Thursday, October 16, 2008

“Who then is the faithful and wise servant...?”
(Matt. 24:45)
Theodore of Tarsus
by Jan Robitscher
2 Timothy 2: 1-5, 10
Ps. 34: 9-14
Matthew 24:42-47
All Saints Chapel
September 18, 2008

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

O Countenance like the Ember,
bid me remember.
(from an anonymous Irish text)

Today we remember the life and work of Theodore of Tarsus who died on this day in 690. Today is also an Ember Day. Encompassing both in one liturgy is a lot, and you may well ask, “ What do these Theodore and Ember Days have to do with each other, and why is it so important to remember them?

In June, about a month before the Lambeth Conference, I spent a week doing a Benedictine Experience retreat at Canterbury Cathedral. Much of the retreat went to praying for the Lambeth, that is, when we were not working around the Cathedral, visiting the place of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom or studying. But I also took a lot of time simply absorbing the place that is Canterbury Cathedral. I tried to absorb the communal prayers and memories which saturate every stone, window, statue and altar of the place. Part of my prayer was before the long list of Archbishops of Canterbury. Among these was Theodore of Tarsus, whom we remember today.
O Countenance like the Ember,
bid me remember.

It was by a convoluted route that Theodore became Archbishop of Canterbury. When Deusdedit died, Wighard was chosen, but he died before he could be consecrated in Rome. Then the pope decided to choose his own man, Adrian, an African-born abbot from Naples, but he refused and proposed Andrew, who was well qualified except for his health. Stories vary, but one goes that the pope tried again to force Adrian, but this time he put forward a healthy, sixty-six year old African-born Greek monk (not a priest) named Theodore who had been schooled in Antioch and Rome. The pope finally relented, but said the Adrian had to accompany Theodore to England.

Once there (complete with proper Roman tonsure), Theodore set about a circuit of the entire nation. One thing he must have discovered is that Christians there were familiar with the celebration of Ember Days. These had existed from the earliest Church, partly to counter Roman agricultural ceremonies and mostly to enjoin all the faithful to a time of fasting and prayer to thank God for the gifts of nature, to use its gifts wisely and to help the needy. The practice of Ember Days was brought to England by Augustine of Canterbury. It was not until the 11th century that Pope Gregory VII made a definite arrangement of the Ember Days: the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after St. Lucy’s Day (Dec. 13), Ash Wednesday, Pentecost and Holy Cross Day. Later, ordinations were held on the Saturdays of Ember weeks, with prayers for fruitful ministries. They are now an occasion to pray for all vocations and to “rekindle the fire” of our worship and ministry.
O Countenance like the Ember,
bid me remember.

In 672, Theodore presided over the first council of the whole English Church. This was a major feat, as the Council of Whitby, at which Abbess Hilda persuaded the various factions to adopt the practices of the church in Rome, was only nine years earlier. He could have introduced yet a third way, of the Christian East, but instead strove to unify the Church as it was. In addition, he established boundaries for dioceses, revised canon law and ordained bishops where needed. In short, Theodore took what he found--a “disorganized missionary body” and left it “a fully ordered province of the universal Church”1

And remember Adrian? He became head of a school Theodore founded in Canterbury to train both Celtic and Roman Christians, and he, too, did much to unite the two groups.

Beyond the “physical” marks of unity that Theodore brought to the English Church lies something much deeper. Theodore was originally from Tarsus (yes, the Tarsus of St. Paul) and it was Theodore’s theology, grounded in the Schools of Antioch and Rome, and much influenced by two giants: Ireneus and Ephrem the Deacon. This was perhaps his greatest gift to the Church. Ireneus gave us the wonderful words, “The Glory of God is humanity fully alive!” Ephrem gave us poetry and hymns to express the mystery of the Incarnation (see hymn #443). Both are hallmarks of Anglican theology right down to the present day. Thanks be to God for Theodore, the “faithful and wise servant”!

So what do Theodore, Ember Days and remembering have to do with each other? Listen to a bit more of the celtic poem I have been quoting:

O Countenance like the Ember,
bid me remember
The Lamb of God, sore taken,
The Lamb of God forsaken,
The Lamb of God under clay,
Three days till Resurrection Day!

Here, in remembering--in re-membering Christ crucified and risen, is the deepest memory, steeped in the stones of Canterbury Cathedral and of every church and altar; of Theodore and all the saints; in the Ember Days and in all our days; in each of us gathered here and in the hearts of all God’s faithful people; in all our celebrations of the Eucharist.

O Countenance like the Ember,
bid me remember!

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