A Gift of Listening for the Feast of the Ascension

Yesterday we posted a recording of the “Serene Alleluias” from The Ascension by Olivier Messiaen on the “Gift of Listening” playlist on our YouTube channel.

Paired with beautiful imagery from the Church of the Transfiguration, this piece is a gentle aural rhapsody, depicting a soul longing for return to Heaven. Listen as you read the text which inspired this piece.
Messiaen’s L’Ascension (1932-33), a suite of four meditations on Christ’s return to Heaven, was originally composed for orchestra. Messiaen re-envisioned it for organ the following year.  This recording is the second movement of the suite, and is a true transcription of the orchestral version, calling for the same instrumental voices – flutes, strings, and woodwinds.  Because the instrument in the Church of the Transfiguration is a type of organ known as an “orchestral organ”, it contains all of the sumptuous sounds called for in the score.  This movement was inspired by and is a picture of this text: Serene Alleluias of a Soul Longing for Heaven “We beseech Thee, Almighty God, that we may in mind dwell in Heaven.”(Text from Mass for Ascension Day) Messiaen’s wife once said that his composing was never more beautiful or moving than when he was “before the Eucharist.” How true that is of this movement as we hear Messiaen call upon the sweetest and warmest sounds of the organ to make his vision audible, even employing nature itself with bird calls!

Ascension of Our Lord – May 21

Ascension Day commemorates Jesus’ bodily ascension into heaven. It is celebrated traditionally across the Christian world on the fortieth day after Easter, Holy Thursday, but often as well on the following Sunday. The ascension of Jesus breaches the veil between heaven and earth. This beautiful mystery transcends the finite mind of humankind.

Jesus surprised His disciples and followers by appearing to them in bodily form ten different times following His resurrection from the tomb. He understood how difficult it was for the disciples to comprehend the reality of His resurrection. So He came to them in ways they could understand, preparing a breakfast of fish for them, interpreting scriptures as He so often had before.

The disciples wanted their friend and rabbi to remain with them forever. However, Jesus explained that He must return to heaven so that He could send the Holy Spirit, who would remain with them throughout their earthly pilgrimage. Jesus’ ascension was preparing them for a new experience. The Holy Spirit, as promised, would connect the disciples with the heavenly Jesus in a new way, breaching the veil between heaven and earth. And, all who believe and follow Jesus share a connection through the Holy Spirit.

Our brothers and sisters in Christ who knew Him first, we’re grateful for your struggle to understand the unfathomable. Through your obedience, we too wait for the spirit who descends on Pentecost. Ascension Day breaches and foreshadows our own crossing of the veil between heaven and earth, whether in death or daily life. Ascension in all its mystery and awe is a great comfort and a harbinger of an unimaginable creative connection between heaven and earth.

Ascension Fresco at the Church of the Transfiguration, Community of Jesus on Cape Cod. Painted by Silvestro Pistolesi from Florence, Italy

Ascension Fresco painted by Silvestro Pistolesi – Church of the Transfiguration

Love Conquers Fear

During this time of sheltering in place, I am grateful to be learning new things about how to handle my fear.  I’ve discovered two places in the Bible that help teach me.

The first is the story of Jesus calming the storm in Matthew, Chapter 8. I realize that He has given me authority over those storms that arise in me, whether they manifest themselves as fear, anger, or whatever kind of turmoil.

What an empowering thought that I don’t need to be taken over by my fear! But how do I go about taking authority over my fear? Well, if I take a hint from the disciples, they had to be aggressive! They woke Jesus up. Not that Jesus is ever asleep, but He waits until we come to Him and ask with energy.

The second story in the Bible is found in Matthew 14. Jesus sent His disciples to get in the boat and go on ahead of Him to the other side. It says, “By this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from land for the wind was against them.” That description of their circumstances would be enough to get me anxious! But then they saw Jesus coming towards them, walking on water. They thought He was a ghost, and they cried out in fear. Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter challenged Jesus to command him to come to Him on the water. (Peter must have believed it was Jesus because someone impersonating Jesus could have asked him to come, and he could have drowned!) Peter was able to walk on water towards Jesus until he noticed the strong wind; then, he became frightened and began to sink.

We need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus when we bring Him our concerns. I recently read that we too often keep our gaze on the problems while only glancing at Him, rather than vice versa.  He wants us to trust in His goodness.  I wonder what miracles could be performed if we kept our eyes on Jesus, knowing that He will take care of our fears.

Feast Day of St. Pachomius – May 15th

Saint Pachomius is a 4th-century saint whose name is barely known. His feast day is May 15th.  St Pachomius is celebrated in the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Coptic, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches.

Pachomius was born in Egypt during the era of the desert hermits.  Even as a child, he pursued religious life and fasted rigorously.  Pachomius, when a teenager, was conscripted unwillingly into the Roman Army; he traveled down the Nile arriving at Thebes, where local Christians brought refreshments to the ill-treated Army conscripts. Pachomius met these Christians who did “all manner of good.. treating everyone with love for the sake of the God of heaven.” They made a lasting impression on Pachomius. Upon being released from the army, he was converted and baptized.

In search of a deepening in his faith, Pachomius visited an elderly desert hermit, Palaemon, who turned Pachomius away perfunctorily. It says in the Benedictine Rule, one who wishes entry must knock perseveringly and determinedly. Pachomius did! Palaemon, by then an old monk/hermit, was rewarded at the end of his days with a studious devotee. Pachomius submitted to Paleomon’s teachings and wisdom.

Later, more than 100 monks came to encircle Pachomius and learn from him, prompting Pachomius, drawing on his military experience, to write down a rule for living in community. Both St. Anthony and St. Benedict drew from this cenobitic/communal Rule. The Rule sought to balance prayer with manual work, communal life with solitude. Each of the hermits could order his day within these guidelines. However, the heart and soul of Pachomius’ Rule was compassion and love for the brothers and an endless stream of forgiveness, the central requirements of successful communal life. During Pachomius’ lifetime, nine monasteries and two nunneries were established with hundreds of monks in Palestine, Syria, North Africa, and even Western Europe following his guidance; Pachomius was called Abba, Father from which the present-day word Abbot derives.
A story from this period of Pachomius’ life tells of his friendship with a crocodile. According to tradition, the crocodile ferried Pachomius across the Nile on his back whenever required.

Like Pachomius, let us search determinedly and doggedly for our call and place in the divine order, whatever our station. May our lives be filled with compassion, love, and endless forgiveness. At Pachomius’ death in 346 at age 56, an estimated 5000 monks and nuns had followed his teaching and example.

Feast of Saint Pachomius

Feast of Saint Pachomius

 

Feast of St. Matthias – May 14

Matthias, just chosen to be an Apostle, was one of a hundred and twenty praying and waiting in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Then early on the tenth day, great rushing wind filled the house, and tongues of fire appeared among them all, as they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in other languages. Outside were devout Jews from every part of the Roman Empire; they were astounded to hear so many different languages.

Although little is known about Matthias, the New Testament shows he had been with Jesus from the time of His Baptism. Shortly after that, Jesus sent seventy-two disciples, including Matthias, on a mission. They went in pairs – no purse, no bag, no sandals. Entering a house, they stayed there, prayed peace upon it, ate and drank what was given them, healed the sick, and proclaimed the Kingdom of God. Jesus, however, warned them they were like lambs among wolves and would meet some rejection, which was as serious as rejecting Him, so serious that it would be better for Sodom on the Day of Judgement than it would be for their persecutors.

Despite the challenges, Matthias and the others returned with joy! Many had listened to their message; demons were cast out in the name of Jesus, but best of all, Jesus promised that their names were written in heaven. Matthias eagerly followed Christ. Soon after the Ascension, Peter believed God was asking the group of believers, as written in the Scriptures, to find a twelfth man to be an apostle to replace Judas. They considered Matthias and Joseph called Barsabbas because both were faithful, and both had seen the resurrected Jesus. The Apostles then prayed and cast lots. Matthias was chosen.

After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in the presence of the other Apostles and believers, Peter preached with boldness and authority in Jerusalem. On that same day, three thousand people joined them, devoting themselves to the Apostles’ teaching. As the Good News spread, many more became believers. Matthias went on to preach and teach in Judea, and according to several sources, took Christianity to Cappadocia, and the Caspian Sea. Here he endured much persecution but worked valiantly among the people. Traditionally, he was crucified near the Caspian Sea in 80 A.D.  Matthias believed that his name was written in heaven just as Jesus had promised him many years earlier. “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Saint Matthias Carved Sculpture at the Church of the Transfiguration on Cape Cod

Saint Matthias at the Church of the Transfiguration

The Time Is Now

During these times of quarantine and shelter in place, I am learning so many new things. I suppose it is because I have been forced to slow down. I’ve known in my head that Jesus won’t come where He hasn’t been invited, but I’ve never realized how much He desires our communication with Him, that He craves our invitation. As I slow my steps, I see more; I hear more.

I’ve read “The Walk to Emmaus” in the Gospel of Luke many times before, but it never had struck me what happened right before Jesus broke bread with them. It reads, “As they came near the village to which they were going, He walked ahead as if He were going on. But they urged Him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ “So, He went in to stay with them.”

  We don’t know if Jesus was really going to leave them when it was almost evening. All it says is that when they came near to the village to which they were going, He walked ahead as if He were going on. The Lord didn’t stay with them until they urged Him strongly, almost begging Him to stay. Are there times when He may “walk on ahead” of me because I don’t take the time to tell Him how much I need His presence in my life?

Directly after the disciples asked Him to stay, “He was at the table with them, He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him.” Are there times that I am going so quickly that I, like the disciples, don’t recognize Him, places I don’t hear Him or see Him?

And really, in a way, those disciples had been quarantined together in the Upper Room. Were they more prepared to be with Jesus and ask Him the right questions because they used their time in the Upper Room the way He wanted them to? All these questions give me the motivation to think about how to best make use of this unique situation.

Image: Nicolas Lokhoff

 

Icon: Nicolas Lokhoff

Light Overcame Darkness

 

During this time of Lent, this time where the Equinox has just occurred, this extraordinary time where the whole world has been experiencing the Coronavirus, I am listening to hear what the Lord has to teach me.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Covid-19 struck during Lent, or Equinox, the time of “equal light and equal dark.” I’m finding that when I give in to my fears, the worst part of me comes out, and I need to confess it to the Lord and let His Light cleanse me. I must choose to believe that He is in control.

I find it interesting that the Coronavirus is so named because under the electron microscope, each virion is surrounded by a “corona” or a crown-like shape.  Jesus is the only true King, who deserves the Crown, and has promised us, “be not afraid of what you are about to suffer…Be faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the Crown of life.”  Where are there places in my life where Jesus is not King; what are the things I have put on the throne instead, that I am finding out now with this world crisis? (All those places where I don’t trust His love over my will and opinions of the way I think life should be.)

Remembering that He is King and that during Passion Week, we are celebrating His battle over fear and darkness is such a gift. It helps us find His strength and gladness during these times of trial.

Lead on, O King Eternal
The day of march has come;
Henceforth in fields of conquest
Thy tents shall be our home.
Through days of preparation
Thy grace has made us strong;
And now, O King Eternal,
We lift our battle song.

Lead on, O King Eternal,
Til sin’s fierce war shall cease,
And holiness shall whisper
The sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords/ loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums;
With deeds of love and mercy
The heav’nly kingdom comes.

Lead on, O King Eternal,
We follow, not with fears,
For gladness breaks like morning
Where’er Thy face appears.
Thy cross is lifted o’er us,
We journey in its light;
The Crown awaits the conquest;
Lead on, O God of might.

Author: Ernest W. Shurtleff

 

 

Image by Alex Hu from Pixabay

Palm Sunday

Hosanna to the Son of David

Palm Sunday, Jerusalem praises ‘Hosanna to the Son of David, the One who comes in the name of the Lord’ welcoming its savior from the clutches of the Roman Empire. Was this the secret purpose of God? It seems it was not. His kingdom was not of this world. On one level the crowds were all correct, He would deliver them but not the way they expected. On another level, they were utterly wrong. 

What did they or we not see? One Lenten gospel is the story of the man born blind. He received his natural sight as a gift from Jesus but, perhaps, more importantly, the sight of his heart, which has nothing to do with what one sees with their eyes. The book, ‘All the Light We Can Not See,’ popular a few years back, witnesses to this fact. The book is based on a true story of a man blinded at the age of 8 years but who truly saw, cultivating a seeing with the heart. 

Physical sight like that of the Pharisees or crowds on Palm Sunday revealed just one aspect of what they experienced. Jesus saw with the light/sight of the heart when He spoke to the blind man and restored his vision.  The man saw with his heart as well as his eyes and immediately followed Jesus.

Jesus acknowledged and accepted the worship and praise of Palm Sunday, knowing most would desert Him at the cross. There they would have to seek the Redeemer King on a different plane than the waving of palm branches.

As we grapple with the reality of Covid-19, let us not forget, One stands guard behind the veil of this unseen enemy that disrupts and frightens us. We need only search for Savior and King on a deeper level.  He is there, captain of our hearts, only reached through the suffering of Holy Week, a holy search for the reality of love, and the secret purpose of God, which is stronger than the cross, stronger than death. May we all on this earth find the reality of this love at this time.

 

Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow!

Many of those who have toured the Church of the Transfiguration, attended a concert, or joined us for worship have told us that their visit was an opportunity for peace, recollection and spiritual refreshment. As most of us in our nation (and indeed across the globe) are currently at home, we wanted to continue to share the gift of the church with short, meditative videos of music and art. 

There are countless settings of “Old 100th” or, what we have come to call “The Doxology.” This short hymn of praise is a wonderful antidote to fear and anxiety and a reminder of God’s blessings.

Click through to hear Robert Lau’s setting of this work, played by Jim Jordan on the E.M. Skinner organ at the Church of the Transfiguration and read more about the text and tune below…

Really, any hymn verse which sings praise directly to each person of the Trinity is called a “doxology” (just like the final verses of Gregorian Chant hymns from the Liturgy of the Hours.) But, this text and tune, which are not original to each other(!) have become part of “us”, regardless of our denominational background and one of our earliest examples of singing hymns in the vernacular!

The tune itself is first found in the Genevan Psalter (1541), attributed to Louis Bourgeois, a Parisian who moved to Geneva and was actually the church musician working directly under John Calvin. This tune was originally set with Psalm 134, later used with Psalm 100, “All People that on earth do dwell”, made most famous in the last century in Ralph Vaughan William’s setting for choir, orchestra, organ and congregation for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Today, you can open almost any hymnal and find this hymn – perhaps our best known and most oft-sung hymn of praise!

 

The Annunciation of Our Lord — Feast Day March 25th

“Do not be afraid”, these words spoken by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary over two millennia ago, still resonate in the human heart. Imagine a young Jewish girl, the daughter of Anne and Joachim, possibly trained in the temple, experiencing this Visitation. There is no record in the Scriptures of anyone who was spoken to as she, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you”, and then, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God”. Mary, barely out of childhood, believed deeply in God. And although she was astounded to learn she would conceive and bear a son, she listened intently before asking how this would be possible. 

Gabriel answered, “The power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be holy; He will be called the Son of God.” And he went on to say that her kinswoman Elizabeth, although long barren, had conceived a son six months earlier. She was encouraged to believe and accept what the Angel had said, but was also free to choose.

Her simple reply, “Let it be with me according to your word” still stands as our example of fully embracing a call full of mystery and the unknown. This was an integral part of the Good News which had been promised hundreds of years earlier in Genesis. So when the Angel Gabriel left Nazareth, Mary went immediately to visit her cousin Elizabeth in Judea. Elizabeth, who was well beyond child-bearing age, was already in her sixth month and awaiting the birth of a promised son. It was there that Mary, after greeting Elizabeth, was filled with the Holy Spirit and responded exultantly with God’s promise for Mary and many others: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, according to the promise He made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever”.  Her response, known as The Magnificat, remains a beloved vespers canticle in Christian liturgy.

The Annunciation was celebrated as early as the 4th century. Since then, many havemeditated upon this significant event; musicians, iconographers, artists, and others have captured some of its beauty and significance. In recent centuries musicians, Pachelbel in the 17th century and Mozart in the 18th century for example, have beautifully conveyed God’s faithfulness in moving Vespers antiphons. And there have been numerous inspired icons of the Annunciation. Many iconographers have fasted and prayed while creating their works.  One well-known icon is in Tinos, an island off Greece, and there are many other celebrated icons in Russian churches. All these are wonderful reminders that “God is compassionate and gracious, abounding in love and faithfulness.” (Psalm 86:15)

Annunciation Icon painted by a Sister at the Community of Jesus on Cape Cod

Icon of The Annunciation painted by Sr. Faith from the Community of Jesus on Cape Cod