Archive for December, 2016

Four Last Things


Over Advent, we have been pondering the “Four Last Things”-Death, Judgment Heaven and Hell.  I have been asked to post at least the sermon on Heaven which will be heard this morning, and Hell, which is next’ week’s topic.

I have never been keen on posting my sermon notes, as, frequently, the words come out in a very different form than the text. I learned years ago that if the Holy Spirit wants a different homily than the text I have prepared, I do best to go with His promptings. However, here is the written text for today, with no warranty express or implied.


(Given at St. Alban’s, Richmond, Virginia)


“Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

-St. Matthew 11:11


Here we are at last on Rose Sunday, the Third Sunday in Advent which used to be called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is the Latin word that means “rejoice,” but with the ending that makes it a command. So we are really being commanded to rejoice.

But, we human beings have a fairly ambiguous attitude towards life after death. There is the story of a fellow talking with a woman whose close relative had only recently died. Trying to be sympathetic, the man asked this lady, “What do you suppose has become of her? The woman replied, Oh I’m sure she’s enjoying everlasting bliss – but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such unpleasant things!”

You know, you have to be sure you really want to go to heaven. People who have not much cared for God in this life – why should they want to be closer to him in the next?

Certainly in heaven there will be God and I am certain the music of Bach.  Even this will cause trouble, because a lot of people will prefer Lady Ga Ga to Bach. If heaven means we all get rewarded with the things we love best, it looks as if heaven and hell will have to be the same place: for one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

There are so many difficulties here. In fact, it’s just about impossible to form a picture of heaven, because we are bound to think in terms of space and time. Heaven is not in time and it isn’t a place. It is beyond time and space: eternal. When we think of our lives, our being, we have to think of being somewhere and at a particular time. But truly when we die and leave this world, we leave space and time too. So being, life, existence in heaven must be very different from what they are down here.

Heaven won’t be like going to church all the time. There is a lovely hymn in the English Book Hymns Ancient & Modern where it says: “So, Lord, at length when Sacraments shall cease.”  Yes, even the Sacraments will come to an end.

As you know from your Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer (page 581), “A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. So when we are in that eternal state of spiritual grace, we shall not require the outward and visible sign.”

When we speak of heaven, we are attempting to speak about our spiritual state of being beyond time and space.  So, all our language necessarily has to be metaphorical. We just can’t express supernatural realities directly in natural language.

Even Scripture itself is limited to soaring metaphors and the difficulties of expression of the most Divine in human words. We get incredible pictures of beasts with hundreds of eyes, angels and archangels, the Tree of Life and a stream flowing from the throne of God. The Bible is written in natural language, so not even the Bible can tell us completely what heaven is like and all of its glories.

There is another way of knowing. Think of this: if heaven is beyond time and space, if it is infinite, then there is a sense – though our language here is close to breaking down – in which we are there already. Or, if I may so put it, a sense in which we have been there. For if heaven is an eternal state, then to be there is to be there eternally.

We have intuitions of this truth-what the poet William Wordsworth called intimations of immortality:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home

Trailing clouds of glory.  Because God made this material world and because he was incarnate in it in his Son, we must expect the material world to contain something of the eternal world, heaven, God’s everlasting abode. This universe of ours is material, but it is not merely material.  As poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins put it:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God…. Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Remember Our Lord promised that the Holy Ghost would bring all things to your remembrance.

This experience is not just for poets. Beloved in Christ, let me  ask you to reflect on the fact that you and I, each one of us, knows it in ourselves. Imagine you are on a weekend out in the Shenandoah Valley—out in the country near to the mountains. You awake in the pale dawn light in a silent room. It is a high room with oak beams. You go downstairs and open the door. You feel the rush of the fragrant air and from as far as you can see into that mist and the dampness clinging to the fields, there comes the calling of birdsong.

You can barely make out the watery colors of the landscape can hardly be made out. The pale disc of the sun lies behind the racing clouds.

What do you feel?  Doesn’t this give you an exquisite sensation– something like joy, something like peace: but you can’t quite put it into words exactly.  Coming at you out of the beauty of the scene, there is something like recollection.  Such experiences I think are gifts of God sent for our encouragement; they are intimations of immortality.   They are the natural presences which both hide and reveal the eternal presence of God.

Shortly after my mom passed away, I was wandering around my parent’s house one afternoon, just after lunch.  I went upstairs into the front bedroom. It was very quiet, and her things were still there.   I noticed the sunlight on the dressing table, and I had a warm, reassuring sense of presence again.  I didn’t want to leave the bedroom. As Fr. Hopkins said, it was the sense of deep down things. A reality beyond appearances.

Beloved in Christ, God leaves his footprints and fingerprints all over the place. Why do we know that music is not just melody, rhythm and harmony – but there’s something hanging around in there that excites us, that thrills us or even makes us cry? You know the feeling of these encounters. It’s one like this: “Your hair’s standing up on end, shivers going down your spine, a lump coming into your throat, even tears running down your eyes.”  It’s called an appoggiatura, from the Italian word “to lean.” And while it’s tough to define, it’s not unlike a grace note, a note in many forms of music that is ornamental yet produces beauty.

We may react like this to the Bach Double Violin Concerto. The slow movement of Schubert’s String Quintet in C – where Schubert almost stops the music altogether. The utterly sublime music of Purcell and the words from the 1662 Prayer Book that go with it: Thou knowest Lord, the secrets of our hearts: shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer.

Human beings have a need to express what is beyond them. We are possessed of a deep sense of the mysterious. This is why we developed all the arts including poetry and music. So look at one of the most famous and earliest experiences of the divine mystery; Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple when he saw the Lord high and lifted up. Isaiah’s response is to utter a few words in a certain rhythm:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.

          And out of this little utterance the Church developed the most ecstatic prayer in the Mass:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth: pleni sunt coeli, et terra Gloria tua

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts: heaven and earth are full of thy glory.

And these few words in a certain rhythm have captivated the great composers for centuries.

Miraculously in such works we find that what we thought inexpressible is expressed. And we understand through being overwhelmed – exactly as Isaiah was overwhelmed in his original vision. You remember his response:

Woe is me, for I am undone

We find these intimations of the eternal world everywhere. In just a line of music: sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Or, we may find it in the voice of the hidden waterfall or the laughter of children in the yard or that feeling when you love really someone.

The presence of God is subtle. The reality of eternity is half hidden and half revealed.  Remember the couple on their way to Emmaus on the first Easter Day?  Their eyes were holden that they should not know him. Until later: He took bread and blessed it and brake and gave to them…and he was known of them in breaking of bread.

In all these ways, God seeks to reassure us and show us the reality of heaven, half hidden, half revealed in the things of this earth. As usual, St Augustine puts it better than anyone:

But, what do I love, when I love Thee? Not the prettiness of a body, not the graceful rhythm, not the brightness of light (that friend of these eyes), not the sweet melodies of songs in every style, not the fragrance of flowers and ointments and spices, not manna and honey, not limbs which can be grasped in fleshly embraces – these I do not love, when I love my God. Yet I do love something like a light, a voice, a fragrance, food, embrace of my inner man, wherein for my soul a light shines, and place does not encompass it, where there is a sound which time does not sweep away, where there is a fragrance which the breeze does not disperse, where there is a flavor which eating does not diminish, and where there is a clinging which satiety does not disentwine. This is what I love, when I love my God.

Then we find ourselves in Heaven.

Let us pray (John Donne),

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end. Amen.


The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls


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With the evening hours coming earlier and the darkness of the world that seems encroach at an ever-increasing degree, I thought a word or two about light, or lights in the church might be appropriate. Light is something that most people take granted. Absent the effects of a storm, we hardly give it a second thought. The need for light is fundamental, and there can be no life without light. Indeed images of light and darkness recur throughout the Bible.

In the beginning “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep.” The very first action of God in creation was to say, “‘Let there be light’; and there was light and God saw that the light was good.” (Genesis 1:2-3)

In the New Testament, light is a key image particularly in the Gospel according to St. John where he describes Our Lord as “the light.” Not the light created by God, but the Creator Himself! Our Lord, too, uses the image of light to teach His disciples, when He says that we should shine as lights exposed on hilltops, and not hide our faith under buckets.  So it is appropriate that light, or lights, forma a significant part of our liturgy in the Church in accordance with Holy Scripture.

Candles in Church

Let’s begin with the Pascal Candle which can be found in most churches, and it is easy to identify. It is likely to be taller and of greater circumference than  any other candle in the church, but it the only candle to be decorated either with a decal or by being painted. From Easter to Pentecost, or Whitsunday, it will be in a prominent position in the Sanctuary near the High Altar.

The Pascal Candle is named after the PASCH, the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord. The candle is blessed at the Easter Vigil, and represents Christ the light of the world. The Easter Vigil includes the first Eucharist of Easter, and is a dramatic re- presentation of the mysteries of creation and redemption. It begins in total darkness, but ends in a flood of candle-lit glory!

Two of the Vigil ceremonies are of particular interest. First, immediately after lighting, the Pascal Candle is carried in procession through the darkened church. As the Pascal Candle approaches the Choir, the priests and congregation in turn light candles they are holding from the Pascal Candle, and, in turn, from each other. This is a powerful image of evangelism-the way in which we come to share in the living light of Christ, and also fulfill our commission to spread that light throughout the world.

Secondly, the Pascal Candle is taken in procession to the font, where, using the candle as a symbol of Christ, waters of Baptism are blessed as the candle is dipped three times into the font. This reminds us that in Baptism we enter into the tomb of death with Christ, only to rise again with Him, whose Resurrection we are about to celebrate.

After Pentecost the Pascal Candle is generally is set aside in the Baptistry for use during Baptism.  It will make another appearance in the Sanctuary from Christmas Vigil through the Epiphany.

Altar Candles and Processional Lights.

The number of candles used to decorate altars varies, but traditionally they are in combinations of two, four and six. A useful rule of thumb is that the more candles, the more important the altar is likely to be. Side, chapel and Lady Chapel altars normally have two, or sometimes four candles (two being lit for low mass, all four only being lit on high feast days). The High Altar would have anything up to six candles.  A seventh candle appears when a bishop is present.

The obvious symbolism is that the altar represents the throne of God, from which the light of Christ shines upon His gathered people. You may also find it helpful to meditate upon what the number and arrangement of the candles might suggest.

Candles carried in procession are a simple, but effective way of honoring both the cross which they accompany, and also the priest as he represents the person of Christ. Their use adds both dignity and color to the Church’s worship.

Baptism Candles

Many priests in the Anglican Catholic Church present a lighted candle to the newly baptized person or their God parents at a certain point during the rite.  The baptismal candle is lit from the Pascal Candle symbolizing that, through Holy Baptism, the newly baptized person shares in the life of the Risen Lord, represented by the Pascal Candle. The words which accompany the giving of the candle can also point out an important meaning: “Receive the light of Christ, that when the bridegroom cometh thou mayest go forth with all the Saints to meet Him … ”

Sanctus Light, or Presence Lamp

 This is a light that burns when there is any “reserved sacrament” near the altar in the Tabernacle, which is located in the center of the Altar at St. Alban’s.  The presence light is near to the Altar at the left or Gospel side. The presence light is extinguished on Good Friday after the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified as there is no reserved Sacrament in the Tabernacle.

 Prayer or Votive Candles

Many parishes have a stand for holding votive or prayer. If you do, or when you go into a church that does, one will usually be found near a statue/shrine of a Saint or near to the Reserved Sacrament. Lighting a candle in prayer is a powerful symbol, full of meanings.

Here are some “bright” ideas:

  • The lit candle reminds us of our Baptism, and the way that we share in the life of Christ by sharing in the life of the Church. When we depart from the place leaving the burning candle behind, we are reminded that our souls never leave the presence of God, in company with His Saints.
  • Prayer is not self-centered, it is God centered, and an important element is prayer for other people and causes. When lighting your candle, it is a good idea to light a candle for those others you want to pray for.

The candle is absolutely not a substitute for the prayer of your heart, but an accompaniment. It is a small offering which, in honoring a Saint and giving glory to God, speaks both from the heart and to the heart. Lighting votive candles in church, when asking the prayers of the Saints and thereby to the greater glory of God, is growing in popularity in the Anglican Catholic Church.

It is a devotional practice in which many millions of Christians the world over have found inspiration.

-with thanks to All Saints (ACC) Janesville, WI


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First, my thanks to all who worked so hard to put together the parish annual meeting, and congratulations to our new vestry members and synod delegates.  As well, to all who provided for an extraordinary post-meeting lunch, what a wonderful meal you provided.  It was a great time of fellowship and renewal for the coming calendar year of work for Christ in our parish community.

For parish news, meditations and upcoming events, please click on the link to our parish newsletter The Verger. verger12



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