Guardians of the Sacred Story: Living the Great Commission



In last week’s gospel for Trinity Sunday, we heard Christ’s last words (according to Matthew) as he gave his disciples ‘The Great Commission:’


Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. 


Jesus did NOT tell his disciples to go out and be nice to everyone, making sure that they always feel good about themselves, although to see the church in action sometimes you might think that. Some people may say that the church is just about telling people that God loves them. While God’s love for us may be a great truth, frankly, I have always found myself needing more. Specifically, I want to know why we think God loves us; I want to know what that love has compelled God to do for us in the past; I want to know what significance that love has for my life here and now. In short, I need God’s love to be more than some abstract sentiment that passed about like an insincere compliment or a “have a nice day.” I need God’s love to be a real story, that really affects me.


Christ’s command is to make more disciples; to go out into the whole world telling people his story. We exist as disciples of Christ, not for our own sake, not for making ourselves feel good, but for the sake of telling the story of Christ to the world. The story of Christ is indeed the story of God’s love, but it isn’t some vague idea, it is a flesh and bone history of what God’s love has done in the world, not just in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, but in each and every disciple that has been baptized into his body.


Throughout history the story of Christ has transformed people. It transforms people by making God’s love a concrete reality, not just an abstract sentiment. If we want to teach people the importance of Christ’s commandments, perhaps we should start by teaching them first the importance of Christ. Making disciples is about more than people learning the power of Christ’s commandments; it is about people learning the power of the one giving the commandments. We are here to convert people to a life lived in Christ, which is more about making them holy than it is about making them nice.


We are the guardians of the sacred story. We are here to make sure that this story is transmitted to those who have not received it yet. In this sense the primary task of the church, the entire church, is youth ministry, but not (I hasten to add) youth ministry as we normally conceive of it. We are here for the sake of those who are young in the faith (regardless of their age). Our mission is to raise up people to be lovers and followers of Christ. We do this, first and foremost, by telling people the sacred story of Christ. The fact that we are able to speak of Christ’s commandments, or that we have sacred scriptures, or that we even talk about Jesus at all, we owe completely to our ancestors in the faith, who found in Christ’s story something sacred and precious that needed to be preserved and handed down.


We are guardians of the sacred story, not because it belongs to us, but specifically because it doesn’t. The story of Christ is always more for those who haven’t received it yet, than it is for those who have. We are not here for ourselves, we are here for those who are young in the faith. The ‘Great Commission’ of our Lord to go out and make disciples, to baptize and to teach, should be a reminder to us that the church exists solely to tell his story.


What are we doing to make sure that Christ’s story is told to those who have not heard it yet? I am not just referring to our children or non-Christians; I am referring to future generations. It isn’t about whether our children will have faith; it is about whether our children’s children’s children will have faith. What are we doing to ensure that the sacred story of Christ will be alive and well for them? Are we effectively teaching Christ’s story to our own children? Are we creating adult disciples of Christ that understand how God’s love has manifested itself in the world? As older adults are we being faithful stewards of the facilities and resources that we have? Does our liturgy serve to help people increase in holiness, or does it merely congratulate them for being nice?


We are entering into Ordinary Time, the time of the church year when much of the pomp and circumstance of the big liturgies take a back seat, and we go about the day-in day out business of the church, but as our Lord reminds us: the day-in day-out business of the church is making disciples. Now is the time for us to take that sacred story of Christ which we have just retold from Christmas to Pentecost, out into the world and to share it with those who either have not received it, or who are as yet, young in the faith. Now is the time for each and every one of us to evaluate how we are serving Christ as guardians of his story: are we carrying it out into the world? Are we making sure that it will be told to future generations?


The future of the church is not in any one ministry to any one demographic: it isn’t in Sunday school or pastoral care to the elderly; it won’t be found by merely changing the liturgy or moving the furniture; nor does the secret lie in starting up new community service organizations. The future of the church lies in reclaiming its original raison d’être: telling the story of Christ to everyone, everywhere, all the time. It may not seem like a very easy task, but at least we have our Lord’s added promise that he will be with us as we try to undertake it…even to the end of the ages.

Do we really believe in the Real Presence?



“The greatest love story of all time is contained in a tiny white host”                                           -Archbishop Fulton Sheen

“You take communion to become holy, not because you already are”                                            -St. Peter Julian Eymard


Episcopalians believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That is to say that Jesus Christ is truly and objectively present on the altar under the form of bread and wine, which are consecrated as His Body and His Blood. It is an idea that goes back to the very earliest time in the church and it is one of the greatest mysteries of the Catholic faith. Medieval theologians went to great lengths to explain exactly how this happens, but nowadays I think the average worshiper is content to accept the elements as being what Christ says they are (i.e., His Body and His Blood) without much exploration into the intricate philosophical arguments as to how they got that way. The idea of the Real Presence seems pretty uncontroversial these days, but I do question sometimes what we actually believe.


Do we actually believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? If so, do our actions, both in the mass and outside of the mass, bear witness to that belief? Sometimes I wonder…


I once visited a church where the custom was to take the unconsumed bread outside after the service (they used leavened bread) and to scatter it upon the sidewalk in a misguided attempt to feed the birds. Although this was an extreme example of sacrilege, it was certainly not the only such experience I have had in my ministry, and I am aware of many more examples of similar desecration from stories I have heard from my colleagues. It is a trite saying, but it is true: actions speak louder than words. If we expect people to take our beliefs seriously, then those beliefs need to be reflected in our lives; if we are going to claim in word that the Holy Eucharist is the supreme act of Christian worship and that Christ is truly present in the sacrament on the altar, then our actions need to claim it in deed.


I so often hear priests discussing liturgy as if it is merely concerned with style and not substance. This is a fallacy. The liturgical actions we employ in the worship of God teach as much, if not more, than the words we use. Our style of worship conveys the substance of our faith; in and of itself it is not the substance, but it is an important tool that we use to point people to deeper realities. G.D. Carleton, in his classic guide to the Anglo-Catholic faith The King’s Highway writes:


If true worship in the spirit were lacking, all grandeur of material worship would indeed be a dead and meaningless form: but true spiritual worship, from beings such as we are, would not be complete and perfected if it were divorced from as perfect an outward expression as we are able to give. This is the principle which underlies all the ceremonial of the church.


The ceremonial is an outward expression of our inner faith and worship, and although I would argue that it does not need to be (nor should it be) universally the same, I do think that it should be an experience of dignity and reverence that is a fitting expression of the spiritual reality that we are proclaiming. We claim that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is actually present in the bread and wine offered on the altar; do our actions proclaim the same thing? Can people tell from our posture and actions a sense of respect for the God in our midst? Would a stranger walking into our churches see in our expressions any awe and wonder at the great mystery of the incarnation held before us? If we really believe that Christ is present in the sacrament of the altar and if we believe that part of our calling as Christians is going out into the world and making people disciples of that very same Christ, then what we do, both inside the mass and outside the mass, matters.


Next week is the Feast of Corpus Christi and my church will be observing it with a service of Choral Evensong and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Although Benediction, for most Anglicans, may seem a strange or foreign service, best left to the spikiest of Anglo-Catholics, there is much to be commended about it, and I am happy to say that it seems to be gaining in popularity of late. Benediction and Eucharistic Adoration draw our attention to the mystery of the incarnation in a way that makes us stop what we are doing and take notice that there is something very profound happening here. It is a wonderful compliment to, but not replacement of, the mass itself. Here we must reflect on the reality to which the Eucharistic prayer speaks: the great love story of God that is contained in this bread. Our actions speak to this reality too: we bow, we kneel, we burn candles and incense all to show the great love and respect for the God who chooses to be among us.


But of course, our love for God should not stop there. The great paradox of sanctity, is that when you learn to recognize the holiness of one thing, you can then see that same holiness reflected in other things. It is only by recognizing the holiness of God that we are able to eventually lay claim to our own holiness, as well as the holiness of others. First we recognize the sacredness of the bread, then we recognize the sacredness of all that the bread feeds. Saint Peter Julian Eymard, the French priest and founder of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, once remarked: “Happy is the soul that knows how to find Jesus in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in all things.”


Are we helping people to find Jesus in the Eucharist? Do our actions, whether they be liturgical or in the secular world, point to the great truth which we claim in the Holy Eucharist? Would a stranger observing what we do, but ignoring what we say, still understand our worship as something profound and mysterious, our would they see it simply as another gathering of like-minded individuals? If we truly believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, then our worship and our lives need to reflect that. We don’t all need to celebrate in exactly the same way and our liturgies needn’t always be complicated, but what we do should always help people to find Jesus in the Eucharist and the Eucharist in all things. It is here where style really matters to the substance of our faith.

Reclaiming the Feast of The Ascension


Time to move the candle back:

Reclaiming the Feast of the Ascension




Last week my parish celebrated its feast of title, The Feast of the Ascension, with a lovely sung mass Thursday evening. As the story of Our Lord’s Ascension into heaven was proclaimed in the gospel, the paschal candle was quietly extinguished. After the service was finished, the candle was removed to its normal resting place throughout the year. This past Sunday as we gathered to celebrate the 7th Sunday of Easter, the absence of the paschal candle, which has been standing in the same place for the past 40 days, was noticeable. Of course, the candle didn’t mysteriously disappear; it is still in the church, and we will still bring it out for baptisms and funerals, but its light doesn’t shine before us in quite the same way that it did throughout the past 40 days of Easter. Something profound has happened and we can see the change with our own eyes.


Before the liturgical changes of the 1960s, seeing the paschal candle extinguished on Ascension Thursday would have been a common occurrence in Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic parishes, but in recent times it has become more rare. In the traditional liturgical manual ‘Ritual Notes,’ direction is given that the paschal candle is to be extinguished immediately after the gospel is read at mass on Ascension Thursday. In Dennis Michno’s ‘A Priest’s Handbook’, produced after the liturgical revisions of the 60s, we find explicit instructions NOT to extinguish the paschal candle on the Feast of the Ascension, but to leave it burning until Pentecost. Why this change and why should we care?


Admittedly, whether a candle is lit for 40 days or 50 days can seem a pretty insignificant thing, but then it isn’t really about the candle, it is about what our attention is being drawn to, and that is very significant. Symbols are incredibly important, because they are always teaching, even when you don’t intend for them to be. The symbolism of extinguishing the paschal candle on the Feast of the Ascension seems pretty clear: this large candle, a symbol of the Resurrected Christ, is lit (or brought to life) at the great vigil of Easter and it stands in our midst for the following 40 days, just as the body of Jesus was visible to the disciples for 40 days after his Resurrection. Then as we gather to remember the Ascension of the Lord, the candle is extinguished and later moved out of sight. This doesn’t mean that the light of Christ has gone out of the world; what it does mean is that the light of Christ is no longer visible to us in the Resurrected body of Christ, as that has ascended to the Father, but now must be sought elsewhere.


Where then are we to look for the light of Christ once the paschal candle has been extinguished? The answer, I believe, lies in Jesus’s final prayer before his Ascension:


Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.


The light that shone from the Resurrected body of Christ has now ascended into heaven and is gone from our sight, but we can still see it reflected in each other. We Christians who are called by the name that the Father has given him, are the light of Christ in the world. In my church, everyone that is baptized receives a candle lit from the paschal candle and is told to “receive the light of Christ,” and in most churches that hold an Easter Vigil, the congregation’s candles are lit from the paschal candle. We are all bearers of the light of Christ, and when it can no longer be seen in his body, it is still here to be seen in ours. When the paschal candle is removed from the front of the church after Ascension Thursday we are given a clear visual cue for the next 10 days, and indeed for the rest of the year, that something has changed. Christ is no longer visible to us in the same way and I think this absence leads us, like it undoubtedly lead the disciples, to ask an important question: “what does Christ’s going from us, mean to us?”


One of the early church fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus, once wrote that:

“We know with holy and Catholic Faith that what was not assumed, was not redeemed.”

The Ascension of Christ into heaven is the consummation of all of his redeeming work, because it is then that the human nature that he took at his birth, the human body that he shared with us as his flesh and blood in the sacrament, the body that bore the stripes of his suffering and that died, and the body that triumphed over death: that body has now ascended into God’s kingdom and is now restored to union with God. Our own humanity and our own souls have a place in God’s kingdom because the son has ascended there to prepare that place for us.


St. Augustine, who himself claimed that the Feast of the Ascension dated all the way back to the apostles said:

Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth.

For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.


The world is different for us after the Ascension, and we would do well to take note of it.


So to my original question: why the change? In the middle of the last century, there was a trend among liturgical scholars in seeking to restore the church’s liturgy to forms that would have been known to the primitive church of the apostles. One of the products of this movement was a renewed focus on the importance of the Easter Vigil rite and another was an attempt to make the entire period between Easter and Pentecost appear as one cohesive season or one great festival. The “Great 50 days” as it is now known. I will not here go into the merits or demerits of the arguments made by the liturgical movement for Easter being 50 days, other than to say that for Eastern Orthodox Christians the argument has not found a following and their Easter season remains 40 days.


One of the changes that was proposed to extend the Easter season all the way to Pentecost (10 days after Ascension) was to leave the paschal candle burning until then. If the liturgical colors and the decorations and the paschal candle were to remain exactly as they were throughout the first 40 days of Easter, then the next 10 will just seem like an uninterrupted continuation of that season. The idea actually worked very well. Too well.


If we act like nothing happened 40 days after Jesus’s Resurrection, then that is exactly what people are going to think: nothing happened. In terms of the traditional liturgy, the primary symbol of Christ’s Ascension into heaven was the extinguishing of the paschal candle. When you stop showing people the symbol, you also stop showing people the truth that the symbol is meant to teach. The problem with making Easter one festival that extends from Easter Sunday all the way to Pentecost (regardless of the fact that this may have been done by some in the early church) is that it makes the Feast of the Ascension almost an incidental event between those two festivals. Ascension, which was once a period, has now become a comma and is quickly on its way to being an ellipsis.


Our Lord’s Ascension into heaven, as Saints Augustine and Gregory both rightly pointed out, is the culmination of all of his saving work done on earth. The Ascension is his return to living in the presence of the fullness of God, and as we each share in Christ’s body and blood, we who bear his name, so too do we have the promise of living fully with God as well. That is our hope as Christians; that is the goal to which we are headed. Our life is about restoring to the fullness of God that which has been separated from him. That should be the underlying theme to all that we do in this world and the point to which our spiritual lives are directed. We cannot merely skip over the Feast of the Ascension, as if it is just a minor moment in the life of Christ; it is in reality the point to which the entire story of Christ leads.


What has become the common practice since the liturgical reforms of the 60s? In many Roman Catholic Dioceses in the U.S., the Ascension Thursday observances were so poorly attended, that bishops began moving the commemoration to the following Sunday in an attempt to at least get the faithful to hear the story, and of course many protestant churches followed suit. Although this is well intentioned, it never quite works out, and in my opinion, usually has the opposite effect. Would we ever consider moving Christmas to the next available Sunday? of course not! The date is too important to us and we always manage to adjust our scheduled to accommodate it, and not the other way around. You cannot expect people to believe something is important, if you don’t show them that it is important.


We all know the arguments about weeknight holy days. Here at my parish, which is The Church of The Ascension, the attendance at our Ascension Thursday service is usually a little less than I might hope for, and it is our feast of title, but still it is beautiful reflection on the Ascension of our Lord, and of ourselves as well, into God’s Kingdom. It is also a service that is growing in attendance, not because we have moved it to a different day, but because people can see in our actions and in our liturgy, that something truly important is happening here and we have gathered to bear witness to it.


Some would say that the liturgical movement of the 1960s was an attempt to reclaim elements of the church’s liturgy that had been lost or undervalued through time. I would say that that is exactly what I, and many of my priest colleagues who value traditional liturgy are trying to do as well. It isn’t about trying to live in the past, it is about finding in old symbols undervalued and forgotten truths that the future still needs. In the end I am not really concerned with whether or not paschal candles are going to be extinguished on Ascension Thursday by other churches (although I do hope that they will consider it). The candle is not really the issue. The bigger question is whether or not there would be anyone in the church to notice if they did.