Archive for the 'Advent' Category

For Dec. 21, 2014: 4 Advent, Year B

The Reading                                                              2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

When King David, the mighty but undeniably flawed ancestor of Jesus, takes it into his head to build God a house as grand as David’s own, the prophet Nathan at first tells him to have at it. As 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 tells it, however, God has other plans, including a “house”—a dynasty—for David.

The Response                                                            Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Psalm 89 dates to the period of Israel’s subjugation by Babylon, but the verses here sing of the Lord’s love for Israel and for David. The Great Sea is the Mediterranean and the River is the Euphrates, in Mesopotamia: this dominion is thus most of the known world. The speaker in verses 3-4 and 19b-26 is the Lord.

The Epistle                                                                  Romans 16:25-27

In the book of Romans, written around 57 AD, Paul sets out the Church’s earliest understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ and of the salvation he brings. Romans 16:25-27 ends the document with a complicated sentence that dedicates the book forms a doxology, or statement of faith.

The Gospel                                                                    Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:26-38 tells the story of the Annunciation. Mary learns from the angel Gabriel that she has been chosen to bear the son of God who will rule as the heir of David, if she agrees. Mary responds not by strutting and preening and making grand plans—unlike David—but by questioning and listening and at length saying yes.

 

Further thoughts

Whoever said, “Life is what happens while we are making other plans,”[1] the saying resonates for most of us—and it resonates in the readings for the last Sunday in Advent.

King David, having unified Israel and made Jerusalem its capital, receives from King Hiram of Tyre a grand house of cedar (2 Samuel 5:11). While relaxing in it, David gets a terrific idea: the Lord surely needs a house as grand, and David himself plans to build it. That night, however, the word of the Lord comes to Nathan. It is not for David to build the Lord a house. Instead, the Lord is going to make of David and his sons a “house”—a dynasty—that will rule in God’s name forever. As the following history of Israel amply demonstrates, however, the kings who follow all fail, in large ways or small, to carry out God’s plan, and the line seems to die out.

Mary’s plans for her life must have been much simpler: she is going to marry Joseph the carpenter. Then an angel shows up: “Hail, favored one! You can be the mother of a mightier king than David.” Unlike her famous forebear, Mary stops to think and to listen. Not only is the child to be a new David, he will be called the Son of God. Then she says yes, trusting in God to make this work. Mary is rightly honored above all women as the Theotokos or God-carrier. It is good to remember that being favored of God does not mean being spared all trouble: Mary will stand at the foot of the cross and watch her innocent boy die the most horrible of deaths.

And even in that darkness, the Lord is no less with her.

 

[1] http://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/05/06/other-plans/

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For Dec. 7, 2014: 2 Advent, Year B

The Reading                                                                   Isaiah 40:1-11

The long first section of the book of Isaiah foretold exile in Babylon and destruction of the Temple as proper punishment for the sins of the nation. Isaiah 40 shifts from disaster to hope; striking metaphors invoke felons rehabilitated, difficult terrain made passable, Jerusalem as herald, and God Almighty tending smelly sheep.

The Response                                                                Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 continues Isaiah’s message of hope as it celebrates God’s grace. Verses 10 and 11 anticipate the Good News: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”

The Epistle                                                                     2 Peter 3:8-15a

Isaiah and the psalmist relayed the promise of salvation coming in the reign of God. For Christians at the end of the first century A.D. who wonder why Jesus has not returned to save them, 2 Peter 3:8-15a explains: God’s goal is the salvation of all peoples, and the way we Christians behave toward the world now plays an important role.

The Gospel                                                                     Mark 1:1-8

The gospel of Mark, used for Year B of the lectionary, says nothing of Jesus’ ancestry or birth. It adapts Isaiah 40:3 by way of Malachi 3:1, 4:5 to present John, whose odd clothes and diet mark him as a prophet like Isaiah. John preaches repentance and baptism, and points the crowds he gathers toward the greater One to come.

Further thoughts

The multiple voices of Isaiah 40:1-11 anticipate the Lord’s coming, for which preparation must be made. Mark’s gospel makes the connection to John obvious: here, Mark 1:2-8 tells us, misquoting Isaiah, is the “voice crying in the wilderness,” a decidedly odd man from the desert who calls for repentance in advance of the One who follows, and who offers baptism.

What exactly is baptism? The word, first found in Middle English, is derived from Old French baptesme (the modern French is baptême), which in turn comes from ecclesiastical Greek baptismos ‘ceremonial washing’ by way of ecclesiastical Latin. (The Old English word was either cristnung (literally ‘Christian-ing’) or fulluht / fullwiht ‘full consecration’.) The corresponding Greek verb is baptizein ‘immerse, dip in water’; bapto ‘wash’ is perhaps less intentionally ceremonial.

In the first centuries of the Church, baptism was reserved for people of an age to understand what they were doing and to have studied for up to three years; the baptized person could receive Holy Communion immediately. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the number of baptisms increased so that such protracted preparation was less practical. By the 13th century, infant baptism was becoming common, along with a separate rite of Confirmation before one could receive the Eucharist. The 1549 Book of Common Prayer set forth baptism as a public rite, with water and oil of chrism. During the Victorian era baptism was increasingly a private rite, with only family and friends in attendance. [i]

Baptism happens once for every Christian—as the Nicene Creed states, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” The policy of the Episcopal Church currently is that anyone validly baptized as a Christian is welcome at the Eucharistic table. It is only a slight exaggeration to claim that any baptism is valid provided it involves water applied to a baptizee by someone who intends to baptize and uses the formula “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and it certainly follows from this that, should an unbaptized person be in imminent danger of death, any layperson may perform the baptism privately. Absent such a circumstance, however, baptism in the Episcopal Church currently is to be public and it is preferred (though not required) that the bishop preside.

Baptism can be carried out by submersion (full immersion), by partial immersion (up to the knees or waist in water) with water poured over the head; by affusion (water poured on the skin), and by aspersion (sprinkling), which requires an aspergillum (sprinkling device). The first three are valid ways to baptize in Anglican practice; affusion is most common in Episcopal churches, perhaps chiefly because most lack immersion pools,[ii] and aspersion is generally reserved for blessing that isn’t baptism, as at the Easter vigil. Church traditions that countenance only submersion point to verses like Mark 1:10: “just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water…” and to the literal meaning of baptizein. It is not clear that Mark 1:10 necessarily entails that Jesus was coming up for air after submersion, as opposed to walking out of the river. As for baptizein, the Online Etymological Dictionary notes two striking figurative meanings:[iii] ‘be in over one’s head (in debt)’ and ‘be soaked (in wine)’, the latter in a sense like colloquial English soused for ‘drunk’ but probably influenced by the sense ‘to dip up in a bowl, like wine’. Dipping up is precisely how baptism by affusion works.

One function of infant baptism is to wash away original sin—the sin of Adam, which is to say the sin that inheres to everyone by virtue of being human. (In the phrase cast aspersions, the word has gone from sprinkling for cleanliness through spattering to a metaphorical sort of soiling. Languages are funny that way.) Another is, with the oil of chrism, to mark the newly baptized person as belonging to Christ and to induct the newly baptized into the Church and the local congregation. A function that may have more resonance for adults being baptized, and for the congregation witnessing the baptism and renewing baptismal vows, is the symbolic burial with Christ and rebirth into new life. Both the washing and the rebirth

Like the other great sacrament of the Church, the Eucharist, baptism brings us the extraordinary grace of God clothed in the ordinary stuff of daily life. What if we were to take each of our daily uses of water as an occasion to give thanks for our baptism and the grace that comes of it?

[i] “Confirming Baptism.” Episcopal Diocese of New York. Web. http://www.dioceseny.org/pages/228-concerning-baptism. Consulted 6 December 2014.

[ii] Fischbeck, Lisa G. n.d. “Baptism by Immersion.” The Episcopal Church of the Advocate. Web. http://theadvocatechurch.org/worship-liturgy/baptism-by-immersion/ Consulted 6 December 2014.

[iii] “Baptize.” n.d. Online Etymological Dictionary. Web. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=baptize&allowed_in_frame=0. Consulted 5 Dec 2014.

For Nov. 30, 2014: 1 Advent, Year B

The Reading                                                   Isaiah 64:1-9

We launch the season of Advent, and with it Year B, with a reading from the predominantly hopeful third part of Isaiah that is penitential and a bit apocalyptic. All of us for whom Isaiah speaks are the authors of our own disasters and about as righteous as used toilet paper(verse 6)—but yet all of us are the work of God’s hand.

The Response                                                 Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Isaiah’s theme is continued in Psalm 80. Prayers notwithstanding, God’s people are suffering: they eat and drink tears by the bowlful and are the scorn of their neighbors. They ask God, “Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand.” Christians often view this as a prophecy of Jesus. But what if it is a call to us?

The Epistle                                                      1 Corinthians 1:3-9

The Christians of Corinth, a bustling Greco-Roman seaport, were well off by Christian standards, but Jewish and Gentile converts were at odds. Paul opens his first letter to them with gratitude for their learning and speaking but striking silence on the topic for which he praises other churches: love for one another.

The Gospel                                                       Mark 13:24-37

Mark 13 is Jesus’ long answer when four disciples ask him privately how they will know when the Messiah is coming. Jesus tells them to look for the signs, as one gauges from the fig tree’s leaves when summer is coming, but he adds that only the Father knows just when that will be.

 

Further thoughts

These “further thoughts” are normally confined to matters of theology. The current unrest in Ferguson, MO and elsewhere over a grand jury’s refusal to recommend that the shooting of Michael Brown come to trial, however, demands comment, the more so in light of the lectionary texts for this first Sunday in Lent, Year B.

As I write, it is the second day after the prosecutor’s announcement. News reports indicate that last night was calmer than the night before; it is good if the ashes in Ferguson and other cities are beginning to cool, both for the sake of the business owners and residents who suffer damage and injury and in the interest of toning down the chorus of gibes to the effect that, well, one really can’t expect any better behavior from… them. But I can’t help fearing that the settling ashes will once again be allowed to obscure and bury a discussion that this nation must have. The issue is that hundreds of thousands of mothers live in fear that theirs will be the boy who doesn’t come home tonight because he’s been shot by a cop. This fear has been given searing voice by a teacher friend of mine; her son is a senior at Army-Navy Academy in Carlsbad and a standout wide receiver in football, which means he’s a little more lightly built than Michael Brown but still a pretty big guy, and he’s black. She is nauseated with fear that he’ll die of reaching too fast for his ID. And she’s not alone.

That this fear exists and is pervasive must be confronted and dealt with, whatever one believes about who was right in Ferguson. If it is not, I fear that in the future of this nation are Psalm 80:5’s “bowls of tears” for all of us to drink. I fear Isaiah 64:7’s chilling prophecy that, far from falling to outside enemies, we are instead bound to be “delivered into the hands of our iniquity.”

What if our listening to the anguish of Ferguson is the sound of the Lord God tearing open heaven to come down and bring righteousness?

For Dec. 22, 2013: 4 Advent, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 7:10-16

In the eighth century B.C., Jerusalem is under threat. Isaiah has advised fearful young King Ahaz to let God deal with it; here the Lord offers a grand sign as proof. Ahaz piously refuses—his faith is in an alliance—but he is given the sign anyway: a baby who won’t yet be weaned before the two enemy kingdoms are no more.

The Response            Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Psalm 80, written in the time of Isaiah, is a corporate lament: all God’s people are suffering—in the striking metaphor of verse 5, eating and drinking tears by the bowlful. They ask for the light of God’s countenance. Christians tend to think of “the man of your right hand” as a prophecy of Jesus. But what if it actually means us?

The Epistle            Romans 1:1-7

The letter to the Romans is one of five epistles that is agreed to be by the apostle Paul. At the beginning of the letter, Paul introduces himself in a complex paragraph that sums up his mission: to declare to the Gentiles the salvation that God promised in the scriptures and delivered through the death of Jesus.

The Gospel            Matthew 1:18-25

The gospel for the fourth Sunday in Advent relates the familiar story of Joseph, legally bound to Mary but both worldly and righteous enough to assume the usual explanation for a child he knows he hasn’t fathered. He is prepared to break the contract—privately, to spare Mary further shame—but God has other plans.

Ponderables

Signs loom large in today’s readings: signs rejected and signs accepted.

In the reading from Isaiah, King Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign: he has plans for an alliance with Assyria against the twin threat facing him, and he is not interested in any proof of God to the contrary. He fails to realize that allying with Assyria will make Judah an enemy of Babylon and lead to exile and the destruction of the Temple. The baby in the sign is most likely Ahaz’s own son, and was not named Immanuel, or ‘God with us’.

Psalm 80, from the time of the exile in Babylon, laments the suffering of God’s people: the metaphor in verse 5 suggests not only that the people are weeping tears by the bowlful, but also that tears are all they have to eat or drink. Suffering and darkness were taken as signs of God’s displeasure, so the psalm begs repeatedly for the light of God’s countenance. We think of “the man of your right hand” as Jesus—but what if it actually means us?

The epistle is a litany of signs in the scriptures. Unlike Ahaz’s faith, Paul’s is real, so he has accepted the Lord’s sign—the miraculous encounter outside Damascus—even to the point of abandoning his old life to bring the good news of Jesus to people with whom, as a proper Jew, he should never even have associated. And who are those people?  Well, we are.

The gospel, in telling the story of Mary and Joseph, takes the previously unremarked verse 14 from Isaiah 7 and elevates it to a prophecy of Jesus. Like Paul, Joseph is genuinely righteous; he intends grace in dealing with Mary, he is open to God’s signs, and he is willing both to receive grace and to give it in ways he had not planned. What a remarkable Abba or daddy for Jesus to grow up with! And what a model for us to follow!

For Dec. 15, 2013: A Service of Advent Lessons and Carols

First Reading            Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-25: God creates man and woman to live in obedience to God in the Garden of Eden.

Second Reading            Genesis 3:1-15: Adam and Eve rebel against God and are cast out of the Garden of Eden.

Third Reading            Isaiah 40:1-11: God comforts God’s people and calls on them to prepare for redemption.

Fourth Reading            Jeremiah 31:31-34: A new covenant is promised which will be written in our hearts

Fifth Reading            Zechariah 9:9-10: The humility of Jerusalem’s King is foretold.

Sixth Reading            Haggai 2:6-9: The Lord will restore the splendor of the house of David.

Seventh Reading            Isaiah 65:17-25: God promises a new heaven and a new earth.

Eighth Reading            Luke 1:26-38: The Angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will bear the Son of the Most High.

The Gospel            John 1:1-14: The Word was made flesh and we have seen his glory.

 

About the Service of Advent Lessons and Carols

The format of this Sunday’s service dates back to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols devised by Edward White Benson, then Bishop of Truro in southern England, for Christmas Eve 1880. In 1918, shortly after the fighting in World War I ended, this order of service was adapted for use at King’s College, Cambridge UK, by the Dean of the college chapel, Eric Milner-White. With the revisions that Milner-White made in 1919, this is the service that is broadcast every year by the BBC.

In 1934, Milner-White devised a similar service for Advent: its purpose, he said, was “not to celebrate Christmas”—as the Christmas Eve service does—“but to expect it.” It is in that spirit that we offer today’s lessons and carols.

The nine short lessons or readings are chosen to show the story of salvation unfolding. God’s creation of humanity in the first reading from Genesis is followed by the fall into disobedience in the second. The remaining readings, except for the last two, come from Israel’s dark time during and after the destruction of the Temple and the deportation to Babylon. Isaiah foresees comfort and return from exile for God’s people, in words that inspired much of the first part of Georg Friedrich Handel’s masterful Messiah; Jeremiah announces the new covenant, not between God and the whole people but between God and each human soul; Zechariah foresees a King who combines the power to end war with the humility to ride a donkey; Haggai foresees the restoration of the house of David and of the temple to which all people will come in worship; Isaiah returns to prophesy a world order of unimaginable peace and harmony under God. The eighth lesson is Luke’s account of the  invitation to Mary to become the mother of God and of her astonished but ultimately obedient response. The ninth lesson, from the beginning of the gospel of John, tells of Jesus as Word, God, Light—and, wonder of wonders, flesh like us.

“For the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” Thanks be to God!

For Dec. 8, 2013: 2 Advent, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 11:1-10

For the second Sunday of Advent, Isaiah the prophet poetically continues the theme of promise: from the remains of the house of David will come a ruler who will bring righteousness and peace beyond our dreams—and perhaps, as we contemplate the mess that we humans have made of God’s world, beyond even our fears.

The Response            Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Psalm 72 may have been composed as a coronation hymn for Solomon, the son of David. The psalm asks God to grant righteousness and justice to the king’s son—that is, the rightful heir—so that even the mountains will be sources of wellbeing. The king’s rule will be long and will bring blessing as does rain in the dry season.

The Epistle            Romans 15:4-13

In the early church at Rome were both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity who did not always agree. The epistle calls all the Romans to live together in harmony and with hope: as Jesus came to the Jews to fulfill God’s promise, he now comes to the Gentiles or non-Jews so that everyone might see and believe.

The Gospel            Matthew 3:1-12

The Old Testament lesson and the psalm sing the praises of the king that God has anointed; the psalm, for one, has in mind a king of the standard sort, if a really good one. In the gospel, John the Baptizer is a most unusual herald announcing a much less familiar kingdom, in which repentance and readiness count more than rank.

Ponderables

The readings for the second Sunday in Advent trace royal descent in more senses than one. The psalm, dating back to the second and third of Israel’s kings, expresses a people’s high but not entirely unthinkable hopes for and of their new monarchy. We know that things went downhill rapidly—each generation of flawed and even wicked king had prophets reading him his metaphorical pedigree—but Isaiah points to a literal lineage in foreseeing a new kind of ruler whose judgment cannot be corrupted by lust for power, whose mere breath smites the wicked, and whose rule will be righteous enough to bring back Eden. This is the king whose coming John heralds in the gospel, the king who brings the fire of judgment on those who take pride in their ancestry and their spirituality. But neither psalmist nor prophet, nor even proclaimer, had actually met him.

It falls to the book of Romans to tell of the dream come true: real man, real God, real servant. We wonder at the indelible image from Christ the King Sunday two weeks ago, of Jesus, even in humiliation and agony, extending mercy and welcome to the sinful. What kind of king is this? And what kind of people would we Christians be if we poured ourselves out to welcome all God’s children as Jesus has welcomed us?

For Dec. 1, 2013: 1 Advent, Year A

With the turning of the liturgical year, here’s a change for St Alban’s Lections: adding prefaces on the response and the gospel, accompanied by a shift to a shorter contemplation under the name of “Ponderables”.

The Reading            Isaiah 2:1-5

The season of Advent is a path of repentance and promise, and these themes resound in the prophecies of Isaiah that we will read each week. For this first Sunday, Isaiah foretells the path and the promise for Judah and Jerusalem—and, if we too will turn from the ways of war and destruction to the ways of the Lord, for us.

The Response            Psalm 122

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” When Jerusalem truly functions as the Place of Wholeness that its name suggests, then the vision that Isaiah has depicted comes to life.

The Epistle            Romans 13:11-14

Isaiah, in our first reading, foretold the path and the promise of Advent. The apostle Paul writes to Christians in Rome—a city like London, Paris, and Las Vegas all rolled into one—to tell them what it takes to be ready for the coming of Christ. He reminds them, and us, that the time to wake and walk with God is always right now.

The Gospel            Matthew 24:36-44

In Luke 21:5-19, which we read two weeks ago, the disciples asked Jesus when the end times will be, and he gave an indefinite answer. He replies again in today’s reading from Matthew, and with a much more definite indefinite: no one knows except the Father, and therefore it is up to us as followers to be ready.

 

Ponderables

The readings for the first Sunday in Advent fall indisputably into the category of apocalypse. The word literally means ‘uncovering’ or ‘revelation’, but over time it has come to mean ‘the end of times’. We associate it with bad news partly because of the horrors predicted in the Book of Revelation but mostly, I suspect, because, being human, we associate the end of everyday life—the “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” of Matthew 24:38—with bad news. The gospel provides some warrant for this in comparing Jesus’ return with the flood of Noah, which was indeed bad news for anyone not on the ark: one will be taken, Jesus tells us, and one left, though it’s not clear from the passage which of those is the one who is saved at that point, nor is it even clear what will happen to the other. One assumes that Jesus’ vagueness is intentional.

Isaiah and the writer of Romans, characteristically, are much less vague. Isaiah tells us how things will be when the Lord rules, or to be precise when all of us accede to the Lord’s rule: weapons of war and wounding will become tools of tillage and tending. The verses that precede the epistle reading famously sum up our mutual duty as loving one another—looking out for each other—before admonishing us to hop to it. But behold: what Isaiah holds out as the outcome of God’s reign is pretty much what the epistle counsels as the means to it.

What if this is precisely the point of Advent? The one taken away in the gospel might be headed for Paradise—but what if the one is left to keep being God’s hands and feet and love in the world?