Friday, January 3, 2020

Petitions for a blessed New Year

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"For I am sure that neither death; nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:38-39)

To follow up on the recent meditation, 'Resolutions or Repentance', I would simply like to point out some key features of the petitions that we recently prayed for a blessed New Year. Specifically, I would like to comment on how we address God in these petitions, for it reveals how we understand, approach, pray to and praise the God we believe in. And here we keep in mind the words of St. Gregory the Theologian: "When I say God, I mean the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

I shared a few of these specially-created petitions in the last meditation, but what stood out for me this year as I chanted them in the service, are the various titles that we ascribe to God in the process. Basically, it proves to be a "variation on a theme." And the theme is: God is love (I Jn. 4:8). As I usually add when I remind us of this most basic of all truths, is that the expression — "God is love" — is not be confused in any way with a kind of religious sentimentalism. The Cross — "You were bought with a price" (I Cor. 6:20) — will always liberate us from any such sentimentalizing of the Gospel.

Be that as it may, in the Augmented Litany for A Prayer Service for the New Year, there are seven of these unique petitions that stand out. They are longer than usual and they cover our prayer for the avoidance of "calamities;" the appeasing of "enmity, discord and civil strife;" for forgiveness of our "innumerable transgressions;" the continued need of "the warmth of the sun;" for strengthening of "Thy Holy Church;" a plea to "root out and extinguish every blasphemous impiety;" and deliverance from "famine, destruction ... the invasion of enemies and civil war ... and every death bearing wound."

This is a list that emphasizes the fragility of our lives and the unpredictability of unforeseen events that threaten the peace of our lives. I would simply guess that these petitions originated in the (medieval) world of Byzantium, a world in which there was a more direct encounter with the realities of the natural world, the havoc of bad weather, lack of medical care and/or an invasion from hostile forces. In our minds, this is a realism that perhaps shades toward pessimism. Or at least for those of us in a world in which taking refuge in technology, medicine or the protection of the law, seems natural, and thus able to relieve of some of the basic problems facing human beings not that long ago; but which may have been quite remote in a large swath of the Christianized Eastern Roman Empire of the past.

I am not saying that these petitions are "dated" and therefore no longer relevant to our current situation. In a fallen world, human nature continues to be what it has always been, and "there is nothing new under the sun" as the Scriptures remind us. "Calamities" may take on a new form in our contemporary world, but we continue to feel uneasy in the face of the unpredictable: the next school/mall/church/synagogue shooting; a rampaging tornado or hurricane; the outbreak of a new disease; or a "cardiac episode." Our contemporary list does not seem a great deal less hazardous, when it gets right down to it. Thus, throughout human history, whether in the pre-modern, modern or post-modern worlds of our creation, "calamities" have always occurred and continue unabated.

To return to my original point, however, I am struck at how these lengthy petitions end in addressing God. In succession, we pray to God in the following manner, as: "O All-gracious Lord;" "O Tenderly-merciful Lord;" "O All-compassionate Lord;" "O Almighty Master;" "O All-powerful Lord;" and "O Tenderly-compassionate Lord." God's majesty and power are emphasized, but God's mercy compassion predominate. (Not that there is a real conflict between God's omnipotence and mercy). 

Thus, we are not in the hands of an angry God, but of those of a loving God. We should recall that for St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the "two hands of God" are the Son and the Holy Spirit. (That image of an "angry God" that Christians have embraced and promoted for centuries has been profoundly unfortunate, to put it mildly.) We humbly acknowledge in these same petitions that we are "unprofitable servants" (if you are ready to argue against that claim, I would like to hear what you have to say).

We further acknowledge that we are sinners in desperate need of grace and mercy (how refreshing to not feel compelled by a need for self-validation, or the maintenance of a particular white-washed image to others, to defensively claim whenever we do something wrong that I am really a "nice person!"). There is nothing abject about such acknowledgment, but a sobering realism that we, too, are subject to the passions and sinful distortions - or simply unavoidable circumstances - that are both "out there" and "within us." As St. Peter wrote to fellow Christians: "Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (I Pet. 5:8). The Gospel tells us that God desires to save us from all of this - not to punish us.

The tension may arise when we think deeply on the seeming contradiction between the endless "calamities" that expose us to danger, and the assurance that we are the servants of a loving and graceful God who numbers the hairs on our head according to Christ. That is the tension I perceive within these petitions I keep referring to: a litany of "bad things" closing with the praise of a "tenderly-compassionate God."

Is there a disconnect in all of this that we piously avoid questioning? Why doesn't God solve all of these tensions on our behalf, if he indeed loves us? In our limited understanding, no one has been able to answer those questions when put in that form. As it is, I rather doubt that we will ever solve the haunting questions faced by Job, and cast today rather superficially as: "why do bad things happen to good people?" Yet, once our faith matures to the point where we abandon the image of God as cosmic magician - if not butler - who is supposed to guarantee us a long and prosperous life where nothing serious or life-threatening ever happens - yet, even so, we will still die!- then we can face "calamities" with a hopeful realism that we are always in the hands of a merciful and loving God who desires our salvation.

Jesus teaches us to trust God - not blindly but, again, hopefully with a mature faith. Or, in the incomparable words of the Apostle Paul: "Who shall separate us from the low of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through hum who loved us" (Rom. 8:35,37).  I, for one, am confident that the prayers of the Church in the form of these petitions for a blessed New Year have got it right.

Through faith, intuitively, by inner perception, we know that the God who has revealed Himself in Christ is the "All-compassionate Lord."

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