A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Naming Rites

Names are important. Some of us are quite happy with the name given us at birth and have no desire to alter it. Some of us choose to change our name when we marry or enter into a holy or civil union. Some shed a formal name in favor of a nickname – or vice versa. Sometimes a brand new name is adopted: Frances Gumm becomes Judy Garland; Archibald Leach, Cary Grant; Reginald Dwight, Elton John. A name can be an accident: Oprah Winfrey was to have been named Orpah (after Ruth’s sister-in-law who stayed behind) but the second and third letters were switched on her birth certificate and it stuck. And surely those who recall the ridiculous, uneducated reaction by some in our country to President Obama’s middle moniker have no need to ask “What’s in a name?”

Tomorrow, January 1, many churches will celebrate either the First Sunday after Christmas, or observe the Epiphany five days early. But some, like my parish, will address Shakepeare’s question by celebrating the feast of the Holy Name. Once known as the Feast of the Circumcision, the fact that this day is marked on the church calendar reflects the importance of the Jewish naming rite for male babies, which occurs eight days after birth and thus on the church calendar always on January first. It also signifies the importance attached, for Christians, to the name “Jesus”.
Mary and Joseph had each been visited by an angel, who told each one of the coming birth and its significance. Oh, and one other thing: “You will call him Jesus.” And so they do. (One does not, after all, argue with an angel!) The actually name would have been Joshua, or Yehoshua, of which Jesus is the Greek version. The name means God is salvation. Mary’s son was not the first or last to have that name – it was most likely even the first name of Barabbas, the prisoner released by Pilate when Jesus was arrested and condemned to death. But for Christians this Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Christ (the Messiah or “Anointed One” - a title, not a name) is the Incarnate One who took on our humanity in order to show us God’s salvation.
We call him many, many things - savior, Son of God, Lord, master, rabbi, King of kings, Lord of lords, Lamb of God, Bread of Life, True Vine, Good Shepherd, Logos, Alpha and Omega – and so many more. And so he is, all of those things. But it is the name of Jesus that defines his humanity as one who, according to Paul, “was descended from David according to the flesh", it was as Jesus that he identified himself to Paul on the Damascus road, and it is at that name the letter to the Philippians bids every knee bow.
Jesus. The name of the One who came among us to share our fragile humanity, the One by whom we know God. It is this that we rightfully celebrate on this eighth day of Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


A stable is graced, and angels sing,

shepherds arise as they hear the skies ring.

Young Mary delights; her babe is so fair!

Faithful Joseph stands watch, guarding the pair.

Bethlehem rests in quiet so deep;

The newly-born Jesus enjoys blissful sleep

Wise men travel far, in holy sojourn,

Their path unfamiliar; what will they learn?

May we travel too, in heart and in mind,

Seeking that child, our Savior to find.

May God’s love fill our being, peace in us abide.

And the meaning of Christmas forever reside

In our hearts, as we seek to follow our Lord,

And may Christ, our Redeemer, be always adored!

                                                                                      ©Cynthia J. Hallas

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gifts from the Past

Perhaps the most significant and mysterious “fourth wall” is the one that divides this mortal life from the one that comes after. We speak of “passing on”, “crossing over”, “entering the Nearer Presence” – all euphemisms for death. Yet in this season of remembrance that began with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, it occurs to me that even this wall may be more permeable than we think, in a spiritual though not physical sense. We call to mind the saints of the Church, that “blest communion, fellowship divine”, knowing that across God’s spectrum of time and space we are united with them. We recall the saints of our own life and experience, the ones who have influenced us, challenging us to be our best, most faithful selves and encouraging us as they walk at least a portion of the journey alongside us. Or perhaps an ancestor we never knew but who, due to family lore and history is someone with whom we feel an affinity. My sabbatical travels, as well as an online retreat I’m taking that focuses on the gifts of our forebears, have brought the lives and stories of these people into much sharper focus for me. That is a gift that no wall can thwart.

Monday, November 7, 2011

All Saints Episcopal Community

All Saints’ Episcopal Community was formed several years ago in Franklin, North Carolina when the two churches of St. Agnes and St. Cyprian, both founded by my great-grandfather, united for common worship and mission. St. Agnes was founded first in the heart of town. It's the church where my paternal grandparents were married, and where my father was baptized and grew up. Those were the sad days of segregation, however, and when the Rev. John Deal realized that there was no Episcopal congregation for people of color - blacks and Native Americans (mostly Cherokee) - he founded St. Cyprian’s. When it became apparent that neither parish could sustain a full-time priest, the process of deciding whether or not to align the two congregations began. (St. Cyprian's had begun the process of intentional integration some years prior.) Several years ago a decision was reached and a new priest was called to serve both parishes. ASEC alternates its weekly liturgies between the two churches.
St. Cyprian's

St. Agnes
Merging two congregations is not as easy as it might sound. Many struggling parishes will vote to close rather than combine with another, even when such a partnership might give them a chance at new life. Communal identity is important; our buildings, our liturgical style and corporate piety, as well as our common memory, are all built into our vast sense of parochial “selfhood”. When churches are physically close enough to make such a merger feasible, their very proximity is often the result of two congregations in the same denomination not only wanting and expecting different things,  but up until recently having sufficient resources to get them. I’m sure the process that resulted in the formation of All Saints Episcopal Community was thoughtful and prayerful, but also fraught with fear, reluctance, and probably some anger. It was no doubt very hard work. There was change, and with that change did come death of a sort. But it was the kind of death that leads to resurrection. Some of the members I spoke with still identify themselves as “Agnes” or “Cyprian”, but not in a way that sounded defensive, proud, or resentful. They are clearly committed to being Christ's hands and heart in this southern mountain town.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


My husband and I just returned from a trip to Macon County, North Carolina. As a priest currently on a two-month sabbatical from the parish I serve, one of my goals during this time away has been to get better acquainted with my forebears on father’s side, especially as they have influenced my life in the Church. My great-grandfather, John Archibald Deal, was a priest and missionary in that mountainous region of western North Carolina. This was a heritage very special to my father; he lovingly recounted this family history when I was a girl, and we made several trips to the South from our home in Ohio (my father was a very reluctant Yankee!) to see friends and by then elderly relatives, my grandmother and her sisters chief among them.

But that generation died out, my father got older and less inclined to travel; I grew up. Over time the call to serve God as a priest in the Church became clear (I’ve often wondered if it isn’t genetic) and eventually I was ordained. I inherited many of my great-grandfather’s prayer books.  And I developed a desire to get to know more about him and become familiar with the five churches he founded during his time in that mountain region that surrounds Franklin, where he was based and where my father and his brothers grew up.

Hence our recent journey south from our home in Chicago. We saw five churches in three days, visited with rectors and church members, and enjoyed beautiful weather, gorgeous colors, and stunning scenery. We found the graves of many of my relatives (one of which is shown below). All Souls’ Day seems the appropriate time to begin these reflections on my heritage and its influence on my life and vocation.  I invite you to join me!