Archive for the 'Holy Days' Category

For Feb. 8, 2015: Absalom Jones

The Reading                                                                 Isaiah 61:1-4

The first part of the book of Isaiah pronounced God’s judgment on Israel for oppressing the poor: her kings were to be cut down and her people exiled in Babylon. Isaiah 61:1-4, fittingly for the commemoration of Absalom Jones, calls the despondent returnees to rebuild and restore shattered Jerusalem—and to rejoice in freedom.

The Response                                                               Psalm 137:1-6

Psalm 137 laments the exile in Babylon that Isaiah prophesied for Israel. The oppressors’ demand for songs and mirth has echoes in later history: slaves are often not even allowed the dignity of grief when that conflicts with their masters’ demand to be amused.

The Epistle                                                                    Galatians 5:1-5

By the third century BC, Celts or Gauls from western Europe have invaded and settled in the part of modern Turkey that is called Galatia. Can these gentiles follow Christ without undergoing circumcision? Paul’s answer is yes: Christ has freed us from bondage to the Law—and that means all of us.

The Gospel                                                                     John 15:12-15

John 15:12-15 is part of Jesus’ discourse leading up to the night of betrayal. We read verse 12 as a command to love, but the Greek conjunction ἴνα, which is translated ‘that’ here[1] and in John 13:34,[2] is more often translated ‘in order that’—in which case Jesus may be telling us to do as he does so that we may indeed love as he loves.

 

Further thoughts

Feb. 13 is the feast day of Absalom Jones, priest, in the Episcopal calendar. He was born in 1746 on the Wynkoop plantation in Sussex, Delaware. Too frail for the fields, he was a house slave. He bought a reading book with the pennies his owner’s guests gave him as tips and cadged reading lessons whenever possible. When Absalom was sixteen, his owner, Benjamin Wynkoop, decided to give up the plantation he had inherited for commerce; Wynkoop sold the rest of Absalom’s family and took Absalom to Philadelphia, which featured a growing community of freedmen and a Quaker community devoted to abolition. Absalom clerked in Wynkoop’s store by day and went to one of the Quakers’ black schools by night.

The first marriage of 1770 recorded at St Peter’s Anglican Church was of “Absalom (negro slave to Mr Wynkoop) and Mary (Do. to S. King)”;[3] both owners worshiped there. King agreed to manumit Mary—to sell her her freedom—and Absalom composed an appeal to the Quakers for loans and donations for the purchase, so their children would be freeborn. He worked from dawn till dark for Wynkoop, and till past midnight for wages in order to pay the debt. When the British occupied Philadelphia in 1777, Wynkoop left town with the other patriots; Absalom could have gained his freedom by working for the redcoats, but instead he kept the store going.[4] In 1778, Absalom and Mary paid off her debt and Absalom requested his own manumission. Wynkoop declined, and kept declining repeated requests until 1784. It should give any 21st-century Episcopalian pause to reflect that Wynkoop was a devout churchman, vestryman and warden of St Peter’s and Christ Church Philadelphia and a generous donor—of money earned by the toil of his slave and the sale of slave-produced goods such as molasses and rum.[5] When at last Absalom was manumitted and registered as a freedman, he and Mary took the surname Jones; he continued working for Wynkoop for wages.

Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, as lay preachers at St George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, increased the black membership by ten times; the vestry responded by adding a blacks-only balcony and, one Sunday in November 1786, a sexton interrupted Jones and others at prayer to drag them up to it. The group walked out of St George’s and never returned. Jones and Allen founded the Free African Society, a benevolent organization that gave rise to the African Church in 1792. When yellow fever swept Philadelphia in 1793, causing many whites to flee, Jones and Allen and their followers tirelessly nursed the sick irrespective of race. Allen went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but Jones and his followers turned to the Episcopal Church in 1794 and were accepted as the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas (though not without restrictions). Jones was ordained as a deacon in 1795 and as a priest in 1802. In 1808, and partly through his efforts in circulating petitions to Congress, he witnessed the end of the slave trade into the US, though not the end of slavery itself. He died on Feb. 13, 1818.

Absalom Jones undoubtedly knew Psalm 137 by heart, and its woes were much of his life. In his dignity, determination, courage, and love, however, he carried himself as a friend to God and humans and he demonstrated to whites who thought they knew what a slave was worth what a black man unfettered could do and be. At times captive, brokenhearted, and mourning, he nevertheless lived out the call of Isaiah 61:1-4 as proclaimer of liberty, oak of righteousness, and repairer of devastations. The Episcopal Church must be honest about the slaveholding in its past, and we are all called to recognize our own prejudices—but what better way to honor the memory of the Rev’d Absalom Jones than to follow in his footsteps to bless and liberate our brethren and the world, including ourselves?

 

[1] D. Mark Davis, “Commands To Love, Or Commands In Order To Love?” Left Behind and Loving It, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/05/commands-to-love-or-commands-in-order.html, 7 May 2012. Accessed 4 February 2015.

[2] D. Mark Davis, “Commanding Love,” Left Behind and Loving It, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/04/commanding-love.html, 23 April 2013. Accessed 4 February 2015.

[3] “Historical Documents: Absalom Jones’s Marriage to Mary,” Africans in America, Part 3, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h93.html, no date. Accessed 7 February 2015.

[4] Nash, Gary B. “Becoming Free.” Chapter of Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988), p. 68. Accessed 6 February 2015.

[5] Safford, Timothy B. “Who Owned Absalom Jones?” Sermon, 13 February 2008. Web site of Christ Church Philadelphia, http://www.christchurchphila.org/Welcome-to-the-Christ-Church-Website/Who-We-Are/Sermons/Sermons/202/month–200802/vobid–678/. Accessed 7 February 2015.

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?

 

For Dec. 28, 2014: Holy Name of Jesus

The Reading                                                            Numbers 6:22-27

The book of Numbers, named for the first census of the Israelites after their departure from Egypt, tells their journey from the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula to the land of Moab on the east side of the Jordan. Here the Lord explains how the priests of Aaron are to bless God’s people: by putting God’s name on them.

The Response                                                           Psalm 8

Psalm 8 responds to God’s activity in Creation with wonder and praise. The God whose Word creates (as one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it) “galaxies, suns, the planets in the courses, and this fragile Earth” is the God who bends low to you and me—and the God who calls us to care just as tenderly for Earth and its resources.

The Epistle                                                               Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11 may be a very ancient hymn of the Church. This luminous passage names Jesus as God and human, humbled and then exalted, with the Name to which every knee shall bow as we saints below join in praise with the saints above, world without end.

The Gospel                                                               Luke 2:15-21

As Luke tells it, angels impart the great good news of the birth of the Savior to shepherds, and these rough outsiders hasten to adore him. Eight days later, in accordance with Jewish law (Genesis 17:9-14), the boy is circumcised and given the name Jesus, as the angel had told Mary in Luke 1:31 (and Joseph in Matthew 1:21).

 

Further thoughts

The feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is celebrated on January 1, eight days after Christmas Day; the timing reflects the practice of circumcising and formally naming a baby Jewish boy on the eighth day of his life in accordance with the Torah. This feast day raises some interesting issues in naming and inclusion.

In both tellings of the Annunciation, the angel tells one of the child’s earthly parents to name him Jesus. Matthew 1:21 adds a bit: the angel says, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The comment makes sense in Hebrew: the name would be Yeshua, a shortening of Yehoshua, which combines the YHW– element that refers to the Lord with a verb that means ‘deliver, save, rescue’. The name was then rendered into Greek (in which there is no “sh” sound, and the letter y is used solely as a vowel) as Iēsous Ιησουσ, with an –s suffix to make it masculine gender and a long e pronounced as in Spanish. Latin adopted this as Iesus.

As lower-case scripts emerged in Europe, a “swash” form of the letter I, with a curly tail, came into use at the beginning of a word before a vowel, yielding the occasional spelling Jesus. This letter J was not a fully separate letter in English until the 17th century, however, so the first edition of the King James Bible (1611) still spells the name Iesus. By that time, the French shift in pronunciation from “y” to “soft g” before a vowel, in progress as of the beginning of the twelfth century, had become standard in English. All that remained to produce the current pronunciation of Jesus was the Great Vowel Shift that has given English long e the pronunciation it has today.

Jesus has two other titles of interest: Messiah and Christ. We tend to think of Messiah as meaning ‘savior’, but the Aramaic word meshiach, borrowed into Greek and then Roman as messias, means ‘anointed’. It turns out that Christ means the same thing: it comes from Greek khristos ‘anointed one’. Jesus was first called crist (no H, no capitalization) in English no later than 830 AD; speakers of Old English were likelier to call Jesus Hæland ‘savior’ or more literally ‘healer’. Of course, none of those is a name he was given at birth.

Circumcision according to the Torah marks a boy as fully a Jew, a member of the community. It also marks Jesus as fully human and submissive to the Law. The apostle Paul—also a Jew who had been circumcised—concluded that circumcision was not necessary for Gentiles. Instead, what marks a fellow Christian as “ours” is anointing at baptism and at confirmation. The ritual embraces those of us who are not equipped for circumcision as well as all who are not Jews. This shift thus emphasizes the extension of grace through Jesus to all peoples. But what if the shift also stands as a reminder to me to rise to the challenge of being as nearly Christ as I can to all people, seeing each person through Jesus’ eyes and loving each one as “ours”?

For Sept. 28, 2014: St Michael and All Angels

The Reading            Genesis 28:10-17

The readings for the feast of St Michael and All Angels are full of angels. In Genesis, Jacob the conniver, fleeing from the brother he has fleeced, stops for the night far from what he thinks of as God’s country. Even here, however, and despite his guile, the Lord finds him and has plans for him.

The Response            Psalm 103:19-22

Psalm 103:19-22 calls on all creation to bless the Lord: the angels who do as the Lord orders, the hosts of heaven who minister, all the works of the Lord, and finally the psalmist’s own God-created soul.

The Epistle            Revelation 12:7-12

In Revelation 12:7-12, forces let by the mighty archangel Michael throw Satan and his angels out of heaven. That the infuriated devil is en route is bad news for earth and sea, but his time is short and we are not defenseless.

The Gospel            John 1:47-51

John 1:47-51 alludes to Genesis 28:10-17, the Old Testament reading. Nathanael, unlike Jacob, is no deceiver—in fact, he may be gullible in proclaiming Jesus the Son of God just because Jesus noticed him under the fig tree—but, like Jacob, Nathanael and we will see angels at work bringing heaven to earth, by way of Jesus.

 

Further thoughts

The Bible mentions angels about 270 times, including the mentions in the Michaelmas readings. The Anglican tradition recognizes four named archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel.

Michael (Hebrew mi-cha-’el ‘who (is) like God?’) is named in the book of Daniel; as the warrior angel of Revelation he is the patron of military members and mariners and, since his late-fall feast day coincides with harvest, of grocers. British banks still call the last quarter of the calendar year the Michaelmas quarter.

Gabriel (gabri-’el ‘my strength (is/be) God’) is named in the book of Daniel and in the deuterocanonical book of Enoch. Identified with the angel of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, he is the patron saint of postal workers, broadcasters and other communications workers, the clergy, and stamp collectors.

Raphael (rafa-’el ‘my healer (is/be) God’) appears in the deuterocanonical book of Tobit as the guide and healer of Tobit’s son Tobias, and by tradition he is the angel who stirs the pool of healing waters in John 5:7. He is the patron saint of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lovers, travelers, and nightmares.

Uriel (uri-’el ‘my light (is/be) God’) is named in the deuterocanonical books of Enoch and 2 Esdras, in the latter as the instructor of the prophet Ezra. He is the patron saint of the rite of Confirmation and of poetry.

The word angel is from Greek ἄγγελος or ángelos, which translates the Hebrew word mal’akh ‘messenger or agent’; in biblical times both words refer to either human or heavenly beings. St Jerome’s fourth-century Vulgate Bible first reserves angelus for divine messengers and nuntius or legatus ‘delegate, emissary’ for humans.

In today’s world, evidence of angelic intervention seems rare—but our brothers and sisters at home and abroad cry out for the protection, truth, healing, and light that Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel have represented. What if that means that the angels of the 21st century are you and me?

For March 23, 2014: The Annunciation, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 7:10-14

With the kingdom of Judah caught between powerful enemies, King Ahaz seeks an alliance with Assyria in defiance of the promise from God that Isaiah has given him. In a reading that is familiar from Advent and Christmas, the Lord offers to prove that the Lord’s intentions are good—but Ahaz refuses.

The Response            Canticle 15

King Ahaz was asked to trust God for an outcome that looked uncertain, and he declined to do so. A girl named Mary, offered a miracle that will turn her life upside down, says yes. Canticle 15, which we know as the Magnificat, is the song of praise that Mary then sings, and the continuation of the gospel for the Annunciation.

The Epistle            Hebrews 10:4-10

Sacrifices and burnt offerings in the Old Testament are intended to atone for sins. Chapter 10 of the book of Hebrews explains how they cannot work. It is Jesus coming to do the will of God that sanctifies us—and in so doing, Jesus gives us a model to follow.

The Gospel            Luke 1:26-38

Like the Old Testament reading and the psalm, this gospel passage is familiar from Advent. Mary, in contrast to King Ahaz, is appropriately perplexed by the angel; she seeks to understand why the angel greets her as he does; and when he gives her a sign, she accepts it and declares her obedience to God’s will.

 

Ponderables

The readings for the feast of the Annunciation play on themes of understanding, obedience, and sacrifice. Ahaz, raised to be a king, nevertheless misunderstands what is being offered and why; he chooses to disobey when obedience would be relatively easy, and the consequence is that he unwittingly sacrifices the good of the nation to his own desperate need to feel in control. Jesus, uniquely begotten by God, understands exactly what the divine plan for the world is and how it involves him; he continually chooses to obey, even to the point of death; and the consequence is that he deliberately sacrifices his own life and human need to feel in control in order to do God’s will in saving even the least of us. Mary, for her part, is the product of a culture that expects her to marry when and how it demands and does not encourage her questions; she nevertheless thinks about what the angel means and asks how things work; and the consequence is that, though she cannot fully foresee all that is being asked of her, she agrees to the potential sacrifice of her good name in the community in order to become the Theotokos—the bearer of God.

Mary is quite rightly held up as a model of human obedience to the Lord—and she questions and ponders. So what if questions and doubts are in fact integral to belief in God? And what if it is this kind of reasoned, questioning human obedience that prepares the way of the Lord?

For Nov. 3, 2013: All Saints’ Day, Year C

The Reading            Daniel 7:1-3,15-18

The book of Daniel is set in the sixth century before Christ, after the Temple has been destroyed and the people taken into exile in Babylon. Here the prophet recounts a terrifying vision—the omitted verses describe four huge and powerful monsters with bad intentions toward Israel—but the explanation he gets builds hope.

The Response            Psalm 149

“For the Lord takes pleasure in his people and adorns the poor with victory.”

The Epistle            Ephesians 1:11-23

The church at Ephesus was one of the first and most successful of the churches believed to have been founded by the apostle Paul. Today’s reading explains what is in store for the saints—that is, for all of us who believe—and how the power of God working among us gives us hope.

The Gospel            Luke 6:20-31

“‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’”

 

Further thoughts

The readings for All Saints’ Day vary from year to year in the Revised Common Lectionary, and in consequence the themes vary too. In last year’s readings, Isaiah and the writer of Revelation sang of the wondrous banquet that awaits in heaven, the psalmist offered praise, and John told of the miraculous raising of Lazarus.

For Year C, the tone is more mixed. Psalm 149 rejoices, to be sure (though the fate awaiting other nations’ rulers is told with eyebrow-raisingly cheer), and the epistle sounds the celebratory note that one expects, that is consistent with the opening and closing of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s beloved hymn “Sine Nomine” and with the rousing “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

But the other texts for All Saints’ Day this year are somber, even threatening. The prophet Daniel reports a vision of four horrifying monsters wreaking destruction on everything. The gospel tells us that an easy life now is not necessarily a mark of God’s favor for the world to come while laying out a blueprint for Christian behavior in the face of assault or disregard that is decidedly difficult to follow. What gives?

These are verses of, by, and for outsiders. Daniel prophesies during the time of exile, when the Israelites were unwilling foreign nationals of low status and could count on being scorned, misunderstood, and mistreated accordingly. The gospel famously plays on the Beatitudes—beatus in Latin is a strong way to say ‘happy’—and part of the point is to tell us in what esteem to hold those on whom the world spits… for they are we and we are they. Jesus is raised to unprecedented honor and glory, yes—but first he had to be born to an unwed mother, be a refugee, be a truth-teller whom nobody understood, be spat on and mocked (and who knows how else bored soldiers might have humiliated him?) and then be paraded through the streets en route to dying the nastiest death Rome saw fit to inflict. In short, Jesus the outsider knows the very worst that can befall us and the very worst we can be, and that by no stretch of the imagination do we belong in heaven.

By no stretch of the imagination, that is, except his.

For it is Jesus’ love alone that makes God’s saint of me, and you, and every other outsider that ever drew breath or ever will. And it is by living Jesus’ love of those on whom the world spits that we soften the hearts that can’t listen yet—including, more often than not, our own.

For Sept. 29, 2013: the Feast of St Michael

The Reading            Genesis 28:10-17

For the feast of St Michael and All Angels, we take a break from jeremiads to read an account of what Jacob dreams the night he flees from his justifiably angry brother Esau. He is in unfamiliar territory where people worship other gods—but the dream is itself a messenger by which he learns that, even in this place and even given the dirty tricks he’s pulled on his brother, he and God are by no means finished with each other.

The Response            Psalm 103 or 103:19-22

“Bless the Lord, all you works of his, in all places of his dominion; bless the Lord, O my soul.”

The Epistle            Revelation 12:7-12

To English speakers, using the word angel of allies of the Devil in dragon form sounds odd, but angel comes from a Greek word meaning ‘messenger’—or, perhaps more fittingly for this reading—‘emissary’. That the reading ends with the angry devil thrown down to earth is sobering for those of us still here—but the good news is that our deceitful accuser is no longer the only one representing our cases before God.

The Gospel            John 1:47-51

“‘I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’”

 

Further thoughts

What does it take to be an angel?

Whatever it is, Jacob seems an unlikely candidate. As this Sunday’s reading opens, he is running for his life from his elder twin Esau, whom he has fleeced again, and perhaps from his father’s God as well. A halo is clearly not part of his ensemble. When it is too dark to go further, he falls asleep on pagan ground, his pillow a stone that may be from a pagan’s cairn and the “ladder” of his dream the ramp or stairway of a pagan temple. Yet God and God’s angels are there; Psalm 103’s reference to “all places of [God’s] dominion” must mean anywhere and everywhere. Jacob is awed and humbled, and opened to becoming God’s malakh himself.

For malakh, the Hebrew word that is translated as ‘angel’, is a wide-ranging title. A malakh could be anything from an errand runner to an emperor’s emissary, or leader of a synagogue or one of the seven early churches of Revelation’s opening chapters. The writer of Revelation seems to have this breadth in mind: the unnamed “loud voice” in heaven that declaims the dragon’s downfall names the accused as “our comrades”, as offhandedly as though it were obvious—and that means us. Is part of the requirement for a malakh simply to keep showing up?

Nathanael’s story in the gospel suggests that this may be so. In the gospel he appears as the polar opposite of Jacob, “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” and the fig tree under which Jesus spies him is the traditional place of a rabbi or scholar in study. Though guileless, Nathanael is not snarkless: when Philip invites him to see Jesus in the verses preceding, he responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nevertheless, Nathanael shows up—and, perhaps to his own surprise, confesses Jesus as the Messiah.

Showing up is good. Showing up with awe and readiness is even better. How do I do that, Lord?