27 December 2006

Of The The New Year.


Happy New Year! What will the new year bring, and how can we prepare for its challenges?

There is an ancient prayer of the church, dating back at least to the sixth century, which I came across not too long ago in William Bright’s wonderful collection Ancient Collects (1875); it contains a petition that takes us right to the paradoxical heart of Christian living:
May the sacred Feast of Thy Table, O Lord, always strengthen and renew us, guide and protect our weakness amid the storms of this world, and bring us into the haven of everlasting salvation.
In the Holy Eucharist, the Gospel is preached with what St. Augustine called “visible words” as the church pleads the merits of Christ’s Body and Blood offered for us, that “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” And not only is it preached, but it is actually presented to us – the remission of our sins, eternal life (which is divine life now), “and all other benefits of his passion” are communicated to us through the gracious Presence of our Lord in his Supper.
So it is not surprising, and perhaps seems even commonplace, that this particular ancient collect should ask that the “sacred Feast” would “strengthen and renew us.” But it is the next petition that call forth a little deeper reflection and, I pray, will set the agenda for the coming year. The prayer asks that through the grace of Christ given to us in the Eucharist, Chris would “guide and protect our weakness.” Notice the ambiguity of the petition. On the one hand, it may be read as the simple and obvious admission that in this world of governments, global economic systems, cancer, and car wrecks, we are feeble and in need of divine protection. But on the other hand, the petition may be read (and more straightforwardly so) as asking that God would “protect our weakness” in the sense of preventing us from becoming strong.
Seeking after weakness, inability, insufficiency. That is so contrary to the standard operating procedure of our fallen wills. W e attempt to provide for ourselves security, control, power, the ability to live life on our own terms, and of course we want the deep, self-satisfied pleasure of being our own saviors. Of course we would never put it like that to ourselves, but in ways subtle and not so subtle, by hoarding money and gossiping about those we believe to be our moral inferiors, that is what we’re too often up to.
The problem is that the well (the strong) have no need of a physician, and Jesus came for the sick – for the sinners, not the righteous” (Mt. 9.12,13), and his Gospel is good news for the poor, liberty for captives, and sight for the blind (Lk 4.18).
New Year’s resolutions are, essentially, declarations of strength; they are “I will” statements, and they are inevitably self-seeking because they are self-relying. But if we are weak, then we are free to seek the praise of God and the good of our neighbor, because we are buoyed, helped, and carried along by Another – the “Comforter” even the Spirit of truth (Jn.14.16). Only when we admit our weakness, only when (as an old Gospel hymn has it) we “lay our deadly doing down”, do we make room for God to come in and do for us things better than we can ask or imagine, things likely we would never have chosen or sought for ourselves. And only then will we discover with St. Paul, to our eternal delight and comfort, that God’s grace is sufficient, and his strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor, 12.9).
The Year of Lord 2007 will doubtless be as storm-tossed as any other, and perhaps even more so as the ship of the Episcopal Church continues to founder and break apart, as we deal with our own challenges in this parish, and as each of us encounters our own slings and arrows. Before an uncertain and even threatening future, it is tempting to retrench and gather strength. All them more reason to take this ancient prayer to our hearts, asking God to “guide and protect our weakness” and deliver us from our own temporary and illusory do-it-yourself salvations, and instead in one better than we can ask or imagine because it is formed by the Spirit at work in us (Eph. 3.20).
Faithfully,
Patrick+


*From the January issue of our parish newsletter.
 

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