Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hauskaa Joulua!

Ah, the Feast of the Nativity.  Or as we in the trade call it, "Crunch Time."

Fr. A. has been working double duty for weeks, with no end in sight (funeral coming, then Sunday, then blessing some chalk on Epiphany).  We have been living on cookies and cold coffee for longer than we can recall.  We could really use a little Ordinary Time right now.

Still, something curious happened last night.  The cynical preacher's view of the Vigil of Christmas is that people come to hear the familiar story recapitulated, a touching fable or two, and then to light a few candles and sing "Silent Night."  Anything much different risks rebellion in the pews.

 Moved by heaven knows what imp of the perverse, we decided to take our sermon in a different direction.  It's all a blur now, but we recall sharing the semantic range of the Greek verb "symballo," digressing on the fact that "host" is the word of an army -- militia coelestibus -- and blathering on about the arrangement of Israelite forces at the Battle of Midian.  Oh, and some long-winded anecdote about providing emergency pastoral care at the DMV.

The faithful actually seemed to enjoy this -- quite a bit, apparently -- although Heaven only knows why.  A Christmas miracle!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Farewell, Furry Friend-With-Benefits

Apparently, Bigfoot porn is a real thing -- and just as we have discovered its existence, Amazon is taking it away from us.

This may be just as well.  Yes, it's a loss for freedom and diversity and all that -- but a victory for good taste.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hermits for Hire!

If you're lonely at Christmas, Science Daily proposes a forgotten remedy:  pay a religious zealot to live in your garden.

Apparently, back in the 1700s, this was all the rage.  Rich people would pay a hermit to live austerely on their property, moping about in the yard, growing long beards and presumably praying a little now and then.  It wasn't about company so much as, well, decoration:

In the 18th century, it was highly fashionable for owners of country estates to commission architectural follies for their landscape gardens, many of which included hermitages comprising of a small cottage, cave or contemplative gazebo.
Often, landowners would inhabit their hermitages with imaginary or, in some cases, real hermits.

(And yes, the imaginary ones are the origin of the humble garden gnome.)

The hermit might be engaged for a period of seven years, after which he would be paid enough money to ... retire.  Which isn't the sort of thing we imagine hermits doing, but whatevs, yo.

The expert here is Gordon Campbell, author of a nice little book on the King James Bible and also of a recent book on ornamental hermits.  Campbell explains that decoration wasn't the only motive; there was a sort of vicarious spirituality involved:
It meant that the busy CEO could outsource his melancholy, contemplative side, embodying it in a hermit for hire. The ideal of living frugally did not therefore inhibit the good life. It's a bit like bankers carving turkeys for the homeless on Christmas Day.

ELCA Bishop Resigns; Reason a Mystery

Bishop James Justman, of the ELCA's East-Central Wisconsin Synod, has resigned. (ELCA release here, Wausau Daily Herald here)  He was elected to a second term in 2012 and, following the meeting of the Conference of Bishops in October, has been on "sabbatical."  Bishop Justman cites "personal reasons" for his resignation, the sort of thing that inevitably raises the questions it refuses to answer.

In politics and big business, "personal reasons" or "to spend more time with family" are the customary whitewash for a scandal or a major screwup.  But is it the same in church circles?  We genuinely do not know.

Now, it is easy to imagine reasons that a bishop might choose to step down.  The job, especially as it has been practiced by the ELCA, is almost comically bad.  You are given great symbolic status and virtually no executive authority; you are called to manage dwindling resources in an atmosphere of panic and distrust of institutions; you are an authority among people who largely distrust authority.  Although your job title calls you to teach doctrine and administer discipline in the tradition of the apostles, your church feels more comfortable if you serve as a middle manager, giving mildly inspirational pep talks and telling a few jokes, but otherwise deferring to the halfwits they elect to lesser offices.

It is easy to imagine why one might want to quit a job like this.  But by the time most pastors are elected bishop, they have a pretty good idea what the job entails, and have declared themselves ready to take it on.  If they weren't ready to serve, they would have avoided election in the first place.  Although some, like Lower Susquehanna's Penrose Hoover, are said to accept only reluctantly, they accept nonetheless.

So why do ELCA bishops typically give up their posts?  Some, like Robert Rimbo, get a once-in-a lifetime offer to leave the blasted postapocalyptic wasteland of Detroit for Manhattan's Upper West Side.  (Likewise, Paul Stumme-Diers left Milwaukee for a parish on Puget Sound, and Craig Johnson left the Minneapolis bishop's office to serve a large congregation in the same city.)  Nothing especially scandalous there.  Some, like Paul Egertson of California, are asked to resign for principled actions which nonetheless violate church policy -- like Egertson's 1994 ordination of a partnered lesbian.  Depending upon your perspective, that's downright heroic.

But others, like Rimbo's successor Stephen Marsh, find that the stresses of their ministry make it impossible to keep their "addiction issues" -- Marsh's word -- in check.  In 2006, Michael Neils resigned as bishop of the Grand Canyon Synod and as an ELCA pastor after admitting to an adulterous liaison; other ELCA bishops -- Slovak Zion's Kenneth Zindle and South-Central Wisconsin's Lowell Mays among them -- have resigned after accusations of sexual misconduct.  And of course Mays' successor and Justman's Wisconsin neighbor Bruce Burnside, killed somebody while (allegedly) driving drunk.

The thing is that if you resign to accept a new call, you tell people about it.  Even if you resign for some pretty awful reason, like a relapse or an affair, the custom seems to be to make it public.  So what sort of reasons for a resignation are so dire that an ELCA bishop chooses not to disclose them?

Maybe we're way off base here.  Maybe these personal reasons have no moral or ethical element to them at all.  It could be that he has been diagnosed with some grave illness, or that a member of his family needs urgent attention, or some other genuinely private and personal thing.  Terrible as those may be to contemplate, forgive us for hoping that's it.

Meanwhile, we pray for Justman, his family and especially for his synod, and hope that when the story comes out it will do nothing to vindicate our worst fears.

Locutus Roma ... sed non Latine

Pope Francis has provoked a great deal of discussion with his Apostolic Exhortation entitled Evangeliii Gaudium.

We were amused to learn recently that, despite its Latin title, the document has not yet been translated into the Latin language.  Apparently popes no longer write in the official language of their kingdom, which is a disappointment but certainly no shock.  We assume that this exhortation was composed in Spanish, making its "real" title La alegria del Evangelio.

We should point out that, thanks to the late Alex Comfort, the English title -- The Joy of the Gospel -- invites a certain adolescent giggle.  (Specifically, it makes us think of naked people with lots and lots of hair.  We wish it were otherwise, but there you are.)

That's every thing we have to say about Evangeliii Gaudium today.  But while we're on the subject ....

We notice that the exhortation has, with its mild criticism of trickle-down economics, aroused the ire both of Rush Limbaugh and Peggy Noonan, with Anne Coulter no doubt waiting in the wings.

The first thing one must say, of course, is that conservative critics expressing shock at Catholic social teaching are simply ignorant.  They don't know what they are talking about.  One takes this for granted, of course, in a buffoon like Limbaugh; Noonan is a special case.  She is not so much ignorant as wilfully blind.

So impressed was she, and so impressed were many of her contemporaries, with what they perceived as John Paul II's spiritual support for Saint Ronald's Holy War on Communism -- not to mention the whole abortion thing! -- that they decided that the Roman magisterium must be on their own side in all matters political.  Crazy, right?  Yet the history of the Neoconservative movement, when it is written competently, will doubtless list the many Roman Catholics who switched their allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican one; it will also show a modest number of politically conservative converts to Catholicism.

Such was the enthusiasm for Rome among 80s-era conservatives that they seem to have skipped the drudgery of actually, well, reading things.  Had they read just a little bit, they would have discovered the strangely dichotomous presence of Roman Catholicism in 19th- and 20th-century public affairs

On one hand, it retained the instinctive royalism of the preceding eras, and so was happy enough to align itself not only with actual kings but also with rightist strongmen like Francisco Franco.  And, like Franco, Rome certainly did not care for Communism, with its materialistic and atheistic bent.

But on the other hand, Catholicism felt just as threatened by the emerging democratic and capitalist order of the West.  Until very late in the day, it routinely expressed doubts about democracy and religious freedom, and it is still no real friend of sexual egalitarianism.  Rightly or wrongly, the magisterium assumed that movements like this undermined its own authority, and led inexorably to the establishment of a materialism no less toxic than the Marxist-Stalinist-Maoist variety.

And why not?  Capitalism, when you think about it, emerged in the Renaissance -- just like Protestantism and, for that matter, modern forms of democracy.  They aren't the same thing, but they share a certain constituency, and nowhere (around 1900) was that constituency so concentrated as in the United States.  Thus we get Leo XIII warning about the supposed heresy of "Americanism."

But here's the money point:  for all its panicked fear of modernity, the Roman Catholic church never lost sight of the needs of the poor.  In fact, it seems to have believed that both the emerging economic regimes -- Communism and capitalism -- would hurt the poor.  (Not that the church had anything better to offer, mind you; nostalgia for the Middle Ages wasn't going to bring them back, and in any case the Middle Ages hadn't been a notoriously good time for the peasants.)

The key fact, though, is that in 1891, Leo issued one of the most important papal documents of the modern age.  Rerum novarum served as a thoughtful Christian response to the industrial age, and especially to the cutthroat capitalism of the Gilded Age.  While supporting the rights of property owners to use their belongings as they saw fit, it also said:
Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. 
If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.
In other words, living wages are a matter of natural law -- the very idea that, even today, Wal-Mart and the service economy in general are trying to argue against.  More than that, employers who do not offer a living wage are abusing their workers, subjecting them to "force and injustice."  Although Leo does not like strikes and wants to avoid them for the sake of the common good, he supports labor unions, worker safety, collective bargaining, and other causes then labeled "progressive."

A century later, celebrating the downfall of the Soviet Union and its satellites, John Paul II reflected on Rerum novarum in his encyclical Centesimus annus.  It's a comparatively conservative document.  The Peggy Noonans of the world no doubt read it and hear the strong condemnation of Communism and, in particular, atheism.  But we hope they also catch this:
[I]t is unacceptable to say that the defeat of [socialism] leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization.
And this:
[P]rofitability is not the only indicator of a firm's condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people — who make up the firm's most valuable asset — to be humiliated and their dignity offended. Besides being morally inadmissible, this will eventually have negative repercussions on the firm's economic efficiency. 
In fact, the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society.
Get it?  A company's job isn't just to generate shareholder value; it is to provide for the basic needs of its employees, and to serve society.  If it isn't doing all those things, it is a failure.

Centesiums annus displays a particular concern for the people of the Third World -- the encyclical's own, now somewhat old-fashioned phrase.  John Paul is concerned that people in these nations are excluded from the material benefits of the more developed economies.  This concern informs the broader "economics of exclusion" of which Francis writes.

John Paul goes on to warn against the "irrational destruction of the natural environment," a form of "tyranny" which leads to destruction.  This doesn't necessarily mean he would have opposed pipelines, offshore oil rigs or fracking, but it certainly does raise the question of whether those things are compatible with the Catholic social vision.

It is obvious that the most debated sections of Evangeliii gaudium (parapgraphs 53-60) are in line with these two predecessor documents.  Like Leo and John Paul, Francis has his doubts about capitalism; like Leo and John Paul, Francis is concerned that some people are excluded from the benefit of the emerging global economy.  Like them both, he is concerned that a purely materialistic economic theory damages the social fabric and leads, ultimately, to violence.  We defy anyone to argue convincingly that all three of these men are mistaken.

And we ask that political conservatives, especially those who make much of their own Roman Catholic faith, would pay more attention to their church's now-long-standing critique of their pet economic theories.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Megyn Kelly, St Augustine, and the Gay Sasquatch

We were sitting down to translate Augustine's Sermon 184, as a pre-Christmas gift to ourselves, when we found that it has already been done, and decently.  So much the better.

Here is the text in Latin.  Here is the English translation.  The latter comes from a website devoted to "proving" that Jesus was born on December 25.  How this sermon could do such a thing is anybody's guess, as -- unfortunately -- is the original source of the translation.

Our favorite part, by far, is the second section.  It contains two passages which we may steal for our own Christmas sermon, and you may consider as well.

It begins:
Proinde Natalem Domini frequentia et festivitate debita celebremus. Exsultent viri, exsultent feminae: Christus vir est natus, ex femina est natus; et uterque sexus est honoratus. Iam ergo ad secundum hominem transeat, qui in primo fuerat ante damnatus. Mortem nobis persuaserat femina: vitam nobis peperit femina. Nata est similitudo carnis peccati, qua mundaretur caro peccati. Non itaque caro culpetur, sed ut natura vivat, culpa moriatur; quia sine culpa natus est, in quo is qui in culpa fuerat, renascatur. 
Hence, let us celebrate the birthday of the Lord with a joyous gathering and appropriate festivity. Let men and women alike rejoice, for Christ, the Man, was born and He was born of a woman; thus, each sex was honored. Now let the honor accorded to the first man before his condemnation pass over to this second Man.   (1 Cor. 15:49)  A woman brought death upon us; a woman has now brought forth life. The likeness of our sinful flesh (Cf. Rom. 8:3) was born so that this sinful flesh might be cleansed. Let not the flesh be blamed, but let it die to sin so that it may live by its real nature; let him who was in sin be born again in Him who was born without sin. 

This may speak to our own time more deeply than it did to Augustine's.  The culture of the fourth century was not awash in identity politics, as ours has been for some decades now.  One did not feel the need to defend one's sex, skin color, or sexual preference, much less to define oneself by them.  Although tribe and nation mattered very much indeed, even these had lost some of their weight within the Christian church.

Evidence for this may be found in the person of Augustine himself.  Was he a Berber?  The descendant of white people from Europe or black ones from southern Africa?  Although guesses abound, there is no certainty about his descent -- because it did not matter enough for anybody to talk about.

But our time is different.  In the past week, we have seen a national "news" broadcaster insist, on air, that she knows for a certainty the skin color of both Santa Claus and Jesus.  This is, no doubt, part of her network's annual attempt to make Christmas a bone of sociopolitical contention.  Still, these remarks are especially weird.  They're a little like trying to argue that Sasquatch is gay and John Henry Newman is straight.  Bigfoot is about as well-documented as the pole-dwelling elf.  As for Newman, well, he may have liked the ladies, but it seems improbable, we just don't know, and it hardly matters.

So to our identity-obsessed age, with its theologies splintered and divided into "conservative" or "liberal," "mujerista" or "traditionalist," Augustine speaks a sober word.  By the Incarnation of God, both sexes were honored.  Men and women, all flesh alike -- and all flesh, alike, is redeemed.  We are not divided against each other by the birth of Christ, but united and washed clean.

The sermon continues with a series of imperatives, which may conceivably mirror by design the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil:*
Exsultate, pueri sancti, qui Christum praecipue sequendum elegistis, qui coniugia non quaesistis.  .... Exsultate, virgines sanctae: Virgo vobis peperit, cui sine corruptione nubatis; quae nec concipiendo, nec pariendo potestis perdere quod amatis. Exsultate, iusti: Natalis est Iustificatoris. Exsultate, debiles et aegroti: Natalis est Salvatoris. Exsultate, captivi: Natalis est Redemptoris. Exsultate servi: Natalis est Dominantis. Exsultate liberi: Natalis est Liberantis. Exsultate omnes Christiani: Natalis est Christi.
Let's make that easier for you to preach:

  • Exult, you holy youths, who, having chosen Christ as a model eminently worthy of imitation, have not sought marriage. .... 
  • Exult, you holy virgins. A Virgin has brought forth for you One whom you may wed without defilement, and you can lose the One whom you love neither by conceiving nor by bringing forth children. 
  • Exult, you who are just; it is the birthday of the Justifier. 
  • Exult, you who are weak and ill; it is the birthday of the Saviour. 
  • Exult, you who are captives; it is the birthday of the Redeemer. Exult, you who are slaves; it is the birthday of the Ruler. 
  • Exult, you who are free; it is the birthday of the Liberator. 
  • Exult, all Christians; it is the birthday of Christ! 

For what it's worth, Salvator might here be translated as "Healer."  Buy you get the idea, and could ring whatever changes seemed best in your own sermon.

As usual, Augustine is our contemporary here, offering us two things we are obliged to share with the faithful at Christmas:  a vision of the Gospel as a universal message, and palpable excitement about the content of that message.

*Although if St. Augustine were here alluding to the Exsultet, it would push back somewhat our evidence for when that hymn of blessing and encouragement was introduced.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Et Tu, Carole?

Thus proving that the Pope is in fact the Antichrist almost as bad as Luther said, we have recently discovered this  damning evidence of John Paul II's liturgical fallibility:

Pope celebrates Mass
If the evidence picture does not display, follow link to NOLA Times-Picayune

A watch?  Oh, your holiness, say it ain't so.

Of course, compared to Bp. Jefferts Schori's vestments, this is a small matter.  We aren't sure how it ranks in comparison to Abp. Welby's collar tabs.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Crank Upon Crank

Yes, we do indeed realize that the post below this one is the single crankiest thing we have ever written.  These days, Father Anonymous could not be more of a grumpy old man if he tried.  He spends half his time muttering darkly about Roosevelt and Freemasonry, and the other half telling kids to get off his lawn.

Still, lest readers imagine that our assault on wristwatches reflects a merely personal prejudice, we submit the Master of Liturgical Harrumph, Aidan Kavanagh.  In his indispensable Elements of Rite, -- which you must purchase now if you do not already own a copy -- Kavanagh notes that "the wearing of jewelry by liturgical ministers is severely restricted in Roman canon law," apparently meaning Can, 284, for both ascetical and liturgical reasons.

He goes on to say:
Austerity in altar appointments and vestments [i.e., the "soberness and sense" of the Roman rite] is made a mockery when the liturgical minister displays prsonal jewelry of apparent expense on hand, wrist and chest.  If the minister's identity needs such supports, they should be worn apart from the liturgy.  In the liturgy, they should be taken off.  This includes wrist watches ... which become distractingly visible at crucial moments, such as elevations, hand layings and blessings.
Or, as a priest friend, trained at Rome, put it many yeas ago, "God forbid that, at the moment I raise the chalice, a stray beam of sunlight should reflect off the crystal of my watch and keep a worshiper from seeing the cup of Precious Blood."

The Little Things

Bracing ourselves for the trek home from Thanksgiving dinner -- twelve hours of driving with a carsick kid -- we felt the need for some spiritual refreshment.  So it was that we dropped into a little Anglo-Catholic church in the North Country last Sunday.

It's a lovely little nave, decorated in excellent taste -- as simple as Anglo-Catholicism allows, with dark wood furniture highlit by plain white walls and ceilings, small and lovely stained-glass windows, a few decently-written icons, and the cloying brasswork kept to a bare minimum.

On our last visit, many years ago, the rector had been a stuffy old man who preached a sermon the mediocrity of which was mitigated only by occasional interjections of intense social conservatism.  During coffee hour, we overheard the old duffer sharing some historical tidbits with the altar boy, all about dogs and cats sleeping in the roofs of thatched medieval cottages -- a series of utter falsehoods which we recognized from one of those asinine chain emails that right-winger share with each other and believe because they trust each other, regardless of the facts.

We hadn't felt the need to return.  We've got a church up that way, at least in the summer time.

But we're glad we went back on an early-winter Sunday.  The new rector is a conspicuously young man, no less genial than his predecessor and seemingly less prone to sharing either political opinions or false history.  Although the shade of Austin Farrer need not look to its homiletic laurels just yet, his sermon was earnest and sincere.  We liked the guy, and pray that he will enjoy many happy years in his post.

This being the start of Advent, the liturgy had been adapted nicely.  The Great Litany was sung in place of the Introit, Kyrie and Gloria.  (We enjoy singing the Litany, and wish that it were more common.)  The clutter on the altar had been reduced, although it was still more than ample. A brief Marian devotion followed the dismissal.  The paraments and vestment were a simple and elegant matched set, hand-stitched by a member, indigo trimmed with violet.  Because the chasuble was quite full, our pew-companion did not even see the maniple, but we certainly did.  We notice the little things.

And indeed, we couldn't help but notice a couple of very,very little things.  Minuscule things -- and just the sort you aren't supposed to notice in worship, because they distract you.

The rector was wearing gray slacks.  Or maybe brown.  Anyway, they contrasted sharply with the cassock that was hanging down under his alb, and we couldn't help staring at them.  And that, friends, is why your cassock should hang to the tops of your shoes -- and if you don't wear a cassock, then your alb should reach the shoe-tops.  So that you can wear any damn pants you want, or no pants at all, and nonetheless attract no attention whatsoever to yourself.

The rector was also wearing a wristwatch.  And not one of those dinky jobs that they used to call watches during the 20th century, with their 35 millimeter cases and 16 millimeter straps.  No, Father was wearing a typical contemporary sports watch, roughly half a pound of stainless steel, 47 mm or more across, with a solid-link bracelet.  You couldn't help but notice it; they probably noticed it on Mars, too.

Which is why, dear brothers and sisters, there is a loooong-standing custom of removing your jewelry when you lead worship.  Unless it is a bishop's cross or a wedding ring or some other testimony of a particular religious vocation, your watch (or ring, or necklace, or earring) cannot help but  draw attention to your person, and therefore away from your message.  (Cf. Kavanagh, Elements, p. 62.  Luther D. Reed made a particular point about removing expensive fountain-pens, something which has always confused us a little.  Did mid-century surplices have pen pockets?)

Anyway, we don't mean to rag on our new friend.  He sings beautifully, preaches ably, and presides with grace and elegance.  We're just surprised that somebody with such a clear commitment to highly, even self-consciously, traditional worship would miss these basic preparations.  Doesn't Nashotah House teach these things?  

Then again, it is a dismal reflection upon our own spiritual life that, long after we have forgotten the guy's sermon, we will remember his pants.