April 14, 2017

Triduum Thoughts

At last night’s Maundy Thursday liturgy, I felt a bit like Scrooge on Christmas Day: “I don’t deserve to be so happy.” But I was, despite the solemnity, perhaps because of it. Last year on Maundy Thursday I was in the hospital ER with a heart attack, waiting to be operated on the next day... yes, on Good Friday, under local anesthetic, able to watch my beating heart on the fluoroscope as the doctor threaded it with a stent, lying on the table in the same hospital in which I was born, intimations of mortality dancing in my head like preserved sugar plums.

But last night — through the washing of the feet (with painful knees on the stone floor) as I have done so many times before, but then to a liturgical act new to me, cleaning the altar with water carefully poured into the five incised crosses on the mensa, and wiping it down with the same sort of towel used to dry the parishioners’ feet, and then using that same moistened towel, folded, to stifle the light of the sanctuary lamp, watching it dim and die, stopping Ed the cantor’s voice as all the lights went out — I experienced the same inexplicable joy.

More apt for joy, perhaps, such moments as bearing the incomparable weight of the Body to the Altar of Repose, beneath the canopy, God’s parachute. But the most joyous moment came at the Sursum Corda. As I turned and looked down the long aisle of the nave, out through the clear glass doors and the open wooden ones, I saw a man across Charles Street, walking along, who at that same moment turned to look into the church. He stayed standing directly, centrally opposite, looking, through the call for lifted hearts, the call for thanks to be given. I was calling to him perhaps more than to the people already churched, already on board. I don't think he could have heard me — the glass doors, open earlier, had been closed to hush the sounds of traffic on that busy street — but I hoped he knew, and knows, that I was calling him, I was calling him on behalf of someone far greater than us all. And I hope his heart was touched by that mystery, if even only for a moment, and that perhaps those doors, or the doors of some other place where God is calling, will feel the press of his hand, and gently open wide.

I don’t deserve to be so happy. But I am.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 9, 2017

The Options Market

a sermon delivered at Church of the Advent, Federal Hill, Baltimore, on Palm Sunday 2017

It has been said that our lives are constituted by the choices we make. At every point of our lives we are faced with options, alternatives to go one way or the other — and the choices we make determine the shape of our lives, each choice like a bead on a string, strung together by our identity. Some of these choices are dramatic and obvious; some, we may not even be aware of as we make them.

This truth is laid out plainly in Matthew’s account of the Passion. We see the choices people make all along the way, choices to act or refrain from action, options and opportunities taken or rejected. So many options for so many lives! And each of these choices shapes the reality of each one’s world — and our world!
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Think of the terrible choice that Judas makes: the choice of betrayal, the choice to accept a handful of silver to betray a man to death, a man in whose company he could have found eternal life. Instead, he opts for delivering him to death, and when stricken with remorse, chooses death for himself.
Then look at Peter, the unsteady man who totters between heroism and cowardice, pulling out a sword at one point to defend his Lord, and then cowering in the shadows at another, denying that he even knows him. He chooses to deny Jesus, and only the rooster’s crow recalls him to himself, and rebukes him for his choice.

Then there’s the high priest, Caiaphas. Matthew doesn’t supply us with a window into why he acts as he does; for that we have to depend on John’s Gospel, which we will hear on Good Friday. Caiaphas is a practical man — he follows what would later be called the utilitarian ethics of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” So, John tells us, he advises that, given the danger Jesus creates in the fragile political climate of Jerusalem, it is expedient that one man should suffer instead of many. This choice goes against the teaching of the greatest rabbi in Judaism, Hillel the Great, who ended his ministry during Jesus’ childhood. Hillel taught that to save a single human life is to save an entire world. Caiaphas on the other hand, weighs human life in the shopkeeper’s scale, one life against many, and figures the trade-off is reasonable. And by that choice he sets the course for all that follows.

Then we have Pilate, another politician, a man who also weighs his choices carefully. It is easy to sympathize with Pilate — so much is pulling him one way and another — even his wife chimes in to warn him to disengage. And so Pilate makes the interesting choice not to choose. Like many a politician before and since, rather than take a position — he takes a poll. Pilate is a leader who leads from behind, safely insulated — he thinks! — from having to take responsibility should things not work out, sheltered from the consequences of his inaction, able to wash his hands of the whole matter — a perfect example of “plausible deniability” — but only known to ages since for this one choice not to choose, forever immortalized wherever Christians gather with those words: “crucified under Pontius Pilate.”
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All of these choices, all of these lives, swirling in the mix of options and opportunities! And step by step, each one of them choice by choice, each life collapses into reality as each choice is made, all the fuzzy options fading away as each choice becomes concrete, and the path is taken. And amidst this cloud of options, the most important choice, the one that is the eye of the storm around which all of these other possibilities swirl, is the one that Jesus makes, and he keeps right on making it through to the end.

It begins in the garden of Gethsemane, as he appeals to his Father for another option — a way for salvation to be accomplished without his having to drink the cup of suffering set before him. Matthew portrays only one side of the conversation: it is as if we were witnessing a telephone call — we hear what Jesus says, but not the response. God spoke at his Baptism and his Transfiguration. But now? Is God truly silent? Is this the beginning of the terrible silence of God that will lead Jesus to cry out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We do not know. What we do know is that Jesus has a choice, there in the garden, and throughout the rest of the suffering that follows. There in the garden it is perhaps clearest: even with Judas and the guards on their way, it is still not too late for Jesus to escape, to leave the city and head on back to the safety of Bethany, to flee to far-off Galilee. But he doesn’t.

That same choice is available to Jesus right on up to the end. When they bring him before Caiaphas, he could choose to deny himself and his mission as God’s holy one, the Messiah. But he doesn’t. When brought before Pilate, he could play on Pilate’s weakness for “the art of the deal.” But he doesn’t. Even when they nail him to the cross, he could indeed — as the taunters say — choose to “come down now from the cross.” But he doesn’t.

For he knows at any one of these steps that for him to do so would be to disobey his heavenly Father, to deny the very purpose for which he was born. To choose not to die on the cross — that is the most tempting option, but it is one that he refuses.
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In his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, author Nikos Kazantzakis explores what it might have been like if Jesus had given in to this last temptation, this option to come down from the cross. In a flash, even as he hangs there crucified, Jesus envisions what it would mean to come down from the cross. He sees himself return to Galilee as an ordinary man, to settle down and get married, to run his carpenter shop — and to leave the world unredeemed, human nature broken, left to lay where — not Jesus — but Adam and Eve “flang it.”

But he doesn’t. Jesus doesn’t do this, in the novel or the Gospel. He rejects that dreamlike fantasy of an ordinary life; he doesn’t give in to that last tempting choice, that seductive option to live instead of dying. He gives himself to death on the cross, knowing that in the options market of Calvary, all of the conniving deals and bartering in human souls are turned upside down. He lays down his life because he knows this is the only investment that will bring a return — and what a return it will be! What had he said? “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world at the cost of his life?” Jesus took that risk, as only he could do. And his gift of himself, his one sacrifice of himself once offered, would bring redemption to the whole world. His act of obedience unto death, even death on the cross, will lead to his exaltation above all earthly things, and the sanctification of all things, in him.

This is the path the Son of God chose on our behalf, for our salvation. It meant pain and suffering and death for him — but life for us. At the cost of his life he gained the whole world.
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We are offered a similar choice each day of our lives: we too are offered the option to take up our cross day by day, and follow him. Or... or will we follow Judas’ choice to betray, Peter’s choice to deny, Caiaphas’ choice to victimize, or Pilate’s choice to abdicate?

Will we bend our knee at the name of Jesus, or bow to other earthly gods of wealth and comfort, or act like we don’t know who he is, or take advantage of our sisters and brothers, or act as if this all has nothing to do with us? Sisters and brothers, how we choose each day of our lives, how we play the stakes in this options market, will determine our fate for all eternity. As we sow, so shall we reap.

You may remember a line from Charles’ Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” when Scrooge asks Marley’s Ghost about the heavy chain that binds him. The unhappy ghost responds: “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link... I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you? Or would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this seven Christmas’s ago, and you have labored on it since. Ah, it is a ponderous chain!”

Such are the choices we make, my friends, day by day: the things we do and refuse to do — “things done and left undone.” The life and death of our Savior is set before us to show us how to free ourselves from the ponderous chain of self-interest that binds us to betrayal, fear, victimization, and evasion of responsibility. Judas, Peter, Caiaphas and Pilate — and their choices — offer their testimony.

But a greater witness still is there as well — there, on the cross. God is calling us to follow him, my sisters and brothers, and he will give us the strength to do so. So let us choose, and choose wisely, to follow him, through whom alone we find the way to eternal life. ✠

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 8, 2017

For Holy Week

This is a combination of a Symphonic Poem I wrote back in 1982 with images from the Way of the Cross that I drew last year for my parish. The musical portion is based on some of the traditional Passion music, including a closing chorale the looks beyond the Way of the Cross to Easter....

Peace and all good, and blessed Holy Week,
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 4, 2017

Bodies through the Window

The Church of England is currently being pecked at by a number of chickens home to roost, in particular those hatched from the settlement attempted over the ordination of women to the episcopate, embodied in the Five Guiding Principles. And ultimately, the problem is the embodiment.

The Elizabethan Settlement (a classic instance of Anglican Fudge) on issues such as the nature of Christ's presence in the Eucharist, comprehending mutually contradictory positions, was possible because no windows into personal belief were needed, and the language of the liturgy was adequately ambiguous so as to cover diversity of opinion and belief, so people could attend the same liturgy while holding completely contradictory understandings of what was taking place. Issues only became contentious when physical actions betrayed differing attitudes, so the advice was to keep these to a minimum, keeping the Peace, so to spek.

The problem with Order in general, and the ordination of women to the episcopate is that it is external and visible. Societies and factions are formed. Those who reject the concept are compelled to keep lists of those priests who have not been "ordained" by questionable hands, for neither they, nor the bishop whose hands were laid upon them, are true ministers of the sacraments, in the rejectionist view. Comprehension can no longer be sustained because the diversity of opinion has taken on flesh, and one has to be more or less public in response to the question of whether Jane Doe is a priest or bishop, or not.

It is, of course, still possible to allow for that diversity, within a national church structure, but it takes a much greater effort to sustain since it is now part of the structure itself that is in question. If, as some believe, women cannot sustain Order, the whole edifice risks becoming like those housing blocks Monty Python's Mystico and Janet sustained only by hypnosis.

Someone once noted the fragility of a house divided against itself.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG