Archive for January, 2015

For Feb. 1, 2015: Presentation in the Temple

The Reading                                                           Malachi 3:1-4

After the time of the kings, priests (“descendants of Levi”) guide the people, not always well. God’s messenger will purge the impurities spawned by bad guidance—verse 5 names sorcery, adultery, false witness, keeping wages low, and oppressing widows, orphans, and aliens—so the priests’ offerings will once again please God.

The Response                                                        Psalm 24:7-10

Psalm 24 praises God the Creator and victor over the forces of chaos. Verses 7-10 use a call-and-response format to depict the King of glory asserting his right to enter the sanctuary.

The Epistle                                                             Hebrews 2:14-18

Malachi depicts the messenger of the Lord as coming to scour the Temple with fire and fierce cleansing. The epistle to the Hebrews continues the focus on Judaism but paints a different picture: Jesus takes on our flesh and blood so that he can liberate us from the fear that keeps us from God.

The Gospel                                                             Luke 2:22-40

Exodus 13:1-2, 11-13 requires that a firstborn son must be redeemed; Leviticus 12:2-8 dictates the timing and the sacrifice required for his mother’s purification. When Mary and Joseph take 40-day-old Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, they meet Simeon and Anna and hear astonishing prophecies about their little boy’s future.

Further thoughts

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple commemorates the day on which, in observance of the Law, the infant Jesus was presented at the Temple at Jerusalem and his parents made sacrifice for the post-birth purification of his mother after his birth. Leviticus 12:2-8 specifies a lamb or, in case of poverty, a pair of small birds.

The eastern Church was celebrating this as the Hypapante tou kyriou ‘meeting of the Lord’ at least by 385 AD, when the nun Egeria, making pilgrimage from southern Gaul through the Holy Land, wrote of a Presentation procession in Jerusalem that sounds very like modern ones; it was on February 14, since in those days Christ’s birth was celebrated on January 6. Light was always prominent in the commemoration.[1] The feast was a minor one. In early 542 AD, however, as plague ravaged Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I ordered prayers and fasting, and on the feast of the Presentation, the plague abated.

The Church in Rome took up the practice of lights and procession, though not before the middle of the 7th century; the focus shifted decisively from the meeting with Simeon and Anna to the purification of Mary.[2]. It is not clear when candles were first blessed before the Mass of the Presentation, though the blessing of the Paschal candle itself goes back to the 4th century. Bede writes of a procession and blessing rather like today’s in his De Ratione Temporibus (730). The festum candelarum or festum cereorum ‘feast of candles’ was known on the Continent—evidently churches were spectacularly lit up for the occasion—while a Danish source trace Kyndelmes ‘Candlemas’ to the Latin phrase benedictio candelarum et missa ‘blessing of candles and Mass’. Certainly Candlemas was well enough known by 1014 AD to be used in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to date the death of Sweyn Forkbeard. As the blog A Clerk of Oxford notes,[3] the Christmas season lasted through Candlemas, and Candlemas inspired a number of charming medieval carols.

The practice of Candlemas candle-blessing and procession continued in the early years of the Church of England, but by 1547, under Henry VIII’s successor Edward VI, images (which were felt to be excessively papist) were to be destroyed and only two candles might be allowed on the altar. Candlemas went underground until the Oxford Movement began to encourage a return of higher-church practice. The ceremony of Candlemas remains uncommon among Anglicans but is compelling. We can agree with the conclusion to Aelfric’s homily on the purification of the Virgin:

Wite gehwa eac þæt geset is on cyrclicum þeawum, þæt we sceolon on ðisum dæge beran ure leoht to cyrcan, and lætan hí ðær bletsian: and we sceolon gán siððan mid þam leohte betwux Godes husum, and singan ðone lofsang ðe þærto geset is. Þeah ðe sume men singan ne cunnon, hi beron þeah-hwæðere þæt leoht on heora handum; forðy on ðissum dæge wæs þæt soðe Leoht Crist geboren to þam temple, seðe us alysde fram þystrum, and us gebrincð to þam ecan leohte, seðe leofað and rixað á butan ende. Amen.[4]

In English:

Let it be known to everyone that it is set in churchly practice that we shall on this day bear our lights to church and let them there be blessed; and we shall go then with the lights among God’s houses and song the praise-song that is set. Although some men cannot sing, they can nevertheless carry the lights in their hands: for on this day was the true Light Christ borne to the temple, he who freed us from darkness and brings us to the true light, who lives and reigns forever without end. Amen.

[1] Connell, Martin, Eternity Today, Vol. 1: On the Liturgical Year: On God and Time, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Candlemas (New York: Continuum, 2006), 207. Previewed at https://books.google.com/books?id=m9yoAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA205&lpg=PA205&dq=candlemas+origin&source=bl&ots=SmUWBshabO&sig=4cMpqMURNjluvvUGPRcEiy8tbyo&hl=en&sa=X&ei=KaHIVKqpFoanggSalYSICA&ved=0CE0Q6AEwCDgU#v=onepage&q=candlemas%20origin&f=false

[2] Connell, 218-219.

[3] “Tidings, tidings that be true: Sorrow is past and joy doth renew,” A Clerk of Oxford, http://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/tidings-tidings-that-be-true-sorrow-is.html. Web. Consulted 30 January 2015.

[4] Wikisource contributors, “The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church/IX,” Wikisource , http://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=The_Homilies_of_the_Anglo-Saxon_Church/IX&oldid=3548508 (accessed January 30, 2015).

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For Jan. 25, 2015: 3 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading                                                         Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Nineveh was the capital of Israel’s worst enemy, the idolatrous and repressive Assyrian empire. Jonah’s first response to the call to preach repentance there was to flee by ship; it landed him in the belly of a huge fish. This time, Jonah goes partway into the city—and the whole city pays heed, and God chooses not to destroy them.

The Response                                                      Psalm 62:6-14

In a world of wickedness, the psalmist identifies our hope. It is not in the nobility of the highly placed nor even in the virtue of ordinary folk; it is not in amassing riches however one can; it is in the Lord.

The Epistle                                                           1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Paul believed that the end of the world as we know it was coming in his lifetime or that of his hearers. In 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, he reminds them that doing business as usual, in marrying, mourning, rejoicing, buying and selling, or dealing with the world, is no longer the way to live. The right time for the work of God is now.

The Gospel                                                          Mark 1:14-20

Very early in the book of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry by announcing good news: the kingdom of God is near! When he calls disciples from among the fishermen of the Sea of Galilee, they respond (as Mark is at pains to tell us twice) immediately.

Further thoughts

The book of Jonah is an ironic and sometimes comic story about a man who is called by God to preach repentance to his nation’s bitter enemies; his attempt to run away from doing God’s incomprehensible bidding nearly causes a shipwreck in a storm sent by God, and his success in preaching repentance to hated foreigners makes him throw a tantrum. Christians tend to see in Jonah a type or foreshadowing of Jesus: they seize on the call to preach to gentiles, they point to Jonah’s insistence that the terrified sailors save themselves by throwing him overboard, and they note that Jonah’s time in the fish’s belly lasts just as long as Jesus’ time in death. Jews, for their part, read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as a parable of repentance and mercy: they observe that it pleased God neither to destroy Nineveh once its people repented nor to destroy Jonah even though he rebelled, and thus it is both vital and good to be conscious of one’s sin. In both faiths, there is a tradition of substitutionary expiation, or blotting out sin by relocating it. In the days of the Temple in Judaism, one of the many rituals involved symbolically placing the sins of the people over the past year on a goat that would be sent out into the wilderness and herded off a cliff. Christianity no longer countenances animal sacrifice, but it is a mainstay of the faith that the good news is that Jesus died to take away our sin.

In Mark 1:14-20, Jesus launches his ministry by announcing good news: the kingdom of God is near. It is a little challenging to square this pronouncement with the position that what is good news is that Jesus has died for our sins, for the simple reason that, as he speaks, Jesus is still very much alive in this world. This raises the possibility that something other than substitutionary expiation is at work, or at the very least something in addition. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine that a promise to be died for at some point in the future will suffice to motivate Simon and Andrew and James and John to drop everything in the present to run after Jesus. As D. Mark Davis points out, Mark 1:14-20 doesn’t tell us what that is. But Mark 10: 28-31 may give part of the answer. When Peter points out that the he and the other disciples have left everything to follow him, Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” What he offers, in other words, pays off not only in the future but in this age.

What else can that be, in the here and now, but the chance—the call, the duty, and the inestimable privilege—to love and be loved and make the world new like God?

For Jan. 18, 2015: 2 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading                                                      1 Samuel 3:1-10

Priests in Israel were priests’ sons, except for Samuel. The son of a woman who had been barren for decades, he was dedicated to the service of God. In the verses after this reading, the Lord tells Samuel of the disaster in store for Eli and his proud, devious sons. Samuel himself goes on to be a mighty prophet and anointer of kings.

The Response                                                    Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

Eli’s sons chose to sin and flout the Law because they assumed the Lord would not notice. Psalm 139 states a different case very clearly: the Lord knows where we go, what we say, even what we think, from before our birth—and, even when we sin, we are still marvelously made and wondrous works of the Lord.

The Epistle                                                          1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Though Samuel was not a priest’s son, his grateful mother consecrated him to God. The life and death of Jesus free us from the Law—but, as 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 points out, each of us is consecrated to God as God’s temple, and so we are not free to do just whatever we want to.

The Gospel                                                           John 1:43-51

In John’s gospel, once Jesus is baptized he seeks followers. Nathanael, initially skeptical, seems won over by Jesus’ use of scripture: “no deceit” favorably compares Nathanael to the trickster Jacob (Genesis 27), later renamed Israel, and the predicted vision of angels echoes Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Genesis 28:12).

 

Further thoughts

As the lections for the second Sunday after the Epiphany make clear, we are known and sought out by the Lord—but we all have choices to make, and even making the right ones cannot protect us from grief.

In the Old Testament, the boy Samuel hears the call of God and becomes a true prophet who anoints kings. But he grows up sundered from his own mother, his counsel to Israel is spurned, and he mourns the failure of the first king he anoints. In the gospel of John, Nathanael is blessed to be first to proclaim Jesus the Son of God, but later he is a horrified and secretive witness as the Son of God dies on the cross. In 1 Corinthians, Paul argues that Christians freed from sin are not Christians free to sin, for we are the Spirit’s temple; yet he frames his point in terms of men’s sexual purity and the baseness of the very body that the Lord so wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13), and the Body of Christ has dealt ambivalently with the human body ever since.

As I write, the bishop suffragan (successor to the current bishop) of the Episcopal Church in the diocese of Maryland has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence of alcohol, among other offenses. Because of choices she made on December 27, a man is dead and Facebook is aflame with allegations that Christians in general and Episcopalians in particular are hypocrites who mean to sweep the bishop’s misdeeds under the rug by wielding the magic broom of Jesus’ forgiveness.

The allegation that sticks here is that Christians are hypocrites. We are, for we are humans—humans who can make very bad choices, humans who sort each other into Them and Us and shame Them for the evil we fear in ourselves, humans who can then feel so terrified of that shame that we dare not reach for the hand of help. I write this not to accuse but as another such hypocrite.

Heather Cook’s choices remain her choices, mortal consequences and all: the grace of the Cross will not restore Tom Palermo in this life to his widow and orphans, and neither should it exempt Heather Cook from time in jail. I believe both propositions as surely as I believe that it is not at God’s bidding that anyone drives drunk.

That bad choices can be made to seem less attractive, and that even bad choices can be redeemed, is another matter—and the path to redemption, shadows and all, is best lit by the love that knows all frailties and loves not the less. What if it is each Christian’s proper task to follow Christ in being a stairway by which heaven opens and the love of God pours into this world?

For Jan. 11, 2015: 1 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading                                                                      Genesis 1:1-5

As Genesis tells it, the very first act of God in creation was to call light into existence; the second, to recognize that light (and all of creation) is good.

The Response                                                                    Psalm 29

Psalm 29 expands on the theme of the reading from Genesis. The voice of the Lord has the power to call creation into being, to break and bend mighty trees, to make the very mountains skip and buck. How remarkable that this enthroned Lord offers mere humans strength and blessing.

The Second Reading                                                         Acts 19:1-7

In the verses that precede Acts 19:1-7, Paul has arrived in Corinth and instructed Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew, in the faith. Now Paul travels northward to Ephesus where he finds a group of people baptized by John, but they do not know of the Holy Spirit. Paul baptizes them in the name of Jesus: this is a superior baptism.

The Gospel                                                                          Mark 1:4-11

The Year B lectionary introduces John the baptizer in Advent through the gospels of Mark and John, then repeats part of the reading from Mark in recounting the baptism of Jesus. It is Jesus who sees heaven torn open and the dove’s descent and who hears God’s “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

 

Further thoughts

The scriptures for the first Sunday after the Epiphany, also known as the Baptism of Jesus, all involve displays of power in speaking, though they play out differently. In Genesis 1:1-5, it is the power of God speaking that brings light out of darkness and launches the universe as we know it. Psalm 29 shows us God’s voice as powerful enough to make the created order behave anomalously—mountains scamper, sturdy oaks go limp, whole forests are denuded, the wilderness shakes (not so anomalous in California, perhaps). Everyone notices and is awed.

The New Testament readings are less spectacular. To be sure, in Mark’s otherwise spare account of Jesus’ baptism, heaven is not merely parted but ripped open so that the voice of God can proclaim his Son. Mark’s only other use of the root schizein ‘rend, tear’ is the moment of Jesus’ death when the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom (Mark 15:38), so this earlier moment is surely also significant. But Mark’s language suggests that the visions and voice were chiefly for Jesus’ eye and ear and heart, not to impress bystanders.

Acts 19:1-7 is even less showy: no writhing oaks, no heavenly host, just a wandering preacher who listens and teaches and a dozen people who hear with their hearts, till Paul lays hands on them. Then the power of God appears—not around or above them but in and through them, and through the love poured from a human hand.

As I write, the world still reeks of the blood of Charlie Hebdo. It is tempting to close and lock the doors, to pull into cliques, to reject that which is “other” while imagining that vengeance against those who don’t see things just my way is divine. A younger Paul succumbed to that temptation in his day. But what if being God’s child means opening doors? What if loving God really does require radically and unreservedly loving all God’s world?

For Jan. 4, 2015: Epiphany

The Reading                                                              Isaiah 60:1-6

Isaiah 60:1-6 proclaims, in the midst of terrifying darkness, an outbreak of light at the hands of God. Nations shall see the Lord’s glory, all the children of God will come home, and the treasures of the nations will stream in as gifts of hearts grateful for God’s graciousness and, finally and fully, unafraid.

The Response                                                           Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Psalm 72 calls down the Lord’s blessings on a newly crowned king and the king’s people. This is a portrait of the ideal monarch, who blesses the lives of all the people like rain after long drought, who has the very land in his care, to whom great gifts come because he rescues the helpless and the lowly.

The Epistle                                                                 Ephesians 3:1-12

Saul of Tarsus may have been the very best Jew ever—till a light like the one Isaiah described burst upon him and made him Paul, apostle to the Gentiles. In Ephesians 3:1-12, Paul shares the light: through Jesus Christ and by God’s design, salvation is for all the world.

The Gospel                                                                  Matthew 2:1-12

The only gospel to tell the story of the wise men visiting the Christ Child is Matthew’s. These men were astrologers, at a time when astrology was astronomy; it is Psalm 72:10 that has us call them kings. The prophecy that the scribes quote in verse 6 is adapted from Micah 5:2.

 

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Epiphany are the same for each of the three liturgical years. There is much to be said for rereading them, but it is vital that we read them freshly and that we see them in the here and now.

Neither Isaiah nor the psalmist is speaking of heaven or the hereafter. Isaiah’s great light and great joy arise not in heaven but through the thick darkness that covers earth and peoples in verse 1. And if the King’s Son of the psalm is dealing gently and righteously with the poor, the needy, the oppressed, and those who suffer violence, it follows that there still exist those who flaunt their worldly wealth, exploit the poor, tread on the oppressed, and savage and ravage whoever they can.

The Epiphany story shows us the opposite number to the King’s Son and a much more familiar portrait of power and its misuses. What Herod hears in the wise men’s report of the wondrous birth is a threat to his own power that he simply cannot countenance. Matthew 2:16-18 tells us what Herod does when the foreigners escape his clutches without telling him exactly where and when to find the infant usurper: he attempts to subvert the prophecy by sending troops to slaughter all of Bethlehem’s male infants and toddlers. As far as we know, neither his generals nor his advisers seem even to have tried to suggest that the order might be wrong. Instead, they just do their jobs, as generations of humans have done in similar circumstances and continue to do.

But the scandal of the gospel that Paul preaches, from experience, is that no one—no one—is too foreign, too lowly, too wicked or merely too wrong to be beyond the reach of God’s love. Furthermore, if violence is not God’s way to counter violence, as we know from the cross, then it is up to me to stop resorting to violent thoughts, words, and deeds (yes, even on the freeway). Speaking truth to power, even respectfully, may and probably will still earn me violent responses. But how else is my little corner of the world to learn the ways of God’s peace if I myself neglect to live it? And how else shall the darkness lift, unless I do my part?