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From the President

A Gospel Built to Last

President Ferlo on Reconciliation

March 6, 2015 •

As I write this I am preparing for a week at Kanuga (the Episcopal conference center in western North Carolina) to spend time with six Old Catholic bishops from Europe who are visiting the U.S. as guests of the Episcopal House of Bishops. Although I suspect that very few Episcopalians are aware of it, the Episcopal Church has enjoyed a long friendship with the Old Catholic churches in Europe — progressive congregations whose disapproval of the pope’s declaration of infallibility in 1870 moved them to break away from the Roman church, adopting a polity of dispersed authority similar to our own.

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What is on the minds of the Old Catholic bishops during this visit is what is on many minds here in the States — the diminishing role of the Christian church as an arbiter of values in an increasingly secular culture. We live in a paradoxical time. European culture especially is beset by a postmodern mistrust of any religious “meta-narrative” (to use a favorite post-modern phrase) that claims universal acceptance. At the same time, in France, in Denmark, in the Netherlands, there is a resurgence of a new and violent meta-narrative spreading among disaffected young Muslim men — the jihadist dream of a universal caliphate, better known as the nightmare of ISIS. This resurgent Islamist meta-narrative breeds, no doubt by intention, a troubling xenophobic and racist reaction among people who should know better.

In all this, the Christian churches in Europe seem less and less relevant. The stakes are high. In spite of claims to the contrary — including those made by people who call themselves Christians in this country — the Gospel is a gospel of peace and reconciliation, where xenophobia, institutional racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have no place. Whether American Episcopalians or European Old Catholics, our temptation is to focus on our institutional survival. But face it, institutions — even institutions as old as ours — come and go. Europeans know this from their own experience, perhaps better than we Americans. The Gospel, though, is built to last.

The question we will ask at Kanuga — and the question we all must persist in asking ourselves — is how churches like ours can look beyond our own survival, to embrace instead God’s mission of reconciliation in a time, in both Europe and the United States, when the urge for self-protection and retribution is everywhere to be felt.

We know that in Christ, the agents of death — and the fear of death — in the end had no dominion over him. That’s what the resurrection was all about. The challenge for us now is to act as if we believed it.

Breaking the Silence

President Ferlo on Lenten Discipline

February 12, 2015 •

It’s no surprise that we think of Lent as a time to cultivate some silence. Like other Protestants, Episcopalians can be a noisy lot, what with all our preaching, hymn-singing, coffee hours, and all-too-public controversies. But like other Catholics, we also prize a bit of silence, even though moments of ritual quiet in our typical Sunday liturgies tend to get cut short, either by presiders used to filling the air with talk, or congregations who start fidgeting because they suspect someone forgot their lines. For all our good intentions, we tend to be ill at ease with silence, perhaps because we tend to be ill at ease with the possibility that God might speak to us in ways that our ears wouldn’t normally want to hear.

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There’s a history to this uneasiness, and it’s not always a pretty one. Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of the magisterial Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, has now published a shorter, more pointed, and more personal book: Silence: A Christian History (Penguin, 2013). Written with his usual wit, verve and often unsettling candor, MacCulloch’s book tells a double story. What begins as a thorough, balanced, richly detailed and often entertaining history of Christian silence as religious practice, turns in the second half of the book to a startling exposé of the uses of Christian silence to mask all manner of evil and shame, what he calls “building identity through forgetfulness:”

The history of Christianity is full of things casually or deliberately forgotten, or left unsaid, in order to shape the future of a Church or Churches. Institutions religious or secular create their own silences, by exclusions and shared assumptions, which change over time. Such silences are often at the expense of many of the people who could be thought of as actually constituting the Church.

MacCulloch describes in calm and therefore devastating detail many “conscious silences of shame and fear:” silences about the abuse of power, about racial prejudice and the religious defense of slavery, of unspoken misogyny and homophobia, of silence about clerical child abuse amounting to sinful cover-up, silence in the face of genocide and holocaust. These pages are painful to read, but he writes them, in a way, to clear the decks: “as a necessary penitential work of stripping the altars, or, more cheerfully, the anticipatory clearance of the house before the party begins.” I can’t think of a better description of Lenten discipline. MacCulloch exposes the misuse of Christian silence as a step toward its redemption, restoring “an approach to divinity that portrays what God is not, rather than what he is” — a theology that grounds itself in a religion of Spirit that, as Paul said so long ago, lies too deep for words.

May that restored silence be yours this Lenten season. And may we all be bold enough to break our pious silences when justice is at stake.

Episcopal Seminaries United in Diversity

President Ferlo on the Council of Deans meeting Jan. 11-13, 2015 •

Last week I had the privilege of hosting the Council of Deans of our Episcopal seminaries at Bexley House in Columbus. It was a time of renewed friendship and striking cordiality, considering our doctrinal and institutional differences. It is good to have such colleagues, especially in times of change and stress. The press and blogosphere thrive on institutional crisis. But in spite of recent difficulties, our Episcopal seminaries remain strongly committed to fulfilling our historic purposes. We are about Christian lives formed, Christian leadership shaped, and theological inquiry boldly encouraged, with God's mission of love and reconciliation in Jesus Christ as our compass. At a time when graduate-level theological study for lay and clergy leaders is dismissed in some quarters as an unnecessary luxury, and when our seminaries are caricatured as out of touch with and unaccountable to the real church, it is all the more important that our true story be told, a story in which our own "seminary beyond walls" at Bexley Seabury continues to play an essential part.

Here is the communiqué we drafted as we reflected on our time together:


Communiqué from the Council of Episcopal Seminary Deans
January 14, 2015

The Council of Deans met in its annual meeting at the Bexley Seabury campus in Columbus, Ohio Sunday, January 11 to Tuesday, January 13, 2015.  

All 10 seminary deans were present at the meeting, joined by their academic deans, as well as the dean and president of St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in the Philippines. Across a range of theological viewpoints, there was a shared commitment to theological education and formation as well as mutual recognition of the distinctive gifts of each school.  

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The Council of Deans recognized the many opportunities and challenges facing theological education in the United States. There was an appreciation of the sheer variety of programs that, collectively, Episcopal seminaries are providing in response to our changing world and church. In addition to the three-year residential MDiv, the MDiv can be taken in hybrid, distance, and part-time forms. Theological studies can be as short as a summer or a January term, to a quarter, to a semester, to a full year or more. Training is provided in Spanish language and Latino/a culture, and different tracks are offered in missional leadership; hospital, school, and military chaplaincy; and community organizing. MA and other degrees are offered in counseling, Christian formation, ministry, and all the major academic disciplines. There is a plethora of certificate and short-residency courses for lay and ordained leaders.

In recent years, three seminaries have completed or are in the process of completing capital campaigns. In all, over $40 million has been raised thus far. The demographics of Episcopal seminary student bodies are increasingly young and diverse. Placement rates are high, with many seminaries reporting over 90% of graduates placed within six months. This confirms the data from the Church Pension Fund that established the high placement rate and subsequent vocational progress made possible by an Episcopal seminary education. Several seminaries are engaged in thoughtful restructuring and reorganization that will ensure long-term sustainability and relevance.

The Council of Deans will seek conversation with diocesan leadership to recruit gifted candidates for leadership in the church. Discussion began about sharing opportunities for cross-cultural immersion among the 10 seminaries, as well as exploring cross-registration among our programs.

The Council of Deans concluded its meeting by affirming its commitment to continue to serve the church both domestically and globally. The Council welcomes conversations with all parties in the Episcopal Church about the future needs of the church.

  • The Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander, Dean of the School of Theology of the University of the South
  • The Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle, Dean and President, General Theological Seminary
  • The Rev. Roger Ferlo, President, Bexley Hall Seabury Western Theological Seminary Federation
  • The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Dean and President, Seminary of the Southwest
  • The Very Rev. Ian Markham, Dean and President, Virginia Theological Seminary
  • The Very Rev. Andrew McGowan, Dean and President, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale
  • The Very Rev. Gloria Lita D. Mapangdol, St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary, Quezon City, Philippines
  • The Very Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, Dean and President, Episcopal Divinity School
  • The Very Rev. Mark Richardson, Dean and President, Church Divinity School of the Pacific
  • The Rt. Rev. Edward Salmon, Dean and President, Nashotah House
  • The Very Rev. Justyn Terry, Dean and President, Trinity School for Ministry

On Being a God-bearer: An Advent meditation

"1918 in Petrograd" by Kuzma Petrov VodkinHaving grown up as an Italian-American Roman Catholic in the 1950s, I have spent most of a lifetime recovering from what felt like an overdose of plaster statuary. It seemed that statues of the Virgin Mary were everywhere in my childhood — on my grandmother’s vanity bureau, to the right of the high altar at church, on the little prie-dieu where I posed for my First Communion photo.

But I have learned, the older I get, that life is all about paradox, and that you never know when what you thought you left behind will turn out to be the source of your greatest strength, or, to use Gospel language, when the stone the builders rejected will become the chief cornerstone.

Those statues of the Virgin glow now in a different light. I am still protestant enough to declare that doctrine of the virgin birth tells us nothing about biology. But as the philosopher would say, it is a paradox nonetheless good to think with. It tells us everything about the mystery of God’s presence among us, about what it means to be Immanuel, about what it means for us to be God-bearers, what it means for us to be present to God.

To be a God-bearer: that has been a challenge for all of us in the past several weeks, where we have seen the most vulnerable among us targeted in the streets, where stories of torture, cover-up and vicious bureaucratic incompetence have made us wonder whether humanity is even redeemable. Who are the God-bearers among us? To be a God-bearer: that is the identity that every Christian in this season is being challenged to embrace, an identity mirrored in the image of the Virgin Mother who, in the ancient prayer, puts down the mighty from their thrones, raises up the humble and meek, and shows us the fruit of her womb in this Jesus, the source and goal of all our desires.

The great mystic Bernard of Clairvaux knew all about desire — the desire for God that is mirrored in the desire of one human being for another, a desire that for him was channeled into an extraordinary, even over-the-top devotion to the Virgin Mother.

In the Divine Comedy, that great 14th century epic of desire, when Dante the pilgrim at last approaches the mystical Rose — the stadium of the saints — in the heaven of heavens, it is Bernard of Clairvaux who appears as his final guide into the Divine Light, and he does so by guiding the pilgrim’s eyes toward the Virgin Mother herself, sitting at the very top tier of those celestial bleachers:

Look now on the face that most resembles Christ,
For nothing but its brightness
Can make you fit to look on Christ

And then, in the greatest prayer of devotion to the Virgin ever devised, Dante has Bernard ring the changes on the paradox of Incarnation:

Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo figlio,
umile e alta piu che creatura,
termine fisso d’etterno consiglio

tu se’ colei che l’umana natura
nobilitasti si’, che ‘l suo fattore
non disdegno di farsi sua fattura.

Nel ventre tuo si racesse l’amore...

Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son,
More humble and exalted than any creature,
Fixed goal of the eternal plan,

You are the one who so ennobled human nature
That He, who made it first, did not disdain
To make Himself of its own making.

Your womb relit the flame of love….

“To make Himself of its own making.” To put it in another way, a way likely more familiar to those of you reading this column: We believe in Jesus Christ, truly God, truly human, born of the Virgin Mary. Does it ever strike you at once how absurd that statement is, and at the same time how absolutely right? Truly God, truly human: We live with that paradox week in and week out as we recite the ancient creed. It is a paradox that puzzles the mind and redeems the heart, one that proclaims that the God whose name cannot be uttered is as close to us as a newborn baby is to its mother’s breast. And that mother is daughter to her own son, at once humble and exalted, a daughter who so ennobled human nature that the God who created human nature did not disdain to Self-create out of the stuff of God’s own making, entering a human womb that relit the flame of love in a world grown old and torn.

Bernard had his faults (a penchant for armed crusades among them, echoing today’s jihadists of every stripe, whether Christian, Jew or Muslim). But he could preach true Gospel when he had to. In a sermon addressed to the Virgin, he imagines the charged moment before she answers the angel, a moment of uneasy silence in which Bernard believes the whole fate of humankind rests.

“Answer, O Virgin, answer the angel quickly; or rather, through the angel answer God. Speak the word and receive the word. Offer what is yours and conceive what is God’s. Breathe one fleeting word and embrace the eternal Word.”

“Offer what is yours, and conceive what is God.” Let that be our prayer as we enter this season of Incarnation, especially in these mean times of prejudice and violence and deep inequality. What Bernard says to the Virgin, we also, in her honor, must also allow him to say to us. In all our sinfulness and folly, can we in this season offer what is ours — offer no less than all that we are — and allow ourselves, in solidarity with Mary, to “conceive what is God’s,” in whose image we are created, and by whose birth, death and resurrection we all of us stand redeemed?

Dies Irae, Libera me: A sermon for All Saints and All Souls

One of the many odd features of this glorious score of Faure's is the prominence of the viola players. Usually in pieces like this it's the violins who rule the roost, with the violas meekly supplying the middle voice. But not in Faure's famous Requiem. A violin player has to wait for half the piece to pass before she even has a chance to play. No, it's the violas who rule the top line in this piece. To get a sense of how good this must feel for the viola section, just Google the keywords "lame viola joke." You'll have hundreds to choose from, pretty much along the lines of this:

Question: What's the difference between a viola and a violin?

Answer: you can tune a violin.

You get the idea. But as you have heard, these violas are wonderfully in tune. Nothing meek about them. And as this morning's gospel assures us, blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the score.

There are other odd features of this piece. It is said that Faure started writing following the deaths of both his parents, but pretty much all he produced in that year was the Libera me, the section you heard just before the Gospel. It wasn't until 1888 that he completed five movements, and it was four more years before he had seven. But nothing was published until 1900, and that score was so riddled with printer's errors and oversights that it's driven editors crazy ever since. It's as if Faure really couldn't figure out precisely what he wanted. And the fact is that the piece wasn't performed all that often in Faure's lifetime. It was only in the 1920s that it seemed to catch on with the French listening public. And the rest, of course, is history, as your presence today testifies.

I will come back to that delayed popularity in a moment. But I should note what is perhaps the oddest thing about this piece, at least as ordinary requiems go. As Christian Clough explained in his on-line essay, most big nineteenth-century Requiems, like Verdi's or Bruckner's, featured a crash bang setting of the Dies Irae, "Day of wrath, Day of Terror," that ancient feature of the Roman funeral rite that was meant to scare the daylights out of those who mourn, setting them back on the track of righteousness with pounding tympanies, clanging brass and stentorian choruses. There's almost nothing like that in Faure's Requiem. All is serenity, lush harmonies in low registers, the plangent singing of a soprano soloist, the peaceful obbligato of a solo violin. That peace is broken only once, at bar 53 of the Libera me--do you remember?-- when out of nowhere brass and chorus launch into a deafening Dies Irae. The world of righteous judgment breaks in when one least expects it. But not for long. By bar 70, all is quiet again, as if the Day of Wrath never happened, as if the composer intentionally liberates us from fear.

No one can really explain why Faure's piece took so long to catch on in France and elsewhere--published in 1900, but not performed regularly until at least 20 years later. But I have a theory about this history of delayed performance. Those 20 years in France and elsewhere in Europe were punctuated by unspeakable carnage and pestilence, with millions dead in a savage war and millions more dead in the great flu epidemic. No wonder people clamored for the serenity and harmony of this great piece, for the consolation of a paradise imagined and restored, in the company of all the saints. What would it have been like to hear this requiem for the first time, with the memory still fresh of all those deaths, at whose graves on days like All Souls those who survived repeated the ancient refrain: "Libera me! "Deliver me, from the injustice of violence and an early death."

Which brings me at last to Matthew's gospel on this mash-up of All Saints, All Souls morning, In a sense, the Beatitudes have their own kind of performance history in liturgies like this. Like Faure's Requiem, the Beatitudes have offered generations of believers a gospel of consolation. Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are the meek, Blessed are those who mourn.

But there's an edge to this consolation in Matthew. Matthew's gospel was likely written for a community of believers still reeling from the blood and smoke of the first Jewish revolt in the year 70. The Roman juggernaut all but leveled Jerusalem, demolishing the Temple and the Temple Mount sacred to both Jews and Jewish Christians. So there's an edge to it when Matthew has Jesus bless those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, or bless those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. Righteousness is one of Matthew's favorite words. Protestant Christians especially prone to interpret this righteousness in an individualistic way, where the thirst for righteousness amounts to a thirst for personal salvation, a hunger, to use the evangelical catchphrase, to get right with God.

But just think of the difference it would make if we translated the word Matthew uses not as righteousness but as justice: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice! Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice's sake, persecuted because they thirst for justice--thirst for a more just world for the poor in spirit, the weak, for those who mourn, for every victim of violence, neglect, oppression and avoidable pestilence. Matthew's call to righteousness is meant to call us up short, like a Dies Irae in the middle of a Libera me: it is a cry for justice as the means and sign of liberation from oppression.

What would it mean if we read Matthew's gospel this way and then responded accordingly, seeking not the delayed consolation of a future life but a just future for our neighbors in this one? Ours too, after all, is a time of pestilence and war. As the Ebola epidemic rages among the poorest of the poor, who will step forward as the merciful ones? And as violence and carnage once again threaten to consume the Temple Mount, who will risk support for the peacemakers? What would it take for us to be counted among the blessed, to be admitted to the company of those saints who have gone before us, to be faithful to those who will inherit the world we have created?

On this All Saints Day, on this feast of All Souls, we remember the dead, we pray for the dead, consoled by the beauty of this requiem. But in the spirit of this gospel, regard that consolation not as an end, but as a beginning. Seize the blessing. To paraphrase the advice of that great secular saint, Mother Jones: Pray for the dead, but then go out from this place, and fight like hell for the living.

--The Rev. Dr. Roger A. Ferlo
Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer
November 2, 2014

Is the Lord Among Us or Not?

A sermon preached by President Roger Ferlo at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland on September 28, 2014:

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I have a question for you from this morning's reading: Is the Lord among us or not?

Now, that's a question about authority, which means it is a question about power.

Does anyone here remember the Occupy Wall Street movement? It seems to have disappeared, and one of the reasons people think it dissipated is because there was, in the end, no one with the authority to speak clearly for the group.

The same has been said of the peaceful leaders of the protests in Ferguson—they were fragmented, spontaneous, with no sense of a center or a leader, and it all quickly devolved into violence.

It's hard to blame anyone for this. As both people in Occupy and, I think probably in Ferguson, would tell you, the idea of following a leader is problematic in these parlous times, given what kinds of directions leaders for whom authority means power have lead us:  Putin muscling around in eastern Europe, the police chief in Ferguson calling using military-scale weaponry to intimidate unarmed demonstrators in their own streets, and then feebly apologizing weeks and weeks later, but not disarming.

So in these days when leadership has become so problematic, the Biblical question asked this morning has a new resonance:

Where is authority to be found?

Is there a Lord among us or not?

In fact, the Biblical answer to this Biblical question tends to be a skeptical one, especially when it comes to describing the relationship of authority to power.

Read more: Is the Lord Among Us or Not?

These Are Not Easy Times for Bridge-Builders: Berea College Baccalaureate Sermon

Before driving down here to Berea for the first time Friday night, I spent a few days at a church conference in Cincinnati. Our group paid a visit to the Freedom Center Museum, that remarkable tribute to the Underground Railroad. There’s a great view toward the south from the terrace of that building. To your left is the baseball stadium, and to your right there’s another one, just as big, and I’m told there’s a third one close by, so there’s no question, you’re in Cincinnati. But it was the view straight ahead that caught my eye, the view of Mr. Roebling’s grand suspension bridge, across the Ohio River, connecting Ohio to Kentucky. For a native New Yorker like me, it was a very confusing moment. I could have been in Brooklyn Heights, staring at the Brooklyn Bridge, a bridge that was built 20 years later by Mr. Roebling’s son, a bridge featuring the same intricate network of cables suspended between a similar pair of neo-Gothic arches. But if I had been in Brooklyn, I would have seen the towers of lower Manhattan looming at me from the other side. What I glimpsed from the Ohio side of the bridge, of course, was not the proud but fragile towers of Manhattan but, to be polite, the more modest skyline of Covington, and the inviting start of the winding road south, the road my wife and I traveled Friday afternoon to arrive here at this amazing place, and to speak to this amazing class of 2014.

What a privilege to be with you all on this day so full of blessing and promise! What a privilege to stand here with the staff and faculty who have been so important in helping you shape your intellectual, emotional and spiritual lives. What a privilege to be here among your families and friends and supporters without whom you could never have done what you have done. I hope you will remember that. And what a privilege President Roelofs has extended to me to stand here in this pulpit—a stranger to this place—and to preach what your founder John Fee called the impartial Gospel of love, and to preach to people like you. You have experienced that impartial love first hand, since the day you first walked on this campus four or two or thirty or however many years ago.

Read more: These Are Not Easy Times for Bridge-Builders: Berea College Baccalaureate Sermon

Doing Scripture through the Prayer Book

In the next several weeks, the entire Bexley Seabury faculty will be showcased in an eight-part video series introducing on-line audiences to the spiritual practices of the Book of Common Prayer. We are working with the Rev. Chris Yaw, founder of ChurchNext, a start-up non-profit dedicated to exploring new platforms for Christian formation in dioceses and congregations throughout the world.  I filmed my four-part segment—on Scripture and the Prayer Book—yesterday in my Chicago office, with Chris behind the camera and my former parishioner Simon Carr’s beautiful painting of the Transfiguration forming the backdrop. I like to think of this project as an excellent example of what we are calling our “seminary beyond walls.” Chris and I hope that our series will have widespread use in parishes and congregations around the country, as well as among individuals sitting in front of their laptops and connected to the Internet.  My gifted colleagues—Tom Ferguson, Jason Fout, Karl Ruttan, Ellen Wondra, John Dally, Suzann Holding, Milner Seifert—and I are proud of what we have accomplished, and grateful to be working for an Episcopal seminary where such innovative projects constitute our very reason for being.

To find out more about ChurchNext and the Bexley Seabury Prayer Book Series, visit the ChurchNext website.   And encourage your colleagues, friends and parishioners to consider subscribing to the series. The first four-part segment—featuring Dean Tom Ferguson on global Anglicanism and the Prayer Book tradition—is scheduled to be aired on-line next week. To give you a sense of what we are up to, here’s a preview of the script I wrote for yesterday’s filming. It’s a five-minute segment (one of four) focusing on “doing” Scripture through the Prayer Book. Let me know what you think.

Happy Eastertide to all.

Doing Scripture through the Prayer Book: singing psalms, shaking hands, pouring water, breaking bread

We have already seen how deeply the language of Scripture has influenced the language of the Prayer Book.  But it’s not just the language of the Bible that has shaped Prayer Book worship.  Even when Scripture isn’t quoted directly, almost every ritual action that the Prayer Book provides for in its rubrics (in effect its stage directions) exhibits what might be called scriptural resonance.

In other words, we not only read Scripture in the Prayer Book tradition; in many ways and in many forms we enact it.

To name just a few Prayer Book moments of scriptural resonance:

  • The dramatic pouring of water into the baptismal font, as the priest blesses it while speaking of Noah and the flood, the crossing of the Red Sea waters, and John’s baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan
  • The laying on of hands at moments of blessing, or in the public service of healing, or during services of confirmation or ordination—perhaps the most frequently mentioned activity in the stories about Jesus and about the earliest days of the church
  • The anointing with scented oil during the rite of baptism, or with the oil of healing at times of physical or emotional crisis, reminding us of Jesus’ own anointing by Mary of Bethany, or of Paul proclaiming to his congregation in Corinth that “we are the aroma of Christ”
  • The sending forth at the end of Eucharist, echoing the injunction in Matthew to Go therefore and make disciples of all nations
  • The smearing with ashes on the first day of Lent, accompanied by the saying in Genesis that we are dust and will return to dust
  • The procession of the palms on the Sunday before Easter, a joyful ritual in response to the reading of the Gospel narrative of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem
  • The washing of feet at the Maundy Thursday liturgy, in keeping with Jesus’ mandate (in old English, his “Maundy”) to love one another as he loves us, to serve rather than to be served
  • The procession of the cross into the church on Good Friday, in response to the dramatic reading of John’s passion narrative and the solemn prayers of the people
  • The lighting of the Pascal candle at the Easter vigil, as we sit in darkness and hear the great Biblical narratives of our creation and our redemption.

As you can see, the list goes on and on.  Almost every ritual action the Prayer Book provides for has its roots in Biblical story and Biblical proclamation.

And there are also those key moments in Prayer Book worship when what we do and see is a direct response to a Biblical imperative: 

  • when we pray the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus taught us to pray,
  • when we share the bread and wine after praying the very words that Jesus uttered at his last supper with his friends—“Whenever you do this, do this in memory of me”
  • when we pause at the start of our Eucharistic celebration in Rite I to hear the Great Commandment that Jesus gave us, quoting both Leviticus and Deuteronomy:

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

To hear and follow these two commandments of Jesus, to follow them in our relationship with each other and with the world God loves: in the end, as Archbishop Cranmer knew, that is what Prayer Book worship—what Common Prayer—is really all about.

The Geography of Evil

Graves srebrenica bosnia and herzegovinaA sermon preached on Good Friday 2014, Church of St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago

Every year on the evening between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the Episcopal cathedral in New York sponsors an all-night reading of Dante’s Inferno, all thirty-four exciting and horrific cantos. The timing is grimly appropriate. The action of the entire Divine Comedy begins on Maundy Thursday of the year 1300. Dante the pilgrim makes his way down through the many circles of hell, and then climbs the seven story mountain of purgatory, and then—like a human rocket ship—is catapulted into the heavenly spheres of the Paradiso, all in the scope of an Easter weekend.

I expect that by this time, the readers in the Cathedral will have concluded the last canto of the Inferno. It is a shocking canto, perhaps more shocking to the 14th century reader than it is to us, as it begins with a blasphemous parody of one of the most beautiful Latin hymns of Holy Week. As Dante approaches the deepest center of hell, his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, warns him in a mix of Latin and Italian:

Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni verso di noi,/ pero dinanzi mira,

which, roughly translated, means “The regal banners of the inferno are flying in front of us, so keep your eyes peeled and your powder warm.” So somehow Virgil, a pagan who died in the first century, knows the words of the opening verse of one of the greatest seventh century hymns in honor of the Cross, a hymn still sung in monasteries and sanctuaries throughout the world on days like this.

Vexilla Regis prodeunt;

Fulget Crucis mysterium,

Quo carne carnis conditor

Suspense est patibulo


Abroad the regal banners fly,

now shines the Cross’s mystery:

upon it life did Death endure,

and yet by death did life procure.

Vexilla regis prodeunt—The banners of the king go forth. Virgil has the wit to add, “the banners of the king—of hell”—because he and his protégé have now reached the very pit of the Inferno, where no fires burn, where everywhere is ice. It’s a place where the banners of the king of hell in truth proceed nowhere at all. They are in fact not banners that Virgil points to, but ghosts, shades, “ombre”—the shades of those who had committed the worst sin that Dante could imagine—the sin of betrayal. And at the very epicenter of the inverted cone of hell as Dante imagines it is Lucifer, the Great Betrayer, the fallen angel of light, emperor of this woeful realm. He stands there waist deep in ice, frozen, immobile. No romantic hero he, but a kind of death machine, with one head and three faces—demonic parody of the Trinity. His body is the color of decay, as ugly now as it once was beautiful. His six eyes weep tears and bloody foam, and each of his three mouths chews the living corpses of one of the three men whom Dante regarded as the three greatest of traitors. Cassius and Brutus, assassins of Julius Caesar, each squirms in one of Lucifer’s two outer mouths. The center mouth chews Judas Iscariot. Judas’ head and upper body are hidden from view inside that horrible mouth, his legs outside kicking and trembling in the icy winds—winds kicked up by the six batlike wings of the fallen seraph who forever holds him captive.

Read more: The Geography of Evil

The End of the Story

I have always felt a close kinship with Nicodemus. He is one of several figures in the Gospels who approach Jesus in good faith only to get much more than they bargained for:  like the rich man who had followed the Law diligently from his youth, the man whom Jesus loved, and yet felt forced to flee his presence in guilt and sorrow because the demand Jesus made—to sell all he had and follow him—was more than he could bear. Or the Syro-Phoenician woman who sought a cure for her daughter, only to be rebuked like a dog for presuming to cross the boundary dividing insider from outsider, circumcised from uncircumcised, Jew from Gentile, men from women. To her credit she had the temerity to stand up to Jesus. Not many of us would, I suspect. Certainly not Nicodemus.

By the time Jesus has finished with him early in John’s gospel, Nicodemus all but disappears from view. He asks God what we all ask God at some point in our lives: How can these things be? And Jesus’ response is so total, so overwhelming, that Nicodemus doesn’t stand a chance. Nicodemus is always in the dark: masking his quest in the darkness around him, struggling hard against the darkness within him. And Jesus has no patience with him:

“How can a man be born again from his mother’s womb? How can these things be?”

“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

It’s a nightmare of a rebuke, this rebuke of Jesus, in the darkness that Nicodemus thought was safe—a rebuke that sails into him from nowhere, like the winter wind wreaking havoc through the barren trees.

If we are honest with ourselves, and honest with God, this rebuke may be our nightmare too. It’s just not safe, this religious business. I am not talking about what the cultured despisers call “organized religion”—with its membership lists, its church councils, its pledging rolls, its liturgical niceties, its bishops defending against lawsuits, its competing seminaries. No, that part of religion, ironically, feels safe and familiar. For better or worse, we do institutions pretty well.

The part that’s not safe is the encounter with God—not just questioning Jesus (he seems to enjoy that), but simply being with Jesus. Especially when we think we know what we are doing. Like Nicodemus, we do not always understand. We do not always trust. Many of us, if we approach God at all, would rather not allow ourselves to be seen by the light of day.

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.

We never find out what becomes of Nicodemus. We see him only once again in John’s gospel, toward the end of the story, again in darkness, as he drags a load of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body in the tomb, Jesus being safer dead than alive. What a load to bear in the darkness. He will use those spices to anoint the corpse, laying it in the safety of the graveyard. Nicodemus will leave Jesus’ body where it is safe to leave it, and for that act of bravery and compassion God’s blessings on him.

We’ll never know, at least in this life, what became of Nicodemus after that. But knowing his after-story is not the point. The story in John’s gospel is not really about Nicodemus, struggling with Jesus in the dark. The story is about us. It is an Easter story. And although we all can predict the end of our stories—the human mortality rate still stands at 100%—we cannot predict, or control, how God will lead us to our end. We cannot predict where our own place at Calvary might be. But we can know what I hope Nicodemus finally knew, when he heard that the tomb was empty—that in Christ all things will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

The Spirit of God blows where it chooses. Knowing that is perhaps what Christian life is all about, allowing ourselves, opening ourselves, to feel and hear the wind when and where it blows, embracing it, breathing it in, with arms wide open and in the full light of day. To acknowledge God the Spirit breathing in and through our ordinary lives, and to allow ourselves to be born anew, born from above, even if it means dying to what we are and rising again to a life of hope and compassion and reconciling love that we have only begun to imagine and embody.

President Roger Ferlo

Roger Ferlo

Roger A. Ferlo is the president of the Bexley Seabury Federation and professor of biblical interpretation and the practice of ministry. Ferlo, who was previously the associate dean and director of the Institute of Christian Formation and Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary, where he also served as professor of religion and culture, took up his duties at Bexley Seabury on July 1, 2012.

Prior to working at Virginia Seminary, Ferlo, who trained for the priesthood at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, spent 19 years in parish ministry, serving in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. He has 14 years of teaching experience at the university and seminary levels; 15 years of service on the board of the National Association of Episcopal schools, including a term as president; and nine years of service on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Colgate University ('73, summa cum laude), where in 2010 he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Ferlo holds a Ph.D. from Yale University ('79) and has authored and edited three books and numerous published essays, sermons and reflections.