Dear Maggie: Our Patron's Weekly Insights

The Christian life is full of questions ranging from the theological to the practical.  In this weekly column our patron St. Maggie of Scottland answers reader questions.  If you have a "Dear Maggie" question about liturgy, the bible, ethics, or any other burning question please send it to  
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What is the Feast of the Ascension?

Dear Maggie,

What is the Feast of the Ascension?

Raising Questions

Dear Raising,

I want ya to pick up your copy of the Book of Common Prayer and turn to page 15.  This is a place far too few Episcopalians venture and yet it is an important section of the prayer book because it outlines the most important feasts and fasts of the Christian calendar.  On that page ya will find the “Principal Feasts” of the Christian year, the big days of the Christian calendar.  Ya might be surprised to find that its not just Easter and Christmas, there is also Ascension Day, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints Day, and The Epiphany.  These are the biggest days of the Christian year, the times when we need to really celebrate what God has done and is doing in the world.  This is all to say that the Feast of the Ascension is a big deal; it is a day we should honor with worship and a good meal, just as we would Easter and Christmas.

So, what is this big day we need to be celebrating?  Simply put it is the day when we remember that the resurrected Christ ascended into heaven so that he can sit at the right hand of God.  We read about this in Acts chapter 1.  Jesus promises his gathered followers that the Holy Spirit will come to them and then he is raised up to heaven, disappearing in a cloud.  It’s quite a scene and we can imagine the astonishment of those first disciples. 

So what does this Ascension mean for us?  It means that Jesus is now at the right hand of his Father, that Jesus is preparing to come again in the final stage of his renewal of the whole cosmos.  It also means that with the Spirit that we will welcome at Pentecost we are now the presence of Christ on earth, we are the body of Christ.  With Jesus ascended to heaven it is now our work to make sure his presence continues through the church.  It’s a tall order, but one for which God gives us the grace of his Spirit.

So on May 25 find a worship service, invite friends to join you for a good meal, celebrate the Ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God and the gift Jesus gives us in letting us continue his presence in the world.

May God’s peace be with ya,

What is the Trinity?

Dear Maggie,

What is the Trinity?

Triply Tried

Dear Tried,

Me, me, ya don’t let an old saint off easy with this question!  The Trinity is one of those most mysterious of concepts and one many a Christian theologian has wrestled with from the beginnings of the faith until now.  Difficult as it may be to understand, I’ll try to shed a bit of light with this short article.

A good place to begin with our discussion is the first line from our Acts reading for this Sunday:
“Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55)

Right here we have all three members of the Trinity named: Jesus, God (the Father), and the Holy Spirit.  The New Testament talks about all three, but it is a bit fuzzy on the details.  Like many things in our faith, it was controversy and debate that finally helped sort out the borders of what most believe about the Trinity today.

Here are the basic facts that get us to this idea of the Trinity:
  1. Christianity was born from Judaism which held that there is one God and that that God is personal, responsive, and involved in the world in an intimate way. 
  2. From Mary Madeleine worshiping at the feet of the risen Christ to the earliest churches, Christians worshiped Jesus.  Since they believed the worship of anyone but God was idolatry, they clearly believed that Jesus was God.
  3. The Holy Spirit is clearly an avenue of God’s working in the world and in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus gives his disciples the essential formula for baptizing new believers “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Mathew 28:18-20). The Spirit is then in some way a part of God and not simply a messenger or agent like an angel.
None of these three facts get us to a robust understanding of the Trinity, but they give us the elements that later Christians would flesh out into our understanding of a triune God.  In other words, Christians encountered these three persons of God and then later began to sort out what all of this meant exactly.

It was the Christian priest Arius who got the ball rolling. He argued that Jesus wasn’t really God, but was a special kind of creature.  That ruffled the feathers of a few, including a tenacious and brilliant bishop named Athanasius who believed that this view didn’t represent the truth about Jesus.
Athanasius believed that Jesus was “fully God and fully man.”  Sound familiar?  That’s because the Nicene Creed we say each Sunday is the result of the big debate between Arius and Athanasius.  Athanasius won the contest through a mix of political conniving and brilliant argument.  He settled the idea that Jesus and the Father are both God. 

So what about the Spirit?  She remains an ambiguous part of the picture.  Some believed that the Spirit was an aspect of God that proceeded from the Father.  Others believed the Spirit was the bond of love that was exchanged between Father and Son.  We can’t go into all the details of the debate here, but I think we can say that the Spirit is an aspect of God that brings things together: Father and Son, Son and the Church. 

The Trinity is a rich concept that is difficult and yet also deeply meaningful.  It means essentially that God is a community bound by love.  Perhaps the best way to enter into our contemplation of the Trinity isn’t with words but instead with an image. 

There is a famous Icon representing the Trinity by the Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev.  It depicts the three beings who visited Abraham, which many consider the three persons of the Trinity.  All three are gathered at the table and yet there is an open space for us, the viewers, to join the table. 

That is the key part of the theology of the Trinity—God as a community of love welcomes us!
I know you likely have many more questions about this mystery of faith.  I do too!  For now, however, I hope this helps ya just a bit and offers you a new way to pray into the community of God’s love.

Peace be with ya,

What is Catechesis of the Good Shepherd?

Dear Maggie,

What is Catechesis of the Good Shepherd?

Catechetically Confused

Dear Confused,

Oh me, Catechesis is among my favorite subjects and I would love nothing more than to introduce you to the wonderful program we have for teaching our children the ways of our faith and worship life.  Catechesis comes from the Greek word for “instruction by word of mouth.”  In the church it refers to the education new believers receive in the basics of faith.  If ye look in the back of yer prayer book you will find a catechism which gives a short summary of basic understanding of God, the bible, etc.

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a form of teaching that is directed at children ages 3-12.  It was developed by two Catholic laywomen in Italy in the 1950s.  One was a biblical scholar and the other was an educator trained in the methods of Maria Montessori.  Using the hands on methods of Montessori education they developed a way to teach children about our worship and faith life that would involve them in rituals, stories, and prayers.  Space is also provided for children to engage in meaningful play with holy objects—acting out many of the patterns of worship that are practiced in our church worship.

Story telling is also a big part of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.  Biblical stories are told to the children using simple, tactile objects that engage the children and spark their imaginations.
On May 7th we will be reading about how Jesus is our Good Shepherd and we’ll be offering special thanks for those teachers who help make this program available at St. Margaret’s.  If ya come to the 9 a.m. service you’ll see one of our teachers presenting the Gospel lesson using Montessori methods. 

I hope that helps, Confused!

Peace be with ya,
St. Maggie

What is a bishop?

Dear Maggie,

What is a bishop? 

Ordinally Ornery

Dear Onery,

I hope my answer will make ye a bit less ornery and a bit more informed because the bishop’s office is central to our Anglican understanding of church.  The Episcopal Church is in fact named for the fact that we have Bishops or the Episcopate (derived from the word for “overseer” in Greek). 

There are three kinds of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church—deacons, priests, and bishops.  Most of ya interact with priests and deacons on a regular basis, but ya don’t interact with a bishop except once or twice a year.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the bishop is far removed from yer church!  Your priests and deacons likely talk with the Bishop or members of his or her staff on a regular basis for matters ranging from church management, new building projects, and liturgy.  The Bishop has oversight of a group of churches arranged geographically called a diocese.  The Diocese of Arkansas covers the whole state, but some states have more than one diocese with different bishops. 

Bishops are charged with a number of oversights tasks, but they also fulfill important liturgical duties including confirmation, reception and reaffirmation.  Baptisms are also meant to be performed by a bishop when one is present, but are done by a priest on the bishop’s behalf when a bishop cannot be present.

Bishops are elected by the convention of the diocese they go on to serve.  Their election is then affirmed by the national church.  When a bishop is ordained he or she must have the laying on of hands from at least three bishops.  The chain of this laying on of hands can be traced all the way back to the apostle Peter, Bishop of Rome.

I hope that helps straighten ya out ornery!

Peace be with ya!

Why is Mary going on Sabbatical?

Dear Maggie,
Why is Mary going on sabbatical?  What will she do while she is away?
Dear Curious,
The Rev. Mary Vano’s sabbatical is just around the corner and I know that more than just you are curious!  I’d include meself in that lot so I thought I’d just go ahead and ask Mary herself a few questions to fill us all in.
What is a sabbatical and why are you taking one?
A sabbatical is a season of rest and renewal.  It is common practice among clergy to take a sabbatical every 5-7 years as a way to set aside time for spiritual growth.  I have been ordained and working as a priest for nearly 14 years – 6 years at St. Margaret’s, and this is my first opportunity to take a full sabbatical.  I plan and hope to be doing this ministry for many years to come, so it is important to me to be healthy and grounded in God’s Spirit so that I may do this work to the best of my ability.
What will you do on your sabbatical?
The principal focus of the sabbatical is to practice seeing the holy in my everyday life.  I’m really looking forward to spending lots of quality time with my family.  The highlight of the sabbatical will be a trip to Europe for all four of us.  But, I will also spend time on my own… I have two quiet retreats planned at the Hesychia House of Prayer near Subiaco.  I’ll be continuing my photography class, and also taking courses on art and the Italian Renaissance.  Late in the summer, Stephen and I are planning a few days in San Antonio, where we took our honeymoon 18 years ago.
Where are you going?
In June, Stephen, Drew, Matthew and I will have a three-week tour of Europe.  We’ll start in London for five days, then take the chunnel to Paris for another 5 days, and end the trip in Northern Italy, with stays in Venice, Florence, and Rome.  In each of those cities, there’s a famous “Holy Family” painting that will be a kind of touchstone – reminding us of the purpose of our journey.  We plan to explore the churches and museums, and have a lot of fun being tourists in these beautiful cities.
What do you most look forward to on your sabbatical?
It’s hard to choose just one thing!  Rome will be a special visit… there, we’ll be staying with one of my seminary classmates and close friends, who is the rector of St. Paul’s within the Walls in Rome.  It will be fun to experience Rome from the perspective of a true resident of the city.  Of course, I’m also pretty excited about the Harry Potter tour in London!
How do you think this time away will strengthen your work at St. Margaret’s?
The photography courses that I’ve already begun are beginning to reveal to me what I hope to gain – a new perspective.  This will be strengthened in the silent retreats, in my study of art, in the exploration of new cities, and especially in the devoted time with my beloved family.  I can’t say exactly how I will grow… I don’t know exactly what lessons I will learn, but I do know that by taking this intentional time my spirit will be nourished in a way that will inspire my preaching, give me insight for God’s work among us, and renew the love that I am called to share at St. Margaret’s.
Where do you hope to have the most fun?
Now that Ronnie Beggs has taught me to use the Segway, I think I’m ready for a Segway tour through the streets of Paris!
What do you think your greatest challenge will be?
I think the two quiet retreats will be a challenge.  They are both planned to be solitary retreats – except for dinner with the nuns – and I have never done anything quite like that.  The challenge will be to be truly silent, and to accept whatever God will bring to me in that silence.
How can we keep up with what you’re doing?
All of you are welcome to “friend me” on Facebook or follow me on Instagram.  I plan to be posting pictures as I seek to see the holy through this experience.
How can we best support you while you’re away?
Please do pray for me and for my family.  And, please be a support to one another.  By coming together to be the Church – to continue Bringing the Good News – you give me the freedom to be absent for a little while.  Thank you!!

What are the Stations of the Cross?

Dear Maggie,

What are the Stations of the Cross?

Pondering Pilgrim

Dear Pondering,

We all love a journey—they can be hard n’ they can be joyous, but we usually leave having felt and learned more than when we first departed for the trip.  From the earliest days of the Christian faith people have wanted to remember Christ’s journey to the cross, the pilgrimage that led to our salvation.  Many Christians traveled to Jerusalem to follow the path that became known as the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Grief,” which is what tradition holds was the path Jesus took to the cross.  As pilgrims came there they began to imagine where certain events in the Gospels took place such as where Jesus was condemned and where Simon picked up the cross.  By the 15th Century these became codified in 14 “Stations of the Cross,” nine of which are on the actual road and five of which are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Of course not everyone can pick up and go to Jerusalem, so the Franciscans set up shrines around Europe to imitate the places in the holy land.  Many of these shrines included various versions of the Stations of the Cross (ranging from 7 to 30 stations).  By the 17th Century Franciscan churches mostly contained the 14 stations found on the Via Dolorosa. 

The form followed by the Episcopal Church follows that tradition and includes the following stations:
1) Jesus is condemned to death; 2) Jesus takes up his cross; 3) Jesus falls the first time; 4) Jesus meets his afflicted mother; 5) the cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene; 6) a woman wipes the face of Jesus; 7) Jesus falls a second time; 8) Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem; 9) Jesus falls a third time; 10) Jesus is stripped of his garments; 11) Jesus is nailed to the cross; 12) Jesus dies on the cross; 13) the body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother; 14) Jesus is laid in the tomb.

Whether they are spread over a long distance or they simply follow a path around a church’s walls, the Stations of the Cross are a way that we can participate in a pilgrimage of faith without having to leave our day job or travel across the world.

Good Friday is now the most common time for the Stations of the Cross to be used, but they are an appropriate form of meditation anytime we want to remember the journey Jesus took to complete his life of sacrifice.

I do hope that you’ll join on this pilgrimage as we move through this most holy of weeks.

Peace be with ya,

Why do our Easter celebrations begin on Saturday?

Dear Maggie,

If Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday then why do we begin our Easter celebrations on Saturday night?

Holy Confused

Dear Holy,

My, what a wonderful question!  For many a year I was confused on this meself.  I thought for a while that it was simply a matter of the impatience of Christians, so ready to be done with their Lenten fasts that they decided to get a jump on Easter.  But with time I learned another truth and realized that it has a deeper tradition than impatience. 

The primary reason we begin Easter Sunday on Saturday night is that it really isn’t Saturday.  It is Sunday.  Let me explain: For many of our Christian religious observances we follow the Jewish understanding of when a day begins and ends.  In the Jewish understanding a day begins at sundown and ends at the following sundown.  So Jesus went to the cross on Friday and accomplished his work.  On Saturday he entered into God’s rest in the Sabbath and then rose from the dead at the beginning of Sunday (our Saturday night).  Our Easter Vigil Service is then always meant to be celebrated after sundown on Saturday. 

From the stories of Jesus’ resurrection it is also clear that by early morning Jesus had left the tomb.  Therefore it was obviously at some point during the night that he rose.  The Easter Vigil nicely begins in the quiet of death and then moves to the celebration of resurrection life.
I hope that answers yer question Holy!

Peace be with ya,

What is vocation?

Dear Maggie,

What is vocation? 

Questioning Call

Dear Questioning,

There twas a time when Christians thought that vocation was only something for priests and deacons and bishops—it was synonymous with ordination.  By looking at the scriptures and the early church, however, Christians have begun to recover a broader sense of vocation.  We’ve come to recognize that every follower of Christ has a calling that is exercised in the world in different ways.

The word vocation comes from the Latin for “call.” We must say that the first vocation, the first call of every Christian is to respond to Christ’s call to pick up our cross and follow him.  This means that we are meant to join Christ in being a manifestation of God’s reconciliation in the world.  The primary place where we carry out this reconciliation is the Church.  This is the community to which Christ has called us to live into God’s mission in the world.  We are not called first to a job, or a career, or a particular kind of work—our vocation is to be a member of this reconciled and reconciling community of the Church.  This is important to keep in mind because we always want to make sure that our careers and other activities don’t take priority over the community to which we are primarily called.  As the pastor and teacher John Alexander says in his excellent book Being Church: “Our most important work is living in reconciliation with our sisters and brothers in a church and lying awake at night trying to figure out how to help others do the same.  Second, we should take whatever paid or unpaid employment will do most to help our brothers and sisters live in unity.”  

Our call is then not our jobs, but the work we do within this reconciling community of Christ’s Body, the church.  Our jobs may or may not overlap with those things and we should certainly seek to carry that reconciliation into every aspect of our efforts.  The differences between our efforts in the church fall to the various ministries to which we are called in the church.  The Book of Common Prayer has a good summary of the various ministries within the church (found on page 855 of the BCP).  Here are the primary ministries found within a typical parish:
Q. What is the ministry of the laity?
A. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his 
Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; 
and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on 
Christ's work of reconciliation in the world; and to take 
their place in the life, worship, and governance of the 
Q. What is the ministry of a priest or presbyter?
A. The ministry of a priest is to represent Christ and his 
Church, particularly as pastor to the people; to share 
with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim 
the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and 
declare pardon in the name of God.
Q. What is the ministry of a deacon?
A. The ministry of a deacon is to represent Christ and his 
Church, particularly as a servant of those in need; and 
to assist bishops and priests in the proclamation of the 
Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.
In each of these ministries we see that we are to make Christ manifest in the world.  We do this by joining in the reconciled community of the church and by seeking to live as Christ might live if he were us.  To discern how that might look we need to be accountable within our communities as well as imaginative about how Christ might live our lives if he were us. 

I hope that helps ya, Questioning!  God has called us all to amazing work if only we’d answer the call!


Which version of the Bible should I read?

Dear Maggie,

What version of the Bible should I read?

Lost in Translations

Dear Lost,

Wouldn’t it be nice to just sit down and read the scriptures in Greek and Hebrew with everything making all the sense in the world!  Unfortunately, that’s not the case, err actually, it might be fortunately.  Ya see translation could be one way we think about the Incarnation, the Word of God that came to dwell with us.  In each translation of the bible we are seeking again to faithfully transmit the wisdom of God for our age.

Because biblical scholars keep thinking and learning about the scriptures we continue to gain new insights into how to bring the texts of the original languages into our own age.  The reality is that there is no one translation that captures the whole of the scriptures.  In our study of the bible it is really best to read two or three versions, understanding all along that each one has made decisions here and there that will shape how we might understand the scriptures.

In the Episcopal Church the standard of the last few years has been the New Revised Standard Version.  This is the great great grandchild of the King James or “Standard Version.”  The NRSV is the version we mostly read on Sunday mornings in church and a great deal of scholarship has gone into the translation.  However, it does have its problems.  For instance, much of the New Testament was written in a very approachable, everyday language and yet the NRSV tends to be a bit high for most American English speakers of the today.  Also, in some tricky passages the NRSV makes some choices in their translation that don’t fit with some of the best scholarship around today.  Still, this is one of the translations you should use and may be a good first read translation.

Another very good and more recent translation is the Common English Bible.  This is a fresh translation that was sponsored by several denominations including the Episcopal Church.  Many of the world’s best scholars were involved in this translation, but its goal was to make the language of the bible more approachable than that of the NRSV. 

Eugene Peterson’s The Message is a very loose translation, but one that is based in the original languages and really puts the scriptures into the kind of idioms that we can now understand.  His translations have become much loved around the world and I think they are very much worth including in your reading and devotional practice. 

There are hundreds of other translations to choose from, but I’d start with those three.  If you read them side by side then they will help you get a deeper sense of the scripture.  If there is a place where you see a strong difference between the translations then it might be worth looking at an interlinear bible and doing some digging around in why a different choice was made.
As an example, let’s look at Romans 5:1-2.  Here’s how it’s translated in our three examples:

NRSV Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 

CEB: Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness,[a] we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory.

The Message: By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.

As you can see each translation is very different.  All were working from the Greek but each made very different choices. The NRSV offers a traditional protestant interpretation that reflects the idea that it is by our faith that we are justified (it does offer a footnote in most versions that gives some alternative possibilities).  The CEB, however, seems to offer it is Christ’s faithfulness that justifies us. This reflects more recent scholarship around Paul’s understanding of the work of faith—that Christ’s faithfulness is what justifies us, not our faith.  The Greek can be translated either way, but the CEB made their choice based on the larger theology of Paul.  The Message is different than both in that it is focused on transferring the underlying meaning of the texts into our contemporary language through paraphrase. All of these approaches are helpful as we seek to understand the scriptures. 

So, don’t just read one translation!  Read several.  The website Bible Gateway has all of these and more.  They also have a tool where you can see several translations side by side.  The important thing is that we read these ancient texts and begin to make the story of our own lives a continuation of their stories of God’s grace working in the world.  Our lives, then, become the final translation we’re seeking.

I hope that all makes sense for you Lost!  God’s word is a wonder and translations are just a tool to help us live into the beauty of its gift.

Peace be with ya!
St. Maggie

What is an Acolyte?

Dear Maggie,

What is an acolyte?

Anxiously Attending
Dear Attending,

Thank ye for yer question.  Acolytes are those critical ministers in our worship who do so much but can often go unnoticed.  Acolytes are literally table servants, their name being derived from the Greek for “attendant.”  Their responsibilities are to light the candles on the altar, hold the torches for the Gospel procession, and process the cross in and out if there is a processional.  Acolytes also help the deacon with the preparation of the table. 

Originally Acolytes were considered clergy and were ordained by the bishop.  The primary sign of their ordination was the gift of a candle for it is their job to keep the light of the spirit present in worship.  The first we know of their office comes from a letter of Pope Cornelius written in 251 in which a list of the liturgical officers of Rome is noted as forty-six priests, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons, forty-two acolytes, and fifty-two exorcists, lectors, and doorkeepers.  The early church historian Eusebius mentions that acolytes were present and helped with worship at the Council of Nicaea in 325.  Their office is indeed an ancient and honorable one!

Originally acolytes were ordained around the age of twenty, but now acolytes are welcomed into liturgical service from a wide range of ages from six to sixty and beyond!  Up until 1980 acolytes had to be male, but (thank God!) now both boys and girls, men and women can serve at God’s table.

I hope that helps you out Attending!  Yer name means you’d be a perfect match for this ancient role in Christ’s church.  I hope you’ll join in to this wonderful ministry!

Peace be with ya!
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