Monday, November 25, 2019

Homily for "Sunday Next Before Advent," November 24, 2019

Yet another homily, this one preached November 24, 2019, also at Christ Church Anglican, Summerville SC, where I am the non-chalcedonian, West Syriac Rite Orthodox\Old Catholic priest in residence (or something):

First, here's a link to the audio. If you can only listen or read the text, I would recommend listening since I do occasionally, as they say, "depart from the prepared text."

Also, this did not start out to be a homily that would be appropriate for the Sunday before Thanksgiving (here in the United States), but when I was done, I was pleased (and surprised) to note that it had become such a homily.

Homily for "Sunday Next Before Advent"

Readings: Jeremiah 23:5-8 St. John 6:5-14

(A supplementary reading, given in the Morning Prayer lectionary of the 1928 U.S. Prayer Book for this Sunday, is I Cor. 11:17-32.  This includes St. Paul's account of the institution of the Eucharist.)

And here is the text:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.  Amen.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Good Morning.

So… Food.

But first…

According to the traditional Anglican Ordo Kalendar that we use, as well as the contemporary Western liturgical calendars, all of which have a four Sunday cycle of Advent, today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, with the new liturgical cycle that for 2020, beginning next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent.  If anyone asks, you can tell them that for the contemporary Roman Catholic and Revised Common Lectionary (as used by the Episcopal Church, the ELCA, and others), 2019-2020 is Year A on the Three-Year Sunday cycle and, since 2020 divides evenly by 2, Year II on the two-year weekday cycle.

We, however, use the traditional Anglican one-year cycle which is based in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Latin Rite liturgical cycle.

Now, according to the contemporary Western calendars, today marks the celebration of the Feast of Christ the King.  However, we celebrated it on the last Sunday of October, four weeks ago.  It is not precisely clear why Pope Pius XI chose that particular date, but it is worth noting that in my own West Syriac Rite, it is, for all practical purposes, actually the last Sunday of the liturgical year.  The liturgical calendar of the West Syriac Rite is divided into seven seasons, each more or less seven weeks in length, forming a “week of the year”.  The last such season, that of Holy Cross, begins on the Sunday nearest Holy Cross Day, so the last Sunday in October is the Last Sunday of the Season of the Cross and the first two Sundays in November, “Sundays of Dedication,” are devoted to celebrating our Christian Faith’s roots in Judaism as each focuses on the historic temple in Jerusalem.

These are followed by a six-Sunday season of “Annunciations” or Advent and the gospel reading for each of these six Sundays before Christmas tells of an “Annunciation” or “Announcement” leading to the birth, first, of John the Baptist and then, of Jesus the Messiah, so not only the event known as the “Annunciation” in the West, but also, the Archangel Gabriel’s appearances to Zechariah and to Joseph and others, including the Visitation of the Theotokos to Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Baptizer.

So given a shorter, four week season of Advent, it is entirely plausible to celebrate Christ the King today and even the Gospel reading given for today on the traditional, Pre-Vatican II Kalendar of the Roman Rite is eschatological in tone.  This reading is Matthew 24:15-35, a portion of what Scripture scholars sometimes call the “Matthean Apocalypse” in which Jesus describes events that will occur prior to his return in glory.

I say all this to underscore that in the West liturgical tradition, regardless of the specifics celebrated, today is definitely eschatological.  We focus on the end of history, the return of the Lord with and in glory to judge both living and dead and to manifest the fulness of his Kingdom, the Reign of God “which has no end”.

So have you ever read a book that changed your life?  I’m sure you have.  I’ve read several.  One of the first was C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”.  I read that as a young teenager.  Another such book is written by the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Fr. Schmemann was an Eastern Orthodox priest, a man whose family fled the Soviet Union in the 1920s when he was a young child.  He eventually found his way to the U.S. and, upon his premature passage from this life, was or had been Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox theological seminary, one of the premier Orthodox seminaries, not only in the U.S., but world-wide.  The book is called For the Life of the World:  Sacraments and Orthodoxy.  It has had a profound influence on Christians of many different traditions, including Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and of course, Orthodox.  It is one of only a few books that have profoundly formed me over the course of my spiritual journey.

The book begins with a meditation on food.  Schmemann writes that the nineteenth century atheist, Ludwig Feurbach, observed that “humans are what they eat” and by stating this, thought Feurbach, he had put an end to all religion.  However, Schmemann notes that this statement is the most religious statement possible.  Food is at the center of our relationships with each other and with God, going back to creation itself and the fall, humanity withdrawing from communion with God and thus, from God’s providential protection, over a command about food and what amounted to covetness and an unwillingness to be grateful for the far-more-than-adequate provisions that God had already given them to eat.

So now, the curse:  humans must work for their food and the earth, previously providing a bountiful harvest with no effort on humanity’s part, prefers to grow only weeds and thorns.  Eventually, humanity will also be provided the flesh of animals to eat, possibly to divert them from human sacrifice.

Food is absolutely essential for human life and, throughout history and even now, is often in short supply.  Thus, wars are fought over it, and we note that the transition from human pre-history to history and what we call civilization, only occurs after humans have mostly stopped acquiring their food by hunting and gathering and have started farming and raising livestock, meaning that groups of humans now feel the need to defend turf, their fertile ground and good pastureland, against interlopers and invaders.  Some suggest that in biblical terms, this change corresponds to what happens after the fall, and we certainly see echoes of this epoch-changing process in the story of Cain and Abel.

Now humans were created to share food with each other.  They were created to offer the gifts of the earth, food and drink, back to God in thanksgiving and to share them with each other.  This is the basis for eucharistic sacrifice, the “sacrifice of thanksgiving” which is found in all cultures and predates the coming of Christ.  In doing this, humanity assumes the role given it in the cosmic process of creation and consummation, whereby the Father eternally generates the Son and Word and sends forth the Holy Spirit and then, these Two, acting together, create the cosmos and humanity as its culmination in the Divine Image and Likeness.  In offering the fruits of the earth, food and drink, back to the Father in thanksgiving, humanity shows itself to be the priesthood of creation and fulfills the cycle in which the Son and the Spirit offer the cosmos back to the Father in thanksgiving.  This is at the heart of the heavenly liturgy described in Hebrews, Revelation and elsewhere and this too is discussed in Schemann’s wonderful little book.

Now, in the description I have just given you, I have not mentioned redemption, that is, release from the consequences of the fall and the role of the Incarnate Christ and bringing that about.  As we have noted previously on other Sundays, the Incarnation was an integral part of the original Divine plan.  Indeed, it was the reason for creation in the first place.  It was also, some say, the reason why Lucifer and his minions rebelled.  They could not stomach the idea that one of the Divine Persons would become flesh-and-blood, earth-and-mud, would, like all of us, generate raw sewerage.  This does not accord with their concept of Deity and the idea of worshipping such a being, both God and human, both uncreated and created, both immaterial and material, was utterly repugnant to them.

In any event, at some point, the Incarnation would have occurred had the fall never happened and the cosmic sacrifice of thanksgiving would have been consummated with the full manifestation of the Kingdom of God and, in the end, God would still become “all-in-all” or “everything to everyone” as St. Paul writes.  This, of course, is still the plan, but, given the fall and the subsequent tragedy that is human history, some things had to change in order to bring it about.

First and foremost, after the fall, the Incarnation inevitably involves the death of the Incarnate and Eternal Son of God.  Now, as a consequence of his death, his state-sponsored murder (but the state was only one of three actors here:  socioeconomic culture and revealed religion:  yes, REVEALED religion, were also involved) Jesus conquers death by His resurrection.

He returns to life in a glorified state, his humanity fully deified, and will never die again.  He overcomes sinfulness and begins the process of healing the damage it has caused in humanity.  He also defeats the ultimate source of the fall, the demonic adversary and begins to dismantle and rebuild fallen human society, often called “the world”.  Because of His resurrection, the Father sends the Holy Spirit in Christ’s Name and gives spiritual birth to the Church, making it the mystical Body of Christ in accord with Jesus’ promise to be with the Church “until the end of the age”.

But what does Jesus do in order to gather the Church throughout the ages?  While they were at supper the night before Jesus died, he took bread and, after thanking the Father for it, Jesus said, “This is My Body.”  He also took the Cup and, after giving thanks as well, said, “This is the Cup of my Blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.  Whenever you do these things, you will do them to commemorate me.”  And St. Paul adds (if Jesus hadn’t said it himself, and many liturgical traditions indicate that Jesus did), “You will proclaim the death of the Lord UNTIL HE COMES.”  We will do this and we will do it in order to pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God, for the full manifestation of what Christ started in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  We pray for the return of Christ even as he comes to us now as food, as bread and wine in the sanctification of our sacrifice of the “fruits of the earth and vine”.  We are  praying for the end of history, when, after the judgment, after all have been raised, God will be “all-in-all”.

Food.  Drink.  Bread.  Wine.  The Body and Blood of Christ, broken and shed for us.  “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you shall not have life within you” says Jesus later on in this same Sixth Chapter of John.  This is the source of unity in the Church, the way in which the Holy Spirit unites us as members of Christ.

In the Didache, the “Teaching of the 12 Apostles,” written probably sometime shortly before AD 100, we read a prayer that concerns the Eucharist:

“As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever."
This is echoed in a Eucharistic Prayer of the Coptic Church of Egypt.

And because we as members of Christ share in this food and drink, this bread and cup, we are called to feed the world, not only with the eucharist, but also, with the more common everyday food that everyone needs to sustain their physical life, the common food and drink that makes the Eucharist possible.

As someone has said, “Food for me may be a material concern, but food for everyone else is a spiritual concern.”  Why?  Because we are all in this together and we are, in the words of St. Paul, all “members one of another.”  This is true in Christ, but also, in Adam.

As I look on the Church today, I recognize that it definitely looks back to Christ and the first apostles and it traces its existence, its structure, its teaching, its worship and everything else back to that time.  However, precisely because this is true, the Church is also called to consider the eschatological future, the fulness of the manifestation of the Kingdom of God.  Now, I almost forgot to mention here, as I must, that one major image of the Kingdom in Christ’s words is that of the eternal wedding banquet in which the archetypal marriage, between Christ and the Church (and through the Church, the entire cosmos) is consummated.  This is one bit of information concerning the “Kingdom which will have no end.”  Another is found in St. Paul’s words, concerning the fact that there is no longer “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”

For the purposes of what we are considering today, we can focus on the fact that the differentiation between “slave and free” is passing away.  This broadly refers to socioeconomic differentiation and oppression in all its forms.  Thus, when workers “strike and organize,” one does not only find the presence of “Joe Hill” but also, of Jesus Christ even as He was present with Harriet and Tubman and the other conductors on the Underground Railroad.  This socioeconomic diferentiation and oppression comes into existence after the fall and, before the first coming of Christ, serves to help prevent all of humanity from destroying itself by establishing some level of societal order.

While all of these are in fact “passing away” given the coming of Christ (and the establishment of the Church, his historical and mystical body), they are also still in play.  Thus, the lifestyle of the very early Church in Jerusalem was communal, and there are hints in the early writings of the Fathers that this actually spread outside Jerusalem into the larger Church.  However, by the Fourth Century, by the time that John Chrysostom, the Sainted Archbishop of Constantinople, was writing, it had been confined to what would come to be known as monasticism.  Lamenting this, St. John Chrysostom opined that it was because of this that the Church of his day saw few signs and wonders.

It would seem possible that the Church, or at least some portions of the Church, might reflect on this and consider establishing communities of common life that involve everyone, regardless of whether they are clergy or lay, monks or nuns or what-have-you.

But the major consideration is that the fulness of the Kingdom will provide all things necessary for humanity and the cosmos in abundance precisely because God will be “all-in-all” and the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb will be in full swing for all eternity.

So we end the liturgical year reflecting on the Second Coming of the Messiah and what follows this, the fullness of the Reign of God.  Next week, we begin reflecting on the coming of the Messiah in human history, born of the Virgin, who, when he has become an adult, begins his preaching by proclaiming, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!  Repent and believe this good news!

To Him who is indeed the Messiah and the Creator and Savior of the Cosmos, the Incarnate and only-begotten Divine Son and Word, Jesus of Nazareth+, together with His unorginate Father, and the all-Holy, Good, and Life-Creating Spirit, proceeding from the Father and resting on the Son, One God, be all glory, honor, and worship, both now and ever and unto the Ages of ages.  Amen.