… or, one part thereof, at any rate. This is a refined-for-written-form version of three meditations I delivered a year ago at an Advent quiet day given at St Stephen’s Church in Providence, Rhode Island.
The Redemption of the World
Although I am firmly committed to the Prayer Book norm that the Holy Eucharist is the “principal service of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day,” I am in some ways grateful that my first experience of regular worship in the Episcopal Church took place in what had often been colloquially referred to as a “Morning Prayer parish.” (This was in the early 1970s, when Eucharist-as-norm was still picking up its initial head of steam.) My sponge-like spiritual imagination “imprinted” on several of the fixed prayers in the service of Morning Prayer as it was set forth in the 1928 Prayer Book. Of course, in the natural progression of my Anglican development, I would sooner or later have encountered the General Thanksgiving anyway. But, as it worked out, this quintessentially Cranmerian text claimed a place in my devotion quite early on.
In these reflections, I would like to focus rather intently (and, at times, perhaps, intensely) on one snippet from the General Thanksgiving: “We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.”
Redemption of the world … means of grace … hope of glory.
So, what are we giving thanks for when we mention “the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ?” A clue might be found in the collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day: “O God, who didst wonderfully create and yet more wonderfully restore the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity …” Here we’re acknowledging that the original creation was a good thing, but restored creation is an even better thing. Some decades ago, my wife and I enjoyed watching a series on public television called This Old House. The host, a fellow named Bob Vila, was incredibly adept at taking a really run down piece of residential real estate, seeing what it had once been, envisioning what it could yet be, and then fulfilling that vision. We watched it with rapt attention, amazed by his knowledge and skill, and giving thanks—I mean that mostly seriously; it was a quasi-religious experience—for the gradual revelation of something lovely and glorious. The house was wonderful when it was originally built, but, precisely because that glory had faded and the house fallen into disrepair, it seemed even more wonderful in its restoration.
During December of each year, amid the growing plethora of services of Lessons and Carols—whether of the Advent-y variety or the Christmas-y variety; there is rarely purity in such things anymore!—one text probably gets more widespread use than any other. I speak of the anonymous medieval carol Adam lay ybounden. This short carol contains the cryptic line, “Ne had that apple taken been … ne had never Our Lady abeen Heaven’s Queen.” To break that down: If Adam and Eve had never sinned in the Garden of Eden, then there would never have been a need for something so manifestly glorious as the Blessed Virgin Mary being crowned Queen of Heaven. The text continues, “Blessed be the time that apple taken was.” This evokes the theological notion of the “fortunate fall,” that, yes, the original creation was great, but redeemed creation is even greater. The full text of the Exultet—the long canticle sung by the Deacon (when there is one) near the beginning of the Easter Vigil liturgy—contains the phrase, “O felix culpa …”, usually rendered in English as “O blessed iniquity.” (This line was unfortunately excised from the version that appears in the 1979 Prayer Book.) St Paul’s notion of abundant grace figures in here as well: Should we sin more so that grace will about more? (Romans 6:1, I paraphrase.) No! But, yet, it does … abound more when we sin more, that is. (If you can’t handle paradox, you’re going to have a hard time with Christianity!)
One of my favorite Advent hymns is a medieval Latin text, Conditor alme siderum. (It shows up as Hymn 60 in the Hymnal 1982, “Creator of the stars of night …”.) I’m particularly captivated by the second verse: “In sorrow than the ancient curse should doom to death a universe, you came, O Savior, to see free your own in glorious liberty.” I can almost hear a bass voiceover actor declaiming these words as a print version rolls across the screen at the beginning of a Star Wars-like epic movie. Indeed, it’s an epic story! It begins in the mists of pre-history, in the narrative of the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, yet with a glimmer of hope, a veiled, cryptic promise that this sad event is not the end of the story, that God is yet resolved to set things right, to redeem what has gone off the rails. The Lord says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” In the Christian tradition, this is called the protoevangelium—the first proclamation of the good news that God has taken on a project, a mission, and that this mission is nothing less ambitious than the redemption of the world. (The offspring of the woman, of course, is Jesus.)
Here’s how participating in God’s project, God’s mission of “the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ” works:
First, we give ourselves to God without condition—no strings, nothing held back, all in. If you think this is a scary proposition, you’re right. It is.
Then, something quite wonderful happens. What we give to God unreservedly, God returns to us. God gives us back ourselves—ourselves, only better, a better version of ourselves. We are not just “wonderfully created,” but “yet more wonderfully restored.” God cares about our happiness. He really does. Our happiness is on God’s radar screen. But God cares about our happiness in a much larger context than we care about our happiness. So he doesn’t always “fix” things in such a way that we can be immediately happy, that things turn out the way we think they ought to. Rather, God weaves his concern for our happiness into the massive tapestry of redemption. What looks like chaos to us in our very short-sighted perspective would actually be stunningly beautiful if we were able to step back and view it from God’s own eternal perspective.
And all of this, of course, is the fundamental action of the Eucharist: We place our “selves” on the altar in the offertory at each celebration of the liturgy—with bread, wine, and money standing in as our proxies for our selves. We present “the offering and oblation of our life and labor unto the Lord.” And there on the altar, with the Eucharistic elements serving as our proxies, we are taken, blessed, broken, and then given, returned—returned looking the same, but, in fact, marvelously changed, marvelously changed into the very Body and Blood—the very life—of our creating and redeeming God.
The liturgy, in turn, sets the pattern for the whole of our lives. Our lives themselves are to be eucharistic—constantly taking and being taken, constantly blessing and being blessed, constantly breaking and being broken, constantly giving and being given—given for the life of the world, for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our invitation is to ask ourselves: What in my life can I intentionally offer to be restored and/or redeemed? What am I holding onto when I could have something better?
I can’t think of anything that sums up God’s work of redemption better than the familiar collect that is the last of Solemn Collects on Good Friday, the final collect after the last prophecy at the Easter Vigil, and also used at ordinations:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on our whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up; and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Means of Grace
“Grace” is a very churchy word. We rarely hear it outside a religious context. So, from a theological and spiritual perspective, what do we mean by it? Let me offer a working definition. It’s by no means “official” and may not be the best one, but here it is, nonetheless: Grace is God’s favorable disposition towards those whom he loves—which is everybody. Grace is not a feeling, not a “mood” that God may be in on any given day; nor is grace a principle, a concept, some sort of spiritual fairy dust. Grace is concrete, it gets transmitted, delivered. One of the bits of business jargon I’ve picked up in recent years is to use “deliverable” as a noun, usually a plural noun, as in “What are the deliverables that we offer our customers?” So let’s go ahead and think of Grace as “a deliverable.” And if Grace is a deliverable, then there needs to be means by which it gets delivered—hence, means of Grace. The means of Grace are concrete, observable ways in which Grace arrives and become available. I’m going to attempt to break open three of these means. There are no doubt many, many more than these three. But I feel safe in saying that there are no fewer than these three. In other words, a Christian disciple will look for Grace in these places; others as well, most likely, but these three, at least.
Right after being presented to the Bishop, those to be ordained in the Episcopal Church—whether deacon, priest, or bishop—are required to attest, orally and in writing, that they believe the “Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” That’s a pretty bald statement. There’s no wiggle room. The “all things necessary” clause is an elucidation, not any kind of qualification. The Bible is the word of God, and therefore can be understood as a means of Grace.
We find Grace in Holy Scripture, particularly as we bathe in its vocabulary and grammar and syntax, as the language of scripture becomes the language of our hearts, that which we recall autonomically—that is, reflexively, without thought or intention, in a sort of “Pavlovian conditioning on steroids”—recall in moments of stress and adversity—illness, grief, any sort of loss—as well as moments of great joy and blessing. In any of the circumstances, scripture can supply the language by which to speak the unspeakable, to tell the untellable, to pray the unprayable. The Psalms, in particular, have a marvelous capacity to come to our aid.
Of course, this is one of those times when what you can withdraw is pretty much tied to what you have deposited. It works best when “reading and meditating on God’s holy word” (from the BCP Ash Wednesday exhortation) has been a habitual practice for years. I have recently begun experimenting from time to time with using the Church of England’s Common Worship for praying the daily office. There is much about it that I like a great deal, but it is in praying the Psalms and biblical canticles that I find myself seriously annoyed, because it’s a different translation than that to which I have become accustomed over four decades of use. It’s not that Common Worship’s version is a bad translation; it’s just a different translation than the one that has worn grooves in my soul, and those grooves didn’t get worn overnight. Holy Scripture pays rich dividends as a means of Grace, but the deposits need to have been made.
The sacraments are, perhaps, the most obvious, the most readily identifiable, means of grace. And, within that set of readily identifiable ritual acts, some are even more obvious than others: baptism and confirmation, marriage, and ordination. These are all, of course, “one offs”—at least in theory—and there is a great deal that could be said about how they mediate grace. But, instead of developing those themes in this context, I’m going to just move on from them, let them speak for themselves, and rather briefly mention the renewable sacraments.
Reconciliation. This is where we name our sinful acts and sinful dispositions and sinful habits with our own voices in the presence of another (sinful) human being who is in a position to be a means of Grace that transmits Divine forgiveness. But the absolving priest not only speaks in persona Christi, but, as it were, in persona ecclesia—present as a compressed capitulation of the whole Body of Christ. When we sin, we don’t just offend the person against whom we sin, we don’t just offend God, we don’t just offend the moral order of the universe, or all of humankind, we offend our brothers and sisters, those with whom we are connected by baptism into the dying and rising of Christ. We offend the Church, and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when we receive absolution, we are reconciled with the Church. We tend to personalize the transaction, of course, because the act itself is private. But it’s important to remember that the Church herself is the steward of word, sacrament, and community (which I will get to shortly), so it’s fairly important that we be reconciled with the Church.
Holy Communion. This is pretty basic catechesis, but perhaps it bears repeating: As food is a “means” of physical nourishment, so the Blessed Sacrament is a means of spiritual nourishment. In it we “share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” In the early 1980s, there was a novel by a woman named Jean Auel that was immensely popular for a while, The Clan of the Cave Bear. Toward the end of the book, at the climax of the narrative, the disparate groupings of the pre-historic clan that has adopted the cave bear as its animal totem come together in a single place to celebrate and renew their sense of identity. An actual Cave Bear has been captured and it held in a cage as the gathering begins, and is the focus of everyone’s attention. They revere the animal. Then they kill it and eat it! But not just in order to enjoy a cookout. Rather, they do so reverently, believing sincerely in their hearts that as they eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Cave Bear, they share the life of that noble beast. They take into themselves, and then, they hope, begin to display the admirable characteristics of the Cave Bear. Does this sound at all familiar?! I don’t know anything about Jean Auel’s faith or knowledge of Christian sacramental theology, but when I read that passage for the first time, I was stunned. She could hardly have more perfectly nailed the significance of Holy Communion as a means of grace. In it, Christians eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of God, him whom we revere, in order to have his life within us, and to show forth the admirable characteristics of his life in our own.
Unction. We eat food to sustain our lives on a normal day-to-day basis, but, on occasion, we need medicine. We receive Holy Communion to sustain our spiritual lives on a day-to-day (or, more usually, week-to-week, basis) but, on occasion, we need “medicine” as our spiritual ailments produce spiritual symptoms. The Sacrament of Unction provides the grace to enable us to consecrate our illness to “God’s project” of the redemption of the world. It enables us to become a thread in the fabric of the tapestry of redemption. This happens in a virtually infinite variety of possible ways, some of which involve being healed, which is usually our initial focus of hope, and some of which involve seeing our illness as the cross we are called to take up and bear faithfully. Either way, we are redeemed, and the mission of redemption is extended.
Sacraments become robust means of grace when we complete the circuit. Sacraments take ordinary elements—water, bread, wine, oil—and ordinary actions and gestures—bathing, eating, touching, speaking—and invest them with extraordinary significance, turning them into channels of God’s favorable disposition. But when we really “get” the sacraments is when not only does baptism remind us of bathing, but taking a shower reminds us of baptism; not only does the Eucharist remind us of a meal, but sitting down to even a simple supper evokes the Eucharist in the imagination of our hearts; and the embrace of a loved one or a stranger re-connects us with absolution and unction.
Most of us were in high school when we were first invited to study John Donne’s immortal poem that begins with the line, “No man is an island, entire of itself … “. Human beings are social creatures. We know ourselves most fully as we are in relationship with others. Even the most diehard introverts need and long for some close relationships. Among Christian monastics, some are hermits, and live alone, but even hermits are connected to a community, and join that community, at least, for Mass on the Lord’s Day and other holy days.
For Christians, it is community provides context for our discipleship. The scriptures say we are to be mutually accountable to one another, and it is community that provides the framework for that accountability. It is when we study and eat and play and serve together that Grace gets traction—as it were, goes viral. Grace piggy-backs on serendipity, and works in all sorts of unexpected way to make us holy, to produce in us a character that looks like Jesus.
I could perhaps be faulted for not mentioning service and mission, but I rather tend to think of these things as what is made possible by Grace, wherein we ourselves become means of Grace. It is Grace that enables us to engage in the classic corporal works of mercy—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the imprisoned, caring for the sick, burying the dead, counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, correcting sinners, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving all injuries, bearing wrong with patience, and praying for the living and the dead. These things are all the fruits of Grace. Word, sacrament, and community are the means by which that Grace gets communicated.
Now, a brief post-script on the ubiquity of Grace. Our forebears started cultivating crops and domesticating animals because it was safer and more efficient than foraging and hunting. Scripture and sacraments and community life are “domesticated” forms of Grace because, in God’s providence, he has determined that we needed something safer and more efficient. But Grace is inherently “wild,” and we cannot tame it. Grace will show up in all sorts of unanticipated places, including, sometimes, our own sins—yes, Grace is that abundant and profligate. So there are more “means of grace” than we can even begin to number.
The Hope of Glory
One of my earliest memories—probably from when I was three or four years old, which I associate with an evening service on a cold winter Sunday at the Lawndale Emmanuel Baptist just on the south side of Chicago, is an old gospel song with these words
When all my labors and trials are o’er,
And I am safe on that beautiful shore,
Just to be near the dear Lord I adore,
Will through the ages be glory for me.
Oh, that will be glory for me,
Glory for me, glory for me,
When by His grace I shall look on His face,
That will be glory, be glory for me.
When, by the gift of His infinite grace,
I am accorded in heaven a place,
Just to be there and to look on His face,
Will through the ages be glory for me.
Friends will be there I have loved long ago;
Joy like a river around me will flow;
Yet just a smile from my Savior, I know,
Will through the ages be glory for me.
This song dates from the year 1900, and is an example of the “gospel” or “revival” genre. In its day, it was actually a great commercial success.
I’m fairly certain that most people who were not raised in the Christian tradition that formed me in my youth have never heard this song—and I have to say, they’re probably not any the poorer for it. My strongest response now—and perhaps yours as well, is that there’s way too much “me” in it. Now, we might see this as the furthest thing imaginable from Catholic theology and Catholic piety. But is it?
Take a look at these words from a hymn that is probably known among Christians in churches that drink from the Catholic stream:
Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills the breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see,
And in Thy presence rest.
Nor voice can sing, nor heart can frame,
Nor can the mem’ry find
A sweeter sound than Thy blest name,
O Savior of mankind!
O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
To those who fall, how kind Thou art!
How good to those who seek!
This, of course, is from 11th the century mystic and father of Cistercian monasticism, Bernard of Clairvaux. We might, somewhat smugly, observe that there is less “me” in it, which makes it superior. But, to be truthful, we would have to also note its equal emphasis on the “glory” of seeing the face of Jesus straight on and clearly, not through any “glass darkly,” the experience being in the presence of God without automatically turning to dust, which is a state more blessed than even Moses, who had to be hid in the cleft of a rock while the shekinah of YHWH passed by.
This is none other than the Beatific Vision, the Omega point, the telos, of Christian faith, practice, and discipleship. This is why we follow Jesus, because he leads us to the Father, and to be in the Father’s glory is the consummation of our salvation, the realization of our human identity, the fruition of that for which we were created.
Redemption of the world … means of Grace … hope of Glory. Yes, it will be “glory for me,” but it is not nor will ever by my glory. It is the original glory of God. And it is the “reasonable, religious, and holy hope” by which we orient our lives.