Sacrificial Atonement

It’s one thing to say “Jesus saves.”  It’s another thing to say that “Jesus died for our sins, and rose again.”  These are expressions of the atonement, the act by which Jesus took care of our sin problem and made salvation possible, or happen, or begin, for us sinners. On the popular level, this is about all that many people are prepared to say.  Indeed, some people say that this is all that we need to say about the atonement and the work of Christ for our salvation.

Approaching a Question

But when you turn to the scriptures, and consider what is taught about salvation therein, you find that there are a number of different pictures and concepts with which this atonement is explained.  What’s more, as you study the scriptures and the theology we draw from it to understand it better, you will find that some of these atonement models are better than others when it comes to explaining the whole picture more fully. Different traditions of Christianity at different periods of church history have tended to latch on to different models as their favorite or primary way of understanding, teaching, and celebrating the atonement.

At my conservative, but not fundamentalist, evangelical seminary, I was taught the standard Protestant penal substitution atonement model in theology classes, and a handful of other atonement models in church history classes.  So on one hand, there was an “official” favorite atonement model taught, but on the other hand there was an open-mindedness to the insights of the past, even if we don’t make primary use of them.  But being a catholic christian, that is, one who is concerned that I teach and believe that which has always been taught and believed by the Church in all times, I have been a little uncertain of how to deal with all of these atonement models, alongside the standard Protestant explanation, in light of the big picture of the history of the church.

As far as understanding the Scriptures’ direct teaching, I have found substitutionary atonement generally the most all-encompassing atonement model out there.  Certainly, the primary elements of it can be found not only in the Bible but also in the writings of the Early Church Fathers.  But there is something missing from substitutionary atonement, especially Penal Substitution, as it usually seems to be explained, which I haven’t been able to put my finger on until very recently.  Namely, what is the connection to the sacraments, and Christian life and ministry and worship?  As typically presented, substitutionary atonement is so Jesus-centered that it can be difficult to understand if there is, or even can be, any response or participation on our part.  How does this spiritual transaction work?  By what means is his atonement applied to us?  How do we know for whom he died and rose again?

Approaching a Thesis

Granted, these questions, and other more frequent objections to Substitutionary Atonement such as the accusation of “divine child abuse,” can be and have been answered quite handily by many Protestant scholars over the past few centuries.  That is why I haven’t ditched it in favor of a different atonement model.  But one question still remained in my mind: if this indeed is the best atonement model, why is it not seen more explicitly in early Christian writings?  Why are the sacraments so heavily emphasized in their teachings?

The answer, I have finally realized, is that the classic substitutionary atonement model emphasizes Christ the Victim more heavily than Christ the Priest.  Protestants do not deny that Christ is our great high priest, indeed it is a great matter of faith and theology!  But it is his death that gets much more air time and ink on the page then his priestly ministry.

So, as a high church Anglican who cares deeply about the Catholic faith informed by the Scriptures first, I would hazard to offer this supplement to the standard Protestant atonement model: Sacrificial Atonement.

Approaching a Definition

I should begin with a disclaimer: all atonement models overlap.  Emphasizing Christ the Victor does not deny the substitution on the Cross; emphasizing Christ’s ransom does not deny his moral example, and so on.  So as I seek to outline a model named “Sacrificial Atonement,” that is not to say that his priestly sacrifice is missing from the other models; I’m simply putting that theme front-and-center in the hopes that it will encompass the others in a way that’s more reasonable and biblical in the long run.

Jesus is said to possess three “offices” that in the Old Testament were used to guide God’s people: Prophet, Priest, and King.  A handful of Old Testament characters can be said to possess two of those offices, and King David comes closest to functioning as all three, but no single person fully encompasses these three roles until Jesus fulfills them.  He is the long-awaited and eternal King from the line of David (as promised in 2 Samuel 7:16).  He is the Prophet “greater than Moses” (as promised in Deuteronomy 18:15-19).  He is our great high priest (as taught throughout the book of Hebrews).  As King, Jesus saves us by overthrowing the Kingdom of Satan, but most of our interaction with him as our King is considered a result of our salvation.  As Prophet, Jesus saves us by preaching repentance of sins, but that’s largely a precursor to our salvation.  It is in his Priesthood wherein Jesus actually undertakes the act of saving us.  Therefore, rather than focusing on his substitution (becoming the Victim in our place) I propose we focus on the sacrifice (his work as Priest).

The Saving Work of Priestly Sacrifice

In the Old Testament, and likely the Ancient Near East in general (regardless of which religion), a priest has one job: to make sacrifices on behalf of others.  Although the rituals could be very elaborate and various in the materials they use, the outline of activity (or the “order of service” if you like) is basically the same.

  1. Commit the Offering to God
  2. Make Intercession for the Offerer
  3. Bestow a Blessing upon the Offerer

If you want details, read the first few chapters of the book of Leviticus carefully; there are lots of specific examples there.  The three-step process looks something like these examples:

1) Slaughter the animal, 2) Burn its proper portions on the Altar, 3) Bless & eat with the people who offered the animal

1) Bake the bread, 2) burn or wave it before the Altar, 3) eat the leftovers with the offerers

1) Make some wine, 2) Pour it out upon the Altar, 3) Assure the offerer of God’s blessing

When it comes to the priestly sacrifice of Jesus, the same format is used.  I’ll give it some more detail than the previous examples.

  1. He announced at the Last Supper that the Sacrifice was beginning and agonized over it in the Garden of Gethsemane.  His sacrificial offering was his own self – body and blood – broken and poured out upon the Cross.
  2. He rose again from the dead and soon ascended bodily into heaven to the “true temple” where he now lives to make intercession for us.
  3. He will return to raise the dead and save all who are waiting for him.

If you want more details, read the book of Hebrews carefully, especially chapters 8-10.  And, not that I am one for simple proof texts, but the one verse that perhaps best encapsulates this whole Sacrificial Atonement model is Hebrews 9:26b.

But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.

There, we’re told straight out that Jesus sacrificed himself (actively as a priest, not passively as a victim) to put away sin.  And this he did once – in a single act – rather than through a repeated sequence of sacrifices or appeals, as the Old Covenant sacrificial priesthood had done.  The New Covenant in Christ is founded upon a single sacrifice for sin that works perfectly and completely.  We are saved by this Priest’s sacrificial work, and none other.

Finding Our Place

One of the potential drawbacks of atonement models that focus on Christ’s substitution is that it doesn’t leave any clear indicators of what we’re supposed to do about it.  Indeed, this is a challenge inherent in monergism, the belief drawn from the Scriptures that God alone is responsible for our justification.  The usual, and primary, implication for us is that we are to respond with gratitude: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit…” (Psalm 103:2-4a).  But then the appeal to obeying the Law of Christ, and walking in the light, and pursuing the sanctification in the Spirit, although rightly explained as outflows of thankfulness to God, can still feel like something of a non sequitur to the inquisitive mind.  How clearly does it actually follow that Christ’s death on my behalf leads to a new lifestyle being demanded of me?  At worst, this can feel like a bait-and-switch deal.

If instead we take on the model of Sacrifical Atonement, emphasizing the priestly sacrifice of Christ, these questions are approached in a different way.  Rather than primarily looking at our participation in the atonement as internal (being thankful), we are offered an external participation: the Holy Communion.

At the Last Supper Jesus announced his sacrifice was about to begin – “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.”  Reflecting on the Lord’s Supper, St. Paul explained the teaching that he’d received:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.  Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? (1 Corinthians 10:16-18)

In short, the Lord’s Supper is our participation, or act of communion, in Christ.  Jesus himself, with his own words, linked the bread and the wine to his sacrificial body and blood.  And by instructing us to do this as his memorial, he instituted the ritual as an earthly remembrance of his actual sacrifice.  He broke his body and shed his blood on the Cross, and then brought his sacrificial body and blood into heaven where he pleads before the heavenly Altar of God for the life of the world.  While he carries out the intercessory part of his priestly ministry in heaven, he draws us into that ministry in the celebration of Holy Communion, where we eat the body and drink the blood along with him, both memorializing and participating in his Sacrifice.  His death happened once but the intercession continues.

By involving us in his priestly sacrifice, Jesus gives us a tangible means of responding to his sacrifice and receiving assurance that we are part of his Church.  This also serves as an anchor point by which Christian teaching may flow seamlessly from Christ’s atonement to our right living, from God’s work to man’s work.  The call to repentance, the prior necessity of covenantal membership, the impetus to love and good works… it all has a link to the act of Communion.  Chapters 10 and 11 of St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians contain a wealth of teachings along these lines.

Final Thoughts for now

I write this not as a rejection of penal substitution.  I don’t think the classical Protestant (or at least, classical Reformed) position is wrong, exactly.  It’s a matter of emphasis: penal substitution looks so closely at God’s demand for justice satisfied in Christ that it’s hard to see how we fit in amidst that complex interaction between God the Father and God the Son.  By writing all this about Sacrifical Atonement, I hope to provide us with a fresh set of language to recast what we already know and believe in a way that both accounts for the biblical data and does so in a way that makes the most sense with the fewest stumbling blocks.

I acknowledge that I write this as a highchurchman with a more traditional view of the Sacraments than some (especially compared to most Protestants).  But I don’t believe what I’ve stated here requires a specifically high church theology of the Sacraments to work.  We all believe in the priesthood of Christ, we all believe that he instituted the Supper to be the memorial of his sacrifice.  Belief in the object real presence of Christ in the bread and wine is not demanded for what I’ve written, though it certainly fits.  What I’ve written here isn’t even specifically Anglican; I think it could be embraced by Easterners and Romans and Lutherans and Calvinists and Baptists fairly equally comfortably.

What do you think?

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St. Macrina

Saint Macrina the Younger was a member of a very large and saintly family:

  • Her grandmother (known as Macrina the Elder) is remembered as a Saint, and had studied under Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus.
  • Her father was Saint Basil the Elder, a virtuous lawyer and rhetorician.
  • Her mother was Saint Emmelia, who ran the household with a monastic-like mood of constant prayer.
  • Two of her brothers (Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa) are among the “Cappadocian Fathers” – bishops and theologians who were giants of Early Church theology, most notable for their contributions to the doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, as finalized in the revision of the Nicene Creed at the First Council of Constantinople (in 381).
  • Another of her brothers, Saint Peter of Sebaste, also went on to be a bishop and a participant in the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Macrina was taught to read, and she studied the Scriptures long and hard throughout her life, growing alongside her younger brothers Basil and Gregory and even personally tutoring her brothers Peter and Naucratius.  (She had nine siblings in all.)

Early on, Macrina was betrothed to be married, but her fiancé died before the wedding.  Although free to marry someone else, she elected to become a nun, favoring her mystical marriage to Christ over an earthly husband.  After this, she and her mother gradually transformed the family house in Pontus, on the Black Sea, into a monastery and convent.

She is not remembered quite as famously as her brothers Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, for she did not produce any writings of her own that we know of.  Yet, her contribution to their continued learning throughout their lives was noted and celebrated after her death in Gregory’s book, The Macrinia: Dialogue on the Soul and Resurrection.  Modeled after a literary style in Plato, this book was written as a conversation between Gregory and Macrina on her deathbed.

In a period of history where women rarely directly contributed to politics, religion, or society, Macrina shines as a brilliant example of an influential woman.  Because of her, the Cappadocian Fathers had markedly more positive views of women.  Because of her, Gregory of Nyssa was able to write some ideals for holy living as a woman, rather than just for men.  We don’t know to what extent she continued to contribute to the theological work of the Cappadocian Fathers, and by extension, the form of the Nicene Creed used to this day, but her influence was there, and appreciated by her brothers and friends.

Saint Macrina the Younger is commemorated on the day of her death, the 19th of July; or on the 18th in some provinces of the Church.

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What is my favorite Prayer Book edition?

This is kind of an in-house question – what is my favorite version of the Book of Common Prayer?  If you’re not an Anglican, this might have some academic interest for you, but for the most part this blog post is addressed to the Anglicans who inevitably ask this question.  Priests and other clergymen are supposed to be stewards of the liturgy in the Church, after all, so it can say a lot about a man just looking at his preferred liturgical resource.

Quick Background

I grew up outside the liturgical tradition, first discovered liturgy in a Roman Catholic setting, and slowly grew into the Anglican tradition.  My first prayer book was the 1979 book from the Episcopal Church, USA.  That was the one I used in Episcopal/Anglican fellowship, that was the one I used on my own, that was the one in which I was trained in Anglican liturgy in seminary.

We were taught some of the history, of course, particularly how the original (1549) was ‘more catholic’ and the second (1552) was ‘more protestant’ and the subsequent two (1559 and 1662) were a sort of middle ground that set the standard thereafter.  But exactly how they were more or less traditional, more or less reformed, was only explained on a surface level.  I never really grasped the theological implications of the different trajectories set by the first two editions until the past couple of years.  To some degree, understanding the theology of a given Prayer Book almost requires one to have a solid grounding in one book’s tradition in order to compare the different ones more effectively.

As soon as I became a priest, in September 2013, I transitioned my little congregation off of the 1979 book.  By that point the first draft liturgies (called Texts for Common Prayer) had been released by the Anglican Church in North America, and I studiously used them in public and in private.  In my diaconal year, in 2012, I was brought face-to-face with the depth of Anglican liturgical tradition and just how different the 1979 book was from all its predecessors, and I resolved to explore the “lost” tradition as much as I could.  Thus, I took up the new draft TCP and stuck it with the Sunday lectionary from 1662, and that became the norm for my congregation for three years, until our Bishop required our whole diocese to start using the provisional lectionary of the ACNA.

Those were three formative years for me; I learned a great deal.  By their conclusion, and my obedient adoption of the still-coming-together TCP, I’d developed a set of liturgical preferences and principles that I could expound on my own, without having to parrot what professors told me in school.

My General Principles

I’m a liturgical purist, but not a liturgical fundamentalist.  They are similar, but the difference is important.  Both look to older sources, seeking the best of the liturgical tradition and holding it up as the standard (or as what ought to be the standard).  But where the fundamentalist points to the form and content of favored standard, the purist points to the spirit of the standard, accounting for the form and content but not being utterly locked in place by them.

Liturgical Fundamentalists hold up a Prayer Book, usually either the English 1662 or the American 1928, and say “this is the best!  Why do we need to change it?  Let’s just all go back to using this.”  Liturgical Purists hold up a Prayer Book, usually one of the same two, and say “this was great!  Why should we deviate so far from it?  Let’s just reground ourselves in this tradition.”

As a purist, I highly favor the old Prayer Books, and disdain the American 1979.  It’s not all bad, of course; it has a number of additions that supplement the Prayer Book tradition quite well, such as an explicit anointing of the sick and an explicit office of private confession.  It brings back the imposition of ashes, it offers modern translations of the liturgy (if of varying quality), and it provides special liturgies for special holy days that enrich our experience of times like Holy Week.  But on the whole, it represents several major breaks from the tradition before it.

The form and content of older Prayer Books are very consistent with one another.  But it’s not just about the text of the services, but also the rubrics – the rules of how to arrange and execute these services.  The original prayer book tradition, constant through the English books, was daily Morning and Evening Prayer in the church, and Holy Communion on Sundays and Holy Days.  The Great Litany was to be prayed at the end of Morning Prayer thrice a week.  The daily lectionary was only gently attached to the liturgical calendar and focused on the continual reading of the Bible; the Communion lectionary was only gently attached to the continual reading of the Bible and focused on the topic presentation of the Gospel according to the progression of the liturgical seasons and holy days.

My Current Favorite

So, finally, what is my favorite Prayer Book?  I’ve been laughed down and scorned for this answer before, but I’m still sticking to it: it’s the 2019 Book of Common Prayer, set to be released by the ACNA next year.  The draft liturgies are mostly in their final forms by now, I’ve been using them since 2013, and have been enjoying their periodic improvements over the past five years.  Here’s the quick run-down of some of its best features that I appreciate:

  • The prayers in the Offices of Morning & Evening Prayer are more faithful to the 1662 standard than the American 1979 or 1928 books.  And where this one adds more options (like the 1979), it still notes the traditional Collects for those who wish to stick to the originals.
  • The confession prayers in the Office and the Communion service are contemporary renderings of their original forms, rather than the 1979 book’s new (comparatively anemic) confession prayer.
  • The Communion prayers are most closely based on the 1928 book, which is my favorite version in terms of form and structure.  Instructions are also included for the re-arrangement of the prayers to match that of the 1662, for those who are so inclined.
  • A second “Renewed Ancient” rite for the Communion service is available for those who like the input of the mid-20th-century liturgical renewal movement.  A purist like myself has no need for this option, but it’s a friendly gesture to those formed by the 1979 book who can’t seem to bear to live without it.
  • Midday Prayer and Compline, the Anointing of the Sick, the Rite of Reconciliation, and the special Ash Wednesday and Holy Week liturgies are still welcome additions missing from the historic prayer book tradition.
  • The Psalter is being based on the traditional Coverdale translation, so the same beauty and grace will still be there in modern idiom.  That’ll also make this easier to chant to the old tunes without having entirely to re-notate the text yet again, like what happened with the 1979 book.

I also like that this book is in contemporary English, and translated better than the efforts of 1979 which were either theologically questionable or just plain have not aged well.  I agree with the committee’s early opinion on the matter – if one wants a traditional-language option, they can (and will) keep using whatever their preferred book is.  There’s no need to re-invent what’s already out there.  And while I appreciate, even enjoy, the traditional English, I don’t believe it necessary for good liturgy.  There are indeed a great many words and phrases that are beautiful and theologically rich in the old language which are difficult to render in modern idiom with the same grace and depth, but I believe we have to try.  While worship should never seeker-driven, it should not be an unnecessary stumbling block.  Just as the King James Bible has its beauty and place, but newer translations are just as valid, so too are our traditional prayer books beautiful and useful, but contemporary translations are just as valid.  And honestly, given the state of English literacy, and the increasing number of people on the streets for whom English is their second or third language, we would do the world a disservice by forcing them to learn proper (read: archaic) English in order to worship with us.

Sober Hesitation

All that said, I am very aware of the flaws going into the 2019 Prayer Book.

  • The observance of holy days in the daily lectionary is rather flimsier than I would have liked.
  • The Sunday & Holy Day Communion lectionary is still based on a modern scheme rather than the historic order (see the 4th paragraph under My General Principles).
  • The previous draft allowed for the observance of the three Pre-Lent Sundays; the current draft has removed that option.
  • The “Renewed Ancient” Communion Rite has the epiclesis after the Words of Institution, which feels backwards to me and makes me feel uncomfortable to pray them at the altar.
  • The Baptism liturgy re-translates “regenerate” as “born again”, which strikes me as an oddly modern word-choice compared to the translation decisions made in the Communion prayers.
  • The acceptance of the ordination of women to the diaconate and priesthood, in the Ordination liturgies, is kind of a bugbear issue for traditionalists.
  • Although this isn’t final yet, it looks like the Collects of the Day and the Communion lectionary are going to printed apart from each other in the book, like in the 1979.  This drastically decreases the book’s usability and, if not rectified, may single-handedly prevent the book from ever coming back in actual physical use in churches, due to the extra page-flipping required.  The clergy will get the hang of it because that’s part of our job, but the majority in the pews would be lost.

It has not escaped my notice that I have a list of 6 things I really like about this upcoming Prayer Book and a list of 7 things I dislike about it.  But, honestly, there are ups and downs to each book.  The 1928 has a communion service I like, but the offices are weirdly abbreviated to my view, and the daily lectionary is a mess.  The 1979 has all the cool bells and whistles, but messes around with so much tradition like a plaything that it just doesn’t feel Anglican to me.  The 1662 has a great set of lectionaries but its prayers for the English royalty make it kind of inappropriate outside the Empire and Commonwealth.  And of course there’s the traditional language issue that I already addressed above.

My Ideal Version

Having more-than-dabbled in arranging temporary Prayer Books over the past few years, I have a pretty clear sense of what I’d wish for in a Prayer Book.  I’d start with the ACNA’s 2019 book, and basically keep wholesale the Daily Office, the Anglican Standard Communion Rite, the Pastoral Offices, the Episcopal Services, the New Coverdale Psalter, and the collection of Additional Prayers.  Exceptions and changes would be as follows:

  • The daily lectionary would be modeled closely on the 1662 (which the recently-issued 3rd edition from the ACNA is approaching, so I’m holding out hope).  It would omit the books of Maccabees and restore in their place the book of Tobit.
  • The suggested use of the Great Litany would be clarified to be akin to its 1662 original: to be said on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
  • The Creed of Saint Athanasius would have its use clearly stipulated in the rubrics (be it 13 times a year on certain holidays like in the 1662, or something akin to that).
  • The Communion Collects & Lessons would be drawn from the 1928 or 1662 (they’re almost identical), with suggested 3rd readings (usually OT) and Psalms to supplement it according to modern practice.
  • The “Renewed Ancient” Communion Rite would be dropped.
  • The Baptismal liturgy would switch “born again” back to “regenerated”.
  • The Ordinal would be restored to male language.
  • The blessing of holy oils would be included, since the use of all three traditional kinds is permitted in their respective contexts.  The use of holy oils would also be more clearly stipulated, particularly in the Anointing of the Sick.
  • A companion volume, providing all of the above in traditional English, would be made available.

I’m pretty sure nobody will agree with me 100% here, but hey, that’s kind of the nature of liturgical opinions.  The point of this exercise was to lay out my principles and perspective, and think through some of its ideal implementation.  Hopefully what we end up with here in the ACNA will be a book that enough of us can get behind that we’ll be properly united in the service of Christ, his Church, and his Gospel.

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The Bible is a book of Worship

This is part nine of sixteen in a series, “The Bible Is…

Throughout the pages of the Bible, there are many texts and passages that describe, teach about, or simply model how to worship God.  While the Bible is not, nor contains, a complete handbook of Christian worship, there is much to be gleaned from it.  The rites and ceremonies of Old Covenant worship, especially described in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, are insightful for shedding light on the nature of New Covenant worship.  The theological discourse on the high priesthood of Christ Jesus that dominates much of the Epistle to the Hebrews has significant implications for Christian worship.  Many moments in the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles directly apply to the subject of worship.  And, of course, there are hundreds of prayers and songs throughout the Bible from which we can learn a great deal about prayer and worship, both private and corporate.  Although some of the most significant canticles, or song-prayers, in the Bible are found in the Gospel of Luke and the book of Isaiah, there is no book in Scripture that comes close to the worshipful content of the Book of Psalms.  There, one finds a full 150 song-prayers collected, simultaneously being the Word of God and words to God.

Many different moods and categorizations have been applied to the Psalms – lament, praise, thanksgiving, historical recollection, imprecation (or cursing of enemies), proclamations of royalty, celebration of God’s words.  Regular and thoughtful engagement with the psalms as prayers brings a wide range of emotion and circumstance before the reader: expressions of anger, betrayal, abandonment, guilt, sadness, loss, gain, innocence, joy, thankfulness – all directed toward God in often brutally honest prayer.  There is much to be gained from studying the Psalms from such angles, noting the emotional content and how they balance out.  We can learn much about how we can, or ought to, worship from this.

Another layer of interaction with the Psalms can be found in identifying various “voices” within.  While several of the psalms have specific authors and circumstances attached to them, coloring their original composition, they are all collected there because they are timeless and universal – any Christian can take them up and pray them him- or herself.  But not every psalm will resonate with every individual at every time; sometimes a protestation of innocence (such as in Psalm 35) does not ring true for us; sometimes we don’t feel the anger of Psalm 137 or the joy of Psalm 150.  Thus we learn from these psalms to pray with other voices: I may not be innocent, but Jesus is.  I may not feel betrayed and angry, but Jesus was and is betrayed constantly.  To pray the psalms with the voice of Christ is very instructive for us, as it teaches and shows us how we are called to be in him.  His praying of Psalm 22 while on the Cross is a clear demonstration that these were his own prayers, not just ours, so we do well to learn to pray them as he does.  Other times, the voice of the Church, or of martyrs or other particular groups of people in the past better fit the psalm: I may not feel like praising God with every ounce of breath, but the Church as a Body does.  There are even a few times when the wicked are quoted (such as in Psalm 14), and we repeat their words of unbelief.  Again, this teaches us how to pray beyond ourselves, not just expressing our own thoughts and feelings but joining ourselves to the greater body of worship and prayer of the whole Church, centered in the perfect prayer of Jesus himself.

The Book of Psalms is a unique book of the Bible in the Christian tradition for this very reason.  It is never read as a Scripture reading, according to the historic liturgies of the Church; rather, it is prayed.  In the tradition of daily prayers, all the Psalms are prayed every week in monasteries across the globe, or every four weeks by Roman Catholic clergymen, or every month in the Anglican Prayer Brook tradition.  This is critical for the right understanding of this book of the Bible; it is not meant merely to be read and studied, but ultimately to be sung and prayed.  Thus we learn the true lessons of prayer, worship, and spirituality from the Book of Psalms.

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Saint Benedict

Saint Benedict was born in Nursia (now Norcia, in central Italy) probably in the year 480.  The Roman Empire had fallen in the West, “barbarians” ruled over Rome, the great Augustine of Hippo lived and died a generation before, and most of the Church’s theological activity and leadership seemed to be located in the Greek-speaking East.  This was, for Europe, what felt like a ‘Dark Age.’

As a young man, Benedict gave up his studies in Rome for reasons unknown, and met a monk who convinced him to live as a hermit for a few years.  Eventually Benedict emerged a more mature man and went on to found twelve monastic communities before moving to Monte Cassino in the mountains of Southern Italy.  There, his most-remembered and treasured legacy was forged: The Rule of Saint Benedict.

Every community has its Rule of Life – an agreed code by which its members are to live and order themselves.  Up to that point in history, there were many Rules by which a monastic community might order itself, but Benedict’s Rule, drawing upon previous sources, possessed a particular genius of balance that sat well not only with his monks, but many other monasteries as well, to the point where virtually every monastic community in Western Europe was “Benedictine.”

Benedictine Monasticism is known for its balance between ora et labora – prayer and labor.  There were seven set times for prayer interspersed throughout each day (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Vespers), plus one Night Office (Compline) at roughly midnight.  The rest of the community’s schedule of work, rest, private contemplation, and eating was ordered very carefully, with schedule adjustments between summer and winter to account for the changing length of the daylight hours.

In the English Reformation and to this day, Benedictine spirituality, with its emphasis on simple worship and a balanced use of time, is encapsulated in the Prayer Book tradition.  The various “offices” of prayer were condensed into two (Morning and Evening Prayer), though Sext (Midday Prayer) and Compline have made a come-back in recent times.  Where the Benedictine Rule called for the weekly recitation of the Psalms, the Prayer Book calls for the monthly recitation.  Where the Benedictine Rule called for a simple set of Scriptural Canticles and Lessons, the Prayer Book does the same.

In short, where most Protestant traditions lost the richness and wisdom of Benedictine spirituality in the course of the Reformation and the removal of the monasteries, the Anglican tradition pursued a sort of ‘monastization of the laity’ by placing the best possible sampling of monastic worship into the hands of all Christians.  We may not have the time in our day for seven daily offices of prayer to interrupt our jobs, but we can observe two.

Thus, Saint Benedict’s approach to spirituality is of special significance to us in the Anglican tradition.

His commemoration was on the 21st of March in many places for a time, but is now generally observed on July 11th.

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The Bible is a book of Theology

This is part seven of sixteen in a series, “The Bible Is…

One of the most obvious features of the Bible is the fact that it teaches us about God.  This is the basic definition of theology – words, teaching, or study about God.  The ways in which the Bible goes about this task are many: historical narrative, poetry, prophetic utterance or preaching, letters and messages and stories from God’s people.  There are surprisingly few books in the Bible that specifically set out to teach us, straight up, without the use of these other writing styles and purposes.  Three books, all of which are letters (or epistles) in the New Testament, stand out as perhaps the prime examples of the Bible as Theology: the Epistle of St. James, the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, and the Epistle to the Hebrews.

The Epistle of James is a brief letter written by St. James of Jerusalem, the first head bishop there who oversaw the council described in Acts 15.  Of all the epistles it is perhaps the most saturated in the words of Christ, much of it quoting or paraphrasing the Sermon on the Mount and other sayings of Jesus.  As such, this epistle has a great deal of ethical instruction – against greed and favoritism, about taming the tongue and enduring sufferings, and prayer and forgiveness.  It’s a hammer against what is sometimes called cheap grace, the notion that repentance is a one-time thing and our life habits are irrelevant.  In short, “faith without works is dead.”

The Epistle to the Romans is St. Paul’s longest epistle.  It was written to a congregation he had not even met yet, which may account for the fact that it some of the most general big-picture teachings about sin and salvation.  Its first few chapters form what some call the Romans Road, outlining the reality of sin, the helplessness of mankind as fallen creatures, the need for God’s grace, and the great gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.  But Paul did know something about the churches in Rome: there was division between Jewish and Gentile Christians, so a great deal of attention is given to their unification throughout the book.  The final chapters move from the earlier teachings on salvation and unity to Christian living, speaking to subjects such as worship, mercy, obedience, and service.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is anonymous; several unconfirmed theories exist as to its author.  Saint Paul has been a common assumption for much of the church’s history, but there is no consensus.  This epistle reads mostly like a sermon: it draws upon frequent quotations from the Old Testament to preach the supremacy of Christ as the completion and fulfillment of the Old Covenant, the old Priesthood and the Temple, and indeed all the expectations of the Old Testament writings.  In particular the reader is brought before the image of Jesus as High Priest, which is alluded to in many other New Testament writings but only explored in detail here.  We are shown how the seemingly-passive death on the Cross is also an active work of priestly sacrifice.  In short, this book is the greatest key to unlocking the true meaning of the Old Testament in light of the new.

There are many other great theological writings to be found in the Bible, but these are three of the premier books.  James shows us how we are to live; Romans shows us how people are saved; Hebrews shows us how Jesus saved us.

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Bernard Mizeki

On the 18th of June, in 1896, a missionary was killed by the people-group to whom he was ministering.  This is, in itself, not an unusual story, no matter what century you begin with.  What makes Bernard Mizeki’s story particularly special is his identity and context.  He was born named Mamiyeri Mitseka Gwambe, a native African in Inhambane, modern-day Mozambique, then a Portugese colony.  He learned some Portuguese before his family moved to the British colony in South Africa where he came across some British and German missionaries and converted.  He started working as a missionary and was soon trained and appointed a Lay Catechist.

This early in the missions process, there were not yet many native African clergymen or missionaries; Bernard Mizeki was one of the few in his day.  He formed a missionary community, inhabiting a local sacred grove, where he refused to pay homage to the ancestral spirits said to dwell there.  Months later, drought and famine caused hostile tribes to increase activity in his area, so the colonial government called the missionaries to safety.  But Mizeki remained, and was attacked by an in-law in league with the local witch doctors, and he died soon after.

Later that year, the first of his disciples was Baptized, and soon the Gospel spread among many of the Shona people.  Like many missionary martyrs, it was only after his death that the fruit of his labor became visible.

We see in Bernard Mizeki’s story a reminder of the power of the witness of a martyr.  As a migrant worker and a native African, his example and teaching were especially effective among the various southern tribes.  We are reminded of the value of not foreign missionaries crossing boundaries to preach the Gospel, but also of local missionaries and evangelists who are able to show their target group that the Gospel does not belong to a foreign group.  Indeed, perhaps the multicultural effort, African and British working together, gave all the better impression of the power of the Gospel to unite different peoples as one in Christ.

His death date, June 18th, has become his commemoration day in several Anglican provinces.

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