Friday, 6 March 2015

Lenten meditation: the Jesus Prayer

During the Fridays of Lent, a series of Lenten meditations will be posted. Each meditation, based on the Gospel of the coming Sunday, will reflect upon devotional practices which lead us to enter more fully into the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection.

The Gospel of Lent III is John 2:13-22.

Lenten meditation 3: the Jesus Prayer

"I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord to observe a holy Lent ... by prayer, fasting, and self-denial" [1].

That call, from the Ash Wednesday liturgy, to keep a holy Lent leaves us in little doubt that, if Lent is to be a spring-time for the soul ...

A key means of growth and renewal in this spiritual spring-time is prayer.

Let's briefly think about prayer and that metaphor of spiritual spring-time.

The growth and renewal we see around us in spring is, well, natural ...

Days lengthen, birds sing, flowers grow.

There is nothing forced or artificial about it.

It's a natural joy and delight.

In the spring-time for the soul, however, our prayer is often quite different.

Forced and artificial rather than a natural expression of life in God.

More akin to time spent in a room with only artificial light rather than experiencing a spring day.

Tedious duty rather than life-giving encounter.

Sunday's Gospel reading, that of the Third Sunday in Lent, might seem a strange place to begin to reflect on this.

It's John's account of the cleansing of the Temple ...

And it is very different to that in the other Gospels.

Above all, it occurs at the start of John's Gospel, not towards the end as in the others.

John's emphasis is also somewhat different.

After throwing out the money-changers, Jesus is challenged by the religious leadership to explain what right he has to do this.

His response is cryptic:

"Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."

The religious leaders, quite understandably, are bemused:

"This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?"

At this point John comments and explains Jesus' cryptic words:

"He was speaking of the temple of his body."

To understand the significance of this, we need to go back into the story of Israel ...

Back to King Solomon's dedication of the original Temple.

As Solomon and the people of Israel rejoice in the Temple, Solomon petitions:

"Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive" [2].

In Jesus - God in the flesh, crucified and risen - we see how the promise of Israel's story is fulfilled.

"Destory this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."

I am the new temple, says Jesus - I who will suffer death and be buried, and on the third day will rise again.

And so for the Church the centre of prayer is Jesus, crucified and risen.

In him, we are heard, heeded, forgiven.

Prayer, then, is no tedious duty, no obligation that must be undertaken.

Prayer, for the Church, is life-giving encounter ...

Not duty or obligation, but the grace-filled experience of being heard, heeded, forgiven.

The 'Jesus Prayer' - a gift from Orthodox Christians to the wider Church - is a beautiful example of this.

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

It's a prayer to be repeated, slowly, again and again.

Perhaps at the beginning of each day of Lent, or in the midst of the day, we set aside 10 or 15 minutes.

And we pray the Jesus Prayer.

The words calls us back to where we belong [3].

Amidst distractions and responsibilities ...

With the knowledge that we often fall far short of who God lovingly calls us to be ...

When the attempts to find our own words for prayer often fumble and fall silent ...

The Jesus Prayer calls us back.

Back to the One who hears, heeds, forgives.

It draws us into those many encounters in the Gospels, in which individuals - whose lives are marred by fear, by sickness, by exclusion, by darkness - call out to Jesus.

Their words, so very often, are echoed in the Jesus Prayer.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, puts it this way:

"what happens in the 'Jesus Prayer' is just the way an individual can make real what is constantly going on in the larger-scale worship of the sacraments" [4].

In the sacraments, Christ is really present - bestowing new life, feeding, healing, forgiving, restoring, blessing.

When we pray the Jesus Prayer in the midst of our daily routine, we are drawn into this experience.

In these days of Lent, Christ is passing by, on his way to Jerusalem.

Through the Jesus Prayer, we encounter him, we experience his healing and forgiveness and acceptance.

So let us use this Lent, as the Cross draws closer, as a time to pray the Jesus Prayer ...

To encounter him as the One who hears, heeds and forgives.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.


[1] Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer 2004, 'Service for Ash Wednesday'.

[2] I Kings 8:30

[3] "We need a simple, very brief form of words that just calls us back to where we belong" - Rowan Williams, Being Christian, p.79.

[4]  Rowan Williams "The physicality of prayer" in New Statesman 8th July 2014.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Rhythms and echoes in 1662 (ii)

As with the previous reflection on this theme, note that this is not anything like a considered response to Buchanan's What Did Cranmer Think He Was Doing?.  The origins of both posts are much more personal.  Following a recent celebration according to the CofI's Order One (basically 1662), I was wondering why it so resonated with me as a catholic Anglican.  'Rhythms and echoes' seems to be the answer.   1662 contains rhythms and echoes which the catholic Anglican heart and mind can identify as being rooted in earlier, catholic expressions of eucharistic spirituality. 

Here, again, I compare extracts from 1662 with St Ambrose's prayer before receiving the holy eucharist.

Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood.

From the Prayer of Humble Access. 

May your body and blood,
which I intend to receive, although I am unworthy,
be for me the remission of my sins,
the washing away of my guilt.

From a Prayer of St Ambrose before Holy Communion.

O Lord and heavenly Father, we thy humble servants entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; most humbly beseeching thee to grant, that by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion.

From the Prayer of Oblation.

Praise to you, saving sacrfice,
offered on the wood of the cross for me and for all mankind.
Praise to the noble and precious blood,
flowing from the wounds of the my crucified Lord Jesus Christ and washing away the sins of the whole world.

From a Prayer of St Ambrose before Holy Communion.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Attending to the Eucharist

From an article in Church Life, the journal of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, reflecting on the sursum corda:

That imperative invitation for the congregation to raise or lift their hearts is very ancient. It is attested in the liturgy from the late-third century in the old Apostolic Tradition and acts as an opening line of every ancient Eucharistic Prayer in both the East and the West. The old Byzantine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom provides, as it were, a warning given by the deacon in anticipation of that cry: “Let us stand well/Let us stand in awe/Let us be attentive that we may present this holy offering in peace.” The priest utters a blessing and then intones: Lift up your hearts! 

When the celebrant urges us to lift our hearts, he is saying in effect that we should open our hearts to participate in the Eucharistic liturgy in a deeper sense than being simply present out of duty. In the words of the Byzantine deacon, we should be “attentive.” Attention means to be alert to what is to come; to focus on what is to happen. It is not easy to keep that focus at all times. Often we nod our way through the liturgy just as we can nod our way through the ordinary routine of daily life itself. It is in those moments when we are jerked out of the ordinary, when the words take on a meaning that we had hitherto let pass over us like white noise, that we get an insight into the awe-ful truth that stands behind the language of prayer: that our hearts are lifted as a pure gift of grace.

To lift up our hearts is a species of conversion—turning towards the Word of God present in the community, in the proclamation of the Scriptures, and preparing ourselves to receive the Body and the Blood of Christ. 

(Church Life 3.1, "The Prayer of the Heart" by Lawrence Cunningham.)

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Lenten veil and truth in the depths

Today's post on the Covenant site reflects on the Lenten practice of veiling the Cross:

Why veil crosses during Lent? Perhaps to train us to perceive the glory of the Cross. Perhaps so we can learn to sing with joy, “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which was hung the salvation of the world.” Perhaps because we come to see the Cross clearly through the light of the Resurrection.

This brought to mind words from a Newman sermon recently blogged by Newman Lectures:

The surface of things is bright only, and the Cross is sorrowful; it is a hidden doctrine; it lies under a veil ... And yet it is a true doctrine; for truth is not on the surface of things, but in the depths (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. 6, Sermon 7)

In some ways, this beautifully summarises the Lenten experience as preparation for the Paschal Mystery.  The veiled Cross is an invitation to a deeper reflection, to re-receive the hidden doctrine, to discern that the surface cannot suffice.  It prepares us for the mysteries of Holy Week, for especially in that week "truth is not on the surface" - when the Rabbi is brought into the City on a donkey; when Bread is broken and the Cup of Wine is taken in the Upper Room; when a bloodied, tortured Body is nailed to Wood; when the Tomb is silent and dark. 

We need to know then, in that Week, that "truth is not on the surface", that what is there hidden is, remarkably, scandalously, the centre of all cosmic history.  Our imaginations have to be then attuned to perceive that beyond the veil of events, of appearances, there is infinitely more occuring than mere reason suggests.

For this, the veiled Cross of Lent prepares us.  "Truth is not on the surface of things, but in the depths."

Monday, 2 March 2015

Anglicanism, priesthood and sacramental imagination

There is much to argue with in Tina Beattie's recent post for the Tablet blog on the relationship between married priests and the ordination of women in the Roman tradition.  In particular, the implication that marriage in the priesthood somehow equates to "bourgeois respectability" does a great disservice to the rich catholic, sacramental understanding of the mystery of marriage, not least as it is seen in the Orthodox and Anglican traditions of a married priesthood.

What is interesting, however, is Beattie's understanding of what it means for women to receive the order of priesthood:

We must ask how our faith allows eternity to shimmer within the contingencies and complexities of history, and for that we must nurture the sacramental imagination ...

What is unique is the liturgical and sacramental beauty of the Catholic tradition, rooted in a theology of grace that encourages us to see the shimmer of divine love in every aspect of the material world ...

Women priests might be the catalyst the Church needs to reawaken our exhausted rituals to the mystery of the incarnation, communicated to us in the graced sacramentality of creation which is focused with particular intensity and presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

This understanding is reminiscent of Catherine Pickstock's insistence that "allowing womens’ ordination does not remove gender from the symbolics of the Incarnation and the liturgy".  And yet, it is precisely this approach - that women's ordination to ministerial priesthood is to be welcomed on sacramental and iconic grounds - that has not been widely used to justify this development within Anglicanism.

During a Lambeth Palace seminar in 2011 on the experience of women in the priesthood and episcopate, +Rowan stressed the need to "get beyond a secular, rather two dimensional discourse about rights".  He raised the issue, we might guess, because this secular narrative has dominated too much Anglican reflection on women in the ministerial priesthood and episcopate.  Alongside this has been a growing Anglican inability to articulate a theology of ministerial priesthood, as was painfully evident in the CofE's celebration of the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women as priests.

This is why in many - but, thankfully, not all - cases, Anglicanism has failed to embody the potential discerned by Tina Beattie:

Women priests might be the catalyst the Church needs to reawaken our exhausted rituals to the mystery of the incarnation ...

Too often within Anglicanism, a secular discourse of rights and liberation has been used to justify women in 'leadership', rather than the Mystery of the Incarnation being shared as the grounds for women receiving the gift of priesthood.  This analysis leads to what might be an interesting suggestion - that, irrespective of differences over women's priestly ordination, the concern of catholic Anglicans should be in practicing and embodying for wider Anglicanism a richly sacramental understanding of priesthood in a way that seizes both the Church's and the culture's imagination.  Not in terms of a clerical caste, but as a sign of how the Incarnation gathers up the material into the life of Triune Love - a sign amongst other signs: of the baptised, of the married, of the confirmed, of the sick, frail and dying, of the consecrated life, of the Church as the verum corpus.

Just as the priestly nature of the ministry of the presbyter witnesses to the whole Church's participation in the priesthood of Christ, so the sacramentality of the ministerial priesthood witnesses to the sacramentality of the whole Church. Remove this sign, this "walking sacrament" (to quote Austin Farrer), and we undermine the catholic vision of the grace-drenched material order described by Beattie - "a theology of grace that encourages us to see the shimmer of divine love in every aspect of the material world". 

In his wonderful sermon 'Walking Sacraments', Farrer states:

Here is a new-made priest, and what does he do?  He hastens to the altar: he sets forth the mystery of love, the body and blood of Christ, in bread and wine.

Deny this and we collude with disenchantment.  Deny this and we disenchant the Church and the material order.  If mere, material bread cannot be the Body of Christ nor can mere, material mortals.  If that mortal at the altar is not a priest because Christ's priesthood cannot be a present flesh-and-blood reality, then neither are the baptized - this ordinary gathering of so very ordinary people - the royal priesthood.

Women's ordination to the ministerial priesthood should be a means of Anglicanism embodying and sharing a richly Christological and sacramental vision.  That we have widely failed to do so is because we have exchanged 'walking sacraments' for 'leadership'.  If catholic Anglicans, pro- and anti-WO, want to discover an agenda for renewed unity and mission, it could partly lie here - in pastoral practice and theological reflection which shows to wider Anglicanism how the gift of the sacramentality of ministerial priesthood (as with all the sacraments) is a sign of grace, beauty and hope for the Church and the culture.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Rhythms and echoes in 1662 (i)

It's far from being an answer to the reigning orthodoxy established by Buchanan's What Did Cranmer Think He Was Doing?, but it is interesting to note some of the rhythms and echoes in 1662 (which, of course, was not Cranmer's rite and has a definitively different eucharistic theology):

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table ...

From the Prayer of Humble Access.

Lord Jesus Christ,
I approach your banquet table in fear and trembling,
for I am a sinner,
and dare not rely on my own worth,
but only on your goodness and mercy ...

From a Prayer of St Ambrose before Holy Communion.

Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us, who have duly received these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people ...

From the Prayer of Thanksgiving.

Give me the grace, most merciful God, to receive the Body of your only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, in such a manner that I may deserve to be intimately united with His mystical Body and to be numbered among His members ...

From a Prayer of St Thomas Aquinas before Holy Communion.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Lenten meditation: the Sign of the Cross

During the Fridays of Lent, a series of Lenten meditations will be posted. Each meditation, based on the Gospel of the coming Sunday, will reflect upon devotional practices which lead us to enter more fully into the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection.

The Gospel of Lent II is Mark 8:31-38.

Lenten meditation 2: the Sign of the Cross

"Brothers and sisters in Christ: since early days Christians have observed with great devotion the time of our Lord's passion and resurrection" [1].

We heard these words in the solemn liturgy of Ash Wednesday.

They remind us that Lent, at its heart, is about orienting us afresh to the core of the Christian faith ...

The Paschal Mystery of the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Each year we prepare during these forty days for the commemoration of the Lord's Cross on Good Friday and the celebration of His Resurrection at Easter.

We do so because these events are not, for the Church, mere history ...

They are not merely past events.

We spend forty days in prayer and fasting and preparation because our lives are given meaning, they are defined by the Cross and Resurrection.

These are a living reality shaping and defining our lives.

The Gospel of this coming Sunday, the Second in Lent, powerfully demonstrates this:

 We hear Jesus say in Mark's Gospel:

"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."

Our lives are meant to be Cross-shaped.

Our lives are meant to be conformed to the faithful, self-giving, reconciling love which the Cross embodies.

And so, from earliest times, Christians have reverenced the sign of the Cross ...

Seeing in it the heart of what it means to be a Christian, to be conformed to Jesus.

As Anglican Christians, we continue this.

When anyone, child or adult, receives the Sacrament of Baptism in this and any Anglican community, the first thing that happens to them as a new Christian is the priest signing their forehead with the Cross ...

"Christ claims you for his own. Receive the sign of the cross" [2].

There, at the very start of our Christian life, the Sign of the Cross is made on us.

Our Book of Common Prayer also makes provision for the time when the end of our earthly life approaches.

In the liturgy for 'Preparation for Death', as the prayer of commendation is said, we read:

"The commendation may be accompanied by making the sign of the cross on the forehead of the dying person, recalling his or her baptism into Christ" [3].

And in between the beginning of the Christian life in the waters of Baptism, and the ending of our earthly journey, we are again and again brought before the Cross.

Above our high altar.

At the front of the procession which commences each Sunday Eucharist.

When the priest absolves and blesses us, she or he makes the Sign of the Cross over us.

Often on altar frontals.

On the front of our Prayer Books.

Some of us will wear a Cross around our necks.

Some will have a Cross or Crucifix in our homes.

Some of us will make the Sign of the Cross during the absolution and blessing, and as we receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

It's not a lucky charm.

Nor is it a tribal symbol, belonging only to one part of the Church.

As Anglican Christians, following the practice of the early Church ...

We honour and reverence the Sign of the Cross in our liturgy and worship and devotion ...

As a means of continually renewing our discipleship.

Each time we see, receive or make the Sign of the Cross, we are receiving afresh the vocation to be disciples ...

As those called by Jesus to take up the Cross and follow him.

When we see, receive or make the Sign of the Cross ...

We are being renewed in our fundamental identity as those forgiven, healed and reconciled by the Cross of Christ ..

And thus those called to forgive, heal and reconcile in all aspects of our daily living.

Cyril of Jerusalem, a great teacher in the fourth century Jerusalem church, said:

"Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified.  Be the cross our seal, made with boldness ... in everything; over the bread we eat and the cup we drink; in our comings and goings; before our sleep, when we lie down and we awake; when we are travelling, and when we are at rest" [4].

Let us, then, this Lent renew our devotion to the Sign of the Cross ...

The means of the world's forgiveness, healing and salvation ...

And that which shapes our life as disciples of the Crucified One.


[1] Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer 2004, 'Service for Ash Wednesday'.

[2] BCP 2004, 'Holy Baptism Two'.

[3] BCP 2004, p. 454.

[4] Quoted in 'The Sign of the Cross', Gospel Imprint series.