creed are themselves heterodox!

Do the Eastern Orthodox practice Eucharistic Adoration?  No, they do not.  However, they do believe in the doctrine of the Real Presence.  At the Synod of Jerusalem (1672), a great gathering of Eastern Orthodox prelates assembled to consecrate the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  While there assembled, they took the opportunity to refute several points of Calvinism and specifically declared,

“We believe the Lord Jesus Christ to be present, not typically, nor figuratively, nor by superabundant grace, as in the other Mysteries, … but truly and really, so that after the consecration of the bread and of the wine, the bread is transmuted, transubstantiated, converted and transformed into the true Body Itself of the Lord, Which was born in Bethlehem of the ever-Virgin Mary, was baptised in the Jordan, suffered, was buried, rose again, was received up, sitteth at the right hand of the God and Father, and is to come again in the clouds of Heaven; and the wine is converted and transubstantiated into the true Blood Itself of the Lord, Which, as He hung upon the Cross, was poured out for the life of the world.”  (Canon XVII)

As the Protestant reformers specifically rejected the doctrine of the Real Presence–a doctrine found in Holy Scripture and held by both the Roman-Catholic in the West and Eastern Orthodox int he East–according to the Vincentian Canon, one might allege that it was the reformers who were teaching something apart from the Faith Catholic.

Eucharistic Adoration is a pious practice which springs directly from the entirely orthodox doctrine of the Real Presence.  When the priest stands at the altar and prays the epiclesis he holds his hands over the bread and wine and asks the Lord to “Sanctify them by Your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in Him.”  This is why, when presenting the Eucharist to the people of God, we proclaim and declare, “This is the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” and “This is the Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.”  No fingers are crossed.  There are neither winks nor nods regarding symbols or metaphors.  This is why, at the aforementioned Marburg Colloquy (1529), Martin Luther pounded his fist on the table in defiance of Zwingli and proclaimed, “Hoc est enim corpus meum!” (“This is My body!”)

This is also why the priest and other servers go to such care with the Sacraments after Holy Communion has been served.  “Leftovers” are not simply tossed in the trash like stale Doritos; they are fully consumed.  The Sacred Vessels are not washed in a normal sink that drains into the sewer, but in a special sink that drains into a garden.   Why is this if not for the acknowledgement that it is not fitting for Our Lord to be in the trash and sewer?  He may descend there on His own to rescue a sinner, but far be it from us to send Him their on our own!

Treating the Blessed Sacrament with its due respect is not idolatry.  Quite the contrary, it is an acknowledgement of not one but two miracles!  First, the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist acknowledges the Mystery of the Incarnation wherein, as St. John tells us, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (1:14)  Secondly, venerating the Blessed Sacrament acknowledges that Our Lord not only became flesh, but gave us His flesh perpetually through the Holy Eucharist.  We are not, like some, left to live our lives with one experience with the Divine.  We have the opportunity to partake our our God’s very Body and Blood on a daily basis.  This is not idolatry.  Rather, the farthest thing from it, accepting the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, is celebrating, yes, even reveling in the glorious deeds of Christ wrought on our behalf!

What of the Christian who is unable to partake of the Sacrament on a given day?  What if they are prevented from finding him against whom they hold aught and repenting, as Our Lord suggests? (St. Matthew 5:23-25)  Should they leave their church lest they behold the Blessed Sacrament without consuming Him?  Do they gain nothing from being there at the consecration when they do not receive?  Of course, they most certainly do, whether they consume the Body and Blood of Jesus or not!  There is a grace of being present among the believers and among the Real Presence in recalling the saving work God did for us.

Most certainly, there are Christian who abuse this gift.  Some, no doubt, begin to think of the wafer not as the presence of God, but as God Himself.  Surely this is “putting God in a box,” or a monstrance, as the case may be.  But this is not what the faithful are taught.  They are taught to behold the presence of God and marvel at the inconceivable love required that God who is universally powerful would condescend to inhabit some miniscule wafer on our behalf.  They are taught to sit in awe and contemplate a Divinity who would give His own flesh to be consumed by those who despised Him at His death.   They are taught that when face to face with the humility of the God who would do all this for us, the only proper response is… Adoration.


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The Ascension of Jesus Christ: Dwelling in the Clouds

I confess that I have always dreaded preaching on the Ascension.  I have always felt that something about the feast eluded me, that there was something I should understand which I clearly did not.  It has seemed to me that there was some greater theological implication which I simply missed.  Maybe I was out sick that day in seminary and dozed off in the sermon that day every year since.

Here is what I do know about the Ascension: forty days after His Resurrection, Jesus Christ led His disciples away from Jerusalem and gave them some final instructions.  St. Luke tells us, “Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.” (Acts of the Apostles 1:9)  The Apostles, awestruck, continue staring heavenward (likely because they have not thought of anything better to do quite yet) when two men in white apparel appear next to them.  These “men” ask the observers, “why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” (v. 11)  Ten days later, while praying in Jerusalem as they had been instructed, the Apostolic company received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, exactly as Jesus had promised.

Still, I feel like I am missing something.  It is as if there was some cloud surrounding me that prevents me from really fathoming the significance of the feast.  I recognize that He was taken up into Heaven and will one day return in the same manner.  I know that the Ascension prevented Him from facing corruption of old age, decay, and death, except that He already had dealt with and conquered those foes on the Cross.  I know that, just as He came down from Heaven to save us, He was taken back up into Heaven to watch over us.  Nevertheless, I feel like I am missing something.

Yet, in meditating on the Glorious Mysteries, I believe I came to an epiphany about the feast.  My newfound understanding is this: it is alright to be confused and in the dark every now and then.

Jesus was taken up into a cloud; that cloud obscured Him from the sight of the Apostles.  He was lost to them, or so they felt until Pentecost.  In that capacity, we think of the cloud as a bad thing.  It keeps us from being with Our Lord in the ways which we have become accustomed.  We cannot see Him; we cannot touch Him.  That challenges us.  We do not like obscurity.  We do not like the dark.  We hate not being able to see.  We have an almost primal fear of the dark.  Children, who have never known any real reason to be afraid in their lives will wake up screaming in terror because they are alone in the dark.  What is the first thing that moms and dads do when they enter those bedrooms?  They turn on the lights.  Darkness, fog, and clouds all inhibit us in the same way.  They prevent us from using our most dominant sense, our sight.  Without our sight we feel completely lost.

Yet this is not the attitude the Bible seems to have about darkness, fog, and clouds.  You see, our God, who is in all places at all times, also dwells in the darkness and clouds.  Before Creation, when “darkness was over the face of the deep,” (Genesis 1:2) the LORD was there hovering in the darkness.  After the Exodus, when the children of Israel came to the Wilderness of Sin and complained about their lack of food, as Aaron was relaying the Word of the LORD to the people, “behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.” (Exodus 16:10)  Later on, at Mount Sinai, the people were terrified by the Glory of the LORD and begged Moses to speak with the LORD on their behalf.  “So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.”  (Exodus 20:21)  The amount of light in any given place is irrelevant to the LORD.  In Psalm 139, King David declares,

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You. (vv. 11-12)

The darkness makes no difference to Him, but it makes a great deal of difference to us.  We are an easily-distracted people.  We can find ourselves chasing after every glittery, shiny piece of confetti that flitters across our path.  Even as adults, we often avoid the dark and we hate silence.  At those times we are without distraction and without shelter.  There is no one else except the scared and lonely self and the God who can make the darkness light. (II Samuel 22:29)

The darkness and the clouds may be uncomfortable, but God dwells there.  When we who are confused and dealing with the unknown feel as though we are in a great fog, we must remember that God dwells in the clouds.  When we feel as though we were alone and that the darkness is our only companion, we must remember that not only does the LORD hover over the darkness, but that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)  When we fail to understand the world around us, may God give us the grace to sit in the clouds of darkness and wait until He reveals Himself.

Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.


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The Year in Review: Most Popular Articles

Just in case you missed any of them, here are the most popular articles of 2011.  Just click the link to catch up with any you might have missed.

#10–“St. Nicholas: No Jolly Old Elf”

#9–“Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell”

#8–“The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Ark of the New Covenant”

#7–“St. Dominic: Setting the World on Fire”

#6–“Saint David’s Day”

#5–“The Nativity of St. John the Baptist and the Ministry of the Pre-Born”

#4–“St. Mark and a Legacy of Failures”

#3–“St. Joseph: The Role-Model of All Men”

#2–“The Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas”

#1–“Why Did Jesus Curse the Fig Tree?”

Thanks for a great year!  Happy New Year to all!

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The Faith and Doubt of Saint Thomas

Saint Thomas gets a bad wrap.  That’s all there is to it.  Ask a dozen Christians what they remember about St. Thomas and ten of them will likely make a reference to the “Doubting Thomas” story.  Was Thomas’ moment of doubt really any worse than Nathaniel’s or Zechariah’s or even Peter’s plummet into the water?  No, but it’s Thomas who, rather than always being referred to as Saint Thomas, gets stuck with the moniker Doubting Thomas.

It is unfortunate that the Synoptic Gospels mention St. Thomas so briefly.  To Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke, St. Thomas is just a name on a list of twelve apostles.  It is in St. John’s Gospel where we see St. Thomas fleshed out.  The first time we actually hear St. Thomas speak is in the eleventh chapter of St. John’s Gospel.  Our Lord announces to His apostles that He is going to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead.  One of the disciples points out that the last time they were in Bethany, the Jews tried to have Jesus stoned and asks about the wisdom of returning to a town so close to Jerusalem.  Our Lord responded, “Nevertheless let us go to him.” (v. 15)  Realizing that Jesus could not be deterred and  certain of the danger they faced, St. Thomas addresses the disciples and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” (v. 16)  These are not the words of someone who is doubting Jesus.  This is not the call given by a man who is unsure of his convictions.  St. Thomas was not doubting here.

Before we discuss the infamous upper room encounter, history records that, after the Ascension of Our Lord, St. Thomas left Jerusalem and first headed north into Syria before beginning the long journey west into India.  Tradition tells us that the Apostle headed to India in order that he might evangelize a group of Jews known as the Cochin or Malabar Jews, immigrants to India from the time of King Solomon.  While in India, he established “seven and a half churches” before being martyred.  Tradition continues to say that his remains were brought back to Syria where he was interred in Edessa.  These activities are well-documented and St. Thomas is widely regarded as the founder of Christianity in India.  This makes him the only apostle to have evangelized unbelievers beyond the borders of the Roman Empire.  Again, St. Thomas was not doubting Our Lord when he went into India.

Returning to that notorious incident in St. Thomas’ life, on the evening of the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Apostles in the upper room.  St. Thomas, however, was not there.  When he rejoined the apostolic company, his fellows informed him of what happened and he said those infamous words: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” (St. John 20:25)  This is not an unreasonable response.  It is perfectly understandable to face rumors of the resurrection of someone you have seen slaughtered three days prior with a certain amount of disbelief.  Saints Peter and John did not accept what Mary Magdalene said at face value.  They had to run to the tomb to check things out for themselves.  (St. John 20:2-9)  What makes St. Thomas so doubtful?

Eight days later, when Our Lord finally appeared to St. Thomas, Jesus faces the apostles and invites him to “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” (v. 27)  Here is where Renaissance art betrays Christianity.  Thousands of people have seen the legendary painting entitled “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Caravaggio.  In the painting, St. Thomas pokes his finger into Our Lord’s side like a little boy poking a dead bug to see if there is any life left in it.  This image has become the dominant image of the event.  Thousands of sermons have included the words “When St. Thomas stuck his finger into Jesus’ side, he no longer doubted!”  The irony is that it did not happen!

The very next verse of Scripture states, “And Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’”  There is no poking and prodding.  There is no examining with probe or scalpel.  There is simply the single loftiest Christological and Theological statement thus far in the New Testament.  When St. Thomas proclaims that Jesus is “my Lord and my God,” he surpassed St. Peter’s confession that Jesus was (and is) “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (St. Matthew 16:16)  St. Thomas exceeds St. John the Baptist’s proclamation that Jesus was (and is) “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (St. John 1:29)  St. Thomas even went beyond the confession of the centurion who, seeing Our Lord die on the Cross, proclaimed, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (St. Mark 15:39)  Each of those confessions admits that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed of God, and even the Son of God, but only St. Thomas goes beyond all of that and proclaims that Jesus Christ is God Himself.  St. Thomas may not have been the first to receive the revelation that Jesus was actually fully God, but he was the first to proclaim it.  Prefiguring a developed doctrine of the Holy Trinity by hundreds of years, St. Thomas announced that Jesus was not just the Son of God, the anointed Messiah; Jesus Christ is the Lord God Almighty come in flesh!  That does not sound like doubt.

He was hand-picked by Our Lord as one of His chosen Apostles.  He was willing to go to Jerusalem with Jesus in spite of the danger and even to die with Him.  He was the only Apostle who left the confines of the Roman Empire and he evangelized and established a church that remains to this day in the pagan land of India.  He made the single most exalted proclamation of the nature of the identity and divinity of Christ in all of the Gospels.  He made one smart-alec remark to his friends when they said something that was, frankly, unbelievable and he has been known for that one statement ever since.  When I finally go to my eternal reward, may I leave behind a legacy of faith and not be remembered for the many times I said something stupid.  It happens a lot.  May the most doubtful thing I ever say not be attached to my reputation and define me for the rest of time!

Almighty and everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

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The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

One privilege of the Convergence Movement is that we get to draw upon the very best features of the divergent Christian Traditions and take them as our own.  That privilege can be quite perilous though.  We run the great risk of picking and choosing doctrines and traditions which suit us rather than those which truly represent the Faith Catholic.  We must not only appropriate those tenets of the faith which we believe to be true and reject those which we believe to have been in err, but we must also diligently investigate those various tenets of the faith which are controversial and seek the Lord’s discernment on how to handle those elements of the faith.  One tradition which deserves careful and intense deliberation is the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This doctrine is entirely distinct from the Virgin Birth, although the two are often confused.  The doctrine of the Virgin Birth teaches that Jesus was conceived through the Holy Spirit without the participation of any man.  The Immaculate Conception teaches that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived by normal means but, through a special act of grace, was conceived without Original Sin.  Original Sin is both the first sin that Adam committed and the perpetual consequence for all humanity ever since.  Different Christian traditions disagree on the way in which Original Sin affects humanity and how its consequences are passed on.  On Church Father, Tertullian of Carthage said that Original Sin as well as other spiritual traits, both positive and negative, were passed on from parent to child in a way akin to passing on eye or skin color.  According to that theory, a particular giftedness towards the prophetic or fasting would be passed from parent to child, as would a tendency towards sloth or lust.

A logical conclusion stemming from this idea involves the proposition that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s spiritual traits, including Original Sin, would have been passed on to Jesus as well.  This would open theoretical doors that would call into question the sinlessness of Jesus Christ, which is essential to redemption.  In order to keep those doors closed, someone developed the idea of the Immaculate Conception.  The doctrine itself may have begun originally in England and the earliest written reference we have to the Feast comes from the 10th century English writer Eadmer. After the Conquest in 1066, the Normans suppressed observance and the legitimacy of the Feast was hotly contested throughout the Middle Ages. The doctrine was defended primarily by Franciscans, especially St. John Duns Scotus. It is surprising for many to learn that the Dominicans, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, did not believe in the Immaculate Conception. He did, however, agree to accept what Holy Mother Church decided on the issue. Pope Sixtus IV made the observance a Universal Feast, but refused to define the doctrine as dogma and therefore granted Roman-Catholics the freedom to accept or refuse the teaching without fears of being labeled a heretic.

In 1845, Pope Pius IX promulgated the Papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus. The document stated, “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.” From that point on for Roman-Catholics, at least officially speaking, the matter was settled. Declaring a tenet of the faith a dogma means that, for all intents and purposes, if one does not believe the dogma, they are outside of the faith. In order to be considered a faithful Roman-Catholic, you must believe in the Immaculate Conception.

For Roman-Catholics there is no discussion on the matter.  I, however, am obviously not a Roman-Catholic. Yet the Charismatic Episcopal Church cannot simply dismiss every teaching of the Magisterium with a gallant charge of “Popery” either. At one point, some of us now in the CEC might have called vestments and the Real Presence “mere popery” as well.  I have said before that the Charismatic Episcopal Church is all about rescuing the babies of the Faith Catholic from the bath water thrown out during the Reformation. We, as Christians who profess to be part of the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, must endeavor to find whether the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a legitimate tenet of the Faith or an inappropriate addition to the faith (along the lines of Limbo or the sale of indulgences).

There are principally three Scriptures used as proof of the Immaculate Conception. These are Genesis 3:15; Song of Solomon 4:7; and St. Luke 1:28. According to Roman-Catholic interpretation, the “enmity” between the woman and the Devil spoken of in that passage refers to the fact that the woman who would ultimately fulfill the prophecy, the Mother of God, would never be subject to sin and corruption and, thus, always at odds with the Devil. That certainly is one way of interpreting the passage, but it is far from a necessary interpretation. Likewise, Song of Songs 4:7 reads, “You are fair my love, and there is no spot in you.” The “spot” in that passage is macula in the underlying Latin. Being without stain or spot or blemish (of sin) would make one “Immaculate,” hence the name of the feast. However, once again, although the reading is possible, it is by no means the only way of interpreting the verse. The same may be said of the passage from the Gospel according to Saint Luke where Roman-Catholic interpreters take “Full of Grace” to mean “conceived without original sin.” All three of these passages might be read to support the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception or they might be read otherwise. Scriptural evidence is, in short, non-conclusive.

Arguments from the Church Fathers are abundant but not entirely persuasive. Similarly, the arguments from reason are not entirely conclusive. The primary argument from reason suggest that if God had the power to preserve His mother from sin, and it was fitting that He do so, then clearly He would do it. After all, they assert, if you could preserve your mother from all corruption, wouldn’t you do it?

The history of the doctrine becomes far more intriguing in 1858, when a young French girl reported seeing a woman while gathering firewood. The girl would have around seventeen separate encounters with the woman whom, two years later, the Roman-Catholic bishops would officially declare was, in fact, an Apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Of significance to this issue is that on one of their encounters, the Blessed Virgin Mary declared “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Were it truly is the case that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette at Lourdes, that would seem to settle it. After all, if the Blessed Virgin Mary herself says, “I was conceived immaculately,” who are we to argue?

It seems as though the issue of how we should address the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary depends largely on how much credence one may place on private revelation.  Did Bernadette really see the Blessed Virgin Mary?  Did the Blessed Virgin Mary really say, “I am the Immaculate Conception”?  If we cannot base doctrine on the Apocrypha, can we base it on a private revelation?  It may not be at the top of anyone’s lists of issue to tackle right now, and, perhaps, rightfully so.  Whether or not the Virgin Mary was conceived with or without Original Sin is not an issue that impacts many of the lost who are seeking the Lord.  Not many long-time Christians struggle with the state of Mary’s soul prior to her birth.  In fact, only a select few theologians ever struggle with the issue.  Nevertheless, as the Charismatic Episcopal Church continue to be a convergence movement and continues to grow into the fullness of the role Our Lord has called us to fill, at some point we will have to decide where we stand on the nature of Original Sin and the Immaculate Conception.  Additionally, were her conception immaculate or otherwise, let us never minimize the incredible role that the Blessed Virgin Mary did play in the history of our redemption.

Almighty God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin did make her a worthy habitation for Your Son and did by His foreseen death preserve her from all stain of sin: grant, we beseech You, that aided by her intercession, we may live in your presence without sin: We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.   Amen.


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