Rector's Chronicle

September 2018

Question: If pro is the opposite of con, what's the opposite of progress?
Answer: Congress!

Two bachelors were talking about their respective choice of life partner. One friend said, “It's generally accepted that people with opposing characteristics have the happiest marriages. What's your opinion?”
The friend replied, “Indeed! That's why I'm looking for a woman with a money!"

The world is full of what seem at times to be opposites, isn’t it?

Male and female, conservative and progressive, young and old, light and darkness, fire and water, physical and spiritual, and so on.

In Chinese philosophy, this is expressed as the “Yin” and the “Yang”. The symbol for this concept is that circle with a white, wave-like swirl surrounding a black dot, and beside it, a dark, wave-like swirl surrounding a white dot. It contains many of those contrasts I just mentioned: the positive active male principle and the creative passive female principles in nature for instance.  The point of it though, or one of the many points about it, is that both are intertwined; contrasted and yet inseparable; dependent on one another completely. And the dots, the white one in the heart of the dark, and the dark one in the heart of the white, speak to the fact that there is always some yin in the yang and some yang in the yin. They are not just inseparable, and dependent. They contain each other.

The other Wednesday, I celebrated the Eucharist facing away from the people. The reason for this reminder of the way things used to be in the Eucharist when I was growing up was to make us think about some of the main tensions in the faith and in worship. There are many spectrums in the Church: high and low, word and sacrament, transcendent and immanent, an unworldly faith; a faith that steps back from the broken world, and a worldly faith; a faith that steps forward, a kingdom building activist faith.

What difference does the bodily position of the priest make to what people experience in worship? Once you get past the strangeness of it, it may be a long time since any of us attended service where the priest faced liturgical east like this, what difference does it make? What is the priest facing the people or away from them mean? Why has the church moved from the one to the other?

Well, here is my take on part of it. On the spectrum of transcendence and immanence, on the spectrum of approaching God as utterly other; out there; the God who created the universe in whose presence we come to kneel in wonder, the eastward facing priest draws us to focus on that transcendent aspect. We are all together with the priest facing the altar and looking up and out through the cross to where the transcendent, liturgically and psychologically at least, resides.

The priest that faces us reminds us much more of the immanence of God; the God in our midst; God as with us. The emphasis is on the “with” and on the “us” as we are in a closed circle of faces, looking not outward, but at each other in community. We are much more gathered together, to meet each other perhaps, as opposed to gathered together with the priest to face away from each other towards God.

The point is that, like all these oppositions, there is not a right or wrong answer. There is just where we resolve them at a given time and in a given context. Our age seeks immanence, community, togetherness, common life and action, but, like the yin and the yang, we still retain a desire for the transcendent. We desire to meet with the supernatural reality that is here and yet beyond us. We still have that white dot in our dark wave. It is still part of us.

More generally it is worth thinking and reflecting on the other spectrums of faith I mentioned. Word and sacrament for instance. Some churches emphasize one very heavily over the other. The Episcopal Church tries to emphasis both equally, but we still have our shades along the spectrum too. The objective and real presence of Christ is found in both word and sacrament but in different ways that speak differently to different people.

Unworldly quietism and worldly activism: The faith that seeks separation from the world and its contaminants and the faith that seeks to build the kingdom now by activism, by struggling for peace and justice, and by service to the poor. They can seem like an opposition, but in reality they need each other and are nothing without each other.  The activist with no desire to step away from the world to be with God can lose sight of the Spirit that made him care about the world in the first place. The religious that ceases to care about, or be involved in the world, can become just someone who is waiting for the bus to heaven all their days.

All these tensions, these opposites profoundly need each other, just as I think it is true to say that the male principle needs the female principle and the female principle needs the male,  democrats or progressives need republicans or conservatives, and republicans or conservatives need democrats or progressives, the old need the young and the young need the old and so on. Without the blending and binding of these various contrasting principles the church, society and the human heart cannot be what they are supposed to be.

In our faith, and in the very liturgy we celebrate, we act out that need of all these contrasts in us because it is the God who is beyond everything that we desire to meet in our midst, and it is the God who comes to us as one of us in Jesus Christ that we look to in order to show us the Father who is above all and in all and through all.

With every blessing,

The Reverend Timothy A. R. Cole