Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Christ was Born for This!" - A Reflection for Christmas, 2009

Last Saturday night I drove to Peterborough to join in the Christmas festivities at a party thrown by my oldest and dearest friend and his family. The night air was crisp, the heater was on in the car and the radio was tuned to a classical music station that played heavenly versions of all the best-loved Christmas carols and sacred music of the season. The traffic was mercifully light and this made for a time of solitude, peace, and reflection.

As I traveled and hummed, and yes, sung along, I realized how deeply this music was embedded into my soul and the very core of my being. I don’t remember learning this music. I suppose it has always been a part of me. And then I realized that the music of Christmas is a metaphor, or perhaps more accurately, a sacrament of my faith. I don’t remember becoming a Christian. To be sure, while I have had moments of conversion and awakening throughout my life (gentle, though these have been), I have always been a Christian. On that journey to Peterborough, I realized so poignantly in the songs of Christmas that the song of faith has ever been upon my heart.

How good it was to be celebrating the Nativity of our Lord amongst friends.

We live in a multi-cultural and multi-faith world. I have often admired the cultural traditions and faith traditions of others. The world into which I was born was somewhat less tolerant than the world into which my children have been born, and I rejoice at the openness that we have now toward those who have different cultural and faith stories than my own. Our intentional openness can sometimes make us self-effacing about our own stories, though. There are times when I have witnessed the wondrous stories and traditions of other communities and felt that my own religio-cultural heritage was somewhat bland, less exciting, and even less legitimate in comparison. There are times when I am ashamed at what my culture (in the name of my religion) has done to some of these others cultures and religions. There are times when it can be difficult to hear the song of faith on my heart.

And yet, in an automobile on a modern highway, in the cold of the night, through the programming of a radio station owned, ironically (or suitably?), by man of the Jewish faith, the song of my faith surfaced once again. The song is perhaps most suitably expressed in the words of a carol I’m sure I never sang as a child, but whose words, have ever formed the song of my heart, “In Dulci Jubilo”, or Good Christian Men Rejoice (or the more politically correct modern equivalent, “Good Christians, all Rejoice”). I cannot recall when I learned this carol, but it was likely as an adult in the church choir. Yet, the carol clearly articulates the substance of our Christian song of faith.

Good Christians all, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice!
Listen now to what we say:
Jesus Christ is born today;
ox and ass before him bow and he is in the manger now!
Christ is born today;
Christ is born today!

Good Christians all, rejoice
with heart and soul and voice!
Hear the news of endless bliss:
Jesus Christ was born for this;
he has opened heaven’s door and we are blessed forever more!
Christ was born for this;
Christ was born for this.

“Good Christians all, rejoice
with heart and soul and voice!
Now ye need not fear the grave;
Jesus Christ was born to save;
come at his most gracious call to find salvation one and all!
Christ was born to save;
Christ was born to save.”

There are plenty of times when I do fear the grave. There are moments in the dark of a sleepless night when I lay awake and my faith fails me. There are moments when the darkness of death seems an empty abyss that cannot be overcome. There are moments when I look about me at the world and wonder if there is peace on earth, if there is any hope. There are moments when I look with shame upon the history of my culture and my church and wonder if there can be forgiveness for what we have done. I have my fearful moments. I have my moments of unbelief.

Yet, those dark moments cannot quell the song. He came to the world in the darkness of the night, at the darkest hour, and comes to us again and again when the darkness seems the most overpowering, and the eternal nothingness of death seems to have triumphed over heart and soul and voice. But last week, as the night fell and I drove toward the home of friend, it did not overwhelm me because an unquenchable song stirred in my heart. The door has not been slammed in our face, and the present and future are full of wondrous divine potential. Our Lord calls us into that life and we come. We shall not be crippled by the past, or fear the future, or be frightened by the grave -- this is what Christ was born for. In his most gracious call, his song becomes our song and salvation comes to one and all.

This is cause for celebration. When the Christian faith and life seem to have lost their lustre and we wonder why we gather this special night when so much seems wrong with the world (and when our culture and faith seem culpable in so much of the wrong) let us take a moment of quiet in the stillness of the night and ponder for a moment that newborn king who changes you and changes me into his image and likeness. Love incarnate.

To my friends of other faiths who celebrate festivals at this and other times of the year I wish you every blessing and peace, but at this moment, I sing my song of faith without shame or fear because that song makes me who I am, shapes who I am becoming, and gives me hope for a broken world. Christ has indeed opened every door, let us go forth boldly to meet him and believe in the kingdom that he brings, after all, “Christ was born for this!”

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, November 27, 2009

Justice and Righteousness; Comfort and Joy

A Reflection for Advent 2009

“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
-- Jeremiah 33:15 (First Lesson for the First Sunday of Advent, Year C)

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
-- Luke 2:10 (Gospel for Christmas Eve)

This Sunday begins our Advent journey to the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. We could be forgiven for thinking that Christmas has already arrived, after all Santa Claus has. As children, my brother Tim and I enjoyed our childhood ritual of lying on the floor with all three of the Eaton’s, Simpson’s, and Sears’ catalogues and pouring over the toy sections imagining what gifts Santa would leave under the tree. In those days we always had a real tree so it tended to go up later than most artificial trees do today, yet, we began to sense Christmas was in the air sometime in mid-November when those catalogues seemed to arrive. My mother had a wonderful stack of l.p. records (remember them?) that we would place on the record player. The records would drop and we would, in turn, listen to Perry Como, Eddy Arnold, Bing Crosby, Catherine McKinnon, and Percy Faith, amongst others, playing and singing all our favourite carols and popular Christmas songs. By mid-December the tree would be up, the house decorated, and special candles (I remember one in the shape of Santa Claus) would be lit. We would turn the lights down low, listen to those carols, and often host friends and neighbours for Christmas fellowship and cheer. Tidings of comfort and joy were heard from the hi-fi stereo.

I never thought much about justice and righteousness in the land in those days.

We never had much sense of an Advent season, at least in the “liturgical” sense of the word. Sure, there was waiting. The slow unfolding of the season, from the department store catalogues, to the l.p. records, to the mid-December decorating of the tree, and finally the shaking of the presents in the week leading up to Christmas all attest to this reality. The final piece of waiting was attendance at the Christmas Eve service. I later learned that this is the actual celebration of Christmas itself, yet for us, it was one last piece of waiting for the real deal – Christmas morning. Our waiting was a good and joyful thing. Never once do I recall us focusing on the apocalyptic themes that characterize our Advent readings in the Church, and never once did I ever have any sense that the time leading up to Christmas was supposed to be penitential (it was supposed to be just that in the Church in those days – we have since let go of this particular theme). Rather, it was all about waiting joyfully for an even more joyful day. Christmas was a long season that started in November and found its fulfillment on December 25th. In our world, its culmination was a two-day feast, as my maternal grandmother invariably held a special dinner on Boxing Day.

I must say that this season holds such wonderful memories for the three of us Graves boys, and reminds me of all that was good and wonderful about our childhood. To this day, when I walk through a mall and hear one of those Perry Como or Eddy Arnold recordings playing, I know every note and nuance of the recording and it evokes such a joyous remembrance of a wonderful time of my life. I am filled with comfort and joy.

We have a tendency in the Church to berate and condemn the secular celebration of Christmas and its long, commercial lead-up. And while I understand the good reasons for doing so, lest we forget the reason for the season, I must confess that my own experience of Advent and Christmas with the modern secular trappings did nothing to dampen the wonder and awe I experience each year as we enter into this time. Even as a young child, I seemed to somehow instinctively know that the presents, the popular songs, the Santa Claus decorations, were all festivities that celebrated a deeper more profound reality, namely, that God in Christ comes among us. I always knew what it was about. And yes, in spite the fact that catalogues were on the floor in November, and “candles in the window and carols at the spinet” in early December, we were still waiting – oh, the waiting! The interminable waiting! But, oh the joy we knew.

What I have learned as an adult, as a Christian, as priest in the Church, is that the Incarnation of Our Lord is about so much more than my joy and my family’s comfort and joy. I now know that the gift of the Christ Child, so gentle and mild, is also the gift of the Crucified and Risen Lord, who comes to set the prisoners free, give sight to the blind, hope to the fainthearted, and finally burst the bonds of death. I now know that the Incarnation of Our Lord is about justice and peace for an unfair and troubled world. I now know that the tidings of comfort and joy are the announcement and proclamation of the righteousness of God.

As a child, I did not know poverty or sadness. I did not know what injustice was. I did not feel the bleak mid-winter of loneliness known by so many. What my brothers and I knew was comfort and joy.

What I know now is that many do not know these things. What I realize now is that the Church gives us the season of Advent to hold before us the reality that there are those who yet experience injustice, whose hearts are freshly broken, who know not the comfort of a loving family. And to this reality the Church in Advent proclaims words of hope, fierce words of hope, that the order of the cosmos will be upset and justice will come to the oppressed. Waiting was for us, as children, a joy. For many it is a time of tragedy and fear. The Church in Advent proclaims Good News to all people. I understand that now. It is a kingdom in which I want to live and a kingdom I long to see extended to all of God’s children. It is a message I long to proclaim again and again until my dying breath: justice and righteousness in the land!

I do not regret the secular Advents and Christmases of my youth nor do I begrudge them to others. The gift of comfort and joy that I knew and continue to recall each year was a holy gift from God. I learned to wait, I learned to hope, I learned to celebrate. There are many for whom waiting and hoping never give way to celebration. Yet, it need not be so; for again this year a Branch shoots forth from the stump of Jesse. In word and deed we can bring tidings of comfort and joy to those who know it not. May our waiting, longing, praying and hoping, lead us into the action of carrying the Christ child into the darkest corners of this hurting world.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Gospel of Luke Challenge - Part 3

The Canticles (Introduction and the Benedictus)

A unique feature of the infancy narrative of Luke’s Gospel is the inclusion of three canticles, or songs, that have subsequently become a beloved part of Christian hymnody. The Benedictus (the Song of Zechariah), Magnificat (The Song of Mary), and Nunc Dimittis (The Song of Simeon), the traditional names ascribed to them based on their open lines in the latin text, are sung in liturgical churches as part of the Daily Office liturgy. In our own Anglican tradition, the Benedictus is the culminating canticle in Mattins (Morning Prayer), the Magnificat is the first canticle of Evensong (Evening Prayer) and the Nunc is the final canticle of Evensong. The Nunc is also used in Compline (Night Prayer) and often sung at the conclusion of funerals.

Much has been written as to whether Luke composed these canticles or whether he drew on traditional material and spliced them into his birth narratives of John and Jesus. We have no way of knowing if the individuals in this story (Zechariah, Mary and Simeon, respectively) actually composed or sung these words. Were they amongst the first Christian hymns, or were they well known Jewish songs that took on new meaning in the light of the coming of Jesus? Did Luke take traditional material and place it on the lips of these three individuals, or did he write the hymns himself? We can really only theorize about any of these conclusions. What is clear is that each of the hymns serve to advance the themes of the larger narrative and that each of the hymns contain elements that resonate with the themes of the Gospel of Luke. Again, did Luke choose them because they reflected his message or did he create them to underscore his message? We cannot know for sure, and I do not think it really matters, for what is important is the message.

This week, we will be discussing “The Benedictus” (Luke 1:68-79)

When old Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) learned that his aged wife Elizabeth was to give birth, he had some doubts. Because of these doubts he was struck dumb until his wife gave birth. After the birth, Zechariah regained his voice and named the child John and then with his restored voice Luke tells us that Zechariah “was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ "

The first thing we notice is that the hymn opens with a blessing of God, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” this is a typical form of Jewish thanksgiving prayer and still exists to this day in the Jewish liturgy (for example, The Eighteen Benedictions, and see also the parallels in our own tradition, like the Eucharistic prayer, itself). The story of Jesus is once again firmly rooted in Jewish salvation-history through the genre of Jewish thanksgiving prayer.

We also note that Luke characterizes these words a “prophecy.” Implicit in this statement is the role of the Spirit of God, who gives voice to the once-mute Zechariah. The first words he offers up are words of divine revelation, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit --words of prophecy.

Although this hymn never uses the word “messiah”, but rather the term saviour (Greek “soter” which was often applied to invading kings in the Greek world), it is clearly a messianic prophecy because of the reference to a saviour coming from the House of David. This, he adds, is the fulfillment of former prophecies spoken by the prophets of old. To this is added the theme of God’s faithfulness in that God has not abandoned the covenant he made with his people, and yet, at the same time something new is happening, the covenant is coming to fulfillment. The consequence of this fulfillment will be rescue from our foes, perfect service of God, and a life of holiness without fear.

The focus then shifts to “the child who will be called prophet of the most high,” namely, John the Baptist. If this hymn circulated prior to early Christianity in early Judaism, it has certainly been appropriated in the context to refer to John as the one who “goes before the Lord to prepare his way.” This is a clear reference to the prophecy in Isaiah 40, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!” Thus, the hymn proclaims that in the birth of the child John, the old prophecies are coming to fulfillment and that we are at a new and unique point in history.

Finally, the hymn culminates with the role of John, which is to announce the salvation which comes from the Lord through the forgiveness of sins (this is why in 3:3 John is later characterized as baptizing for the forgiveness of sins). The hymn also praises the mercy and tenderness of God in offering this salvation (in contrast to his implicit wrath and condemnation of the unrighteous as is often found in ancient Jewish messianic thought). Then follows the proclamation, “The dawn from on high shall break upon us,” which may be a reference to the “Sun of Righteousness” with healing in his wings found in Malachi 4:2 (remember that “healing” and “salvation” are the same Greek word!). That light, that new dawn, gives light “to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. This is likely a reference to the “people who walked in darkness” in Isaiah 9 (and possibly even a reference to the 23rd Psalm). This is taken to be the Jewish nation under oppression, but one might ask if it might also refer in this context to the gentiles. The Jewish prophetic literature often forsees a time when the gentiles will be gathered into the kingdom of God, consider for example Isaiah 60 in which, “the gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brighteness of thy rising.” I am convinced that we see an allusion here to this text as well.

Importantly, not only does this hymn expound all of these key themes, it functions in the narrative as a personal a personal shift from non-believing to believing for Zechariah. Even though he was a holy priest, he still required a conversion. He needed to have his eyes opened to what God was doing and to realize the importance of this moment in salvation history. The hymn is his profession of belief that the culmination of the prophecies of old is about to take place.

Next: Week - The Magnifcat

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Gospel of Luke Challenge - Part 2

The Infancy Narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus.

There is much that can be said about the infancy narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. The Lukan infancy narrative is quite different from the only other canonical account, the one found in Matthew’s Gospel. As I have already indicated, Luke includes an account of the birth not only of Jesus, but also of John the Baptist. In both Matthew and Luke’s accounts, there is a touching of heaven and earth in the various angelic visitations, but whereas Matthew’s angels appear only in dreams (announcing to Joseph not only the birth of Jesus but the need to flee into Egypt, and later to return to Judea; and also the warning to the wise men in a dream to return home by another road), in Luke’s Gospel the angels appear directly to individuals in the narrative (to Zechariah, to Mary, and to “shepherds abiding in the fields”). In Matthew’s Gospel the events focus around Joseph, Herod and the Magi (likely played out over the period of a couple of years), with Mary as a much more marginal figure, while in Luke’s Gospel Mary is central to the entire narrative as is her relationship with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. In Luke we see no mention of foreign wise men or magi, but rather traditional figures rooted solidly in the Jewish religious milieu of the day, namely Zechariah the priest, Simeon the wise holy man, and Anna the prophetess. Both narratives firmly root the birth of Jesus in historical, but quite different moments. For Matthew, the birth occurs in the context of the rule of Herod the Great and indeed, Herod is a key player in the narrative (and is behind the slaughter of the innocents, which is absent in Luke), while in Luke, the birth occurs in the context of a Roman census in the time that “Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Furthermore, Luke’s narrative contains a series of canticles or songs that are completely absent from Matthew’s version. And while both texts include a genealogy of Jesus, Matthew uses his to preface his entire narrative, while Luke employs an entirely different genealogical lineage and places it after the infancy narrative as a sort of preface to Jesus’ adult ministry.

This short enumeration of some of the key differences reminds us how difficult a task it is to conflate the two accounts, as Christmas pageants, cantatas and crèches have tried to do for centuries. Each narrative has its own integrity and seeks to underscore key themes in each gospel. I have named some of the key differences; there are many others of a smaller but equally important nature. The question for us, though, is what do these differences tell us about Luke’s story of Jesus? We have not the time to examine each of these particular differences, but let us take a closer look at Luke’s decision to include the birth of John the Baptist into his infancy narrative.

Luke is at once firmly rooting his story in the Jewish tradition from which it emerged and at the same time eager to demonstrate that something very unique has occurred in the birth of Jesus. By incorporating the birth of John the Baptist into the narrative Luke is able to introduce a character that operates clearly in the tradition of the prophets of old. His birth is announced in the same way that the births of Isaac and Ishmael are announced in Genesis. And the birth of Jesus, too, is announced in this way, but there are some significant differences. While the angel certainly announces the greatness and the righteousness of John to Zechariah, and while he proclaims that the Spirit will indeed lead John, John is to be understood as an Elijah-figure. He is analogous to one of the old-time prophets who proclaims the coming of the Lord and leads people to God. On the other hand, the angel proclaims that Jesus will “be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There is a clear distinction in roles here. Jesus is himself a son of God who will sit on the throne of David. This is clear messianic language. Thus, where John announces God’s coming as a prophet (and prepares people for it), Jesus inaugurates God’s never-ending reign, the restoration of Israel, as the Davidic messiah.

Both births are miraculous, one to an older barren woman (as per Sarah in Genesis), and one to a younger woman, a virgin. Neither should be having children, but both do, and both scandalous pregnancies are a gift from God, thus introducing a key Lucan theme, namely, that God turns the expected order on its head. This is a theme we shall return to in future installments and a theme we shall see again and again: Go turns the scandalous into a means of his grace. We might also wonder if the older woman represents life new life and hope being birthed from the age-old religion, and the younger woman is a metaphor for the unending fertility of God’s love. While the ages of the women stand in contrast to each other, we must remember that Mary seeks out Elizabeth for wisdom, support, nurturing and guidance. Their lives and stories are inseparably woven together, as will be the lives of their children. Their kinship is divine and their friendship holy. Perhaps their holy partnership has something to say to modern Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue.

Both births are announced by angels under the Old Testament pattern to which I alluded earlier in the angelic announcements of the births of Isaac and Ishmael, namely, 1) the appearance of an angel, 2) fear on the part of the one to whom the angel is appearing, 3) the message (often with the admonition not to fear), 4) the objection of the hearer, and 5) a sign to verify the announcement (note also that the angelic visitation to the shepherds follows this pattern). However, an important difference exists between the announcement to Zechariah and the announcement to Mary. Zechariah’s unbelief is punished when his is struck dumb, while Mary’s unbelief turns from “How can this be?” to “Here I am, Lord,” the same words of young Samuel at his call! It should also be noted that again we see here the tendency in the Lukan narrative to turn power on its head – Zechariah, a priest of the establishment is struck dumb, while the vulnerable Mary is given voice. Perhaps here is some sense of the age-old conflict between the skepticism of age experience as opposed to the innocent enthusiasm of youth. Perhaps there is a lesson for today’s Chruch in Zechariah’s cautious institutional response and Mary’s vulnerable but enthusiastic, “yes.”

It is also worth noting that the Holy Spirit figures prominently in both facets of this story. In Luke’s storytelling, mention of the Spirit is often accompanied by the word “power.” Thus, John will announce the coming of the Lord, “with the spirit and power of Elijah” (This might be read simply as “Elijah’s spirit,” but typically prophets are seen as operating under the Spirit of God). For Mary, it is “the Holy Spirit (that) will come upon her and the power of the Most high will overshadow her.” Then, when Elizabeth sees Mary come to greet her, her child leaps in her womb and Elizabeth becomes filled with the Holy Spirit. When Zechariah’s voice finally returns, the Holy Spirit to moves him to song as he blesses God. When John is born “he grew and became strong in spirit.” Later as Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, they meet the wise man Simeon and we are told that “the Holy Spirit rested on him,” and further, “that guided by the Spirit,” Simeon had come into the Temple. Thus, the events of the narrative are linked carefully together by references to the Spirit of God who actually seems to be guiding the narrative as a piece of sacred history.

In all of these details we see profound continuity in the infancy narrative with the history of the people of Israel, and yet, through the power of the Holy Spirit an in the announcement of angelic messengers, we learn that God is doing a new thing. In the midst of a people expecting God to act in history there are many surprises in store.

Next week: More expectation and surprise as we look at the canticles of the Infancy Narrative.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

A Letter to the Premier of Ontario

On Wednesday, our bishop, The Rt. Rev. Colin Johnson, took out a full-page ad in the Toronto Star asking Anglicans to write to the Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, urging the provincial government to immediately implement a $100.00 Healthy Food Supplement for those in our neighbourhoods who live on social assistance. I would encourage readers of this blog to read Bishop Johnson's words and consider sending a letter to the premier. The following is the text of my own letter to the premier:

Dear Premier McGuinty:

I write as a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada in the Diocese of Toronto to add my voice the growing number of Anglicans (and others) who are calling upon the provincial government to immediately implement a $100.00 healthy food supplement to assist low income individuals and families that live amongst us. As a priest in one of the GTA's wealthiest neighbourhoods, I know that poverty can so easily remain hidden. In the midst of great affluence poverty can be a source of extreme shame and isolation. The heart of the Christian Gospel is the proclamation of Good News to the poor. I am proud to say that our parish community continues to support local food bank initiatives as one way of attempting to live out this calling.

Your government has, in the past, demonstrated itself be a government concerned with dignity and justice for all Ontarians. I do hope that your government will embrace this opportunity to continue to proclaim good news to the poor in word and deed, that during this Thanksgiving season we will indeed have much cause to give thanks to God.

I remain,
Yours in Christ,

The Rev. Daniel F. Graves (
Associate Priest, Holy Trinity Anglican Church,
140 Brooke Street, Thornhill, ON L4J 1Y9
tel: (905) 889-5931, ext. 23; email:

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Gospel of Luke Challenge - Part 1

Starting at the Beginning: The Dedicatory Preface

St. Luke’s Gospel begins with a short dedicatory preface, which it might be easy to skip over as we move into the interesting words of the infancy narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus. However, I suggest that we will miss something very important if we make such a premature leap, for the opening prologue tells us some very important things about the purpose of Luke’s writings and why he chooses to set out the story of Jesus as he does.

First and foremost we realize that Luke is probably writing under the patronage of a benefactor. In ancient times (as in the present day), it is no small thing to devote the time and energy to write a book. Where we have scholarly and artistic grants or literary prizes, the ancients relied on wealthy patrons. Luke addresses his work to one named Theophilus (his name literally means “one who loves God,” probably not a real name, but one assumed at baptism). We do not know who this person was but as we have other ancient parallels (such as the Jewish historian Josephus, who addresses certain works to his patron Epaphroditus), we can easily recognize the literary convention that Luke employs, namely dedicating his work to the patron in the opening paragraph of the book. What does this mean? In theory, Theophilus would become the owner of the work and he could have it copied (hand copied, of course – another costly endeavour), sold to other wealthy people, deposited it at a library, or traded copies of it for other works of literature with other patrons. It may also have been that Theophilus was a patron of a house church and was commissioning the work to be read “in Church.” These are simply educated guesses on how the text might have been used or circulated based on what we know of the writing and dissemination of other ancient texts. Importantly, this dedicatory preface sets the work apart from the other gospels, which have no such dedication. This opens the age-old question of genre. Does the Gospel of Luke represent the same genre as the others gospels? What is Luke’s self-understanding about the genre he was writing? At least in terms of the style of the preface, he seems to be clearly emulating the style of ancient “history writing.” The reader or hearer of this text would certainly recognize that Luke is setting himself up as a Josephus, Thucydides or Herodotus, who all wrote significant multi-volume historical works.

This brings us to a second point; Luke’s work is indeed a two-volume affair. While it is certainly not a multi-volume work of the scope of the above-mentioned authors, he does seem to have a grand historical purpose in mind. He followed up this first volume (the story of Jesus) with the book of Acts (the story of the Earl Church), which has a similar dedicatory preface. Turn to the book of Acts and consider some of the similarities and differences in their respective prefaces.

The third point: Like all ancient historians, Luke draws on a variety of sources. As I noted in my introduction last week, scholars have done a lot of work to try and sort out his sources. Luke makes no bones about the fact that he used sources. He says boldly

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitness and servants of the word, I too decided, after fully investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.”

Luke is not denigrating the other attempts at writing the story of Jesus and the Church, rather he is arguing that as a historian he has access to several source materials and that he will thus employ his historian’s craft to make a fuller orderly account, taking into consideration all the material at his disposal. It should also be remembered that, in general , the ancient historian was less concerned about “fact” and more concerned about “truth.” Thus, the ancient historian wrote with a thesis (or a truth) they wanted to prove and used the available “data” that was amenable to proving their thesis.

This brings us to the fourth point, Luke’s purpose in writing. Having stated that he has gathered previous material and traditions to create a new “orderly account,” he then delivers his purpose in doing so, “So that you (Theophilus) may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” What is that truth? Well, like any good writer, Luke is not going to deliver all the goods up front. This is the literary hook to keep reading. It is clear that whoever Theophilus was, he had received some instruction in the faith. We do not know what that was, but we do know that Luke believes there is more to be said, and most importantly, that amidst all the details of what Theophilus knows, there is much truth to be garnered from the sorting out of the facts and data of the story of Jesus. We expect, therefore, that Luke is going to put the material together in such a way that some new insight, some divine insight, into Jesus will be revealed.

What will that be? That is the story we wish to unfold in the weeks ahead.

Next: The infancy narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus!

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Gospel of Luke Challenge - Introduction

A New Weekly Online Study:

Last year, I hosted a successful online study of the Gospel of Mark, entitled The Gospel of Mark Challenge. As we prepare to move into Year C in late November (the liturgical year in which St. Luke’s Gospel is read), I felt it might be appropriate to host a sequel to last year’s challenge. The first aspect of “The Challenge” was to read a half chapter of the Gospel of Mark each day. The Gospel According to St. Mark is only sixteen chapters long, whereas St. Luke’s is twenty-four chapters. I suppose this means that this year’s challenge will require a bit more persistence than last year’s. That being said, at a the rate of about a half chapter per day, one could read through the entire Gospel of Luke in forty-eight days – a little longer than a month and a half.

The second aspect of “The Challenge” is to read the text as part of a discipline of prayer and devotion. Last year, I suggested using a form of the Daily Office such as Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, or Compline (Night Prayer). I have linked to some resources on the side of this page that may assist you in this way, and of course, you can always use your Book of Common Prayer or Book of Alternative Services if you have one at home.

So this is the challenge -- to read and pray through The Gospel of Luke in the months ahead. In order to support each of you in this challenge, I will be posting a regular Friday reflection in which I comment on a passage that interests me that illustrates some of the key themes in the gospel text. Last year, various individuals wrote to me asking me to comment on particular texts that seemed difficult. I am happy to do so again and encourage you to do so (this is my challenge!).

You are also invited to post comments on the blog. You do not have to have a blogger account to do so – simply click on the “comment” link and sign on as “anonymous.” It would be helpful to type your name at the bottom of the comment, but you are not obliged to do so. You may also send me private emails. I look forward to your responses! Your responses help make this online study more lively and fruitful.

A Bit About the Gospel of Luke:

In order to kick things off, I want to make a few general comments about The Gospel of Luke. These thoughts are not original, but rather culled from my own ongoing reading of Luke and much secondary literature.

Luke is widely considered to have been written in the last decade of the first century (as he has knowledge of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70). Like the rest of the New Testament, the original language of the book is Greek and Luke’s Greek is of the most elevated sort that we find in the New Testament. The Gospel is actually the first part of a two-volume series, the second installment being the Book of Acts (Part one, the Gospel, tell us the story of Jesus, while part two, Acts, tell us the story of the Early Church). We may be inclined to ask, who was “Luke?” He may have been the “Luke the Physician” that we learn about from Acts and also from Paul, but this is disputed. It was not uncommon for writers to write under a respected pseudonym in those days. In any event, it is not likely that the author was an eyewitness of Jesus. Where, then, did he get his material? It seems clear to most scholars that Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a source as we find much direct "lifiting" of his Mark's material. Luke also shares with Matthew a considerable amount of material, often verbatim with subtle changes, that is not found in Mark. Thus, it is concluded that and Matthew may have drawn on a now lost source, which scholars call “Q” (from the German quelle – meaning “source”) which is postulated to be a “sayings” collection based on the kind of shared material found in Matthew and Luke. However, a small group of scholars (and I am more and more inclined to agree with them) argue that Luke used both Mark and Matthew as sources, thus eliminating the need to postulate a “lost gospel” theory. (For a good review of these scholarly arguments visit Mark Goodacre’s Case Against Q website. I do also commend his excellent podcasts – more on these in future installments).

Key Themes in the Gospel of Luke:

The following is a list several key themes and concepts that are widely accepted as major aspects of the Lucan Narrative. The list (a summary of: Joseph Fitzmyer S.J., The Gospel According to Luke I-X, Anchor Bible 28, New York: Doubleday, 1982– p. 145), is not comprehensive but provides a useful starting point for us. As you read through the Gospel of Luke, consider some of these themes and the questions they raise.

1. The Lukan kerygma (Greek for “proclamation,” and by this we mean proclamation both by and about Jesus) in Luke/Acts takes a particular form. See if you can recognize the unique nature of Luke’s proclamation by and about Jesus. Hint: consider to whom the words of Jesus are directed and what the Early Church’s preaching about Jesus does to upset the world order.

2. Luke draws on his source material (Mark’s Gospel, and other possible sources, either a “sayings of Jesus” source, or Matthew’s Gospel) in a way that advances the particular themes of his own narrative. As we examine key passages, use a tool called a “Gospel Parallel” or simply compare parallel passages in Mark and Matthew to see how Luke handles the same episode. What does Luke’s unique handling of the episode tell us about the story of Jesus he wishes to communicate?

3. Geography is crucial to theological message – throughout the Gospel the narrative moves geographically toward Jerusalem, whereas in Acts it moves outward from Jerusalem to Rome (to the “ends of the earth”). Consider what this geographical movement says about the proclamation of the Gospel, from Luke’s perspective.

4. Christ in History – Luke roots the “Christ-event” in history as a means to illustrate the inauguration of a new era of human history. What is the meaning of the new era coming into being? How does it relate to the previous era? How does Luke establish the “Christ-event” in time and space?

5. Christology – Luke has invests particular meaning in the titles he uses for Jesus, especially with respect to salvation history. What are some of Luke’s titles for Jesus? What do these titles say about the meaning of Jesus for Luke?

6. Role of the Holy Spirit – Luke has a very unique role for the Holy Spirit in Luke/Acts, especially with respect to conversion and baptism. Pay special attention to references of to the Holy Spirit throughout Luke and Acts. Consider the role of the Spirit as a character in the narrative.

7. Eschatology (concern for the end-times) – As Luke’s Gospel was written toward the end of the first century, he has to deal with what scholars call “the delay of the parousia” (second coming/return of Christ). Observe what Luke does and does not say about the end-times, in comparison with the other gospels.

There is much to think about here as we begin our journey into St. Luke. These are but a few of the keythemes in his story of Jesus; we could (and in the installments ahead, will) add many more themes and strands. At this point, it might be easy to feel overwhelmed at all of these things to consider. In the weeks ahead we will walk through some interesting passages in the Gospel and I will draw your attention to recurring themes, patterns and ideas. The above themes are mentioned only to provide you with a bit of a guide of what to watch for as you read through the text. So as you read, think of things like the role of geography in the story; the role of the Holy Spirit; talk about the end times (and the delay of the end times); the titles applied to Jesus; and think of comparing familiar passages in Luke to parallels in Mark and Matthew and see how Luke tells the story a little differently. Each of these things will prompt questions about “why did Luke tell it this way?” I believe that as we journey together, examining some of these questions in Luke's Gospel and their possible answers, a portrait of Jesus will emerge that can still enliven our faith today.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"Coming Attractions!"

As October approaches, I realize that this blog, Reflections of a Canadian Churchman, will soon be two years old. When I began writing online, I had only a small idea of what I wanted this blog to be about. It seemed clear to me that a blog could be used as an outreach tool to connect with those in the parish family on both a broader and deeper level. Since then I have begun to realize that a site operates in two ways. The first way is as a tool of communication. Thus, I have used this site (and its sister sites - Sermons of a Canadian Churchman and Book Reviews of a Canadian Churchman) to communicate information, or more precisely, to proclaim the Christian message. This was always the primary goal in writing these online reflections and in posting my homilies. What emerged, though, was the discovery of another function of such a site, the building of relationships. Through this site I have had the opportunity to get to know, converse with (and yes even argue with), and to form meaningful relationships with many individuals whom I have never met. It has also been a means for reconnecting with others who now live far and wide; it has been an opportunity to connect at another level with the parish family; and finally it is a means to connect with those who, for whatever reason, cannot be present amongst the rest of the faithul for corporate worship on Sunday mornings.

I think this latter point is crucial. I have heard again and again from many readers that they find it very helpful to read a homily, a reflection, or an online study when it is just impossible to get to church. Many are traveling as the result of work or the new-found freedom of retirement, some are prohibited because of age or disability, others have felt hurt by the church and feel estranged and unable to return to the community, still others are in an emotionally difficult place and would rather "be apart" for awhile. Whatever the case, we all long for connection, and I am pleased that this site has helped people feel connected with God and with the Church as they travel along on their faith journey. Some people post responses on the site, many others send me personal messages. I treasure each one of them and the relationship that goes with words expressed, for in the midst of the written and spoken word is the Word made flesh, Jesus our Lord.

My original intent had been to post about once a week on this blog. I quickly realized that this was probably not realistic. I also wanted to post my homilies, so I opened another blog, Sermons of a Canadian Churchman. Later I added a third blog, Book Reviews of a Canadian Churchman. As I now look back on forty-one posts on the Reflections blog, sixty-six on the Sermons blog, and four on the Book Reviews blog, I realize that 111 posts in under just two years is slightly more than once a week, so I guess I have met my goal after all.

And so, as I approach the end of my second year of blogging, I thought I would offer some "coming attractions" for the months ahead for the three blogs.

Reflections of a Canadian Churchman
This site will continue to feature my occasional thoughts and reflections on topics in the life of the Church or issues that emerge in my own reading of Scripture or study of theology. It is also a place to address questions that readers send in. Last year's online study The Gospel of Mark Challenge was a great success, and so beginning this Friday, I will be posting the introduction of a new series, The Gospel of Luke Challenge, which will be the focus of the Reflections site throughout the fall.

Sermons of a Canadian Churchman
As we move toward the end of the liturgical year, I will continue to focus my preaching on St. Mark's Gospel. It is my hope that these homilies, as well as last year's thoughts on Mark from my Reflections blog, will form the core of a new book. As we move into Year B in late November, I will preach on St. Luke whenever possible.

Book Reviews by a Canadian Churchman
This page is dedicated to reviews of books either by Canadian authors or from Canadian presses on books of a spiritual, religious, ecclesiastical or theological nature. The next book for review will be Canadian sociologist Reg Bibby's new book on the so-called "Millennial Generation." If you know of a book you think should be reviewed or are an author or publisher interested in sending a review copy, my contact information can be found on the Book Reviews page (see link in right-hand sidebar).

Finally, thank you to all of you who have faithfully followed this blog and read my homiles & reviews over the past two years. I have been blessed that you have let me share my thoughts and reflections with you, but even more profoundly blessed by the conversation and reflection you have shared with me. My prayers are with you as we continue down the road together.

Fr. Dan Graves
Feast of St. Ninian, 2009.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Come Down, O Love Divine – A Reflection on a Prayer to the Holy Spirit

“Pray to the Holy Spirit, Daniel,” were the sage words were offered to me by a dear friend and mentor, the late Bishop Henry Hill. Interestingly enough, offering prayer to the Holy Spirit might not seem like the most natural thing to those of us raised in the Western Tradition, and particularly, within Anglicanism. Many of us were raised to think of prayer as to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Many of our collect prayers in the Anglican tradition honour this prepositional partitioning. Yet sometimes I wonder if this encourages an unintentional partitioning of the Godhead, and indeed, an unintentional ascription of the importance of one person of the divine Trinity over another. I have often sensed a kind of iconoclasm in certain trajectories of the Western Tradition, namely, a fear of articulating the notion of Christ as God in our prayer. He may be “Lord,” or “Son,” but our prayer often lacks the boldness of that of our Orthodox brothers and sisters who unabashedly offer prayers to “Christ our God.” If we seem reserved about offering prayer to Christ our God, even more elusive are prayers to the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is because the Spirit is more elusive as a “person” than the more readily identifiable “Father” and “Son.” Prayer to the Spirit, though, encourages to move beyond the masculine metaphors that are so limiting to many, and while the concept of the Holy Spirit includes much of the feminine divine, we are encouraged to move beyond even that and into the deep well of God in which all human gender and identity finds its loving birth. Prayer to the Spirit invites us into the depth of the ground of our being.

So, where are our prayers to the Holy Spirit? They do exist in our tradition, and while they may at first be hard to locate, I suggest that a fertile ground for exploration is our hymnody. Consider for example, the hymn that is sung at all ordinations (ordinations of all three orders - bishops, priests, and deacons) immediately preceding the consecration of the ordinand, the Veni Creator Spiritus: “Come Holy Ghost our Souls Inspire.” It is a hymn invoking the Holy Spirit to descend not only upon the ordinand, but also upon the whole people of God, that we might be transformed and conformed to the divine image. This is a powerful hymn to use devotionally. It is the sort of thing dear Bishop Hill heartily commended.

But my favourite hymn is the one authored by Bianco de Siena in the 14th century and translated in the 19th century by Richard Frederick Littledale, and set to the deeply mystical but melodic tune, Down Ampney, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Come Down, O Love Divine. I, like many clerics before me, chose this hymn as the processional hymn at my ordination to the priesthood. It is a longing, beautiful prayer offered to the Holy Spirit. I can never pray it or sing it without feeling the Spirit softening my hardened heart with holy fire.

Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardour glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

The first verse speaks to the supreme reality that God is Love, as written in 1 John. Whatever metaphor we choose to use about God, this is the metaphor that eclipses all others; and when we forget this fact and become consumed with remaking God in our own image, we must turn again and again to this truth, God is Love. God is the Love that seeks us out and searches us … and more precisely, seeks us out individually, “seek thou this soul of mine,” we long in our singing. What a remarkable, unfathomable thing: Love seeks me! As human beings we find ourselves, so often, feeling unlovable, rejected, and desolate. And yet! Love seeks me out! As love finds me, I know the presence of the Comforter. Traditionally this is a feminine image, but one that must be reclaimed at part of our full humanity, or men will ever remain emotionally and psychologically unrealized as human beings. As the comfort of divine love draws near to and into our hearts – hearts hardened by the pain of the world – these wounded hearts are kindled with the fire of divine love and something new and wonderful begins to burn with us: we become carriers of the divine flame, itself.

O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn,
to dust and ashes in it heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

The language of divine exuberance begins to take over. The fire burns freely and consumes all the dark passions that lead to destructive behaviour. The Christian life is too often characterized as one in which the darker passions must be suppressed, but what is suppressed must eventually burst forth. In contrast, we sing and pray to the Spirit that consumes such darkness with the pure light and warmth of Holy Love and replaces it with divine illumination, divine insight. And as our interior is transformed so is our exterior, what burns inside becomes visible on the outside and lights the path in a way in which it was never so illumined before.

Let holy charity
mine outward vesture be,
and lowliness become mine inner clothing;
true lowliness of heart,
which takes the humbler part,
and o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

But our outward vesture it not simply something of beauty to behold but is something beautiful to be shared – lovely, beautiful, generous caritas! Holy Charity is the vesture of the Fire of Love. When we say Love transforms the world this is what we mean. When one person has been sought out and found by Divine Love, the heavens and earth rejoice for creation meets its consummation! Divine action is met by human response, frail though it may be, reflecting the glory of God. Such light, and such love, constantly shine light into the dark places and illuminate them, allowing us to see with ever more clarity our own shortcomings and need of divine Love. Such clarity, such reflection, compels us to ask more fervently and more passionately that the fire may burn more deeply and more warmly within us that we might ever journey the road of divine transformation.

And so with yearning strong,
with which the soul will long,
shall far out-pass the power of human telling;
for none can guess its grace,
til they become the place
wherein the Holy Spirit finds a dwelling.

That yearning is not our yearning, but the yearning of the Holy Spirit that first gave us life, that enlivened us in Baptism, that goes with us all our days. It is the Spirit about which St. Paul speaks in Romans 8 that prays for us, through us, when we have not the words or language of our own, with sighs too deep for words. It is a divine yearning that is made our own, by the grace of God, that is beyond human voice and the frailty of human words. It is the longing of pure Love. The weeping heart is the longing embrace that divine Love seeks. Heart speaks to heart and the Holy Spirit finds its home.

Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express written permission of the author.

Come Down, O Love Divine
Text: Bianco de Siena (1350?-1434?), tr. Richard Frederick Littledale (1833-1890), alt.
Tune: Down Ampney, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
(found in The Anglican Church of Canada, Common Praise, hymn 645)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Vision 2019: The Dreaming Continues

Being involved in Vision 2019 has been an exciting experience here at Holy Trinity. As followers of this blog will know, our Primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, has asked Anglicans across the country to "Dream the Church." As the Anglican Church of Canada moves toward a strategic plan for the next ten years, the National Church has been solicting feedback from Anglicans across this great nation. A special website was set up where Anglicans could submit their dreams for the Church.

I was an ecclesiastical bureaucrat for eleven years and worked at the National Office (Church House), first at the old 600 Jarvis Street address and later at the newer office at 80 Hayden Street. Thus, I continue to have a passion for the ministry of the National Church and felt strongly that we at Holy Trinity should participate in the visioning process. In the early days of the project I was invited to participate in a short video outlining the ministry of the Anglican Church's publishing program, ABC Publishing.

As the Vision 2019 website came on online and the process of responding began, I eagerly followed the responses posted on the site. At first, there seemed to be many negative responses, especially by individuals who had left the Anglican Church of Canada to join the Province of the Southern Cone. The tone of many of the responses (and comments on the responses) seemed quite uncivil and contrary to the spirit of the exercise. I am not opposed to critical responses, but the tone in some of the responses was downright nasty and not characteristic of constructive dialogue. I responded and became involved in a little dispute with some individuals over how to conduct respectful dialogue (that little exchange, if you truly feel inclined to review it, can be found by clicking here). Thankfully, the spirit of the conversation quickly became much more civil and creative. Responses flooded in. Trinity Sunday was declared as "Vision 2019 Sunday" and parishes were asked to find creative ways of engaging the question, "Where is the church now and where do you want to see it in ten years' time?"

We began our work on this question on Pentecost Sunday when I preached a sermon on what it means to dream in the Spirit. I suggested that the exercise of dreaming was not so much about what we wanted for the Church, but what God wants for the Church and how our shared individual dreaming can come together in a way that we might discern the future into which we are being called. I then shared my dream for the Church (the text of the sermon can be read here).

The following Sunday (Trinity Sunday), our incumbent, Canon Greg Physick preached a fine sermon on the subject and spoke about our dreaming in the context of the that Sunday's theme.

Then, it was time for the people of Holy Trinity to dream. During the prayers of the people, we offered several minutes of silence in which people could, on a piece of paper provided, write (either anonymously or attaching their names) a prayer outlining their hopes and dreams for the church in the next decade. The prayers were collected on the collection plates and offered up at the offertory in prayer at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. We explained that we would collate the prayers and send them in to the Vision 2019 website. The approach was simple and seemed to resonate with the Vision 2019 team at Church House and they featured our approach in an online story (click here).

As we reviewed the results we learned many things. There is a longing for the church to grow through the inclusion of young people. There is a longing bring the discussion of same-sex blessings to a close. There was a variety of positions on this question, including the traditional and progressive positions, but many focused broadly down the middle on a theology of inclusion. On the whole, there seemed to be a dream that our Church will be a light to the community and a place of hope, faithful to the Gospel of Christ. There is indeed hope for the future. To be sure, we sensed worry and uncertainty, but we did sense strong hope. The Vision 2019 team has posted Holy Trinity's prayers on the Vision 2019 site (click here).

What a wonderful exercise this has been for us at Holy Trinity. I believe that people felt very empowered and included in offering their personal prayers. And it is very powerful to see and feel these prayers joined with prayers of Anglicans across the country. We are grateful to Archbishop Hiltz for his invitation, it has had an impact on us and we hope and pray that our prayers will be helpful in the discernment process.

For those who have not yet participated, please add your voice and your prayers to the dreaming by visiting the Vision 2019 site.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Vision 2019: Dream the Church

The Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada has recently invited Canadian Anglicans to participate in a visioning process. Anglicans across the country are encouraged to visit the Vision 2019 Website and submit their thoughts, reflections, dreams and longings about where we believe God is calling this Church to be over the next decade. Vision 2019 is grounded in the Five Marks of Mission, which include proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God; teaching, baptizing and nurturing new believers; responding to human need by loving service; seeking to transform the unjust structures of society; safeguarding the integrity of creation. I encourage readers of this blog to visit the site (see link, above) and make their contribution either by sending a letter, audio recording, video or email. I will be preaching this upcoming Sunday (Pentecost) on themes related to Vision 2019.

I was pleased to participate on behalf of the work of the General Synod and provide this short video about the Anglican Church of Canada's publishing ministry, ABC Publishing (Anglican Book Centre).

Friday, May 8, 2009

Some Further Reflections on the Gospel of Mark

Last fall, I wrote a series on this blog entitled The Gospel of Mark Challenge in which I challenged parishioners to read a half chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel each day, completing the Gospel in about a month. Along the way I commented on various passages of interest. Having since preached extensively on the Gospel of Mark (as we are currently in Year B in our three-year cycle of Scripture readings, the year in which St. Mark is read) I felt some summative comments might now be in order.

On Easter Day I preached on the Resurrection appearance in Mark 16:1-8, or more correctly, the “non-appearance,” for The Gospel of Mark is the only gospel without an appearance of the Risen Christ. Instead, it is characterized by an empty tomb and the flight of the frightened female disciples.

In my sermon, I argued that Mark intended this abrupt ending in order that we might write ourselves, and our own faithful witness to the Resurrection of Jesus, into the story. The abruptness of the ending, the apparent absence of the Risen Christ, and the fear of the women leaves us, who knew the story, to call into its pages “Christ is Risen, fear not!” We are left to complete the tale, to tell the story and its ending (or rather, its beginning) to others and to the world. In other words, we are called to be the witnesses that the story lacks. We are to write ourselves into the story. What is explicit in the texts of Matthew, Luke, and John, is for Mark, to be made explicit in our lives and witness.

I also argued that this literary ploy of Mark obviously worked because at least three other individuals or communities set to work at penning the “missing ending”. Check the footnotes of your Bible and you will see at least three attempts follow after verse 8 at completing the “unfinished” story (these are known as the “shorter ending”, “the longer ending” and the Freer Logion). These other individuals were moved in faith to tell the story of the Risen Christ, to witness his presence to the world.

It is sometimes argued that the Gospel ends so abruptly because the original ending was lost. I suggest to you, however, that it is only lost when we fail to tell the story of our faith.

As I have reflected further on the Gospel of Mark, I am convinced that this interpretation of Mark’s literary motive is the correct one, for it coheres with several other literary themes in the Gospel. Thus, I suggest that the overall Markan literary strategy is that we the readers/hearers are actually participants in the narrative.

Consider the ignorance (some would say stupidity) of the disciples who constantly do not understand either who Jesus is or what he is doing, how they ask for a high place in his kingdom, how they mistake him for another prophet. As readers/hearers we scratch our heads because we understand right from the outset of the story who Jesus is.

Consider the greater problem of what scholars call the Messianic Secret. Jesus is constantly telling people not to reveal him to the world or the authorities. The disciples still do not understand and his demons and adversaries often recognize him even when the disciples are continuously missing the point. We are gripped by the narrative irony.
Why? Because we know exactly who he is and are drawn into the tension out of our desire to proclaim his identity!

Consider the story of the Transfiguration. The disciples once again misunderstand this revelation and seek to make booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. They get it wrong once again, but we are crying out with the right answer. Why? Because he has already been transfigured before our eyes and in our hearts!

Consider the derision and mocking of Jesus on the Cross. Consider Peter’s denial and abandonment of his Lord. At each step of the passion narrative we hang our heads in shame. Why? Because we know precisely who is being crucified whereas the players of the story do not.

Throughout Mark’s story of Jesus we shout across the pages what we believe and what we understand where other fail to believe and where others fail to understand. This all coalesces in the words of the centurion at the foot of the cross, who in his profession of faith “Surely this man was the Son of God” gives voice to our profession of faith. It is a word that echoes the opening sentence of the Gospel “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The words “Son of God” are considered by many to be a later addition because they not widely attested in the early manuscripts. Yet, I suggest that they are likely authentic because they are congruous with the Mark’s narrative strategy, namely, that from the outset the reader/hearer knows who Jesus is, in contrast to the participants in the story. It is the proclamation we long to make at every step.

Thus, I suggest that Gospel was written not for an unbelieving community but rather to strengthen the witness of a believing community, that they might write themselves into the story in every place where the characters in the story fail in their proclamation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Therefore, this is a Gospel for the Church today as much as any other time, for it is a Gospel into which we write ourselves so that at every frustrating turn, at every failure of the disciples, at every ironic misunderstanding, at every failed proclamation, at every denial, at every fleeing in terror, we can shout with joy, certainty and conviction, “he is Risen indeed! Alleluia!”

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

For previous installments of the Gospel of Mark Challenge:

Part I: Follow Me
Part II: Who Are My Mother and My Brothers?
Part III: Lord I Believe, Help My Unbelief
Part IV: You Are Not Far From the Kingdom of God
Part V: Cursing the Fig Tree, Cleansing the Temple
Part VI: The Little Apocalypse

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Being Polite -- the Newest Deadly Sin

I recently got myself into a little hot water with some adherents of the ANiC (Anglican Network in Canada) for suggesting that we should use a little bit more civility as we explore the state of the Church.

Followers of this blog will know that I was invited earlier this year to participate in the Anglican Church of Canada's Vision 2019 project. The project, initiated by our Primate, the Most Rev. Fred Hiltz, seeks to explore where the church in Canada finds itself today and where we believe we are being called in the next ten years. This reflection revolves around the five marks of mission. I was interviewed for a short video highlighting work being done by the National Church (I spoke about the second mark of mission, Teaching, Baptizing and Nurturing New Believers, in light of the work of the Anglican Book Centre publishing programme). In addition, Anglicans across the country were invited to post comments on where they see the Church today and in the future.

As the feedback began to come in I noticed that a great deal of the early feedback was very negative and critical. Of course, it is important for the leaders of the Church to hear all feedback, positive or negative. However, several people began to resort to name-calling and caricature in a most unedifying manner. A study group from St. John the Divine in Victoria, BC posted an interesting report of a Lenten study they were doing with some good thoughts about social justice. A response was posted by Frank Wirrell, a regular commentator on the ANiC blog. Mr. Wirrell made the following response:

"The comments with respect to justice sound good but to thank the Primate is definitely stretching the truth. The lack of any justice toward orthodox parishes and Anglicans can only be described as the work of Satan. The writer should carefully examine his statement that we should get past the same-sex issues. That issue is simply the tip of the iceberg and demonstrates a complete rejection of God’s word. So-called bishops, including the Primate, that are prepared to claim they can bless same-sex unions are not only deceiving themselves but are deceiving and misleading those involved. Each of us has a tendency to sin in one area or another and that includes being involved in homosexual activity or adultery. Rather than endorsing any sin we need to honestly repent and not be led down the garden path by political expediency. If the Primate were honestly interested in justice he would order that all actions against orthodox parishes cease and that apostate bishops resign their positions."

Everyone has the right to their opinion and to post it, nor would be against anyone posting a legitimate theological critique of any theological position. However, name-calling does constitute a legitimate theological critique. Furthermore, I believe this project was offered to Canadian Anglicans with a measure of graciousness and a willingness to listen. I do believe graciousness should be met with graciousness. Thus, I responded:

"I find it disheartening that in an exercise that is intended for thebuilding up of the kingdom of God, we continue to see our bishops characterized in such derisive terms. The primate (and our other bishops) are not “so-called” bishops, they are bishops in the Church of God. Similarly, to toss around a term like apostasy is very unhelpful. The elevation of abusive language in these debates is not at all edifying. In my experience, our Primate has never been
anything but gracious. His invitation into this discussion and his willingness to listen to all voices has been most gracious. I hope that we as Canadian Anglicans would reciprocate with a similar graciousness that would be characterized in the tone of our language."

Mr. Wirrell responded, asking for some clarification.

"I have noted the response of Fr. Dan Graves and would ask what he finds offensive in my remarks. Clearly the time has come to call a spade a spade. Bishops, clergy and laity that deny the authority of Scripture and attempt to make such authority subject to a majority vote are apostates - politely but mistakenly called liberals. The Primate might well be gracious under some circumstances but his lack of action to deal with apostasy cannot be and should not be overlooked. Certainly he has not been gracious to orthodox Anglicans. To be a true Anglican one must first be a Christian and when you have so-called bishops proclaiming that all religions lead to the same place, action is mandatory to have them repent or remove them from office. You cannot build a church on sand but only on the Solid Rock. The Anglican Church of Canada is quickly losing its “right” to be called a church of God and needs to repent and turn back from the sin of political expediency."

It seems for Mr. Wirrell that as long as you are convinced and sure about something you can use whatever language you wish to villify your opponent. I maintained my original point and sought to clarify and restate it:

Although I never used the word “offensive” I do believe that I made very clear what I felt was unhelpful about your remarks. I am not aware that any of our bishops have been either tried for heresy or deposed. As much as I can determine, they are all in communion with the see of Canterbury (and even if they may be in a stated of impaired communion with some other bishops around the world, they are in full communion with brother and sister bishops of their own house). Thus, the bishops of our church are indeed true bishops in the Church of God, not “so-called” bishops or apostates. One is not simply an apostate because any given individual (or even group) declares it. Furthermore, being liberal(which you seem to imply is a sin of major proportion) does not automatically excommunicate one from the church. At a more nuanced level, orthodox and liberal have become caricatures used by those who wish to lampoon opponents with whom they do not agree. Most people have a much more nuanced theological landscape. Again, I believe polarizing language is not helpful. I will state it again: I believe this forum was created for the building up of the church, not for tearing it down. Does this involve critique and self-exmanination of where we are as a church? Certainly it does. However, simply criticizing, name calling(”so-called bishops” “apostates”), and starkly calling a “spade a spade” fails to offer an opportunity for authentic dialogue.

The independent Anglican blogger Anglican Samizdat made an attempt to comment on this debate but claimed to be shut out of the Vision 2019 site. They did allow him to post a link to his site, though, where he re-posted the first part of my exchange with Mr. Wirrell, to which he added his own comment:

"One of the significant things about this exchange is the fact that the ACoC’s defender is basing his defence on the use of language, rather than truth. The redoubtable Frank is intent upon calling “a spade a spade” and this is what seems to upset Rev. Daniel. After all, we are Canadian: what matters is being nice to each other, not the truth. And to set the record straight, the primate, Fred Hiltz is not as gracious as Rev. Daniel would like us to believe: he is supporting dioceses that are suing the pants off people who disagree with them."

I'm not entirely sure what Anglican Samizdat thought I was defending. I was simply suggesting that we frame our debates in a reasoned language and stay away from any slanderous innuendo. Simply because someone does not like the position a bishop has taken it does not give them a right to call their orders into question using slanderous terms like "so-called bishop" and "apostate." There are ways to depose bishops. I am not aware that any of our Canadian House have been deposed. Let us therefore stick to the facts and refrain from name-calling. And for the record, I never once commented on what I take to be "the truth." Thus, it is disingenous to suggest that I have rejected the truth of the gospel. A false dichotomy has been created here.

One further comment was posted on Anglican Samizdat by Jim Muirhead, another regular commentator on the ANiC blog:

"I don’t know Rev Graves, but I have followed Frank’s posts with pleasure at Essentials.This is a classic conversation with between the two parties of Anglicanism in Canada. On the one hand Graves is concerned with manners, and on the other Wirrell stands on the Word. I’ll stand with Frank any time. - Peace,

For the record, at no point did I engage Mr. Wirrell on whether or not I "stand on the Word." My blog posts and sermons are a matter of the public record. Should they choose to judge me they can do so from my published writing, but not from this red herring of a debate. No, Mr. Muirhead, this was not a "classic conversation between two parties of Anglicanism in Canada... one concerned with manners and the other with the Word." There was really no debate here, simply an unwillingness on the part of Mr. Wirrell to use the kind of temperate language that makes debate even possible. I stand by my original point that constructive dialogue is characterized by a graciousness of language. If there are those that count me as condemned or apostate for the use of good manners, then so be it. At least my mother will be proud.

Fr. Dan Graves
Feast of St. John the Evangelist, 2009.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Lord is My Shepherd - A Reflection for Eastertide

If our memories failed us and we could only remember one piece of Scripture, one word of comfort from our God to us, that would carry us through our earthly days, through each triumph and tragedy, I have no doubt that for many it would be the twenty-third psalm. This psalm speaks to our deepest fear and to our deepest angst. It is a part of our human condition that we fear that we will be left alone, forgotten, forsaken. And we fear that we will not only be forsaken by those who love us, but also by God. This is a fear to which even Jesus succumbed on the cross in his own cry of dereliction. Thus it is to this psalm that we turn at our darkest hour. It not only comforts us when all seems bleak, but challenges us to believe in the midst of our doubt. It challenges us to claim the reality of the Good Shepherd, our Risen Lord, who neither forsakes us nor forgets us, but walks with us and holds us close, even as our faith wavers and our hope falters.

It is a powerful piece of Scripture to which even the un-churched turn in times of crisis. I have a friend whose ministry is almost exclusively a ministry to the bereaved. He officiates at Christian funerals for those whose faith is but a distant memory. He often asks them if there is a particular Bible verse that they would like read as part of the service Invariably they pause for a moment and then say, “Oh yes, do you know that one about the shepherd?” He responds gently, “Yes, I think I know that one… Does is begin, ‘the Lord is my Shepherd?’” “Yes,” they respond, “that’s it!” If they want nothing else, they want Psalm 23. This has certainly been my experience, as well, in working with families with tenuous connections to the Church. Thanks be to God that there is a piece of Scripture that does call to them.

What is it about this simple Hebrew canticle that continues to resonate even with those who have little or no faith. I believe that it is simply this, that our Lord never forsakes us… we are not alone, have never been alone, and never will be alone – even if all others around us fail, God does not fail us. In the words of the psalm, God is reaching out to us, even when this same Lord seems absent from our midst. It is a means through which we can hear the voice of God, feel’s God’s warm embrace, know God’s strong and loving comfort, even when all hope and joy seem but a phantasm beyond our grasp. Thus, it is no surprise that people turn to these words in their deepest moments of loneliness, and particularly in moments in which loved ones are seemingly lost forever to us; when our world has become a lonelier place. For it is not us reaching out for God; rather it is God reaching out for us in our grief and our pain in timeless words of comfort and challenge. I have often wondered if this was one of the Scriptures to which the disciples turned after the crucifixion of their Lord. Was it a Scripture that relentlessly pursued them in their sense of abandonment? After all, Jesus had told them that he was the Good Shepherd, that he would not abandon even one of them to wolves, that if even one of them was lost, he would go searching and find them. Were they able to seek comfort in the Shepherd Psalm when they had lost their Shepherd? Could they find hope in the words “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me,” or “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me?” Could they understand that in these words their Shepherd sought them still?

I knew a man who carried a clipping of Psalm 23 in his wallet, throughout his entire life. It was, for him, a tangible way of expressing the reality that God never left him, that the Good Shepherd was daily leading him beside still waters. He knew the psalm by heart, but he could take it out when times got tough, read it, and form those familiar words on his lips, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” or “Thy Rod and thy Staff they comfort me.” When it seemed like his Shepherd was out of his line of sight, he took out the words, read them, and knew that while the Shepherd might be out of his sight, he was not beyond the sight of the Shepherd. He knew that he was not alone.

For the disciples, after the death of Jesus, perhaps Cleopas and the others along the Emmaus Road, it must have seemed like their Shepherd had abandoned them. Where now was his rod and staff? And yet, along the road they met a stranger who opened the Scriptures to them, broke bread with them, and then their eyes were opened. Had not their hearts burned within them on that road? The stranger then disappeared from their sight, but this time, they knew that they were not abandoned – no! Christ was Risen! He was with them! Their hunger and thirst were met, their tears were wiped away! Their Shepherd was indeed with them, even though removed from their sight, guiding them to springs of living water. As they broke bread with him that day, their wanting and lamenting turned to feasting and joy. Perhaps, just perhaps, the words he spoke when he was with them echoed in their ears, perhaps, just perhaps, his sheep once again heard his voice … “no one will snatch them from my hand.”

A couple of years ago, I was called to the bedside of a dying man. His family asked me to say prayers with them, and with him. I could tell by his breathing that he was moments from death. I began to read the prayers appointed for the time of death. I arrived at the part of the service in which it says “the 23rd psalm may be read,” I did not turn to it, but recited it from memory… until suddenly I drew a blank. An embarrassing pause that seemed like an eternity was broken by the man’s wife taking my arm and saying “I think it’s, ‘yea thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,’ dear.” Everyone smiled gently, and we all continued together, “I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

“For thou art with me…” Even in the fumbling of a young inexperienced minister; even in the grief of a family losing their husband and father; even in the moment of our own death… Thou art with me.” I shall fear no evil. Even if I cannot see the Shepherd, I know, Thou art with me. Even if I cannot hear his voice, I know, Thou art with me. Even if it seems all have forsaken me, even you my God, my God, I shall cleave to the truth, Thou art with me.” Why is it that these words ring so true in the midst of our loneliness and loss? Because they are true. God does not forsake us or abandon us. While all seemed lost on that Emmaus road, along which the disciples walked in sadness and fear, they were pursued by their shepherd, who, in the breaking of bread turned their longing into joy. And while the pain and grief and loss we experience on the road of ithis life is real, so too is the presence of God, the presence of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, whom we meet as we break bread together. For that great Shepherd of the Sheep walks with us through the valleys of our angst and shares with us in our feasts of joy.

Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Reflection for Lent: Considering the Furniture of Our Spiritual Lives

“For things done and left undone” is part of the confession we make each week as we approach the altar. It is also part of the confession we make annually on Ash Wednesday. For Christians, Ash Wednesday and the Lenten journey is a time for making our “New Year’s resolutions” not because a new year is beginning but because it is that annual time at which we turn again and put our trust in the Lord.

Lenten discipline, though, is not about heaping things upon ourselves that we can never, or will never be able to accomplish, rather it is about refocusing our lives in the right direction. Lent is about turning the eyes of our hearts and minds, once again, to Christ, who opens the way for us when the way may seem dark or impossible.

Lenten discipline is not about depriving ourselves of good things, but about opening ourselves to the goodness of God. It is about looking around our “spiritual room” and surveying the furniture of this room. This may mean that from time to time we will have to empty our lives of things that clutter up the space. At other times it might mean a rearranging of the furniture of our lives. Or, it may mean even adding some furniture that will make our journey with Christ more meaningful.

Here are three examples.

Most of us in traditions who keep the season Lent (not to mention those who see it caricatured in the entertainment media) have often considered Lent a time of self-denial. And so it may be. Giving up something that draws us or distracts us from God might certainly be a good discipline. Thus, if we escape into food, alcohol, caffeine, television, computer-land, or other distractions to distract us from the reality of our lives, then taking a break (or a fast) from such a thing might help us to bring our concerns and troubles more prayerfully to God, rather than hiding from them through various distraction techniques. Giving up something, or getting rid of some of our “excess furniture”, can be a way of exploring what it feels like to be rid of something that we use as a crutch and replace that crutch with a trust in God. Giving up something should not be done to punish ourselves but rather to open a path to our spiritual healing and growth.

Another example might be to make a change in a routine, in the arrangement of our space -- to “move around the furniture.” If our prayer life is stale, we may change the time we pray (say, from evening to morning). If we find ourselves physically, mentally, or emotionally exhausted, what if we change our exercise pattern, resting pattern, or eating pattern? The regularization of an erratic schedule or the intentional adherence to an existing healthy schedule may not mean adding or subtracting things from one’s day, it might just mean paying more attention to how one goes through the day. Mindfulness of the placement of the furniture of our lives and reflection on how we might make better use of what we have will be a part of many people’s Lenten journey.

Finally, sometimes we will need to add some furniture to the room. This is why most churches have Lenten educational programs and services. The opportunity to intentionally engage the questions of our faith, to grow, learn and enter into a more regular pattern of worship are an important part of the Lenten pilgrimage of faith. It may also be time to take up some individual prayer and study (for example, to work one’s way through a particular book of the Bible; to focus on regular recitation of the Daily Office). It can also be a time of almsgiving, whether that be seen as prayerful charitable giving or the prayerful giving of time and talent to a particular cause. In any event, sometimes we will need to add a piece of furniture to aid us in our spiritual growth.

Will we engage in all three of these areas during any particular Lenten season? Probably not, but examine the furniture of your spiritual room this year and as you embark on a Holy Lent, consider whether you need to houseclean, rearrange, or pick out some new furniture.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Lenten Homilies by Anglican Clergy

Readers of this blog may be interested in learning that the Diocese of Toronto has launched a new "Reflections" section on their website. It currently features Lenten homilies by various clergy of our diocese. I am pleased to say that they accepted my submission of my Ash Wednesday homily from last year (2008).

I commend the page to you. It can be found by clicking here.

Friday, February 6, 2009

On Helplessness

There are times when we feel that we can do nothing. When a crisis hits we have an impulse to help. However, in many cases it would seem that there is nothing to be done… at least by us. There will be some, either through training or skill, who can immediately jump in, begin their work and be the people they are called to be at such a moment. Thanks be to God for such people. For the rest of us though, it will be difficult to stand by, watch, and feel helpless.

It occurs to me that our fear of helplessness comes from being a society of “doers.” Indeed, many of us believe that our value as a person is derived from “what we do” professionally. This is why the loss of a job, a forced change of job, or retirement can be such a traumatic occurrence for so many. Our usefulness and our apparent value is challenged by such a stripping of our presumed identity. When we cannot “do” we wonder if our life has any meaning.

For those of us in the so-called caring professions, or helping professions, the difficulty can be compounded because our “doing” is “helping.” What if we find that we cannot do what we so naturally do? What happens when we cannot answer that cry for help? And as helpful as others might be (again because of their skill and training), the very fact that they can help and we cannot may only underscore our own helplessness. What are we to do?

We can only pray.

Of course, I do not really mean “only”. Prayer is such a profound and great thing and yet how often do we qualify it with the word “only.” “Doctor, what can be done for him?” “Nothing, only prayer.” I am ashamed to say that even for us as Christian people, and yes, even for us as clergy, prayer is often the route of last recourse. I am certain that this is because we are “doers.” To be a “doer” is certainly a good thing if it means making use of our God-given gifts and talents, but we must always remember that all our efforts pale under the sovereignty of God, and if they are done without a recognition of God’s sovereignty then our efforts are for nought.

Prayer is often the last thing because it is the ultimate form of submission to our helplessness. In reality it is often the only thing that we can do. And of course, at its most authentic level, it is not we doing anything at all but it is the Holy Spirit of God who acts. When we cannot find the words or even the will, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

Perhaps the simplest of all prayers says it all, the prayer known as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer reminds us that we are not the ones who can help or save another. Certainly, there will be times when we are called upon to exercise our gifts, but God is the helper and God is the saviour. Sin is really about us thinking that it is all in our hands, and of course, it is not. This prayer reminds us of this truth. It also directs us to the one who is our Saviour, our helper and our Sovereign Lord, Jesus Christ, who is merciful.

Thus helplessness is not hopelessness, but the road to recognizing that we are not the ones in control. God is in control. Helplessness returns us to the one who sees beyond what we could not do, failed to do, wished we could have done, and things we have left undone. Standing in the presence of that one, simply as we are (not as who we would have ourselves be) we discover our true identity as beloved Children of God. Helplessness reminds us to pray, to open ourselves and the world to the love that God has to give, and no prayer is ever too late or “just” a prayer. Thus, even at in our most helpless moments, we are not without hope.

Let us pray.

Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves