Reflections for Lent 4

Here is my reflection for the Urban Abbey, Thunder Bay, from yesterday’s lectionary readings. All passages quoted from the ESV.

Today’s reading from Numbers 21:4-9 tells the story of how, when the Israelites were disobedient and grumbling against God and Moses, serpents were sent amongst them as punishment. Moses made a bronze serpent and placed it on a pole. Whoever looked up and saw the serpent would live. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes an explicit parallel between the bronze serpent and himself, saying, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) Sometimes we imagine Jesus “lifted up” as a reference to his reigning in glory with the Father, as mentioned in today’s epistle reading, Ephesians 2:6, where St Paul says that God “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

But in John 3, Jesus is speaking of his own death on the cross. We must look to the cross to be saved, just as the Israelites looked to the serpent to be saved. The people of Israel, as the book of Numbers tells us, were dying—in fact, many of them had died by the time Moses made the bronze serpent. They were dying from their own disobedience. But God, in his boundless mercy, also provided them a way out. All they needed to do was trust in him and look to the bronze serpent.

As we read in today’s Ephesians reading, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” (Ephesians 2:1) But God did not leave us in our spiritual death. In his mercy, by his grace, he “made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). We simply need faith; that is to say, all we need to do is trust in God and look to the cross. As we read later in the Ephesians passage, it is faith, not works, that enables us to grasp hold of the famous, wonderful promise of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” No matter how morally upright we are, no matter how many “charitable deeds” we perform, no matter how righteously we spend our money, no matter how much we pray, none of this will be what saves us and places us in a right relationship with God. It entirely by God’s grace that we are saved.

Many today will essentially stop there. We are saved by grace through faith, as Ephesians 2:8 teaches us. By “saved”, we usually mean “justified”—that we are saved from the penalty of sin and that we are enabled to enter into a right relationship with God. This is a truth, and a beautiful truth, and worth meditating on. But I think St Paul has a bigger vision of salvation, and so does St John, let alone Jesus himself. In John 3, Jesus is teaching Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God and how we enter that kingdom through being born again, being born of the Spirit. We enter that kingdom by looking to Christ on the cross, high and lifted up, like that bronze snake in Exodus. And if we start thinking in terms of the Kingdom of God, we start to consider not simply what we are saved from, but what we are saved for.

God’s grace not only snatches us from the fire or, like the string on a tea bag, from the hot water we get ourselves into. It also brings us back to life and empowers us to do good works—St Paul follows his teaching on being saved by grace through faith by immediately saying, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) We are citizens of God’s Kingdom, and are meant to live accordingly. But we are not left alone to struggle in the quest for holiness; that would be mere moralism. No, we are given God’s grace to help us live this way. The saved life is the life that grows over time into greater holiness, living according to God’s kingdom, all empowered by God’s grace.

With God all things are possible, as Jesus teaches us in Matthew 19:26. By faith we take hold of the promises of God. His grace comes to us wherever we are, washes us in the blood of Jesus, brings us into a relationship with God (which is how Jesus describes eternal life in John 17:3: knowing God the Holy Trinity). The pathway of Christian discipleship is not looking to the cross and then doing as we please. It is not living morally on our own strength. It is looking the cross and keeping it ever before us—lifted up—and trusting in the power of God to work within us so that we can do those good works that God has already prepared for us.

There is, really, one truly appropriate response to this, and it is to praise God! As our Psalm for today says, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever!” (Psalm 107:1) Allow me to close this reflection with some words from St Patrick, the fifth-century missionary to Ireland whose feast we celebrate this coming Wednesday. St Patrick was relatively uneducated and went from slave to missionary by the grace of God, bringing many of the Irish to faith in Jesus Christ, which was the good work God had prepared for him (as Patrick himself says). In his Confession, we read:

I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall (Psalm 69:15). That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure.

The Power of the Cross

This is a meditation on 1 Corinthians 1:18-19 I put together for my church this past Sunday, following the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary.

My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence

In today’s readings, St Paul says that “Christ crucified,” is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18-19) Think on that—Christ crucified, suffering, sighing, bleeding, dying, is the power of God and the wisdom of God. If we imagine one of those early Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion (see left!), there we see blood pouring out of Christ, running down his limbs and his cross, his own self hanging limp and weak and powerless. This, the power of God? Indeed, a stumbling block and foolishness!

Christians throughout the ages, however, have found that Christ on the cross with the blood he shed is powerful. Some of the great women of faith show us this (it is Women’s History Month, after all!). Around 1100, St Hildegard of Bingen wrote:

he shed his beautiful blood and tasted in his body the darkness of death. By this means he overcame the devil, led forth his elect from hell in which they had been thrown down and confined, and brought them back, through his mercy and the touch of his redemption

Scivias Part 2, Vision 1.13

In the fourteenth century Julian of Norwich, as she lay sick almost to the point of death, had a vision of Christ on the Cross:

There were times when I wanted to look away from the cross, but I dared not. For I knew that while I gazed on the cross I was safe and sound, and I was not going to imperil my soul. Apart from the cross there was no assurance against the horror of fiends.

Revelations of Divine Love 19

The fourteenth-century Italian mystic St Catherine of Siena wrote, in the voice God the Father in her Dialogue:

But such is the freedom of your humanity, and so strong have you been made by the power of this glorious blood, that neither the devil nor any other creature can force you to the least sin unless you want it. You were freed from slavery so that you might be in control of your own powers and reach the end you were created for.

Dialogue 14

The great proclamation of the Apostles is the lived experience of Christians in the ages: Christ’s death is our gain, and here he shows us God’s power, to save us from sin, the flesh, the devil. When the ancient Christians beheld this mystery, that the immortal dies, that God himself loved us so much that he became one of us in order to die—here is where they saw the true glory of Christ as the eternal God, begotten of the Father before all ages. It is the Cross that is the seal and proof of the divinity of Jesus the Messiah, and it is here that all Christian theology finds its beginning.

The God we worship is not an aloof, distant, unreachable deity. He took on our flesh. He died because he loves us. And he comes to us daily, whether mystically at prayer or in our brothers and sisters. This is the message of the Cross. God loves us; he does not want us be slaves to our sins, our own selves, our own deaths. So he died to save us, taking upon himself all the sin of the world, and then, because he was both the immortal God and a sinless, perfect human, trampling down death by death and rising again. The Cross is the anchor in the storms of life this Lent. Grab it. Hold on. The God who loved us enough to die will get us through.

A thought from St Teresa of Avila in the 1500s to close:

it is good to reflect for a while and think of the pains He suffered, and of why He suffered them, and of who it was that suffered them, and of the love with which He suffered them.

The Life of St Teresa, ch. 13

Let’s do that now for a moment.

Epiphany: Lectionaries Keep Christ at the Heart of the Feast

Adoration of the Magi, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. Normally we say, “This is when the Wise Men visited Jesus and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” And we’re not wrong in that.

But why is it called Epiphany?

Simply put — it is the revelation of YHWH to the Gentiles, represented by the Wise Men. It is the proclamation of the glorious God to the nations, found in the person of Jesus, the God Word Incarnate.

I’ve been mulling over lectionaries and Bible readings lately. One friend was encouraging people not to do a typical “Read the Bible in a year” plan but to use the daily lectionary from the Revised Common Lectionary because it puts the Scriptures together in Christological, Christocentric perspective. I have a built-in skepticism about the Revised Common Lectionary, so I started evaluating other options, looking for something pre-modern. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with my friend Andrew (a mediaeval manuscript guy who is a theologically conservative Anglo-Catholic pondering Eastern Orthodoxy [you can see why we get along]), I learned from him that the Canadian BCP 1962 lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer is basically medieval.

Anyway, although this exchange also resulted in him sending me a 343-page Mass lectionary based on BCP-Sarum, I am going with BCP 1962, in large part because of the wonderful new Common Prayer Canada app from the Prayer Book Society! And its Scripture readings are doing just what my other, non-Anglican friend was lauding RCL for doing: Christological, Christocentric Scriptures.

Epiphany has been really exciting as a result — Psalms and Prophets proclaiming the recognition of YHWH by the nations, his revelation unto them, and Israel to be a light to lighten the Gentiles. You read this, and then you read …

not the three Wise Men.

This morning, the Second Lesson at Morning Prayer was the Baptism of Christ from Luke 3. And how does this end? “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.” The revelation of Christ as God the Son!

The Eastern Churches use a different Greek word for today: Theophany. Today is the Holy Theophany of our Lord Jesus, and it explicitly includes the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan.

Baptism of Christ, Arian Baptistery, Ravenna

Some closing thoughts, then. First: Psalm 87 sees a day when Philistia and Tyre, Babylon and Ethiopia, will worship YHWH. Isaiah sees in multiple places the nations coming to worship the Lord, coming to his holy mountain. The nations, the gentes (hence gentiles), will see the glory of the Lord and recognise him. The wise men who met the child Jesus and bowed and worshipped him were the firstfruits of this crop. We are of the nations as well. What was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures is being fulfilled here and now as the glory of the Lord is made known to the ends of the earth because of the ongoing life of Christ, himself the Lord, in his mystical body, the church.

Second: Babylon is gone. The ancient kingdom of Israel is gone. The Persian Empire is gone. The Roman Empire is gone. Some day, the Dominion of Canada, the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will all pass away. “Earth’s proud empires pass away,” as the hymn puts it.

But the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the Heavens, revealed and made manifest in Christ at his holy Theophany — this kingdom will never fade. Let us hold to this hope and this citizenship above all.

Hail, Mary!

Annunciation by Antoniazzo da Romano, in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

This past Sunday, the Gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary was the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) from St Gabriel that she would bear a Son. There is a lot one could say, and many of you no doubt heard much of it said from pulpits two days’ past!

My friend Rick recently posted about this passage, calling it the Gospel according to St Gabriel, showing how the message borne by the angel to the Mother of God is itself the Good News. One of the points made is that Gabriel’s greeting, Chaire! (I don’t have a Greek keyboard installed on this computer) should be “Rejoice!” rather than “Greetings!” as it is in most English Bibles.

Now, Chaire is the perfectly normal way of saying, “Hello!” in ancient Greek. So, if we leave this passage alone, on purely linguistic grounds, there’s no reason to switch from, “Greetings!” to “Rejoice!” Indeed, “Ave, Maria!” means, “Greetings, Mary!”

But it was pointed out, however, that Zephaniah 3:14-15 begins “Rejoice!” — “Rejoice, O daughter of Jerusalem! The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst!” This intertext in its Greek translation begins, indeed, with chaire!

If I had a concordance to the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint, or LXX), I would search for other messianic prophecies that use chaire. But this is good enough, I think.

The point is that Gabriel is being intertextual. He is using the normal word for hello and then giving a prophetic utterance that itself ties into an Old Testament prophecy that uses that same word for hello to mean rejoice. The Annunciation, then, is a moment pregnant with meaning.

I hope we can all take a moment, then, for lectio divina and ponder anew the Gospel according to St Gabriel, wondering to ourselves what sort of greeting this is.

Advent 2, Sarum: More stirring up!

St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome
St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome (9th-c)

The Collect for Advent 2 according the Use of Sarum, like that for Advent 1 and the Sunday Next Before Advent (as discussed a week ago), is also a ‘Stir up’ collect:

Stir up, O Lord, our hearts to prepare the way of Thy Only Begotten: that by His coming we may be counted worthy to serve Thee with purified hearts. Who livest …

And, like a week ago, there is emphasis on God counting us worthy. I won’t repeat my mullings on that count here. Instead, two other thoughts.

First, in contemporary Christianity, Advent 2 is the week of St John the Baptist, as I happily proclaimed on Sunday. In the Revised Common Lectionary, we read from Luke 3, with the Baptist proclaiming, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord!’ In the Roman lectionary, they read from Matthew 11, where Jesus asks the crowd what they went to see when they went to John the Baptist — a reed shaken in the wind?

As it turns out, neither of these passages is the one in the Sarum Missal — instead, we find there Jesus’ apocalyptic proclamations of Luke 21.

Second, I like the emphasis on ‘purified hearts’. Advent was originally a solemn time of preparation, similar to Lent, if not quite as hard-core. Indeed, the Orthodox think of it as Lent (whereas what we call ‘Lent’ they call ‘Great Lent’). This union of purification and preparation is why both seasons traditionally have the same liturgical colour.

As St Paul says in Romans, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Yet God calls us, broken though we are, to serve Him. Let us strive to do so with purified hearts, let us beseech the Lord to purify us.

Common Prayer — the power of ‘normal’ liturgy

Sherborne Missal, 15th-c British liturgical book
Sherborne Missal, 15th-c British liturgical book

I thought about making the title refer to ‘typical Anglican’ liturgy or the ‘appeal’ rather than the ‘power’, but power runs deeper than appeal, and common prayer runs wider than Anglicans.

Last week I blogged about my experience at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Paris, France and how much I liked it. There were two facets to the service that really appealed to me — orthodoxy and something at the time that was less tangible but which Bosco Peters pointed out as common prayer. I believe that the latter bolsters the former, which is part of its power.

‘Normal’ eucharistic liturgy in a western tradition, whether Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Lutheran, will follow a particular structure which will have many elements in common with the Divine Liturgies of the Orthodox Churches.

This right here is part of the power of a ‘normal’ liturgy. It is so normal that it is … common. Common prayer, following a structure with certain elements across Christian traditions and throughout space and time. If you go to a liturgical church, chances are that each Sunday you are engaging in ritual actions in your worship of God that are connected with fellow believers in almost every country of the world in a vast array of languages — and they aren’t even all of your denomination!

That’s a comforting thought. The liturgy brings us together. Assuredly, if you set foot in some churches, their liturgy may seem strange, and the ‘common’ elements harder to spot, but they are there. And possibly more of them than you think. Through a ‘normal’ liturgy, the unity of Christ’s Body is demonstrated in a way that transcends the barriers raised in the 500s, 1000s, 1500s, 1700s, last year.

Among these common elements, I want to pick out just a few: God’s word written, confession, the ‘sursum corda‘, and hymns.

God’s word written is an inescapable element of common prayer. I grew up at a church with an Old Testament lesson, a New Testament lesson, a Psalm, and a Gospel reading. This is the typical breadth of an Anglican service when it comes to the Bible. The Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, so it is sensible that a significant portion of our worship be spent in giving attention to it.

Furthermore, for most of Christian history the bulk of the congregation would have been illiterate, so the public reading of the Bible was the primary way ‘ordinary’ Christians would meet the written revelation of God. The Bible is central to the liturgy.

Part of this is found in the use of a lectionary to provide the readings. Most mainline churches and Roman Catholics use the Revised Common Lectionary, providing a three-year cycle of readings to give us passages of Scripture tied to the Church year and keeping our attention on Jesus and the Gospel all year through. Some Anglican dioceses still use older Prayer Book lectionaries, and the Orthodox communions use their own lectionaries keyed to their church year.

Such lectionaries have several benefits: they force preachers to preach on things they would not normally choose; they keep a year-round, global focus on the full richness of Jesus’ life and ministry; they, like common prayer at large, bind churches together across time and space. Someone else somwhere else somewhen else has read this selection of Scriptures at Eucharist as well.

Besides these appointed readings, if you start paying attention to your liturgy, and not just the Communion, you’ll find that Scripture is everywhere. And biblical theology is interwoven into those places where the words themselves are lacking. The Bible is central to liturgical worship, not peripheral.

Confession is an important aspect of all Christian lives. Some of the 16th- and 17th-century so-called ‘Puritans’ in England (not all of whom were Calvinist) felt that there was no need for a prayer of confession before Communion — after all, the true Christian will repent the moment he/she is aware of sin, and therefore turn up on Sunday with a clear conscience. This argument presupposes that a. only ‘true’ Christians make it to the Eucharist (and the Church cannot actually police that, as St Augustine observed), and b. Christians are mindful of their sins throughout the week. It also imagines that indidivual prayer and confession are all that matters.

However, throughout the Bible we have examples of the nation of Israel being called to corporate confession. Furthermore, prayers of confession in the liturgy tend to cover a lot of bases — ‘what we have done and what we have left undone.’ Part of common prayer is to teach us corporately how to pray individually. Confessing our sins to God together is a way of reminding us that we are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory God and that we are unworthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under His table — and so, as we prepare for the feast, we lay bare our souls to God.

And if you think that your church has a strong emphasis on confession or that the Prayer Book goes too far, read any of the eastern liturgies, or go to the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts some Wednesday in Lent and touch your forehead to the ground and ask yourself what true repentance looks like.

The ‘sursum corda’. You know this bit:

The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up unto the Lord.
Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
It is indeed meet, right, and our bounden duty …

That was straight from memory, but I’m pretty sure that’s correct. I did hear it almost every Sunday for over 25 years of my life, after all. Here is where ‘normal’ liturgy begins to time travel. The power of this prayer lies not in the fact that Christians from Anglicans and Methodists to Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox pray it but that it transcends time as it transcends space.

This piece of the liturgy — ubiquitous until the Reformation — first appears in Hippolytus in the early 200s. From what I’ve read, everything in The Apostolic Tradition is, actually, traditional. Thus, it dates back to the second century at the latest. When we pray a ‘normal’ liturgy, we are praying with the earliest Christians who ever prayed.

Awesome.

And the eucharistic structure remains largely unchanged as well, while the preceding part of the service, ‘the liturgy of the Word’, has visible roots in synagogue worship. A ‘normal’ liturgy is normal for the second century as well as the twenty-first, if not the first.

Magnificent.

Hymns. Here we come to the least common element of all, you might think. What has an Anglo-Catholic choir singing music by Tallis to do with their low Anglican neighbours singing Matt Redman or the Byzantine chant from the Oktoechos down the street? What has John Wesley with the Methodists to do with John Michael Talbot with the Catholics? An organ vs a cappella? A rock band vs a four-part (40-part) choir?

Whatever our take on the musical aspect of hymnography, the hymns do, in fact, unite us. The hymns are a more changeable aspect of the liturgy. A typical Anglican church will have a minimum of three or four, some add more during Communion or at different points within the service. Yet each week, common prayer gives western churches (I admit to ignorance re the East here) the chance to be flexible to the worship and needs of their own situation — we choose our own hymns.

Yet even in this difference, we are united in the praise of Almighty God, whose worship transcends all liturgy, all hymns, all confessions, Scripture itself. This is what matters when we meet together to pray to and praise the Most Holy Trinity, and I believe that there is deep power in a ‘normal’ liturgy, in common prayer united across space and time, through the ages and around the world, to do just that.

*whew*

Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Pt. 2

Books, including PsalmsI believe that classical exegesis gives us the tools for unlocking even the most unfortunate parts of Scripture.  Thus, we look upon the aforementioned verse, Psalm 71:13:

Let them be confounded and perish that are against my soul; let them be covered with shame and dishonour that seek to do me evil.

Then we scratch our heads and pray, thinking about what sort of spiritual meaning could lie there.  And then John Cassian says:

When we read or sing all these things [of violence and hatred in the Psalms], therefore, and others like them that have been included in the Sacred Books, if we do not take them as having been written against those evil spirits that lie in wait for us day and night we shall not only not derive from them any increase of gentleness and patience but we shall even conceive a kind of cruel feeling that is contrary to gospel perfection.  For we shall not only be taught not to pray for our enemies and not to love them, but we shall even be incited to detest them with an implacable hatred, to curse them, and unceasingly to pour out prayer against them.  (Conf. 7.21.7-8, trans. Ramsey)

Who are against your soul?  Who seek to do you evil?  Evil spirits.  Demons.  The Psalm in the Christian’s hands becomes a tool of spiritual warfare to combat the forces of darkness.

Let us now, therefore, consider the most famous of the violent Psalms, Ps. 137.  The Psalm closes with the following:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock! (NRSV)

Typically, the Revised Common Lectionary avoids these passages, and if we consider how most of us read the Bible most of the time, I can understand it.  However, if we look to the ancients, such as John Cassian or C.S. Lewis, we find new ways of looking at the above verses:

It behooves us as well to destroy the sinners in our bed — namely, our fleshly feelings — on the morning of their birth, as they emerge, and, while they are still young, to dash the children of Babylon against the rock.  Unless they are killed at a very tender age they will, with our acquiescence, rise up to our harm as stronger adults, and they will certainly not be overcome without great pain and effort. (John Cassian, The Institutes 6.13.2, trans. Ramsey)

And C.S. Lewis:

I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them we feel we are being cruel to animals.  They begin whispering to us, “I don’t ask much, but”, or “I had at least hoped”, or “you owe yourself some consideration”.  Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is the best: knock the little bastards’ brains out.  And “blessed” he who can, for it’s easier said than done. (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 383-384, in Selected Books)

And there you have it, the spiritual interpretation of the difficult Psalms at work.