Friday, October 19, 2012

Dear Friends,

I write on October 20, 2012. The changes made by "Blogspot" have made it almost impossible for me to continue posting on this site. To do so, I'm now required to use programming language. I'm too ignorant to do this efficiently and properly. Though I am an old dog and actually can learn new tricks, it now takes me two days to do a much simpler version of what I used to be able to do in three or four hours. So I'm going to have to move "St Joseph's Table" to a new site. I hope to post something within a week. If you're on my mailing list, you'll receive a email with the new site address and my weekly email notices as heretofore. If you're not on my list and want to be, please let me know. Send me an email at:

Until next time,
Pax--Fr Gregory Lee Wilcox

Saturday, September 29, 2012

“Mrs. Jesus?”

The last week or so newspaper columnists and television reporters have made headlines writing and talking about 30 words written on a 1,600 year-old scrap of paper—well, papyrus—smaller than a business card.

Here’s the reason for the excitement: the text, a fragment of eight incomplete lines written in ancient Coptic, reads in part “…Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ” WAS JESUS MARRIED? That’s what the words written a long time ago say. “If validated,” ABC News said, “this could have major implications for the Christian faith.” In other words, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!

All the excitement came as a result of a presentation made last Tuesday at the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies which met last week in Rome. Karen King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, presented the recently-discovered document at the Congress. She titled the papyrus scrap “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” which certainly gained notoriety for her discovery.

Professor King told the scholars gathered for the Congress, “the fragment doesn’t provide evidence that Jesus was married, since it was probably originally composed in the second half of the second century.” On that point, the professor is right. The fragment proves only the self-evident fact that somebody wrote these words down on a piece of paper a long time ago.

The text does have meaning. But what? It’s probably best to begin by saying ABC News or the New York Times aren’t the best places to learn about fourth-century Coptic texts.

To understand the text, we need to know something about where it came from. Egypt was a cauldron of speculative religious thought in the ancient world, centuries before and centuries after the birth of Christianity. It was the center of All Things Mystical. The ancient equivalent of our fortune-telling gypsy was an Egyptian soothsayer. Egypt was the land of magical spells and mystic formulas, the land of the Old Gods. Christianity took root early on in Egypt. There was a large Jewish population in Alexandria, its capital. St Mark the Evangelist is revered by Orthodox Coptic Christians today as the one who first preached the Gospel in Egypt; they count him as their first bishop. But from its earliest days, Coptic Christianity faced a great foe in Gnosticism.

Gnosticism predates Christianity. It came from Persia a few centuries before the birth of Christ and made inroads into most of the religions of its day. There were Jewish and pagan forms of Gnosticism. Gnostics took things they liked from all religious traditions and blended them together.

The basic doctrine of Gnosticism is that material things are evil; spiritual things are good. Our Faith tells us that God made everything “visible and invisible” (as we say in the Creed) and it is all good. Gnostics reject this. In this evil world, they believe, human souls are trapped in evil bodies. Salvation, according to Gnostic teaching, is escaping the evil creation in which we are ensnared. They believe freedom comes by acquiring secret knowledge (gnosis is a Greek word for “knowledge”). They crave is secret words and mystic symbols and arcane formulas. Esoteric, mystical knowledge, they believed, is the key to set oneself free from the bonds of the fallen, physical world.

The Church’s teaching is quite the opposite. God reveals Himself to us, we believe, through His creation. The world is good because God, Who made it, is good. The Gnostics rejected the Sacraments, because we believe God uses physical things—bread, wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands and so forth—to give us spiritual gifts. The Gnostics believed there were two gods—the evil god who created the world and all that is in it, and the good god, who wants to set immaterial souls free from the prison of the world.

Gnostic texts of the third and fourth centuries (the same time the text at issue is supposed to be dated) did sometime depicted Jesus as married, sometimes to Mary Magdalene, sometimes to one of several goddesses who descended from heaven to engage Him in a celestial marriage. The Gnostic initiate could rise above the “sensual world” by memorizing the names of the gods and goddesses of Gnosticism or learning the secret passwords preserved in Gnostic texts. Some of these Gnostic Gospels (you may have heard, for example, of the so-called “Gospel of Thomas”) pass on “secret sayings” of Jesus, which purport to enlighten the Gnostic devotee. The fragment of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” seems to be one of these.

The “celestial marriages” of Jesus to some goddess or other, such as the one referred to in the text above, were part of the Gnostic scheme of salvation. But let me bluntly say none of this makes sense to anyone who tries to make sense of it, because Gnosticism isn’t sensible; it never was, it’s not meant to be. It’s “magic.” Not rabbit-in-the-hat stage magic, but “my lucky number,” “don’t let a black cat cross your path” sort of magic. Gnosticism was (and is, because in a variety of forms it still exists) silly and stupid.

Every student and professor of Gnostic texts (most of which have come down to us in the Coptic language) knows the oddity and utter incomprehensibility of Gnosticism. Professor King certainly does.

This has not made headlines because Professor King has sparked a sudden interest in Gnostic texts of the fourth century.

The excitable reports on television that “JESUS WAS MARRIED AND THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!” will sell newspapers for a day or two. Books like the Da Vinci Code pass along fiction as fact. They confirm the ill-informed and unbelieving in their suspicion that Christianity has a murky past the Church has desperately tried to hide.

So what do we make of all this?

Scripture and the Church’s tradition from the earliest times tell us about our Lord’s life. Through them, we know much more about Him than we do any other person in the ancient world. They tell us more than just the facts of His life here on earth. The Gospels and our tradition tell us what our Lord’s life on earth meant. Everything He did and said, all the choices He made, all of it has meaning for us. He chose to live a celibate life, and He told His disciples then (and us now) why. St Matthew’s Gospel records His words:

“Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”

Our Lord chose the celibate life for a number of reasons (a topic for another time), but most especially for the reason embodied in His words just quoted. His celibacy is a sign of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. The whole of His life was literally given over to the inauguration of the Kingdom. His chastity was part of His complete commitment of every aspect of His life to the Kingdom of God.

If that makes us squirm a little—even if we aren’t sure why—here’s something to make us downright uncomfortable.

Recall the story, related later in the St Matthew’s Gospel, of the Sadducees who asked the Lord about who will be married in Heaven. The Lord responded, “in the resurrection people will neither marry, nor be given in marriage.”

For the Gnostic, marriage is, like all other earthly things, evil. For the Christian, though, marriage is a Sacrament, a foretaste of the Kingdom. When the Kingdom of Heaven is come, there are no Sacraments (what this means for the men and women united in Christian marriage is the topic of another paper altogether!). God will then be “all in all,” as St Paul said.

So the Lord Christ is the living picture, the embodiment of Heaven here on earth. As God made perfect Man, He gives Himself for every person, “for the life of the world.” The Son of Mary says every woman who follows Him in faith (as she did perfectly) is His mother. His family is not a bloodline: it’s made up of those who are born, “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

He is husband to none, to be Savior of all. THAT, beloved, does indeed change everything.—Fr Gregory Wilcox

Saturday, September 22, 2012

“We’re Not Like Other People Are”

The Book of Common Prayer is more than a collection of prayers. It’s a pattern for living. We’ve seen before, on previous examinations, how it guides us in the living of a regular Christian life: daily prayers and offices, weekly participation in the Christian sacrifice of the Altar, a yearly cycle of worship through the months and seasons, and the events of our lives—from baptism to burial—celebrated or observed in rites and ceremonies that ennoble the poor in spirit and humble the proud of heart.

In doing this, the Prayer Book makes our life on earth a path to Heaven. It fosters the life of Christ in us in ways both obvious and subtle. For the next few weeks I want to talk with you about some of those Prayer Book subtleties.

The Prayer Book “pattern” isn’t just an outline of services taking us from cradle to grave, though it is that. By its repeated patterns of prayer, of feasts and fasts, rites and ceremonies, it shapes our spiritual lives. Its old admonition that we are “to worship God in His Church every Sunday” builds up in our souls a regular, weekly habit of worship. It anchors an on-going habit of worship in our lives. Prayer Book worship is grounded in an understanding of who we are and Who God Is. When those two truths come together, worship is the inescapable result.

Every human being worships something: wealth, power, fame, pleasure—those are the usual recipients of human adoration, as St Thomas warns us. In every life these idolatries all turn tinny and ring hollow and we crave something more, something real. Following the tradition of Scripture, the Prayer Book takes us along a path, at once both ancient and modern, which enables us to grasp Something true. Its cycles of prayer and Sacrament allow us to look at Something other than ourselves all the time. Worship enables us to grasp the One Thing Necessary to make the rest of life fall into its proper place.

It’s not enough to “believe,” even if it’s to believe in Jesus “as your personal Savior,” as our Protestant friends preach. St James the Apostle grumbled “even the devils believe.” The Bible calls us to worship, and the Prayer Book tells us how. It forms the ancient, Catholic practice of worship in those who take its pattern for their own.

What are the subtleties of Prayer Book worship?

Here’s the first: we’re called to worship with others. There is a place—a very necessary place—for personal prayer. But Common Prayer is different. The old Catholic tradition, still a part of Anglican practice as well as church law for Eastern Orthodox Christians, forbids a priest from celebrating Mass without the presence of others. If I schedule a Mass and nobody shows up, there is no celebration (and happily for me and my job security, the converse is also true—if there is no priest, there can be no Mass). Common Prayer means we need each other. “Where two or three are gathered together,” the Lord said, “I am there in the midst of them.”

Here’s another: Common Prayer requires order and discipline. It has little place for how people feel; it’s not about being entertained by good music (although Palestrina is, I think, inherently good for the soul) or stirring sermons. The focus of Prayer Book worship is not us, but God. We come together for His sake. Our tradition never asks what we get out of worship, but what we put into worship.

A host of unspoken truths lie embedded in Common Prayer. Truths so obvious we don’t think of them, but bear in mind they’re more than true observations. They’re the foundations on which our spiritual lives are built.

Over the next few weeks we’ll continue our spiritual spelunking. But be warned, beloved. The hidden purpose of this little expedition is not only to acquaint you and me with some profound truths, but to open our eyes to some of our pathetic failings. These truths will fade to shadows if they’re not lived. There’s no room for us to thank God that we’re not like other people are. Sooner or later, we hear the Lord Jesus speaking to us and we have to answer (with a gulp) “Is it I, Lord?”—Fr Gregory Wilcox

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"But I say to you, Love your enemies..."

I was going to continue an exploration of the “fundamental assumptions” underlying the world-view of the Book of Common Prayer. A death in the family and all that entails prevented my intention. The overseas events of the past week require me to put my ruminations on the Prayer Book to the side for another week. After several phone calls and emails with friends and parishioners, it seemed important to consider some notions about a Christian response to the events of September 11, 2001 AND 2012.

I write this the evening of September 12. Yesterday morning I marked the 11th anniversary of “9/11” by offering a Mass at 8.45 in the morning, the time the first hijacked plane crashed into the North Tower. I thought the day was to be a day of tributes to the fallen. It ended, as you know, as something else altogether.

Muslims in Egypt attacked the American Embassy, destroying property and defacing our flag. In Libya elements of Al Qaeda marked 9/11 by storming the consulate, killing staff members and murdering our ambassador. There are new dead now to be remembered. Among them, 80 Coptic Christians killed this week by Muslim rioters. There is little mention of this in the media, there rarely is. It will be some time before information trickles out about how many churches were ransacked and parishioners were killed on September 11, 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood, now controlling Egypt, has announced more “demonstrations” after mosques close following prayers on Friday. I don’t know, other than talking, what our politicians will do. I do know what we, as Christians, must do. We pray for the dead, and then, remember the Lord Jesus’ words, “…I say unto you, Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you.” Hard words, which only a Christian has the strength to put into practice. That’s our high—and very difficult—calling, one we dare not shirk, if we’re to be worthy of the name Christian.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

“…To Ready Us for Heaven”

The Prayer Book has been revised numerous times since it made its first appearance in 1549. The initial version was revised four times in 120 years. The first American Prayer Book was revised three times more till 1928 (four times, if you count the Book of Common Prayer for Use in the Confederate States of America—which we do, where I’m from).

In all the intervening years and through all its revisions, the Prayer Book retained its essential form, until the radical versions of the 1960s and 70s altered its basic “shape.” It wasn’t simply the “shape,” the “outward and visible sign” of the Prayer Book that changed with those revisions. Its “inward and spiritual grace,” what it was designed to do, was lost. Books of “Common Prayer” still sit in the pews of Episcopal and Anglican Church of Canada parishes, but what those books were meant to do is quickly being lost.

Though many of us use the 1928 American revision of the Book of Common Prayer (there was a proposed but unsuccessful English 1928 Prayer Book, too), the Prayer Book remains an essentially English book. Not merely in its quasi-Shakespearean vocabulary and occasional quaint phrase, but more importantly in its structure and intent. It’s a book designed for use in an English country parish.

In spite of the soaring vaults of Westminster Abbey and the classical columns of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Prayer Book is most at home in a village church. It’s designed for use in a community that lives within the sound of its bell, a community which has celebrated the Eucharist, baptized its babies and buried its dead in cycles of centuries, a community where the gravestones tell of four and five and a dozen generations past. The Prayer Book envisions its users living their lives in close proximity with each other, and all the joys and sorrows that entails.

That doesn’t sound much like us. Americans change residences, on average, 14 times in the course of their lives (I’ve done it for the last time—when the time comes for my next move, they’ll be carrying me out in a box). We change jobs 11 times (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics); the American Society of Genealogists tells us most Americans don’t know the names or birthplaces of our great-grandparents. Over 50% of Americans now living say that they’ve converted from the religion of their parents. None of those statistics, it’s fair to say, are reflective of 16th century English country life.

Still, the Prayer Book can be wonderfully effective in the swirl of 21st century America. One thing its late-medieval view does for us is give us ground. It stabilizes us in an increasingly unstable and swiftly-changing society. Its steady, year-round, unending cycle of worship—Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, Masses every Sunday and Holy Day—together with its sacramental shepherding of the major events of our lives from birth to death, ensure that God is always with us in very obvious ways. That’s one of the basic things the Prayer Book was made to do, and it still does, if we want it to.

The Prayer Book fixes common prayer and the Sacraments in a central place in our lives, but it does much more. It forms in us a fundamental Christian understanding of life, of our society, and of the world. It’s an understanding, not of the 16th century, but reaching back to Jesus Christ Himself. The Offices of Instruction and the Catechism teach us essential truths of the Faith, but the regular use of the Prayer Book, participating in its worship over weeks and years and decades, builds in our souls—almost imperceptibly—an assurance of its truths.

This is the genius of the Book of Common Prayer: it brings the ancient Faith, unchanged and full of grace, to the circumstances and surroundings of our ever-changing lives.

Sadly, some of the fundamental understandings the Prayer Book looks to form in us are slipping away. We no longer live in a world formed by it. Over the next few weeks, we'll look at some of what we're losing, ask if those things should be lost, and why their loss might very well be our loss, too. The Prayer Book isn’t about Shakespearean language, as grand as it is. The Prayer Book forms Christ in us: it’s been handed to us to “ready us for Heaven.”—Fr Gregory Wilcox

Saturday, August 25, 2012

American Spirituality?

There’s a summertime exhibit on display at the Library of Congress right now. It’s called “88 Books That Shaped America.” It includes everything from Tom Paine’s Common Sense (with its famous line “These are the times that try men’s souls”) to Dr Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat. It’s an intriguing list as much as for what it excludes as what it includes.

Missing from the list are any books about faith or religion.

In a country where religion has played a pivotal role, where Puritans and Anglicans carried their English rivalry into the New World, where the fundamentalist movement with all its oddities was born and Mormonism was invented, the librarians of the Library of Congress don’t see religion as an essential part of American history and culture.

Roberta Shaffer, the Librarian in charge of the exhibit, did an interview explaining how they decided which 88 books they chose. During the course of the interview she was asked about why there were no religious books included. “A lot of the books we chose have a moralistic or ‘do-good’ tone to them, and that is more representative of America and our values. That is the spiritual ‘persona’ of America rather than religion per se.”

She went on to say that books like Ida Tarbell’s The History of Standard Oil and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle expressed American spirituality more profoundly than books on religion.

We’ve moved a long way from the Founding Fathers’ refusal to establish any particular religion to our modern excision of religion and faith from our history and culture. We’re cutting religion out of our past, which cuts it out of our present. We have such an anemic understanding of “spirituality” that The History of Standard Oil is being touted by the most prestigious library in the country as an American spiritual classic.

Is this an indictment of the LOC as a liberal pawn? That’s to misunderstand what’s going on in our society, and how our view of spirituality is being fundamentally re-shaped.

It’s not liberalism but secularism which poses the great threat to the Church. We are at war with “the devil, the world and the flesh” as the Baptismal Office in the Prayer Book tells us. Secularism replaces God with “the world and the flesh.” The secularist won’t discover till it’s too late that the devil (who he’s too smart to believe in) was hiding in the world and the flesh all along, and the hook has been swallowed with the lure.

Christians are at war with the world. We always have been and always will be. The temptations of the devil, the world and the flesh will attack us as long as we live here on earth (and that, as the matter of fact, is what spirituality is really about).

Roberta Shaffer and the Library of Congress aren’t enemies of God; they’re simply secularists. What they believe to be spirituality is a kind of spirituality; it’s just not very deep and doesn’t answer the real spiritual needs of men and women. But it’s the coming thing in our increasingly secular society and we as Christians must be aware of it. In our personal spiritual lives, we need to be constantly on guard. The devil, the world and the flesh are the enemies of God, and they’re our enemies, too. We are at war—it can be a joyful, exhilarating warfare—but if we forget that basic spiritual reality, if we forget our High Calling to be “Christ’s faithful soldier” (as the Baptismal Office names us), we just become a sad part of the problem.

God has made you for much more than the world promises you can be. The “spirituality” of the world, with its “moralistic and ‘do-good’ tone,” ends with the world. God has made you for eternity.—Fr Gregory Wilcox