Ordinations, Culture, and Following Christ

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)

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8 comments

  1. I like this essay very much. You ask to what do we evangelize these days? Perhaps more of a problem than “me” (which I wouldn’t be too sure is all that much of a novelty and not the human condition) is the problem of “be.”

    By this I mean the elevation of action, work, and productivity (providing health care, social justice, and getting to the ordination of the clergy) and the de-emphasis on just being (in the embrace of God’s grace, listening to a homily, or sitting in one’s rocker at age 90).

    Is it enough for a human being to just “be” and to praise God? It may have been unintentional, but I noticed your phrase, “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable in God’s sight, and serve, work, and pray,” it occurred to me the implicit hierarchy of sacrifice places action first, prayer last. Your teenaged students are products not only of their culture, but their church, it seems.

    Consider the blizzard of recent saints: how many are noted for doing something: founding hospitals, schools, religious orders and how many were simply mystics? I don’t write that to “prove” a point–I’m just wondering.

    Let’s face it: many people are dual citizens by marriage or birth or choice. Or even by ordination. Such persons may well have something to offer in terms of what we might find in the culture of the 21st century. Maybe yoga isn’t all that bad if it allows us to float in space and silence and a more careful self-awareness. Maybe listening to music and not dancing to it is just fine. Instead of running maybe we should just breathe. Maybe human beings have value beyond what contributions they make through their work, however good or graced that work might be.

  2. Eloquently elocuted Todd; I wholeheartedly concur. As a Board Certified Chaplain, I often affirm to those in my care the spirituality of being, begun as children (the wisest theologians amongst us), abandoned for the spirituality of doing (which the Western world holds highly), and then the return to the spirituality of being in maturity (unless you become like one of these..). We are called human beings, not human doings…

  3. Lizette Larson, First I want to join the previous respondents in praising your homiletic eloquence for the presbyterial ordinations in your diocese. I praise you especially for being able to do so after the very long trip you mention. However, I do have a small ‘bone to pick’ with you. Why do you not spell Philip’s name in the usual Scriptural fashion? As someone named Philip James who celebrates his ‘name day’ on 3rd May I might be particularly sensitive to such things, but I suppose that it might be just inadvertence while typing. In fact, the two “ll” spelling changes the meaning of the name significantly — the OED gives ‘phillip’ as a variant for ‘fillip’ — which has to do with ‘coin tossing’ among other methods of ‘quick choosing’. As you can see it is a very minor complaint — or maybe not even a complaint — but I am curious as to your reason.

    1. @Philip Sandstrom:
      Well, Phillip is the more common spelling in the USA, for what that is worth, though the US Catholic Calendar and typical titling for Catholic churches uses the more Greek/Latin single L.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:
        Not to carry this discussion beyond usefulness, Phillip(s) is a common enough first name in British English, but it is in fact, ‘using a last family name as a first name’. When the ancestry is checked out one often discovers that there was someone who worked for or was indentured to the Phillips Family and as also often happened, when the ‘indentured service’ was over the person took or was given the ‘Family Name’ as their first or even surname. {This taking of the ‘bosses name’ was also common in the Roman Empire — and people were proud of their connection}. But it is not the Biblical name.

    2. @Philip Sandstrom:
      To Philip about Phillip…as one whose first name is often mis-spelled, I’m sympathetic, so I did a bit of exploring. The bulletin draft from which I was working as homilist has Phillip – which is how it is spelled in the Canadian prayer book – which is basically English. BUT, the newer Book of Alternative Services, borrowing more heavily from RC books, has Philip – there you have Canada – a bit of everything!

      1. @Lizette Larson-Miller:
        Thank you for your explanation. Another small thought on the choice of 1 or 2 “ll” s, adding a second “l” changes the Greek meaning of the name from “lover of horses” to “lover of fat”. So a source of scholarly amusement too. And thanks also for your kind research!

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