Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent

We often think of Advent as the beginning of the church year.  However, the church's calendar is more cyclical  than linear.  Thus, one does not so much observe a beginning and ending as an ongoing cycle moving from one theme to another. The traditional Advent Wreath may be an appropriate way to illustrate this, as we move toward Christmas by moving in a circle, a symbol of eternity.

One half of the year reflects on the life of the church, the other on the life of Christ.  Advent does make us think of beginnings and endings as it points us in anticipation to the end of time and the return of Christ, as well as the birth of Jesus.  Yet the best way to think of Advent is to see it in terms of the fulfillment of prophesy.  How do we know that Jesus will come again in glory, as He promised?  The answer is found in His first coming, the incarnation.  In a sense past, present and future are collapsed and made a single whole.  As we look back we find assurance to look ahead in hope.  The entire story comes together and we see not only the fulfillment of God's purpose from the beginning of time, but we also enjoy the assurance of a future already fulfilled as well.  Eternity has broken into time.  The church may often be seen as simply repristinating, always trying to live in the past.  However, this is far from the truth.  The past points us to the future, thus informing how we live in the present.

We often talk about Advent in terms of the various "comings" of Christ.  This Sunday's Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 64 offered a great example of this.  Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was the first to talk about the threefold coming: 1.) His visible coming in the incarnation, 2.) His coming into our hearts in an invisible way, and 3.) His coming at the end of time in glory, again in a visible way.  Cyril of Jerusalem from the fourth century added a fourth: His coming in the beginning - a birth from God before the ages.  Lutherans often talk about a threefold coming similar to Bernard's, yet different.  Instead of the invisible coming into the heart they usually speak of His coming in Word and Sacrament.  Given the tendency toward becoming overly subjective in matters of the faith, this last scheme seems preferable.

The actual origins of Advent remain obscure.  Its entry into the church's calendar comes much later than the other prominent festival times, arriving around the sixth century.  Rome was very conservative about this season and resisted it to some degree. The length of the season has varied over time, ranging from four to six weeks.  Gregory the Great fixed it at four as symbolic of the 4,000 years of waiting for the Messiah.  According to Gregory the world was also created 4,000 years prior to the Messiah.

The penitential aspect of Advent came from Gaul and Spain, although it arrived in Rome only in the twelfth century.  Gaul also emphasized the eschatological aspect of the season.  This might be a result of the work of Irish missionaries at that time.  Although we tend now to accent the hopeful anticipation of the season, historically it seems to have been more penitential in nature, a season much like Lent.  Some have thus referred to it as the "Winter Lent."  Many of us probably remember that the color of the Advent paraments were always purple/violet, just like Lent.  Only recently has the Lutheran church seen blue, a practice borrowed from Sarum use and introduced with the Lutheran Book of Worship in 1978.  It just took off from there.  Although retaining its Lenten character with the omission of the Gloria and other practices, Advent is also different in that the Alleluia is not technically omitted.  The Alleluia is a perpetual song of the church only to be silenced in Lent.

Traditionally the Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent was the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  This was eliminated with the revision of the lectionary (but restored again in LSB, as this Sunday testified).  Perhaps those who revised the lectionary felt that it was more properly located in the Lenten season.  Yet its place in the Advent season showed how the church deals with history.  Advent should properly be seen in light of the events of the Redemption as much as the Incarnation.  Again, it is about the 'coming' of God among men and what that means in the work and mission of God's Son.  As Emmanuel God comes to be with us for the purpose of saving us.

In our current culture Advent can be an awkward season.  Christmas songs have been playing at Walmart since Halloween or even before.  Yet the church is not ready for Christmas and resists arriving too soon.  We also want to prepare for this celebration properly, recognizing that the incarnation is an event far removed from the mystical-magical nature of folklore and the commercial excesses of actual practice.  Although it seems as if we are swimming against the current here, it is more necessary than ever.  May the Lord use this time to help our people recognize why we even pause to celebrate the birth of God's Son!

The ideas of this post came in large part from notes taken at a summer course entitled "History and Practice of the Church Year" taught by the Rev. Dr. Philip Pfatteicher at Nashotah House. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

DayStar Journal Publishes Fall Articles

In the continued interest of keeping all informed of theological discussions on both sides of the fence within Missourian circles, please note that the Daystar Journal has published a new set of articles for the fall. I have not had a chance to fully read and review all of them, and will report my reflections as time and opportunity allow.  After going to the Daystar Journal site click on "Recent Articles" for the current selection.

The introduction to the articles, however, indicates that the journal has decided to tackle topics in a "social gospel' direction this time around, a theme reminiscent of the 70's.  Still, the first article by David Domsch begins the offerings by taking a direct swipe at the LCMS under the accusation that it is a synod run entirely by fear.  After reading this brief selection one would be led to believe that Missouri is a dictatorial state.  Domsch also takes aim at the seminaries, which he obviously believes are failing to fulfill their duty.  He states: "We spend more to educate a single pastor than any other denomination in the US – with too often questionable results."  Ouch!  It would be interesting to have him expand on this accusation and help us understand how miserably our newer pastors are faring out there.  I suspect his problems are with those who come out with a conservative bent and run contrary to the Daystar philosophy of ecumenical openness and theological liberalism.  


It is a shame that the positive efforts of Missouri in the area of mercy could not at least be acknowledged.  While we are feeding the hungry and assisting the devastated throughout the world, we must be chastised now for not being political activists trying to change policies in Washington.  Under President Harrison's leadership over the years we have made tremendous strides in being a leader in diakonal ministry.  Too bad charity would not allow this to at least be noted in passing....

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Topography of Religion

Thanks to the former dean of Nashotah House, I discovered this little piece by way of his own blog "To All the World..."  The 'tool' is an interactive map of the U.S., that shows the percentage of faith groups represented by each state in the union.  Simply pass the cursor over the state and the bar graph to the right will immediately register the percentage of various religious groups. What was interesting to me is how many "unaffiliated" there are, sometimes equaling the number of Evangelicals and Catholics in certain areas. Check it out here

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Swedish Lutheran Church Hosts 'Techno Mass'

I shouldn't be surprised or shocked anymore.  When it comes to worship many churches assume that the form and music of worship remain neutral, and therefore subject it to whatever manipulation will attract the next crowd.  The Church of All Saints in Stockholm has simply applied that to the latest trend among the young, celebrating the upsurge of numbers while oblivious to the injury they inflicted on the spiritual life of God's people.  Take a moment and read the Associated Press article here reprinted by the Washington Post and judge for yourself.

Even the writer noted early on that the so-called service resembled a "disco at a youth center" more than worship. With increasingly fewer worshipers the church felt it needed to so something to attract the younger crowd and turned to the tools of the entertainment industry. That the participants were entertained is a given.  "It was an awesome feeling," said one.  “It was superfun, it was really kicking..." said another.  Yet did these young people have any sense of coming into the holy presence of God, humbly contrite for their sins, needful of the healing power of forgiveness in Christ?  Can't say.  No one apparently thought to offer that comment for the writer to copy.

As churches continue to play around with worship and mold it into something more attractive, they will reap exactly what they sow, to borrow a biblical metaphor.  They will fill pews, to be sure, but they will not gain worshipers cognizant of the real miracle in their midst, namely the true presence of Christ with gifts of grace.  They will only walk away with hyped up emotions always looking for more.  How sad. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thoughts on Purgatory

Purgatory presented Martin Luther with one of his early theological challenges.  I suspect that some Catholics today would claim that purgatory is among those practices of the past that possess little meaning for the modern believer.  In Luther's day purgatory featured prominently in the believer's mind.  It was also tied directly to indulgences which became a major fundraiser, especially for those trying to raise much needed capital to build St. Peters and pay off debts resulting from the purchase of titles and positions.  Given this state of affairs it makes sense that such a practice was ripe for abuse. 

However, past abuses aside, is purgatory a doctrine of the current Catholic Church?  The answer is yes.  Yet how central to Catholic teaching is purgatory?  Admittedly, purgatory also does not list among the primary and central teachings or truths of the church.  Alan Schreck (author of Catholic and Christian, 1984) sees part of the problem with Catholic-Protestant interaction coming either from non-Catholics who focus too heavily on these secondary truths, or from Catholics who make too much of them and thus unset the balance.  Rather than accusing Catholics of being 'un-Christian' he would like to see more charity in recognizing their shared commitment to such teachings as the divinity of Christ, and other more central doctrines.

 This is a reasonable request and Protestant-Catholic dialog will begin on a more positive note if common ground is first established.  That said, we still must wrestle with the reality of this teaching and what it means to the overall theological picture.  While doctrines may be ranked in a secondary manner, they must still be complimentary to the whole body of theological thought. 

So, let me present a brief summary of the essentials of purgatory as I understand them:
  • Purgatory is not for the condemned, or hell-bound soul.  Those in purgatory are said to have died in a "state of grace."  Thus, they are technically speaking, already heaven-bound.  It is not a 'second chance' for salvation for those who have already rejected God.  Prior faith is assumed.
  • Those who are in purgatory are not yet free from imperfection and therefore must make expiation for unforgiven venial sins and mortal sins which have been forgiven.  Another way this is expressed is to say that the person is still 'in bondage to sin.' 
  • As the name implies, purgatory is a place where heaven-bound souls are 'purified' or 'purged' of sinfulness and are then able to fully enter into the presence of God in heaven. Purgatory is presumed on the basis of God's holiness.  Nothing impure or unholy can enter into his presence. 
  • Direct scriptural support for purgatory comes primarily from the Apocrypha or Deutercanonical books which are included in Catholic bibles but usually omitted from Protestant ones.  (Note: Luther did include the Apocrypha in his Bible, but did not assign it the same canonical status as the other 66 books of the Old and New Testament.)  The Catholic church, however, does appeal to the other canonical books as well.
  • The Catholic church sees purgatory as a necessity to provide a place where "temporal punishment" for already forgiven sins can be accomplished.  Sin is said to possess a "double consequence."  In some cases it can result in the abandonment of faith altogether and thus result in the eternal consequence of hell.  On the other hand, it can have a more 'temporal' consequence of leaving the person with an unhealthy attachment to the things of this world.  Some saintly people can, in this life, live in such a way as to remove that attachment and die 'purified' of the effects of sin and thereby avoid further 'punishment.'   Through works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, the believer effectively "puts of the old man" and "puts on the new," as Paul notes in Ephesians 4.  
  • The Catholic Church sees support for the teaching of purgatory in the Church Fathers.  However, it seems that they appeal mainly to those of the 3rd century on.  
  • Purgatory is related to the practice of praying for the dead.  It is noted that praying for the dead would make no sense without purgatory.  They point to the practice of praying for the dead which they observe in the Early Church. 
Certainly others will be able to add to this list or even correct parts of it.  Please feel free to point out where I have missed the point.  I have consulted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as popular works by Schreck, as mentioned above, and Fr. M.J. Stravinskas in The Catholic Answer Book (1990).

Reflecting on the point listed above, I offer my thoughts and questions as reasoned by a Luthean:
  •  The concept of 'punishment' for sin, biblically speaking, is an aspect of God's justice, the result of which is complete condemnation of the sinner.  The heart of the gospel is that God's Son took all this upon Himself on the cross making total expiation for the sinner.  Forgiveness means that the guilt of this sin is removed from the sinner for the sake of Christ's prior sacrifice.  Isaiah is 'purged' of the guilt of his sin by God's declaration of forgiveness. 
  • Holiness in the presence of God comes through our putting on of Christ (Gal. 3:27) through baptism.  Our life is "hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).  When Jesus talks about heaven as a wedding banquet he refers to those accepted in as the ones properly clothed with the wedding garment, which obviously is the garment of salvation, the very holiness of Jesus himself.  If we needed to be purged of all sinfulness before entering into the presence of God, how were prior believers able to stand in God's presence even during their living years? 
I will offer additional thoughts in future posts as I continue to study and read.  Chemnitz is on my list (Examination of the Council of Trent).  Future posts will also address prayers for the dead.