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.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Third Sunday after Easter

The Collect and the Epistle for the Third Sunday after Easter highlight the theme of living up to our Christian profession. 1 St. Peter 2:11-17 says:
Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation. Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.

This apostolic advice is two-sided. First, Christians are strangers and pilgrims in this world. We must not allow ourselves to be caught up in worldly desires. Our hearts and minds are to be directed heavenward, and we are not to worry about many of the issues that concern non-believers. Secondly, however, Christians are called to witness to the world by doing good. This witness can lead others to glorify God. So we are to behave well for the Lord's sake. Although freed from many concerns of the world, as servants of God, we are to use our freedom to be of service to the common good as much as conscience allows. We must respect all people, even those with whom we disagree for the sake of our faith.

In our time, as Western societies draw further from their Christian roots, these words of Peter are becoming more striking. Many Christians have a new sense of just how much we are exiles in this world. As a recent song says, we are "not home yet." We can no longer expect many of our neighbors and leaders to acknowledge the value of our beliefs. And we should be courageous in our resistance to evil. We should not acquiesce to the false values of  materialism and hedonism. Yet, we are still called to witness to secular people by doing good and by respecting those whom we consider wrong about certain issues. Such a strong but respectful witness is more than simply trying to be "nice"; it is part of our service  to God.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Second Sunday after Easter

The popular name for this Sunday is "Good Shepherd Sunday." This name is primarily based on the Gospel from St. John 10 (see my posts for 2010 and 2011). There is also a reference to Christ as the Shepherd of our souls in the Epistle. I Peter 2:19-25 says, "This is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls."

This epistle reading reflects the realism of the New Testament Scriptures. Although the first Christians are filled with great joy about the redemptive power of God in the risen Christ, they know that the Cross is always close at hand. In this passage, St. Peter addresses this reality of suffering. The issue is not whether human beings suffer; the issue is how and for what purpose people suffer. There are times when we all suffer for our faults- sometimes for actual sins, sometimes for misjudgments or folly. There are times when we suffer because of the general human condition in the fallen world, either physically or socially or mentally. There is no great glory in such suffering; it just happens, although our reactions to it can reflect our faith and character.
Yet, as St. Peter points out, there are also times when Christians suffer for doing well. Such suffering can cover a broad range- from obvious persecution, to social pressures because of loyalty to religious principles, to simple lack of appreciation from someone we try to help. When we suffer in such contexts and accept the suffering in love, we are following the example of Christ. Our small crosses do not approach the importance of His suffering for us, but they can help us draw closer to Him and appreciate better what He has done for us. Our difficulties in this life can help us die to our worldly sins and live to righteousness. Worldly difficulties can help us, straying sheep that we remain, return to Christ, the good Shepherd of our souls.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

First Sunday after Easter

The First Sunday after Easter has long had the nickname of "Low Sunday" among Anglicans. But the Scriptures traditionally assigned for the day are, as always, of very high importance. In reading over the passages, my attention was drawn to the Epistle from 1 St. John 5: 4-12. In particular, the verse I John 5:8 impressed itself upon my mind: For there are three that bear witness, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

This verse is beautiful, but over the years interpreters have disagreed about its exact meaning. The general context is fairly clear. Here the apostolic writer is addressing people who are distorting the Christian message by ignoring the historical reality of Jesus Christ. Such proto-Docetists or proto-Gnostics liked to claim that they were "spiritual"; yet they overlooked the concrete events of Christ's life. For such people, the work of the Holy Spirit was central but vague. St. John, on the contrary, stressed that the true work of the Spirit was closely related to particular events and actions. Thus, the mention of "the water" and "the blood". They are concrete expressions referring to the realities of Christ's earthly ministry.

Biblical interpreters have tended to agree thus far, but divergences arise on the details. Some see "the water and the blood" together as a reference to the to St. John's Passion account. In St. John 19:34, one of the Roman soldiers plunges a spear into Jesus' side to make sure that He is dead. Other interpreters have understood "the water" as a reference to Christ's baptism which marked the beginning of His public ministry. These interpreters see "the blood" as a reference to the end of His public ministry through His real and sacrificial death on the cross. Still other interpreters have followed this idea but have gone on to add that there is a continuing witness of "the water" and "the blood" in Christian Baptism and the Eucharist. As St. Paul indicates in I Corinthians 11:26, "For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do proclaim the Lord's death till he come."

Personally, I see no need to choose among these differing interpretations because all three are variations on the same theme: Jesus the Christ was the most "spiritual" person in history, but He was very much a real man who was incarnate and ministered at a particular time and place through the real events of His life, ministry and death. He has truly truly died, truly risen from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven. And He will come again unto His followers. In the meantime, Christ's followers live in the world and continue to sense His presence through the Sacraments He established.

Unfortunately, some people in both ancient and modern times have denied or distorted the realities of Jesus Christ's incarnation. They have talked of the Spirit but ignored "the water and the blood." However, Christians must affirm these points. The Holy Spirit continues to bear witness to Jesus Christ. True spirituality is not some nebulous feeling or insight; rather true Christian spirituality in rooted in the historical events of Christ's ministry, death and resurrection. If we are to be faithful to the real risen Lord Jesus, we should acknowledge the unified witness of the Spirit, the water and the blood. Christ's Resurrection should not become some vague spiritual affirmation; it is a concrete, if mysterious event, connected to His whole ministry on earth. The risen Lord and the crucified Lord are one and the same.

For other approaches to the lessons of this Sunday, see the posts for 2010 and 2011:

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Easter Day, the Feast of the Resurrection

The great day has arrived. Christians rightly rejoice on this day because it commemorates the great triumph of Jesus Christ which is at the heart of our faith. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Yet, if we look back at the Gospel accounts, we see that the joy of the Resurrection only came slowly to the first disciples. The alternate Gospel selection from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and American Prayer Books since 1892 is from St. Mark 16:1-8. There is an emphasis here that when the women first discovered the empty tomb, they were "affrighted." So fear, not joy, was the first reaction.

Why fear? For several reasons. The disciples were afraid of the Romans and the Jerusalem priesthood who might track down followers of an executed Messiah. They were afraid that the authorities might have desecrated the tomb of their beloved rabbi. They were also afraid because one did not expect to run into angels every day. And if truth be told, they were afraid as they considered the real possibility of Christ's Resurrection. This was a great and unique manifestation of divine power, and throughout the Scriptures, a normal human reaction to divine power is a holy fear. God is holy, His power exceeds human understanding, and weak and sinful human creatures should stand in awe.

Our perspective is a little different from that of those women on the first Easter. We are not afraid of Romans or Temple guards, and we are not afraid that someone has stolen His body. If we are really Christians, we believe in Christ's true bodily Resurrection. In the New Testament, the initial fears of Christ's followers were soon overcome by joy, and we have the historical perspective to see that.

Nevertheless, we would do well to have a bit of holy fear as we think of the Resurrection. For Christ's Resurrection is the greatest manifestation of divine power yet seen in human history. God's new act through Jesus Christ His only Son is truly awe-inspiring. Since Christ's Resurrection was long ago and since we have heard the story many times, we must be careful not to take it for granted. Early that Sunday, a power greater than any natural forces we know broke into human history; divine energy transformed the dead body of a defeated Jewish leader into the glorious body of the Lord of all creation. This is the great mystery at the heart of Christian faith, and it fills our hearts with awe as well as with joy.

Easter Even or Holy Saturday

Traditional Books of Common Prayer call this Saturday "Easter Even", and following the ancient Church, they keep the day very low key. There is no celebration of the Eucharist during this day (if there is an Easter Vigil Eucharist, it is technically for Easter Day and the consecration was traditionally after midnight). There are, of course, readings for Morning and Evening Prayer, and there are propers for Ante-Communion or the Liturgy of the Word. The Epistle from First Peter 3: 17-22 has two main themes: 1) the importance of Christ's death for our salvation, and 2) a relationship between Christ's death and Christian Baptism. This is a good time for us to give thanks quietly and to contemplate both the reality of Christ's death for us and the way that Baptism unites us to His Death and Resurrection.

The Collect for the Day ties these themes together in a poetic way:
Grant, O Lord, that as we are baptized into the death of thy blessed Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, so by continual mortifying our corrupt affections we may be buried with him; and that through the grave, and gate of death, we may pass to our joyful resurrection; for his merits, who died, and was buried, and rose again for us, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Good Friday

Good Friday is one of the most important observances of the Christian year. Over the centuries, Christians have developed a variety of devotions appropriate for the day. There is still a wealth of material in traditional Books of Common Prayer: Morning Prayer, Litany, Ante-Communion (also called the Service of the Word) and Evening Prayer. In addition, for this Good Friday, I decided that having a timeline for the day might be a useful way to guide my meditations throughout the day. There are a number of such timelines around. Most try to draw together the different Passion accounts, but I have chosen to use St. John chapters 18 and 19 assigned in the traditional BCP readings.

Friday morning just after midnight - Confrontation in Garden and Jesus' Arrest (John 18:1-12)

Friday early morning hours– Jesus is taken to the house of Annas, former High Priest; Peter's first denial; Jesus receives initial physical abuse (John 18:13-23);
Jesus sent to the High Priest Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin Court –Peter's second and third denials; Jesus bloodied by abuse (John 18:24-27).

Friday 6:00a.m.-8:30 a.m. - Hearing before Roman governor Pilate; Pilate tries to release Jesus but the Judean mob objects and prefers the release of Barabas (John 18:28-40).
Pilate has Jesus beaten.- Pilate's Roman soldiers take Jesus into the court ("Praetorium") and engage in mockery and torture, including a brutal crown of thorns (John 19:1-3) .
Pilate hesitates but the mob still cries out against Jesus (John 19:4-15).

Friday 9:00a.m.-12:00 noon - Pilate hands Jesus over for crucifixion. Weakened by interrogations, sleep deprivation and beatings, Jesus is forced to carry his own cross to the place of execution; then He is crucified under the charge of being "King of the Jews" (John 19:16-22).
The soldiers cast lots for His garments (John 19:23-24).

Friday 12:00 noon - 3:00 p.m. - Jesus continues to suffer on the cross. His mother, other women followers and one male disciple (usually identified as John) remain with Him. Jesus commends His mother into the disciple's care (John 19:25-29).

Friday 3:00 p.m. - Death: Jesus says, "It is finished" and expires. The soldiers do not even bother to break His legs, but one pierces His side with a spear (John 19:30-37).

Friday before sunset - Burial: With the Sabbath approaching, Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus make arrangements for a quick but respectful burial in a nearby rock tomb (John 19:38-42).

Thursday before Easter, commonly called Maundy Thursday

The basic commemoration for this day is referred to by the Epistle from I Corinthians 11:23-26:
I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come.

According to most scholars, St. Paul here gives the earliest recorded account of the Lord's Supper. Of course, these important words can be and have been discussed and theologized, but the central point is that their mere existence has inspired the worship of many different types of Christians for two millenia. On other days, there can be discussions of Eucharistic theory, but on this day, I just want to remember what Jesus did, follow His commands and sense His living presence even as we remember His suffering and death.

The Collect: Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, did institute the Sacrament of his Body and Blood; Mercifully grant that we may thankfully receive the same in remembrance of him, who in these holy mysteries giveth us a pledge of life eternal; the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.