The category of catechumens has long been abandoned, and nowadays public confession and penitence is almost unknown. Almost nothing is required of anyone who wants to attend church in Holy Week and at Easter. Yet, while this open and inclusive spirit has its strengths, and ‘holier-then-thou’ judgmentalism is to be avoided, we have lost something that previous ages found to be important – namely, the spiritual and therapeutic value of real discipline in Lent.
The readings for Ash Wednesday point us clearly in the right direction, while at the same time indicating the spiritual obstacles that lie in our way. Through the prophet Joel, God pleads, "Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning". But he immediately adds a warning: we should not confuse outward show with inward spirit --"Rend your hearts and not your clothing". Isaiah issues the same warning, even more firmly "Such fasting as you do today" he tells the Israelites, "will not make your voice heard on high". Why not? Because it is self-serving and unaccompanied by the real repentance that reveals willingness to change the way they run their lives.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus expresses this same concern. He denounces the showy penitence of the righteous who seek to impress those who witness their zeal. In the light of this passage, which is always used on Ash Wednesday, the ancient, and now very widespread practice of the Imposition of Ashes seems a little odd. Does it not conflict with Jesus' explicit instruction to "wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others"? Imposition in the Christian tradition, however, is not a sign of fasting. Rather, it is a tangible and visible acknowledgment of the truth that lies at the heart of all religion -- our mortality. "Remember that you are dust, and unto to dust you shall return" is the solemn sentence that is uttered as ashes are imposed in the shape of a cross.
We cannot put off dying, but we can put it out of mind. Yet it is a simple fact that there will come a day when we no longer exist. At that point, the story of our lives -- whether good, bad or trivial - is finalized for ever. The problem of our mortality is that we do not know exactly when that day will be. This is why the readings for Ash Wednesday include the memorable urgency of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!". And so it is for us too. The sole hope of immortality is eternal life in God through Christ. Lent is an opportunity to prepare our hearts and minds to accept this.
Depending upon the date of Easter, the season of Epiphany can vary in length. But regardless of length, in the Revised Common Lectionary, the final Sunday in Epiphany always has the ‘Transfiguration’ as its theme. This year the Gospel reading comes from Matthew; in the other two years of the cycle it comes from Mark and Luke. But there is an unusual degree of unity in all three accounts. Indeed, the Transfiguration is one of very few episodes in the life of Christ that gets substantial confirmation across different Gospels. In all three, a key connection is forged between Jesus and two highly venerated prophetic figures – Moses and Elijah. It is the connection with Moses that this year's Old Testament lesson picks up, recounting from Exodus the episode in which Moses is given the tablets of law.
It is this prophetic connection that gives the event its special significance. ‘Teachers of the Law’ were a common sight in Palestine, and they all attracted followers. But now, for the first time perhaps, the disciples understand that Jesus is different. He is to be placed in the company of the very greatest of prophets. This is powerfully confirmed by a second feature that all three accounts share -- the reference to dazzling light. Such light is the sign that the revelation given to them is of divine origin. On the top of Mount Sinai, Moses alone experiences the fire-like glory of God, and when he descends with the Ten Commandments, the resulting light that shines from his face is unbearable to those who witness it. For Peter, James and John, though, the dazzling light transfigures Jesus in their eyes.
One point on which the Gospel accounts differ slightly is worth noting. Luke tells us that the disciples resolved not to tell anyone about what happened on the mountain top. Matthew, even more emphatically than Mark, is clear that Jesus ordered them to keep silent. “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” From this we may infer that ‘transfiguration’ in the eyes of his followers is not key to his mission. Rather, it is a preparation for what really matters – the transformation of death to life in the Resurrection. The passage from the second Epistle of Peter puts the point effectively. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Holding on to this thought gives the approaching season of Lent a special coherence. We should be attentive to the little lights of fasting, learning and giving so that we are prepared to apprehend the Resurrection light.
In this week’s Epistle, St Paul tells the new Christians at Corinth that, when he first preached to them, he had to treat them “as infants in Christ.” “I fed you with milk” he says, “not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.”
It is easy to imagine some of them bridling at this remark, just as a modern congregation might take serious offense if a priest or preacher spoke to them in this way. ‘Who are you to assume such a superior tone?’ would be a natural reaction. Contemporary churchgoers tend to be very egalitarian. They think that everyone's experience of faith is equally 'valid', and individuals need no special qualifications to be Christians.
Yet, the passage from Matthew’s Gospel reads like exceptionally solid food – very hard to swallow, or even comprehend, on a first hearing. To understand these verses, we must first make allowance for the extreme Middle Eastern hyperbole that sometimes Jesus’ sometimes employs. He is not literally requiring his disciples to undergo bodily mutation. Still, the hyperbole is there for a purpose. Discounting it too quickly runs the risk of minimising the challenge with which we are presented. Jesus means what he says. But what exactly is he saying?
In addressing the Corinthians, Paul assumes that there is such a thing as spiritual and moral development. Christian discipleship is not a once and for all response. In the Gospel, Jesus is using powerful rhetoric to confront us with the highest ideal on which discipleship should set its sights. In the Old Testament lesson, Moses tells the Israelites “obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by . . . observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances”. We need not doubt that the commandments against murder, adultery, swearing falsely are all to be obeyed, while at the same time acknowledging that simply observing the rules is not enough for those whose minds are set on the things of the spirit. God is a spirit. Those who worship God must worship God in spirit, and the human spirit involves a perpetual struggle of thought and imagination, as well as obedience.
There is a very important lesson to be learned here. In our spiritual and moral lives, striving for excellence is no less important than it is in professional life, in sport or in music. Religious mistakes are possible and one of those mistakes is moral complacency. Kind-heartedness, good intentions and everyday decency are all part of what it means to be a Christian. It is tempting, however, to rest content with these, and make morality of this kind the heart of the Gospel. Jesus’ seemingly excessive demands run counter to this tendency. They point us to a far higher ideal. We cannot expect, and are not expected, to realize them literally, but we are challenged to strive for the sort of excellence that will bring our hearts and souls closer to the reality of God. As we approach Lent, this reminder takes on special relevance. No one can be argued into faith, but for those who believe, serious study and sustained reflection open up the possibility of greater spiritual wisdom.
How are we to understand this? The passage from Isaiah suggests one solution. It ridicules “bowing down the head like a bulrush” and “lying in sackcloth and ashes”, and instead praises “sharing your bread with the hungry”, and “bringing the homeless poor into your house”. ‘”Is not this the fast that I choose”, God declares, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
This ethical version of ‘righteousness’ sounds far more attractive to the modern mind than either the ritual observances of the Jews, or the austere devotional practices of the Desert Fathers and the Celtic hermits. And yet, we know in our hearts that most of us are no more likely to make the kind of sacrifices that this high ethical ideal requires, than we are to build shrines among desert rocks, or stand praying for an hour in icy water. The greatest possible effort will not enable us to exceed this alternative standard of righteousness, any more than it will the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. The Gospel passage, in other words, still reads unhappily like a council of despair.
Fortunately, we can turn to the help and insight of the Apostle Paul. In this week’s extract from his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul openly acknowledges his deep “weakness and fear”. This is the essential first step to putting his faith in Jesus Christ, and so believing that Christ’s perfection can overcome Paul’s own imperfection. We should not think of this as calling on Jesus to get us off the moral hook, however. Rather, the Gospel passage still assigns us a vital role in the economy of salvation – not to be perfect, but to be signposts to the perfect, as ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’. In reality our lives as Christians will never be models of rectitude. But they can still ‘give light to all in the house’ if they tellingly reflect what Paul calls ‘the mind of Christ’. Accepting the truth about our frailty should make us honest and humble, enabling us to turn our eyes and those of others to the real fount of righteousness – ‘Our Father in heaven’ whose name alone is ‘hallowed’.
Traditionally called ‘Candlemas’, the feast of the Presentation has several meanings. The lectionary readings are the same each year, and identify Jesus with ‘the Lord whom you seek’, the one whose unexpected appearance ‘in the temple’ is predicted by the prophet Malachi. The appointed Psalm, appropriately, extols the beauty and wonder of God’s ‘dwelling place’ and the joy of being there. The association with candles, carried in procession, comes from the fact that a central part of the Biblical episode recorded in the Gospel for the day is the aged Simeon's 'Nunc Dimittis' in which he expresses the remarkable insight that the baby he holds in his arms is 'a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of God's people Israel'.
Candlemas comes forty days after the nativity, and has long been regarded as the very last feast of the Christmas season. This is not just because it records a Jewish birth rite, but because Simeon's words summarize so memorably the truth of the Incarnation, and thus give candles special meaning. The traditional observance of Candlemas emphasizes this by including a prayer of blessing for the candles that will be used throughout the coming year, at home as well as in church.
God our Father,
Source of all light,
this day you revealed to Simeon the light of your revelation to the nations.
+Bless these candles and make them holy.
May we who carry them praise your glory, walk in the path of goodness and come to the light that shines forever.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.
It is with this alternative context in mind that Matthew introduces Andrew and Peter. But there is a further subtle and important difference. In John’s version, Andrew and Peter take the initiative in seeking Jesus out. In Matthew’s version, it is Jesus who encounters them fishing and calls them , as he does James and John. What is more, he calls them to leave not only the work they are engaged in, but everything that they have. Their response is usually held up as exemplary: 'Immediately they left their nets and followed him'. But what are we think about Zebedee who is left sitting in the boat? Has he no claim on the sons he has raised, and on whose labour he will depend in old age?
Matthew’s version of the call to the disciples is echoed in many other Gospel episodes. Following Jesus is repeatedly represented as being all consuming, even to the point of abandoning family responsibilities. Doesn’t this mean that true Christian discipleship is ruled out for ordinary people? How could we answer such a call, given our love for parents and children, our belief in the value of what we do, and our obligations to the wider community to which we belong?
Elsewhere, however, when confronted with questions like these, Jesus acknowledges that for many people wholesale commitment of an exclusive kind is not possible, and promises that God can work with less than this. It is enough to respond to his call with simple penitence, and then seek more and more ways in which we can put Christ first in the course of ordinary life. A key step is relinquishing the hold of rival claimants to our most fundamental allegiance. The Epistle for this Sunday illustrates just how easy it is to fall into alternative loyalties. The loyalties for which St Paul chastises the Corinthian Christians are early examples of sectarian divisions that all claim the name of Christian. But there are other less obvious rivals for Christ’s headship – nation, profession, ethnic group, sports team and so on. If few of us can respond as immediately as the twelve disciples did, we can at least resolve to take more steps in their direction. What matters, is where the heart is. This week's Psalm expresses the ideal towards which all true disciples strive: ‘One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life’.
In Year A of the Lectionary, which is this year, the readings for the first three Sundays in Epiphany give special attention to the important connection between Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Jesus. In this way, these weeks build a bridge between the Old and New Testaments.
The passage from Isaiah for Epiphany II sets out a much larger divine plan than any that the previous prophets had proclaimed. They had addressed a corrupt and wayward Israel, urging a return to its God-given mission. But God tells Isaiah, “it is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations”. God’s call, in other words, is no longer to be confined to the Children of Israel. Isaiah has a far more significant task – to ensure that the message of God’s salvation “may reach to the end of the earth."
Ultimately, this task is to be accomplished by a messiah. In the Gospel reading, John the Evangelist conveys the spiritual intensity that enables John the Baptist to perceive the messiahship of Jesus long before others manage to do so. “I did not know him”, he tells us, “but I came baptizing with water . . . that he might be revealed to Israel”. Consequently, when John sees Jesus coming towards him, he declares “Here is the Lamb of God”.
The expression 'Lamb of God' is now so well-worn, it is easy to miss the religious implications of this extraordinary metaphor. It forges a connection between past, present and future, and does so by means of two powerful resonances that were deeply engrained in the consciousness of the Jews. The first is the memory of the Passover Lamb, the sprinkling of whose blood on the doorposts played a key part in the Israelites' liberation from slavery. The second is the Suffering Servant of the book of Isaiah, who is led ‘like a Lamb to the slaughter’. Thus, by means of this single image, John connects Jesus with the Israel’s hopes and history.
This Gospel passage, however, takes the bridge building a step further. Among the first to hear John’s metaphor are Andrew and Simon. It is given to the otherwise undistinguished Andrew to grasp the truth, and tell his subsequently much more distinguished brother “We have seen the Messiah” – the “Anointed” for whom, as devout Jews, they have been taught to yearn since infancy. Together they take the first hesitant steps on a new spiritual quest. It is a quest that will bring them initially to the disillusionment of Passiontide. But thereafter, they witness the transformation of Easter that in the end equips them both for martyrdom.
The Gospel for this year is Matthew. The four Gospels record the baptism slightly differently, but they all lay special emphasis on three aspects. First, they affirm a theological link between John the Baptist and the preparatory, prophetic ‘voice’ that Isaiah describes as ‘crying in the wilderness’. Secondly, they all speak of the highly charismatic John as nonetheless secondary to Jesus. Thirdly, they make the baptismal event a “manifestation”, that is to say, one of those very special occasions – like the Transfiguration – when Jesus’ divine nature and commission shone out unmistakably to all who were present.
These three aspects are importantly connected. The prophet is a notable feature of Judaism, and as the reference to Isaiah implies, John stands out in this long and continuing line. Yet, with the appearance of Jesus, there is, so to speak, a change of gear. In the First Coming we move beyond the level of even the most distinguished prophets, and encounter not just another valuable source of spiritual insight and passionate human integrity, but a revelation of the Holy Spirit itself.
Written in retrospect, the Gospels struggle with this question – Just who was Jesus? Eventually they tentatively arrive at an answer which the Church has sought to refine ever since – Jesus is the Christ, the one human being in whom God is made fully manifest. In line with an ancient practice, baptisms are commonly celebrated on this Sunday. This is not just a matter of happily fitting the Gospel of the day. If Jesus is the perfect unity of humanity and holiness, our own lives become holy to the degree that they are lived in him. Baptism is the sacrament by which we are initiated into that life.
The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) is one of those relatively rare days in the Christian lectionary when, whatever the year, the Bible readings, including the Gospel, are always the same.
The reason is very simple. Although this has long been a major feast of the Church -- and of special importance in the Eastern Orthodox tradition -- only Matthew makes any mention of the strange event on which it is based. Matthew's short account of the arrival of strangers from some far-off place at the stable in Bethlehem has been filled out by tradition. The visitors have become three ‘kings’ or ‘wise men’ from Persian lands, and given the names of Caspar, Belshazzar and Melchior. The Bible does not provide a basis for any of these details, and in some modern translations 'wise men' is rendered 'astrologers', or even 'magicians'. This reduces their status considerably, but increases the mystery. Why has this brief episode attracted so much attention for so long?
The answer lies in the theological significance that has been found in it. First, the fact that the travellers seek out Herod, and then fail to report back to him, gives an early sign of the 'political' context into which Jesus was born; the actual Messiah ultimately proves quite at odds with what people had traditionally hoped for, or (in the case of Herod) feared. Secondly, the gifts that the wise men leave in the stable all have symbolic meaning; gold and frankincense are traditional gifts for a ruler, while myrrh presages death – an odd gift for a baby. Thirdly, these men are Gentiles, which is to say, foreigners. This is perhaps the most important aspect. As the Old Testament lesson reminds us, the story of the birth, ministry, suffering and death of Jesus is firmly rooted in the Jewish theology of a long-expected Messiah, and must remain so. Yet properly understood, it has significance far beyond the confines of Jewish life and thought. The Gospel is a Gospel for Jew and Gentile alike.
This is St Paul's great insight. “Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus”, he writes in the passage from Ephesians that is the Epistle for Epiphany. It is an insight that led him, at intense personal cost, to begin the enormous task of proclaiming a Jewish Gospel to a Gentile world.
'Epiphanic moments' are those times when, quite suddenly, something of the greatest importance strikes us unexpectedly. At the Feast of the Epiphany we commemorate and celebrate the moment at which the universal importance of the Jewish religion is, for the first time, revealed to the whole world. It is the point, we might say, when the birth of the historical Jesus is suddenly revealed to be the incarnation of the eternal Christ.
There are often multiple services at Christmas, so the Revised Common Lectionary provides three sets of 'propers'. These readings are used in every year of the 3-year cycle.
All three sets forge a connection between the prophet Isaiah and the birth of Jesus. This connection is crucial to understanding the significance of that birth, and the Epistle readings from Hebrews and Titus are chosen to make this clear. Thanks to modern scholarship, however, we now know something that the authors of those epistles did not know. Isaiah is really three books. Moreover, the authors of these three books (Chaps 1-39, 40-55 and 56-66) lived and wrote several hundred years apart – before, during and after the traumatic capture and exile of the Israelites in Babylon. The editing of these materials into “one” book is no accident. Whoever its editors were, they correctly perceived that the same spirit, and in large part the same theme, animates them all – how to have a faith that endures despite the vicissitudes of time and circumstance. This common theme makes it possible for the Old Testament readings for Christmas to be taken from all three -- a fact that carries an important lesson for us.
When John the Baptist asks Jesus if he is ‘the one who is to come’, he is making reference to a hope and a yearning that has persisted over a very long period of time, and across dramatically changing fortunes. We should take this timescale to heart.
“A thousand ages in Thy sight, are but an evening gone” Isaac Watts reminds us in his paraphrase of Psalm 90. It is easy for us to confine the advent of the Messiah to the deeply intriguing and appealing, but brief, event that is the Nativity. While God’s saving work in his Messiah certainly began at Christmas,it was only thirty years later, after his death and Resurrection, that the birth of Jesus could be recognized, dimly, for what it was. Its full significance, Christians subsequently came to see, lay within the immensely vaster time scale of God’s redeeming history.
The key spiritual task at Christmas is twofold. We have to find a way of acknowledging the fact that in Jesus, God came to an earthly home, while at the same time avoiding any tendency to domesticate Him. The perfect innocence of Jesus makes our redemption possible, but it is not the innocence of a sweet little baby. “He came and dwelt among us” so that, despite all our follies and weaknesses, we might be raised to God’s level. The danger of too 'nice' a Christmas is that, inadvertently, we reduce God to ours.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
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