August 2013


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Angel Weeping
Cathedral of the Assumption
Varna, Bulgaria

I read this line the other day in a quote from St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s tremendous work, “On Loving God”.  The last sentence of the quote says this…

“The earth under the ancient curse brought forth thorns and thistles; but now the Church beholds it laughing with flowers and restored by the grace of a new benediction. “

I’m not sure why, but this line has burned a hole in my heart ever since I read it, particularly the last bit, “restored by the grace of a new benediction”.  Given that I’ve been reading and writing about liturgy a good deal lately, and in particular, the benediction, this little phrase has become an inescapable thought.  It is absolutely haunting me, convicting me, reminding me of who I am as a created being, a fallen man, and a redeemed, adopted child of the living God.

I don’t know exactly what St. Bernard was thinking when he wrote this gem of a line, but what keeps replaying in my own mind are the final words of Christ on the cross…

“It is finished.”

The benediction, as a portion of liturgy, is the closing remark; a blessing to the hearer, followed by a challenge to live a life of mission.  My all-time favorite benediction can be found in scripture:

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”  (Colossians 3:15-17)

There’s a clear blessing: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you”.  There’s also a mission:  “Teach and admonish one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…be thankful…live as though you are infinitely impressed with God, like your toil is for Him rather than your checking account, your family, your employer, your clients, or the agency that pays your salary.

“It is finished” was Christ’s benediction, the last words spoken by the God-Man.  These words are not so easily interpreted.  I believe, though, that these words are the new benediction to which Bernard was referring.

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Bernard_Christ embracing_RIBALTA, Francisco

Christ Embracing St. Bernard
Francisco Ribalta
1625

I have to admit, I am posting a few days late in regard to the feast day for one of my favorite saints, Bernard of Clairvaux.  Bernard was born in Burgundy (now Southern France) in 1090.  Legend has it that as a child, he had a dream of the infant Christ in the manger, and the memory of that dream led to him fully devote his life to Jesus.  Bernard lived a monastic life, and was widely known as an influential speaker and writer.  History teaches us that his great oratory skills were a primary reason for the Second Crusade.  Muslims had captured Edessa, now Urfa, Turkey.  The Pope commissioned Bernard to inspire the masses to launch a Crusade to regain the territory.  Bernard was not entirely opposed to the idea of a Crusade;  in fact, he thought it might be a good way to encourage thieves, mercenaries, and ruffians to not only know Christ, but to also leave Burgundy to the care of more humble and law-abiding citizens.  I guess that’s one way to improve property values?

I’m kidding.  I know I might occasionally joke about deeply spiritual things, but I don’t think I will sizzle if you throw holy water on me…or at least I hope not…

Bernard was a tremendous writer and composer of hymns.  In fact, I was first exposed to his name through a great old hymn entitled “O Sacred Head now Wounded”, which is based on a poem that he wrote.   My own personal favorite piece of work from Bernard is a treatise called “On Loving God”, which can be read in full online here.

In recent days, I’ve been writing a good deal about liturgy.  Bernard is a figure that teaches to how, in the words of Kallistos Ware, to live the liturgy beyond the liturgy: How to properly respond to the great love of Christ beyond just Sunday morning, into our daily lives.  Bernard’s response to that great love was “to love Him far more than I love myself”.

St. Bernard passed on August 20, 1153, at the age of 63.  He had lived the monastic life for 40 years.  Today, the Anglican Church celebrates his feast day on the anniversary of his death.  His remains are interred at Troyes Cathedral, which is located in the Champagne region of France.

Here’s a few excerpts from “On Loving God” for you to consider. These represent just a portion of this great work, which was a tremendous influence on not only the Catholic Church, but helped shape the theologies of Calvin and Luther.  Bernard’s influence stretches far beyond a monastery in medieval France.  It continues to mold the Church as we know it today.  As you read the following, my prayer is that you can feel the passion this man had for Christ.  Hopefully, we can all strive toward this measure of love.

“You want me to tell you why God is to be loved and how much. I answer, the reason for loving God is God Himself; and the measure of love due to Him is immeasurable love.”

“Neither Jew nor pagan feels the pangs of love as doth the Church, which saith, ‘Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples; for I am sick of love’ (Song of Solomon 2:5)…she (the Church) sees the Sole-begotten of the Father bearing the heavy burden of His Cross; she sees the Lord of all power and might bruised and spat upon, the Author of life and glory transfixed with nails, smitten by the lance, overwhelmed with mockery, and at last laying down His precious life for His friends. Contemplating this the sword of love pierces through her own soul also and she cried aloud, ‘Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples; for I am sick of love.’ The fruits which the Spouse gathers from the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden of her Beloved, are pomegranates (SOS4:13), borrowing their taste from the Bread of heaven, and their color from the Blood of Christ. She sees death dying and its author overthrown: she beholds captivity led captive from hell to earth, from earth to heaven, so ‘that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth’ (Phil. 2:10). The earth under the ancient curse brought forth thorns and thistles; but now the Church beholds it laughing with flowers and restored by the grace of a new benediction. ”

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benediction holy fathers

I recently posted some thoughts in Top Ten Reasons that Liturgical Worship Works (Part 2) that included a few lines on the importance of the benediction.  I have to admit, I have seen pastors pull a benediction off of the top of their heads, which far too often, sounds like they pulled it from another less polite part of their body. 

The benediction, in and of itself, is a vital part of worship.  It is a spoken blessing over the lives of the listeners, and an encouragement to go forth into the world, taking what you have heard in Sunday’s scripture readings and homily, and to put those things into practice.  Bishop Todd Hunter writes in “Giving Church Another Chance” about how we far too often treat Sunday worship like it’s the end zone in a football game, when in fact, we should treat Sunday like the huddle, where we pause to take a breath; hear reproof, instruction, and encouragement; then break apart to fulfill individual roles that will make our collective community successful.  Sunday worship isn’t the only place that Kingdom is built.  Kingdom is built in our everyday, walking, talking, going to work, picking up our kids, caring for our neighbor, praying for others, eating dinner, and kissing the kids goodnight lives.  The benediction empowers us and encourages us to put feet to our faith.

Here’s some wonderful thoughts on the benediction from a gem  of a page I found on Facebook a while back.  Please take time to check out the Holy Fathers page, which includes photos, quotes, and much, much wisdom from ancient and contemporary saints of the Church. Here’s our thought for the day on the benediction…

“Let us go forth in peace” is the last commandment of the Liturgy. What does it mean? It means, surely, that the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy is not an end but a beginning. Those words, “Let us go forth in peace,” are not merely a comforting epilogue. They are a call to serve and bear witness. In effect, those words, “Let us go forth in peace,” mean the Liturgy is over, the liturgy after the Liturgy is about to begin.

This, then, is the aim of the Liturgy: that we should return to the world with the doors of our perceptions cleansed. We should return to the world after the Liturgy, seeing Christ in every human person, especially in those who suffer. In the words of Father Alexander Schmemann, the Christian is the one who wherever he or she looks, everywhere sees Christ and rejoices in him. We are to go out, then, from the Liturgy and see Christ everywhere.”

Kallistos of Diokleia

The photograph in today’s post was borrowed from the Holy Father’s Facebook page, and is credited to Cristina Nichitus Roncea.  You can see more of her work on her blog here….

One of my favorite authors is Mike Aquilina, who has written several books on the Church Fathers, their sayings, and their history.  A particular favorite of mine is “Praying the Psalms with the Early Christians”.   Each chapter includes a reading from Psalms, a passage to focus on, and a homily from a Church Father related to the Psalm. Please take some time to check out his webpage here.

Finally, take some time to learn more about Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, or Kallistos Ware by clicking here.  The Bishop is known as the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate of Great Britain, and is a very accomplished author.  You can check out his books on Amazon by clicking here.

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