Category Archives: Church Year

Prayer Book Studies II: The Lectionary

Sharing the latter half of the volume with PBS I is Prayer Book Studies II: The Liturgical Lectionary which examines and recommends changes to the lectionary appointed for the Eucharist.

Note the timing: this was published in 1950 and was based on work done before that time. The three-year lectionary is not even a twinkle in Rome’s eye at this point. As a result, this book is focused entirely on tweaks to the classical one-year lectionary. This volume could be considered an anachronistic waste of time as it refers to a system we no longer use any more but for two important points.

First, the three-year lectionary has come under fire lately and there have been a number of pieces written on the superiority of the one-year system and calls for its restoration. In light of that call, I find it quite valuable to see this list of considerations on what needed to be changed in that system by people who had lived within it for decades. It’s easy enough for people of my age and younger who have never lived under it to wax eloquent about its benefits; it’s more instructive to hear trained scholars with lengthy experience with it hold forth on how it could be made better.

Second, this volume addresses what I understand as a fundamental principle of any good Eucharistic lectionary:

In other words, it is none of our concern to impose any individualistic idea of our own as to what the Christian Year is, much less to reform it to what we might like to make it. As a matter of fact, we know what the Christian Year is only by studying what it has been: and any emendations we may make should be limited to those which will actually enable it to say better what it is evidently trying to say. (PBS II, 45)

One of the brief side-arguments I made in my dissertation that I’d like to revisit and expand upon at some time is just this notion—that there is an Aristotelian back-and-forth between the character of our liturgical seasons and the content of our Eucharistic lections. That is, the themes of the season inform the choice of the lessons; the content of the lessons establishes the themes of the season.

The argument rightly presented here is that “…the Church’s cycle of commemorations was not a system which was systematically planned and executed at any one time, but a collection which was gradually piled up through many centuries” (PBS II, 40). Indeed, further scholarly work like McKinnon’s magisterial The Advent Project (published in 2000 and argued about since then) gives a fascinating visibility into the fits and starts by which accumulation and systematic planning alternated in the life of the Church and the growth of its lectionaries and Minor Propers.

There is a not insignificant amount of unhappiness with certain aspects of the Revised Common Lectionary—the three-year cycle we currently use for our Eucharistic lectionary. While many folks take the opportunity to spout off about what’s wrong with it, this volume offers an opportunity to examine how to go about thinking through what careful, intentional, systematic revision could and should look like.

It’s worth noting that the changes discussed here are grounded in one particular book, The Eternal Word in the Modern World, by Burton Scott Easton and Howard Chandler Robbins (Scribners, New York, 1937). The introduction to PBS I/II states :

The Commission records its loss in the deaths of two of its members, whose final contributions to the Church they served are reflected in this first issue of the Prayer Book Studies. . . . The Reverend Doctor Burton Scott Easton, late Associate Member, in his published work on the Epistles and Gospels of the Christian Year, furnished the foundation and inspiration for the Study on “The Liturgical Lectionary.”

So—the first author of the book was also a participant in the drafting of this volume. I’ve never seen a copy of this work for myself, but now I’m curious about it…

Another interesting throw-away line was this one:

It is a curious fact that no Lectionary of any Church ever made a systematic attempt to secure a definite ‘liturgical harmony,’ featuring a single common theme between all the portions read at each service, until the American Lectionary of 1943. (PBS II, 44)

The reference here is not to a Eucharistic lectionary, but to the revision of the Daily Office Lectionary. While I’m aware of this lectionary and have interacted with it to a certain degree,  I’ve not yet studied it in depth. When I have the opportunity to do so, the starting point will no doubt be Bayard Jones’ The American Lectionary (Morehouse-Gorham, 1944).

Jones was one of the Big Three in the early work of the Standing Liturgical Commission, the other two being Morton Stone and Massey Shepherd, Jr. All three of these guys—as liturgy professors at Episcopal seminaries—wrote important books on the 1928 BCP and its liturgy that might make interesting reading to supplement what is found in these Prayer Book Studies volumes.

Thoughts on Good Friday

I don’t think that the crucifixion was inevitable. I don’t think it necessarily had to go this way.

God sent his Son to be incarnate and live as one of us. Jesus was sent to reconcile humanity with God, to repair the breech, to lead us back to unity with God, and to enable us to share in the hopes and dreams and desires of God for his vast creation. God doesn’t choose to play us like puppets, so there had to be some freedom and flexibility in the plan, so that God could adapt to the human element, to the ways that we might act or react or change the plan. That doesn’t mean that we had to end up killing him—but that’s what we did.

I don’t think that the crucifixion was inevitable—but it was very likely, knowing who God is, and knowing who we are. We humans have an innate tendency to be selfish. We look after our own interests. Our tendency is to look out for number one, and to be suspicious of anyone or anything that threatens our power, our position, or our possessions. It’s a system that works. It’s not a system that is good, but it works because it is predictable and reliable.

Jesus came to break this system.

Jesus came to tell us about a more excellent way. And he didn’t just come to tell us with his mouth, but with his whole body and through everything that he did and the people he hung out with. He could have been part of the political system, he could have gotten in good with the religious system—but he didn’t. Instead he came to break the system. He came to challenge and question and confuse and confound and to beat up the scribes and the lawyers and the religious leaders with their own law because he knew it better than they did. He came, asking the hard questions about what justice, and mercy, and grace, and love really look like and act like and feel like. Jesus threatened the system and so the system fought back in the only way that it knows how. We didn’t have to end up killing him—but that’s what we did.

Because, at the end of the day, that’s who we are. We make the selfish choices. We perpetuate systems that aren’t fair, but that work because just enough people get what they want, they can justify taking it away and keeping it away from others. We made the choice to kill the Lord of Life because that’s who we are.

But—we call this day “Good” Friday because of the other person in the equation. God knows humanity. God knows humanity thoroughly. And even if the crucifixion wasn’t part of the original plan, God wasn’t done with us yet. Despite our pettiness, our fear, our cruelty. Despite humanity staying true to our worst instincts, God stayed true to his best nature. God kept on being God and that means bringing hope out of darkness, bringing freedom out of captivity, bringing redemption out of death. Even while we were yet sinners, Christ Jesus chose to die for us, and in so doing, turned our ultimate act of betrayal into a means for achieving the reunion that he came to accomplish. God loved us—and loves us—so deeply that our own attempts to ruin it were doomed to failure because there is nothing that you or I or anyone else can do that is bad enough to make God stop loving us. God’s capacity for love is greater than our capacity for sin.

I don’t think the crucifixion was inevitable—but it was likely, and I suppose it’s not surprising knowing the way we are. Good Friday is the day that humanity failed. We failed because we closed our eyes and minds and hearts to God’s message of love and truth and peace. We failed because we thought the way to stop God from challenging us and challenging our systems was to kill. We failed because there is nothing that we can do to make God stop—to make God stop loving us and calling us back to him.

Today is the day that we failed—but God wasn’t done with us yet.

God isn’t done with us yet.

Thanks be to God.

Christ the King

LORD of the ages evermore,
Each nation’s King, the wide world o’er,
O Christ, our only Judge thou art,
And Searcher of the mind and heart

Though Sin with rebel voice maintain,
‘We will not have this Christ to reign,’
Far other, Lord shall be our cry,
Who hail thee King of Kings most High.

O thou eternal Prince of peace,
Subdue man’s pride, bid error cease,
Permit not sin to wax o’er-bold,
The strayed bring home within the fold.

For this thou hangedst on the Tree
With arms outstretched in loving plea;
For this thou shewedst forth thy Heart,
On fire with love, pierced by the dart.

And yet that wounded side sheds grace
Forth from the altar’s holy place,
Where, veiled ‘neath humblest bread and wine,
Abides for man the life divine.

Earth’s noblest rulers to thee raise
Their homage due of public praise
Teachers and judges thee confess;
Art, science, law, thy truth express.

Let kings be fain to dedicate
To thee the emblems of their state;
Rule thou each nation from above,
Rule o’er the people’s homes in love.

All praise, King Jesu, be to thee,
The Lord of all in majesty;
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore. Amen.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King in the old Western Kalendar. I relized this late and was scrambling this morning to insert propers into a database following the Old Kalendar so they would display correctly. As I typed and read through these texts, the more they spoke to me.

I rose this morning to the news that there have now been three domestic terror attacks within the span of a couple of days fueled by ideological and racial hatred. The secular world can only shake its head and talk about intolerance and the partisan divide. Luckily, I’m a Christian so I have better language: this is evil, caused by sin. More specifically, it is sin empowered and emboldened by the loudest voice in the State.

Ant. 1: This is the true Solomon, † whose Name is the pledge of peace to the whole world, * and the throne of whose kingdom God hath established for evermore.

Now I get that there are some in the Episcopal church who find the language of royalty and kingship challenging. I have heard that this language of dominion can be a retrenchment of patriarchal thought. And yet I find it a comfort and aid this morning as I consider the news.

I am a Christian first.

I put my identity as a follower of Christ before my gender, my race, and—yes—even before my national origin. For me my Baptism is at the heart of my identity. Don’t get me wrong—I am proud to be an American (usually) and am proud to be the son of a veteran from a lineage of veterans. But the words of the Pledge, “and justice for all,” ring hollow when politicians flagrantly disregard them. At those moments, I remember that I am the subject of a Sovereign.

Ant. 3: Behold the Man who is like to the sunrising, † whose Name is The Branch; * he will sit and rule upon his throne, and speak peace unto the nations.

Political systems and movements that play upon racial hatred are anti-Christ. There is no other way to say it.

The propers of Christ the King take the ideas of dominion and lordship and sovereignty, and subvert them in line with the Gospel and the gospels we have been hearing the last few Sundays:

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

The hymn above emphasizes that kingship was accomplished through the humiliation of the cross and comes to us in the simple forms of bread and wine. Domination and hierarchy are subdued by self-offering. The Lauds hymn is the Vexilla regis which even more emphasizes that the power by Jesus flows from selfless service rather than from might or manipulative rhetoric (“Fulfilled is all that David told/In true prophetic song, of old:/Unto the nations, lo! saith he,/Our God hath reignèd from the Tree”)

The proclamation of Christ as king gives us an alternative and superior political standard that challenges all earthly systems and regimes and powers. Sin and evil and death are put on notice. But we—we the people—have to follow the lead of our true leader.

Chapter at None: For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; and having made peace through the blood of his Cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself, * whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven (Col 1:19).

Collecting the Saints: 2018 Edition

I know that there is great back and forth among those with strong opinions on the matter regarding the proposed Lesser Feasts & Fasts up for debate at General Convention. I had the opportunity to write a guest blog post for the Center for Liturgy & Music at Virginia Theological Seminary on a brief history of the Episcopal sanctoral calendar. In brief, I identified some major trends in how the calendar has been conceived and how it has or has not been representative of the church in the roughly fifty years that we have had a calendar. Too, I mentioned some ways that the proposed book is in continuity with some of the broad trends and how even some of the things that appear as novelties do have some antecedents.

I made a comment in that piece that I wasn’t going to talk about collects and readings because that topic was a complex one that deserved its own post. Well—this is that post…

I don’t plan for this to be deep and exhaustive, but merely to point out some key trends with the readings and collects. At the conclusion, I think you’ll agree that whatever you may think of the decisions around specific individuals in LFF 2018, you’ll see that it is superior to previous volumes in its poetry, literary artistry, and theological grounding.

There are three broad movements when it comes to a philosophy of sanctoral collects in the Episcopal Calendar: 1) Common(ish) Collects, 2) The Return of the Biographical Collect, and 3) The Theological Turn.

1) Common(ish) Collects

Prayer Book Studies XII

Let’s start at the beginning, which for this topic means Prayer Book Studies XII: The Propers for the Minor Holy Days, published in 1958. The table of contents for this volume breaks down like this:

  • The Collects
  • The Epistles and Gospels
  • Movable Octaves and Seasons
  • The Proposed Propers
  • Indices

Let me be clear on this… The first 35 pages of this work talk about the complex and important work of finding suitable collects for celebrating the black-letter days. The heading entitled “The Problem of Suitable Collects” includes some very quotable lines like these:

The writing of Collects for liturgical use is a most exacting discipline. One is tempted to say that it is an art possible only to a literary genius, who at the same time has a profound knowledge of theology and a rich experience of prayer. In any case, the best Collects are generally the work of individuals; they are rarely effective when produced by a committee. (PBS XII, 6-7).

Two members of the group—unnamed, but I’d bet cash money that it was Bayard Jones and Massey Shepherd—got together, worked on possible collects “for a number of years”, and sent them out for testing. The results of their test are worth citing in full:

The aim of our subcommittee was to provide Collects of a biographical character, comparable to those of the Apostles and Evangelists in the [American 1928] Prayer Book. A complete schedule of Collects was finally prepared and sent to a number of persons skilled in these matters for criticism; and the results of these endeavors was used experimentally in a few of our seminaries and in certain private chapels. The ensuing comments after this trial use were not encouraging. Too many of these Collects gave the effect of being overly contrived and erudite. To place them in the Prayer Book would demand an annotated commentary for the benefit of those lay people who did not have an extensive knowledge of Church History and were therefore unable to appreciate the subtle allusions in these Collects. However admirable most of these Collects might be for personal, devotional use, they lacked that quality of universal application that is needed in a formulary for corporate, liturgical use. (PBS XII, 9)

In short, the biographical collect, although seen as desirable, was deemed a failure by the best liturgical minds of the time.

Instead, they decided to go with a set of Common(ish) collects. That is, having Commons for readily identifiable groups of similar saints was seen as a good idea. However, a certain variety was still necessary and helpful to avoid monotony:

For…the ninety-two Black Letter commemorations, we are offering a total of thirty-six collects, of which seventeen are appointed for one occasion only, the others for two or more occasions. But none of them are listed for more than six commemorations; and of these, an effort has been made to avoid using the same Collect twice over within the space of one month. However, there are one or two exceptions to this latter usage. By such a distribution, it is hoped that tedium may be lessened, and thus the devout attention of worshippers encouraged.  (PBS XII, 10)

The way that this worked out in practice is that certain key people had unique collects (Gregory the Great, Francis of Assisi, Irenaeus, the BVM and Mary Magdalene [remember, these last two were still black letter days at this point, not Holy Days]). Then—for instance—the 12 commemorations of martyrs were grouped into four categories by affinity and four collects were used, one for each group. Hence, the “early women martyrs”  (Agnes, Perpetua & Felicitas, and the Martyrs of Lyon) shared a collect, “early male martyrs” (Ignatius, Alban, and Laurence) shared a collect, “early church leader martyrs” (Polycarp, Justin, and Cyprian [Ignatius could have been in this group but wasn’t]) shared a collect, and “missionary martyrs” (Boniface, Patteson, and Hannington”) shared a collect. The Just-missionaries-not-martyrs-or-teachers group of 12 names was simply divided into two groups, each group sharing a collect. Thus:

We have attempted not to be arbitrary in the use of Collects for more than one worthy, and to find what might be termed obvious or natural groupings. The three monarchs: Louis, Alfred, and Margaret, share the same Collect as do five early Fathers who gave great contributions to the shaping of the dogma of the Incarnation–Hilary, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Leo. It was readily evident that modern leaders in Christian humanitarianism such as Maurice and Wilberforce could be classed under the same Collect, but their predecessors of earlier times, such as Nicholas and Elizabeth of Hungary, were better served by other memorials. (PBS XII, 13-4)

Now let me give you an example of the actual collects and the discussion around them. Let’s follow two commemorations, Perpetua & Felicitas and Dominic, and see what we’ve got for their collects…

Agnes (January 21)
Perpetua and her Companions (March 7)
The Martyrs of Lyon (June 2)

Almighty and everlasting God, with whom thy meek ones go forth as the mighty: Grant us so to cherish the memory of thy blessed martyr(s) ——-, that we may share her pure and steadfast faith in thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Collect was based upon one for St. Agnes’ feast in the Gregorian Sacramentary. But in place of the original clause “who dost choose the weak things of the world to confound the the things which are mighty,” the Commission has drawn from a phrase used by William Bright in his Collect “For all who do the Work of the Church” (Ancient Collects, p. 237): “with whom thy little ones go forth as the mighty.” Both phrases are well-suited to describe the heroines who are the chief subjects of these commemorations. However, the Pauline expression, “weak things of the world” might not convey to the modern congregation the exact notion that is desired, hence the change of the word “weak” to “meek.” (PBS XII, 25)

And now Dominic:

Thomas Ken (March 20).
William Law (April 6).
Benedict (July 11).
Dominic (August 4).
Sergius (September 25).
Hilda (November 17).

Almighty and everlasting God, we give thee thanks for the purity and strength with which thou didst endow thy servant ——; and we pray that by thy grace we may have a like power to hallow and conform our souls and bodies to the purpose of thy most holy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The basis for this Collect was taken by the Commission from the Reverend E. A. L. Clarke’s The People’s Missal, where it appears for the Common of a Virgin-Martyr. It seems to be admirably suited to the varied “ascetical” gifts of the group of worthies here listed from all periods of the Church’s history. (PBS XII, 33)

I want you to notice a couple of key things here… First, collects are shared amongst similar kinds of saints—sorry, “worthies”—who are put together in relatively loose and arbitrary although reasonable groupings. Second, all of these collects have sources! Not only that, alterations were also made with reference to other collects as well as Scripture. There was not just thought but history and continuity behind what was being done here.

For selecting Scriptural readings, they didn’t start from scratch either, but looked at the old Roman Catholic Commons for the various categories of saints. Hence, Perpetua & Companions got the Epistle and Gospel from one of the 12 Commons of Marytrs—but not the one assigned to her day by Rome, rather from Salus autem: Hebrews 10:32-39 and Matthew 24:9-14a. Dominic doesn’t actually get a Scripture reading; in the two-tiered system of this book, Dominic is on tier 2 and hence only gets a collect, no Scripture.

Prayer Book Studies XVI/Lesser Feasts & Fasts (1st Ed.)

The material in Prayer Book Studies IX and XII were reworked to become Prayer Book Studies XVI which was itself adapted slightly to become the first edition of Lesser Feasts & Fasts. There was more change in the formatting than in the texts. Now the collects and Scriptural readings are grouped together. However, the brief biographies are still located in a separate part of the resource.

There is no change in the texts of either the collects or the Scripture for the two saints we’re following. However, there are signs of a shift on the horizon… At the end of the book are included one common each for the major categories of saints: martyrs, missionaries, monastics, etc.

Lesser Feasts & Fasts (Revised Ed. [1973])

Prayer Book Studies 19: The Church Year (1970) made some major forward strides in terms of thinking about a new way of doing the Calendar for a new prayer book that was now on the horizon. In particular, it re-aligned thinking on the Calendar in light of what Rome did with Vatican II. Nevertheless, this resource doesn’t address the Lesser Feasts. The Revised edition of Lesser Feasts & Fasts wouldn’t come out until 1973. What we see here is a Calendar very much under the sway of the coming ’79 Book of Common Prayer. The short Preface notes some changes that have taken place:

1. The Collects of the earlier edition have been carefully revised, and several new ones have been included. They are provided in both traditional and contemporary language, as in Services for Trial Use.

3. Commemorations which hitherto had only a Collect are now assigned Psalms and Lessons, either individually or by reference to the Common of Saints. (LFF 1973, vii, viii)

In this work we start seeing propers being conformed to the Commons that have been established for the forthcoming ’79 BCP. This shows up in both collects and in the appointed Scripture readings. Thus there is a certain work of norming the calendar and solidifying the previously rather fluid groups that had existed before. There is also a leveling of occasions and a move away from the original two-tiered system.

There is no change to the collect or lessons for Perpetua and her Companions except for getting the longer ending of the collect “…who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, on God, in glory everlasting. Amen.” There is now a contemporary Rite II collect as well. This same collect is used but for a change of names for Agnes, but the Martyrs of Lyon now have a new collect that highlights Blandina and focuses less on meekness and more on the endurance of suffering. (I really need to do a post on JBob’s fascination with Blandina…)

Dominic’s collect is different and he now has lessons assigned to him (going forward, I’ll just provide the Rite II texts):

Almighty God, whose will it is to be glorified in your saints, and who raised up your servant Dominic to be a light in the world: Shine, we, pray, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth your praises, who have called us out of darkness into your marvelous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever. Amen.

This is a new template which will become the second Common for Missionaries. Here Dominic’s grouping has been rethought from “ascetic” to “missionary” and a new common assigned accordingly. If we look back  at Dominic’s original group, we’ll find that they have been dispersed into other Commons and assigned those collects; the only exception is Benedict who keeps the original collect with a minor change—“purity” becomes “humility” in recognition of the importance of that concept in the Rule.

Scripture-wise, Dominic will share 1 Corinthians 2 with Basil the Great, but Dominic alone gets the Romans 10 option and the Gospel, John 7:16-18. Glancing through the Scripture index, there is occasional overlap between the Scripture lessons that shows that a diversity of readings is the goal, but that they are falling back on Commons where it seems to make sense.

Broadly speaking, this era of Common(ish) Collects relied heavily on quality collects from the past. The authors mined the collect collections found in Bright, Frere, Souter, and a variety of Anglican missals as well as the Gregorian/Hadrianum material of the ancient Western sacramentaries. These were then adapted to serve for several people who fell into a coherent category, categories that became more formalized as we moved towards the ’79 BCP with its set classes of saints.

Because of the generalities needed (and the theological proclivities of its authors), these collects focused on the saints as exemplars in that their lives showed certain theological gifts or virtues—“witness through meekness,” “purity and strength,” “spread God’s light.” There were not usually specific details given because of the generalities of the Commons. However, some saints did get individualized collects and some Commons did get tailored at points (like the change to “humility” in Benedict’s).

2) The Return of the Biographical Collect

After being tried and rejected in the original tests for the Calendar, the biographical collect returned with a vengeance in 1980. There is a certain irony here. The ’79 BCP provided two or three collects for each Commons of the saints. The Revised Edition of LFF in ’73 utilized these commons for the Calendar. And yet, the edition of LFF released to accompany the New Prayer Book (you know, at the time when it actually was new…)  went in a completely different direction.

Lesser Feasts & Fasts (Third edition [1980])

The preface states “The purpose of the revision of the Collects for the Lesser Feasts was to ensure that each Collect be distinctive of the person commemorated, or of that aspect of the Church’s life to which that person contributed most significantly” (LFF 1980, iv). It then identifies several changes where collects were personalized for several individuals. This occurred at the hands of the Rev. Canon Charles M. Guilbert, Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer with the assistance of the Rev. Eric Jackson and Mr. Patrick Russell. (I’d dearly love to know if they looked at or used any of the material that Jones & Shepherd had compiled in their first go-around…)

In other words, the biographical collect was back—and it would be back to stay for quite a while.

While the Scripture lessons remained the same, we got a new collect for Perpetua and her Companions:

O God the King of saints, you strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

And a new one for Dominic too:

O God of the Prophets, you opened the eyes of your servant Dominic to perceive a famine of hearing the word of the Lord and moved him, and those he drew about him, to satisfy that hunger with sound preaching and fervent devotion: Make your Church, dear Lord, in this and every age attentive to the hungers of the world, and quick to respond in love to those who are perishing; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

So—quite different and tailored to the occasion. A collect is one long sentence; these strain to the point of being run-ons. Truthfully, there’s a biographical first sentence about the saints, then a second sentence about us. What was classically a relative clause that said something about God pertinent for the rest of the prayer has become an opportunity to talk about the person. In theory we are thanking God for a specific gift or set of gifts given, but that ends up too often coming off like a rhetorical ploy than a focus on gifts and charisms. It’s a one-sentence biography, then the abstraction of idea or concept from that biography to be applied to us/the current church.

Needless to say, there are no classical sources being drawn on here. No doubt that was seen as a bonus. What has developed here is a new kind of prayer modeled on the collect but different.

This model would continue to be the regnant model as new names were added to the Calendar by General Convention.

With the arrival of Holy Women, Holy Men this kind of collect was pushed almost to the point of parody—particularly in the new additions. I’ve ranted about this before and will spare you the speech now. However, there was some reworking of the older biographical collects as well. While there was no change in Perpetua & her Companions, there was a new version of the Dominic collect:

Almighty God, whose servant Dominic grew in knowledge of your truth and formed an order of preachers to proclaim the good news of Christ: Give to all your people a hunger for your Word and an urgent longing to share the Gospel, that the whole world may come to know you as you are revealed in your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

For all that I may not like the style,  this is a better prayer than the previous one. It is less allusive and more direct. It’s a better biography. Also, the request is more closely tied to the bio: “Dominic established an order of preachers: help us preach Jesus.”  This is better than “help us connect with hungers”—because Dominic was about preaching Jesus and doing it well!

The biographical collect stops being one sentence about God, who God is, and what we request of God based on who God is. Instead, it’s a sentence about a person—a human—and then a sentence about what we think we should ask as a result of that person. At it’s best it’s asking for a gift like what that person had; at it’s worst, it’s asking that we can do the same kind of job as that person. To my eyes, the focus is on humanity—an exemplary person and what we can learn from them—rather than on the God who has been in relationship with us and the gifts and charisms given by the Spirit that share in the virtues of Jesus Christ.

3) The Theological Turn

Great Cloud of Witnesses

HWHM was quite a thing to inherit—which I did when I became head of the Calendar Subcommittee in 2013. My initial attempt was to do what LFF 2018 is doing: move some names to more of a “remembrance list” and better balance the names that remains. This approach was rejected by the SCLM as it was composed then. Great Cloud was a compromise that attempted to maintain inclusivity, but address the theological issue of folks on the Calendars whom all could not receive as saints. You can read through all of the travails of that process in the back catalog here, so I won’t dwell on it.

Over all, GCW didn’t achieve what I had hoped that it would, and it was not accepted by the church.  Despite its shortcomings, I think the best work that went into it was the beginning of revision on the collects. As you can probably tell by now, I’m not a fan of the biographical collect. What I attempt to do was to think about how these collects are supposed to function and—in particular—to tie them into the concept of the Baptismal Covenant. How were these people living out the Covenant and what were the baptismal gifts and, graces, and charisms that they inhabit? Which of the virtues of Christ did they put most prominently on display?

Here’s a post where I discuss the specific revision of one collect (St Bede’s) along these lines. (And I see that I did a mini-version of the above post there too so it may be a teensy bit repetitive at points.) Here’s another that’s not as specific where I call out the relative clause problems in particular.

Looking back, I didn’t make any changes to either of these collects. They weren’t as bad as some others (Bede, Alcuin…) so I left them alone.

I must say, that was my biggest disappointment in the side-lining of GCW—the revised collects did not get much circulation.

Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2018

Now we get to the new proposal on the table. It starts with what had been done in GCW but goes further and does more, particularly in the trimming of unnecessary relative clauses. Let’s compare the one’s we’ve been looking at side by side:

[table width =”100%” style =”” responsive =”false”]
[table_head]
[th_column]Old Collect[/th_column]
[th_column]New Collect[/th_column]
[/table_head]
[table_body]
[table_row]
[row_column]O God the King of saints, you strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[/row_column]
[row_column]O God, the King of Saints, who strengthened your servants Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions to make a good confession and to encourage one another in the time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. [/row_column]
[/table_row]
[table_row]
[row_column]Almighty God, whose servant Dominic grew in knowledge of your truth and formed an order of preachers to proclaim the good news of Christ: Give to all your people a hunger for your Word and an urgent longing to share the Gospel, that the whole world may come to know you as you are revealed in your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[/row_column]
[row_column]Almighty God, Grant unto all your people a hunger for your Word and an urgent longing to share your Gospel, that like your servant Dominic we might labor to bring the whole world to the knowledge and love of you as you are revealed in your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [/row_column]
[/table_row]
[/table_body]
[/table]

To my eyes and tongue, the revisions here make objectively better prayers—prayers that can actually claim the name “collect” again! The content has not been completely overhauled, you can still see the bones that they’re working with, but the trimming of material has re-balanced the focus of the collect. The virtues, the charisms, the gifts are more in focus than before.

These two commemorations are just examples that I picked pretty much at random. As I flip through LLF 2018, I can see a host of improvements along these lines. Prayers are tightened up, the collect form is restored, some have been overhauled.

Is LFF 2018 a prefect document? No, of course not. But I see it as much improved step over what I did, certainly, and over what we have been working with over the past many years. We celebrate the saints because they show us what “the full stature of Christ” looks like in human form. They show us what the virtues of Christ look and act like in myriad different times and places and societies. They show us where a sacramental path of discipleship leads. They illustrate a Baptismal Covenant fully embraced. And the prayers with which we fete them ought to represent that truth too. This volume does that in ways we haven’t seen in a long time.

Please—let’s pass this one.

Brief Thought on the Sanctoral Calendar

I just finished writing a brief history of the Episcopal sanctoral calendar for another blog (I’ll link when it goes up).

I’ll be the first to tell you that the evolution of our Calendar has been both crazy and problematic. However, I’ve been seeing recommendations on Facebook and in other places suggesting that we just get rid of our Calendar—cut it back to just the Holy Days and take time to think it out, or to not even bother thinking it out.

I have a negative reaction to this proposal. Let me play devil’s advocate and suggest that a flawed Calendar authorized by the church is better than no Calendar. The 1928 BCP, despite a late push at the 1928 General Convention to adopt a calendar, was published with just the vestigal kalendar of Holy Days in place since the 1789 BCP. To me, a New-Testament-figures-only calendar is a betrayal of our pneutmatology and therefore ecclesiology.

We believe in the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Holy Spirit has been at work since Pentecost guiding and directing the Church into all truth. (Obviously, the Spirit was around and active before Pentecost—my point is the Church, which wasn’t…) To skip over twenty centuries of human history is tantamount to a denial of the presence of the Spirit in the Church. Or, at the very least, a dangerous agnosticism about our ability to discern the movement of the Spirit in the past.

We need a Calendar to affirm fundamental Christological, pnematological, and ecclesiological truths: throughout the Church’s flawed and checkered history, the Spirit has been at work, saints have incarnated Christ in their times and places, and the Body of Christ has made Christ Really Present to the world through the members of the Church.

The question that we are faced with now is what exactly we want the Calendar to be. Is the Calendar a history of famous men who taught things we should know? Is the Calendar a representative picture of the kinds of people who make up the Church? or (spoiler alert) is the Calendar a depiction of the virtues of Christ and the gifts of the Spirit incarnated through the Body of Christ (in ways both representative and historical)?

First feasts of December

Kalendar Calculations

I’m thinking back to yesterday and the conjunction of two different feasts, Corpus Christi and the Feast of the Visitation. It’s worth commenting on why two different sites—like the St. Bede’s Breviary and Daily Prayer—would choose one over the other. How do we think through these decisions theologically and what are the practical logics involved in these kind of kalendar calculations?

Occurrence–It’s a Thing

First off, this kind of thing happens not infrequently. That is, two days of significance to the church will overlap with one another because we have two different ways of reckoning dates for liturgical occasions. One is a Temporal cycle that shifts with the seasons, goes by weeks, and is calculated by means of Sundays which do not maintain a consistent date on the calendar every year. (Hence the tables on pp. 880-885 of your ’79 BCP.) The other is the cycle of fixed Holy Days. These are a combination of days celebrating apostolic saints (like Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, etc.) and feasts of Our Lord either directly (like Feast of the Holy Name) or indirectly through events surrounding the Incarnation (like The Visitation, the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, etc.). These are, clearly, fixed on certain calendar dates.

Thus, there always exists the possibility for Temporal occasions to land on the same day as fixed Holy Days. That’s what happened yesterday: Corpus Christi, a traditional feast of the Temporal cycle celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, fell on the same day as the Visitation, the feast fixed on May 31. The technical church geek name for this is “occurrence.” (The other related issue is “concurrence” which is what happens when Evening Prayer of two feasts tangle with one another—that’s a much longer and more technical discussion on why and how and what you do, so I’ll shelve that for now…)

There are a few different approaches to deal with occurrence. The first is to let one event supplant the other entirely. This is the simplest route. The second is transference. This is where one feast stays on its original day and the other gets bumped to the next open day. The third is commemoration. This is where both feasts stay on the day, one gets the spotlight and the other gets an honorable mention. The prayer book’s preferred option is the second, transference, and the mechanics of this process is discussed on pages 15-17 of your ’79 BCP.

Personally, I much prefer the third, commemoration. The reason is theological. This whole clashing of days is messy. How are we supposed to deal with the mess? Do we sanitize it, simplify it, or embrace it? This mess happens because these cycles are fundamentally incarnational—embracing the mess is embracing the inherent messiness of embodied life where things don’t always go the way you plan. And, in fact, amazing things can proceed out of the mess that you never would have expected. If you remember, just a couple of years ago in 2016, Good Friday fell on March 25th. Following the prayer book rules, all of us good Episcopalians dutifully transferred the Feast of the Annunciation to the Monday after the Second Sunday of Easter as directed on page 17. But—how much more powerful was that Holy Week considering the juxtaposition of the events: the death of Christ on the cross with his mother at its foot and the announcement of Christ’s conception to his mother by the angel Gabriel? Luckily, we even got a poem out of John Donne on it when this conjunction occurred in 1608.  Commemoration enables messy conjunctions like this to occur, allows us to wonder and revel in them rather trying to tidily confine God’s action to discrete days. (Which is why the image for yesterday’s post was Mary holding the Host—the best intersection of the two feasts I could think of!)

But—choosing one of the three options only determines your course of action, it doesn’t solve the problem of precedence: which feast stays and which goes (or gets the spotlight).

Determining Dignity

Old rules about which feast to celebrate when will sometimes make appeals to the “nobler” or the feast “of greater dignity” and such. This implies the existence of a theologically determined set of criteria to be used to

figure these things out—and these exist in spades! Here’s the problem with the traditional systems. Most of them begin with facts on the medieval ground and proceed by attempting to figure out logical rules that can be universally applied. Thus you have something like a calendar from a Book of Hours written around 1485 in Bruges following the Roman Use (Walters W.. September has three days written in red: September 1st for the Abbot Egidius, the Nativity of the BVM on the 8th, and the Exaltation of the Cross on the 14th. (And note the feast of Philip and James in black on the 13th!) What happens if a Sunday falls on one of these days? There’s no clear sense in this manuscript of how one would work it out or exactly what “red” means.

Now—to be perfectly fair, that’s from a Book of Hours. The function of a kalendar in Books of Hours was more general familiarity with where we are in the year and which saints are being celebrated than anything else. While you might use a certain collect or set of devotions based on the saint of the day, the prayer offices did not change. As a result if we really want to know what an actual medieval system for reckoning the Office looked like in the flesh we need to look at something like this kalendar from a breviary written around 1420 according to the Use of Liege (Walters W.83). If you look carefully here there are directions in red regarding what to do and how these various feasts ought to impact the Offices. Hence, in this use, the feast of Abbot Egidius is a feast of nine lessons (.ix.l.) meaning longer than normal. The feast of the holy virgin Magdalbert on the 7th is a “double” of a certain sort (dux) and is the primary feast of the day—the feast of Bishop Evortius is only commemorated with a collect (co[ll]). On the next day, the Nativity of the BVM is a double with all of the antiphons doubled (tot) with a collect commemorating the martyr Adrian (coll). The point I’m making is that books like these recorded what communities did and largely they had their own ideas about how things ought to be done. Systems grew up that attempted to systematize and regularize around these practices and that can lead to a confusing welter of gradations formalized at the Council of Trent and beyond that divides feasts in Greater Doubles of the First or Second Class as opposed to “normal” Greater Doubles or Lesser Doubles (leaving aside semidoubles and such entirely…).

These were the kinds of complexities that the Reformers pushed back against. Classically, Cranmer complained about these in the preface to the first Book of Common Prayer: “Moreover, the number and hardness of the Rules called the Pie, and the manifold changings of the service, was the cause, that to turn the Book only, was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times, there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out” (BCP, p. 866). Honestly, the Sarum Pie isn’t that hard to follow, but you get his general gist.

My Ranking System

In the run up to Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church simplified their kalendar systems quite a bit. When we decided to adopt an expanded kalendar in the ’79 BCP we more or less modeled ours based on the Roman Catholic concepts produced in 1963 and 1964 that yielded a papal motu proprio on the kalendar in 1969. And, as I’ve said before, when trying to understand many aspects of the ’79 BCP we should look first to the liturgical reforms of Vatican II first (Point 4 at this link).  What the Calendar section of the BCP tries to do is to express something very much like the list from section 59 of Paul VI’s motu proprio Mysterii paschalis. What I don’t get is why they didn’t just put in the list (or a list)!

Because the St. Bede’s Breviary is based on a computer algorithm, I did compile a list. This list is rank by order of precedent so that you can see which feasts land where in relation to other feasts. I started with something like the Mysterii paschalis list and then re-ordered it as necessary to make sense of the directives in the Calendar section of the BCP:

I.

1. Easter Triduum [Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday]
2. Christmas, Ascension, Holy Trinity, All Saints’ Day, Epiphany and Pentecost
3. Sundays of Advent, Lent, and Easter
4. Ash Wednesday
5. Weekdays of Holy Week from Monday from Thursday inclusive
6. Days within the Octave of Easter
7. Local Feast of Dedication of a church, Local Feast of Title, Local Feast of Patron
8. Special Feasts, locally having a first class rank*
9. Proper Feasts, locally having a first class rank*

II.

10. Holy Days: Feasts of Our Lord
11. Sundays of the Christmas Season and Ordinary Time
12. Holy Days: Major Feasts
13. Special Feasts, locally having a second class rank*
14. Days of Optional Observance, locally having a second class rank*

III.

15. Special Feasts, locally having a third class rank*
16. Days of Optional Observance, locally having a third class rank*
17. Weekdays of Lent
18. Weekdays of Advent from December 16th through December 24th inclusive
19. Days of Optional Observance
20. Weekdays of Advent up to December 15th inclusive
21. Weekdays of the Easter season
22. [Saturday Office of the BVM]†
23. Weekdays of the Christmas season
24. Weekdays of Ordinary Time

* The starred categories reflect the freedoms given in the Days of Optional Observance section. Practically speaking, the Prayer Book allows the appointment of propers to any day that does not contravene the pre-existing rules. This allows feasts already in the Calendar to receive additional celebration or the addition of other feasts so long as the other rules are obeyed.

The Pay-Off

So—now we get down to brass tacks… The Visitation is listed on page 16 of the BCP as a Holy Day and a Feast of Our Lord. That gives it a pretty high ranking, a 10 on my scale. Corpus Christi doesn’t actually appear in the BCP. For some folks, that’s the end of the discussion right there. The Visitation is in the book, Corpus Christi isn’t, Visitation wins. But, Corpus Christi is of long-standing importance in certain communities in the church. For those communities, this remains a live issue. Looking back at older rules (that many of these communities base their reckonings on), Corpus Christi was considered a Primary Double of the First Class; the Visitation was a Primary Double of the Second Class. Under those rules, Corpus Christi wins.

But what about our current rules? The way I reckoned it for the St. Bede’s Breviary was to view Corpus Christi as a Feast of Our Lord (10). The Visitation is also a 10—so which 10 is more 10 than the other? This is where we apply the rule of dignity of persons. Which more directly displays to us who Jesus is and is for us in our experience? Based on my answer to this question, I argue that Corpus is more directly a Feast of Our Lord than the Visitation. That’s not to say the Visitation isn’t important at all. It’s just to say that in this particular match-up, the revelation of Christ in the Eucharist ranks ahead of the Visitation.

It’s a judgement call. And, again, I don’t disagree with those who point out that Corpus Christi isn’t in our BCP. But, if nothing else, this gives us an opportunity to think about the directives and principles by which we give spiritual expression to the incarnate collisions of our faith.

Lenten Resources

As Lent swiftly approaches, here are a few things to remind you about as you consider how to keep a holy Lent…

  • Forward Movement has launched a new faith-in-families resource site called GrowChristians.org. Fr now, it’s conceived as a Lenten trial. If the responses is good, it may well continue on. I’m offering a “dad voice” and my first post—thinking about taking kids to Ash Wednesday services—is up. Take a read, and leave a comment!
  • Speaking of Forward Movement… I have been recruited this year as a Celebrity Blogger! I know there are mixed feelings around Lent Madness. While I’m sensitive to and agree with some of the criticism of it, I think its merits far outweigh its flaws. It is a great way to engage a lot of people in thinking about heroes of the faith, how and why they matter, and doing some solid education in a fun way.
  • For a more “out of the box” experience, check out the Lenten resources at the Godspace/Mustard Seed Alliance site where I also do some writing.
  • I’m going to continue focusing on intentionality, and I’m really stoked about the Lenten series on Rules of Life from the brothers at SSJEOnline. Not everyone is called to the monastic life, but our embedded expressions of monastic life from groups like the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Order of the Holy Cross, the Order of Julian of Norwich and others have valuable lessons for the whole church about the place of prayer and contemplation with an increasingly crazy world.
  • Last but not least, the St. Bede Breviary offers a full round of Daily Offices plus votives and the Great Litany. I’m planning some improvements that will probably appear in Lent, so don;t be surprised of things are a little different over there!

 

Advent

I hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving and a good start to Advent. I’ve got some posts in the works that are proceeding in fits and starts. Barring actual substance, then, here are some manuscript pictures!

Advent puts us in mind of the Second Coming and the judgement; suitably, here’s a rendition of the Last Judgement complete with the selected “sheep” at Christ’s right hand and the “goats” being led off by devils, all surmounted by Christ clearly displaying his five wounds from the Carrow Psalter (Walters, W.34 first discussed here):

The Last Judgement

Carrow Psalter f.30v

 

The kalendar page for December is pretty typical for a thirteenth-century kalendar, but does have some items to remark on. Here’s the full page:

Kalendar for December

Carrow Psalter, f.41v

Like most December kalendars, it’s rather spare since Advent was a penitential season. There are a couple of points to make on the feasts at the top of the page…

First feasts of December

Carrow Psalter f.41v detail

I’m at a loss concerning the bishop being celebrated on December 4th. I’d expect St. Osmund or St. Barabara here ordinarily; I’ll have to poke into this one a bit more… I was initially trying to read “Ambrose” here and we do have the “A”, an abbreviated m/n (that’s the line over top the “a”), and a likely “b”, but nothing else fits. And it’s on the wrong day. In any case, the note in red next to his name indicates that this is the last possible day for the first Sunday of Advent.

Nicholas and the Conception of the BVM get gold lettering; these are major feasts—I’d expect nine lessons and special propers. The Octave of St. Andrew falls between them.

A bit lower down, we see one of the liturgical entries that will survive into the first BCP:

Middle feasts of December

Carrow Psalter, f.41v detail

The entry on December 16th is the “O Sapientia” that signals the start of the O Antiphons. Again, note that the sequence begins on the 16th, not the 17th (the now standard Roman Catholic date) meaning that the Marian O Antiphon that we find in the Sarum tradition was likely included in the sequence used in this region. Of course, this makes me wonder how widely this usage was found. I should probably check some German, mid-French, and Italian souerces of similar date and compare…

Ash Wednesday 2015

I love the way the liturgy functions…

As many readers know, I’ve got two books in the pipeline right now, one on early medieval monastic Gospel interpretation at the final page proof stage, the other on the spirituality of the prayer book in the editing stage. Both of them deal with the liturgy and how it works; I was reminded of elements from both today.

One of the strengths of the interlocking liturgical cycles is the opportunity for “pregnant juxtaposition.” That is, through the regular operation of liturgical mechanics, items and elements are put into relationship with one another. The ones praying have an opportunity to see connenctions between them and, in this process of discovery, to gain new insights into the character of the faith and the identity of the Triune Deity behind it all.

The regular monthly psalm cycle gave us Pss 90, 91, and 92 this morning. As I mentioned in my previous post, Ps 90 is and will continue to be a focal point for my reflections on intentionality and simplification this Lent; its appearance this morning was completely seredipitous. Likewise, Ps 91 is deeply connected with Lent for me. In the medieval cycle, the Minor Propers for Lent I were taken from Ps 91 given its appearance in the Gospel appointed for that feast, Matthew’s narrative of Jesus being tempted by Satan. Medieval monastic interpreters—Aelfric among them—argued that Satan was misinterpreting the psalm in applying it to Jesus. Rather, it applies to those of us struggling towards righteousness. God will allow us to be tempted and tried, but also lends us protection and strength throughout the process. Lines from this psalm will recur throughout the monastic Office for the entirety of Lent, reminding those paticipating in the liturgical cycles of God’s faithfulness in trial and testing.

To close out, I’ll leave with a section I just finished up in the prayer book spirituality manuscript with regard to Ash Wednesday and its liturgy:

——–

The season of Lent engages the affection of penitence. During Lent we consider ourselves from two vantage points. The first concerns the human tendency to sin—individually and corporately. Sin is a reality of human existence. The other unavoidable reality of human existence providing the second vantage point is death. Lent opens with Ash Wednesday’s stark acknowledgement of the reality of death. Lent isn’t about being morbid, or punitive, or tearing ourselves down, or whipping ourselves into a lather of self-condemnation. It is, rather, about that word I’ve used twice now: reality. It’s about taking honest stock of who and what we are in the face of eternity and in the face of God. We are limited; we are fallible. In a short life of uncertainty we make choices that lead us deeper into separation and chaos—cutting ourselves off from those who love us and whom we would love. Lent is a deliberate exercise in owning up.

The Ash Wednesday liturgy has four particular components that serve to focus our attentions at the start of the season. The first is the exhortation to a holy Lent. It sets forth briefly the idea of Lent, noting its dual role as a season for baptismal preparation and also a season for corporate repentance. After the history lesson, it points us to the particular disciplines of the season and identifies elements of a holy Lent: “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP, p. 265). Thus, we confront the reality of our inner lives, we do those things that help us love God and neighbor, and re-center ourselves on the vision that God has for the world and our place within it.[i]

The second component of the Ash Wednesday service that focuses us is the imposition of the ashes themselves. This is a liturgical moment of great power—and should be allowed to speak for itself without piling up a bunch of words around it. Some of my most poignant and important memories of Lent are memories from this point in this service. I remember my first Ash Wednesday as a parent when I carried my infant daughter to the rail and saw the priest put the ashes on her forehead. The contrast, the paradox, between her youth and the mark of mortality affected me deeply. Some may think this inappropriate—but I recall how many churchyards through which I have wandered, looking at gravestones, and seeing markers for children (and often their mothers) younger than her. The reality of mortality offends our sensibilities—but to deny plays into our fantasies.

Alternatively, I remember one year when I assisted in the chancel, imposing ashes. As I moved around the rail, I found myself at three figures—in the center was an elder of the congregation, his eyes closed, face to the sky, arms outstretched, gripping the hands of his wife on one side, his best friend on the other. For the previous nine months I had been visiting him weekly as he wrestled with an aggressive cancer that had turned terminal. We all knew this Ash Wednesday would be his last. For him, this moment was a solemn embrace of sister Death within the company of the church, the whole Body of Christ gathered around him.

Here, though, lies one of the brutal truths of Ash Wednesday: he was not closer to death than anyone else in the room. All of us are but a breath, a heartbeat, a moment away from death. The difference between him and us was his awareness of his situation. He knew and chose to face the truth of his mortality, a truth about which most of us would prefer to remain blissfully unaware.

From this point in the service we move to the third component, Psalm 51, the greatest of the penitential psalms. In these words, we are given the example of what full disclosure before God looks like. The psalmist is under no illusions about his interior state; there is an honesty here that we may find uncomfortable, but which speaks directly to the presence, reality, and power of sin in our lives. To my mind, the prayer book gives us this psalm at the beginning of the season. We receive it as a model of penitent prayer. We may not feel every bit of what the psalmist says, but it gives us direction and guidance for our own deep self-examination to which we are called. And, as we pray it and gaze within ourselves, we may indeed find ourselves drawing closer to his perspective than we might have first thought!

The fourth component is the Litany of Penitence which also spurs us to self-reflection. Its beginning mirrors Jesus’ Summary of the Law that classically began Anglican Eucharists and that still heads up the Penitential Order that is especially appropriate in this season (the Rite I version is p. 319; Rite II, p. 351). Jesus encapsulates God’s Law in Mark’s gospel in this way:

Jesus said, ‘The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’ Mark 12-19-31 (BCP, p. 351).

By putting this section of Scripture at the beginning of our Eucharists, the architects of the early prayer books were giving this passage a special place in our understanding of what God requires of us and what righteousness looks like: loving God, loving neighbor. This is us as God wants us to be.

The Litany of Penitence starts out with a frank acknowledgement of us as we are in clear and deliberate contrast:

We have not loved you[, God,] with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.

Have mercy on us Lord (BCP, p. 267).

A lot of us are uncomfortable talking about sin, sometimes due to coming from traditions that seem to over-emphasize it, but here the prayer book is laying out clearly its definition of sin. Sin is the failure to love. Where we have failed to love—in thought, word, and deed—we have departed from God’s intention for us and for his whole creation. The rest of the litany goes on to identify and help us recognize concrete ways that we have done this. Having set out the main thesis up front, we are offered further examples of failures to love in which we may find ourselves. Again, the purpose here is not self-flagellation, but honesty about who and what we are. The litany confronts us with the reality that we fail to be the people God created us to be and gently recalls us to that high vocation, reminding us of that second call of the Baptismal Covenant: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” (BCP, p. 304).

In these ways, Ash Wednesday sets the proper tone for the rest of the season. It’s not a period of punishment, but a sober, honest opportunity to look at ourselves as we are: frail, fallible, and mortal. We need God’s grace. We need God’s love. And we need to live that grace and love for the rest of the world to see. Lent is our time to look into ourselves, our communities and to pray for the strength, the courage and the assistance to live our Baptism like we mean it. In a work such as this, I would certainly be remiss if I did not offer the reminder that Lent is a perfect time to recommit ourselves to the regular practices of the faith—including the praying of the Office and attendance at Eucharist. These are not great ascetic works—they’re actually fairly easy—but are more useful in the long run than attempts at greater feats of penitence. As we move more towards the habitual recollection of God, we are also recollecting ourselves—who we are in the face of the God who created us and loves us (no matter what!).

[i] You may wonder where “love of neighbor” shows up in this list: it’s tucked into the call to “prayer, fasting, and self-denial” (BCP, p. 265). Fasting is not just about going without for as some sort of holy diet. The intention is that you reduce the amount of food that you eat so that these resources can be given to those who do not have it; we abstain from food so that we can take the food or money we would have spent of food and offer it to charity. Furthermore, in the time that we save from not eating, we engage in prayer for ourselves and for the world, loving our neighbors in the passive act of intercession as well as in the active act of giving alms.