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 31, 2012

Sunday next before Easter, commonly called Palm Sunday

As I have tried to do much of this church year, for this Palm Sunday I am focusing on the Epistle. Philippians 2: 5 -11 reads: Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore 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.

This passage from Philippians summarizes many Christian themes in a beautiful way, and it has long been suggested that the Apostle is citing an early Christian creedal hymn. The words can be applied to many commemorations of the faith (such as their use on 1 January in the context of Christ's name). As we look at them today, the words are very appropriate at the beginning of Holy Week. Their devotional significance is to draw us closer to the "mind" or attitude of Christ (2:5). The divine and unique Son of God deserved praise as the King of Israel and the King of all creation. Yet, He accepted the limitations of the human condition in order to redeem human beings.

We see this acceptance from His birth and throughout His earthly ministry. It culminates in Holy Week and Good Friday: "He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (2:8). These words encapsulate all the details of the Passion Gospels. Christ could not be humiliated by mankind except for the fact that He first voluntarily humbled Himself. The Son became the servant in order to embody the ultimate obedience to holy principles, obedience unto death which had no rightful dominion over Him. Furthermore, the death He accepted was not just any death but death upon the cross. He accepted crucifixion, one of the most degrading and horrifying means of torture and execution devised by cruel men.

The Cross of Christ must always remain at the center of Christian preaching, doctrine and devotion. It is at the heart of Christ's earthly ministry, and it is a basic element in understanding the profound meaning of divine love. Indeed, the Cross is pivotal to understanding the whole meaning of God's universe. It is part of what C.S. Lewis called the "deep magic" which lies behind everything that exists. As believers, the Cross is our basic symbol. We need to appreciate it, love it and live it daily. And we need to find times such as Holy Week when we become more aware of the presence of the Cross in many New Testament passages.

Nevertheless, as central as the Cross is to our Christian faith and life, the words in Philippians 2:9-11 remind us that believers also look beyond the Cross. The Cross was and is necessary and central in our faith, but Jesus Christ transforms the Cross. He suffers as a human being, but He is also God the Son who will not be conquered in the end. Christ's heavenly Father accepts His perfect obedience and sacrifice, exalts Him and gives Him "a name which is above every name."

In other words, even when we focus upon the very real sufferings of our Lord and on our own relatively small ways of sharing His Cross, we still seek to have the mind of Christ. Like Christ, we need to have a sense of the Father's love lying behind those times of suffering when we have a sense of abandonment. As believers, we see the reality of the way of the Cross as the path toward Resurrection and true Life. So like our Lord, we walk the way of the Cross both figuratively and in the real trials of human existence because we trust that God uses the Cross to give us truer life.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Annunciation

Since the 25th of March fell on a Sunday in Lent this year, the feast of the Annunciation is transferred to Monday. The observance is based on the story of Gabriel's visit to the Virgin Mary in the Gospel from St. Luke 1:26ff. On this day, we are reminded of the connection between the Incarnation of Christ and His Passion and Resurrection. The complete story of Jesus Christ has a unified redemptive purpose, and the collect for the day sums up this unity in a beautiful way.

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 unto the glory of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Until liturgical revision of the 1970's, the Fifth Sunday in Lent was the one commonly called "Passion Sunday." One reason for this nickname was the traditional Epistle from Hebrews 9:11-15. The passage says, Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.

These verses contain a figurative comparison between atonement under the old covenant and the new covenant. Under the Hebrew priestly system which had become centered at the Jerusalem temple, there were several sacrificial ways to be cleansed from sin and ritual contamination. Of course, the greatest of these was the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). On that day, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood from animal sacrifice in atonement for the sins of the chosen people. Such sacrifices were limited. The victims were beasts of the field, and the sacrifices had to be repeated. Individual sin offerings had to be offered after each new transgression, and each year, the Day of Atonement for the whole people was not just a renewal but a new sacrifice.

Christ's self-sacrifice was at a far higher level. He Himself was temple, high priest and victim. His sacrifice was not temporary or repeatable; it was valid forever. It was applicable for all people for all time. As Article of Religion XXXI says, "The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone." In the Book of Common Prayer, the traditional Prayer of Consecration says that when Christ suffered death upon the Cross, He "made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world."

As Christians, we are people who believe in and accept this sacrifice on our behalf. We acknowledge and give thanks for Jesus Christ's "eternal redemption" (9:12). We "receive the promise of eternal inheritance" (9:15). We look to this unique moment in human history as the time when God in Christ reached out to reconcile us to Himself in the only way that could overcome our deeply ingrained sinfulness.

The importance of Christ's Passion, His eternal sacrifice for our salvation, should be in our thoughts and prayers every day. But as we enter the last two weeks of Lent, we seek a heightened awareness and appreciation. Even the most dedicated believers tend to have periods when they take the basics of the faith for granted or when they are distracted from higher truths by daily routine. So we need these times of renewal. Christ's eternal sacrifice never needs renewal, but our personal appreciation of His great work needs daily, weekly and seasonal renewal.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Last year, I commented on the Gospel for this Sunday, and the year before, I focused on some of the historical associations and popular names such as "Refreshment" and "Mothering" Sunday(see http://bcpanglican.blogspot.com/2010/03/lent-iv-refreshment-sunday.html).

This year, let us turn our attention to the Epistle from Galatians 4:21-31. Here the Apostle Paul uses the figurative interpretation of the Old Testament that was familiar in his day. Abraham's two wives, Hagar and Sarah, along with their sons, are seen as types or models of two different kinds of covenant relationship to God. Hagar and her son represent the covenant based on law; Sarah and her son Isaac represent the new covenant based on grace and promise in Christ. St. Paul is opposing those who wish to turn the Christian message into some sort of legalistic code. He calls on believers to realize that they serve under a new and higher covenant with God. While law has a purpose in exposing and controlling sin, a more spiritual relationship with God has been offered in Jesus Christ. Christians have been set free from legalism to serve God as true spiritual sons and daughters.

Christians continue to need this reminder about our relationship with God. On one hand, we live in an age characterized by moral and spiritual lawlessness. In such a social context, people do need to be reminded of the Law and Commandments. Sin should be pointed out; efforts do need to be made to limit its damages to society and to individuals. The Law has a purpose. It is useful.

On the other hand, in terms of our covenant relationship to God, the Law is not supreme. And if we do not advance beyond law in our moral and religious lives, we are not free or spiritual. Only grace and promise received through faith in Jesus Christ can make us heirs of the higher and heavenly covenant. Law is only a general guide while the work of the Spirit frees us for true service as children of God.

This general truth has a special application to the season of Lent. During Lent, Christians focus on preparations and spiritual discipline. Historically, the Church has encouraged certain practices to promote self-denial and deeper devotion. On an individual level, many of us have chosen some rules of Lenten observance. We may have decided to give up certain things, to read more Scripture or to study a book, to engage in more personal or corporate devotions, to perform some new service for other people, etc. Such discipline and rules have a purpose, but there is also the danger of falling into legalism. We must remind ourselves that even good and useful practices do not make us holy. We can not earn our way into being God's children. The greater purpose of Lent and all our observances is to allow us to be more open to the promises of the Gospel and the workings of the Holy Spirit. May we always live as "children of promise", "children of the free" (Gal. 3:28, 31)!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Third Sunday in Lent

Both the traditional Gospel and the Epistle for this Sunday are rich passages that lend themselves to a variety of approaches. This year, I have chosen to focus on the Epistle from Ephesians 5:1-14. The Apostle starts this section with a positive exhortation to live in a godly manner and to love in a sacrificial way as Christ did in offering Himself for us. Such a positive exhortation also implies how Christians are not to live. In their environment, the Ephesians were surrounded by a drastically pagan culture. This culture had three main vices: sexual licence, covetousness or greed and idolatry. These vices were intertwined and posed a constant challenge for the Gentile believers at Ephesus. The Apostle reminds these believers to beware. Even something as simple as crude language can lead one away from the holiness that God desires. And those who pursue unrighteousness and darkness are exposing themselves to divine wrath. Therefore, believers must be dedicated in their commitment to walk in the light of Christ and produce the fruit of light.

Even sincere believers can easily be misled in thought, word and deed. And whenever we turn aside to the works of darkness, we expose ourselves to divine wrath. Yes, God is a loving, kind and gracious Father, but He is also pure and holy. He expects us to repent, walk in the light of Christ and bring forth the good fruits of light.
We need a daily awareness of these truths, but Lent is a special time to remind ourselves. There is much good in the world, but it is a fallen world. And our contemporary world is  filled with  much darkness that tempts each of us in different ways. So we need this special time of re-dedication to our Christian calling to embody Christ's light in our daily lives.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Second Sunday in Lent

Looking at the readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, I was led to revisit the traditional Book of Common Prayer Gospel from St. Matthew 15:21-28. This Gospel is unusual because it is one of the few cases where our Lord encounters a Gentile, in this case a Canaanite or Phoenician woman. Christ and His disciples have crossed into pagan territory north of Galilee, but this woman is not just any Gentile. She is a descendant of the detested ancient Canaanites, and the enmity between her people and the Jews is many centuries old. Yet, in her desperate concern for her daughter, the woman is determined to seek help even from a Jewish teacher.

There are several themes here. There is the great and mysterious power of our Lord; there is His universal appeal; there is also the insensitivity of His followers. But what strikes me most in this case is the attitude of the Phoenician woman. Despite all the external difficulties involved, she knows that she needs Jesus, and she comes as a humble supplicant. She puts aside her own cultural pride, she ignores the insensitivity of the disciples and she is not put off when the Lord tests her faith.

The woman's attitude is so contrary to our contemporary cultural tendencies. Politicians, psychologists, social workers and educational theorists remind us of our rights and entitlements. Yet, look at this story. In modern terms, a poor woman confronts a male power structure in the disciples. According to our secular culture, she should be protesting; she should be asserting that she is just as good as any Jew. If she lived in a modern secular society, she would be taught to say that if there is divine power, she and all pagans deserve equal access to divine healing.
However, although the woman is persistent, she does not have the modern secularist attitude or approach. The woman lays aside her pride. She does not defend herself or her people. She does not assert her rights or complain about Christ's less than perfect disciples. She simply comes in humility and in faith. She comes hoping and trusting that even if she is as unclean as a dog, she may receive a gracious response from Jesus. And such humility and determined faith are accepted by Christ.

For the second week of Lent, the Canaanite woman's attitude is an example for us as Christians seeking to draw closer to Christ. We too need to be persistent and determined in our Lenten devotions and prayers. But this kind of persistence is different from the self-assertiveness that is praised by our contemporary culture. Like the woman, we need to lay aside any personal or cultural pride. We should seek Christ's presence and His blessing in humility and faith. We must always (and especially during this season) come hoping and trusting that even though we are impure and sinful people, we can receive the grace of Jesus the Christ. Such humble faith opens us up to receive His blessing.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Ember Days in Lent

Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of this week are the Lenten Ember Days. Although I had not written a post, I have been remembering my fellow clergy and all who are considering this vocation. The clergy always need prayers for the continuing grace to uphold the standards of their high calling. To me, this seems especially true during Lent because whenever Christians strive to be more dedicated, the Tempter is at hand to distract and disrupt.

For historical background, see previous posts-

http://bcpanglican.blogspot.com/2010/02/ember-days.html

http://bcpanglican.blogspot.com/2011/03/lenten-ember-days.html