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Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Lamb's Supper Part 10 - Worship, Warfare, and Confronting Adversity Sacramentally

In his book The Lamb's Supper, Dr. Hahn opens Chapter 9 with a quote from writer T.S. Elliot that says "humankind cannot bear very much reality."  People in today's society truly do often look for an escape from the pressures of life, and as a result many diversions from stress are on the market.  Some of these "escapes" or diversions range from cheap romance novels to more serious and destructive things such as illicit drugs and pornography, and others abuse alcoholic beverages to such a degree that it creates a dependency.  What humankind truly finds unbearable though is the enormity of evil, which seems to be pervasive and even invasive into the individual lives of so many.   As I am writing this now as a matter of fact, I am doing so almost debating if I even should, being our family has gone through its own crisis - the lesson contained was actually presented at our parish Bible study some months before it was shared here, but in writing it out here and publishing it, at the time I am doing so a lot has been transpiring in my personal life that I still am facing challenges with.  Therefore, perhaps as I am revisiting these notes something may strike a chord even with me, as the teacher is never above learning either.

When faced with adversity - economic difficulties, illness, a sudden death in the family, or some other crisis - we have a naturally-endowed choice to make, and that is either "fight or flight."  This natural endowment is basic to our created nature as human beings, and it is only natural to contemplate a course of action based on one of those two choices.  However, unfortunately "flight" is not always something we can do, and we may be forced to fight in some circumstances.  Due to the fallen state of the world we live in, we can always attempt to run from evil, but we can never hide from it, as some evil will find us eventually.  In some cases, if we flee from the battle itself, we cannot ascend to heaven either.  After all, as any good leader of a nation will attest, we cannot rule unless we conquer our opposition which may threaten our authority.  But, in the midst of that, we have good news.

When the 20th century first dawned, a godly Pope, Leo XIII, occupied the throne in Rome, and at one point he had a vision of what the 20th century would entail, and what he saw essentially was that God was allowing for a "sifting" of the Church, and many would fall away as a result.  According to the vision, Satan appeared before God and challenged Him, saying that in 75 to 100 years he could destroy the Church, and God allowed Satan to try.  The year Pope Leo saw this was 1884, and the timeframe he saw was between 1959 and 1983.  To help aid the faithful, God instructed Leo to compose a prayer that invoked the help of St. Michael the Archangel, and that prayer was to be said after every Low Mass.  Here is that prayer:

Saint Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle
Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, oh Prince of the heavenly host
By the power of God, thrust into hell, Satan and all the other evil spirits,
Who prowl through the world, seeking the ruin of souls. Amen. 
(from http://www.stjosephschurch.net/leoxiii.htm - accessed 11/12/2015)

One thing this prayer reminds us that should be a comfort is this - two-thirds of the angels are on our side, and they, like St. Michael their commander, battle for us constantly even while we rest.  Additionally, we also have the prayers of the Church Expectant - those in heaven with Christ.  And, ultimately in the end we win because God controls that ultimate outcome.  This means we can count on heavenly help, even though we don't see it immediately.  As a matter of fact, it can be downright troubling to us because it seems like Jesus is "delayed" - especially when the rent payment is due, you have no money to cover it, and you're down to the last couple of meals in the house.  What is so interesting though is that even the very prayers of the saints and angels direct the course of history.  When we look in Revelation 6:10, for example, we see something very interesting.  In the previous nine verses of that chapter, we see an eschatological scenario of all sorts of evil things being released upon the earth, and many have been martyred as a result of that evil (which is historically believed to be the future time of the Great Tribulation, during which the Antichrist rules the earth).  In St. John's vision, the martyrs are under an altar and are crying out to God "How long, O Lord holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"  These martyrs represent two things.  First, if you go into the sanctuaries of many churches - Roman, Eastern, or Anglo-Catholic - there is usually under the altar a reliquilary containing a relic of the patron saint of that parish church.  That custom is based on this verse, Revelation 6:10.  It serves to remind us of something Tertullian said, that being "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."   However, in addition to representing past martyrs of the Church, historically this verse also foretells a time of great persecution which will come upon Christians, and is consistent with the New Testament record as a whole.  As Dr. Hahn points out in his book though, the power of the prayers of the saints differs in many aspects from that of the world, and the "wrath of the Lamb" also differs on one level as well.  That begs a question for us - what if the Second Coming of Jesus was much like his first?  This is a curious thought in that some years ago a Christian filmmaker created a film called The Judas Project in which Jesus (represented in the movie by the fictional character Jesse) is alive in our times and is doing His ministry today.  Watching the film makes one think "what if??"  That inspiration leads to this question then - what exactly is the "wrath of the Lamb?"  It is first imperative to understand that viewing God's judgement in lieu of His fatherhood doesn't in any way diminish the standard of His justice, but rather it personalizes it.  We approach Jesus, remember, in the Mass, and one thing we are admonished to do is a self-examination before receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord, and this leads to a form of God's judgement called conviction.  Conviction is a work of the Holy Spirit that in essence brings the "wrath of the Lamb" on our sin from within, and it can be unpleasant if that sin is deeply-rooted.  However it is better that we be judged now than later, because as unpleasant as conviction and the sting of unconfessed sin can be, it is a relatively small thing compared to the eternal fires of hell that await those who don't open themselves up to the Holy Spirit's cleansing work.  It is similar as well with a parent and child - if a child steals candy from a store and is caught, the parent punishes the child then as a sign of love, and it is also a preventitive measure to keep the child from developing that sin as a habit that could one day land him in the state penitentary for a much more heinous crime.  God, as our Father, works with us in a similar way.  This examination of conscience therefore, allowing the Holy Spirit to convict us of any transgressions past or present, prepares us then for the sacramental grace we receive when we do partake of the Eucharist, and hence the next part of this discussion.

The Eucharist is in essence a real and vibrant image of Jesus' Second Coming.  And, just as we will "be changed in the twinkling of an eye" at the Second Coming, so the Eucharist also is transformational.  Every time one partakes of the Eucharist, one is transformed.  A Christian physicist, Frank J. Tipler, even noted that scientifically this transformation can be proven in a scientific term called the  Second Hypothesis of the Singularity.   As Tipler explains this, essentially it is like this - there are two aspects of matter to consider, one being substance and the other accident.  Substance in this context entails what something actually is, while accident is how it appears to the untrained eye.  Through the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, the substance of the species of the Communion (bread and wine) are changed to the substance of Jesus Himself in a mystery that cannot be explained.  Yet, the accident makes the Eucharistic elements still appear to be bread and wine (Frank J. Tipler. The Physics of Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 2007. pp. 239-240).  As Tipler explains on page 239 of his text, the Roman Catholic term transubstantiation is defined in modern physics as quantum coherence, meaning at the atomic level the elements look the same, but its coherence is different because Jesus Himself establishes coherence between the bread and His Body.  Years ago, I also read another study (although I cannot remember for the life of me who wrote it or where it came from!) that established that there is an element in the red blood cells of Christians that cannot be found in the non-Christian, and that was fascinating!  It simply means that we are being transformed into that which God originally created us to be, and it doesn't necessarily happen overnight - as a matter of fact, it only fully happens at the repose of our bodies.  Our Eastern Christian brethren call this process of sanctification Theosis (Qeosis) and it is something that begins at our baptism and continues until our glorification at death.  I said all that to lead into how the Eucharist also plays into our hope of Christ's Second Coming, in that this transformation happens every time we partake of the Holy Eucharist at Mass.

The Eucharist is a very real image of the Second Coming in that it is, as we just discussed, transformational.  That gives us hope then in that we can see current events as a story which has a conclusion we already know.  We are again reminded of Romans 8:28 here, which reminds us that "all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose."   This is part of the "Blessed Hope" we have in the Second Coming, and is realized every time we approach the Lord's table as well.  The reason for Romans 8:28 can also be found in the Lord's Prayer with the petition "Thy will be done," for the will of God intends all history to lead us to the eternal communion of the Marriage Supper. 

The encouragement in this today is simple - although hell and death appear to prevail in the world, they really don't have the power they appear to have.  Our prayers, and especially the Holy Eucharist, are the force that propels history toward its goal.  And, in the sacrifice of the Mass, history truly achieves its goal.   The Mass is where Christ and the Church celebrate their wedding feast and consummate their marriage.  Therefore, despite adversity, we continue to fight because not all who are invited to the feast have arrived.  And, this is where the evangelical mission of the Church comes into play.  God first of all wills that we play an indispensible role in salvation history, and although we may ask "what can I do?", the reality is that we are the vessels through which the Holy Spirit works to bring about God's will to mankind.  It is both the Holy Spirit and the Bride of Christ (the Church) who issue the invitation to mankind. and although we as the Church issue the invitation, the enemy (the Antichrist spirit that has worked throughout history) works tirelessly but in vain against us.  However, the most dangerous enemy is not outside, but within - our own concupiscence and the weaknesses it exploits to compell us to sin - and it needs to be identified and rooted out, including the overcoming of sinful habits.  Therefore, the bottom line is that we can only advance when we come to know ourselves as we truly are, that being as God sees us.  Only in the Eucharist can we do this.  At the Eucharist, we face the judgment seat of Christ, and as we bow in humility before that throne, only then can we be lifted up.  And, it is that uplifting which transforms us.   We now look at how this fits into the sequence of our Mass.

This fact - seeing ourselves as we really are and allowing God to transform us into what we should be - is why it is so important to do a thorough self-examination when we participate in the Mass, and it is also a reason why the Mass as a whole works together to lead us to that ultimate encounter with Christ.  In our Anglican Book of Common Prayer, there are four components to the Mass that we do just that, and they are intersperse throughout.  The first is called the General Confession, which is generally prayed after the Offeratory and marks the end of the Liturgy of the Word.  The prayer is found on page 75 of the Prayer Book, and here it is:

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed against Thy divine majesty, provoking most justly Thy wrath and indignation against us.   We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, forgive us all that is past and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please Thee in newness of life, to the honor and glory of Thy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.  

After the priest announces absolution upon the congregation, he then proclaims what are called "The Comfortable Words" on page 76 of the Prayer Book.  An interesting story is behind this part of our Mass.  In the early 1800's, America experienced a religious revival called the Great Awakening, and many of the preachers of the frontier that participated in this revival were Anglican Low Churchmen who often used the Book of Common Prayer in those settings.  As many frontiersmen converted to Christianity from some rather wild lifestyles, these conversions were often dramatic and en masse, which led to the evolution of what is called in Evangelical revivalistic tradition the "altar call."  As I envisioned some of these black-robed Anglican clerics preaching to these masses of people and receiving converts to Christianity, one thing I connected was the fact that many of the Scripture references used in these "Comfortable Words" in the Prayer Book are also commonly used today in Evangelical revival meetings at altar calls, and it is not a vain conclusion to assume that perhaps this is where that inspiration came from.  Let us look at the "Comfortable Words," which are exclusive to the traditional Anglican Mass, and see what they entail:

Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to Him:

Come unto Me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you (Matthew 11:28)

So God loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16)

Hear also what Saint Paul saith.  This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (I Timothy 1:15)

Hear also what Saint John saith.  If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He is the propitiation for oru sins (I John 2:1-2)

In many ancient liturgies, it is around this point - after the Confession and before the Sursum Corda - that catechumens were typically dismissed from the Mass, as now it was the beginning of the Communion of the Faithful.  The Confession and the Comfortable Words serve as a continual call to conversion and transformation, not only of the unbaptized but also of the faithful.  And, they are part of this process of self-examination we have discussed to prepare us for the Lord's Table.  Two other prayers just before reception also further compell us in that direction, reminding us of the spirit of humility we all should have in approaching the Holy Eucharist.  The first of those is the Agnus Dei ("Oh Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us") and the second is a prayer one finds in older Roman Missals as well as in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the Domine non sum dignus ("Lord I am not worthy that Thou shouldst come under my roof, but speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed.") which is repeated three times by striking one's right breast with the left fist.  These prayers of the Church are included in the Mass to encourage recollection, which in turn allows us to examine our own thoughts words, and deeds.  In addition to praying during Mass prayers like those just discussed, we also pray before Mass as well, and these quiet, private prayers (sometimes with lighting of candles) assist us in concentrating on the reality of the Mass despite exterior distractions.   It is also customary to receive the Sacrament of Reconcilliation prior to receiving the Eucharist as well, as it is an outward fruit of this internal self-examination and also Scriptural as it is recorded in James 5.  The Anglican Catholic Church, the communion of which I am a part, does recognize Reconcilliation as one of the seven sacraments of the Church - this is affirmed in the Affirmation of St. Louis (1977) as well as historic Anglo-Catholic practice, though as Archbishop Haverland notes, "Anglican practice is much looser (than Roman Catholic practice - my add) but a good churchman should receive this sacrament at least once a year before making their Easter Communion" (Mark Haverland, Anglican Catholic Faith and Practice. Athens, GA:  Anglican Parishes Association, 2011. p. 77).  The Sacrament of Reconcilliation is also listed twice in the Book of Common Prayer, although no specific form is provided being that the sacrament is by nature a private sacrament - many ACC clergy, for instance, use the Roman formula for Confession.  It is also noted in Scripture, in James 5:16.   However, there are safeguards and guidelines to administering and receiving this sacrament that are vital.  One of these is that the minister of the Sacrament must be a trained and credentialed minister of the Church.   Second, there is the "seal of confession," which means what is heard in the administering of the sacrament remains with the priest and cannot be violated. It is also of note that the sacrament of Reconcilliation is also strongly and intimately associated with the sacrament of Unction, in that healing of the body and penance of the soul were always historically and theologically linked to each other.  The classic ancient manual of Church discpline that is an integral part of the Fidei Depositum called the Didache further suggests that Confession should precede every reception of the Eucharist, so that our sacrifice as faithful disciples may be pure.  The standard for receiving the sacrament of Reconcilliation for both Anglican Catholics and Roman Catholics is once a year, although the faithful are encouraged to go frequently by many of the writings of the Church Fathers and Saints. 

So, what does that mean for us, and where do we stand?  First, we are sinners by nature and weak, and awareness of that is vital. However, we are also on the stronger side of the battle as faithful Christians.  We invoke angels and worship our God beside them in the Mass as their equals.  And, as Dr. Hahn points out on page 141 of The Lamb's Supper, the Mass for us is comparable to the Normandy invasion of 1944 in the spiritual realm.  We can also invoke the saints, as they are powerful allies for us.  As we noted in Revelation 6:9-10, God's vengeance follows close upon the prayers of the martyrs beneath the altar.  And, as an army is ordered, so are we in the Church Militant in the liturgy - we approach confident, joyful, and assured of the fact that God is our strength.   However, preparation for the Mass is a lifelong process in that doctrinal and spiritual formation to prepare for it is vital - that is why we study (2 Timothy 2:15) and pray (2 Thessalonians 5:17), as well as assemble ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25).   We also make the Sign of the Cross with full knowledge that it is the banner we carry - before the Cross, demons tremble!   In doing so, we dip holy water upon our fingers with knowledge that this water also makes the demons flee.  We recite hymns such as the Gloria, as well as the historic Creeds of the Church, as if our lives depended upon them (in essence, they truly do!).   Then, when we receive Jesus in Holy Communion, we route the enemy at that moment, and from henceforth we can keep watch with Jesus's watchfulness.  The brightness of the Mass goes from the sanctuary of the Church home with us, and as we grow in grace, it will shine brighter still the more we partake of it.  The lesson therefore is that the light of Christ always triumphs over spiritual darkness, and this is why we are exhorted in Matthew 5:14-16 to let that light shine in us rather than hiding it under a basket.  

However, although our victory is assured, the fight can be intense.  In the Mass itself even, we often struggle with the aggravations of distractions - screaming kids, someone's strong perfume, bad singing, etc.  That leads me to relate a humorous story.   Some years back, when we attended a small Anglican parish in St. Pete, FL, the vicar's wife was also a sort of unofficial choirmaster.  Now, up-front, the vicar and his wife were two of the most loving and gracious people you would ever hope to meet, and as a vicar he did an outstanding job in that parish.  However, his wife was, well, one of those people who was not that musically-gifted, and God bless her, she tried (and the Lord honored that I feel).  On one occasion - I want to say it was either an Easter or Christmas Mass - we were at Mass and the organ was playing either during the Offeratory or a Communion hymn.   The organ music was very worshipful, and it really helped the worshippers to be led into an attitude of receptivity for what God did in the Mass.  However, at a point - mind you, we were sitting right in front of the choir too! - this loud, off-key shreik came from the choir, and it was the vicar's wife beginning her solo part in the anthem the organist was playing.  I about jumped out of my seat!  The lesson here is that the warfare and distractions are sometimes unitentional on the part of those who may be doing them, and indeed, in the case of our vicar's wife the best intentions were there.  However, Satan can use those to cause us to lose focus, and we need to somehow see past the distractions and focus upon what is happening sacramentally.  The reason for this is that the "unveiling" we discussed in the last lesson in John's Apocalypse can be as terrifying as it is consoling, but the good news is that we can prevail with heavenly aid.  Although we are children of God, and are incorporated as Christians sacramentally into His promises, we still live in this world, and it is a world afflicted with constant perils, both small and great.   However, the victory does belong to us, and is there for the taking.  This hearkens also back to the Lord's Prayer, when we pray the final petition "deliver us from evil."  Not only are we asking for that deliverance, but in essence we are also giving God glory for providing it before we ask - that is, if we understand that God hears prayers differently from us.  So, the next time the bratty kids or the bad singers - or the junior warden's snoring son on the back pew! - attempt to distract us, may we recall the reason why we are in church in the first place, and lay claim to the victory which is ours to overcome such petty distractions.

In conclusion, the Church has always taught that the end is near in two ways.  First, at your parish church, where it is something to run to and not from. Secondly, as Protestant writer Mark Hitchcock said in a conference I attended some years back, we as Christians have lived in the "last days" since Jesus ascended the first time, but now we are in the latter part of those last days.  As we see prophetic events unfold in the world around us, we have really no cause for fear, as for the Christian this is good news!  It means we will be with our Lord soon, and we should also confort and encourage each other with that thought.  It also means that the Mass, for those of us who are Catholic Christians, is a preview of that day, and hence our participation in it is in essence a participation in the Second Coming - it means, I guess, that we are in a way "raptured" every time we receive the Eucharist!   On that note, we will pick up the next study.