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Walt Whitman – June 27, 2019
One of America’s greatest and best loved poets is Walt Whitman; 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. His first book of poetry, self-published in 1855, was Leaves of Grass. Experimental and experiential, the poems came from Whitman’s own observations of the world and himself. It was a visionary and ambitious work, employing free verse – new for the time – and an unusual combination of language both florid and down to earth. The book made his reputation, and he revised it and reissued it many times before he died.
Whitman personified the independent and individual spirit seeking to express and understand itself within an American context. If the country’s early history was written in the acts and deeds of the Founding Fathers and its settlers, then Whitman was writing a personal history of the American soul in his poetry. Oscar Wilde, who visited Whitman in 1882, described him as “one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age.”
That spirit of personal freedom, used rightly, is an expansive and inclusive spirit, rather than one which seeks to exclude others. Whitman’s life was varied and colorful: he worked variously as a journalist, typesetter, carpenter and teacher. During the Civil War he volunteered to visit sick and injured soldiers, listening to their stories, reading to them and writing letters home on their behalf – he estimated he made over 600 visits during this time.
A recent article by Mark Edmundson in The Atlantic considers Whitman’s significance today. He writes:
“Whitman speaks to our moment in many ways. One of them is quite simple: At a time when Americans hate one another across partisan lines as intensely perhaps as they have since the Civil War, Whitman’s message is that hate is not compatible with true democracy, spiritual democracy. We may wrangle and fight and squabble and disagree. Up to a certain point, Whitman approved of conflict. But affection—friendliness—must always define the relations between us. When that affection dissolves, the first order of business is to restore it.”
Later in the year I hope to provide an opportunity for us to read and discuss one of Whitman’s poems at St Barnabas. In the meantime, have a Happy Fourth of July!
With every blessing
What is an Icon? Part One – June 20, 2019
What is an icon? To owners of computers, it’s that little picture you double-click on to open up a web page or an application or a folder or a file. For others, icons are cultural: Frank Sinatra, Steve Jobs, Frank Lloyd Wright (insert the name of someone successful and famous). Even buildings such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building have been described as “iconic”. “Icon” is one of those words whose meaning has expanded fast within the last thirty years. However, its original meaning was rather narrower – it was the name given to religious images seen mostly in ancient and Orthodox Christian churches.
The word is Greek – eikon – and means simply “image”. The beginning of our understanding of icons rests on that word “image”. It also underpins the theology behind the creation of icons. God made humans in his image; not only that, he gave to human beings the power to be image makers themselves. Icons are therefore works of human beings imitating the creator of images, who is God himself.
Icons are important for the community of believers because they have spiritual value. Icons were not painted to be works of art but to be works of liturgy. That’s not to say that icons in themselves are not works of art – some obviously are. But they are not painted as “art”. A artistically bad icon may in fact be a good icon. An artistically accomplished icon is not necessarily an authentic icon.
Icons belong primarily in churches, rather than in homes or galleries. That is because an icon forms part of the liturgy of the Church, along with the reading of scripture and the offering of the Eucharist. The Church where you will find icons in abundance is the Orthodox Church, by which I mean the eastern Church of Christendom, a church as ancient as the Roman Catholic church. The Orthodox Church is found in Russia, Georgia, the Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Albania, Moldova, and Greece, and it is from these countries that most of our icons come. The Eastern Orthodox Church is distinct from the Western Churches which come under the Church of Rome or the Church of England, or one of the reformed churches.
The Orthodox and Western Churches both believe in the same Lord, Jesus Christ, as the Savior of the world. But their manner of expressing that belief in worship – their respective liturgies – is different. In the Orthodox liturgy the icon has a place of honor that is not shared to the same degree in our Anglican churches. That is because the Orthodox Church has a particular theology and dogma concerning icons. To them, icons are not pictures; they are reminders of what is termed a “prototype”. The icon reminds us of God as the “prototype” in whose image and likeness every human being is created.
In the fourth century St Basil the Great claimed that people should respect icons because “The honor given to the image passes over to the Prototype.” The icon does not represent what the painter sees before him. Icons are not portraits – they are not painted from life – not like an Andrew Wyeth painting, for example. The icon painter does not “invent” his subject. Instead he or she follows an iconographical type. There are rules laid down by the Church which govern the painting of icons.
It might be useful here to draw a comparison with film. The filmmaker Werner Herzog described film as “not the art of scholars but of illiterates.” That is an echo of the words of S. John of Damascus, who wrote: “The image is a memorial, just what words are to a listening ear. What a book is to the literate, an image is to the illiterate. The image speaks to sight as words to hearing; through the mind we enter into union with it.” Icons are therefore theological – that is to say, they lead us to a deeper understanding and knowledge of God.
The letter to the Hebrews states: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” What is invisible cannot be depicted but what is visible can be since it is no longer the product of one’s imagination but an actual, material reality. Having assumed fallen human nature, Christ restored in human beings the image of God in which we were created.
There are those who think that to make any holy image is to create an idol. I would say that an image is not necessarily an idol. It can be an idol, just as the written word can be an idol. But the function of the written word, the function of the Bible, is to lead us to God, to bring us to a deeper understanding of God’s being and purpose, and to involve us in the work of the kingdom. This is what icons do, except instead of words they use images. Icons act as mediators between God and people. The Bible does something similar: it mediates God’s word. What gives power to both is the action of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds as we either read the scriptures, or allow ourselves to enter into the mystery of the icon.
Icons have a long history in the Church. The 4th century church historian Eusebius writes: “I have seen a great many portraits of the Savior, of Peter and of Paul, which have been preserved up to our times.” Which leads one to speculate that icons or paintings of our Lord and the saints existed perhaps even as early as the end of the first century AD. According to legend, the earliest icon was one of the Virgin Mary and Christ painted by the Evangelist Luke. Sadly, neither this icon nor any paintings as described by Eusebius have survived or yet been discovered. It is certain that many have been lost as a result of iconoclasm, the destruction of icons at the order of either the church or the government.
Father David Beresford
Pentecost and the Church – Sunday, June 9, 2019
When churches, like St Barnabas, enter a period of transition, there is a process of self-evaluation and discernment of future needs. During this process you are likely to be asked questions about yourselves, to determine your strengths and weaknesses, what you do well and what you could do better. I would say that these questions can be boiled down into one single question, which is, “how do you see yourselves as a church?”
Now, if you have been in a church with the same rector for 25 years, this question doesn’t come up too often. If it does, it usually means the congregation is either growing or declining in numbers. A little introspection can be good for a church, and no doubt you have been down this road before. My impression – which is only based on a week’s observations – is that you know who you are and are quite confident in who you are and so would have no difficulty in answering that question.
So rather than ask the question again, I will talk about what we mean by church, and I’ll begin by offering three definitions: one prosaic, one poetic, and one personal.
First, the prosaic definition of church. It is that of an assembly of people who gather for a religious purpose. The purpose of coming to church is to worship God, and to grow in faith, love and understanding.
The second definition is poetic.
The Church is a cultivated field, the tillage of God (1 Cor. 3:9). On that land…the true vine is Christ who gives life and fruitfulness to the branches, that is, to us, who through the Church remain in Christ without whom we can do nothing (Jn. 15:1-5).
The third definition is personal: that is, “personal” to God. It is that the Church is the bride of Christ. As such Christ will love and cherish his bride and together the two will be bound in a covenant of love forever.
So I offer these three definitions to add to your own. The Feast of Pentecost is a good day to celebrate the Church. What amazes me about the Church, apart from its resilience, is how it welcomes so many different people with so many different histories. I sometimes think the Church is like a tapestry with many threads woven through it which, when combined, create this larger picture. I see families of mothers, fathers, children whose stories are blended into the story of the church, where lives are marked by baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and, at the end, by funerals.
God blesses the Church and God blesses you and me. In Church we are taught through the gospel how to live right, to be mindful of God and how to treat our neighbors. In some ways, a Church is a school for service – if we follow Jesus Christ then we are servants to one another and to the world at large. A world which often treats us with distrust or hostility, which calls Christians deluded or even dangerous. Opposition to the Church will get stronger in the coming years. The Church may be for everyone, but not everyone wants the Church.
But we have confidence in God through Jesus Christ our Lord. What gave growth to the Church in its early years were the ways in which Christians behaved towards each other and brought social and spiritual benefits to the wider community. Today, we see this first hand in the outreach St Barnabas does at Emmanuel Dining Room, Friendship House, Meals on Wheels and in the work of Eucharistic Ministers who visit our brothers and sisters who are unable to join us in church. We experience the benefits of Christian discipleship in the small and unrecorded acts of care and love that we do for one another.
God gave the Holy Spirit to the Church as an expression of his deep trust and love for her. For it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us for the work of the kingdom. Now in speaking of the Spirit, I would usually use the metaphor of fire or wind, but I noticed something in Peter’s speech in the Acts of the Apostles which is leading me to bring up another metaphor, which is that of water. Listen again to Peter’s words,
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
When I heard those words, “I will pour out my Spirit”, I had a visual image of water being poured into the font at a baptism, and the spirit is there. I thought of the river Jordan and the baptism of Jesus, and the spirit is there. I thought of the boundless generosity of God pouring out his Spirit upon us as a Church, empowering us, inspiring us, blessing us beyond measure. And, with the ewer being emptied of water at baptism, I thought of the letter to the Philippians and the words about Jesus emptying himself for us, giving up his spirit so that we might live, a life poured out so that we might have life in abundance, in the living water that is eternal.
As Christians we are a people and a church upon whom God has poured out his Spirit. Through God’s Holy Spirit we are made ready to serve, to heal and to give light to the world. None of this is possible without the Church.
A month ago I was at a conference with a number of other clergy and one of them was telling me about his church – above the doors to the church are written the words “Servants’ entrance”. However, these words are written on the inside of the church, so that you see them every time you leave the church.
Ask God to pour out his Spirit upon you and upon the Church. Then you will be ready to serve the Church and the world as Christ has served you.
Father David Beresford
Meditation on the Feast of the Ascension, May 30, 2019
Between Easter and Pentecost, there comes the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. Jesus the light of the world is taken up bodily into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father. It is the final act of our Lord’s coming among us, and a cause for rejoicing. In the gospel of Luke we hear that after the Ascension the followers of Jesus “returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” (24:52-3)
The Ascension signals the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry and mission. He has come to us, as one of us, and now he completes the circle of his journey by returning to the Father in glory. Jesus was present with us in body and in time, and following the Ascension he is eternally present in all places and at all times.
Although his followers were filled with joy, I can’t help but thinking that the true lovers of Jesus would have felt his absence after the Ascension as keenly as they did after the crucifixion. His leaving them a second time becomes a kind of double bereavement. However, God is teaching his followers to see him not only in the person of Jesus, but in other ways.
After the Ascension, where and how do we see God? To begin with, let us remember how Jesus describes himself. He says, “I am the true shepherd.” Jesus is our faithful shepherd, a new Moses, who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death to the promised land of peace and new life. He says: “I am the Way.” Following the Ascension Jesus inhabits both heaven and earth: as such, he is our trusty guide in both places. He says: “I am the bread of life.” We encounter Jesus again in the sacrament of the Eucharist, as he feeds us with the bread of heaven and the new wine of the kingdom of God. “I am the vine”, Jesus says. “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
We see God in a world being transformed by grace. What does this world, graced by God, look like? If you look closely, you will see it. It is the place where earth and heaven overlap, where the love and mercy of God are seen and witnessed in our prayer, our worship and in our lives. In other words, we are now the body of Christ on earth. How then, do other people see Christ in us? Here are some examples. Have you forgiven another the wrong done to you? There is Jesus present. Do you reach out to a neighbor in need? Do you speak out against injustice and corruption? Are you faithful in worship and prayer? In all of these examples Jesus is present as we share the new life given for us in Jesus’ own self-offering.
Before Jesus ascends to heaven, he makes a promise, that we will receive the Holy Spirit, who will be our advocate and friend. Then, in one sense, will our Easter journey be at an end, and in another sense, will it begin anew. We will enter the circle of those called to live out the gospel life, in a world being transformed by the grace and love of God.
Father David Beresford