Note to readers: Liturgical entries on this blog are based on the traditional calendar of the Books of Common Prayer and the traditional one-year Eucharistic lectionary. If you follow a newer calendar or three-year lectionary, there are variations in names for some Sundays and in the readings.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Second Sunday in Lent- Humble Faith

The Gospel for the Second Sunday in Lent is unusal; it is one of two stories in the gospels where our Lord encounters a Gentile supplicant. This one from St. Matthew xv.21 following and the other from St. Matthew viii are both recorded in the gospel which is usually considered the most Jewish. This heightens their significance in showing the universal appeal of our Lord. The selection about the Phoenician women is striking. Christ and His disciples have crossed into pagan territory, and she is a descendant of the detested ancient Canaanites. In her need and concern for her daughter, she is desperate enough to ask the Jewish teacher for help.

Our Lord faces this situation in a low-key way, a way that puts both Christ's disciples and the Gentile woman to the test. The disciples just want her to be sent away. Then our Lord does point out to her that His earthly ministry is focused on Israel. But she refuses to give up. She has faith in Him, and she humbly begs for even the slightest crumb of mercy. Thus her daughter is healed.

Among the points of this passage, two strike me today. 1) Being close followers of Christ does not always make people as wise, compassionate or strong in faith as they should be. 2) Being outside the traditional community of faith does not always mean that people are lacking in personal faith in Jesus.

So let each of us consider our situations. If we feel like outsiders- if we feel that we are not one of the closest disciples, Christ can still help us if we have faith in Him. And if we do feel that we are close disciples- if we feel that we belong to the right religious circles, we should not be hasty in our judgments of others. We may be the ones lacking in humility and insight. The depth of others' faith may be surprising and allow Christ to work in their lives in ways that we do not expect.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

St. Matthias the Apostle

Although today we commemorate the Ember Wednesday in Lent, it is also the feast day of St. Matthias. All that we really know about him is in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. After the death of the traitor Judas Iscariot, the remaining eleven apostles led by St. Peter decided that they should continue by choosing a twelfth apostle. The number twelve was symbolic of completeness and of being the new Israel. So they selected two men, Joseph Justus and Matthias, as qualified candidates. They were both men who had followed Jesus since the early days of His earthly ministry and who had seen the risen Lord. The lot fell to Matthias. That is all that we are told. He was probably faithful unto death because tradition would have likely noted any dramatic falling away.

So what does remembering this relatively unknown apostle do for us? It points out the basics of discipleship. Matthias is an example of one who faithfully followed Jesus and believed in His Resurrection. He is one who was willing to serve when called upon- even though the circumstances that called for his service were not glorious. Matthias was one who was willing to serve His Lord and the Church without seeking personal fame. Thus, he became an example for all Christians as to how we must be willing to serve quietly and steadfastly when needed.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ember Days

This Wednesday, Friday and Saturday are the traditional Lenten Ember Days. There are also Ember Days after Pentecost, after Holy Cross Day (September 14) and in December. These days of fasting and prayer seem to have originated at Rome by at least the third century, and they were probably Christian days of fasting in contrast to pagan feasts near three of these seasons. Slowly the observance spread thoughout the Western Church, and in the early Middle Ages, the days also became associated with ordinations.

In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, two Ember Day prayers for those to be ordained were included among the general prayers. The 1928 Book of Common Prayer added a general prayer for the increase of the ministry and a set of Ember Day propers. The Collect for the Day also focuses on the increase of candidates for ministry rather than on actual ordinations. It is certainly appropriate for us to pray for vocations. The Church always needs candidates with sound spiritual, moral and mental qualities to pursue ordination. Those already ordained also need the Church's prayers that they may fulfill their vocations in a godly manner.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

First Sunday in Lent- A Reflection on Temptation

This post is slightly different from most of my recent ones; it is an abridged version of my homily for the day.
The Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent is the familiar story of Christ's great Fast and Temptation (St. Matt. 4:1-11). As He was beginning His public ministry, our Lord withdrew to the Judean wilderness for a period of devotion. There the Tempter came and sought to catch Him in a moment of weakness. Satan used appealing lures, and even tried to confuse matters by quoting Scripture. St. Matthew tells us that there were three parts to the Temptation.

First, the Tempter tried to appeal to the needs and wishes of the physical nature. He urged Christ to satisfy His hunger by turning stones into bread. Of course, Christ rejected this temptation. His work was to have a spiritual foundation, not a material one. He recognized and responded to human physical needs, but meeting those needs was not His main mission. He had come to bring the bread of heaven, the living Word of God, the source of true and eternal life.

Secondly, the Tempter tried to appeal to the natural human desire for approval and praise. The crowds in the streets would have really been impressed- at least for a few days- if Jesus had jumped from the pinnacle of the Temple to the pavement below without being hurt. Again Christ rejected the temptation. Jumping from the Temple would have tested the Father's mercy. It would have also caused some people to accept Jesus as Messiah for the wrong reason.; that is, from sheer amazement rather than from spiritual conviction.

Thirdly, the Tempter tried to use the appeal of worldly success and power. This temptation was basically political. If Jesus would only accept him as master, Satan offered great worldly influence and power. With such power, Christ would be able to order earthly society as He saw fit. Christ also rejected this great temptation. Submitting to the Evil One would corrupt everything that He tried to accomplish. Christ's kingdom was to have a completely different nature. It was to be a holy and spiritual kingdom based upon loyalty to Almighty God, the heavenly Father.

Thus, our Lord Jesus Christ rejected the three great temptations of the devil. Compromising with Satan was wrong; no end or goal, no matter how good it might seem, could justify truly evil means. Christ committed Himself and His ministry to the holy principles of His heavenly Father. He would remain steadfast in the paths of righteousness even when it meant rejection by the crowds and a tortuous death on the Cross.

In certain respects, the Temptation of Christ was unique. No one else has ever had to make such far-reaching spiritual choices. And no one else has ever resisted temptation so completely, without a trace of sin. Christ obeyed the heavenly Father's will, and through His perfect obedience, He became the Redeemer of all those who have a living faith in Him.

Yet, despite the uniqueness of Christ's Temptation, there are certain similarities with the temptations that all human beings face. We all face temptations for the same basic things: material comfort, human approval and worldly influence. We could consider countless examples of how these basic temptations take place in our lives. At work and in our families, we are constantly tempted to place our desires for comfort, approval or power above our spiritual and moral principles. However, today let us consider a corporate application to Christ's Church.

First, the Church has temptations of a physical or material nature. There is a tendency for parishes, dioceses and denominations to become too concerned about the material needs of the organization or for the physical needs of those we serve.
Now certainly, the Church must recognize that human beings have physical needs. We are to provide for the Church itself, and we are to reach out to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and so forth. But as we do these things, we must be aware of dangers and refuse to compromise with evil. We must always remember that being a social welfare agency is not the primary mission of Christ's Church. Although physical bread is needed, the Church's primary mission is the spiritual feeding of souls through Word and Sacrament.

Secondly, the Church is sometimes tempted to seek human approval in the wrong ways. Many contemporary religious groups try to dazzle or entertain people into being Christians. Sometimes, people seem to put God to the test by suggesting that flashy or emotional displays are at the heart of faith.
Although there may be dramatic moments in the life of faith, God more often has chosen to manifest Himself in simple and subtle ways. We must not do things just to impress the crowds on the street. Those who go to worship just for the spectacle are missing the Biblical message.

Thirdly, the Church is often tempted by worldly success or power. Over the centuries, Christianity has succumbed to this temptation repeatedly. For the sake of worldly influence, the Church has often compromised itself with emperors, kings and parliaments, with bureaucrats and corporations, with trade unions and political parties.
Certainly, the Church has a mission to all kinds of people, and individual Christians may be called to express their values in various social or political settings. However, the Church itself must avoid being bound too closely with any worldly power. The Church is the representative of a spiritual kingdom which transcends all earthly powers. As the Church, we are called to proclaim Christ as Savior and to embody His spiritual and moral mission.

In conclusion, Lent is a time for us to pause and be more aware of the nature and dangers of temptation. We need to recognize our weaknesses and our actual sins. We need to repent and seek divine grace. This is true of us as individuals; it is also true of the Church which is often caught up in the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil. There is hope in all these temptations because Christ has already triumphed over Satan and won a victory for the faithful of all times. Christ is with us, and He can strengthen us as we face temptation, individually and corporately.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The First Day of Lent, Commonly Called Ash Wednesday

From at least the second century, Christians seem to have observed a period of fasting and repentance before the Easter celebration of Christ's Resurrection. Over the years this period expanded, and in the sixth century Latin Church, it was set at 46 days so that there would be 40 pentitential days (the six Sundays may be in a somber church season but they are still little Easters). The use of ashes from palms as a sign of penitence was a development of the Middle Ages.

The key to observing the day and the season is found in the Scripture lessons for the day. They all stress the spiritual aspects of fasting and repentance. The Gospel from St. Matthew 6 is clear that a disciple's attitude is very important. Our Lord assumes that His followers will fast. However, they are not to be hypocritical and ostentatious. Therefore, as we think of this day and the whole Lenten season, let us focus upon devotion to the heavenly Father. External acts of devotion can be useful, but the main point is laying up treasure in heaven through Christ.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pancake Day/Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday

Comtemporary Americans, especially younger ones, who know anything about today (which they know as Mardi Gras) are likely to have some wild media image from New Orleans or Rio in mind. This is another instance where profit motive and media hype have degraded a traditional celebration. As it originally developed in Christianized cultures, the observance of this Tuesday before Lent was much simpler.

The traditional ways of observing the day are indicated by the two English names "Pancake Day" and "Shrove Tuesday." Both names point to a day of preparation before Ash Wednesday. In "merry olde England," local communities would have a day of games and eating pancakes. These moderate indulgences of the flesh helped use up butter, eggs and other rich foods before Lent and highlighted the discipline that was to follow. The name Shrove Tuesday highlighted spiritual preparations since "shrove" was an old word related to sacramental penance.

Even though the world has changed a lot, we would do well to follow those English traditions. Today is a good day to enjoy a few simple pleasures like pancakes as we contemplate what we may give up for Lent. It is also a good day for self-examination and confessing our sins as we move toward a Lenten discipline.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Quinquagesima- The Sunday next before Lent

This Sunday, Quinquagesima, is the fiftieth day before Easter and the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. The Collect, Epistle and Gospel for the Sunday are rich in many things that Christians need to hear and think about. For example, the collect reminds us of our needs, and it requests divine aid so that our efforts may be filled with a charitable or loving attitude. If we approach Lenten devotion without love, our deeds "are nothing worth."

The Gospel from St. Luke 18 talks about Christ's Way of the Cross. It also shows us two kinds of blindness. The blind beggar by the Jericho road suffered physical blindness, but through his faith in Jesus, he was healed fairly easily. The twelve closest disciples, on the other hand, suffered from a spiritual blindness. They thought that Jesus was the Messiah, but they had not yet understood His way of being the Messiah. They had not yet come to see that He was the Messiah who was the Suffering Servant. It would take longer to cure them of their blindness. Only by following Him through the difficult days would they come to appreciate His true triumph at the Resurrection.

As we approach the beginning of Lent, we can employ these themes as part of the examination of our souls. Are we motivated by love as we seek to do good? In what ways have we been spiritually blind? Do we see the necessity of Christ's suffering and death for our redemption? And are we willing to follow Jesus Christ through the the difficulties of the Way of the Cross? Only through the aid of the Holy Ghost "poured into our hearts" can we move beyond our failings and begin to answer these questions in a positive manner.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Sexagesima- Sowing the Word

The Second Sunday before Lent or Sexagesima (Latin- "sixtieth") continues to lead us to prepare for greater religious efforts. But although we must prepare for greater efforts, the Collect reminds us that we "put not our trust in any thing that we do." The Gospel from St. Luke 8 is one of the accounts about the Parable of the Sower. Besides occurring in three of the Gospels, this Parable is also special because in the text Christ Himself develops an allegorical interpretation. In biblical studies, a distinction is often made between parable and allegory. In this context, a parable is a brief story that illustrates one key point; an allegorical interpretation, on the other hand, develops more symbolic details.

Thus, one can say that the Parable of the Sower points out that the seed (the Word of God) is sown in different soils but still produces much fruit. The allegorical interpretation goes on to look at the different soils, the different kinds of people who receive the Word of God. Very often we want to consider what kind of soil we are or how we might become more receptive soil. From an individual perspective, our receptivity is something to consider. However, it seems that the text was primarily addressing the other end of the process. In other words, the point was not mainly about what kind of people might make productive disciples. Instead, Jesus' disciples were being instructed about His ministry and about how they were to participate in that ministry. The seed had to be sowed; the Word had to be spread. The great Sower and His helpers had a job to do, and they were to spread the Word regardless of the response it received in diverse circumstances. Although every hearer would not produce good results, some would, and those would produce abundantly.

As we consider evangelism and mission, modern Christians often seem to worry too much about the kind of soil. Sometimes, planting churches and choosing mission projects seem to be becoming social sciences more than exercises in faithfulness. Of course, we should show some prudence in our sowing. The seed does need some good soil. We Christians should make preparations and look for good ministry opportunities. Yet, we must not be too anxious about such details. The Word that is sown is God's Word, and ultimately, He is the One who brings any abundant harvest. We must not trust so much in our own efforts; rather we must learn to trust in the power of God's Word.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Presentation of Christ and the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin

February 2 is the fortieth day after Christmas, and it has sometimes been considered the real end of the Christmas celebrations. Traditionally, the feast was called Candlemas in the Western Church because liturgical candles were blessed on this day. But that was just a minor detail. The primary significance of the day is shown by the Gospel from St. Luke 2.

On the fortieth day after Christ's birth, it was time for His mother to undergo the purification rites prescribed by Jewish Law (St. Luke 2:22). It was also the time to present Jesus to the priests and to redeem Him as His mother's first born son. As he does repeatedly, St. Luke reminds us that the Holy Family followed the customs of Jewish piety and devotion to the Law. Of all women, the Virgin certainly did not need real purification; neither did the Christ Child truly need redeeming. However, they chose to fulfill all righteousness, to follow the Law perfectly. In doing so, they obeyed the Law and pointed to the human need for purification and redemption. In the words of the Prayer Book Collect for the Day, the divine "Son was this day presented in the temple in substance of our flesh, so we may be presented unto [God] with pure and clean hearts ... by Jesus Christ our Lord."