Archive for the 'Hebrews' Category

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).

For Dec. 25, 2014: Christmas Day (Christmas III)

The Reading                                                           Isaiah 52:7-10

Addressing ruined Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah shows us the sentinels of Zion singing the good news of the Lord returning to redeem his people—all his people, to the ends of the earth. To the ends of the earth let us also repeat the sounding joy of Christmas, and live into it.

The Response                                                         Psalm 98

Isaiah 52:7-10 celebrates the Lord’s return to Zion and the salvation of God’s people. Psalm 98 resounds in response: the Lord has done astounding things, and the Lord’s victory is so obvious to all the earth that the very rivers and hills cry out for joy.

The Epistle                                                             Hebrews 1:1-12

The letter to the Hebrews, written to the church in Jerusalem, addresses Paul’s fellow Jews. To explain exactly who and what Jesus is, Paul cites Old Testament scriptures the Jews would know well. These scriptures refer to Jesus, the Son of God and the very being of God, who will remain after heaven and earth are gone.

The Gospel                                                              John 1:1-14

The word “gospel” comes from Old English gōd spell ‘good news’. The first fourteen verses of the gospel of John indeed tell good news: beginning at verse 10, “he”—Jesus—is come to help us become children of light, of grace, of truth, of God.

 

Further thoughts

Jim Mathes, the Episcopal bishop of San Diego, reports in his blog that, though he has been a lifelong fan, he has chosen to stop watching football as a witness against the violence of our culture.[1] I think it can also be argued that football epitomizes our human insistence on sorting people tidily into categories that amount to “winners” and “losers”, “good guys” and “bad guys”, “Us” and “Them”. as either winners or losers, and we extend this even in circumstances that don’t seem much like competitions. How readily we disparage losers! How readily we perceive disrespect on the part of others and move to “get our own back”! That this is true of human nature in general is surely an important lesson of the Bible, from the murder of Abel onward. Furthermore, we easily fall into projecting onto God our own eagerness to see winners rewarded, losers punished, and disrespect prosecuted to the fullest extent of the Law.

The lections for Christmas Day suggest that what we project onto God may not represent God very accurately. Psalm 98 celebrates the Lord’s victory, but without identifying a loser, and the psalmist emphasizes that the Lord judges all peoples with equity—that is, with an eye toward the special circumstances of each. Isaiah proclaims the Lord’s return, but what the Lord brings in Isaiah 52:7-10 is not retribution but redemption and comfort. More to the point, Hebrews 1:3 emphasizes that the Son, Jesus, is “the exact imprint of God’s very being”, and, if what God the Son brings us, according to John 1:1-14, is life, light, grace, and truth, it follows that God’s own self is life, light, grace, and truth—and such a God may be not nearly as ready to categorize either my enemies or me as I am myself. Such a God takes on the frail flesh of a baby. Such a God hangs on the cross with arms open to all peoples, to show us that what it takes to break the cycle of retributive violence is, when offered violence in deed or even in word, to refuse to offer violence in response.

That, it seems, is how to live into the call to join Jesus as another-child-of-God of life, light, grace, and truth, it follows that I am called to do as he did in a dark world. How astonishing, and how much the point of Christmas!

 

[1] Mathes, Jim, “Bearing Witness to Our Culture of Violence,” Where SunDays Are Better than Others, Episcopal Diocese of San Diego Web site, 18 December 2014. http://www.edsd.org/where-sundays-are-better-than-others/bearing-witness-to-our-culture-of-violence-fourth-witness/#.VJmQoAAA. Accessed 23 December 2014.

For April 16, 2014: Holy Wednesday, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 50:4-9a

For the first evening of the Triduum—the holy ‘three days’ leading up to Easter—we begin with a lesson that is also read on Palm Sunday: the third of the “songs of the suffering servant”. Though abused, the nameless servant speaks encouragement, listens to teaching, and fears no shame because the Lord God will help.

The Response            Psalm 70

The brief but heartfelt Psalm 70 calls upon the Lord for help against those seek one’s life and who gloat when bad things happen to one.

The Epistle            Hebrews 12:1-3

This short reading is preceded In Hebrews by the list of persevering, believing heroes of the faith that it calls “a cloud of witnesses”. Our chief example, of course, is Jesus, who withstood the worst that people could deal out in order to win people for God.

The Gospel            John 13:21-32

The reading from the gospel of John tells part of the story of what Jesus endured: that people whom he loved and had taught would nevertheless be among those to betray and deny him.

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 Feb. 2, 2014: The Presentation in the Temple

The Reading            Malachi 3:1-4

Malachi means ‘my messenger’. The Lord’s messenger is coming like a blast furnace and caustic lye soap to burn and scour away the people’s impurities—verse 5 names sorcery, adultery, false witness, keeping wages low, and oppressing widows, orphans, and aliens—so that offerings in the Temple will once again please God.

The Response            Psalm 84

The striking imagery of Psalm 84 depicts the house of the Lord as a place of integrity where the one true God will be revealed in glory—and where even humble sparrows and swallows are safe and welcome.

The Epistle            Hebrews 2:14-18

Where the reading from the book of Malachi depicted God’s messenger as judge and purifier, the epistle to the Hebrews tells the story differently: Jesus comes to take on our humanity so he can pay the price of our sins, and dies so that even death can no longer separate us from God.

The Gospel            Luke 2:22-40

Forty days after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph take him to the temple in Jerusalem and offer a sacrifice for Mary’s purification as the law requires. There they hear astonishing prophecies about their little boy; the first is what we have come to call the Nunc Dimittis (‘now you dismiss’) from its first two words in Latin.

 

 

Ponderables

This Sunday we celebrate the ritual presentation of forty-day-old Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The day’s readings continue the theme of Epiphany season: Jesus revealed to the world and coming into his ministry. They contain an interesting subtheme, however, of welcome to the marginalized. The reading from Malachi, which we also heard on the second Sunday of Advent, names wickednesses that God’s messenger is coming to burn and scour away—and most of them victimize minimum-wage-earners, widows, orphans, and aliens. The psalmist sings the glories of God’s dwelling place—where even the tiniest twittery birds are safe. The parents who present Jesus are too poor to afford the lamb of Leviticus 12:3-8, so they bring just the Title-I-reduced-price-lunch equivalent in two small fowl—yet, as Simeon and Anna tell it, this kid is everyone’s best hope.

What this all means, Hebrews 2:14-18 explains. It is our God’s style to welcome the nobody and the nestling chick in God’s house before the prince and the prelate. It is our God’s style to be conceived without benefit of clergy, born away from home at bureaucracy’s behest, and exiled as an undocumented emigrant. It is our God’s style to comfort the careworn and nettle the nabobs. And it is precisely our God’s style to endure the most extreme execution the Roman Empire could engineer so that we may grasp for good that even grim death cannot keep us out of God’s good graces… if we will but listen and love God and love one another.

If Jesus walked into our church, would he find factions or a community united in love?

For Sept. 1, 2013: Proper 17, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 2:4-13

The prophet Jeremiah was active in the sixth century AD, in the decades before and during the occupation of Jerusalem. From him we get the English eponym “jeremiad”, referring to a scorchingly critical denunciation. Today’s reading is a classic example: Jeremiah relates the words of the Lord as prosecuting attorney, building a case point by point against the people of Israel for ingratitude, sin, and chasing after other gods.

The Response            Psalm 81:1, 10-16

“Oh, that my people would listen to me! that Israel would walk in my ways!”

The Epistle            Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

The letter to the Hebrews was written to guide people who sought to live as followers of Christ in a world that did not make that easy. Our series of readings from Hebrews concludes today with excerpts from the last chapter. The advice it gave in those days remains valid in ours.

The Gospel            Luke 14:1, 7-14

“‘When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.’”

 

Further thoughts

The phrase “Know your place” has been brought into play throughout human history to remind the poor and dispossessed that it is their duty to bow to and support the rich and powerful; sometimes it is used to advise the all concerned that wealth and power and their absence correlate directly with God’s esteem. Today’s readings, however, take a much more radical perspective.

Through Jeremiah the prophet and through the psalmist, the God of Jacob excoriates Jacob’s powerful descendants, the priests and kings, for forgetting what their place had been: helpless slaves in Egypt that God nevertheless saw fit to redeem, and then leaders whose lives and actions and regard for strangers and orphans should set the best possible example for God’s people to follow. The rulers, priests, and prophets have abandoned their proper places: God will judge, and consequences will follow.

The reading from Hebrews reminds early followers of Christ of their place: in the world in love, tending the needs and wounds of strangers and those in trouble and doing their best with God’s help not to inflict wounds on those in their families. In a world in which strangers might be enemies and hierarchy extends to the family, this counsel seems to ignore both prudence and social norms—but it is the place of love.

In Jesus’ parable, the wedding guests seek the places they think they deserve at the banquet, and they risk getting it wrong. I think the parable and the following comment call us truly to see those around us, recalling that another’s worth in God’s eyes is not a reflection of net worth. We might also reflect that those who cannot repay us in the world’s terms nevertheless honor us by their presence and by the God-given grace to receive with thanks and without resentment or shame.

For Aug. 25, 2013: Proper 16, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 1:4-10

This week we begin reading from the book of Jeremiah, who prophesied in the seventh century before Christ. Unlike Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, who came to prophecy from other lines of work, Jeremiah started prophesying as a young man. In today’s reading, the Lord calls Jeremiah. His immediate response echoes ours, far too often: “Who, me? I can’t do that!”

The Response            Psalm 71:1-6

“You are my hope, O Lord GOD, my confidence since I was young. I have been sustained by you ever since I was born.”

The Epistle            Hebrews 12:18-29

Today’s reading from the book of Hebrews contrasts the experiences of God’s people on Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. Where Moses’ mountain was too holy for mere mortals, the city of God welcomes all who respond to God’s call through the sacrifice of Jesus.

The Gospel            Luke 13:10-17

“‘Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham…, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?’”

 

Further thoughts

As Jeremiah tells it, one day YHWH tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Son, go talk truth to power on Our behalf.” Jeremiah retorted, “Who, me? I’m just a kid.” His excuse might even have been literally true, but it is as likely that Jeremiah was old enough to foresee how much trouble this call would be: spending decades showing kings the hot water they were in with YHWH and being showered liberally with hot water in return.

The reading from Hebrews contrasts calls to two holy mountains. Mount Sinai, off in the wilderness, sounds like Mount Saint Helens in mid-eruption; Moses alone was called there to encounter the living YHWH on behalf of the Israelites, and even he trembled and did not presume to live there. Mount Zion, in contrast, is in—or is—the City of God, where angels and saints dwell and rejoice; reverence and awe are still in order, but, thanks to Jesus, the invitation is open to all. Though God’s mercy bends a longer arc through time and space even than God’s justice does, and God’s house is where our hearts find rest, the call can be hard to respond to: Am I really invited as I am, even if everyone else is better? Are the others really invited as they are, even if they don’t seem good enough? Aren’t there rules and rituals and standards to uphold?

In the gospels, Jesus consistently bends rules; he hangs out with riffraff and challenges authority, and in today’s reading he offends a leader by healing a woman on the sabbath. It is easy to condemn the leader for hardheartedness, but he’s only doing what most of us do: turning good expedients into ironclad prescriptions in a valiant but doomed attempt to insulate ourselves from screwing up and having to think too much. As Jesus reminds us elsewhere, though, all the law and the prophets hang on two principles:

1. Love God wholeheartedly.

2. Love everyone else as we should love ourselves.

Following these principles will not insulate us from screwing up any more than YHWH’s protection insulated Jeremiah from hot water—but as we unbind others’ hearts in love, we also unbind our own.