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, December 31, 2011

The Circumcision of Christ and the Holy Name

The Epistle for the first of January contains these words from Philippians 2: 9-11, "God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

Naturally, at this time of the year, we think of the naming of Jesus at His circumcision when He was a week old. This naming fulfilled the instructions of the angel to Mary and Joseph before Christ's Birth (St. Luke 1:31; St. Matthew 1:21; St. Luke 2:21). He was given the Aramaic version of the name "Joshua" which means "the LORD will save." That name progressed through Greek and Latin into the modern form "Jesus." Although the name was common in Jewish circles, it had a special application in the case of this child. It prophesied His work of redemption.

In the Epistle from Philippians 2 assigned for the day, St. Paul looks at the same point from a different historical perspective. The verses just before the ones about His name refer to the humility of Christ's incarnation. This humility extended even to death on the cross. And this lowliness is followed by ultimate victory in resurrection and glorification, so that Jesus is indeed Lord of all, with a name above every name.

The days of Christmastide should be a time of reflection on the whole Gospel, not just the birth narratives. In particular, let us pause to think of our Lord's name. The name is no accident; it has great doctrinal significance. Jesus is the One who has come to save us. Through His Nativity, Life, Ministry, Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension, He has accomplished God's saving work and deserves our praise and thanksgiving.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Nativity of our Lord or Christmas

For this Christmas, the selection from the Epistle to the Hebrews 1:1- 12 is my focus. The first four verses set the apostolic writer's theme for the whole epistle, and the next eight verses are a series of Old Testament citations about God and the Messiah or Christ.

The first sentence is four verses long: God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they (1:1-4).

These words are an early affirmation of faith or creed that summarizes the story of Christ. The Incarnation of God's only Son is the decisive divine intervention in human history. The coming of Jesus Christ is the ultimate Word of God to us; He has purged our sins and returned to heaven in glory and honor. He surpasses not only prophets but also angels. He shares His Father's divine nature and power.

Thus, Hebrews 1:1-4 tells us about the real significance of Christ's birth. Like the Gospel from St. John 1, this passage brings out the deep meaning of the beautiful story recorded in St. Luke 2. The birth of the babe in Bethlehem is more than just the birthday of the greatest of the prophets. This birth is an inseparable part of the whole New Testament message; it is bound up with Christ's Ministry, Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. Christ's Nativity is the opening chapter of the the most important story in human history- the coming of God the Son to save us from our sins and to triumph over death and evil. Believers in Christ can apply a verse often used at Easter to Christmas as well: "This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it" (Psalm 118:24).

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Some liturgical traditions assign this Sunday's Epistle from Philippians 4:4-7 to the Third Sunday in Advent because they want a lighter tone then. Sometimes, this has been associated with rose vestments or a rose Advent candle. However, it seems to me that the Epistle is more appropriate where the Prayer Book has it as Advent draws to a close.

Philippians 4 reminds us that despite the need for somber reflection on the human condition, the message of Christ is indeed good news, cause for rejoicing. As our selection says, "the Lord is at hand." We look back to the first time when Christ was at hand, as Israel awaited the Messiah, as Mary and Joseph awaited the birth of the one promised. As Christians, we are also aware that He continues to be "at hand" in our lives through Word and Sacrament. And as we look at the sin-darkened world around us, we are reminded that He will return in judgment.

All these things are very serious, but because of Christ, we do have great reason to rejoice. Despite our sinfulness, we have hope because of the peace that God brings through Christ. For believers, there is an awareness that every time the Lord Jesus Christ comes, He comes "to save us all from Satan's power." These are truly "tidings of comfort and joy."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Third Sunday in Advent

The Epistle from 1 Corinthians 4. 1-5 brings up two distinct themes appropriate for this day. One theme is Christian ministry. This theme is appropriate because Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of this week will be the traditional Advent Ember Days (see last year's post on this topic). The other theme of the Epistle is judgment when Christ comes again. In I Corinthians 4:5, the Apostle Paul writes, "Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God."

In speaking of judgment, this single verse makes several points. Echoing the words of Christ in the Gospels, it warns believers about judging. Certainly we have to make practical decisions or judgments all the time in order to live and deal with people, but we should always remember that our judgments in specific moral and spiritual cases are tentative. Even our opinions about ourselves may be inaccurate. Final judgment belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ who will judge us at His second coming in glory. He is the One who can bring light into the darkness and rightly evaluate the thoughts of human hearts.

Looking to Christ's judgment can be cause for fear because we realize that we are His unworthy and imperfect servants. Looking to His judgment can also be cause for hope because we know of His grace for us and that the only praise that really matters must come from Him- His final "well done, good and faithful servant" (St. Matthew 25:23). Being mindful of Christ's final coming in judgment can help keep us on our toes; it can be a constant encouragement to serve our Lord more faithfully. It can also be an encouragement as we face human difficulties.

Although we have legitimate concerns about other people and their opinions, we know that their opinions only have limited value. Just as St. Paul faced opposition in Corinth, any of us will face some opposition when we seek to serve the Lord in a fallen world. While we are concerned to minister to others and their ultimate well-being, we know that out chief concern is to look to Christ. Christ's judgment of us, which is both perfectly just and perfectly merciful, is the only one that counts in eternity.

For different thoughts on this Sunday, see last year's post:

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Second Sunday in Advent

This Second Sunday in Advent has often been called "Bible Sunday" among Anglicans and other English-speaking Christians. The collect and lessons for the day were developed by Archbishop Cranmer for the 1549 BCP. They all refer in differing ways to the importance of Scripture and reflect the Reformation influence on Anglican foundations.

We also see this theme in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. Article VI is titled Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation, and it says: Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

Thus, authentic Anglicanism believes in the supremacy of the Holy Scriptures. There may be other things in life that are good, useful or beautiful, but Scripture reigns supreme in matters of doctrine, in matters of salvation. Church tradition, human reason and individual inspirations from the Holy Spirit have their places in Christian life and thought, but they must always be subjected to God's revelation contained in the long-accepted canon of Holy Scripture. There is no surer foundation in this world, and consciences must not be burdened by those who would impose other standards.

Some people like to claim that the Scriptures are not clear. And they can sound convincing to those who do not know Scripture well, but to the careful student of Scripture such a claim is nonsense; it is a falsehood that can damage human souls. The general teachings of the Bible are clear and have been agreed upon by sensible and honest Christian readers for two millennia. Although there are legitimate debates about how to read some individual verses, there are clear teachings about the basics. These basics are the kinds of things that have been summarized in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, in the Ten Commandments, in the Two Great Commandments and in the Catechism. Such clear teachings permeate the whole canon of Scripture, and any verses that seem obscure should be understood in ways that are consistent with the clearer passages.

With this general view of Scripture in mind, let us now turn to a verse from today's Epistle. In Romans 15:4, St. Paul writes, "Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope." These words focus on the practical importance of the Holy Scriptures for every Christian believer.
Of course, in the historical context and in the immediate literary context of the Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle is referring to the Old Testament, especially to the Psalms and the Prophets. But the same can be said about the whole canon of Scripture. Christians believe that God's Spirit inspired human beings to write down various stories, histories, poems and prophecies, that the same Holy Spirit has guided the community of faith to accept these writings rather than some others and that God continues to speak to believers through the words of Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the basic assumptions of the Christian faith. And like other basic points, we either accept the Scriptures as a basic part of Christianity or we refuse to accept the Christian message.

If we accept Christianity and its Scriptures as given by God, then we see the purposes of the Scriptures. The Bible was "written for our learning." Apart from Scripture, we know very little about God. We might philosophize about a creator. We might even theorize about some sort of moral order in the universe. Yet, such philosophy is rather vague and does not do much to satisfy human souls. And apart from Scripture, we would not know about Jesus Christ. From general history, we might believe that there was some Jewish teacher by that name from Galilee who impressed some ancient people. However, apart from the canonical Scriptures, we would not know much about His person, teachings or deeds. And apart from Scripture, we would not know Him as the living Word and Son of God who laid down His life and took it up again to save our very souls.

Besides basic religious knowledge, the Scriptures also provide believers with "patience" or endurance and "comfort" or strength. The Bible helps us deal with real life, with our situation as imperfect believers within an imperfect world. And this in turn leads us to have "hope." Despite our own sins and frailties and despite the corruptions we see in the world around us, Christians are characterized by hope. We have hope, hope for the grace to be faithful in this world and hope to dwell with God eternally after our time in this world.

Advent is a season characterized by hope, but hope must not be nebulous. From ancient Israel, through the New Testament period and down through Christian history, true hope depends upon divine revelation in the Holy Scriptures. In particular, our hope depends upon Jesus Christ, the living Word to whom all Scripture bears witness. He is the one who was to come, who has come, who keeps coming into our lives and who will come again. "O come, O come, Emmanuel."