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, March 26, 2011

Third Sunday in Lent

The Gospel for Lent III from St. Luke 11:14-28 is a rich passage which refers to several different themes related to spiritual struggle and following Christ. In last year's post, I focused on the verse: He that is not with me is against me (11:23). This time let us look at St. Luke 11:24-26: When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.

In these verses, our Lord issues a warning about half-hearted spiritual renewal. A person who has a certain evil removed from his life is like a clean house. Such a person has great potential. There is opportunity for a new start, for filling one's life with all sorts of virtue and goodness, for inviting the Holy Spirit to dwell within. On the other hand, there is also the possibility that evil may return with greater force than before.

Certainly, these insights apply in great instances of spiritual healing- as when Christ cast out demons- or in our time when a person is trying to recover from a serious addiction or some other obvious fault. Yet, the same dynamic can also apply to many of our little daily struggles to be better people. Renouncing some evil, even a minor fault, is a good beginning. It is a kind of spiritual house-cleaning. But a good beginning needs positive spiritual follow-up. A clean house must be filled with good things lest the bad move back in; a purified soul must be occupied with good thoughts and habits to avoid the return of greater evil.

In our spiritual development, we should always be aware of this dynamic and strive to fill our lives with various kinds of goodness. And this is especially true during times like Lent. This is a season of spiritual house-cleaning, a time of giving up some human indulgences. But we must not stop with renouncing some things for Lent; we must also take positive steps. During this season of giving up things, we need to fill our spiritual houses with positive practices such as Scripture and devotional reading, prayer and acts of kindness and service.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Annunciation- 25 March

The Collect of the Day relates the Annunciation to the other events of redemption that we contemplate during Lent:

WE beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts; that, as we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought into the glory of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

So on this feast, we think of many things: the redemptive purpose of God the Father, the splendor of the messenger Gabriel, the gracious humility and obedience of our Lady and the mystery of the Incarnation. We also realize that all these wondrous aspects of the story receive their meaning through the Cross, Passion and Resurrection of the One whose Birth is announced.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Second Sunday in Lent

Since last year's post considered the Gospel from St. Matthew 15 about the faith of the Canaanite woman (see, the Epistle from I Thessalonians 4:1-8 is the focus this time. In this selection, St. Paul urges Gentile believers to hold on to the teachings that they have received about moral commandments. He tells them that God wants them to continue on the way toward sanctification. They are not to remain attached to their old pagan faults but to keep advancing. Commentators have disagreed as to whether the Apostle refers here only to the example of sexual immorality or in verse 4:6 also refers to dishonest business. In any case, St. Paul is urging Christians to reject loose pagan standards, to keep growing in holiness and especially to beware of the sexual temptations of the surrounding culture.

The Apostle's exhortations certainly apply to Christians in our day. Many who profess the Faith want a "cheap grace" that does not require serious moral effort. Many are content with an emotional religious experience without concern for sanctification or growth in holiness. All areas of morality are involved, but sexual morality is a key area. It is an area where teachers of the great religions, especially in the Judeo-Christian traditions, have differed from loose worldly standards. It is an area where Christian standards are certainly under attack in our contemporary world, and it is an area where the majority of human beings are vulnerable. Therefore, as St. Paul warns, we need to be even more aware of sexual purity. Human sins in this area of life and others are not merely ways that we harm ourselves or our neighbors, they are ways that we dishonor God. Although humanity is weak and although we always depend upon forgiving divine grace, God has called us to dedicated holy ways of life, and our moral efforts are required. We need to seek holiness in thought, word and deed.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lenten Ember Days

The Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after Lent I are the Lenten Ember Days. Here the word "ember" is said to be from the Latin expression Quattuor tempora, "four seasons." Although these days may have originally had a general association with prayer and fasting, they have long been designated as day for ordinations and prayers for the clergy. This is certainly a fitting theme for our Lenten prayers. In the words of the Prayer Book Litany:

That it may please thee to illuminate all Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, with true knowledge and understanding of thy Word; and that both by their preaching and living they may set it forth, and show it accordingly;

We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to send forth labourers into thy harvest;

We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

(For general background, see last year's post:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

First Sunday in Lent

The traditional Epistle and Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent are very different in approach, but both point us to a great irony of the human condition: whenever we try to become closer to God and try to improve our spiritual and moral lives, the greatest temptations arise. The Gospel from St. Matthew 4:1-11 recounts the story of Christ's temptations. He was in the desert fasting, praying and communing with the heavenly Father. He was preparing for His great public ministry. Then the Tempter came and offered the things that turn most people aside: material comfort in the form of food, human praise for impressive deeds and worldly power over other people. Our Lord was strong enough to resist those temptations, but on our own, we are not that strong. Only by depending on His grace can we even make a good beginning. And even when we do make a good beginning, we are frail creatures who often fall and have to return to His grace for renewal.

The Epistle from II Corinthians 6:1-10 also refers to temptations. St. Paul appeals to the Corinthian Christians "receive not the grace of God in vain"(6:1). Any moment of a believer's life can be a moment of decision and dedication: "behold, now is the day of salvation" (6:2). Addressing Christians who have lost some of their initial enthusiasm for doing good, the Apostle points to various earthly trials and temptations. He stresses the irony that even in the midst of suffering, trials and weakness, Christians can rejoice and be rich in spiritual matters.

Lent is a time of preparation when we dedicate ourselves anew to follow Christ. Hopefully, we begin this season with enthusiasm and a strong sense of purpose. We intend to be more devoted in a variety of ways. As we do this, however, we must also beware of temptation. The more we try to draw near to God in Christ, the more the tempter tries to dissuade us. Little and big temptations keep coming up in our lives. On our own, we are not even strong enough to have six good spiritual weeks in Lent. We are always dependent upon Christ who has already triumphed over temptation for us. So let us turn to Him in loving faith again and again while striving to be more disciplined in our pursuit of goodness.

[For a different reflection on Lent I, see last year's post ]

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Ash Wednesday

On the first day of Lent, we begin our solemn preparations so that we will be better ready to appreciate God's great victory in Christ at Easter, the Sunday of the Resurrection. Of course, each of us must be more aware of his/her individual sins, weaknesses and failings. However, our Scripture from the prophet Joel (appointed as a liturgical epistle) reminds us that there is also a corporate aspect of penitence. Besides individual sins, God's people in His earthly church also need to repent as a body. Every member of the community needs to be involved in penitence because every member shares the guilt.

This need for corporate penitence has been true throughout the history of God's people, and it is especially true among the churches of the western world in our time. We have prospered mightily in recent generations, but we have also grown soft, self-indulgent and lukewarm in our expressions of the Christian faith. In theology, in morality, in discipline, in spirituality, many parts of Christendom seem to grow weaker year by year. We not only sin out of weakness, but very often we refuse even to acknowledge biblical definitions of sin.

As Joel reminds us, God is gracious and merciful. However, He is also holy, and He will not tolerate blatant and unrepentant sinfulness forever. So if we expect to benefit from His gracious nature, we need to turn to the LORD with all our hearts. May this Lenten season prove to be an important step in Christian renewal.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Quinquagesima or the Sunday next before Lent

Lent begins this coming Wednesday, and the collect and lessons for this Sunday were chosen to aid our preparation. In last year's blog, the focus was on the Gospel. So this time, let us focus on the Epistle from I Corinthians 13:1-13.
This is a very rich passage that could lead us in numerous directions. Here St. Paul describes charity or love (Greek agape; Latin caritas or charitas). In modern English, the very words "charity" and "love" have become problematic because of popular applications in contemporary culture. People hear these words and start thinking of alms or other aid for the needy, romance, passion, or a strong preference for food or entertainment (People just 'love' a pie or a movie). Of course, the Apostle Paul is speaking at a more profound spiritual and moral level.
In I Corinthians 13, as in the whole New Testament, charity/love is the great theological virtue. It even surpasses faith and hope because Christian charity transforms mental assent into true faith and wishful thinking into enduring hope. Charity/love certainly transcends all the other spiritual gifts and devotional practices about which the people in the Corinthian church liked to boast. Indeed, having the gift of charity/love is our participation in the nature of God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

The charity or love revealed in Jesus Christ and extolled in I Corinthians 13 is not simply a positive feeling, a preference or the habit of being "nice." This love is a basic commitment of the mind and the will. It is an unselfish dedication to what is good, to all that is to God's glory and all that contributes to His purposes for human salvation.

Reflection on, prayers for and pursuit of this sublime charity or love are especially appropriate as we look to Lent. During this season, most Christians rightly stress the need for greater dedication and special acts of devotion. So there is much talk about prayer life, Scriptural reading, deeds of mercy, special offerings, personal and churchly disciplines, and so forth. We need to do such things. Yet, we must also be careful that we not become like some of the Corinthians who boasted of their spiritual gifts and practices in uncharitable ways. All our human good deeds without Christ-like faith, hope and love prove worthless. And even small deeds permeated by Christian charity can become great- through the grace of God.