Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.

I'm reading right now about the drawing of figures (specifically in the context of icons, but the principles apply more broadly) in Aidan Hart's "Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting."  His first principle he bases on the line from the Athanasian Creed: "Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance:" There is no unity without distinction, and no distinction without relationship. Although on the one hand this is obvious, on the other it really struck me! That's often how obvious things are, huh?  Isn't this a statement so much more broadly applicable than in simply portraying a believable form? It's necessary in relationships: if you confound the persons, you end up codependent, unable to "think for yourself", and manipulated. If you divide the substance, you end up cruel and selfis h. Healthy society requires individuals in relationship with each other. (And it's almost as though our two political parties have each selected a half to goof up! Liberals confound the person: "We're all the same! Everything's equal! Whatever I like is true - and so is whatever you like!" while conservatives divide the substance: "I've got mine, I don't owe you anything! Take the country back from the 'other' in our midst!" ) I've seen similar "faults" in music - although I wouldn't have thought to phrase it this way: People can become so concerned with not "confounding" the notes, that they totally "divide" the sense: All of a sudden you have a stulted series of pitches and syllables rather than a framework of melody carrying meaning.

His second principle is to understand the form and allow the brush to follow - which seems to only elaborate the first one. Again, in singing, if you step back and see the entire line of text, the entire line of melody, where it's going, and what it's doing, the details, really, take care of themselves. If you look only at "1 & 2 e & a" reading words perfunctorily while lunging after notes - you don't get music! When playing tuba, one of my first breakthroughs was when I realized (much like Professor Hill's "think method!") that hearing the pitch I was about to play in my Mind's Ear was infinitely more important that attempting to squeeze my lips right.

Later, while describing hands, he states, "When deciding precisely where to place each hand, keep in mind that whenever we create and place a form we are also changing the shape of the space in which it is placed...Also, like everything else in the icon, hands and arms need to relate to the things near them..." Again, this flows from the first principle, has universal applicability, and is particularly striking in how often it is forgotten. A particular fault of a sort of Middle Manager seems to be the inability to ever see a whole: While working at Borders a regional manager came in and rearranged our displays in spite of our protests - she goofed up necessary relationships in the space, changing it in ways that while good perhaps for "sales" were manifestly bad for being a human being and getting to the check-out. It took watching several customers pile up and a wheel chair get wedged before she conceded that our local staff might know something about the space...
I think this is also a part of what annoys me about a certain tendency among what I will term the "liberal" (for want of a better term) side of liturgical Christianity - they seem to have a particular weakness for getting stuck in the ideas of their heads, rather than inhabiting their physical space (even, and perhaps especially, while talking about "use of space!") And so you end up with altars placed in odd places, weird unforeseen emphases, awkward movements, bizarre proportions implying importance and lack thereof of all manner of furniture and ornament, to cater to a particular idea - but at the cost of "dividing the substance." Organic development over time lead to chasubles suitable for the task at hand; theory led to the replacement with chasubles that are "too hot, so we won't wear them during the summer" and that knock things over, drag hosts off the paten, etc. Organic development let to altars being slightly raised to enhance line-of-site; theory moves the altar nearer to the [front row] people, and thus hides it from any in the middle-to-back.
Talk amongst yourselves. :-)

Monday, August 27, 2012

"Proper 14"

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

As those of you who are on Facebook are no doubt aware, the past week the media has been abuzz with the curfuffel over Chick-fil-A. The CEO said in an interview that he was “guilty as charged” on opposing the rights and safety of gay people. This was news to no one. So interviews were sought for responses, and various “liberals” and gay persons were naturally repulsed and advocated boycotting Chick-fil-A: which many of us had been doing anyway. Those people who supported his views tried to make it a “free speech” issue, and went en-masse to eat there and have their pictures taken, ostensibly to support his rights, which were not being challenged. That some would agree with him was also not surprising; what was surprising was that those people – our own friends and family members – would come out and make such a public statement on our Facebook feeds that agreement his views was more important that being in relationship with us: that they would sell us for a chicken sandwich.

In today's Epistle, Paul writes, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” That has been extremely hard for me this past week. I have been angry as I've gone to bed each night. But I don't wish to make room for the devil!

Paul says in the first line, “let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.” The Chick-fil-A-ers would no doubt say that's exactly what they were doing: speaking the truth. But I would first ask, along with Pontias Pilate: What is truth? The mediævals saw this question as an anagram of its own answer: Quid est veritas? Est vir qui adest. What is truth? It is the man standing here. Jesus is The Truth. Although “What Would Jesus Do?” is a modern meme, it is a very biblical question. After all all, as Paul continues, “we are members of one another-” and we share that membership in Christ.

It seems to me that Jesus was always secure in his relationships. Unlike many of us, he didn't let his interactions be coloured by fear, deference, or hedging, so as not to say something that might upset someone. He always spoke his Truth in a respectful dialogue with anyone who was interested. Those who were not interested in dialogue, he called out- sometimes in very colourful terms. But he never attempted to suppress their own views, and he never used force to get his way.

In today’s Old Testament reading we also have a story of broken relationships and no communication. To summarize the backstory: David’s son by one wife, Amnon, raped his sister by another wife, Tamar. Tamar went to her brother Absolom and told him what happened, and Absolom went to David. But David’s response was, essentially, “Boys will be boys!” Finding this an insufficient response, Absalom killed Amnon, and fled the country. Time passed, and Absolom returned to the area, but still wouldn't talk to his father. Instead he began forming a rebellion. David ignored this as long as possible, and then finally had to let his captain, Joab, put it down. "But," he said, "deal kindly with the young man Absalom." Well, Joab killed Absalom as soon as he had the chance. The sun went down on anger, communication ceased, and a family was destroyed. To late, David lamented, "Oh, Absalom my son, my son! Would God that I had died instead of you!" It is interesting to note that “David’s Greater Son” did die instead of those that rebelled against him - and thus brought healing to broken relationships.

Looking back to the Epistle: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” What would Jesus do? He would be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving. I saw a quote recently, though I can't remember who said it, that “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison, and expecting your enemy to die.” The behaviour that Paul recommends is not just for the sake of others, but for our own sake.

So, being kind and forgiving, how did Jesus effect his “victory”, and how do we do so in him? According to the Prophet Isaiah, “By his stripes we are healed.” The exhibition of his wounds did more to strengthen his allies and confound his enemies than any argument could. So likewise, we ought to speak the truth, exhibit our pain and woundedness, but refuse to fight. (Now, this is not to suggest that we ought not individually to leave an abusive situation if we may, for then we certainly ought to.) On a public scale, though, this is what I believe Paul is telling is us is the appropriate response. It is not flamboyant, and it is certainly not easy. But we must remember, that it is not flesh and blood behind the offenses. And so, without anger, we must forgive others, as we hope God will forgive us.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter Vigil

Genesis 1 & 2:1-2.
Exodus 14:24-15:1
Isaiah 4:1-6
Deuteronomy 31:22-30
Colossians 3:1-7
John 20:1-10

This is the night.
Tonight we stand on the brink.

We stand between Darkness and Light. “Darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”
We stand between Water and Fire. “The Lord looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud...and the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea.”
We stand between Death and Life. Yesterday, we were there as our Lord was crucified and buried; tomorrow he will rise again.
We stand between Font and Candle, which re-present and partake of these things: The Font re-presents the dark waters of creation from which our new birth comes; the Red Sea through which we pass to freedom as our slavery to Pharoah is drowned; the tomb of our Lord which we partake of in our Baptism. The Candle re-presents the first Light of creation; the pillar of Fire which draws us, like the ancient Hebrews, forward to the promised land; and the Light of Christ - hidden in the tomb, and for us hidden in the rock of flint- hidden but not quenched as it sparks anew to grow and spread.

We stand between time and eternity. “Tonight Heaven and Earth are joined,” as Mother Anne sang. Every year, as time wends on its way, we remember this night: But, this night we do not only remember deeds of past times, tonight we are inundated with symbols to stimulate us to the realization that all these times are Now. We remember in the mystical sense, as we do at each Eucharist: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Mystical remembrance does not look backward to a past, but *inward* to an ever-present reality. THIS is the night.

What we find on this brink is God. In the pull between the Spirit in the Darkness, and the Word in the Light we find God especially exemplified as Love. In Love the world was created, that Man and God might exist in Love toward one another. In Love were the children of Israel led to freedom, and a land flowing with milk and honey. Through the Lord of Love himself were all things created - including each of us! - and through him we are sustained.
The contrary forces of the world would deny us that understanding; would, through the “knowledge of Good and Evil” exile us from the “garden” of unity with God, ourselves and with each other; Satan would hold us in a living Death of feeling alone. In the Creation story, God made “Adam” in his own image and likeness. We’re used to seeing “Adam” portrayed as a human male, one male among many others since. But Adam may also be “mankind.” Original sin is not something we inherited from the misdeed of an ancestor, it is the reality in which Mankind finds itself. But Christ came, not to reverse that reality, but to transcend it. “O wonderful providence of Adam’s transgression, that by such a death sin might be done away!” Love himself, ever present in us since our creation, is still able to burst the rocky tomb, and break the gates our hells in sunder. As the Athenasian creed rehearses, Christ is One, “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God.” In Christ, manhood - Adam - each of us! is taken into God!

When we give the elements of the world to another, our own handle on them is diminished. The World operates on an economy of scarcity. But Heaven operates on an economy of abundance. Christ forshowed this in the Feeding of the Five Thousand. It is forshown in our candle tonight: every time the flame is divided, it is not diminished but rather increased! We participate in this reality every time we partake of the Eucharist: the body of Christ is divided as the bread is broken; but as it is slowly assimilated and transformed in each of us, his body is not in the least diminished, but spread! And so it is with Love. True love is not finite: Rather as one Loves the other, one’s own self is increased. The more we Love, the more the kingdom of heaven is realized. The world is not left behind, for Love requires the Other, and that painful division, that Good-and-Evil, and This-and-That which is found only in the World, in Time. But when we *Love*, time is infused with Eternity, and the Kingdom of Heaven is realized on Earth.

Let us then own this Great Mystery, that we might always be Risen with Christ. Let us Love one another that, as we prayed in our Collect, unto us may be opened the “gate of everlasting life.” Not a life that has no temporal end, but rather a life lived now in Eternity.

This is the night.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Second Sunday in Lent

1 Thess. 4. 1.
St. Matth. 15. 21.

Today's Gospel lesson is one that I've always felt uneasy with. Our Lord seems uncharacteristically dismissive of the Canaanite woman. A few chapters earlier, Jesus had said, ‘Come unto me all that travail and our heavy laden, and I will refresh you.’ How different does his treatment of this woman seem! If anyone was travailing and heavy laden, it was her: her daughter was grievously vexed with a devil–and of course the daughter’s vexation became the mother’s as well! And so much did she desire the healing of her child that she left her own land to seek out a foreign religious healer.

But what she received was not an immediate refreshment. Rather, he ‘answered her not a word.’ The disciples interceded for her–though not with as much goodwill as we might wish–he responded to them that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Still being not dissuaded, she pressed him yet more, and he finally addressed her, ‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.’ How unlike the Jesus we learn of in pietistic hymns, or devotional images!

But, if this is striking to us, it was certainly striking to those in the past as well. Given that ‘whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope,’ the consensus of the patristic commentaries is that Jesus only responded the way he did because he in turn knew how she would respond. And that his delays in granting her request were meant only to elicit and display the fullness of her humility and faith to those round about, and thus to us, rather then fulfilling her wish while such virtue remained hidden. If this is not the first understanding that came to my mind, it nonetheless seems reasonable.

What, then, is the lesson for us? ‘A woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts.’ First, we must recognize that we need him. She was unable to do anything for her daughter herself, nor could her own people. Similarly we often find that our own afflictions vex us: but we find ourselves unable to overcome them alone. ‘She cried to him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David.’ When other humans fail to help us, we may find that the reason is that we didn’t ask. Perhaps they knew of our distress and could have aided, but by not asking we implicitly said that we did not yet require help. Now God knows when we need help without our asking-but, as with humans, until we ask we may well be unable to receive. Help may be ‘near the coasts,’ but unrecognized because we aren't yet looking for it. When she got no answer, she nonetheless ‘cried after them,’ inciting the intercession of the Apostles. When we do ask for help, but seem to get no answer, it’s easy to think the answer is ‘no.’ But her faith led her on toward the healer who would refresh her. ‘No’ was not the answer. And the delay excited the compassion-even though it be embarrassed!- of others to her cause. When he said he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, ‘she worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.’ This was as much as to demand that she be counted as such a lost sheep. Finally, he compared her, as a heathen, to a dog. She did not deny it, but demanded the due that even the dogs may receive. In all of this she did not waver or turn back. And that is what Jesus wanted to show to those round about, and to us who now read the story. For he then exclaimed, ‘O woman, great is thy faith! Be it unto thee even as thou wilt.’

A few chapters earlier, another pagan had come to him for the healing of a loved one: a centurion who’s boy was sick. That interaction gave a different example, but the result was the same: Jesus said, ‘I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.’ Within the Use of Rome, before receiving the Eucharist, the Prayer of the that Centurion is prayed (altering the word ‘servant’ to ‘soul’): ‘Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.’ In the Anglican use, the Prayer of Humble Access is similarly used before receiving the Eucharist, and contains an allusion to this woman’s response: ‘We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.’

At the Eucharist we come of out of the coasts of our everyday lives, and Jesus draws near to us. And he would teach us through these Gentile examples that, if we may wrestle with the seeming contradiction, that to receive his blessing we must come to him in true humility-and yet demand it of him. In the 32nd chapter of Genesis, we read that Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord. The Angel said, ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’ In a more homely image, Jesus gives us the Parable of the Unjust Judge:
‘And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?’

And so the church, as the widow of the parable, troubleth God through repeated bidding prayers, litanies, and petitions. Like the Canaanite woman, the church cries many times a day, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord,’ that we as individuals might make it our own prayer as well. The only reason to do this is in the faith that God will hear and answer. But, as with the Canaanite woman, the petitions must be given in humility. As long as we fail to truly recognize our weakness and need, we fail to allow God to work. When we ask for something, and upon receiving no quick response turn away, we don't allow him to help us. When we see blessings given to others and become jealous, we don’t allow him to help us. And should drawing nigh to him bring to our mind our own imperfections: if we bristle with pride and indignation, we do not allow him to help us!

Today’s Collect begins, ‘Almighty God, who seest that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.’ This is the point the Canaanite woman was at. And in this humble realization, she was able to press on in an untroubled faith. No turning back, not disputing, but only pressing ever nearer to him, knowing that only in him could her salvation be found. There are those who would dispute the language used in our liturgies in the confessions of sin or the prayers before receiving communion, finding them ‘cringing’ or displaying ‘unrealistic false humility.’ But like so many things in our liturgies, if they reflected only our current disposition, they would in no way draw us nearer to God. If the prayers do not currently reflect my sentiment, I can in an case believe them to be true, and pray them, not as writhing in guilt, but as a simple acknowledgement of fact.

In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy comes to the temple where the Grail is housed. He knows he must press through the challenges that await him, because only by attaining the Grail can he save his father who lies mortally wounded at the entrance. He knows from his father’s grail diary that ‘Only the penitent man shall pass’ the first trial. Others have died here. He moves slowly and cautiously: not drawing back- he must press on. Salvation is on the other side. Only the penitent man shall pass. The penitent man will pass. The penitent man... The penitent man is humble before God... He kneels before God... Kneel! In just the knick of time, Indy kneels and thus avoids the blades that aimed at head-height which constitute the first trap. I wouldn't draw too close an association between Indiana’s climactic trials and our own lives, but as with Indy-humility is about honestly assessing oneself and one’s weaknesses, and proceeding accordingly.

And so, in humility, we may approach God in faith. Jesus assures us that though mercy we crave may be delayed, it will not be denied. I would like to end with a parable the 19th century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon reported concerning faith:
She had to cross a stream, and the current was strong, and there came one to her who said, “faith, I will help you! Come with me up the river till we can find a place where we can ford it.” Faith said, “No; I was bidden to cross the river here.” So another came, and said, “I will build a bridge for you, that you may go over the river with ease;” and he laid hold of a few stones, but not much ever came of it. Yet another said, “I will go and find a boat.” But there were no boats about; therefore he asked faith to wait till they build a boat for her. What did she do? She took off her vestments, and plunged into the water. “Thank God,” said she, “I can swim;” and so she swam across, and reached the other side without boat, without bridge, and without ford.

And now to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, both now and for ever.