Archive for the 'Year B' Category

For Feb. 22, 2015: 1 Lent, Year B

The Reading                                                                    Genesis 9:8-17

Genesis 9:8-17 finishes the account of the great Flood. Here is God’s promise never again to destroy the world by flood; the sign of this is the rainbow. On this first Sunday of Lent, it is good to consider how our sinfulness grieves God, how great God’s mercy is—and how we children of God are also called to mercy.

The Response                                                                 Psalm 25:1-9

Psalm 25:1-9 resonates for the first day of Lent and the commemoration of two great teachers of the Episcopal Church. The psalmist declares trust in the Lord and praises the Lord’s graciousness, faithfulness, and teaching—and yet, like so many of us, the psalmist cannot help begging not to be humiliated or put to shame.

The Epistle                                                                      1 Peter 3:18-22

The issue of shame that was raised in Psalm 25 is dealt with in the first letter of Peter, written by a Roman church elder in Peter’s name, who explicitly links the great Flood of Genesis and baptism. Through baptism God moves to drown our bad conscience and with it our stubborn, self-humiliated resistance to God’s unfailing mercy.

The Gospel                                                                       Mark 1:9-15

In Mark 1:9-15 we revisit Jesus’ baptism. The reading for 1 Epiphany ended with the voice from heaven in verse 11; today’s reading goes on to describe the dove-like Spirit turning into a hawk and harrying Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted or tested. Only after those forty days does Jesus begin his public ministry.

 

Further thoughts

Outside my window, the sky is grey—an encouraging color as parched Southern California faces yet another year of drought. Most of us can still simply turn on a faucet and expect water that’s safe and mostly clear, depending on how many particulates are contributed by the Colorado River. For some in California, however, this necessity is a luxury: the farmworker households of Alpaugh in the San Joaquin Valley, whose estimated median household income is less than $20,000,[1] must spend an average of $1500 per year on bottled water because the booming almond industry[2] sucks up so much groundwater that the town’s last functioning well is bringing up water tainted with arsenic. Ironically, when Alpaugh was founded in the 19th century, it was an island in wetlands that extended from Mendota in the north to as far south (though not as far east) as Bakersfield[3] and included Tulare Lake, the biggest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi until the rivers that supplied it were dammed and diverted around the beginning of the 20th century.

Water infuses three of the four lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Lent 2015 as life-giver but also life-taker. Even when water makes an end, however, as the reading from Genesis reminds us, water is not the end, but rather a means. As we close Black History Month 2015 by celebrating the lives of educators Anna Haywood Cooper and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, it is good to remember the role of water in helping slaves escape to freedom. The spiritual “Wade in the Water” speaks of groups freed by passing through water and alludes to the healing at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:4, KJV); it was also a code instructing escapees to throw bounty hunters off their scent by taking to the rivers.[4] We are baptized once for all, of course, but visualizing God’s mercy as a flow we follow to freedom and our fullest selves can perhaps help us remember to be conduits of that mercy to the many in this dry world who still so desperately thirst.

 

[1] “Alpaugh, California,” City-Data.com, no date. Web, http://www.city-data.com/city/Alpaugh-California.html#b. Accessed 20 February 2015.

[2] Philpott, Tom. “California Goes Nuts,” Mother Jones, 12 January 2015, Web, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/01/california-drought-almonds-water-use. Accessed 20 February 2015.

[3] “Hydrology of the Tulare Basin,” Tulare Basin Wildlife Partners, 2013. Web, http://www.tularebasinwildlifepartners.org/history.html. Accessed 20 February 2015.

[4] “Revised Common Lectionary: Wade in The Water,” RevGalBlogPals, 17 February 2015. Web. http://revgalblogpals.org/2015/02/17/revised-common-lectionary-wade-in-the-water/. Accessed 20 February 2015. A glorious rendition of “Wade in the Water” by the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRpzEnq14Hs.

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 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.