Being made new
While I am sure we all have a portion of the Book of Common Prayer we find particularly moving, the collect following the litany at ordinations never fails to touch me. It is as clear a statement of the redemptive power of the faith as you will find and delivered with the severe elegance so characteristic of our heritage.
"O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever."
I was at the Cathedral for the ordination of three new deacons. Our babysitter had arrived late, so, as a consequence, I did not arrive in time to vest and process with the rest of the clergy, but chose to have a pew to myself underneath one of the Cathedral's stunning stained glass windows.
The Cathedral choir and the music were magnificent, the liturgy majestic, the nervous energy of the ordinands joyous, and the attendance (on the morning of the SEC Championship Game) humbling. It was a good day and I was thankful for the moment.
One of the fundamental beliefs to which I cling is the idea that grace is totally and utterly unpredictable. Grace never happens when I am looking for it or prepared for it or in anticipation of it. Grace is grace, precisely because it is such an unexpected gift.
"O God of unchangeable power and eternal light...let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new."
I had seen him out of the corner of my eye during the Litany but did not immediately recognize him. He was across the Nave and I could not tell if he was kneeling or bent over. He was a little of both. Fr. Maurice Branscomb was in prayer, his head on his cane, the knees, I imagine, no longer capable of bearing his own frail weight.
I do not know Maury's age. He is old. I have known him and his wife, Joan, my entire priesthood and I once worked with their daughter, Mary Ann. Maury and Joan now live in a continuing care facility in Daphne. Joan no longer remembers.
Maury Branscomb. I cannot even begin to recount the number of ordinations and diocesan convention opening liturgies over which Maury presided. If you were a priest in the Diocese of Alabama and you had a liturgical question, you called Maury. If you needed someone to act as Master of Ceremonies for the Celebration of a New Ministry, you called Maury. If you needed someone to cut through the clutter of 150 clergy vesting for a clergy funeral, you called Maury.
If you did not know the difference between an aumbry and a tabernacle, an ambo and a pulpit, a dalmatic and a maniple, you called Maury. If the bishop was coming for visitation on Palm Sunday and you did not have the faintest idea of how to combine the Liturgy of the Palms with Confirmation, you called Maury. And he always answered.
"Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new."
I had received the Eucharist and returned to my pew where I finished my devotions and sat down. Maury was coming up the same aisle. He was at once both bent and elegant and I wondered that he could see what was in front of him, his head almost parallel with the floor.
I was not quite sure what I needed to do. I was not sure what I wanted to do. I was not sure I wanted to "make a scene" and speak to him. He certainly had not seen me and I was not even sure he would know me. I decided to let it go, to find him later, perhaps just do nothing. It is always easier to do nothing, to let the moment pass, to pretend I do not see.
As he reached my pew, however, I could not let him pass. I stood and blocked his path just enough to force him to move to one side and as he looked up, just as he raised that head of perpetually wild and unkempt hair, I placed my hands on his shoulders and said, "Maury, it is Massey."
The line is, "the things which had grown old." If I make it to the Feast of St. James, I will be 72 on my next birthday. Maury was an old man when I was a young one. Now I am an old man.
"Maury, it is Massey."
The old man looked up and took my face in his hands.
He kissed me on the cheek.
I sat back down and wept.
Curt and Molly and Mike that day became the fresh new faces of a timeless and eternal truth, servants of a wonderful and sacred mystery.
As is Fr. Maury Branscomb.
Indeed. Let the whole world see and know that things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him whom through all things were made.
Thanks be to God.