Sunday, November 30, 2008

What are Ember Days?

The Ember Days are four sets of three days (roughly equidistant in the year) set aside for fasting by the Western Christian calendar. They were originally also the only days in which clergy could be ordained. They are the in weeks between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent, the first and second Sundays of Lent, the week between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, and the week after Holy Cross Day. They are on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of their respective weeks.

Their origins are almost certainly pre-Christians (since the East has nothing like them); they happen to roughly correlate to the Celtic festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. One Ember Week occurs in each of the four seasons; the word ember derives from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren, a circuit or revolution, and clearly relates here to the annual cycle of the year.

They were taken off the official church calendar with the reforms of Vatican II, their observance left to the discretion of individual bishops.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Daily Prayer: Tuesday Day

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life., our own identity, our own destiny. This means that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in His creative freedom, in our own lives, and in the lives of others, by choosing the truth.

To put it better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity. We can evade this responsibility by playing with masks, and this pleases us because it can appear at times to be a free and creative way of living. It is quite easy, it seems, to please everyone. But in the long run the cost and the sorrow come very high.

To work out our own identity in God, which the Bible calls, "working out our salvation," is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears. It demands close attention to reality at every moment, and great fidelity to God as He reveals Himself, obscurely, in the mystery of each new situation.

We do not know clearly beforehand what the result of this work will be. The secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. But unless I desire this identity and work to find it in Him, the work will never be done.

The way of doing it is a secret I can learn from no one else but Him. There is no way of attaining to the secret without faith. But contemplation is the greater and more precious gift, for it enables me to see and understand the work that He wants done.

Daily Prayer: Monday Dark


In my ending is my meaning
says the season.
No clock: only heart's blood
Only the word.

O lamp
weak friend
in the knowing night!

O tongue of flame
Under the heart
Speak softly:
For love is black
says the season.

Kissed with flame!
See! See!
My love is darkness!

Only in the Void
are all ways one:

Only in the night
are all the lost

In my ending is my meaning.


Be still
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
to speak your

to the living walls.
Who are you?
are you? Whose
silence are you?

Who (be quiet)
are you (as these stones
are quiet). Do not
think of what you are
still less of
what you may one day be.
be what you are (but who?) be
The unthinkable one
You do not know.

O be still, while
you are still alive,
and all things live around you
speaking (I do not hear)
To your own being,
Speaking by the unknown
That is in you and in themselves.

"I will try, like them
To be my own silence:
and this is difficult. The whole
World is secretly on fire. The stones
burn, even the stones
they burn me. How can a man be still or
listen to all things burning? How can he dare
to sit with them when
all their silence
is on fire?"

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cliff Notes: The First Urban Christians

Hilariously, the final chapter of this outstandingly dry and recitative book begins with the disclaimer that "the description that follows avoids strong theoretical assumptions."

It is, I believe, I little late for that advance knowledge.

At any rate, the question of the formation of early Christianity is the question of unity, among believers as well as their beliefs; one body believes in one Christ, one God. Christian monotheism is Judaic monotheism. This provided a ready contrast to the social diversity, complexity, and plurality of the broader Roman Empire.

Yet the point was not just that Christianity was internally united around a set of social symbols; it was unified over and against the outside world, bound with bonds of affection that would express precisely the honor of the one God. So that while Paul makes such abundant reference to the Jews, there is no mention of, or any evidence of, contact between the early churches and the Diaspora synagogues.

Of course, this was only a provisional separation; Pauline Christianity sought to bring absolutely everyone into the inner circle, hence their zeal for far-flung evangelism. And hence the need to refrain from some kinds of contact with the broader world, but never to fear contamination from it.

This over-and-against was only temporary because of the eschatological nature of early Christianity- Jesus' resurrection was not, for them, a timeless act for personal redemption, but the first act in the end of days which would judge everyone. The early Christians looked forward to a series of events in the immediate future that would transform every social relationship.

The early Christians were by their nature socially dissatisfied, and looked forward to the difference. They perceived their status in the eyes of the others to be less than it would ultimately be. They were the best living embodiments of cognitive dissonance.

So early Christianity invariably combined the traditional with the radically new. By so doing, it was able to move a fairly traditional culture- the broader Roman Empire- toward a radical world view and ethos without sacrificing continuity with the Empire's longer history.

Their eschatological vision both explained present circumstance and recommended a specific outlook and set of dispositions. It was given to them by Paul through a revelation of Jesus Christ. It defended the radically new in terms drawn from the old. The radically new was already attested to in ancient Scripture.

There is nothing new under the urban sun, even these radical claims about the end of days, even this assertion that He would also raise us, even our exaltation and enthronement. As Christ was first weak, then powerful, so too will weak and afflicted Christians be vindicated and glorious.

Thus early Christianity presented a picture of sons of light against suns of darkness, of spiritual powers at war with one another and with God- but pacified and reconciled by Christ's ascension through the astral spheres. Personal struggles of immorality, weakness, bondage, fear and suffering and even the tension between Jews and Gentiles accrue cosmic importance.

This eschatological background was disseminated by highly mobile leaders whose constant concern was unity. The local groups they formed were intimate and exclusive, with strong boundaries, commitment, and interpersonal engagement. They believed in a shift in the order of the world. A truly heterogeneous mix of people, they were weak in one or more terms of social power and status, but exhilarated by experiences of power in their meetings.

Early Christianity, then, and the central symbol of a crucified savior, did not so much prescribe individual expectations so much as it described what was happening to these ambiguously-statused people. The low were being, as it were, raised up.

That concludes this Cliff Notes series. Now get ready for the Qur'an.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cliff Notes: The First Urban Christians

Early Christianity was only tenuously a religion- rather, one much more like talkative, passionate, and quarrelsome social circles. They lacked shrines, temples, statues, sacrifices, public festivals, dances, music, pilgrimages, and even inscriptions.

Yet they did have rituals, symbolic action representing what the society deems important- and without which, indeed, a society may not be possible, as social relationships require symbolic acts.

The two rituals which Christianity obviously had were, of course, baptism and the Lord's supper. But they also met regularly, which itself becomes a ritual- weekly and on Sundays, as it happens.

What happened at these meetings? Chanting and singing, as evidenced by Paul's periodic hymns and psalms. It is also likely, though not certain, that assemblies read from Scripture; we also know that some preached by making proclamations, and others taught. We might also assume that exhortations of the sort found in the Epistles were also common in conversation there.

The only thing special about these rituals was their blend of the familiar and the novel- an outsider would have recognized all of these things, but also would have thought their combination and application altogether strange.

But these numinous rituals accomplished three key things: they increased feelings of solidarity, upped the prestige of individuals, and marked the occasion as solemn.

Baptism, of course, was a more solemn ritual than most, miming Christ's death and resurrection. These were most likely full immersions in water, with the baptized performing the rite naked- likely in a river, or, failing that opportunity, with a tub and a bowl. The baptized took off and put on clothing to signify the "old man" and the "new human". They might also have shouted out Abba to signify their new intimacy with God as heavenly father.

The Eucharist was a rather more subtly symbolic affair. It likely alluded to the festival meals common in all voluntary associations- especially with those of the burial clubs that commemorated the deaths and interment of their members. They included the saying of Christ, "this is my body" and "this is my blood" as ritual pronouncements.

And just as in those burial clubs, the wealthy members likely hosted these meals for everyone, as patrons- this eventually led to disputes. But this could not be, precisely because of the nature of the ritual: all the members were one body, the body of Christ. They were sharing a holy meal within a sacred world of symbols; this dissolved the boundary between rich and poor as much as it dismantled the boundary between Gentile and Jew.

And no, no one still knows what the baptism for the dead was all about. Sorry.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Notice: Wikicreedia Update

Because the project really began here, I hope to update everyone here as it goes along.

I'm pleased to announce that the first Wikicreedia Forum was a success. Attendance and interest were gratifying, and I was as clear and publicly confident as I can ever remember being- all of which bodes well for the project. At the Forum, I retold the story of Wikicreedia's origin as a confluence of a class on the Nicene Creed and an NPR report on emerging uses of wikis as democratic technology.

I emphasized the following aspects of Wikis:

* A wiki invites all users to edit any page with any vanilla Web browser.

* A wiki promotes meaningful associations by making link creation intuitively easy.

* A wiki involves the visitor in an ongoing process of creation that constantly changes the site.

*A wiki enables collaborative documents.

And I emphasized what might be aspects of a Wiki creed:

Narrative. It could describe moments when Christian faith was formed or tested or changed. It could help Christians think about their experience, and tell the things about belief that the rest of the world might not know.

Brevity. Conciseness could help Christians name specific tenets of ordinary faith today- and the most essential ones at that.

Positive and confessional. It could avoid preaching and editorializing. We could tell each other what we do believe, rather than quibbling over things that others might or might not.

Ordinary, modern English. A creed is only as relevant so far as its believers might understand it, and the Wiki creed could be one that believers take with them out into the world.

I then introduced the Wikicreedia advertising and roll-out timeline (though it's always open to everyone):

Avent 08->Easter 09: wiki for Gethsemane with early ideas and first content
Easter 09->Advent 09: wiki for downtown and regional churches
Advent 09->Easter 10: wiki for national, Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Easter 10->Easter 11: wiki for all Christians worldwide
Easter 11->Easter 12: final versions of the Wikicreed

Finally, I announced the group that will meet to produce first-page content, which is @Gethsemane on Sat, Dec 6 @10:00 AM- with a few further meetings likely to follow.

As I said, I enjoyed this all immensely, and hope to be a good steward of Wikicreedia going forward.

Comments? Questions? Let me know.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Notice: The Next Cliff Notes Series

I'm pleased to announce that, whenever I finished summarizing all there is to summarize about The First Urban Christians, I'll be moving on to embrace...The Meaning of the Qur'an. I can't summarize the Qur'an, it seems, because no one has ever translated it. You can't. In Islamic circles, part of the Qur'an is the Arabic language. The most you can do is translate the meaning.

So there. Now you've learned something.

What Does the Islamic Crescent Mean?

The crescent recognizable as a symbol of Islam is actually half of another symbol of Islam, the star-and-crescent. Also a secular national symbol, it has been featured on many Middle Eastern flags. The conflation has occured from the beginning of Islam, though the symbol's origins likely spring from a time far earlier.

The star and crescent as astronomical phenomema figured predominately in the religions of Central Asia and Siberia. It was raised in Byzantium upon the city's founding, possibly as a reference to the Greek goddess Diana, or possibly to commemorate a Roman victory over local Goths. All of this merely says that the star and crescent figured predominately in the consciousness of the people of the Middle East and Asia Minor.

Its actual affiliation with Islam began with the founding of the Ottoman empire. Prior to that, Islam had adopted no common symbols, perhaps through its strong aversion to iconography. But, legendarily, Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire had a dream in which he saw the cresent moon stretching from one end of the earth to the other.

So, in 1453, when the Turks conquered Constantinople, the took up the standard, and the crescent and star were married to Islam from that point on. Though the star paired with the crescent has five pillars that might correlate to the Five Pillars, this formation is not common.

The use of the star and crescent are not without controversy in Islam today, as its adoption seems to have been cued by a misunderstanding and an historical accident linked (mostly by outsiders) to the violent growth of an Empire long after the time of Mohammed.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Daily Prayer: Sunday Dark

City, when we see you coming down,
Coming down from God
To be the world's new crown:
How shall they all sing, the fresh, unsalted seas
Hearing your harmonies!

For there is no more death,
No need to cure those waters, now, with any brine;
Their shores give them no dead,
Rivers no blood, no rot to stain them.
Because the cruel algebra of war
Is now no more.

And the steel circle of time, inexorable,
Bites like a padlock shut, forever,
In the smoke of the last bomb:
And in that trap the murderers and sorcerers
and crooked leaders
Go rolling home to hell.
And history is done.

Shine with your lamb-light, shine upon the world:
You are the new creation's sun.
And standing on their twelve foundations,
Lo, the twelve gates that are One Christ are wide as canticles:
And Oh I Begin to hear the thunder of the songs
within the crystal Towers,
While all the saints rise from their earth with feet like light
And fly to tread the quick-gold of those streets,

Oh City, when we see you sailing down,
Sailing down from God,
Dressed in the glory of the Trinity, and angel-crowned
In nine white diadems of liturgy.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Daily Prayer: Saturday Dusk

The feminine principle in the world
is the inexhaustable source of creative realizations
of the Father's glory.

She is His manifestation in radiant splendor!
But she remains unseen, glimpsed only by a few.
Sometimes there are none who know her at all.

Sophia is the mercy of God in us.
She is the tenderness with which the infinetely mysterious
power of pardon
turns the darkness of our sins into the light of grace.

She is the inexhaustable fountain of kindness,
and would almost seem to be, in herself, all mercy.
So she does in us a greater work than that of Creation:
the work of new being in grace, the work of pardon,
the work of transformation from brightness to brightness
tanquam a Domini Spiritu.

She is in us the yielding and tender counterpart
of the power, the justice, and creative dynamism of the Father.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Editorial: The Beams of Love

The second sermon I've ever preached.

The Beams of Love

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in us the fire of your love.

“And we are put on earth a little space
that we may learn to bear the beams of love’

So wrote the poet William Blake, and I suppose I’m going to have to ask you to do some bearing. See, I was excited to preach again, because the last time I preached about love. And that went great. But that’s a tried and true subject. You can’t beat love. So I was eager to do some other text, some other topic. I wanted to see what I could do with different material.

And then from the lectionary I got…the Great Commandment.

But that’s all right. Love is not obvious. And on it hang all the law and the prophets. So let’s talk about the prophet of the law, who was not surpassed. That’s what Deuteronomy says: “Since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.”

Now the text says that this was because of the signs and wonders, because of his mighty deeds and terrifying displays of power. But I think that’s a little incurious. It’s a little too easy. Because Scripture is quite clear that all of those deeds against Pharaoh and his servants, were God’s doing. God supplies the signs. God does the mighty works.

What we have to ask is why God chose Moses, and why Moses kept on going. Because Moses knew how all of this would end. God told him he wasn’t going to make it. He would be punished for his presumption in the Wilderness of Zin, when he did equate his signs with God’s. So it’s not for him. And God told him what would happen to the people who would go in: “this people will rise and play the harlot with the gods of the foreigners of the land…they will forsake Me and break My covenant, and I will forsake them and hide My face from them and they shall be devoured.”

So what does Moses do? He blesses them by tribe. His last will and testament is a blessing. “Happy are you, O Israel. Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD.” Now this is the same man who, when faced with the instantaneous disobedience of these people beside Mount Sinai said to God, “Yet now, if you will forgive their sin- but if not, I pray, blot me out of your book which you have written.”

In other words, kill me if you won’t forgive them. But now he knows that all of this, all his years of patience and pleading and sacrifice, will only end in his punitive death and the failure of his people. But he leads them and blesses them- just before he dies and they bury him in a soon forgotten grave.

Love is not obvious. You’ve got to pay attention.

But now I’ve got to talk about my own patriarch. Growing up, I saw that my father was racist. Actually, more accurately, I soon people who weren’t, and learned the difference. But I could not now number the hate-filled diatribes and derogatory terms that filled my childhood. I heard the n-word more than I would care to recall. My father is not a modern man. He can seem a relic representing the worst parts of previous generations.

Then my sister had a child. So now my old man sits on the couch and dandles his illegitimate black granddaughter on his knee. On his knee! Dandles her on his knee!

Now this is not a story of conversion. My father still harbors many views that I never will. But this is a story that says that we are all, each and every one of us, larger than our ideologies. And this is to say that the fact of her, just her innocence and her familial bond, has overcome a few of the lies my father tells himself.

What I don’t understand is who the student is. Is he learning perspectives entirely new to him? What does she understand? Or am I merely to observe a man larger than my conception of him?

And we are put on earth a little space/ that we might learn to bear the beams of love. These developments are not obvious.

Now when I was still in college I noticed, in the way that a young man might notice, a friend of many friends. She transformed before my eyes! But I failed to act on my affections, not because I kept them secret- I did not- but because I did not believe that they were important. I felt that they would go away, as these things tend to do. I did not want to deviate from course, from my academic clarity.

Then she left for Oxford and then for China, and I found that I cared for her very much more than I supposed.

Now I will never know if anything could have happened differently. But I know what did happen was that I did not recognize and refused to understand what was actually going on.

Love is not obvious! You’ve got to pay attention!

Now I’m not here to scandalize my family or bore you with my love life. My father is in other ways an honorable man, capable of long self-sacrifice. And my romantic blunders have been surpassed by many. But I am here to say that I hope you don’t consider love to be the greatest commandment, unless of course you need to.

See, commandment’s a difficult word. It sounds like rigid obedience and unending obligation. It doesn’t sound much like passionate prophets and the lively law of God. So I hope you consider the love of God and neighbor to be not the greatest commandment, but, as I do, the greatest opportunity.

Now we’re going to get a couple of chances, here at Gethsemane. In a few weeks, maybe but very soon, we’re going to get the opportunity to serve over at the Drake Hotel. I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do. But I know the basic ingredients, because those never change.

Love is simple, says my mentor of fifteen years. All you do is, you take what you do for yourself: your clothes, your food, your medical care, your attention, whatever you’ve learned- you take that stuff, and you do it for someone else, who needs it. That’s it. That’s love. The proportions and intensity might vary, but that’s love. That’s all you have to do. According to Scripture, it’s all you ever have to do.

It might sound more complicated than that. People start talking about available resources. Reading Gethsemane’s history, as I have a little bit, it might be easy to say that this Drake Hotel seems like something we would have done when we were larger. But I say that confuses the issue. Rather, we would have been larger precisely because we did things like the Drake Hotel.

Besides, we all know that Jesus went somewhere, after he died. He went ahead to prepare a place for us. Of course, He might have just gone on up to heaven. But because He said that loving your neighbor was the same as loving God, and because he said that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Him, I think he might have gone someplace else.

Now He was a carpenter. So I submit that just maybe He went on over there to the Drake Hotel. With all those cockroaches and all that human need. Maybe He had a different kind of paradise in mind. And maybe He went ahead to set it up for us.

Love is not obvious. You’ve got to pay attention.

So that’s the first opportunity. The second is this: in a few weeks I’m going to host a forum. And that forum is going to be about a very strange word: Wikicreedia. Now what in the world is that?

It’s a transformation, or it could be. Every week we say a beautiful, archaic thing, here: the Nicene Creed. We say it with many churches all around the world. But how many of us understand it? How many of us know exactly what we say?

That creed was written two thousand years ago, by bishops countering a proliferation of heresies. They had a lot on their minds. They did not address everything. They left out the greatest commandment: they left out love. You won’t find the word in there.

But in the two thousand years since then a lot has happened. Most notably, we’ve had the priesthood of believers. The tenets of our faith no longer come from bishops. So we have a great opportunity. Using this thing called a wiki, an interactive program on the internet, we have the chance to come together and articulate our own beliefs, for ourselves, for the very first time.

Each and every one of us can have a voice in common Christianity. With Wikicreedia we can now write, cooperatively and over the next four years, our very own creed. And in a time of great disunity among believers, we might articulate something that lasts for another two thousand years. And we might come together all across the world to give something to the generations of believers coming after us.

Now I’m not, myself, going to insist that love be written into that creed. That’s what a wiki, what this technology, is all about: everything we say, we say together. But I do hope to write love into the conversation. We’re going to need it, after all, if Evangelicals and Orthodox and Catholics can all get together and agree on the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Right? It’s going to be difficult.

And we are put on earth a little space/ That we might learn to bear the beams of love.

That’s the conversation we need to have. It’s the encounter, it’s the understanding that writes love inside our hearts, and, if we pay attention, lets us see each other with the eyes of Christ, which are the eager eyes of love.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Cliff Notes: The First Urban Christians

Internal structures of power quickly became important for the early Christians, as they would for any young communities. Aside from the communal meals, which soon became subject to dispute and arbitration- rich Christians could not hold a private, choice meal apart from the others- early urban Christians sought in other ways to establish a limited social space for consensus.

First, Paul and his lieutenants set about energetically establishing a new reality: a shared vision of the world created by combining existing symbols -again such as the body, the burial meal, the Roman family- in exciting and transformed ways. Thus, while the early Christians continued to go about their ordinary, everyday lives, they did so as part of an alternate vision of those lives.

Thus, Christians effectively lived double lives, in a community that was both closed and open. Thus, Paul relegates sexual purity as an internal affair-if someone were called a brother and a pornos, do not eat with him- but do this and similar things for the way in which Christians would be perceived by outsiders. Christians were encourage to behave according to the standards of outsiders, as well as with the standards of God.

Early Christians believed in the unity of mankind- hence the stance of obedience toward authorities, the equality of Jew and Gentile and the equal status of women. The cosmic baptism of humanity by Christ had a great deal to do with these beliefs, yet they were the only people who had the true meaning of their symbols. This was the great tension of early Christianity- strong internal cohesion opposed to normal relations with the outside world, including proselytism.

Of course, not all tensions are negative, and this likely drove the Christians to become a worldwide people: intimate local communities united within a broader organization. It was not named after the disestablished ecclesia- the local town gatherings of Roman males all across the empire- for nothing.

The supralocal community worked quite well, with established rituals of the obvious kiss between believers and the full expectation of hospitality for traveling brothers and sisters. These were all reminders of a much broader fellowship- as was the gathering for the church in Jerusalem.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Cliff Notes: The First Urban Christians

Because social status is not the measurement of one rank for any person, but a composite of several social ranks- power, prestige, income, education, purity, family, and local status- the rank of an individual would be the mean of these rankings. More, social rank is most often evaluated not by other people, but by the individual his or her self.

Thus, to say the early Christianity was a movement of the uneducated or the poor and ignorant, as has been described, is to make rather too broad of an assumption- especially since many of our current categories simply do no apply to Roman society.

Rather, what is more pertinent is to say that Roman society produced a great deal of status inconsistency- of an individual's holding unequal rank across several of these categories. This results in status-crossing (as in the case of a freed and subsequently wealthy slave). These are experiences of anxiety that encourage people to work to change society.

Thus, Christianity was able, from its earliest origins, to gather people from a broad spectrum of society- and much prospographic evidence testifies to this.

Christianity, in its cross-section of society, touched and mimicked four institutions:

1. the Roman voluntary association, where wealthy persons acted as patrons for poorer members

2. the synagogue, a local religious institution with ties to a larger world of diaspora Jews

3. the philosophical school, where a key group of trained leaders circulated among Roman cities instructing new converts

4. the Roman household, where members of a family shared intimacy delineated by careful boundaries

The early church itself formed in carefully structured ways. First, Paul especially was certain to speak quite emotionally of Christians as a very special group. He spoke as if they were family, and repeated the terms among various churches, with great respect.

Thus, the church began to supplant previously existing networks of relationships. It began to form the body of Christ, the Pauline term for Christianity borrowed from Greek rhetoric. Early Christian practices such as communion and baptism formed part of a network of shared symbols emphasized each time Christians met together.

This network of symbols set them apart from broader society even as it energized existing relations within the churches. The first urban Christians held the secret meaning of these symbols- a crucified savior, for example- as the very center of their growing faith.