Friday, December 30, 2011

The Name of Jesus

Sunday is the Feast of the Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Long time Episcopalians will remember this feast as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. The name was changed with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The Gospel reading for the day is from Luke 2:21-40 which begins, “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child…” Indeed, the Collect for the Day, originally from 1549, seemed to be a “commendation of circumcision, rather than the Circumcision of our Lord,” wrote English scholar F.E. Brightman. Roman Catholics celebrate the day as the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord, reserving the Feast of the Holy Name for varying days in January. The English 1662 Prayer Book observes a festival called “The Name of Jesus” August 7. The celebration was restored to the General Roman Calendar with the 2002 Roman Missal, assigned as an optional memorial to the first free day after 1 January, namely 3 January. (I confess to being ignorant about changes with the new missal that just came out.) We however, will celebrate the Feast this Sunday.

What is it about Jesus’ name anyway? Well, it is not about what follows. If you want to know about that, come and hear my sermon Sunday, January 1.

The emblem or monogram which appears in the center of our altar at St. Matthew’s, representing the Holy Name of Jesus, consists of the three letters: IHS. In the Middle Ages the name of Jesus (in Latin) was written: IHESUS; the monogram contains the first and last letter of the Holy Name. It is first found on a gold coin of the eight century: DN IHS CHS REX REGNANTIUM (The Lord Jesus Christ, King of Kings). Some erroneously say that the three letters are the initials of: Jesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus Savior of Men).

The Jesuits made this monogram the emblem of their Society, adding a cross over the H and three nails under it. Consequently a new explanation of the emblem was invented, pretending that the nails originally were a “V,” and that the monogram stands for In Hoc Signo Vinces, the words which, according to the Christian historian Eusebius in his Life of Constantine, Constantine saw in the heavens under the Sign of the Cross before the battle at the Milvian bridge. Such is the stuff of legends and worth reading about.

On the evening of October 27, 312, with opposing Roman armies preparing for battle, Constantine reportedly had a vision as he looked toward the setting sun. The Greek letters XP (Chi-Rho, the first two Greek letters of “Christ”) intertwined along with a cross appeared emblazoned on the sun, along with the inscription “In Hoc Signo Vinces.” Constantine, who was a pagan at the time, put the symbol on his solders' shields.

The details of that vision, however, differ between the sources reporting it.

Lactantius states that, in the night before the battle, Constantine was commanded in a dream to “delineate the heavenly sign on the shields of his soldiers” (On the Deaths of the Persecutors 44.5). He followed the commands of his dream and marked the shields with a sign “denoting Christ.” Lactantius describes that sign as a “staurogram,” or a Latin cross with its upper end rounded in a P-like fashion. There is no certain evidence that Constantine ever used that sign, opposed to the better known Chi-Rho sign described by Eusebius.

From Eusebius, two accounts of the battle survive. The first, shorter one, in the Ecclesiastical History promotes the belief that God helped Constantine but does not mention any vision. In his later Life of Constantine, Eusebius gives a detailed account of a vision and stresses that he had heard the story from the Emperor himself. According to this version, Constantine with his army was marching (Eusebius does not specify the actual location of the event), when he looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα. En toutō níka is usually translated into Latin as in hoc signo vinces, both phrases have the literal meaning “In this sign,[you shall] conquer;” a more free translation would be “Through (or by) this sign [you shall] conquer.” At first Constantine was unsure of the meaning of the apparition, but in the following night he had a dream in which Christ explained to him that he should use the sign against his enemies. Eusebius then continues to describe the labarum, the military standard used by Constantine in his later wars against Licinius, showing the Chi-Rho sign.

The accounts of the two contemporary authors, though not entirely consistent, have been merged into a popular notion of Constantine seeing the Chi-Rho sign on the evening before the battle. Both authors agree that the sign was not readily understandable to denote Christ, which corresponds to the fact that there is no certain evidence of the use of the letters chi and rho as a Christian sign before Constantine. Its first appearance is on a Constantinian silver coin from c. 317, which proves that Constantine did use the sign at that time, though not very prominently. He made extensive use of the Chi-Rho and the Labarum (which today look the same) only later in the conflict with Licinius. (Licinius was the last of the Diocletian tetrarchy defeated by Constantine at the Battle of Adrianople in 324 as Constantine consolidated power by eliminating his surviving rival for the entire Empire. For more on Diocletian see: )

Some scholars have interpreted the vision in a solar context (e.g., as a solar halo phenomenon), which may have been reshaped to fit with the Christian beliefs later expressed by Constantine. It is interesting to note that coins of Constantine depicting him quite overtly as the companion of a solar deity were minted as late as 313, the year following the battle.

The solar deity, Sol Invictus, is often pictured with a nimbus, or halo. Various emperors portrayed Sol Invictus on their official coinage, with a wide range of legends, only a few of which incorporated the epithet invictus, such as the legend SOLI INVICTO COMITI, claiming the Unconquered Sun as a companion to the Emperor, used with particular frequency by Constantine. Constantine’s official coinage continues to bear images of Sol until 325/6. A solidus of Constantine as well as a gold medallion from his reign depict the Emperor's bust in profile twinned with Sol Invictus, with the legend INVICTUS CONSTANTINUS. The official cults of Sol Invictus and Sol Invictus Mithras were popular amongst the soldiers of the Roman army. Statuettes of Sol Invictus, carried by the standard-bearers, appear in three places in reliefs on the Arch of Constantine. Constantine’s triumphal arch was carefully positioned to align with the colossal statue of Sol by the Colosseum, so that Sol formed the dominant backdrop when seen from the direction of the main approach towards the arch. All of which makes sense because, since the late 1st century CE with Vespasian and certainly through the 4th century CE, the Roman Army was the power that made the Emperor and anyone who needed the army’s support would be foolish to insult their gods.

Don’t worry. The test is “open book.”

Fr Mike+

Monday, November 21, 2011

First Sunday of Advent

Next Sunday the Church begins a new liturgical year with the season of Advent. Advent, from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming,” is a season of expectant waiting and preparation for the Nativity of Jesus and the Christmas celebration. When I was growing up, our Lutheran congregation considered Advent a time of penance, and this was common in both Episcopal and Roman Catholic traditions. The vestments were the same as those used in Lent (purple) and from the 4th century the season was kept as a period of fasting as strict as that of Lent. In the Anglican and Lutheran churches this fasting rule was later relaxed, with the Roman Catholic Church doing likewise later, but still keeping Advent as a season of penance. (The Orthodox tradition still holds with fasting for 40 days before the Nativity Feast.)
            Those of you with Liturgical calendars can see the days of Advent are still colored purple, although small notations are made to allow for blue. Blue, representing hopefulness, is a custom traced to the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) and the medieval Sarum Rite (12th century) in England. This color is often referred to as “Sarum blue.” The Sarum rite actually came from Rouen when the Normans tossed out the Anglo-Saxon episcopate and replaced the bishops with French and Normans. In 1078, William of Normandy appointed St. Osmund, a Norman nobleman, as bishop of Salisbury, the modern name of the city known in Latin as “Sarum.” Saint Matthew's switched from purple to blue, I think, around 2004.
            This year we will be celebrating the season and Sundays of Advent using Rite 1 in the Book of Common Prayer. I am doing this for a couple of reasons. The first is a nod to the penitential nature of our waiting. In particular, the public confession of sin in Rite 1 (page 331) shocks us by its language that demonstrates we are far from living as Christ would have us live. “Manifold sins and wickedness” is a far cry from “things done and left undone.” The second reason is an effort to pull us out of our comfort zone. When the same Eucharistic Prayer is used (as we have used Prayer C during nearly all of Pentecost) we tend to “zone out,” mumbling the words and not listening with joy and expectation. We pray our thanksgiving after receiving as an acknowledgment, rather than an offering of “hearty thanks.” In Rite 1 we rejoice in being “members incorporate in the mystical body of Christ.”
            The Collect for the First Sunday of Advent is taken from verse 12 of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, chapter 13: Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
            Marion Hatchett, in his wonderful Commentary on the American Prayer Book writes, “The striking antitheses are remarkable: cast away darkness, put on light, mortal life, great humility, glorious majesty. The word 'now' is crucial: remembering the first advent and looking toward the second, we are now, in this time, to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
            NOW is the time. In this Advent season of “already but not yet,” we are to begin (again!) to understand why we are Christians. In this Advent season of ours we are to slow down, listen and be quiet. Imagine us as Christians not worrying about Black Friday, holiday lists or the bottom line. Imagine us as Christians living for NOW. In the words of Bishop Scott Benhase of Georgia, “We follow Jesus as Savior and Lord because it is the way God has given us to share eternally in the life of God.” That's right. NOW we are sharing eternally in the life of God. NOW, and tomorrow and next week and the month after, we are sharing in the life of a God who “came to visit us in great humility.”

Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween and All Saints' Day

Today is All Hallow's Eve, or the eve of the Feast of All Saints. All Saints' Day commemorates the saints of the church, known and unknown, and is one of the four feast days recommended for Holy Baptism.

Although scholars disagree as top the exact origins of All Saints' Day, the first recorded celebration of the festival of All Saints was in 610 when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs. However, some believe the celebrations of All Saints' began as the ancient pagan festival of Lemures, celebrated May 13, to appease malevolent and restless spirits of the dead. These Lemures were not the fuzzy animals shown here, (Lemurs) but were shades or spirits of the restless or malignant dead, and are probably cognate with an extended sense of larvae (sing. larva = mask) as disturbing or frightening.

During the eighth century, Pope Gregory III suppressed the feast on May 13, and moved the day of remembrance to November 1.

In the tenth century, November 2, All Souls' Day, became a holy days as well. All Souls' Day serves as a day for families and friends to remember their departed loved ones.

Many Latino congregations celebrate the day of the Dead ( Dia de los Muertos) on November 2 (All Souls' Day.) For a funny look at an attempt at such a celebration, see Maria Semple's article from the October 24, The New Yorker magazine:

Halloween itself is probably not Roman in origin but Celtic, from the festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-an or sow-in), derived from the Old Irish Samuin meaning “summer's end.” Samhain was the first and by far the most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Irish and Scottish calendar and, falling on the last day of Autumn, it was a time for stock-taking and preparation for the cold winter months ahead. There was also a sense that this was the time of year when the physical and supernatural worlds were closest and magical things could happen. To ward off these spirits, the Gaels built huge, symbolically regenerative bonfires and invoked the help of the gods through animal and perhaps even human sacrifice.

Halloween was no doubt influenced by the Christian holy days of All Saints' Day (also known as Hallowmas, All Hallows or Hallowtide) and All Souls' Day. Falling on November 1st and 2nd respectively. By the end of the 12th century they had become days of holy obligation across Europe and involved such traditions as ringing bells for the souls in purgatory and “souling,” the custom of baking bread or soul cakes for “all crysten [christened] souls.”

In Britain the rituals of Hallowtide and Halloween came under attack during the Reformation as Protestants denounced purgatory as a “popish” doctrine. In addition the increasing popularity of Guy Fawkes Night from 1605 on saw Halloween become eclipsed in Britain with the notable exception of Scotland. There, and in Ireland, they had been celebrating Samhain and Halloween since the early Middle Ages and it is believed the Scottish Kirk took a more pragmatic approach towards Halloween, viewing it as important to the life cycle and rites of passage of local communities and thus ensuring its survival in the country.

North American almanacs of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century give no indication that Halloween was recognized as a holiday. The Puritans of New England, for example, maintained strong opposition to the holiday and it was not until the mass Irish and Scottish immigration during the 19th century that the holiday was introduced to the continent in earnest. Initially confined to the immigrant communities during the mid-nineteenth century, it was gradually assimilated into mainstream society and by the first decade of the twentieth century it was being celebrated coast to coast by people of all social, racial and religious backgrounds. According to the Hallmark Corporate Website, (and they ought to know!) Halloween is now the third most popular holiday in the United States, behind New Year's Eve and the Super Bowl.

Collect for All Saints' Day

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Sons Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, on God, in glory everlasting. Amen

Friday, August 26, 2011

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the attacks on Septmeber 11,2001, we all struggle for an appropriate response. Saint Matthew's is preparing to host a barbeque for all of the first responders of Glasgow, EMTs, firemen, police, sheriff's department. Afterwards we plan a service of Evening Prayer with a Litany of Remembrance. Remembering is what we do, but in remembering ten years later, we might find our anger has transformed into a deep sadness. Below is what I wrote during my first visit to ground zero.
If you take the N or R (Yellow Line) train from Times Square, it is a short ride to Cortlandt Street. Coming out of the subway, a half block down, is ground zero. The first thought I had, as a child of the sixties, was how empty it all seemed. Looking up, there is nothing. Looking down, there is a great empty hole.
My first thoughts were unbidden: “Those sons of bitches. Those sons of bitches.” The buildings around the site are still smoke blackened. Lots of people move past the guard fence. Hassidic Jews murmur together, lovers kiss outside the fence. The names are there. One waits for a feeling of, what? It is not like the Wall in D.C. There the loss is more personal, the feelings cramp your heart and force tears to your eyes as you read the names of friends, people you grew to maturity with at school. People, with whom you shared hardships and triumphs, people who fought and bled with you. Here it is different, but finally it comes: the sense of loss, the senselessness of loss. Why? How come?
We walked past the names and the flowers and the signs and the personal memories to the corner. Looking back, almost for the first time, I register the cross. The simple steel girders that are erected near the center of where the two towers stood. St. Paul’s Church, at the other end, is still covered with black. Restoration is in progress, but the emptiness is palpable. I come back to look at the cross again. It is Christus Victorius; an empty cross, like the emptiness of the space where I was so accustomed to see the towers.
Is there something in that symbol for those of us who look two years later? Is the absence of a body, a human form, on that cross, meaningful for those who mourn?
It has rained this weekend. Pools of water gather in the depths. I know FBI agents from Glasgow who spent time sifting the debris looking for human remains. What still remains? Signs on Trinity Wall Street and St. Paul’s celebrate the heroic efforts of everyone involved, and yet, somehow it seems so…?
Perhaps it is because I have just come from my 35th reunion (graduation from West Point) that I feel the soldier in me more clearly. We are attacked, we must respond. The intellect in me wonders if we have done so out of a need to strike anything or anybody, as a relief, a retribution that can never really heal, but must take place to … to what? No amount of destruction that we produce will assuage the feelings we have as we look at that emptiness. The cross is still there. What does it mean? Love your neighbor as yourself. An eye for an eye. Turn the other cheek. The friend of my enemy is my enemy. Is this really a “holy war?” Is there anything such as a “holy war?”
Rowan Williams, writing soon after 9/11, struggled to make sense of what is happening. His small book is a comfort that doesn’t get me through these moments. I cannot turn the other cheek. There are injustices that demand a human reaction. Maybe that is why the cross struck me as so empty. I want to see Jesus up there. I want to be reminded that God really knows about suffering.  In my head, I know. Right now, in my heart, I want no quarter. I want to somehow prove to “those people” that they cannot do this. I want to rebuild the towers even bigger. I want to say, “Come on. Try again.” If you do, we’ll build them again, because we can.”
Maybe that is the way to answer this. Rebuild. Demonstrate to the world that whatever is wrong with America in their eyes, the lack of faith in the future of ourselves, in the future of humanity is not one.  Maybe the empty cross is the best symbol at the site. It surely epitomizes that attitude: the future is good. God’s kingdom is coming. God’s kingdom, with all its human spots is coming right now. God’s kingdom is seen in the struggle, the words of love from cell phones at 20,000 feet, the selflessness of firemen.
But it is almost too hard. I cannot get pat answers. I cannot make this a sermon about the graciousness of God. I can only go down on my knees and weep. I can only cry for the loss, for the West Pointer, captain of the lacrosse team in 2001, who is now a double amputee from the war in Iraq, for the Iraqi children with no food or water, for the evil men who think that by dealing death they will somehow be justified before God.

Look at those names again: fathers, mothers, brothers, husbands, wives, and now saints. But don’t stop there. Look past them to the cross. Good. Evil. Darkness. Light.

Are we to be the dark, or are we to be the light? Do we have a choice?

Is this still true? Can we return to the light, to be the light? I hope so. I pray so.