The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Monday, September 12, 2005


A few weeks ago, Deborah Gyapong forwarded to me some thoughts by a Protestant pastor about Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cologne for the World Youth Day celebrations of the Roman Catholic Church. Said pastor is the Presbyterian Rev. Dr. Mark Roberts, who received all three of his degrees from Harvard, his doctorate being in New Testament and Christian Origins.

The Pope preached to the youth on the episode of the Magi from Matthew Ch. 2, and as Dr. Roberts observes, “His main point about the Magi was that their encounter with Jesus required a profound change in their way of thinking and being. Though they might have thought that when they finally reached the place where Jesus was, their journey was over, in fact ‘a new journey began for them, an inner pilgrimage which changed their whole lives’.”

On his blog (web log), Dr. Roberts went on to say, “On Friday I continued my examination of the Pope’s welcoming address to the thousands of youth gathered on the bank of the Rhine river in Cologne, Germany. So far, I’ve been impressed by the Christ-centeredness and pastoral sensitivity in the Pope’s speech. Much of what he said I could say as well, even though I’m a Protestant and he’s a Catholic (You know, ‘Is the Pope Catholic?’).

“However, in the closing paragraphs of the address Benedict XVI gets into the tricky and touchy issue of relics: bones (or other material items) of dead saints that are protected and venerated in Catholic holy sites. ‘And now I shall go as a pilgrim to the Cathedral of Cologne, to venerate the relics of the holy Magi who left everything to follow the star which was guiding them to the Saviour of the human race. You too, dear young people, have already had, or will have, the opportunity to make the same pilgrimage’.”

“Now we come to one of the classically divisive issues among Christians. The whole issue of relics was central to the Protestant reformation, and it continues to be something that gives Protestant Christians the heebee-jeebees. In many of Europe’s finest cathedrals you’ll find relics of deceased saints. This can seem very odd to those not familiar with the practice. And it can even seem idolatrous. Indeed, there have been times in church history when the veneration of relics has become so extreme as to warrant, not only Reformed critique, but reform within Catholicism itself.

“In his speech on the Rhine, the Pope is saying that he’s going to the cathedral to ‘venerate the relics of the holy Magi.’ And he is encouraging others to do the same. What are we to make of this? After all the wonderful Christ-centred material in Benedict’s address, has he gone and lost it in the arcane world of Catholic relics? Not necessarily. Check out his next two paragraphs, with which he concludes his welcome address.
“‘These relics are only the poor and frail sign of what those men were and what they experienced so many centuries ago. The relics direct us towards God Himself: it is He Who, by the power of His grace, grants to weak human beings the courage to bear witness to Him before the world.

“‘By inviting us to venerate the mortal remains of the martyrs and saints, the Church does not forget that, in the end, these are indeed just human bones, but they are bones that belonged to individuals touched by the living power of God. The relics of the saints are traces of that invisible but real presence which sheds light upon the shadows of the world and reveals the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst. They cry out with us and for us: “Maranatha!” – “Come, Lord Jesus!”’”

Dr. Roberts then goes on, in an almost giddy state that the Pope has made the happy point that the relics themselves are not the object of worship, rather they point us towards God as our only object of worship. This, according to Dr. Roberts, puts Benedict XVI right up there with the best in Catholic tradition: Jerome, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. As an aside, we might hope that this will put to rest yet another gross misunderstanding in the minds of many western Christians about the Roman Catholic Church, and just Who and What It is that She worships.

Which brings us to a few other similar issues, as we topically find ourselves in the octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What about the veneration of Saints, let alone their bones? What about asking dead people, and especially the Blessed Virgin Mary, to pray for us? Are these unwarranted fabrications of the hopelessly corrupt (sic) medieval Church, or do they have roots that go back much further?

In the case of the veneration of Saints, we have a very early record. In a circular letter of the Church of Smyrna (Eus., Hist. Eccl., IV, xxiii) we find mention of the religious celebration of the day on which St. Polycarp suffered martyrdom (23 February, 155 AD). St. Polycarp, we may recall, was a disciple of the Apostle, St. John. The words of a passage in the letter exactly express the main purpose which the Church has in the celebration of such anniversaries:
“We have at last gathered his bones, which are dearer to us than priceless gems and purer than gold, and laid them to rest where it was befitting they should lie. And if it be possible for us to assemble again, may God grant us to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom with gladness, thus to recall the memory of those who fought in the glorious combat, and to teach and strengthen by his example, those who shall come after us.”

We must note very carefully here the distinction between veneration and worship. The early Church held Polycarp’s bones to be precious indeed; they honoured them, but they did not worship them. Rather, their hope was that they might be able, on an annual basis to meet especially for the remembrance of the life of the Saint, who served “to teach and strengthen by his example.”

Additional records, for example from the catacombs, show us that this remembrance of Saints, and what we might learn from the example of their lives, goes back to the very early days of the Church. For parts of the Church to cut themselves off from this practice some 1500 years later and to turn their backs on something that even has Biblical allusions that span the two Covenants is truly unfortunate. That the early Church, and the Jews of their time both venerated the patriarchs and prophets (Abraham, Moses, Elijah), is but one very clear example recorded for us in Holy Scripture. Some may also recall a sermon that I have preached twice on the Feast of All Saints, where I dangled the teaser during the sermon that it is a good thing for us to thus remember Saints, as they can give us something that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ cannot. Only at the end of the sermon did I reveal that what the lives of Saints can give us that Jesus can’t is the example of sinners being made holy. It is a good and logical thing to thus learn from the lives and examples of Saints.

What about the Blessed Virgin Mary? Detractors will usually point to her almost complete absence from the pages of the New Testament following the Day of Pentecost in Acts Ch. 2. An all too hasty judgement quite frankly, as there are other references, important at that. St. Paul, in his letter to the Church in Galatia – often recognized as the oldest of all of the New Testament writings – in his brilliant summary of God’s perfect plan for the redemption of mankind, in Chapter 4 says, “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman…”

Acknowledging that, and the allusion to the woman in Revelation about which the jury remains out as to whether she represents the Church only or both the Church and Mary, there is in truth nought else mentioned about her in the pages of the Bible after Pentecost. But what are we to make of the claim that her veneration above all other Saints was just plunked on the Church at the third Ecumenical Council of the undivided Church at Ephesus in 431 AD? And, by the way, our Affirmation of St. Louis states that we accept all of the decrees of the first seven Councils. The wording from the third Council acknowledges her as theotokos – God bearer, and states, “If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is God in truth, and therefore that the holy virgin is the mother of God (for she bore in a fleshly way the Word of God become flesh), let him be anathema.”

Was this truly as sudden as many will claim? Hardly; in fact, it would appear that her veneration significantly predates that of Polycarp. One of the very first attacks on the post-Apostolic Church, not all that long after John had put down his quill on the isle of Patmos, having recorded the visions that we call Revelation, one of the first attacks was against the Virgin Birth. The earliest defence for which we have a record (there may be earlier) is that of St. Ignatius of Antioch (martyred c.110 AD), where he states in his first letter to the Ephesians, “There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.” We should note how St. Ignatius does not just give a simple defence of the Virgin Birth. In a poetic way, he also comments on the awesome significance of her part in the Incarnation. Did things fall silent about Mary after St. Ignatius?

In fact, there many other writings by the early Church Fathers about Mary. Not long after Ignatius, who also made other references to her importance, Justin Martyr (martyred 165 AD), in his dialogue with Trypho in 150 AD says, “He became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, 'Be it unto me according to thy word.' And by her has He been born, to whom we have proved so many Scriptures refer, and by whom God destroys both the serpent and those angels and men who are like him; but works deliverance from death to those who repent of their wickedness and believe upon Him.” And thus began the reference to her as the new Eve. Irenaeus, a disciple of the aforementioned Polycarp, not long after Justin Martyr, expounded on the same in his writing entitled “Against Heresies.” Tertullian, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and so on, all wrote about her importance, not just in terms of her obedience, but also in terms of her pure virginity as the only appropriate vessel to bear the Incarnate Word. Which is to say, the supposed “cult of Mary” is not a cult at all. The full recognition of her importance, and therefore her veneration, go back to the beginnings of the Church. And why should this surprise us? Ponder for a moment: she bore God Incarnate in her womb, “immensity cloistered in thy dear womb” was how John Donne phrased it. No one else, no matter how holy and how revered by posterity, comes even close to her in terms of the importance of her place in human history. She is the chosen vessel, highly favoured, to be called blessed by all generations, in whom God Incarnate found His dwelling place, given both an impossibly unthinkable privilege far above that ever bestowed upon any other human, but also entrusted with an utterly awesome responsibility – because from her, God Incarnate took His humanity. How can she not be worthy of honour?

What about the practice of praying for one another? Even older. St. Paul repeatedly asks the various geographical parts of the Church to whom he addressed his letters (his Epistles) to pray for him. Removed from sight, and separated by distance and time, he nonetheless implores their prayers. This type of prayer we refer to as intercession, though we often hear the word supplication used as well. The first three-quarters of the Prayer for the Church that begins on page 75, and that we pray during every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, is a perfect example. The “Holy Apostle” mentioned at the beginning of the prayer is in fact St. Paul. And then all through the prayer – “We beseech Thee also to lead all nations in the way of righteousness…grant unto Thy servant Elizabeth our Queen …Give grace, O heavenly Father, to all Bishops, Priests, and Deacons…Prosper, we pray Thee, all those who proclaim the Gospel of Thy Kingdom…comfort and succour all them, who in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.” All following the example and request of St. Paul, and praying for those removed from our sight and separated from us by distance.

There is an entire section of the Prayer Book, not well-known by some, that is full of the most wonderful intercessory prayers – it runs from page 39 to page 64. Have a look sometime.

Turning back now to veneration, it does bear mentioning here that, human nature being what it is, people began to go beyond just veneration of Saints, dangerously close – some would even say fully into – actual worship. Fairly early on, the Greek part of the Church gave us three terms that have served well ever since: latria – the highest form of adoration and worship that is due to God alone; dulia, the honour paid to the Saints; and hyperdulia, the veneration offered to the Blessed Virgin Mary as her who was specially chosen by God to be the spotless vessel by which He became Incarnate as Saviour of the World and from whom He took His humanity.

But this all brings us to that other sticky wicket that raised its head in the 16th century Reformation and still represents a divisive issue between Catholics/Orthodox and Protestants – the invocation of Saints, and in particular to our thoughts today, The Angelus. The main complaints being: how in the world can dead people hear us? why should we pray to anyone other than the Three Persons of the Trinity? and there is no record of such a practice in the Bible.

But before we get to that, there is the intermediate consideration of fellowship with the departed. What do we make of that? Well, in the same aforementioned prayer for the Church, after the many intercessions on behalf of the living, we pray, “We remember before Thee, O Lord, all thy servants departed this life in Thy faith and fear; and we bless Thy holy Name for all who in life and death have glorified Thee (the original 1549 BCP includes here, ‘chiefly the blessed and glorious Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ our Lord and God, and the holy Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, and Martyr’); beseeching Thee to give us grace that, rejoicing in their fellowship, we may follow their good examples, and with them be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom.” Removed from sight, and separated by distance and time, we nonetheless give thanks for them and acknowledge our fellowship with them. In relation to this, and to the biddings that we say just before this prayer for the Church, we will hear the terms, The Church Militant (that’s us here on earth), The Church Expectant (that’s those in the Intermediate State or Purgatory for the Romans), and The Church Triumphant (those blessed few who have already attained the Beatific vision in the nearer presence of God). When we say, “Let us pray for Christ’s Holy Catholic Church,” we mean all three parts: militant, expectant and triumphant. Listen also carefully today to the Proper Preface today – that which follows, “It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty…”

Fine, the Church has been praying for the departed for a very long time, and it consistently has been part of our Anglican tradition; but, how old is the practice of asking dead people to pray for us?

Most certainly, this grew later than the aforementioned veneration of Saints. But there is at least one very obvious and important explanation for this. It is very clear from both the New Testament, and even the writings of the early part of the second century, that the Church expected Jesus to return immediately. With that expectation, what could be the possible use for asking the already departed to pray for us? It truly is as simple as that.

In the latter part of the second century, and then accelerating as the realization dawned that Jesus was not returning next Thursday, the Church began to contemplate more deeply the idea of just how expansive is the fellowship of all believers, the Communion of Saints. Again, if we look more carefully, we do see in the pages of Scripture hints. Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Dives) clearly indicates that the dead not only possess consciousness, but also a genuine concern for those who are still in this mortal coil. Abraham does tell Dives that neither he nor Lazarus are permitted to cross back over the great gulf that separates earthly life from the life hereafter; it also appears that he was forbidden to attempt to communicate with them. However, we should also recall that communication does appear to be possible in some circumstances, as there is the Old Testament episode where Saul is able to speak with Samuel after the latter had died. And on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus is seen speaking with Moses and Elijah. Perhaps the reason why Dives was not able to communicate with his brothers was that he was not and example of godly life in whom one or more of the virtues of Christ shone forth. Consider also Hebrews, Ch. 12, “Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses,” in reference to Old Testament worthies, and clearly making the point of their fellowship with us – which phrase we shall hear in today’s Proper Preface and notably uses the present tense in reference to that fellowship.

Fine, the recognition of the dead being part of our fellowship is mentioned in the Bible, but why and when did the Church think it appropriate to begin the practice of invocation? Again, it goes back very far indeed. As mentioned, the seeds began to germinate in the late second century, long before even the canon of the New Testament was finalized in the late fourth century. Again, this point is missed by some who will claim that it was plunked on the Church so late that can never be viewed other than as a “fond thing, vainly invented.” However, considered more thoroughly, we will discover that there are much earlier formalized practices: a litany of St. Gregory the Thaumaterge in the mid 3rd century includes invocations of the Saints. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, one of the four Greek Doctors of the Church, from the late 4th century, contains invocations of Saints, and in particular the Blessed Virgin Mary.

And here is where we come to a most important point: the original intent bears little resemblance to the excesses that characterized the corruption of the medieval Church where people were praying to Saints as if the Saints themselves were able to provide benefits both temporal and spiritual. The original practice, and that which we follow, is simply to ask the Saints, as part of Christ’s Church, and as examples of virtuous and godly living, to pray for us, just as we would ask anyone here on earth to pray for us. It also bears mentioning that such excesses, while commonplace, were never condoned by the Roman Church; indeed, they were specifically condemned during the Counter-Reformation.

When we come to the Angelus, one of the most commonly articulated misunderstandings about it is that we are “praying to Mary,” when in actual fact, it is clear from the words that we are asking her to pray for us (to God). Let us also recognize that the Angelus is about the Incarnation – which is to say, it’s about our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. And but for the last, it also draws its versicles and responses from the Bible: “The Angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary” (par. Luke 1:26-28a); “And she conceived by the Holy Ghost” (Luke 1:31, 35); “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28); which Elizabeth repeats in part and then adds, “blessed is the fruit of thy womb [Jesus]” (Luke 1:42); “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be in unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38); “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) – all about the Incarnation.

This leaves us with “Holy Mary, Mother of God” (which is clearly drawn from the Bible), “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” As mentioned earlier, the phrase “Mother of God,” is an English rendering of theotokos, the title given to Mary at an early Council of the Church. It is properly translated as “God bearer.” Some, as they are saying this, think silently to themselves, “Mother of God Incarnate,” which skips around the possible problem of thinking of Mary as the Mother of the Godhead. Also, the phrase is clearly not a request to Mary for some temporal or spiritual benefit; it merely asks for her prayers – the same way that I might ask my own mother to pray for me were I to become sick. In this instance, all of humanity, to some degree, is spiritually sick, and in the spiritual sense, just as Mary is the new Eve, therefore she represents the spiritual mother of all of us. How can it be so very wrong to ask her who bore God Incarnate in her womb, her who was to be called blessed by all generations who would follow, her who was identified by Gabriel as being favoured by God – how can it be so very wrong to ask her, in addition to our own attempts at prayer, to pray for us? Removed from sight, and separated by distance and time, we nonetheless ask for her prayers – all to be united in the love of the Holy Trinity – the real purpose of prayer as we discussed a few weeks ago.

In closing (finally), may we listen to the words of an Orthodox bishop, with echoes of Bishop Mercer, “In God and His Church there is no division between the living and the departed, but all are one in the love of the Father. Whether we are alive or whether we are dead (very likely quoting Romans Ch. 14:8), as members of the Church we still belong to the same family, and still have a duty to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). Therefore just as Orthodox Christians here on earth pray for one another and ask for one another’s prayers, so they pray for the faithful departed and ask the faithful departed to pray for them. Death cannot sever the bond of mutual love which links the members of the Church together.”


(It is perhaps worth noting that the part of this sermon that defends the invocation of Saints, or perhaps more properly phrased, comprecation – which only seeks prayer from the Saints, and stops well short of direct invocation, may not sit well with all Anglicans. Those who deny that invocation of any sort is permissible look to Article 22 of the 39 Articles. They maintain that this Article condemns any form of invocation, be it just the simple request for prayer, as presented in the sermon, or the “Romish Doctrine” of praying to the Saints as if they were the authors of material or spiritual benefits themselves that the author of the sermon maintains was the true target of condemnation of that particular part of the Article. Reading about the development of the Articles reveals that it appears that the word “Romish” as opposed to “Roman” was chosen very purposefully to distinguish that the practice was not officially sanctioned in the Roman Catholic Church, but acknowledges that it was very widespread indeed. Reading about the history of the development of the Articles (which, by the way are articles of religion, not official dogma), one discovers that as they were being formulated, there were at least two “camps” then, and the same is true right up to the present. In the case of this particular Article, some will maintain that it is intended to condemn only the excesses that grew up around these things: the indulgences associated with Purgatory – but not necessarily the idea of there being a place after this life where we are “purged” from our sins before attaining to the nearer presence of God; the actual worship of relics themselves – but not necessarily the benefit of their being used to inspire us in just the way that Pope Benedict XVI states as quoted in the sermon; and the asking of Saints for spiritual benefits as themselves the authors of such – but not necessarily the practice of a simple request for their prayers. On the other hand, there are those that say that, because none of the practices identified appear specifically by name in the pages of Holy Scripture, they are therefore to be condemned.)