Posts Tagged 'repentance'

For Feb. 18, 2015: Ash Wednesday

The Reading                                                 Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

In the year 400 BC, hard times have come upon Judah: locusts have ravaged the crops. The prophet Joel sees this calamity as a sign that the Day of the Lord’s judgment is right now. Joel calls for repentance—not just by individuals, but by the people gathered together, that the Lord may bless all the people.

The Response                                              Psalm 103:8-14

Joel pointed out the Lord’s judgment against the Lord’s people and called them into solemn assembly to repent. Psalm 103 follows up on Joel’s promise of the Lord’s mercy and readiness to remove our sins from us.

The Epistle                                                   2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Like Joel in today’s first reading, the apostle Paul is convinced that the day of the Lord is right now. For Paul, however, the day of the Lord is a day of salvation—and a day in which those who love God serve gladly in every way possible as the ambassadors of God’s great love to the whole world.

The Gospel                                                   Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Joel advised the people to tear not their clothes but their hearts: torn clothing without repentance is no better than a costume. Jesus makes a related point: public piety and almsgiving run the risk of being theater rather than theology, if the praying and giving fail to flow from and lead back to love of God and of God’s children.

 

Further thoughts

Using ashes as a sign of penitence goes back to the Old Testament. The tradition of Ash Wednesday for all seems to originate in the seventh century. In a homily composed more than a millennium ago in what the scholars call “rhythmic prose”—prose that has some of the steady beat and alliteration of Old English poetry—the great English cleric Ælfric of Eynsham explains:

On þone wodnes dæg wide geond eorðan
sacerdas bletsiað swa swa hit geset ís
clæne axan on cyrcan and þa siððan lecgað
uppa manna hæfda þæt hi habban on gemynde
þæt hi of eorðan comon and eft to duste gewendað
swa swa se ælmihtiga god to adame cwæð
siððan he agylt hæfde ongean godes bebod:
“On geswincum þu leofast and on swate þu etst
þinne hlaf on eorðan oðþæt þu eft gewende
to þære ylcan eorðan þe þu of come
forðan þe þu eart dust and to duste gewendst.”
Nis þis na gesæd be manna sawlum
ac be manna lichaman þe for-molsniað to duste
and eft sceolan on domes dæg ðurh ures drihtnes mihte
ealle of eorðan arísan þe æfre cuce wæron
swa swa ealle treowa cuciað æfre on lenctenes timan
þe ær þurh wyntres cyle wurdon adydde.

Here is a translation that conveys, a little, both the sense of Ælfric’s words and the rhythm.

On that Wednesday, widely around Earth,
clergy bless, just as is commanded,
clean ashes in church and those then lay
on the heads of mankind, that they may have in mind
that from earth they come and after to dust they go,
just as Almighty God to Adam said
after he had gone against God’s bidding:
‘In struggle you live and by sweat you eat
your bread on earth until you after go
to the selfsame earth that you came out of,
because you are dust and to dust you go.’
Nor is this said of people’s souls
but of people’s bodies that decay unto dust
and after shall at Doomsday through the might of our Lord
all arise out of earth that ever were living.

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?