Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Christian Maturity: the Precepts of the Church

The following is Fr. Homer Rogers' explanation of the precepts of the church, filtered through Canon Richard Cantrell and through me. It is a resource in our new baptism handbook.

Jesus said: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind . . . and thy neighbor as thyself.” Assuming that I do, how do I put it into practice? Although the answer is vast and complicated, the Church boils it down to what are called the Six precepts of the Church. In our Lord’s command there are three parties to be loved: God, my neighbor, and myself. We might say that I have two selves—a social self and private self. So in my capacity as an individual and as a member of society, there are two ways for me to love God, two ways to love my neighbor, and two ways to love myself. Thus six precepts, or expectations of the mature Christian. Parents and godparents should model and teach them to the newly baptized.

1. Assist at Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of obligation. The first two precepts have to do with my love of God—in social terms and individual terms. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” That is, continue the celebration of the Eucharist. In the prayer of consecration in Rite I, we speak of the Eucharist as “this our bounden duty and service.” In apostolic times, if one was deliberately absent from the Eucharist on Sunday, he usually did not come back, since it was considered to be such a serious repudiation of both God and the fellowship of the Church. To miss the Eucharist unnecessarily on Sunday was always held to be a serious sin. Thus, there are only three real excuses for being absent:

Sickness. If you are too sick to go to church, a priest will be happy to bring you Holy Communion if you ask. It is not an excuse that you have out-of-town company or that you stayed out late Saturday night.
Unavailability of the Eucharist. It is also a matter of judgment on one’s part how far it is reasonable or unreasonable to travel.
Conflict with a notable work of charity that cannot be done later. For example, nursing someone who cannot be left alone, or taking someone to the hospital in an emergency. This includes people who have to work on Sunday for the public health and safety. Under those circumstances, you should find a time when the Eucharist is celebrated when you can attend.

By consensus of the Church, expressed in common practice over the centuries, other holy days are considered to have the same rank and obligation as Sundays, so we call them “Holy Days of obligation.” The Book of Common Prayer uses the term “Principal Feast.” They are:

Christmas Day, also called the Feast of the Nativity, or the Birth of Christ, which is celebrated in recognition of the beginning of his redeeming work.
January 6, known as the Feast of the Epiphany, or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (which we were before our baptism). This feast celebrates the visit of the Wise Men and the Baptism of Jesus.
Ascension Day, which falls forty days after Easter on a Thursday, on which we celebrate the rising of Jesus into heaven as Christ (God and Man) returns to the Father with our humanity.
November 1, known as All Saints’ Day, on which we celebrate the triumph of Christ in redeemed humanity. This is commonly commemorated on the Sunday following November 1st.
There are also three important Sundays which are classed as “Principal Feasts:” Easter Sunday, the Day of Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday.

2. Receive Holy Communion at least once a year, during the Easter Season. The second precept has to do with my love of God as an individual. Actually, a stricter version of this precept is a part of our canon law (“All members of this Church who have received Holy Communion in this Church at least three times during the preceding year are to be considered communicants of this Church.” Canon I.17.2a).

St. Paul says, “If ye do eat and drink the body and blood of Christ unworthily, ye do eat and drink damnation unto yourselves.” The sacrament always has an effect on you, for good or for evil. If you are disposed towards evil, it will strengthen that disposition for evil, and vice-versa. Therefore, you should spend at least a few minutes before the Eucharist begins to be sure that you
have repented of all your sin;
are in love and charity with your neighbor;
intend to follow the new life in Christ.

After you have received Holy Communion, deliberately thank God for it. You may do this while the vessels are being cleansed after communion, or after the dismissal. This is one reason why we should hold our conversations for the narthex instead of talking in the church.

3. Contribute financially to the support of the Church. The next two precepts have to do with my love of my neighbor—in social terms and individual terms. The third precept concerns my love of my neighbor in social terms. We are a family. The Church is our mother. We should have filial loyalty to her and also loyalty to each other, as brothers and sisters in Christ. The premises of the Church are our home. The parish hall is our living room. There is work to do around the place, and each of us should do his share of the chores. This includes such things as altar guild, choir, Christian education, and youth group. They support our mission and build our community.

One should also undertake to bear his or her fair share of the expenses of our Church family expenses. The Biblical standard is 10%, what we call the tithe. No one who tithed over the long haul ever regretted it. Everyone ought either to be supporting the Church or being supported by it. The parish priest administers an almoner or “discretionary” fund through which money can be anonymously contributed for the support of people in need.

There are three fundamental reasons for giving money to the Church: First, to express our gratitude to God for all his blessings; Second, to declare by our actions that we recognize that all of it belongs to God; and third, to discipline our appetite for wealth. One’s pledge (an estimate of our giving to help the Vestry plan a budget) should be large enough so that it makes one careful with the rest of one’s money, which will have the effect of increasing responsibility to God. If you can pay your pledge without batting an eye and without missing it, your pledge may be too small. If one is not presently tithing, one should increase the percentage one gives each year, if ever so slightly, until one is tithing.

4. Make a sacramental confession of our serious sins before a priest at least once a year. The fourth precept has to do with my love, as an individual, of my neighbor. All of one’s relationships are to be kept in the context of love. And so, at the very least, I will make my confession whenever, because of grave sin, I need to do so. And it would be good for my soul , my spiritual growth to do so even at other times, out of obedience. An annual confession (Advent and Lent are good times to do so) should be considered the minimum obligation. To do so, we must also learn how to examine our lives in the sight of God’s will to discern what sins we actually have committed. This is the first step in amending our ways. Bringing our faults to God and being absolved by his priest sets us free to live new lives in the power of the Holy Spirit.

5. Keep the Church’s law of marriage. The last two precepts have to do with my love of myself—in social terms and individual terms. The fifth precept has to do with my love of myself in social terms. We are a part of the family of God, the Church. That means we have to learn how to live together as a family. The home is called the domestic church. One should strive to achieve and maintain a Christian family life both in the larger church and in the church of the home. This means keeping the Church’s law of marriage, and endorsing it both by personal witness and vocal support. Hebrews 13:4 says, “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.” The Church’s law of marriage is the rule of chastity—a sexuality ordered according to God’s will and marked by loving faithfulness.

6. Observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence from meat. The sixth precept has to do with my love of myself as an individual. Frequently, there is a conflict between what I ought to do and what I want to do. More often than not, what I should do is what I feel like doing the least. Being holy means being able to choose to do what I should do even when I don’t feel like it. The Church provides us with a set of exercises to help one develop and maintain the ability to do just that. It is called fasting and abstinence. Fasting means cutting down on the quantity of food one eats (i.e., lighter meals or skipping meals). Abstinence means cutting out one food entirely (i.e., giving up chocolate for Lent). Denying yourself a legitimate indulgence once in a while, like a piece of chocolate cake, helps the will grow strong and practiced in saying “No” for that day when temptation is no piece of cake.

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the two fast days on the Prayer Book calendar. Lent is a season for fasting. Traditionally, fasting has also been customary on Wednesdays and during the season of Advent. Throughout history, and in most parts of the world today, meat has been strictly a luxury food and not a part of everyday diet. It is customary to abstain from meat on ember days and to pray for the clergy of the Church. One also refrains from red meat on the Fridays of the year, except Fridays which come during the feasting seasons of Christmas and Easter. As every Sunday is a little Easter, every Friday is a little commemoration of Good Friday. The 1928 Prayer Book set apart these days as specifically “days of abstinence.” The 1979 Prayer Book simply says they are to be observed with acts of “discipline and self-denial.” When circumstances allow, we should observe these Fridays as days of abstinence from meat, or at least some other luxury.


Anonymous said...

Interesting that these precepts should be couched in terms of "Christian maturity". St. Augustine's Prayerbook speaks of them as "being the irreducible minimum of Catholic practice" and the Roman Church would certainly hold this to be the case as well (not that they're spelled out like this very much in Roman circles these days).

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

Well, first the use of the word "maturity" here is mine, not Fr Rogers'. Second, I think it is appropriate here both because it is the minimum standard that someone should be living at when, say being confirmed or serving as a godparent.

If it is understood as the goal of Christian proficiency, that would be a misunderstanding. But we should also realize that many of our people have not yet arrived at the maturity of this minimum standard, and need our encouragment to get there.