Thursday, June 15, 2017

Benediction as Reverence for the Oppressed: A Meditation

The following essay is based upon a meditation I gave at the Eastertide Retreat of the Great Lakes Chapter of the Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. As it finds its basis in the meditation, the goal is not a theologically argued essay but, rather, truly a meditation on Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and Reverence. 

My very first experience of Evensong and Benediction was at a Society of Catholic Priests conference held at Christ Church, New Haven. It was the first conference of the Society in North America, actually, the one that founded our province.

I remember that I was sitting towards the back of the church. I was so very new to all of this. I came into the Episcopal Church through the catholic stream of Anglicanism, but I came in as a former evangelical. I was drawn to the catholic stream, very fascinated by it all, but I didn't really know much of anything. And I was particularly curious about this benediction thing. 

If you've ever been at a worship at Christ Church New Haven, they know what they're doing. They do liturgy very well. It is the sort of liturgy that seems effortless to the worshipper, all the ministers simply going about their business, leading the congregation in worship. I remember sitting toward the back and watching the chancel slowly fill with smoke as the service progressed. 

It was like watching ballet. 

When people know where they're supposed to go and what they're supposed to do, it creates this exquisite sense of unity in the diverse movements. And it was like that. The thurifer went here and the deacon there. It wasn't fussy. It wasn't overdone or overwrought. It was just people doing what they should do and doing it with reverence. 

Then, they placed the sacrament in the monstrance and placed the monstrance upon the altar. All knelt for the time of adoration...  And it very much got me to my core. I found it very emotional and watched the incense swirl around the monstrance through the tears that poured for my eyes.

I would say that this first experience of Adoration and Benediction was one of the few times in my life that I had a very palpable sense of the presence of Christ. Not just that Christ was present in the sacrament, but that Christ was himself here in an even more palpable way, right there, through those clouds of smoke. Christ was not reaching toward me or pulling me in or anything like that, but just there. And I happened to be there, too. It seemed like a remarkable chance encounter, but one in which the person there at the other side of the room knows you intimately and deeply... loves you intimately and deeply.

They proceeded with the liturgy, did the Benediction, and then it was done. I recovered from it all. 

However, it impacted me deeply. 

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Later in my ministry, when I took a position at St. Paul's, K Street in Washington D.C. as an honorary priest associate, I got to officiate at evensong and benediction. Every time I did it brought me back to that first experience. So I treated those times of officiating with tremendous gratitude. But it wasn't ever quite the same.

There is this danger of priestly ministry that we all know. Once you learn the mechanics of the thing, it loses some of its magic. The magic can come back, but when you're learning the mechanics, you've got to focus on the mechanics. 

So I learned the mechanics -- it helps at St. Paul's, K Street because they have very well trained MCs. And the MCs are in charge of running the liturgy. Any priest could walk into that church with not a lick of sense and (as long as she or he will listen), that priest could officiate an evensong and benediction. As long as you can listen and as long as you can sing what is printed on the page, you'd be fine because the MC is directs you. "Okay, now you go here. Now we'll go to this spot. Then we'll bow. Then we'll go up. And then we'll go here." And so it was almost... effortless.

I got to see how the ballet happens and be guided gently through it. I remember the first time I officiated at Evensong and Benediction there, the first Adoration. I remember my forehead on the cold stone floor of the church, which was a powerful thing. 

One of the sadnesses I have about my ordinations is that in neither of them was I allowed to prostrate myself before ordination. Because I was ordained in rather broader, low-church contexts, I never got to do that full prostration, that full offering of myself. And so I felt like, as I put my head onto the ground, kneeling before the sacrament, that I was able to offer myself to Christ in a way I hadn't really been able to with my body. 

St. Paul's K Street also had a rather odd custom with this particular liturgy. The way that they do Evensong and Benediction there is that during one of the times of silent adoration, the priest speaks to Jesus with the people overhearing. There's silence and the priest says, "Lord Jesus Christ", then you talk to Christ, and then you end, "Amen" and everyone knows that's the end of it. You can't have any notes or anything. You just have to do it. It was helpful for me early in on my experience with Benediction because I'm not a natural contemplative. I'm very Kataphatic in my spirituality. I don't empty myself very well. I very much like talking and thinking and figuring things out. So it helped me work my through the silence to articulate things. And so I got very used to doing it that way and I really enjoyed it. 

But then, when I came to my current cure and I instituted Evensong and Benediction on Corpus Christi, I chose not to do the time of spoken meditation. Admittedly, that time was helpful for me getting into it. However, the more I thought about those two different experiences, the experience at Christ Church and the experience at St. Paul's, I decided the silence—though more uncomfortable—was actually a little better. It was likely because I had had such a powerful experience at Christ Church and I felt like hearing the priest all of the sudden bellow a meditation from the altar would interrupt that. 

I think that we do this as clergy. When people talk about clericalism in our churches, they talk as though it's about whether you wear clericals, whether you wear a collar or just regular clothes. "Do you do say father or mother or do you just call me by my first name?" People talk as though these are what make clericalism up. And it's not. 

Clericalism, I believe, is anytime our priestly ministry that inserts itself between the people and God as opposed to ministry which connects people to God. For me, what's very clerical is when at the altar, the priest is looking at me and grabbing my hand or saying my name. There are times that I want that and I will look at the celebrant or whoever is distributing communion and I'll want that connection. But I don't always. I shouldn't insert myself. 

I train the Eucharistic Ministers that way. They're sometimes ask me, "Shouldn't we say people's names? I was at a church and they did that." I will encourage them, "Well, no, because it's not about you. It's about that person and God. You just happen to be the person in the conduit place at that moment." Of course, some of the Eucharistic Ministers at my church still persist in the practice and I don't chide them for that. I simply have let them know the position but they try to honor their exercise of this ministry. 

But still, when people come to worship, they should be able to lose themselves in the reverent participation in Holy Communion. If you call them by name, unbidden and uninvited, you jerk them back from that possibility of communion. To be honest, I often feel like several modern traditions or practices can actually be a little disruptive to the worship experience. It is almost as though we are trying too hard. Clergy are often trying so hard to manufacture a spiritual experience as opposed to being willing to submit themselves to the ordo and to allow the Holy Spirit to work. 

So, if we return to the metaphor where we started, we will see this. Consider a ballet. This is a beautiful example of people doing their job well, but in such a way you can't tell that they're doing a job. They simply seem to be part of something greater. That they are taken over by the music, by the moment, by the story, in a way that the whole thing together creates an experience. To me that's what good liturgy does. It's that same work of creating that place, creating that experience. 

And this is why, when I began Benediction at St. Johns, I decided not to bellow from the altar, but instead to let people have the experience they were going to have with God, to work on creating that space.

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A few years into my ministry, I had an opportunity where I was called upon by someone who organizes our diocesan youth camp worship experiences, Judy Fleener. She asked me if I would come and celebrate Eucharist at youth camp. But she also asked if, at the time of the fraction, I would do an extended time of adoration and benediction. She hoped that I would also teach the children in advance what that exactly all that was. 

I naturally accepted the invitation with great enthusiasm. I came and talked with the kids about what it means to reverence something, what it means to reverence the sacrament and where that comes from. I talked about how it should shape us as people.

However, as sometimes happens, I wound up in the course of teaching them stumbling upon a rather important connection I had not made explicitly before. It sort of just came out of my mouth. I talked about how we reverence Christ present in the sacrament to teach us in advance how we should treat one another. That we reverence Christ in the sacrament so that when I encounter someone else, I know what it means to reverence Christ present in them. This means that if you can't show reverence for Christ when he's present in the very pure form of the blessed sacrament, you're probably not going to be very good at reverencing the present of Christ in other people. 

I taught the kids about this and then I celebrated Eucharist. At the fraction, during the silence, I placed the bread into the monstrance. I knelt with the children in front of the monstrance and we had some quiet time. After several minutes, I picked the monstrance up and I did the blessing over the children. Then, I proceeded with the liturgy and gave them communion. 

What stuck with me since then was that importance of the way we train ourselves to show reverence. After all, this is not something that comes naturally to many of us. We understand small bits of reverence, we know what it means to show love and care and respect for people and things that are important to us. Reverence, however, is so much more than that. And when we start practicing the discipline of reverence it should spill out into all areas of our life in ways that are very powerful and profound. 

It all comes around to the great quote from Bishop Frank Weston, "You have your tabernacles, you have your mass, you have your sacrament. Now go out and find Christ present in the poor and suffering and wash his feet." To me, this is what Anglo-Catholicism is all about at it's heart.

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There are two places where I think reverence is particularly essential to the Christian life.  

One is how the reverence we show for the sacrament trains us for the way that we engage with those who are oppressed. In the daily office reading for tonight, and I was preparing for the liturgies for today, and realized that we were getting the great "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me" reading that the Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Shori liked so much, a piece of Scripture I like as well. When God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, he became incarnate first and foremost as someone who was in and among the oppressed, someone who was a voice of hope for them. 

In Anglo-Catholicism, in our life as priests in the church, one of the great dangers is when there's a disconnect between the reverence we have in worship and the reverence we have for the oppressed of the world. And I do mean a disconnect. I don't mean to say we have to focus on one or the other. Of course, the obvious disconnect is the Anglo-Catholic fussy worship, a worship wherein the community pays no attention to the concerns of the world. 

But a far more pressing and common disconnect I believe is the one we tend to see in the Episcopal Church in our own time. There will be an immense concern for the world, but in some places there seems to be no potent sense of reverence for the presence of Christ in worship and the sacrament. The reverence in worship is not driving us out in works of justice and mercy. We get the order entirely wrong.

And this truly is essential. Because when we move out in justice before beginning from a place of reverence for the sacrament, then we tend to move out much more paternalistically, as though we are going to come and give people the answer and fix the problems, as though we know exactly what they need. But when we begin from a place of reverence and then move out with that understanding that in the oppressed, that in the poor we find the presence of Christ, then we engage with people and issues very differently. 

Reverence is the willingness to be quiet, not to think that you're here to give the answer. In the same way that in benediction I decided not to bellow from the altar, but instead to be present and to receive that we have. It is first being willing to sit, be present, and receive before we begin to offer anything at all. We must not just do that because we want to be politically correct, but we instead because we believe that these people are able to incarnate Jesus to us in a very particular way that we cannot find anywhere else. When we do this, I think it becomes very powerful.

The second place I find the discipline of reverence as taught in Benediction helpful is in the area of those fellow Christians who drive me a bit... batty. It could be the Christian who aggravates you on Facebook, or the person in the parish who has hurt you, or the colleague or boss who has done something you truly and deeply disagree with. When I consider these people, I'm reminded of Saint Paul, how he talked about the weaker parts of the body or the more shameful parts of the body, depending on how you translate the Greek, how those are the ones to whom we should show the most honor.

So, I'm challenged that if I'm going to reverence Christ in the sacrament, I'm called to show a particular honor to those people who anger and frustrate and annoy me. That doesn't mean let them abuse me and that doesn't mean that I won't disagree with them when I believe they're wrong. It doesn't mean any of that. But it does mean that before I jump too quickly into anger or frustration or exhaustion or fatigue, that I pause. I remember, "Alleluia. Christ our passover is sacrificed for us." I remember that I am seeing that brokenness in a very particular way in this troublesome person. 

With both of these sorts of people, both with the oppressed and the offensive, you have to be willing to listen. You have to be willing to receive at least something first, before you start talking and engaging. You have to cling with faith to the idea that Christ is in that other person, no matter how much you might struggle to see it, and that Christ is trying to teach you something. 

With both of these sorts of people, by practicing a proper eucharistic spirituality, I think I am helped in the journey of seeking to be more authentic in my life. 

This is why I think benediction is an important discipline in the church and one that I hope will be recovered in our time. When benediction and adoration were seen as a substitute for reception of communion, that was clearly a problem. But in our day and age it is entirely different. In our day and age, people receive communion with great regularity—and often without any preparation at all. In a time when there is persistent conversation about how everyone should take communion, including the unbaptized, when all of this exists in the ethos of our church right now, it's time to try to cultivate reverence. It is important for us to be priests and people who know how to practice reverence for the sacrament. 

So the small things become very important. Small things, like the rubrical period of silence after the fraction anthem, one of the most often-ignored rubrics in the prayerbook, become tremendously important. In this day and age, we don't know how to shut up and be present with God, to be present with Christ. When Benediction was first explained to me at St. Paul's K Street so long ago, the priest said that it is a drawing out of that moment after the fraction. Eventually the sacrament will be consumed and go on because Christ does come into us. But before Christ comes into us, we've got to be willing to be present a little bit with the divine exteriorly to us. 

After all, what good is it to receive Christ in the sacrament if you don't know how to love Christ when you encounter him in worship, when you encounter him in the world?

God our Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ in a wonderful Sacrament has left us a memorial of his passion: Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of his Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of his redemption; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Terror after Pentecost, look to the martyrs of the church

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 

This past Sunday, those Christian communities in our area who follow the church year observed the Feast of Pentecost. At liturgical churches, that likely meant red vestments (for the fire of the Holy Spirit) along with extra-special offerings like special music, chanting or incense.

At many churches, there was likely an offering in more than one language, commemorating that the gift of the Holy Spirit was the ability of the apostles to speak in the many languages of those gathered.

At my own faith community, St. John’s Episcopal, our 10 a.m. service was bilingual, drawing both liturgy and prayers both in the language of our English-speaking members and our growing Spanish-speaking members.

Yet, I know the minds of many Christians gathered to celebrate Pentecost was the increased news of terror over this past week. Indeed, this has likely been high on the minds of all in our community, regardless of their faith background or the worship practices of their community.

The terror attack in London was shocking to us all. Seven people have died and nearly 50 were injured when three men drove a van into people walking on the London bridge. After the horror of that attack, they then exited the van and starting stabbing people in the nearby Borough Market. The Amaq Agency claimed it was a detachment of fighters for the so-called Islamic State, but a direct link between the attack and Daesh (often known as ISIS) has not yet been identified.

This was not the first time in recent days our allies across the Atlantic have suffered at the hand of radical extremists. It’s not even the last time in the past three months.

On May 22, 22 adults and children were killed by a suicide bomber while nearly 60 more were injured. In March, five people were killed and at least 40 injured when a terrorist ran down pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge and then also went on a stabbing spree. Prime Minister Theresa May has reported that five further “credible” terror plots have been disrupted since that first Westminster bridge attack.

Worldwide anxiety continues to increase as North Korea seems determined to secure nuclear weapons, and no one is sure what decisions the Trump administration will make in the face of the intransience of that regime. And now three Gulf countries (including Saudi Arabia) and Egypt have cut ties with Qatar over terrorism — a startling decision since Qatar also hosts the largest United States military base in the Middle East.

In some ways, the celebration of Pentecost and the resulting call to Christians to spread Christ’s message of love and mercy to all nations seems to sound a little hollow given the circumstances in which we find ourselves as a country and as an international community. What does it mean to celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church when we seem to be unable to stem the tide of terror, violence and prejudice all around us?

One of my favorite evangelical theologians, John Mark Hicks, has been posting quotes from the ancient fathers of the church over these past few weeks. One of his quotes in particular struck me, one from Origen, the great theologian of Alexandria. Origen’s father was a martyr and Origen himself died from wounds suffered by torture under the Decian persecution. In a time in which Christians regularly faced the possibility of death, Origen wrote, “In Christ and with Christ the martyrs disarm the principalities and powers and share in his triumph over them, for their share in Christ’s sufferings makes them sharers also in the mighty deeds those sufferings accomplished. What could more appropriately be called the day of salvation than the day of such a glorious departure from this world?”

We may be tempted, in the face of the terror of these days, to turn to a greater reliance on violence. We may be tempted to increased militarism, to turn against one another, to wall ourselves off from refugees and others who seek safety. Our president has taken this as an opportunity to attack the tone of the mayor of London (who is himself a Muslim). Many of my liberal friends have been distracted by Trump once more, seeing this as another opportunity to point out his failures in leadership.

All of these temptations, all of these choices, will do nothing to increase the cause of peace, justice and security in our world.

Instead, I would suggest that those of the Christian tradition might look to the martyrs of the church. In times of great violence and fear, they chose to love their enemies, to forgive those who persecuted them. They did this following the example of our Lord, who prayed that God would forgive those who crucified him.

Sharing in the sufferings of Christ means we do not allow the hate of others to turn us to our own hatred — whether that is hatred of terrorists held captive by a distorted understanding of Islam or whether that is hatred of whichever political party stands opposite of your own.

Instead of alarmist cries of fear, let the Christians who are heirs of that first Pentecost not be bowed by the terrorists. Instead, with a desire to work for the healing of this broken world, let us commit ourselves anew to dialogue with those we disagree and to the hard work of working together as an international community to protect those who are most vulnerable in the face of violence and fear.

By the Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist. He serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven.