A Song of Mary – for “Bible Sunday” – Advent II

St. Luke’s Anglican (EMC), Blue Ridge, Georgia

The Rector of St. Luke’s Anglican (EMC), in Blue Ridge, Georgia, The Rev. Victor Morgan, preached this sermon today for the Second Sunday in Advent.  This Sunday, in the Anglican tradition, is called “Bible Sunday” because of the emphasis upon the Scriptures, evident in the Collect for the week:

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Rev. Morgan e-mails his sermons early on Sunday mornings to what he calls the “St. Luke’s Diaspora.”  I thought it so good, I got his permission to reprint it below.  The sermon is based on Luke 1:26-56.

Sing of Mary, pure and lowly,
Virgin mother undefiled,
Sing of God’s own Son most holy,
Who became her little child.

So, begins Hymn 117 in the Episcopal Hymnal. This morning I want, in fact, to do what this hymn directs: to sing a song of Mary. In churches reformed in the 16 century — for us, the Anglican Church — Mary does not get the press she receives in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. But that does not make her unimportant or dispensable. She remains an absolute necessity. No Mary. No Son of God in flesh made. No bridge joining heaven and earth. No salvation of the world. No hope and help for the individual struggling from some addition or sin.

For this reason, I want this morning to sing a song of Mary, the God bearer, Theotokos, as she is called in the Greek church tradition. In particular, I want to speak to you on the subject of Mary and the Word of God . . . ‘Word of God’ here having a double meaning, as I will go on to show.

We turn first to Mary and the Written Word, the Bible. Today, after all, is Bible Sunday, a day on which we give thanks to God for His written revelation and for all the blessings that have come about as a result of having an open Bible since at least the time of the Reformation of the 16th century.

But, what about Mary and the Bible? Did she in fact know the Written Word of God? Of course, it goes without saying that for Mary that Word would have been the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. Back to our question? Did Mary know the Bible? I want to suggest that not only did she know it, she knew it well.

A friend of mine is of Sicilian descent and has family members who are devout Roman Catholics. The older ones, she says, are very reluctant to read the Bible. “Why should I read the Bible? The priest tells me everything I need to know,” they say. This generation, you see, grew up at time when the Bible was something of a closed book in the Roman Catholic Church. Thankfully much of that reluctance has gone away. Roman Catholics are now encouraged to read the Bible, as I understand it.

Returning to Mary. Clearly, for Mary the Bible was an open book, not a closed one. How do I know? What are the clues? The first comes from her response to Gabriel’s message, the message which said she was to be the mother of the Messiah. It is obvious she knew what Gabriel was talking about. The hope given in scripture of a coming King out of David’s line was her hope.

I would want to argue further that her knowledge of scripture enabled her to say yes to God’s call quickly and decisively. How so? Well, in this way: God’s faithfulness in the past as detailed in the Bible served as a powerful incentive to trust Him in the present. She could therefore say: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

The same thing is true in our lives. The better we know the scriptures, the better we know the character of God, and thus the better able we are to put ourselves confidently in His hands. To entrust our very souls and bodies to Him.

We have found one clue that Mary knew her Bible. Is there another in today’s reading? I believe there is. It is the song that came pouring out of Mary’s mouth while she was at her cousin Elizabeth’s house. I am, of course, referring to the Magnificat, which gets its name from its opening words in Latin: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my saviour.” This song is saturated with scriptural allusions. One not steeped in the Bible could not possibly have come up with it.

One additional thought: Mary’s Magnificat is an act of worship . . . worship which flows from a knowledge of the scriptures. She remembers God’s promises, she sees that God is now fulfilling those promises, and she is moved to praise Him for His faithfulness, to worship Him.

That reminds me . . . Once a lady coming out of one of our services here at St. Luke said to me: “Since I have started reading the Bible and going to Bible study. I get so much more out of your sermons and worship.” Well, I think that is often the case. Familiarity with God’s Word encourages and enriches our worship of God. It was true in Mary’s life, and I think if we put it to the test, we shall find it to be so in our own lives.

Before I close, I want say one additional thing about Mary and the ‘Word of God’. This time I am using “Word of God” in a different context. The “Word” I am thinking of now is the Word Incarnate. “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing,” we sing in one of our Christmas carols.

Mary, I want to suggest, was not only a reader of God’s Word, she was a bearer of God’s Word. She brought this Word – the Incarnate Word — to the world. In her case, literally. You and I, I want to suggest, have a similar task. We too are called to bring the light and hope that comes from the Incarnate Word to the world, beginning with those who live in the shadow of this church.

Do you know anyone who is suffering at this time? Or who has lost hope? Do you know anyone who needs a Saviour, at any level? Do you know anyone who is alone and unloved at this time? If so, your task, my task, is to be a bearer of the Word Made Flesh. To bring His light, His love, His message of hope to this person and everyone with whom we come in contact.

May Mary’s response to God’s call be our response: “Be it unto me according to thy word.” Or, more simply: “Here I am. Use me.” This morning I sing a song of Mary.

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How To Pray, ch 15: Does Prayer Make Sense?

In How to Pray (HarperOne, 2018), the fifteenth chapter, the editor places before us chapter 11 from Lewis’s book, Letters to Malcolm.  My comments on this material may be found in this 2016 video I made in Oxford.  It’s found on my YouTube channel, but I provide it here below.

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How To Pray ch 14: An Appetite for God

Haredi Jews at a demonstration in Jerusalem on March 2, 2014. Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images.

In chapter 14 of the new How To Pray from HarperOne, C. S. Lewis raises the issue of the benefit of a sacramental understanding of the Creation in which we dwell and worship. The summary question, provided by the chapter heading, is “How Can We Be Like David and Pray with Delight?” The obvious answer is to pray like David prayed. But what did that look like? How might it have differed from the way we pray, as modern westerners? The answer is found in David’s unconscious assumption about God’s presence with us, vis a vis, Creation.

Lewis says he benefits from the Psalms because they illustrate for him a kind of “appetite for God” (p. 120) that he himself desires. Lewis wants to personally and experientially know God, in all his fullness. It seems to him that the ancient Jews had an experience that was richer than what we moderns tend to experience. They had this experience because they were not conscious of some divide between the literal and the abstract. If the ark of the covenant was in your house, God was in your house. The admittedly still spiritual presence of God was not distinguished from some object which in some way was associated with his presence, for whatever reason. The result is that the more sensual part of our being, as humans, is included in our experience of God, not excluded for some philosophical reason.

This interconnectedness of the material and spiritual is something of what is meant when we talk about a sacramental view of the world. The result can be more joy, more delight in our spiritual experience.  We can enter more fully into the worship experience which we see in the Psalms – we add rituals, feasting, singing, and dancing to Bible study and prayer.

By the way, we don’t want anyone making the mistake that this kind of thinking excludes the grace of faith.  It does not.  It is simply a consideration of how faith can engage the promises and presence of God in various ways.  Our hearts can take hold of the promises of God and the Gospel story in other ways than merely banking on a chapter and verse of the Bible –  though by “merely” I do not mean to lessen the Bible’s proper place of importance.  Yet, the Patriarchs walked with God by faith without a Bible at all.   

The modern Christian can think this is too “carnal.” He or she can also be concerned about the more tragic element of our adoration of the LORD, living as we do after the life of Jesus. Lewis understands this and admits that, “Our joy has to be the sort of joy which can coexist with that; there is for us a spiritual counterpoint where they had simple melody” (p. 121). But, as he goes on to say, his concern in this essay is to help us to understand what he means by “coexist” with the older view. We need to be aware of the older view and seek to somehow get more experientially inside it, so we can share in that kind of joy of the presence of God.

Lewis doesn’t mention this, but we have to be on guard against a certain kind of hermeneutic – for centuries called Marcianism – which divides the religious belief and experience of the Old Testament saints from the new. We have to remind ourselves that their God is our God. And their experience of him was just as real as ours can be today. “Abraham rejoiced to see my day,” Jesus said. That being the case, our New Testament worship can potentially profit from more of a taste of their kind of worship. Indeed – for those of us concerned about being apostolic – would this not be closer to the worship of the early church? Though western thought was already creeping into their lives, they were still very much children of the Old Testament spirituality – they did keep worshipping in the Temple (Acts 2).

Many western churches, because of their fear of empty or even superstitious rituals, have no rituals at all. A worship service is really just a glorified Sunday School class. The apparent reason for meeting is to learn more about the Bible and have good Christian fellowship. There is no structure or decor about the service that would lead people before the throne of God to worship their King. Would David have recognized that as the worship of God’s people? Maybe, but what would he think was missing?

Does stripping away the historic, centuries-old worship of the Church lead us into a biblical spirit of worship which satisfies more than just our minds or our bare “spirit?” I am not saying you cannot experience God in a service of 3 hymns – don’t forget the announcements! – and a sermon. But what potential is lost if we depart from the traditional liturgy? How does that help us pray as David prayed?

Lewis points us to the Psalms and answers that, if we would pray as David prayed, we will want to increase our awareness of the “sacramentality” of Creation and to taste the presence of God through it, in those places where he has promised to “show up.” We want the distinction between the physical rites and actions and the presence of God to blend, to fade, to be one experience. We want more than to satisfy a curiosity about God. We want to have a hunger for God and to “taste” Him, who is both the Creator and the Redeemer of All.

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How To Pray, ch 13: Before the Burning Bush

Moses before the burning bush: Giovanni Francesco Penni (d. c. 1528)

The 13th chapter of How To Pray from HarperOne is a brief excerpt from chapter 15 of Letters to Malcolm, accompanied by two sidebars: the poem “Footnote to all Prayers”  from Poems – and paragraph 27 of chapter 6 in The Four Loves.  Here we are dealing with an issue of much importance to Lewis. 

It is again that issue of Realty; here, the real me praying to the real God, vs. my unreal ideas and feelings about myself and God.  Lewis says that we must get beyond our false ideas if the Bush is going to burn – if we are going to be where Moses was on the mountain: face to face with a God we cannot fully know, and unescapably faced with our own finitude and uncleanness.

We were made to know God.  But we mess ourselves up in that relationship.  We know so little.  Our feelings get in the way.  Our ideas can be so wrong.  Our motives are always in question.  And on top of it all: the immeasureable brightness and holiness, the ineffable being and presence of the Glory of God.  It’s as if prayer is impossible from the start.  Lewis wants us to be aware of this dilemma so that, by God’s grace and the share we have in the work of Christ on our behalf, we can get beyond it.

The whole chapter reminds me of a hymn, which is a good commentary on Lewis’s point:

Eternal Light! Eternal Light!
How pure the soul must be
When, placed within Thy searching sight,
It shrinks not, but with calm delight
Can live and look on Thee.

The spirits that surround Thy throne
May bear the burning bliss;
But that is surely theirs alone,
Since they have never, never known
A fallen world like this.

Oh, how shall I, whose native sphere
Is dark, whose mind is dim,
Before th’ Ineffable appear,
And on my natural spirit bear
The uncreated beam?

There is a way for man to rise
To that sublime Abode;
An Offering and a Sacrifice,
A Holy Spirit’s energies,
An Advocate with God:

These, these prepare us for the sight
Of holiness above;
The sons of ignorance and night
May dwell in the eternal Light,
Through the eternal Love.

Thomas Binney (1798-1874)

Here is Lewis’s passion: to meet God on “the holy ground.”  May it be our passion – and delight – as well.
Footnote: read Hebrews 10.

[image source: https://arthive.com/artists/1590~Giovanni_Francesco_Penny/works/17687~God_appears_to_Moses_in_the_Burning_Bush]

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How To Pray ch 12: Abandon to God

Mount Sinai

In chapter 12 of the new HarperOne book, How To Pray, we have a meditation on a specific prayer by Lewis, originally in his essay “A Slip of the Tongue” found in The Weight of Glory.  He relates an experience wherein he was praying this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:
“O GOD, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal: Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen.”

Lewis tells us how he mistakenly said, “we may so pass through things eternal, that we finally lose not the things temporal.”  The essay is a meditation on his alteration.  Initially he plays with it.  Why would he have made that slip?  Was there something going on unconsciously?  And then he thinks about how he might say that kind of thing on purpose.  

This leads to an excellent examination of that mistrusting reluctance to freely give ourselves away to our Lord, which simmers away in all of our hearts.  He gradually deals forthrightly with the prayer as it is written.  If we pass through this temporal life without having given ourselves fully to God, we will lose the things eternal.  

The sidebar that Kincaid, the Editor, adds to this chapter reminds us of a theme we see elsewhere in Lewis’s writings.  It is a few lines from “Five Sonnets” in Lewis’ book Poems (#4, p. 126).  If we only seek Christ partially, we lose all we desire.  But if we seek him alone, we get everything else thrown in.  But the lines also ask the question, how do we do that?  How do we live that way?  How do we start?  How do we move beyond merely spashing in the sea to diving fully into it?

He doesn’t answer this question, save to help us to be sure we understand the matter at hand.  There is no bargaining with God, and if we do not give him all we are, that we might receive all He is, we will lose our life – eternally.  It’s about what Jesus tells us in Mark 8:34-37:  “And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.  35 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.  36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?  37 Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Is not the answer that we ask the Father to give us a renewed vision in our hearts of just how wonderful he is, that we might desire that giving of himself to us more than anything else?  Then, will we not freely give ourselves to him?  “We love him, because he first loved us.”  

Then if there is any reluctance in our hearts – any reservations about our life in his hands – let us fervently pray with Moses, “LORD, show me your glory!”  And may that glory heal any fear, kill any sin, and lift up our hearts in joyous abandon to him, who loves us and alone can keep us.

[image: http://38daysinegypt.blogspot.com/2013/06/climbing-mt-sinai.html ]

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Reprinting an old pamphlet on evangelical Anglicanism

The Rt. Rev. William Meade, Bishop of Virginia

My next book is going to be a short piece by the 19th century bishop of Virginia, The Rt. Rev. William Meade.  I don’t think you can find it anywhere else; I’m working from an original edition.  It will be entitled Reasons for Loving Evangelical Anglicanism.  It was originally published in 1852 under the title Reasons for Loving the Episcopal Church by the Protestant Episcopal Society for the Promotion of Evangelical Knowledge.  I am going to write a preface, introducing the bishop and the work, and include an Appendix providing his dying words, which are in his biography.  It will be interesting to read how the good bishop expounds the values of “evangelical” Anglicanism over against the Tractarian movement and other influences he considers unhelpful.

For more details you can go here: logresbooks.com

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How To Pray, ch. 11: The Art of Prayer

The studio of Renaissance master Tintoretto by Odoardo Fialetti (1608).

In ch. 11 of How To Pray, we move from letters written by a devil to Lewis’ kind and personal letters to “an American lady.” The Editor, Zack Kincaid, pieces together selections from Letters to an American Lady, and arranges them in a manner that works well. By this time in Lewis’s life – he was in his early fifties – he had worked through the various problems that Christians commonly have with their private prayer life, and he provides helpful, understanding, and insightful assistance.

Lewis discourages the approach of a checklist of rules for our prayer life. He recognizes that there is more going on than some mere religious procedure. Just as many factors can come into play in a relationship between people, so it is in our relationship with God. Prayer should be considered an art, and, as with an artistic undertaking, one adapts fundamental principles to the subject at hand.

What principles do we see Lewis applying here? First, that cycle of prayer which Lewis expounds elsewhere – as, e.g., in his poem “Prayer” – which recognizes God’s role in our praying. Next, there is the effect of our natural condition upon our prayers. If we are ill or over-tired, we should make an allowance for that. God does; he made us this way. Then, there is the whole business of dryness in prayer and how we can misjudge it. Closely touching this issue is that ever-present concern Lewis has for being in touch with Reality in our prayers: it is more important that we are actually in God’s presence, than that we feel we are there. We also find here the importance of living in the present as an aid to our faith and our ability to be thankful and joyful in prayer.

There is more. But underlying it all is the warm and lovely atmosphere of Lewis’ correspondence. He is so friendly, so practical, so encouraging. Is Lewis such a good spiritual counselor because he was such a genius? Or was it because his heart was so true, so zealous for his Lord? Well, we know that spiritual truth is spiritually discerned (I Cor. 2:14). A bit of genius helps, but it is not the primary prerequisite. When it comes down to it, Lewis helps our prayer life, not because he was so smart, but because he is right down there in the trenches with us, as he himself seeks to know and live in the presence of God.

[image source: https://www.artspace.com/magazine/art_101/art_market/the-evolution-of-the-artists-studio-52374 ]

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How To Pray, ch. 10 – Watch your state of mind…

“Behold, the lilies of the field ….”  (Matthew 6)

We have now come to the fourth and final excerpt from the Screwtape Letters in the new book, How To Pray, this being from Letter 6.

We could say that these three paragraphs are about “states of mind” (p. 86).  There are  primarily two involved:

a. we should focus on the present and not the future.  The question is asked: What is patient endurance of God’s will?  Answer: We find God’s will for our lives in the present.

Consider Matt 6:34 – if you are going to worry, worry about what you actually have to worry about today.  Forget tomorrow, because you have enough to deal with today. You don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow anyway.  God provides the daily bread for the daily care or duty.

The mannah in the wilderness teaches us what we need to know here.  Instead of living in the present, the devil wants us looking into the future, imagining what we have to worry about and then trying to prepare ourselves for it.  We can think that our daily cross is having to accept these future fantasies.  Lewis says God’s way of living in the present is easier here, and we are sure for grace to handle the present, the daily mannah.

The second state of mind at issue is, b., a balanced attention to our actions and the inner condition of our heart.  Our actions and the spiritual condition of heart should coordinate; we know that.  They both matter and come into play.  The devil wants to confuse these, so we are approving actions that our heart would condemn, or we are occupied with our hearts when we  need to be looking outward toward our God and our present duty instead.

These above frames of mind affect our prayers.  Should we be praying for grace to face what may never be?  Should not our devotional prayer be more about how wonderful God is than about how spiritual we feel?  In our me-oriented and sentimental age – at least in the West – we so much need to watch and pray that we live in the present and keep both our actions and hearts in the light of the Word and Love of God.

[image source: http://www.familylifeministry.atlanta.goarch.org/lilies-of-the-field/ ]

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Personal faith in a Person

Lewis, before his conversion, knew he was not being pursued by mere propositions.  There was Someone after him.  Lewis entered Life, when he finally turned, faced that Person, knelt before Him, and gave Him His rightful place in his heart.

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