Thursday, August 21, 2014

Presence and Performance

What, finally, is the purpose of liturgical ceremony, according to the orthodox Lutheran i.e., of the Christian and true church Catholic way?  Is it to entertain the people, or to "aggressively"  evangelize the unsaved people who might be in attendance at Gottesdienst, or is it to stimulate (or maybe to anesthetize and sedate) the emotions of all?

Goodness, no.  None of these.  The purpose, according to the Lutheran Confessions, is this:  "All [ecclesial] ceremonies should  serve the purpose of teaching the people what they need to know about Christ" (AC XXIV.3, "Concerning the Mass," German text; Kolb-Wengert p. 68).

The free-lancing contemporary worship service has its ceremonies, or performances or evoked responses to Christ's Reality, as does the Common Service; although it seems to the admittedly biased me, that those of the latter are best likely to be recognized by the faithful Christian of Justin Martyr's and the Didache's space-time, with far less incredulity.  This is not a trivial contention.   In the Preface preceding the holy Sanctus of the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist, it is emphasized, explicitly, that the layman is mystically ... but in solidly-grounded reality ... worshiping in communion with all the company of Heaven.   While blessed to belong now to the Church Triumphant, this heavenly "all" nevertheless has stake in what we of the Church Militant do, and how we perform our worship.  Indeed, the devout Lutheran confidently declares that "the blessed Mary prays for the Church (Ap XXI.27, "The Invocation of the Saints," Kolb-Wengert, p. 241)."  Presumably, she's not alone in this endeavor.  Presumably, the petitions are launched for a Church she and others would be most comfortable and most welcome to belong.  Presumably, we the "born-again" are all in this Church/Body of Christ together, as we all will continue to be in the life to come.

And presumably, if the visions of Mary's divinely-appointed son/caretaker are fully accurate as they are found in Revelation, then we're all going to be in store for a whole lot of unending ceremony, of the ancient Church and Augustana variety.  Apparently, the celebrated Lamb of God takes kindly to the fear and stately adoration inherent to its bowing and prostrations and such.

So you may as well limber up and get your practice in now, Mr. and Mrs. Lutheran, I'd advise.  In case you're worried, there's no charge for this counsel.   Oy, such a bargain.

Truly Lutheran language and ceremony, routinely but splendidly encountered at "every-Sunday" Mass,  do teach about Christ. They teach that Christ is less a Buddy, than a Slain but Resurrected Lamb. See, even though the Resurrected Lord cares for them, makes breakfast for them, calls them "Lads" in the vernacular, His chosen men seem a bit shy, fully reverent but curiously tentative or even subdued in a way.   No sons of thunder to fight about favored seats, or to call down fire from heaven upon hostile Samaritan towns now; one would not be surprised at all to find they've kicked off their sandals or their water-shoes at the shores of the sea, faced with something more Wonderful and Mind-boggling than a burning bush. The language and ceremonies teach that Mary Magdalene, evangelist to the Apostles, is loved and even addressed by personal name (not simply "Woman")  ... but is not permitted to touch the Risen but Pre-Ascension Christ; while Didymus, at first a doubter but an Apostle nonetheless, can fully handle the nail-prints and the pierced side of his Lord.  This greatly speaks to the pastoral Office and its assigned ceremonies, which entail a handling of the flesh of God as well as the ordained's public proclamation to others.  The language and ceremonies teach, in no uncertain terms, that Christ's Body is indissoluble, and that a most intimate and glorious communion exists with its living Head through means of Word and Sacrament.  The bowing, the genuflecting, and the signatory reminders of Baptism (through the crossings of the officiant, the preacher, the deacons and the laitical folks of the nave), unwaveringly remind the people that our God is more than a clichéd and tediously crooned "awesome" ... the Capitoline Jupiter probably was seen as something incredibly "awesome," too, by the pagan tourist.   Our God is uniquely holy far beyond the comprehension of a rebelliously spiteful and God-hating Old Adam's synapses, and yet our God puts His claims and stamps us poor miserable and unworthy sinners as His very own, through Word and water, and consecrated bread and wine.  There, in this holy context, the cross ... once an execrable evil to the pagan tourist ... is made glorious and traced and retraced, again and again.

Of course, the Common Service sequence itself is a carefully lessoned recapitulation of Christ's birth, life, ministry and Passion ... something which free-lancing protestant ventures will find difficult to capture as completely in their 60-90 minute circus; and far less so, in a pressured "seeker-friendly" interval of 20 or 30.   The pericopal readings review the works of Christ, over the span of one or three years; but in fact, the Divine Service Ordo itself does such review,  each and every Sunday, albeit in much abbreviated and broader form.  But the "high-points" are there, for those careful in pondering the wisdom of its structure.  It's all about Christ, all the time.  The Common Service thus is an unmatched and unmatchable resource about Christ, one honed by a whole cloud of professing prophets, apostles and martyrs throughout the ages, one which speaks precisely to what we need to know about Christ, for the literate and illiterate "we" alike, so that we can witness in our weekly vocational lives to the lost, as St. Peter's "opportune moment" presents itself.  See, I don't need to learn that jumping-jacks and upper extremity lifts can cause a profound tachycardia, an erythematous facial flush and a pulse-pounding high, from the ministers of the contemporary spirit; instead, what I need to learn centers around the Lord's forgiveness, from a God crucified and lifted up for me once-upon-a-cross.

But ... so characteristic of an age of stripped-down, free-lanced and free-form ecclesial ceremony ... much of contemporary-styled "Lutheran" architecture has, itself, been carelessly stripped of its rooftop crosses.  Once it was the hobby of hard-nosed Soviets; now it's the inclination of soft-headed "Lutherans," who freely tear down and desert something which symbolically knits and proclaims a God-reconciled heaven and earth to the human race.  That disturbing picture of the people-pleasing and wolf-enabling hireling at work, is worth more than ten-thousand times a thousand words of a feigned lip-service to God.  That evidence, of a scandalous "Lutheran" psychological and spiritual embarrassment regarding the cross, will not likely foster any real corrective reference to a Roman device of torture, within the interior's clamorous "worship service," which somehow dares to assert it "serves" God.  In this case, the cross-less "Lutheran" sepulcher only bears a nauseating stench of "bait-and-switch" betrayal, both inside and out.  The cross becomes not only a "stumbling block" to the Jew, or "foolishness" to the Greek, but an "all of the above" dilemma, to the scheming plans of the number-obsessed "Lutheran" worrier.

Actually, the literal "serving of God," which really is to eat and to drink Him, comes about through the Eucharistic ceremony rightly performed, administered, distributed, and consumed. This offends the entrenched protestant, as it once offended the pagan Celsus, and the run-away "disciple" of John 6 and the sceptic Jew of John 8 (v.37).  That Eucharistic ceremony teaches that we are to remember God's death; remember why He died; remember that we nitwits caused the Father to surrender His most precious Possession to Death's cold and hateful grip; remember why there is every reason, then,  for us to sorrowfully repent of our role in this needful sacrifice; and then to rejoice in a God who nevertheless continues to freely and graciously forgive and serve His very Body and Blood to us, so that we can eventually come to banquet and party with Him forever!   The contemporary service gives us, in stark comparison, an impoverished and incomplete lesson; things which tickle the ear and are generally disposed to eclipse the Altar's place and time.  "Praise bands" abound; but what about that Apostolic and heavenly band?  Why have I never heard mention of a "repentance-band" riff, among the promoters of free-lance ceremony? Why should praise be anything more than a superficial huffing and puffing, a showcase of cacophony, if scant attention is paid to the pushing of pistons  and the coal delivered, things which make sense of the steam?  A Congessional Medal of Honor is but a bit of lovely cloth, a small amount of metal and a clasp, if left bereft of a meaningful narrative explaining its true cost in terms of tears, sweat, blood and death.  The costs of such are anything but pretty; which is why few picnics are spent in slaughter-houses.   It explains, too, King David's penchant for the confinement of the loin-clothed praise dances, to outside the tabernacle proper.  

The Lutheran Confessions also say this about the ceremonies:  "Ceremonies should be observed both so that the people may learn the Scriptures and so that admonished by the Word, they might experience faith and fear and finally even pray.  For these are the purposes of the ceremonies (Ap XXIV.3, "The Mass," Kolb-Wengert, p. 258)."

Did you catch that?  Ceremonies should be done, so that people learn the Scriptures ... and the orthodox liturgy is permeated less with the musical meanderings of Michael W. Smith & Co., than with the Holy Ghost's finger-written Scriptures, extensively quoting it verbatim in the Lessons, the Introit, the Gradual, the Nunc Dimittis, the Benediction etc., etc. ... so as to lead us to pray, and to fear God. Wait.  Fear?  God?  Absolutely.  "Revere" is perhaps one way of attempting to explain, or maybe soften, the Confessions' verbal thrust here, I suppose; but somehow it doesn't quite fully capture what a magnificent Gospeler, Isaiah the Seer, rightly felt and expressed in God's presence, or even the shepherd's initial sense of dread upon being greeted by the angelic hosts at the hillsides of Bethlehem.  It's not pathological.  It's a healthy, non-delusional response of the human to the Numinous, a human who knows to his very marrow that he is a cadaveric stinker and addicted to flogging God and leaving Him for dead, and who further accepts the truth that his merits (or that of others) count for nothing;  that he is therefore completely at the mercy of God and the accomplishments of the Lord Christ.   I find it fascinating that neither Adam or Eve cried out for mercy, when confronted by a  God in the Garden ... who Himself could have cried rivers, as He slayed a portion of His creation to fabricate the reprobates' coats of skins.  It could have changed things, given the Scriptural revelation of God's nature.  It saved the hell-hole of Nineveh from destruction, once (to the graceless chagrin of Jonah, who even a great fish found hard to digest).  A stubborn refusal to bend the knee tells me that the intrepid first duo of the earth were  hardened criminals, a tough guy and his moll, each love-lorn with the self.   Sure they hid, but simultaneously they must have fearlessly figured that they could make it pretty much on their own, just as fearless praise-bands figure they can pretty much forego the Agnus Dei with an impunity, because it might come off as a downer to the Latte-chuggers.   Fear of God, however,  is a good thing, keeping us properly balanced and in perspective with respect to the visible and the invisible  ... unless, of course, you think the Confessions to be but a museum piece missing a few bolts.  But you either buy Dr. Luther's directive, repeatedly intoned in his catechetical explanations of the Decalogue's meaning, as to what the Lutheran "should" do,  or you don't.  If you're in a bullish mood ... well, then, the decision as to which  of the two worship alternatives described here best treats the Confessions' fear factor is an easy one.

Isn't it obvious?  The supposition of the Common Service and the Holy Sacrament is that GOD IS IN HIS TEMPLE.  HE IS PRESENT.  The divisive curtain is no more, true, because God has been atoned with humankind by the Son; but God has not abandoned us with the Ascension and retreated to a Calvinist gaol.  He is holy and just; He comes in true Body and in Blood; and He deserves our fear, firstly, and our love, too.  So says old man Luther, anyway, who stared down Zwingli, pounded a table like it was a church-door, and said that Mr. Z and his ilk were of a different spirit from him. The fellow who shirked numbers, at a time of peril, was not talking of Casper the Friendly Ghost. So for the number-obsessed "Lutherans" to hanker after protestant ways and methods ... because, presumably, Mammon-trusting Americans are pre-conditioned to find this stuff as appealingly casual, simplistically unstodgy, and ruggedly and Marlboro-manly "decisioned" ... is to soulfully throw our hand in with brute rascals.  Remember, these rascals' progenitors grimly tried to force their Prussian Union blasphemies onto our forefathers' ceremonies.   What we have now, amazingly, are "Lutherans" willfully aping the rascals, through their lame and arthritic (in)actions, so as to approve the underlying protestant supposition; which dogma is, to whit, that Christ Jesus is not really around and in our midst when we gather in His Name, as He Himself has promised.  So we also have to fly to the space-and-time captive Him, via our moods and affects.   Better get high, "Lutheran," like balladeer Harry Chapin's pilot-wannabe cum taxi-driver.

Except you'll find that the cabbie wasn't downing a good, robust stout, in order to do so.

That revelation will probably not discourage the likes of the "Lutheran," though, especially where found within the borders of Colorado.   

To continue:  It doesn't matter what our lips proclaim, if the heart-perfused body plainly says something to the contrary.  And to thus avoid, what even the poor lepers did with their ravaged bodies when Jesus' healing was desired

God hasn't changed!  The very Present Angel of the Lord (i.e., the Son of God) expected ... nay, demanded ... some bodily evidence of holy-ground awareness from Moses, beyond the flapping of his lips (Ex 3:5).  Moses complied; which could be expected, perhaps, because the prophet-shepherd did mumble something about being "slow of speech and of a slow of tongue (Ex 4:9)."   To me, this "confession" sounds suspiciously like a free-lancing "Lutheran's" kind of caterwauling ... Moses spoke brilliantly and most assuredly in his Deuteronomic farewell to the Israelite nation, without any Aaronic assistance (although yes, by this time, older brother was dead) ...  but then, Moses never reclined on my office couch for an in-depth psychodynamic analysis as to motive in Midian.

True, such lack of appointment never hampered Freud's take in the least (cf. "Moses and Monotheism"), but that's another story (and the analysis itself, another really big fib).

Another example,  from the early Church's Scripture:  The fleeing and utterly discouraged Elias, upon hearing the "Word of the Lord (1 Kg 19:9; AV)" from inside an isolated cave, ceremoniously wrapped his face in a mantle (v.13) before directly encountering his Savior on a mount (v.11).  So fearing and thus protected, he finally stepped out and proceeded to commune with the Word, who gave him His marching orders.  God hasn't changed, in His expectations!  Today, among orthodox Lutherans, we gladly cloak our bodies too with the sign of the cross, or a bow, or a genuflection, as we ourselves ascend a railed mountain to commune and dine with our Savior.  With St. Paul, we actively appeal to Christ crucified and His merits alone.  It's a powerful ceremony, this sign-of-the-cross thing.  Eschewed and studiously ignored by some "conservative" Midwestern "Lutherans" given over to censoring Luther's works, especially, this ceremony professes the Gospel without words, as we receive the Gospel in the forms of both Sacrament and Word.  It professes the Gospel when we arise (to watch, with Christ),  when we pray the Daily Office (as best we can), before we eat (at home, or certainly at public facilities), whenever we children of God are distressed or threatened (as Dr. Luther has urged), and when we retire at night (entrusting ourselves to be guarded by Christ).   

So it needs to be answered in these times, by each and everyone serious about the God who habitually insists on presenting and revealing Himself to man, this:

Given that God's Presence in the Divine Service is indisputable, to all but the heresiarch ...

Of the two opposing faction's teachings, that of the Lutheran and that of the "Lutheran," which set of ceremonies would the Augustana fathers most readily recognize and endorse, as being of their own spirit, of their own lips, and of their own bodies?

Again: isn't it obvious?  

Prophet, Priest and ... Pitcher?

It's autumn, 2013 A+D at Boston's storied Fenway Park.  The Red Sox and the visiting Tigers are battling in the second game of the AL Championship series.  Jeff Seidel, sportswriter  for the Detroit Free Press, rapturously sets the table for us:

"It wasn't just that Scherzer was striking out the Red Sox.

It was how he was doing it.

He struck out Will Middlebrooks with a slider that left the third baseman all twisted around, like he had been screwed into the ground.

Scherzer struck out Dustin Pedroia and Pedroia had such a funky swing he dropped to his knee.  As if kneeling before Scherzer.

Which seemed fitting and appropriate.

Scherzer was the king of the night, standing on his throne."

I have no firm idea as to where Mr. Seidel's salvific confidence lies, for his eternal bliss ... but he certainly possesses the meet, right and salutary idea as to the appropriate treatment of a king.

If Lutherans truly believed that the ascended Lord Jesus Christ 1.) is exceedingly gracious, and 2.) does not abandon His gathered sheep, as the "... there I WILL BE" promise of presence declares ... there would be far more dropping to the knee (i.e., genuflecting and the like) before the King of the ages, in the Divine Service of all Lutheran congregations.

Even the scribblers chained to the baseball-beat seem to intuitively grasp this wisdom.

And it's not a matter of "High Church" ritualism, per se -- rather, it's a matter of simple etiquette, and a directed fear and love, towards God who is on the mound ... there on the consecrated Altar if you will ... and is really and truly present within the Lutheran midst.   A Lutheran tongue can honestly confess and joyously proclaim, together with old Simeon, that Lutheran eyes have seen his salvation.

So maybe the rest of the Lutheran flesh, should act like it.  

On the other hand, if in the depths of his or her heart (or the brain's motor cortex), the "Lutheran" is convinced that because of a divinely-uncommunicated humanity, the great King 1.)  is confined to a celestial box (like some sort of incompetent heavenly Houdini of Calvinist design);  or 2.) is taking a royal nap, or a much-needed distant vacation like the Canaanite Ba'al, so that we have to scream ever louder in order to rouse Him (in the course of artfully cutting our throats with a northern chain-saw, say; or maybe not); or  3.) is best approached by a Wesleyan "spiritual ascent," through means of  vigorously thrusting our gravity-defying fists into the air ... a feat giving evidence to others and self, that our devotional fervency matches that of the squealing, center-staged Fenders of the rockers; or maybe by the swirlingly diaphonous  liturgical belly-dances inside God's house, so as to better capture the attention of the snoring and grounded men-folk, if not that of His own distanced awareness  ... well then, we are a people to be most pitied.  As a confessing entity, through such tolerated actions, we are sending a message that we're all twisted around, like as if we've been screwed into the ground.

And as Max Scherzer "preached" in Boston,  it's all because of those sneaky sliders.  Or the purpose-driven screwballs.  In print, at least,  Mr. Seidel appears to heartily agree.

The game is nearing its end, things are reaching a climax, and the King of all deserves better, lots better from His fearing, loving, and loyal subjects.   Note the Present tense.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Her Only Son, Our LORD

St. Luke is not only the Scripturally extolled "beloved physician;" he is also very much a beloved historian, one who has been compared favorably with Thucydides, by secular academics.  The opening lines of his Gospel attest to a thorough, careful and meticulous mind, one critically attuned to precise fact-gathering.  He provides the most intimate details of the Theotokos' interactions with the young Christ ... exceptional details not found in the other, most holy accounts of the Kingdom of God realized in the flesh.

There is strong reason to believe that Luke researched the recollections of Mary of Nazareth, or perhaps those of her appointed caretaker, John of Patmos, in compiling his thrilling written witness to Theophilus (and ultimately to the simple us, too, thanks be to God).  In the Authorized Version, Luke refers to the invaluable and reliable testimonies of many dear saints, "those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word (Lk 1:2)."  But who else but gentle Mary was an eyewitness to the stunning announcement of Gabriel ... that now, right now in the dusty space and time of a marginalized Roman province  ... was the start of the fulfillment of the Promise to crush the serpent's head, by the Seed of a woman?   Who else, and from the very beginning of a divine birth, ministered to the infant Word with the milk of her breasts ... and continued to succor her Son, ministering to Him with a mother's presence, even to point of Golgotha?  Who else but Mary?

A unique, and I believe a most telling, curiosity of St. Luke's Gospel is its compassionate focus on a grieving parent blessed with an only child.  This emphasis is not encountered in any other Gospel account.  The instances in Luke are three in number, and are found in Luke 7:12 (entailing the bereft widowed mother, citizen of Nain), Luke 8:42 (describing an imploring father and synagogue leader, Jairus)  and Luke 9:38 (detailing a distraught father of a lad, inflicted with a convulsive disorder of demonic origin).   Surely a mother who agonized at the foot of  her Son's cross, would have the memory of these other parents' travails empathically seared deeply into her consciousness ... had she crossed their paths in the course of ministering to her only Son!   Is it utter foolishness to think, then, that she with the pierced heart would have been inclined to share these emotional memes with the consulting "beloved physician," memories arising from ponderings to which she returned, again and again, for very personal reasons?  Returned to, say, because she herself had an "only Son?"  Not foolishness, no; I don't think it's nothing but a pious fantasy, at all. 

Many modern exegetes scoff at the notion of semper virgo, but it's a notion which the theologian Dr. Francis Pieper acknowledges to be the "default position" for Lutheran orthodoxy.  The three separate but closely grouped accounts of Luke are not frequently cited, as offering a Scriptural apologetic for this position.  But I think the implications they possess are altogether heart-warming and compelling, neatly bundled as they are in a good doctor's testimony, and are consistent with those traditional understandings of the ancient Church which closely link together the lives of Mary and Luke (e.g., examine closely that iconic rendering of St. Luke, above, for yet another understanding, or rendering).   The truly orthodox Lutheran Church, and its teachers, do not in any fashion reject or despise those understandings held by our spiritual fathers, ones which do not detract from the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Do consult the Lutheran Confessions, for proof.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Short Homily on the Feast of St. Mary

13 August Anno + Domini 2014 (Observed)
Luke 1:46-55 (Is. 61:7-11; Gal. 4:4-7)

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

Some seven centuries before the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, came down from heaven and was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, the prophet Isaiah prophesied:  “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exalt in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness . . .” 
And “when the fullness of time had come and God sent forth His Son to be born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons,” the woman to whom He was born, the Blessed Virgin Mary, declared, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant.”  Thus, is Isaiah’s prophecy here, and indeed all of his prophesies about the coming, Virgin-Born Savior of the world, fulfilled.
Dear friends, we set aside this day on our calendar to remember and honor the Blessed Mother of our Lord Jesus, whom we rightly confess to be the Theotokos, the “God-bearer” or “Mother of God.” We do so not so much to honor St. Mary in and of herself, but to honor the grace with which she was filled and the faith which was given to her by the Holy Spirit who overshadowed her and led her to proclaim, “Let it be done to me according to Your Word.” For that grace and faith took up residence within her and has a Name: The Holy One of God, Jesus the Christ, our Lord and Savior. Thus, in honoring St. Mary, we honor her Son, our Lord, as she herself does, and teaches us to do, in the beautiful words of her Magnificat. 
St. Mary magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in her Son, her God and Savior, for she knows that He has come to save her and all humanity. She knows that He has come to do great things for her, and for you – to clothe her and you in the garments of salvation, the robe of righteousness.
And so He has, for He assumed flesh and blood from St. Mary that He might be born under the Law to redeem those under the Law – all sinners – by fulfilling that Law perfectly and offering up that same flesh and blood as an atoning sacrifice on the Cross for all. That’s how He’s St. Mary’s Savior, and yours, too. He has looked upon your humble estate and done marvelous things for you. He clothes you in His perfect holiness and righteousness, for He has paid for, and buried, all your unholy and unrighteous deeds and brought you into His perfect and eternal life at the font, where you were called by His Name and clothed in Him. And He is ever present here in His Holy Church to wash your baptismal gowns clean in His Blood as you partake of Him in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Oh yes, He has done, and continues to do marvelous things for you. Holy is His Name, which is your Name by grace and mercy and love.  
Come, then, O Sinner redeemed by St. Mary’s Son, your Brother, and be exalted in Him. Come and be filled with the good things of His Body and Blood, helped and strengthened by His grace, mercy, and love. In so doing, your soul magnifies the Lord and your spirit rejoices in God your Savior, and St. Mary’s beautiful Magnificat becomes your song. Thus can you, even you Lutherans, unashamedly confess, knowing that it is a confession of your redemption in Jesus Christ who became Incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary to save you: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Amen.”

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