Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

"May he who, for the sake of our salvation, was born in a cave and lay in a manger, Christ our True God, through the prayers of his most pure Mother; of the holy, glorious, and all-laudable Apostles; of our Holy and God-bearing forebears; of the holy and righteous ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna; and of all the Saints, have mercy on us and save us, for He is good and loveth humanity. Amen." - Blessing at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ, Byzantine Rite

Thursday, December 18, 2008

New Blog and Call to Prayer

(Phiro tip: De Cura Animarum)

I am adding a link to another blog on the right: "In Caritate Non Ficta", written by Philip Gerard Johnson. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Johnson was serving as an officer in the Navy until he was diagnosed with a brain tumor which is apparently inoperable. He has also been discerning a call to the Roman Catholic priesthood, of which he speaks here and he is scheduled for a needle biopsy on January 7, 2009.

Please keep Philip in your prayers and have him remembered at the altar. Visit his blog and leave a comment, letting him know that you are praying for him.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Shack

Well, so much for agendas. When Advent began, a couple of weeks ago, I had laid out a plan for Advent blogging, focusing on the readings for the Sundays of the season. Life intervened, and here we are. It is almost the Third Sunday and I have yet to complete the post for the Second Sunday, concerning the “Announcement” to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, or Mother of God, of the impending birth of the Messiah. I had also intended to write posts about St. Nicholas (December 6) and perhaps some other Saints and manifestations of Saints, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose commemorations fall during the Advent season.

There is still hope for accomplishing some of this, but it is fading. In the meantime, a little book has come my way, something between a long short story and a novel, called The Shack, and it seems good to me to comment on it.

In The Shack, a middle-aged man, Mack, directly encounters the Triune God, who shows up in order to heal Mack of “The Great Sadness”, a chronic depression which has enveloped his life since his young daughter, Missy, was abducted and presumed killed while Mack and his children were on a camping trip a couple of years before. During this encounter with the Trinity, he experiences much that is healing, including being shown where his daughter’s body lies, and many of his questions are answered. In returning to his normal life, Mack, by revealing the location of his daughter’s body, is able to help the authorities catch the serial killer responsible for his daughter’s death, and he is also able to bring some measure of healing to his family, especially his older daughter, Kate, who feels responsible for Missy’s disappearance and death.

The author, William Paul Young, aka “Willie”, although somewhat younger than me, has a religious background similar to what I experienced as a young man, and some of the causes of pain in his life are apparently very similar to mine, in terms of both the consequences of his own behavior and the behavior of others; therefore, I strongly resonate with his practical understanding of God as Love, God as a Divine Community who always acts in love, even when that Community is angry at humans for the damage they are doing to themselves, each other, and the planet. And I actually know someone, a woman, who had a similar experience, not with the Triune God per se, but with Christ and His Blessed Mother. The results, for this woman, are also very similar to those in Mack’s life: positive both for herself and for those around her. So, even though this book is presented as fiction, this aspect is quite believable to me. There is also much about the theology which is very, well, Orthodox, concerning the nature of God and the Divine desire to be in relationship – communion – with all humans, for humans to share the Divine Life “face to face” and the role that Jesus, both fully God and fully human, plays in making this possible and actual. Given this, and given that this book can be a word of hope to people who are seriously hurting and may even be a salutary wake up call to people coming out of certain religious backgrounds, I am reluctant to critique in any way, but I feel I must.

The book, of course, is a story of an extraordinary encounter with God; thus, it might not be expected to deal so much with the ordinary means by which we experience the Divine. Unfortunately, however, words several times put into the mouths of the Divine Persons specifically reject the cornerstone of these ordinary means of encountering God: “no ritual”. Thus, for example, while there is an incident in the book in which Mack consumes bread and wine given him by the Divine Persons, it is explicitly stated that he eats and drinks “without ritual”. And, under other circumstances, things are purposely changed up, done differently than before, because there is “no ritual”.

For me, this is extremely problemmatic, and not just on an abstract level. You see, I do encounter the Triune God, the God "of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," every time I celebrate the Eucharist, every time I participate in any way, and I know I am not alone in this. The Eucharist – and the other Christian Mysteries – have been healing forces – healing encounters – with “the Great I Am”, for me not only on a routine, theoretical basis, but especially when I have been at my lowest, when, frankly, suicide has presented itself as a viable option. Yes, I’ve been there: it is not simply that I have a professional interest in defending the Mysteries. If I had not encountered the Love which is God in these Mysteries, I would not have embraced the historic, Apostolic Christian Faith, let alone become a priest.

There IS ritual and, as it turns out, the reasons for this have a great deal to do with the way humans are created. Thus, since we are, after all, made in the image and likeness of God, this must also have something to do with the communal love which is the Divine Nature, the eternal dance of mutual submission – kenosis – which the book rightly highlights. We certainly see ritual in created nature which itself “declares the glory of God”. Consider the repetition: day succeeds day; month follows month; season follows season; year follows year. We could also multiply examples from human interaction: however, the basic point is simply that there is no relationship without ritual, and ritual is a means, an extremely basic means, by which we initiate and reinforce relationships. Therefore, I would invite Willie and all of his readers to begin experiencing relationship with the Divine in those rituals which God has given us precisely for that purpose, especially the ritual of the Eucharist, in the context of a Church, a Christian community, where the Apostolic “Rule of Prayer” has been preserved.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"Yes, but is it bread?"

A post by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod writer at Getreligion, discusses an article (with video) in the Boston Globe, featuring The Cavanagh Company, a Rhode Island-based firm that makes unleavened hosts for the Eucharist, as used in Latin Rite Roman Catholic Churches as well as Anglican and Lutheran congregations. Cavanagh, “the Microsoft of altar breads,” apparently has an 80% market share.

First, let me make clear that neither I nor the ACCA are inherently opposed to the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. We take the view that bread, any bread, whether leavened or unleavened, is valid matter for the central celebration of the Christian faith, while also noting that for our Armenian brethren, both Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic, unleavened bread is normally used to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Pluralism is proper here, at least between Rites, in that the use of leavened bread is rooted in one sort of symbolism, unleavened in another, and both are informed by the Gospel: Christ is free of “the leaven of the Pharisees” while at the same time, He is the new leaven which causes “the whole lump to rise”. I also have to say that I am impressed with the Cavanagh family’s development of technology which allows them to mass produce a product that is edible, reasonably bread-like, and largely crumb-free, which is always a concern with altar bread. It is not easy to make such unleavened bread. Believe me, I’ve tried, and the results have not been edible. Futher, unleavened bread is a great deal easier to work with once it is consecrated, especially when it comes to the reservation of the sacrament.

One bit of irony, however, has to do with the idea that Cavanagh communion bread is “untouched by human hands” prior to its being used to celebrate the Eucharist. Consider the prayer with which the bread is offered, in the contemporary Roman Rite, during the “Preparation of the Gifts”:

“Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation, through your goodness we have this bread to offer which earth has given and HUMAN HANDS HAVE MADE. It will become for us the bread of life.” (Emphasis added)

The bread and wine are means by which, in the Eucharist, we Christians offer ourselves, our world, and our work to God. This is why, in Eastern Christian circles, it is normal for the Eucharistic bread (leavened in most Eastern Christian traditions) to be made by a priest or by a member of the congregation. I myself make leavened eucharistic bread for use on special occasions. Further, there are still Western Rite convents and monasteries which make unleavened altar breads. For these monks and nuns, this work is both ministry and means of support, and it certainly involves "the work of human hands". Another institution which makes these breads is St. Michael's Bakery, in the Netherlands. Started as a school for the deaf in early 19th Century, it now provides occupational therapy to those in need. St. Michael's altar breads are available in the United States here (from a company which also sells Cavanagh breads).

Another bit of irony in this article has to do with the attitude apparently taken by members of the Cavanagh family to their product: “no reverence”. “Until it’s consecrated by the priest, it’s just bread,” they say. The problem here is that bread, any bread, is potentially the Body of Christ. Therefore, it, and by extension, all food, is to be treated with a certain amount of deference, especially bread which is being made specifically for the Eucharist. Contrast this attitude to that of a Russian immigrant women, once employed in a fine restaurant. She left this job shortly after starting because she was required to dispose of bread left uneaten by the patrons. “I have to throw away the Body of Christ!” All bread is potentially the Body of Christ, all wine His precious blood. This is directly related to the Christian giving of thanks, not just in the Eucharist, but before consuming any food or drink.