Fr. Rob sometimes shares a small theological musing to help form our faith and remind us of what we believe as Episcopalians. This is a compilation of those reflections.

Lenten Practices: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving

In the earliest days of Christianity, converts to the faith underwent a rigorous process of study and initiation which lasted several years. Such rigor was necessary because of the threat of persecution by the Roman Empire; so the Church needed to ensure that a person seeking baptism knew that their conversion could lead to martyrdom. Baptismal preparation concluded with a final 40 day period of “purification and enlightenment” culminating with their baptisms at Easter. In time, the baptized fasted during this 40 day period in solidarity with the catechumens. Today, we see the 40 days of Lent as a special time of conversion, repentance, and growing closer to God. We reflect on the things in our lives which have led us away from God, and we turn our hearts towards God again. 

The Church has traditionally recommended prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as practices that help us refocus our attention on God and the way of love. Any form of prayer which helps you quiet your heart and mind will help you discern the presence of God in your life. If possible, especially during the season of Lent, try to commit to a daily practice of prayer. 

Fasting includes the special days of fasting and abstinence, Ash Wednesday, and Fridays, but the practice of “giving up something” is essentially fasting. Giving up a small pleasure or a bad habit, and offering that to God can lead us back to God’s way of love by re-centering our lives in God and refocusing our desires on the things that God desires. It can also help us strengthen our trust in God, and, depending on what we give up, enable us to develop more empathy for the hungry and the poor as we fast in solidarity with them.

Almsgiving is a way of sharing our time and treasure with the poor, and shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for fasting and prayer. Prayer and fasting motivate our service, and our service informs our prayer and fasting. You can engage in this Lenten practice by volunteering or by supporting service organizations financially. Some people combine the three practices in an intentional way which helps them care for the poor in a more holistic way. For example, if someone gives up their daily trip to Starbucks for Lent, they may decide to give the money that they would have spent at Starbucks to the local Food Bank, and commit to remembering the hungry in their evening prayers.

However you choose to observe this holy season, I pray that you will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to grow closer to God in the way of love. I hope you will learn to be kind and gentle with yourself, to forgive yourself for the mistakes you have made, and to follow Jesus into the way of loving God with all of your beings, as you love your neighbor, as you love yourself.

Farewell to the Alleluia

Alleluia is a special liturgical word that means, “Praise God.” But its significance is more mystical than the words “Praise God” can convey. Alleluia signifies that ineffable joy present in those heavenly habitations where saints and angels behold God face to face in God’s perfect love. As we lift our hearts to God in prayer and praise, we use this word as an expression of our highest praise. Alleluia is a foretaste and a pledge of what awaits us in the life to come- a bit of heaven come down to earth. 

Since the fifth century, the Church has suspended the use of this mystical word of praise during Lent, as a reminder of the separation from God that sin brings. We walk the Lenten journey of repentance so that the Holy Spirit may bring healing and wholeness to our wounded hearts. We do not say alleluia, because for a time we mourn our sins and seek God’s mercy and forgiveness. But that does not mean that we do not offer any sacrifice of praise. Even as we contemplate our sins and seek God’s healing, we replace our alleluias with praise to Christ who reconciles us to God and forgives our sins. During the Mass of the lenten season we sing, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, King of endless glory,”- a glory which comforts and supports us during the Lenten season.

On the last Sunday after the Epiphany, we say farewell to the Alleluia. During medieval times their elaborate ceremonies evolved in which the alleluia was actually buried and “resurrected” on Easter. While we won’t be burying the alleluia, we will end the Mass on Sunday with many sung alleluias, as we turn away from the beauty of our Lord in his Transfigured Glory, and turn towards the healing lenten desert which will take us to the Cross and finally back to Easter Joy.

The Healing Sacraments

When Jesus healed someone in the Gospels, he almost always included the forgiveness of sin with a commandment to go and sin no more. We shouldn’t conclude that this means that our personal sin causes sickness- or worse that God punishes people by inflicting them with some illness. But, this does point to the holistic way that God sees us: the salvation and healing that God offers us is for both body and soul. 

The Sacrament of Unction is a sacrament of healing in which a priest anoints a sick person with oil, and lays hands on them with the prayer of faith, asking God’s healing grace and love to be present with the sick person. As late as the mid 20th century this sacrament was only given as one neared death, as part of last rites. But the liturgical renewal of the late 20th century saw the recovery of this sacrament to its biblical origins, in which any sick person could ask for healing grace through this sacrament at any time. It is important to remember that healing does not always mean cure. Yet, we believe that God’s love is always transforming us and preparing us for life eternal. 

The Sacrament of Reconciliation sometimes referred to as Confession, is a sacrament of healing for the soul. The earliest Christians saw sin as a sickness of the soul. The sacraments, particularly Baptism and the Holy Eucharist were seen as the medicine of immortality- the cure for sin. The Church has always believed that after baptism all of one’s sins are forgiven. But the question arose, “what happens when one sins after baptism?” The Sacrament of Reconciliation evolved as a means of offering absolution of sin, and spiritual counsel for those who sinned after baptism. It is rooted in the power that Jesus gave the Apostles to forgive sins. When a priest is ordained, this authority is given to the priest.

There is a General Confession at every Mass, and the priest absolves the sins of the penitent then. We, as Anglicans, following the teachings of the Apostle Paul, also believe that one may confess their sins directly to God through Jesus Christ and obtain mercy and forgiveness. But sometimes, it is helpful to confess one’s sins to a priest. This is helpful when one needs to hear the words of absolution when one needs or desires counsel and prayer, or when one’s conscience needs to find relief. In the Episcopal Church, this sacrament is always available to anyone who needs it, but no one is ever forced or coerced into making a confession. Of course, one’s confession remains under the stole of the priest, in total secrecy, and can never be revealed to another person (unless you confess that you are abusing a child, in which the Church requires the priest to report this to the authorities).