Writing Things Elsewhere

I came to the odd conclusion that my workout schedule has been messing with with my writing… I’ve been doing more weight-training before we head into the racing season, and have not been out on the road much. I realized the other day that my lack of writing seems to be related to a lack of running outside.  So—hopefully as I start doing more outside running that’ll translate to more writing and posting here!

However, I have been doing some writing that’s appearing in other places. I have a piece in the latest issue of The Living Church; I was invited to write a piece on prayer book revision: that can be found here.

I’ve also gotten some writing done on the next volume of the Cassiodorus project. Since the subtitle of that work is “Praying the Psalms with Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers,” I begin with a discussion of what prayer is and then move into how modern people and the Church Fathers understood prayer and the overlaps and differences between the two. The first part of that has appeared over at Grow Christians and indicates the direction I’m going in: that can be found here.

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Checking Things Off!

I’m slowly working my way down a list of things to get done.

I’m trying really hard to not start any new projects this year. Instead, I’m trying to finishing a bunch of things that I had started but never actually completed.

Chief among those are the Anglican Breviary project and the upgrade to the breviary which I started on but got stuck in the middle.

An important part of deciding what to do is also deciding what not to do. The Anglican Breviary domain is expiring, and I’m trying to make the decision whether to renew that and continue that project in the way I had been, or to move it into a different space. We’ll see… I’m also still paying for the podcast service even though I haven’t been actively podcasting for a while. As much as I enjoyed that project, I don’t know if it’s worth continuing in its current incarnation. It served a particular role in my research for the Cassiodorus books. With the first volume done, I’m evaluating whether it’s an effective use of time.

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Update and Recommendation

Yesterday, I sent the manuscript of Honey of Souls: Cassiodorus and the Interpretation of the Psalms in the Early Medieval West off to Liturgical Press and received confirmation that it had arrived.

Whew.

That’s a big weight off, and it must come with thanks and gratitude to Barbara and Bill who painstakingly read through it and offered advice and corrections small and great! And, obviously and always, thanks and gratitude to my beloved M and the girls for whom this book has been more difficult than the others.

There’s more work to be done on it, of course, and I have no doubt the editors will recommend many more changes—all to the good—but at least it’s off my plate for now!

I do have volume 2 to go: Psalming Christ: Praying the Psalms with Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers, and I hope to be posting more of that here as I hack through the remaining parts of that work.

Today, however, I’m taking a break from all that. I learned just last night that my colleague David Peters would be at Virginia Theological Seminary today to give a presentation on his latest book, Post-Traumatic God: How the Church Cares for People who have been to Hell and Back. I haven’t read it yet, but was blown away by his Death Letter: God, Sex, and War which contains his journals that he wrote on his return from service in Iraq as he struggled with what he saw and did there, the break-up of his marriage, and wrestling with the breakdown of what most of us know as “normal” life. It’s a brutally honest and intimate account that offers insight into a soldier’s life for those of us who will never know those experiences. M has been working with a veteran in very similar circumstances—multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, marriage collapsed while overseas, trying to pick up the pieces while dealing with PTSD—and these books have been tremendous resources in her work.

If you do ministry, I would recommend these—whether you know you are working with veterans or not. If you’re in the DC/NoVA area, I encourage you to come join us at his talk (today at 1PM). (And, of course, stop by and say hi!)

((And, no, nobody has asked me to review or promote these books—just David himself!))

 

Posted in Community, Spirituality | 1 Comment

On Boethius

In 522, another great Roman aristocrat was showered with honors. Theoderic in Ravenna selected one of his sons to be the consul of Rome representing the West while Justin in Constantinople selected his other son to be the consul representing the East; he himself was tapped for the high position of Master of Offices. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, a scion of one of the two great Roman senatorial families, the Anicii, was a philosopher as well as a public servant. As far as we know, he was the single greater intellect in the West than Cassiodorus—certainly the only one from whom we have writings. He wrote treatises on music, theology, arithmetic, and geometry. As fluent in Greek as he was in Latin (an achievement becoming more and more rare in this time), he translated the only texts of Aristotle from Greek into Latin that the Medieval West would know until the Crusades brought the Arabic editions of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina to light. In the introduction to his Commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione, Boethius lays out a plan for how his philosophical work would unfold:

I wish to translate the whole work of Aristotle, so far as it is accessible to me, into the Roman idiom and conscientiously offer his complete utterances in the Latin tongue. Everything Aristotle wrote on the difficult art of logic, on the important realm of moral experience, and on the exact comprehension of natural objects, I shall translate in the correct order. Moreover, I shall make all this comprehensible by interpretive explanations. I should also like to translate all Plato’s Dialogues, and likewise explain them, and thus present them in a Latin version. When this is accomplished, I will furthermore not shrink from proving that the Aristotelian and Platonic conceptions in every way harmonize, and do not, as is widely supposed, completely contradict one another. I will show, moreover, that they are in agreement with one another at the philosophically decisive points. This is the task to which I dedicate myself, so far as life and leisure for work are vouchsafed to me[1].

Unfortunately for him and for the unfolding of the Western philosophical tradition, the leisurely fulfillment of this ambitious plan of work was not to be for philosophy was not his only ambition. For somewhere in the year 522 or 523 also came the death of Eutharic, the strong and appointed heir of Theoderic, the presumptive next king in the West.

The Master of Offices was—just below the Praetorian Prefect—one of the two highest civil posts in the Empire. The Master of Offices received his title because his position oversaw four offices which handled all of the imperial correspondence and all foreign envoys who came to address the Emperor. All information about doings in the Empire and relations with its neighbors flowed through this office. If a wealthy, intelligent, well-connected man of ancient birth steeped in Plato’s Republic and its vision of philosopher-kings wanted to subvert the Empire, this was the perfect place from which to do it.

We do not have clear visibility into what happened next. Our usual source for government dealings of the time is entirely silent upon the events; there is one Eastern-leaning history by an anonymous hand that gives one take on events, and then we have Boethius’s side of the story. In short, he was arrested on a charge of treason in 524 or 525. He was accused of conspiring with other members of the senatorial class and of holding treasonous correspondence with the Emperor in the East. Imprisoned within a church in Pavia—a city in northern Italy—Boethius embedded his side of the story in a book that would become the most important work of philosophy for the Early Medieval West behind the Bible, the Consolation of Philosophy. In a dialogue between himself and Lady Philosophy, a personified woman hearkening back to the figure of Wisdom in the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclessiasticus, he pours out “a long and noisy display of grief” (his words!) where he explains that he was set up by means of forged letters by a cast of ne’er-do-wells unhappy at his attempts to reign in corruption[2]. However, even his self-defense does seem a bit weak at important points: “I am accused of having desired the safety of the Senate. . . . But the fact is that I did desire the safety of the Senate and will never cease to. . . . Should I count it a crime to have desired the safety of the Senate[3]?”

The Consolation itself—entirely apart from the guilt or innocence of its author—is a splendid work. A Neo-Platonic meditation composed alternately in prose and verse, Boethius explores his situation, his rise to tremendous heights and his tragic fall to the depths, and offers later ages two related themes that wrestle with questions around the unfolding of history, the justice of God, and the lament—old in the days of Job—that bad things do indeed happen to good people. The first theme is a differentiation between Providence and Fate/Fortune (he uses the two terms interchangeably). God, who stands outside of the flow of time, knows, sees, and directs the big picture—Providence—in order that all will end well. This is the plan in the mind of the all-knowing and all-loving God. The big picture is therefore fixed; we know its happy end. The route by which this plan is accomplished, however, is far more sketchy. This is Fate. Thus, “the simple and unchanging plan of events is Providence, and Fate is the ever-changing web, the disposition in and through time of all the events which God has planned in His simplicity[4].” You could say that Providence is the plan while Fate is its execution.

What Boethius gets out of this formulation is the ability to say that God is good and just and can affirm alongside St. Paul that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). In the end, he will affirm alongside the future words of Julian of Norwich that all things will be well. But, thanks to Fate, that doesn’t mean that everything is guaranteed to turn out okay for you! In the various vagaries and improvisations of Fate towards the irresistible end of Providence, even the wisest, the wealthiest, the most powerful person is but Fate’s pawn. And that brings us to the second major theme of Boethius of which all of America has heard—but maybe not in the sense he intends: the Wheel of Fortune.

The famous television game show is named after an ancient concept that reached its finest formulation with Boethius. He was not the first person to come up with the concept and other thinkers had written similarly about Fortune before, of course. The 2nd century BCE tragedian Pacuvius had said:

Philosophers claim that Fortune is insane, blind, and savage,
That she stands on a rolling and treacherous stone—
Whichever way chance tips that stone, fortune falls nearby.
They say that she is insane because she is merciless, unsteady and faithless.
They repeat that she is blind because she does not see where she goes;
she is savage because she makes no distinction between a worthy or worthless man.

Boethius makes a more subtle but not fundamentally dissimilar argument. As he sits in his dungeon bemoaning his fall from glory, Lady Philosophy essentially shakes him and asks him what he thought was going to happen:

You are wrong if you think Fortune has changed towards you. Change is her normal behaviour, her true nature. In the very act of changing she has preserved her own particular kind of constancy towards you. She was exactly the same when she was flattering you and luring you on with enticements of a false kind of happiness. You have discovered the changing faces of the random goddess[5].

As Lady Philosophy concludes her discourse she breaks into a ditty that will be graphically illustrated in dozens of medieval manuscripts and even find its way into the trump cards of the tarot deck:

If you are trying to stop her wheel from turning you are of all men the most obtuse. For if it once begins to stop, it will no longer be the wheel of chance:

With domineering hand she moves the turning wheel

Like currents in a treacherous bay swept to and fro

Her ruthless will has just deposed once fearful kings

While trustless still, from low she lifts a conquered head;

No cries of misery she hears, no tears she heeds,

But steely hearted laughs at groans her deeds have wrung.

Such is the game she plays, and so she tests her strength;

Of mighty power she makes parade when one short hour

Sees happiness from utter desolation grow[6].

The standard depiction of the wheel throughout the middle ages depicts a spoked wheel set upright: a king robed in splendor is perched at the top while the same figure appears at the bottom, clad in rags and crushed with pain—sometimes with the crown toppling from his brow. On one side he is clothed in finery as he makes his ascent; on the opposite side he is in beginning his fall into despair. The point is that Fortune is inherently fickle. No matter how high or how low people rise or fall, the condition is temporary for change is inevitable.

The story of Boethius does not end well. Both he and his guardian/father-in-law Symmachus were executed at the order of Theoderic. The brilliance of his Consolation ensures that his side of the story is never forgotten, though; it’s easy to buy the caricature of the noble Roman philosopher unjustly accused and killed by a thuggish barbarian ruler. We’ll probably never really know the true story and Cassiodorus never tells us. But, then, he’s not entirely a neutral observer either…

[1] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, xv-xvi.

[2] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1, 16.

[3] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1.4, 11-12.

[4] Boethius, Cosolation of Philosophy 4.6, p. 105.

[5] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 2.1, p. 23.

[6] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 2.1, p. 24

Posted in Medieval Stuff, Theology | Tagged | Leave a comment

Love Song to a Psalter

Here’s a section from the manuscript. The poem stays in, but I’ve trimmed away most of the supporting material…


People who are familiar with the Bible are usually aware of the rather scandalous contents of the Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs): it’s erotic love poetry narrating an unnamed woman’s quest for her lover, King Solomon. Clearly some of the more prudish interpreters in the Christian tradition have sought to downplay the literal sense of the text and have interpreted it in a spiritual direction. Thus, to some it is the soul’s quest for God, or perhaps the personified Church’s quest for God, or the Blessed Virgin Mary’s quest for God. And, thanks to the power of multi-level reading, at can be all three at the same time!

But readers formed in a modern Protestant perspective may not know that there is a complementary style of lyrics tucked away in the Wisdom Literature where a man is portrayed questing and lusting after a woman. While there are references and early forms of it in the books of Proverbs and Job, it reaches its apex in the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (also known as The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach). To medieval readers, these two books were simply “Bible” but Protestant reformers placed them in the Apocrypha, a section of literature dating from between the Old and New Testaments, and even most faithful Bible readers never read them.

In these poems, the sage is questing after wisdom, personified as a beautiful woman. She is to be preferred above all else, and he will spend his time, effort, and wealth in order to woo her. There is a long section from chapter 6 to 9 in the Wisdom of Solomon that recounts Solomon’s wooing of Lady Wisdom in terms parallel (although not as explicit) as the Song of Solomon:

Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. . . . I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her. I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases. All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth. I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them; but I did not know that she was their mother. I learned without guile and I impart without grudging; I do not hide her wealth, for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals; those who get it obtain friendship with God, commended for the gifts that come from instruction. I loved her and sought her from my youth; I desired to take her for my bride, and became enamored of her beauty. She glorifies her noble birth by living with God, and the Lord of all loves her. For she is an initiate in the knowledge of God, and an associate in his works. (Wis 6:12–14; 7:8–14; 8:2–4)

Needless to say, monks were quite familiar with these texts and often cast themselves in this same role: forsaking all else in search of wisdom and in service to the Gospel.

These wisdom lyrics are the necessary context for a poem written by an old monk at the furthest range of the time period we are considering. The Irish monk Mael Isu O Brolchain died in 1086 in a monastery in Armagh having received the title “chief sage of Ireland.” At some point, he wrote a poem which for many years was assumed to be about an elderly nun in a kind of ascetic marriage. However, James Carney, a specialist in medieval Irish poetry, recognized the true object of the poet’s affections:

The problem lay upon my mind for many years before the easy and natural solution suggested itself: it was a poem written by a religious in his old age to an old and tattered copy of the Psalms which had been his first lesson book. The solution, which has found general acceptance by scholars, emerged quite clearly when I noted that in early Ireland a boy destined for the Church began his education at the age of seven, and that the Psalter, from which he learned Latin, reading, singing and religion , was his first lesson book. This book which he had used in his youth in its virgin freshness passed through four generations of young scholars before by some chance it came back into the old priest’s hands again.[1]

We have talked at some length in these two chapters about the Psalter and about when and how a student would have encountered it. What this poem reveals, though, is what they felt about it. Here, with the sages’ songs to Lady Wisdom echoing in our heads, we see the thoughts of an old man taking in his hands again the book of his youth:

 

Crinóc, lady of measured melody,

not young, but with modest maiden mind,

together once in Niall’s northern land

we slept, we two, as man and womankind.

 

You came and slept with me for that first time,

skilled wise amazon annihilating fears

and I a fresh-faced boy, not bent as now,

a gentle lad of seven melodious years.

 

There we were then on that firm Irish earth

Desirous, but in pure and mystic sense;

Burning with love my flesh, still free from fault

As fool of God in smitten innocence.

 

Your counsel is ever there to hand,

we choose it, following you in everything:

love of your word is the best of loves,

our gentle conversation with the King

 

Guiltless you are of any sin with man,

Fair is your name, and bright, and without stain,

Although I know that when you went from me

Each in his turn, four lay where I had lain.

 

And now you come, your final pilgrimage,

Wearied with toil and travel, grimed with dust,

Wise still but body not immaculate:

Time it is that ravished you, not lust.

 

Again I offer you a faultless love,

A love unfettered for which surely we

Will not be punished in the depths of hell

But together ever walk in piety.

 

Seeking the presence of elusive God

wandering we stray, but the way is found,

following the mighty melodies that with you

throughout the pathways of the world resound.

 

Not ever silent, you bring the word of God

to all who in the present world abide,

and then through you, through finest mesh,

man’s earnest prayer to God is purified.

 

May the King give us beauty back again

Who ever did his will with eager mind,

May he look on us with eagerness and love,

Our old and perished bodies left behind.[2]

 

In Mael Isu’s poem, Lady Wisdom—the beautiful, the desirable, the beloved—is none other than the Psalter itself. Images of fleshly intimacy are cooled with a spiritual admonition, but the monk paints with exquisite colors a lover who initiates him into the arts of love and directs him to ultimate love in God: the Psalter is his Diotima.

Of course, this is one look at the Psalter from the far end of the learning process. Undoubtedly other young Irish lads did not feel this way while slowly learning the text. The second earliest evidence of the Psalms we have in Ireland is a student’s tablet, wooden boards covered with a layer of wax, into which has been scratched with a stylus Psalms 29-31 in the Gallican translation. This artifact is known as the Springmont Bog Tablets because that is where they were recovered. While we will never know how they came to be there, I like to imagine a particularly willful student hurling his tablet into the bog in a fit of pique after a difficult time with his lesson!

[1] James Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. xxviii.

[2] Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics, p. 75-79.

Posted in Medieval Stuff, Monasticism, Psalms | Tagged | Leave a comment

Cassiodorus Milestone!

Good news—the full draft of the long-awaited (and overdue) Cassiodorus book is done! The bad news is that I need to cut out about 14,000 words before I can send it off to the publisher. I’ve already identified some sections that need to go, and some that can be slimmed down, and a few sections rendered redundant by the course of chapters shifting while writing.

Some of the material is fun and interesting, but just won’t fit; as I trim I may post some of it here. It may not make it into the final work, but at least somebody will get to read it!

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Tu Es Petrus

With yesterday’s feast of the Confession of St. Peter and the Gospel reading appointed for it (Matthew 16:13-19), I’m reminded of one of my pet peeves on the interpretation of said passage. Correcting this interpretation seems particularly appropriate at the given moment.

Here’s what Jesus says in part: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

The issue is with the last part.

The way I see this passage typically read is through the lens of a fortress mentality. That is, we have to hold the line with the church, we have to crouch behind some kind of doctrinal bulwark in order to not be overcome by the devil and his minions. Usually some kind of infallibility is invoked here—whether papal or biblical—to assert that only within this circumscribed space can we be spiritually safe.

This is a complete failure to correctly interpret the metaphor.

Yes, Simon Bar Jonah receives the name Kephas (in Aramaic), Petros (in Greek), or Rocky (in English.) And he is a central foundation upon which the Church is built. However, even though a rock is an excellent place to build a fortress, a defensive structure, that’s not the point. Jesus does not inform Peter and us that the gates of the Church will thereby be safe—because they’ve got a great defensive setup. Rather he informs them that the gates of Hades will not prevail against them.

The Church here is not defensive; it is offensive. This isn’t about sheltering within the Church to stay safe. It’s about having a firm foundation from which to sally forth and conquer Hell.

We as the Church are called to be on the offense against “all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God . . . the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God . . . the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.” This is the calling of Baptism. To be sure, this is an offensive characterized by the virtues of Christ—humility, love, and compassion—but holding firm to truth and justice and conviction nonetheless.

The calling of the Church is to conquer, not to cower.

Posted in Scripture | 3 Comments

Defining Heresies

There is a theology that seems to be marketed largely to White suburban America—that the created image of God is vibrant and whole in humanity and that sin is more of an ugly rumor designed to make you feel bad about yourself.

It’s heresy.

Despite assurances that you may have heard to the contrary, evil is real. Evil—human-created, human perpetuated—is a genuine force in our existence. The evidence is, well, self-evident. Whenever nations and armed groups commit and enable the atrocities of Aleppo, whenever children are raped, whenever the acquisition of money for the few overrides the lives, health, and bodies of the fragile, evil declares its presence to the world. There are strategies that are used and that we use to shield or hide ourselves from it.

That makes it no less real.

Not only that, getting ourselves in the habit of ignoring evil “out there” is part and parcel—a twisted feedback loop—of ignoring evil “in here.”

Understanding and getting in touch with the reality of our own personal sin is an important part of grappling with evil in its many forms.

Already I imagine some readers are turning away in disgust at the notion that they participate anything like “real” sin; adult forums and Lenten talks that M and I have given that speak about sin, confession, and repentance are regularly met with, “I’m not a bad person; this doesn’t apply to me. I don’t have anything to repent for.” (No kidding: that’s an actual quote.)

But here’s the thing: the Gospel is the tool to fight back against evil. The truth of God’s love is the only weapon that doesn’t beget more violence, more hatred—more evil. And if we say nice words about applying it in the world, we must begin by applying it to our own hearts and our own homes. We must recognize our own need for repentance and for grace. (And I use “we” here deliberately because I’m just as enmeshed in this as anyone else… I’m not perfect and have never claimed to be!!)

Spirituality, religion, faith, whatever we want to call it and however we want to define it has got to fundamentally be about truth, recognizing truth and confronting our own shallow constructs with it.  Evelyn Underhill nails it when she writes:

Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment. (Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People, 3.)

We are not telling the truth as revealed in the Gospel if we pretend that evil is not real.

I do believe in the image of God indelibly imprinted on the human soul. But I also believe in the sin and evil that obscure it, and that it must be cleansed frequently, its blurred lines touched up, and be colored in with the virtues (a nice image from Didymus the Blind riffing on Athanasius…).

But that cleansing work, performed by God, invited and cooperated with by us, has got to happen. We must recognize our own personal, secret, hidden complicities in the broader evils of our age. Yes, megacorps are bad; but our own personal sin has a role in sustaining and growing them… No, it’s not enough to decry them or use a general confession that mentions them obliquely. If you can’t begin to name your complicities, then you don’t really mean it.

The fall of Aleppo thrusts the face of evil into our eyes once again.

Reinhold Niebuhr is credited with saying that the only objectively verifiable Christian doctrine is Original Sin. This morning, scrolling through my news feeds, I’m feeling that. And yet there’s a cottage industry of ignoring and downplaying that such a thing even exists. Unfortunately for it, to twist a phrase, reality has a well-known Augustinian bias.

Ah, well—back to the book.

Happy Advent!

Posted in Random, rant, Theology | 5 Comments

Resignation from the SCLM

As I try to finish these two books, I find that I simply have too many balls in the air. I’m essentially writing full-time, I’m holding down a full-time as a corporate IT guy, I’m driving the kids to activities every day, I’m supporting M as she settles into her position as rector, and keeping up with chores around the house—and it’s too much.  My maintenance activities (prayer, meditation, fitness) are slipping. I need to cut things back to a manageable level and do those things that best align with my long-term goals.

So, after quite a bit of thought and prayer, one of the things I’ve let go of is my work on the Standing Commission for Liturgy and Music. I think I did good work while I was on it, and would have liked to do more, but the cost in terms of time and emotional energy didn’t make it a good investment for me. For those concerned about the direction of the Commission in light of the prayer book revision resolution, don’t be. The preparation for a plan for a process of (possible) revision are already fixed into position, and I think are moving in good and sensible ways that will offer some logical options to General Convention.

Thus, I think things will be ok there for the remainder of the triennium ( and I was set to roll off at the end of it anyway…). Please do keep the members of the SCLM in your prayers, that their work will be a blessing to the whole church.

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On Going Forward

I’m going to briefly interrupt the Tour de Cassiodorus to share some thoughts that have been rattling around in my head since the election.

I start with words from quite possibly my favorite (brown-skinned, Jewish) woman leader of all time:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

This is not a call to meekness nor acceptance. This is a call to join a revolutionary movement. The revolutionary leader is God.

Perhaps the most important sermon of Jesus recorded in the Gospels is that called the Beatitudes. We have two versions of it, one in Matthew, one in Luke. If you compare the two, you’ll quickly notice that there are some slight but important differences between the two. Furthermore, you’ll notice that there are profound, striking, and important relationships between the version of Jesus’ words found in Luke and these words from his mother from the first chapter. The thoughts and concepts expressed here by Mary are deeply interrelated with who God reveals himself to be in Jesus and his vision for our world.

Liturgically, these words are part of a canticle that the Church has historically sung every single night in the Office of Vespers. I try to sing it most nights too. We don’t repeat it because we don’t have any other words to say—we say it because it is important. It reminds us in a few words of what God’s vision for the world is.

Reconciliation is a very important word to us Episcopalians. We use it a lot. One of the reasons is because it is a scriptural word that relates deeply to what we are called to do: 2 Corinthians 5:18 informs us that we have been given “the ministry of reconciliation.”

In recent days I have seen many Christians—many Episcopalians, including some bishops I know—who have called us to be ministers of reconciliation in a deeply divided nation. We must heal and reconcile.

But what is it that we are being called to reconcile? What is the ground of our reconciliation? 2 Corinthians 5:16-20 is continuing a thought that begins with Baptism. The reconciliation talk comes in at that point: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:18-20).

In this ministry of reconciliation we are not being called to be nice or pleasant or to smooth things over with those who disagree with us. We are called to work on the reconciliation of humanity with God, and God’s vision of the world that he created: A vision of the world laid out by Mary in her Song and ratified by Christ Jesus in his sermon.

This is a vision that puts the poor, the people at the margins, the “alien in your midst,” the ones who have lost their political protection as the central figures for our care and concern. It is not interested in catering to the rich, the proud, the haughty. If we are exhorting the Christian faithful to be healers and reconcilers, than we need to be clear that we need healing from a host of sins and to be working to reconcile the people and society around us to the vision of the world that God intends. This is the call of the Gospel on us.

If we can bring together people who disagree and be nice to them, sure—that’s great too. But that’s not the ministry of reconciliation to which Scripture or Mary call us.

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