Evensong

There has been some discussion here of late regarding worship and liturgy and modern vs. traditional.  This past Sunday I worshipped at one of my favourite services in all of Christendom.  A traditional, BCP Evensong in and of itself is not necessarily my favourite.  It is Evensong at St. Alban the Martyr Anglican Church, Ottawa, Ontario, that I love (I have been at St. Paul’s in London and a couple of other high church variations — beautiful, but not what I truly love).

I slipped into a pew midway up the right side (Epistle) of the church beside my friend Clive and took off my big, grey coat then prayed a bit.  Clive and I chatted briefly, then I prayed some more (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Repeat 5x.).  The sanctuary was basically quiet save beautiful music wending its way from the pipes of the organ at the front.

The service begins with a proclamation from the priest that our Lord Jesus said that where two or three are gathered, he will be with them also — glad to know we tripled the minimum requirement!  We sang “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” then opened our red (1962) Books of Common Prayer to p. 18 (my tattered tome has a blue sticky to take me right there).

And then, having assembled and met together “to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at [God’s] hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul” (BCP, 19), we confessed our sins, prayed the versicles, then recited the psalm appointed for the day, alternately by the half verse.

This was followed by the First Lesson, from Isaiah 6.  And then we sang in the stark yet beautiful and (for me) comfortable plainsong the Magnificat (Mary’s song from Luke 1:46 ff).  This was followed by the Second Lesson, wherein our Lord and Saviour healed the man at the pool near Bethesda.  Following this, we sang in another stark yet beautiful plainsong the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon’s song from Luke 2: 29 ff).

We recited our faith in the words of the ancient baptismal creed of Rome, the Apostles’ Creed.  We prayed more versicles, then the Collect for Christmas, the Collect of the Day, the requisite Collects for Peace and Aid Against All Perils.

The priest sermonised about Isaiah and the Apostle John, about the great glory of God, and the cleverness of the early Church as they prepared their delivery of the Good News.

We proceeded to sing “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”  An offering was taken up during the hymn.  This was followed by the prayers from Morning Prayer, pp. 13-15.  We sang “Joy to the World.”  Richard played a beautiful postlude on the organ that made me glad to be there.

Then we (now numbering 8, not 6) drank Orangina and ate cookies, discussing various things.  Questions re my future were a topic of interest, since I only turn up about once or twice a year, and my future is a bit vague at this point.

I wouldn’t call this service high or low.  Simply traditional.  It was sung, but we all sang together.  Evensong at St. Alban’s is liturgy as it should be — the work of the people.  We are worshipping God using the words of Scripture, the hymns, the tradition, and so forth.  The music, the beautiful setting, the people, the stillness, the smallness — these contributed to an atmosphere wherein I (at least) was able to focus my attention on the words and their meaning and the God whom I came to worship.

This service of Evensong is very special.  I hope it stays as it is for many more years to come.

A Christmas-themed Sermon from a Year Ago, Part 2

2. Why Did God Become a Man?

So this God has chosen to take on flesh and dwell amongst us (see last post).  He could have stayed in Heaven on His sapphire throne with cherubim and seraphim surrounding him with their continuous cry, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Hosts!  Heaven and Earth are full of thy glory!”  “All the heavens cannot hold Him!”  The train of His robe fills the Temple!  He is Light!  He is utterly perfect, which means that there is nothing He lacks and that He fulfils His role in the universe without fail, blemish, or fault.  This perfect being, the One Who thought up butterflies and cheese, chose to enflesh Himself and pitch His tent among us.

And He chose to do so, coming as a baby.

Why?

He came because of love.  His creation had fallen.  We human beings, created in the very image of God, had fallen into sin and death.  All that awaited us was annihilation.  We were destined to death, to corruption due to our fall.  Without God’s redemptive action, we were destined for an end the Bible calls various things: death, a place of outer darkness where there is moaning and gnashing of teeth, the second death, spiritual death, the lake of fire, Hades, Sheol, the pit, the grave.  However, we weren’t really made for that.  We were made to dwell with our Creator forever.  And He took great pity upon us and sought to remake us after His own Image.  He alone could do this, however.  The law could not do this, nor the prophets, nor the revelation of His character in nature.  Only He alone could recreate humanity into what we were meant to be.

In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption.  Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image.  The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need. (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation)

Part of the mystery of the Incarnation, then, is that God loved us sinners enough to make Himself human.  It’s not simply that the Creator made Himself into a man.  Some point out that He can do anything.  In fact, some of the Church Fathers say that Jesus was ordering the universe the whole time He was on earth—that, as perfect God, He never ceased performing the full function of the Almighty.  I’m not sure I believe that, myself, but it’s an intriguing thought.  Nonetheless, Almighty God took on flesh because He loves us!  He became man for our sake.

O Come, let us adore Him!!

We see this aspect of Christ’s incarnation, in fact, in some of tonight’s passages (Christmas 1, Year 1, BCP Evensong).

Ps. 130:8: He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

Jer. 31:1-6: 1 “At that time,” declares the LORD, “I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they will be my people.”  2 This is what the LORD says: “The people who survive the sword will find favor in the desert will come to give rest to Israel.”  3 The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.  4 I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful.  5 Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit.  6 There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.’ “

3. Our Response

What is our response?  First, worship.  Second, worship.  Third, worship.  And while we worship, we should take the words of Jesus seriously and live by them in faith.  The sort of faith is found in the second lesson from tonight.  In Matt. 18:3-4, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

As we live worshipping Jesus and putting our whole faith in Him, certain attitudes will inevitably be adopted.  St. Paul puts it eloquently in Philippians 2:

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

We should give of ourselves as God Himself has.  God, the, the Creator of all that was, is, and shall be, is Jesus.  God Who revealed Himself to us in the Old Testament and acted in real ways in history, is Jesus.  God is Jesus.  How can we not worship Him and get caught up in the glory that He came to earth to save us from our sins?  And so, reflecting on this mystery, we are spurred on to live righteous lives, lives of humility, lives lived for others, lives that seek to help the poor, lives that seek to help other people find the joy of life with Christ, lives that relieve the needs of those around them.  J.I. Packer writes:

We talk glibly of the ‘Christmas spirit’, rarely meaning more by this than sentimental jollity on a family basis.  But what we have said makes it clear that the phrase should in fact carry a tremendous weight of meaning.  It ought to mean the reproducing in human lives of the temper of him who for our sakes became poor at the first Christmas.  And the Christmas spirit ought to be the mark of every Christian all the year round. (Knowing God, p. 70)

A Christmas-themed Sermon from a Year Ago, Part 1

I preached a shortened version of this sermon at Evensong at St. Alban’s Anglican Church, Ottawa, Ontario, on December 28, 2008.  The preaching began with a reading of the hymns by Ephrem the Syrian quoted in my last post.

It is Christmas.  I hope to share with you in this homily some thoughts on the ineffable mystery of Christmas.  The elusive “true meaning” of Christmas that every Christmas special seeks to hunt down is bigger than Santa, gifts, family, friends, carols, winter, snow or anything else that we human beings do.  The true meaning of Christmas, dear friends, is that of the Incarnation, as St. Ephraim says, “the God-man.”  It is this theological mystery I hope to investigate tonight.

People are often afraid of theology, and I’ll skip over a lot of jargon; I’ll use Scripture, hymns, creeds, the Fathers, etc, to bring out the beauty of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation—with the understanding that the hymns, Fathers, creeds, etc, are in accord with Scripture.  When we see the beauty and glory and magnificence of this event, I hope that we will be drawn to worship and prayer.  True worship of the true God is the ultimate goal of all proper theology.

Diadochus of Photike says, “Divine theology brings into harmony the voices of those who praise God’s majesty.”  Similarly, Evagrius Ponticus declares, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly.  And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”  Worship and prayer are vitally important; both fuel us and drive us into action; may we thus also live better lives in the light of the truth of Christmas, when God came down and lived amongst us.

1. What God is Jesus?  The Creator God.

According to John 1, Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God.  And the Word is not only with God, but is God.  We read the Nicene Creed instead of the Apostle’s tonight so we could read its Christological formulae: Jesus, the Word, is “begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” (BCP)  The Word is not other than God.  God, in His fullness, is Jesus.  Anything we can say about God we can also say about Jesus.  So in Psalm 72, when the Psalmist says, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty.  Amen and Amen,” (BCP) we can substitute Jesus for the Divine Name, “the LORD”, and proclaim, “Blessed be Jesus, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty.  Amen and Amen.”

This truth is expressed most fully in the Creed of St. Athanasius, which can be found here.  The entire thing is worth a read someday; I encourage you to do so.  Verse 30 reads, “Now the right Faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and Man.  He is God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and he is Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born into the world; Perfect God; perfect Man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting; Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead; less than the Father as touching his Manhood.” (BCP)

Perfect God.

God.  Jesus is fully God.  He is not some lesser being, some semi-divine creature, or an angelic being.  He is God Himself.  This is a mystery.  We cannot penetrate into the fullness of its glory.  Indeed, it boggles the mind to think on it:  God in the flesh!  There is so much that could be said about the God Who Jesus is—he is the God of the Old Testament, He set the people of Israel free from Egypt, He spoke by the prophets, He gave the law, He showed Moses a glimpse of His glory.  Let’s reflect for a moment on the fact that He is the Creator God.

a. The Creator God

God, according to Genesis 1, created everything.  He spoke, and it happened.  God said, “Let light come into being, and there was light.”  Since God created using speech, it comes as no surprise that we read in John 1, “All things were made through [the Word], and without Him nothing was made that was made.” (NKJV)  Jesus, the Word, created.  He is the living Word of God the Father, and He brought all things into existence.  He is the One Who creates out of nothing.  Before we rush off into these heights of glorious truth, let us recall the title of a book I once read, Jesus with Dirty Feet.  This Jesus we read of in the Gospels, the One with dirty feet, Who walked the shores of Galilee, Who threw the moneychangers from the Temple, Who wept at Lazarus’ death, Who told stories, Who was born a Babe in Bethlehem and laid in a manger by His mother—this Jesus happens also to be the Creator of the Universe.

Creator.  Of.  The.  Universe.

This is who Jesus is: the Creator of the Stars of Night; the Creator of nebulae and galaxies and comets and solar systems and suns and planets and asteroids and all stellar phenomena; the Creator of ants and whales and bacteria and diatoms and hair and mountains and goats and birch trees and mighty oaks and Niagara Falls and you and me.  As Creator of humanity, He gave unto us a certain creative faculty.  Therefore, all the works of beauty created by humans are traceable back to the Creator God: the architecture of this Church, beautiful poetry, paintings, stained-glass windows, fabulous novels, true philosophy—all because of Jesus.  He is the Creator of the Universe.  He made stuff by talking.  His Word went forth and made all that was, all that is, and all that ever shall be.  As we sing in the fourth-century hymn of Prudentius:

At his word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and Evermore.

This Creator God took on flesh at Christmas.  He was born of a Virgin as an infant.  The mind that hung the Pleiades in the sky was incapable of expressing itself in words and lived off the very milk of a woman whom He created.  Mindblowing.

b.  The God of the Old Testament

Briefly, let us remember that the Creator God has a specific character and history as revealed in the Old Testament; and Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, is that God.  In fact, some of the early Church Fathers taught that the Word of God, Jesus, is the God who speaks in the Old Testament.  I’m not sure I agree, but the implications are that the Second Person of the Trinity is the One Who once on Sinai’s height did “give the Law in cloud and majesty and awe”;  He spoke to Elijah in the still small voice on Mt. Carmel;  He visited Abraham and Sarah; He spoke to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets.

This God we worship in Jesus is not just a speaker and Creator.  He doesn’t just order the cosmos and talk to us every once in a while.  He acts.  Remember our Sunday School Bible stories: He brought Noah’s flood, He led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land, He caused the walls of Jericho to fall down, He gave Samson superhuman strength, He gave Solomon wisdom, He consumed the offerings that Elijah gave on the altar with a mighty flame, He saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.  The holy God of Israel, Who meets Moses in the burning bush and declares His Divine Name, “I am that I am,” manifests Himself as Jesus.

He is just, righteous, jealous for His holy Name, compassionate and merciful.  Anything we can say about Almighty God we can say about Jesus.  This means also that, in the New Testament, when John says that God is Love, the same applies to Jesus.  That God is Love helps unlock the mystery of why this God of power and might would choose to humble Himself as a poor infant, born into this world not into the halls of kings or emperors but into a manger of all places!