Saturday, March 30, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

Almighty God, in this wondrous world Thou dost manifest Thy power and Thy beauty: open the eyes of all to see that whatsoever has any being is a mirror wherein we may behold Thee, the root and fountain of all being; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- John Donne

Friday, March 29, 2019

Hymn of the Week: Praise to the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3-10)

This new hymn is an attempt to render the essence of one of my favorite Bible passages, Ephesians 1:3-10, into a singable form. I've set it to the tune of the classic hymn "Lead On, O King Eternal" ( 

Praise to the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Praise to the God and Father
Of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Who blessed us with all blessings
And brought us forth to life!
Before the world's beginning
He chose us in his Son:
Predestined as his children
Through Christ, the Blessed One!

His love has made us holy,
His grace has set us free;
By his own will and pleasure,
Blameless in Christ are we!
In him we have redemption,
Because of Jesus' blood:
Our sins are all forgiven
Through God's eternal love!

In wisdom and in blessing
He lavishes his grace,
And he makes known the mystery
Of his will and his ways.
All this he does through Jesus,
Through whom his purpose stands:
Bring heav'n and earth together
Beneath the Savior's hand!


Thursday, March 28, 2019

Pilgrimage Memoir: The Bread of Life

Break Thou the bread of life, dear Lord, to me,
As Thou didst break the loaves beside the sea.
Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord;
My spirit pants for Thee, O Living Word.

- Mary Lathbury, "Break Thou the Bread of Life"

~ ~ ~  

            Our next stop was just a short ways down the hillside, close to the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. The name of the place was Tabgha, and it had long been regarded as the traditional site for the feeding of the five thousand. If indeed this particular hill was one of Jesus’ favorite spots to do his teaching, as seemed likely given its accommodating slope and its nearness to his home base of Capernaum, then it was entirely probable that the multiplication of loaves and fishes had taken place there, or somewhere very close by. The traditions pointing to this spot went all the way back to the early days of Byzantine Christianity and perhaps before. In fact, one of the marks of Tabgha’s fame is precisely that ancient pedigree: specifically, it was there, in the ruins of a Byzantine church marking the spot, that one of the truly iconic pieces of Christian artwork was discovered. There, now enshrined beneath the altar in Tabgha’s peaceful chapel, was a mosaic, beautiful in its simplicity, showing a bowl with four loaves, flanked by two fish. 
            This mosaic spoke not only of the event that had happened there, but also of the ongoing re-enactment of that event in the life of the church. The insightful reader may have noticed that while the Gospel story includes five loaves in the feeding of the five thousand, the mosaic only shows four. Why? Because Christ himself is the bread of life, and in that spot, above the mosaic, week in and week out for two thousand years, the fifth loaf is still being broken and shared among the people, just as it was so long ago. The fact that the mosaic does not include one of the loaves is intended to remind us that we, in celebrating the Communion of our Lord, are participating in his great act of provisioning us with the miracle of his infinite life.
            The little church of Tagbha—slightly larger than that of the Beatitudes, but with far fewer pilgrims—was one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. It was simple, but gorgeous and breath-taking and restful, all at once. It was yet another place that would have been ideal for rest and prayer: sadly, it seemed that we were on a lightning tour of all the most restful, prayerful sites in Galilee, to be rushed through in the shortest time possible that morning.
            But unlike other places to come on the tour, where I would have given anything for just a few more minutes, I felt content at the sites we visited on that bright Galilean morning. I had time enough to smile with the parakeets in the garden of the Beatitudes, and to remember at Tabgha the way the story of the feeding had so often encouraged me. It had always struck me as a keen reminder of the fact that no matter how small and frail were the gifts and talents I had to offer up to God, he could take them and do something incredible. So although the little boy at Tabgha had nothing more than a simple lunch with him, it was enough in Jesus’ hands to feed the multitudes. And although I had only a few small things to offer—an intelligent mind and a way with words, both held back by the all-too-apparent limitations of my weaknesses and sins—even those things could be made effective for the Kingdom in the hands of the Lord.
            The part of the church I really loved, though, was a partially restored mosaic in one of the front corners: a vast, intricate, artful display of many different kinds of birds. The mosaic, hailing from more than a millennium and a half ago, was so detailed that I could still identify many of the different species portrayed there. It was a charming reminder that I, in my ornithological obsessions, was not as much of an oddity as one might have thought. I was not the first humble pilgrim to have been captivated by the loveliness of Israel’s birds.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Photo of the Week

Chattering finch and water-fly
Are not merrier than I;
Here among the flowers I lie
Laughing everlastingly.
No: I may not tell the best;
Surely, friends, I might have guessed
Death was but the good King's jest,
It was hid so carefully.

- G. K. Chesterton, "The Skeleton"

Monday, March 25, 2019

Quote of the Week

"There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice."

- John Calvin, 16th-century Protestant reformer 

(Painting: "Tulip Fields in Holland," by Claude Monet, 1886)

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

Come, fount of eternal light,
Take me to yourself from whom I came.
There may I know as I am known,
And love as I am loved,
That I may see you as you are, my God,
And, seeing you, enjoy you and possess you

- Gertrude the Great

Friday, March 22, 2019

Hymn of the Week: O God, the Giver of Good Things

My hymn for this week is a table grace. Sung table graces are rarely in use anymore, but I happened to marry into a family that still knows many such hymns and enjoys using them before a meal. It's a tradition we're passing on to our own kids. Several of these graces are sung to the very familiar tune "Old Hundredth" (the Doxology), so that's the tune I've used here. I have three verses to mine, which is about the maximum for a table grace (you can't make people wait too long for their food!), and it would be fine to use just one or two verses if preferred.

O God, the Giver of Good Things

O God, the giver of good things,
To You our thanks and praise we bring:
We magnify You for Your love,
For gifts of grace, here and above.

Let us who now Your grace receive
Pour out that grace to those in need;
And if some hungry soul is near,
Bring them to feast with us in here!

We share this bounty of Your love
For Christ has shared all things with us;
Make us the vessels of his peace
Until we join his heav'nly feast.


Thursday, March 21, 2019

Pilgrimage Memoir: The Garden of Beatitude

"And lo! I find a healing balm,
The world grows dim to me;
My spirit rests in sudden calm
With Him of Galilee." 

- Henry Warburton Hawkes, "Amid the Din of Earthly Strife"

~ ~ ~  

            The rest of that morning was a veritable sprint through a whole cluster of important Gospel sites that all lay fairly close to one another: the Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha (site of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes), Mensa Christi (the place where Jesus breakfasted on the beach with his disciples after his resurrection), and then Capernaum itself, Christ’s home base during his earthly ministry. First up was the Mount of Beatitudes, a lovely spot about halfway up one of the gently sloping hills in the northwest corner of the lake. Like many sites, this one is fairly impossible to know whether it is the exact location. The question itself might even be misplaced, since many scholars believe that Jesus likely gave several different versions of the same sermon at several different times and places. Nonetheless, this was the traditional site, and its location fits adequately with the conflicting descriptions in Matthew (who has it “on a mountain”) and in Luke (“in a flat place”). Almost by a miracle of geography, the Mount of Beatitudes really could be accurately described in both ways, as it sits upon a mountain slope, but in a place where the incline is so gentle as to be nearly flat.

            This was one of many places in Israel where I wished I could have spent more time. As we got off the bus, faced with a more deeply-thronged parking lot than we had yet met anywhere else, our leaders told us that we would only have ten minutes or so. We sped through the colonnades of the outer building and into the gardens surrounding the church. We rushed past everything until we had found a quiet space in the yard to gather for our quick mini-service. I have to confess that I wasn’t all that attentive to our service there; I was caught up in drinking in my surroundings. Whereas most of the surrounding slope was fairly dry and brown, around the church was a pocket of lush greenery, a verdant garden that seemed to exhale peace into the surrounding air. If we had been there on a less busy day, with a bit more time, it would have been a delightful spot to pause and pray. There were spots along the garden walkway where each of the Beatitudes were recorded, and I’m sure many pilgrims had enjoyed the practice of doing a simple prayerwalk-meditation on those marvelous verses.
            I breathed deep of the garden’s air as we wrapped up our service. As I did in all the sites we visited, I tried to imagine Jesus there on that mountainside, perhaps in a little spot of greenery even back then, and delivering the sermon that had shaped my life more than any other text I had ever known. When I was a teenager, Onus and I had challenged each other to memorize large chunks of Scripture, and the very first chunk we undertook was the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), the words Jesus had spoken from that very slope. In the weeks of committing those words to memory, they had sunk into my soul, crafting my heart in a way that I hadn’t even thought to hope for. Some of the profoundest spiritual struggles of those days—like my issues with anger—vanished like mist under the gentle pressure of Jesus’ teaching. I thought about the way he began that sermon, with the Beatitudes—the proclamation of those who were blessed, or made happy, in the reality of his Kingdom, and I knew that I was one of those who had indeed been blessed and made happy thanks to the very words he had spoken there.
            Once again, it was the birds of the place that really cemented this idea into an impression in my mind. The garden was full of Rose-ringed parakeets: common, bright green parrots of medium size, which one can see anywhere in Israel, they cut through the air with swift beauty, trailing long, elegant tails, and amid their emerald plumage you can sometimes see a lovely flash of pink around their necks. And, as with most parrots, they just seem happy. It makes one smile to see them. I had seen a few here and there already in Israel, but never so many as in that garden around the Church of the Beatitudes. They clustered in the tree beside our mini-service; they poked their curious heads out of the crevices in the trunks of giant palm trees; they even sat in reverent bliss on the church’s metal cross. Their happy presence seemed to me a fitting thing for the place where Jesus proclaimed the happy blessedness of living in his Kingdom. Now, whenever I think of the Beatitudes, I picture the arcing, beautiful flight of emerald parakeets in the trees all around Jesus while he spoke.
            I made a quick circuit through the church’s interior before we left. It was small—as were many of the pilgrim chapels in Israel, only accommodating space for about twenty worshipers at a time. But it was lovely: bright sunlight spilled in through the cupola of the little dome, where each of the Beatitudes was written in Latin. In the center of the octagonal space stood an altar-table, and around it a circular aisle where one could make the circuit of the church. Again it struck me as a marvelous place to pray, if only we had been there on a calmer day with more time to spare. But such are the drawbacks of only having eight days in Israel.