Last week, on the feast of Sts. Phillip and James, I had the honor of preaching at the diocesan presbyteral ordinations here where I teach and function as the liturgical officer for the diocese of Huron in Ontario, Canada. Having just travelled for 28 straight hours coming back from Cameroon, I was grateful that the readings for the feast day lent themselves so well to an ordination. The recurring image in each of the assigned pericopes was “the way”; from Jesus’ “I am the way, the truth, and the life” to the prophet Isaiah’s teacher guiding on the way from behind: “walk in it”; to the psalm with its wonderful plea to “teach me the way of your statutes” – it all fit together. And then there was St. Phillip, who both followed Christ and invited others into the way – a model for all of us in following the way ourselves, and in making the necessary introductions for others to walk this way too.
Once again, sitting down to write a homily became a spiritual exercise as I reflected on walking this way, which by its very nature meant not walking other ways. For the two deacons about to be ordained priests in ‘Christ’s holy catholic church’, the way had a particular import, but as I reflected on the challenges of being church in this part of Canada, not unlike many other areas in North America, it raised the specter of how counter-cultural this event (an ordination), these scripture readings, and the implications of both would be for all of us gathered that evening. Phillip’s example, as well as the choice of the two ordinands, was one of selflessness, of obedience, of humility. The ideal image of clergy as those who draw others in and then get out of the way, pointing to the living God, not themselves, is so counter to the “subjectification of reality” (M. Francis Mannion, “Liturgy and the Present Crisis of Culture”, Worship 62 (1988) that it really struck me. Our North American culture is so pathologically about a reality that is only ‘me’, particularly the ‘me’ who consumes, controls, and manages, that I experienced a moment of hopelessness that any of this made sense in 2017.
As with any particular liturgical event there were people from a wide variety of backgrounds present. For some I might as well have been speaking Greek, for others it was something to suffer through before the ‘action’ started, and for a number of the clergy, there was a palpable annoyance. They, I imagined many, had worked very hard to make the church ‘relevant’, to minimize the differences between the secular culture around us and the church – I was challenging that in not so subtle ways. As with many events, or articles, or liturgies, I found myself wondering about the balance – how much inculturation is too much? How do we live in but not of the world? Does that question even make sense anymore? I could not help but wander mentally back to an undergraduate course I’d taught last fall, where several of the more engaged students and I speculated on the role of the church in a society like Canada’s. This is not a perfect country, but compared to its immediate neighbours, there is much to applaud these days – health care, a safety net for many, a genuine and widely engaged sense of social justice, equality, and care. My 18 year old students asked what need there was for church when the government and secular society had taken over the pastoral care of individuals and families. To what do we evangelize in the 21st century? against what and for what? I thought the scripture readings, the feast day, and the liturgical texts of ordination were quite clear for those ordained, and hopefully stood as a crystallization of what it is to be a follower of Christ for all christians. We prayed that that those ordained might watch over and care for others, absolve and bless in God’s name, proclaim the gospel, offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable in God’s sight, and serve, work, and pray so “that the world may come to know your glory and your love.” In other words, to show the way, the truth, and the life, and to offer the means of showing which the body of Christ has practiced since its inception. We are in the world – there is no such thing as uninculturated liturgy – but perhaps ordinations and other events offer us a renewal of recognition. How do we, in the 21st century, understand an apology of the late 2nd century in our own time and place: “Christians live in their own countries, but only as aliens.They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners…they busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.” (Letter to Diognetus, 5:5,9)