Morgendämmerung, oder, Wie man mit dem Hammer theologiert.

VDMA

Verbum domini manet in aeternum. The word of the Lord endures forever.
1 Peter 1:24-25, quoting Isaiah 40:6,8. Motto of the Lutheran Reformation.


Fayth onely justifieth before God. Robert Barnes, DD The Supplication, fourth essay. London: Daye, 1572.

Lord if Thou straightly mark our iniquity, who is able to abide Thy judgement? Wherefore I trust in no work that I ever did, but only in the death of Jesus Christ. I do not doubt, but through Him to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Robert Barnes, DD, before he was burnt alive for "heresy", 30 July 1540.

What is Luther? The doctrine is not mine, nor have I been crucified for anyone. Martin Luther, Dr. theol. (1522)

For the basics of our faith right here online, or for offline short daily prayer or devotion or study, scroll down to "A Beggar's Daily Portion" on the sidebar.

21 April 2014

Eastertide / Osterzeit. 2014.

Guess what? Remember how it takes forty days to prepare for Easter? Well, it takes fifty days to celebrate it!! That's right, it's not just one day to show up and celebrate it, let alone not worry about making church again until Christmas. Here's the deal.

We saw in the last few posts that Easter is not a stand-alone event. And if we didn't, here's a recap.

When God told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let his people go from slavery, it wasn't about human rights or dignity or anything else, it was so that his people may worship him, and what he wanted them let go for was to give them the Law, and so that in turn they may take the Promised Land.

However, God's Law was not able to be fulfilled. So great is human sin, that is could not be fulfilled, even when the Law was laid only on a special people who were called out to receive it to in turn be a light to other peoples. In this we, all people, are shown our sin, our utter inability to attain to God even when he shows us exactly how to do it and doesn't even ask all of us to do it.

But, there is Good News. Having been shown our sin, God shows us our saviour, and not only that, becomes a man to be that Saviour himself! And this man, Jesus, transformed the Passover sacrifice of a lamb into the passing over from the slavery of sin by the body and blood of the Lamb of God, himself, then that body and blood was sacrificed at Calvary, and then God ratified all this and brought it to-gether in the resurrection Jesus from the dead.

It doesn't stop there.  Just as Passover lead to the giving of the Law, so Easter leads to the giving of the Holy Ghost.  It goes like this:  in the Law of Moses God commanded a ritual counting of the fifty days between the celebration of Passover and the celebration of the giving of the Law, called Shavuot or Pentecost.  Wait, what?  Isn't Pentecost just a Christian deal?  No, it's not.  Pentecost was a Greek-derived later name for Shavout, the feast of the giving of the Law at Sinai, and this is why Scripture speaks of all the people being in town; they were there for what they thought would be that year's Pentecost.  But instead, just as Jesus transformed Passover into the giving of himself, God counts the Omer and will transform Pentecost into the giving of the Spirit!  So the church similarly counts and rejoices in Easter for fifty days until it celebrates the giving of the Law fulfilled and transformed into the giving of the Holy Ghost!

That counting from Passover to Shavuot is called the Counting of the Omer in the Law; the counting from Easter to Pentecost is called Eastertide. Thus, the joy and celebration of Easter is not one day, but fifty days leading right up to the gift of the Holy Ghost! We could call it the Easterly Joytime! In fact, in German they do -- die österliche Freudenzeit.

This joytime has several Sundays. The first is Easter itself. There are three seasons in the church year in which the Sundays have "nicknames" taken from the first word or two in Latin (called the incipit) of their Introits, and Eastertide is the third of them, Advent and Lent being the other two like this. Here they are.

Second Sunday of Easter -- Quasimodogeniti

Introit.
As newborn babes: desire the sincere milk of the Word.
Hear, O my people, and I will testify unto thee: O Israel, if thou wilt hearken unto me. (I Peter 2:2)
Ps. Sing aloud unto God, our Strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob. (PS 81:1)
Glory be to the Father etc.

Collect
Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, that we who have celebrated the solemnities of the Lord's resurrection may, by the help of Thy grace, bring forth the fruits thereof in our life and conversation; through the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son, out Lord, who liveth etc.

Epistle
I John 5:4-10

Gospel
John 20:19-31

Third Sunday of Easter -- Miserecordias Domini

Fourth Sunday of Easter -- Jubilate

Fifth Sunday of Easter -- Cantate

Sixth Sunday of Easter -- Rogate

(Ascension Thursday)

Seventh Sunday of Easter -- Exaudi

20 April 2014

Easter / Eostre / Pascha / Counting the Omer 2014.

Here's a story for you. Once upon a time, a Goddess of the Dawn named Eostre found a bird whose wings froze over the Winter, and helped it by turning it into either a rabbit or a hare. Now, neither rabbits nor hares lay eggs, but this one, having been a bird, could, and there you have the Eostre Bunny. Or if you speak German, a hare, the Osterhase.

Eostre had a festival in her honour, and Venerable Bede, a Benedictine English monk writing in the 8th Century in De temporum ratione (On the calculating of time), said she had the whole month named after her, Eostre Month, Easter month -- Eostur-monath in his original, a Latinised version of the many variants on her name -- the lunar month corresponding to the Roman month of opening, Aprilis, or April as we say in English now . The Grimm Brothers, maybe better known now for their children's stories, were scholars of Germanic mythology and Jacob Grimm called her Ostara in his Deutsche Mythologie in 1835.

So what do we have here? A pre-Christian Spring festival celebrating fertility and new life and awakenings, that got morphed into a Christian observance about a risen god but really is properly celebrated with bunnies and eggs and joy and happy gatherings, taking its place among the various celebrations in world culture that Winter is over and Spring is here? Yes, and no.

Holy Week began with Palm Sunday, seeing the crowds joyously welcoming the controversial teacher who just maybe was the Messiah, which is the person sent by God to remove the oppression of his people, then currently the Romans, and inaugurate the Messianic era of universal peace. We saw that if we are really honest, it wasn't just the crowd that day but we too who want such a messiah, the one after which we will never again have to watch the news, get that phone call, or visit, or letter, or results from the physician, and wonder how a loving God could let such things happen, or try to explain how bad things can happen to good people -- like us, of course.

And we saw that when no such things began to happen, but rather that this supposed messiah began to suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes and ended up being executed for blasphemy, the crowds were gone, after the palm branches turned to shouts of "Away with him". And if we are really honest again, we see that is still our response.

Along with Christmas, churches typically draw their best crowds at Easter. He is risen! Everything is in white, great music, a big service, the empty tomb story, pancakes or brunch in the fellowship hall, everybody is happy! And the message is -- Away with him!

The truth is for many Easter is Palm Sunday all over again, with lilies instead of palms. Now we can have the messiah we want for real! And the story of Jesus' resurrection becomes, from among the many available, the myth we happen to find culturally acceptable to start saying universal Springtime stuff about life, new life, eternal life, whatever, some sort of affirmation that everything is really OK after all in spite of the figurative Romans that plague us. So we put him back on the donkey and start cheering all over again for the messiah we want. But, as the great spiritual song asks, were you there when they crucified my Lord? Where were the crowds on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services?

Let my people go, Moses said to Pharaoh before the original form of Passover. What was that? Let my people go because it's the right thing to do, let my people go because their condition is an affront to human dignity and a social wrong, let my people go because they have a right to self determination?

Absolutely nothing of the sort. Moses was not told to tell Pharaoh to let the people go, period. He was told to tell the reason too -- Let my people go, that they may sacrifice to me! The people are to be let go for one reason, and one reason only, that they may gather with God according to his instruction, and apart from that they may as well remain in slavery! Their social and political freedom was not sought for its own value, but derived its value from allowing them to heed the word of God.

The deliverance was hard to bear for the delivered. They lost sight of the fact that freedom is not freedom if it is not to heed the word of God, that it is not about a comfortable life here, victorious living, everything turning out in a way we want. And despite having seen powerful acts of God they began to wonder what sort of madness this is. Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die? They began to pine after their days in Egypt, even slavery looking better than this! And when the moment came and Moses went up to receive the Law, they fashioned a god more to their liking.

They? Us. Do we not, no less than they, turn away when it doesn't go as we think it should, or hoped it would? Do we not, no less than they, begin to wonder what we are doing in church and wish we could just live in the world like everyone else? Do we not, no less than they, begin to build gods of our own when God seems to take too long or be too far away? Do we not, no less than they, want to listen to ourselves when God's pastor presents the Law? And do we not, no less than they, shout "Away with him!" when the Gospel is shown in a suffering and death for our sin rather than a sure-fire recipe for victorious and purposeful living?

We want Easter, but without Good Friday. We want Passover, but not to receive the Law. It cannot be. They come from God as parts of one whole, connected by God and meaningless apart from that. In the Law, God commanded the Passover. But it does not stand alone. Part of the Passover is to count the days until the celebration of the reason for the Passover, the giving of the Law. This is called counting the Omer. Just as God connected the call to be let go with the reception of the Law in the message he gave to Moses, so he connects the observance of the letting go, Passover, with the observance of the giving of the Law, called Pentecost, in the Law he gave through Moses.

What? Pentecost? In the Law? But that's a Christian thing, the birthday of the church, isn't it? In the Law, God commanded three major observances: Pesach, or Passover; Shavuoth, or Pentecost; Sukkoth, or Tabernacles, also called Booths, which is preceded by the Days of Awe which includes Rosh Ha-Shanah or New Years and Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. And the time between Pesach and Shavuoth, Passover and Pentecost, is ritually counted. The word Pentecost is because of that, from the Greek for fiftieth, the number of days. The counting of the Omer is connected in the observance God commanded as it was connected in the historical events.

This is why Acts speaks of all the people being in town for Pentecost -- there already was one! "Easter" does not stand alone. And if it is isolated from that within which it stands and made to stand alone, it is not Easter but something else. The women who went out that first Easter went out not in joy to find their risen Lord but to tend to the body of a dead man. And when they found he was risen, they hurried to tell the Apostles -- who did not believe them. (You can't make this sort of stuff up -- here's the biggest news ever, but first shown not to those in the Office of Holy Ministry but to the women, who were told to go tell them!) No pancakes, no lilies.

Instead, the Passover seder becomes at Jesus' institution the mystery -- or, using the English cognate for the Latin for the Greek word for mystery, the sacrament -- of his body and blood which we are now to observe, and then he gives his body and blood as the full and final Passover lamb so that those sprinkled with his blood will be passed over by death and saved, and then he rises from the dead, which at the time, far from being a nice family day with lots of good thoughts, produces fear, doubt and confusion, which continues through the counting of the Omer until the observance of the giving of the Law, when he then bestows the Spirit.

That is the story. Deliverance from bondage and death in Egypt, a trek toward the reason for the deliverance, the giving of the Law at Sinai. The Passover seder and its lamb (Pesach), counting the Omer, Pentecost (Shavuoth). The Last Seder and Death of the Paschal lamb and his resurrection from the dead, God himself counting the Omer, the giving of the Spirit in Jerusalem. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Pascha, Paschaltide, Pentecost. That is the story of salvation we celebrate during this time.

We can take it as God gave it, with the seder giving way to and becoming the mass, the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb giving way to and becoming the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb Jesus, and the giving of the Law giving way to and becoming the giving of the Spirit. Then we have the religion of the Christ, Christianity; then we have Law and Gospel -- the Good News.

Or we can turn it into news more like we want to hear. We can turn it into hailing this great guy and teacher who showed us how to live so that we feel right with God and things go well with our fellow men and things don't get messy with all this about sin and death. We can call that sin and death stuff our metaphorical way among other ways of understanding that we're OK and there's a loving God who only wants us to try to be a good person. Then we have the religion of Man, an Easter no different really than the one about Eostre that might as well use the same name because the only difference is that a story about a goddess who helped a frozen bird become a happy bunny is replaced by a story about a dying and rising god who helps us become happy, successful and purposeful people as the metaphor for nice Springtime thoughts about ourselves.

So what do we have here? Yes, while Eostre herself is largely forgotten we have what remains of a pre-Christian festival called Easter celebrating fertility and new life and awakenings, properly celebrated with bunnies and eggs and joy and happy gatherings, taking its place among the various celebrations in world culture that Winter is over and Spring is here. And yes, the name of her festival was appropriated to another religion's observance of the story of a risen god called Jesus which to many who observe it likewise is a myth and metaphor for new life and possibilities and purposes and awakenings suggested by the end of Winter and the arrival of Spring. Pretty much the same idea, just illustrated by a different myth. One often finds the two mixed to-gether. And why not? It's Easter either way.

But for those who follow the liturgy of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, it is something completely different, sharing nothing with Easter except two things -- it generally happens around the same time in April, and the name Easter. We would do well to discard the borrowed name in English and do what most languages do, call it by its own name derived from its own sources, Pascha. English is confusing enough being a hybrid language with its Germanic roots and its Greek/Latin overlay through French after the Norman Conquest. We say "moon" from a Germanic root, but don't refer to it as "moonal" but "lunar" from the Latin word for moon, for example. We've already taken the real word for Easter into English as an adjective for it, paschal, so let's use the noun too, Pascha!

For Pascha is exactly what we have here! The Passover seder and lamb and cup of blessing has been changed by the Lamb of God Jesus into the mass where he gives us his body and blood as his pledge and last will and testament of his body and blood, which he then gives for our salvation from our sins that block us from God and from which we cannot free ourselves, and with the full and final sacrifice of the Temple offered, and the Temple which he truly is destroyed by our sins, God raises the Temple on the third day in the bodily resurrection of Jesus so the Temple is fully functioning again but this time with the mercy seat of God now wide open! He is risen and among us, now as then in the laying out of Scripture and fully discerned in the breaking of the bread, not in our doing for him or good feeling about him or service to him but in HIS divine service to us in Word and Sacrament in what we call just that, the Divine Service, or mass.

And now, Passover so transformed. we count the Omer with God until Pentecost is similarly transformed (we'll get to what happened to Tabernacles/Booths/Sukkoth later!), where as the Law was once given to show our sin, now the Spirit will be given to show our Saviour in the Gospel, empowering the Office of Holy Ministry and all Christians with them to be his witnesses from Jerusalem unto the ends of the earth and time!

19 April 2014

Easter Vigil / Osternacht 2014.

In the proverbial early church, there was no service at all on the Saturday before Easter Sunday. What they did was a solemn watch, and just before dawn, the catechumens, those who had been instructed in the faith toward conversion, were baptised and confirmed and made their first Communion, rising to a new life in Jesus at the hour when Jesus rose from the dead.

Over time, a service did develop, and the time moved back from before dawn to the evening before, and eventually to Holy Saturday morning! On top of that, the service, though retained in the Reformation, including Latin texts, fell into disuse amid the Thirty Years War, rationalism and Pietism, which effect continued here in the US.

Ironically, it was a recovery of the Vigil in German Lutheran churches that in turn contributed to the Catholic reform of the Vigil in 1955 by Pope Pius XII, who had been papal nuncio to Germany. The service was then hacked over by the Vatican II novus ordo. Its use has been spreading in American Lutheranism.

Though the overall order of the service has remained from the earliest times -- something of a watch with various observances, then reception of converts and mass -- this is hardly a recovery of a practice of the "early church". Their idea was not at all a vigil that begins and ends in the night before, any more than it was a Saturday morning service, but rather a service that was timed, for reasons we saw above, to conclude with the break of day!

These days, the Vigil is generally held by everyone who holds it on the evening before Easter. But, while the service contains some ancient practices, holding it as a Saturday evening rather than a pre-dawn service no more restores some imagined purity or practice of the "early church" -- it would seem St Paul wrote all those epistles because the early church was not in that great a shape! -- than holding it Saturday morning or not holding a service at all on Saturday anytime stands apart from such an imagined restoration.

The contrast between leaving the church in darkness and silence after a Seven Last Words Tenebrae with nothing until Easter morning conveys the tomb that is then empty much better than all this modern recasting, of which I served many as a youth in the 1950s and 60s.

The Western Easter Vigil has four parts: 1) The Blessing of the Fire, Incense and Paschal Candle; 2) The Reading of the Prophecies; 3) The Blessing of the Baptismal Font, Baptism and Confirmation of Converts, and the Litany of the Saints; 4) the Mass of the Risen Christ.

The first part begins where Good Friday left off, in darkness. Outside the church, the celebrant strikes a fire from flint and ignites coals and blesses five grains of incense. They enter and begin the Lucemarium: at the back of the church the deacon intones "Lumen Christi" or Light of Christ, and the people respond "Deo gratias" or Thanks be to God. They move up the aisle to the middle of the church and do the same. Then they enter the sanctuary and do the same a third time, for each person of the Trinity. Along the way, the people, holding small candles, light them from the candle fire and pass it along, so that at the end, the darkness is gone.

In the sanctuary the deacon then blesses the Paschal Candle itself and places the five grains in it in the form of a cross -- and in modern times, the interior church lights are now turned on -- and the darkness of Good Friday is now dispelled by the light of the risen Christ! The prayer which contains this blessing was not always this but for many centuries has been the "Exultet".

During this prayer, the most amazing thing is said, before the incense grains are put in the candle. The glory of salvation, the sureness of the Risen Lord, is so great that even the sin which made it necessary is called a happy thing! Wow. O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem -- O happy fault, that merited to have such and so great a Redeemer! Oddly enough, the version in LSB leaves the most striking part of the Exultet out, which makes as much sense as it would to put the prayer for the Holy Roman Emperor back in.

The second part is a series of twelve readings, or prophecies, which are a reader's digest version of the Hebrew Scriptures, outlining the faithfulness of God from Genesis 1 and Creation through Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets. Some places have used a different set number, but whatever the number, it is set. Unfortunately, in the modern revisionist liturgies the readings are often cut down from twelve to seven, and sometimes from even that to four, or from whatever the set number is to less, but always include the Passover and crossing the Red Sea.

As if we had something better to do than hear salvation history from start to finish once a year to prepare to celebrate the fulfillment in the Resurrection. As if the Passover and Red Sea passages are essentials and the rest can be skipped if it makes the service "too long". It's all essential -- when the church defined the Bible, did it say while these are the books you can rely on, if it's getting a little long for you, just skip over some of it?

The third part is the blessing of the baptismal font and water, the sprinkling of the people with some of the blessed water in remembrance of their Baptism, and then the Baptism of any new converts, and finally all recite the Litany of the Saints, which in Lutheran use became "the" Litany, a Litany of the Saints without the saints.

The fourth part is the mass of Easter! Purple is now replaced by white vestments, and the celebrant for the first time intones again the prayer "Gloria in excelsis Deo", Glory to God in the highest, as church bells ring out! A mass of great joy continues, culminating in the Eucharist of course, where it all comes to-gether, not only for those who now for the first time receive it, but for all the faithful.

This joy of the fourth part, the mass of Easter, which in contemporary observance happens sometime Saturday evening and was supposed to happen with the break of dawn Sunday morning, is just as real and just as present if one celebrates it on Easter morning itself.

For after Maundy Thursday until this moment Communion is not given (exception is made for the dying), but now the promise of Maundy Thursday and the death of Good Friday, celebrated separately, come to-gether, in the Risen Christ who gives us now his Body and Blood as the sure pledge of our salvation!

This day of the week is called Sunday in English, a Germanic language, which like all Germanic languages took over the names of the days of the week from the Romans, who in turn got it from the Egyptians. They thought there were seven planets, named after Roman gods, namely, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury and Moon. Each planet had an hour of the day associated with it, and the one that ruled daybreak each day had the whole day named after it.

Easter happened on dies Solis, the "Day of the Sun" in Latin, which Germanic languages modified to their gods as Sun-day, Sonntag in German, Sunday in English. Other days were also so named, for example Moon Day becoming what is called Monday in English and Montag in German, but in non-Germanic languages more directly descended from Latin, for example in Spanish, lunes, from luna, the word for moon in Latin and then Spanish.

In fact, the joy of these gifts of our Saviour is so great on this morning of that day of the week called Sunday in English that the church celebrates it the morning (not the night before) of every such day of the week throughout the year. Justin "Martyr", in chapter 67 of his Apology (meaning defence) written about 150 AD, gives the earliest reference surviving to this practice of the Christian church.

He called the day by its Roman name, and the practice led to Christians calling it the "Lord's Day", which is why in those more direct descendants of Latin such as again Spanish it is called Domingo, from the Latin dominus for lord.

So this joy in the crucified and risen Saviour who gives us his body and blood in the transformed Passover of the mass of Easter, the sure pledge of our salvation, his testament to us his heirs as the testator who left it to us until our entry into eternal salvation in heaven with God either through death or the end of times, becomes a "little" Easter, a little Pascha or Passover, every week on Sunday!

And the dismissal includes something else we haven't heard through Lent, the Alleluia, or Praise the Lord! So --

PRAISE THE LORD!

18 April 2014

Good Friday / Karfreitag 2014.

For the first time since 2011 family difficulties have not prevented me from revising my full Good Friday post, so here it is for 2014.

Everyone knows Good Friday is about the death of Jesus. Humanly speaking, what's so good about death? Most everybody knows Jesus was executed as a criminal. What's so good about that? Whoever heard of a religion built around someone convicted of a capital offence and executed for it? This is good?  What's the "good" in Good Friday anyway?

Well, most likely, we come by the modern phrase Good Friday the same way we come by Good Bye.  "God be with ye" over time crystallised into Good Bye, and the name God's Friday, or in its earlier English form, Godes Friday, morphed into Good Friday. So the good in Good Friday is God.  How's that?  The two services we Lutherans use on Good Friday show exactly how that is, and that is why each is the way it is.  Here's the deal.

I. The Traditional Good Friday Service.

The Passover seder begins with the youngest present asking, Why is to-night different than all other nights?, and the story of the Passover, when the Angel of Death literally passed over those marked with the blood of the sacrificial lamb, is told and the meal, called a seder, commanded in the story is eaten. Last night, Maundy Thursday, we celebrated Jesus' celebration of the Last Seder (Supper) and his transformation of it into what we call the mass or Divine Service in the West, in which he makes the pledge that is his last will and testament, his body and blood given for us and given to us.

The question "Why is to-night different than all other nights" belongs to last night, but even more we may ask it of this night, Good Friday, when we confront and are confronted by not the sacrament he left us but the historical event of the death by crucifixion of the Passover Lamb itself. It isn't pretty. It's brutally ugly. My dad was a physician, and he used to say that the average person, reading a detailed medical account of what happens to the human body in the process of dying from crucifixion, probably wouldn't be able to finish it without throwing up, because it is so gruesome and horrible. It is so ghastly that under Jewish law, which does sanction capital punishment, crucifixion, which was a Roman form of capital punishment, is not allowed.

Not only was it meant to be a physically painful death, it was meant to be publicly humiliating too.  Crucifixes show Christ with a garment around his waist, but that's for our sensibilities. Crucifixion was done naked, so public view of the body's elimination of waste as death approached was part of the punishment as well as the physical torment.

And so as we gather to mark this event, we indeed have a night unlike any other night, when the Passover Lamb is slaughtered. There is no mass, there is no Communion, and on leaving there is no joyous recessional and conversation, just silent darkeness, unlike any other service of the church. Why is to-night different than all other nights indeed.

The service itself.

In the Eastern church, there are three related services: before noon the Royal Hours; around 1500 hours (3 pm) the time the Gospels give for the death of Jesus; and in the evening. In the Western church, there is a single service around 3 pm, often also said later. In neither case is this a mass, or divine liturgy; it's different than all other observances. The Western service historically has two parts, A Liturgy of the Word, similar to the first part of the mass, but instead of a Eucharist a service of Adoration of the Cross follows.

First part.  In the first part, the readings are Hosea 6:1-6, with its call for a return to the Lord and prophecy of raising after three days to live in his sight, then Exodus 12:1-11, the institution of the Passover meal of the sacrificial lamb (Hey, Why is tonight ...), then the conclusion of the Passion account of John begun last night, John 18 and 19, telling the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Then follows a series of intercessory prayers, quoted in The Lutheran Hymnal as the Bidding Prayer, page 166: for the church; for church leaders; for catechumens; against illness and disaster and calamity; for heretics and schismatics; for the Jews; for pagans.

Second Part. In the second part comes the focus of the while thing, the Cross. Veiled for two weeks since Passion Sunday, we now see it in its stark reality, nothing abstract about it, not a pious meditation, but a gruesome execution, all the more so because the victim was innocent. The celebrant removes the veil from the upper portion of the crucifix and chants, Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world, and we answer, Come let us adore. Then the celebrant moves to the Epistle side of the altar (anyone remember which side that is?), uncovers the right arm, and chants again, Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world, and we answer again, Come let us adore. Finally the celebrant goes to the middle of the altar, uncovers the whole cross, and again chants Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world, and we again answer, Come let us adore.

The celebrant, who significantly has removed his chasuble -- the vestment put on over the others to signify his service of the Lord, to underline the focus on the Lord himself -- now kneels and takes off his shoes too, and begins the adoration of the cross.

While everyone in turn comes before the cross, the Improperia, also called the Reproaches, are sung. It begins. O my people, what have I done to thee, or wherein have I afflicted thee? Answer me, and then beginning with the Exodus, the acts of the Lord to deliver his people are mentioned in answer to the question each time -- at every stage, God has acted to deliver us, and we have acted to reject him.

This question and answer, which so completely lays out the impropriety of what has happened, so to speak, is among the most ancient parts of the liturgy, so ancient that even in the Western rite when said in Latin the full Greek Sanctus hymn is sung. His love and our spite, his faithfulness and our infidelity, laid out fully. And it continues, to further underscore the point, with the Pange lingua, Sing my tongue the Saviour's glory, in verse and response form with the Crux fidelis, Faithful Cross.

And so it ends. No pomp, no ceremony, no smells, no bells, no chancel prancing.

Nothing.

Absolutely unlike anything else in the church's worship, because what it commemorates is absolutely unlike anything else that has ever happened on earth. What is the point? To feel sorry for Jesus? Not at all. As Bishop Sheen used to point out, for everyone else, death stops his life's work, but for him, this is why he came, this was his life's work. Are we to carry on as if we did not know there was a Resurrection, feel real bad as if maybe this is the end? Hardly.

The utter starkness, the absence of what usually constitutes our worship, the lamentation -- that is what the German name for the day means, Friday of Lamentation -- is not as if just a human being had suffered this. Say, you or me for example. It is because I, you, all of us, should have suffered this, it is what we deserve, not him, it should have been our execution, not his, but God so loved us that he did not regard his divinity and became one of us to be the sacrifice we could not be, to do what we could not do, take away our sins, so that whoever is sprinkled with the blood of this Lamb he has provided as he provided a lamb for Abraham instead of Isaac should not taste death but have eternal life.

We have witnessed the commutation of our death sentence. We have watched him take upon himself our guilt, so that we make take upon ourselves his innocence. Or in the word so dear to us, justification.

It should have been my condemnation, and at the cost of everything to him it is my justification. We are shown our sin in its grossest reality and we are shown our Saviour in his greatest reality. The supreme moment of Law and Gospel. Yes, the joy of finding the tomb empty will come, but for now we leave in stunned silence at the God who spared nothing to save us who could do nothing to save ourselves, who so loved us that he gave himself for us who have nothing for him, so that whoever believeth in him shall not die but have eternal life.

Sweet wood, sweet nails, both sweet and fair,
Sweet is the precious weight ye bear.

II. Tenebrae.

What's up with Tenebrae, the "other" Good Friday service?

As an RC kid in the 1950s, I used to see the words "Tenebrae" and "Sunrise Service" in the church ads in the paper for Protestant churches. I would think, how typical, you gotta give them an E for effort, they're really trying to do the right thing, but this is what happens when you try to be church apart from the Church he put here, tinker around with the pieces of the former unity apart from their source, and come up with all sorts of stuff, part of it the real deal and part of it whatever Reformer's ideas of the real deal one follows.

I mean, what's up with Tenebrae. Everybody knows -- well, everybody who's a dedicated altar boy thinking of maybe becoming a priest -- that Tenebrae isn't the church's main service on Good Friday or even of one day. It is (or was; Rome's novus ordo abolished it along with Matins and much else) a collective reference to Matins and Lauds for the last three days of Holy Week, originally said in the night and early morning but pushed back in the Middle Ages to the evening before! Monks do that kind of thing all the time. That's how we got "noon", from monks pushing back None, the office of the ninth hour in the Roman (city/republic/empire, not church) day, about three in the afternoon, to right after the sixth hour office at midday, Sext, so you can work the fields all afternoon.

Poor guys, I thought, they don't even know that "afternoon" is just that, after None, heck, most of us don't either, so why be surprised at having a Matins service, a word coming from the Latin for "dawn" and giving us our word matinee for a daytime showing, at night instead of the service that's supposed to be there at the ninth hour when he died (1500 hours if you know how to REALLY tell time!), which we ourselves often put off until later so people can get there after work! Maybe the whole thing's our fault originally, messing around with stuff. I mean, if you gotta knock off work to go in at 1500 to pray None, just do it; if you gotta knock off work to get to Good Friday service at 1500, just do it. Some places let people off about 1, some places they still don't go to work at all Good Friday.

So here they are having "Tenebrae", a bunch of Protestants doing what's supposed to be a three day monastic service instead of the day's normal parish liturgy, and here I am in an ordinary parish and have never been to a real Tenebrae in my life! Oh well, at least we have it someplace and I know what it is, but you gotta give them E for effort and they'll probably walk right in. (That's a Catholic thing -- "walk right in" means walk right in to heaven without having to spend any time in Purgatory getting rid of what still needs to be gotten rid of.)

The heart of the real Tenebrae is its three "nocturnes" or readings. These are: The Lamentations of Jeremias (Jeremiah); St Augustine's commentary on Psalm 54 (in the Vulgate, Psalm 55 to Protestants); St Paul Hebrews 4:15-5:10 and 9:11-15. And of course there's the putting out of candles, one at a time after each Psalm.

My first experience of anything by the name Tenebrae was in the mid 90s in WELS. (I first made profession of faith especially as taught in the Small Catechism in a WELS parish 15 December, 1996.) Holy Week consisted of Communion (in the sense of both consecration and communion, though in that context you'd probably raise an eyebrow if you said "mass") on Maundy Thursday with particular remembrance of Jesus' institution of Communion at the Last Supper, then "Tenebrae" on Good Friday, then nothing, meaning no Easter Vigil at all, one of the most ancient services of the church, until, hey, "Sunrise Service" on Easter, then pancakes, with a later "Festival" service for those of us who might rise with the Son but not the sun. I wondered a little bit -- I had just finished the Tappert Book of Concord (we didn't have the "McCain" Book of Concord yet!) and was thinking I had cast off the Roman Catholic church for the real catholic church, but maybe I ended up just Protestant after all!

There was the putting out of candles thing, but nothing else of the office of Tenebrae. It was constructed instead around the Seven Last Words, with each passage read followed by an appropriate prayer and hymn and putting out a candle. No Lamentations, no St Augustine, no St Paul, or if my professors at my Benedictine university are to be believed, whoever wrote Hebrews. Totally out of my experience, totally new to my experience! But I'm thinking hey, maybe there is a better service to be using (even WELS has a version of the traditional Good Friday service!) but the Seven Last Words are his seven last words and this is Good Friday, at least nobody's got it mixed up with Holy Thursday and offering Communion or anything, so I'm going with it, each "word" leading to the end, Consummatum est, it is finished.

And I'm sitting there in darkness thinking, what is finished? Jesus? Hardly. He is risen, and we will soon celebrate that. Sin? Hardly. The world goes right on sinning, and me with it despite myself. But right now, what is finished is the sacrifice that takes away my sin and the sin of the whole world. Passover indeed, from bondage to the promised land. Real nice thoughts to have all safe here in church but before long I'll be back out there where real nice thoughts are hard to maintain a lot of the time. And then it happened.

BAM!

Strepitus! The loud nose or crash, called by the Latin word for, guess what, a loud noise or crash.  And with it, all came to-gether. The promise, the old covenant, was now closed, complete, and the fulfillment was here! Et antiquum documentum novo cedat ritui, over ancient forms departing new rites of grace prevail, says the hymn Tantum Ergo. For real. So for real that the earth could not support, nor the sky shine on, the injustice which is my justification. And most of all, the veil to the Holy of Holies in the Temple is rent asunder by the full and final High Priest and the mercy seat of God is open wide, and all who are sprinkled with the blood of the full and final Passover Lamb can, well, walk right in!

And so I shall, but for right now, I'll depart in darkness and silence, stunned that someone just took the bullet I had coming, died so that I might live, took my guilt and gave me his innocence, not to wallow in survivor's guilt as if this were by accident, good for me but bad for him, or even the supreme gesture of another human, but stunned for the moment that this is precisely what he came to do, on purpose, God so loving his children that he offered himself for me, for us, and opens wide his mercy.

I have come to love the Tenebrae service more than any other in our observance. Tenebrae as Lutherans do it isn't always the Seven Last Words, or Die sieben letzten Worte as we "too German" types like to say. It can be for example the Passion account of John read in seven sections, with an appropriate hymn after each and a petition based on the prayers after the St John Passion reading in the traditional Good Friday service found as "The Bidding Prayer" in TLH p. 116, and of course the candle putting out thing. It's all good. I still love the traditional service of the church for Good Friday. But it ain't got the Bam. The temple curtain is aside, the High Priest has entered and the mercy seat is open!

BAM!

Speaking of the Temple, maybe next year I can get them to work in Lamentations. It's supposed to be there anyway, but there's more to it than that. Just as the New Covenant is an organic outgrowth of the Old, so is worship in the New Covenant an organic outgrowth of worship in the Old. What is the mass anyway but a Christianised synagogue Sabbath service followed by a Messianic seder? In the Tenebrae with its traditional Lamentations though, instead of understanding worship in the New Covenant as an organic development of worship in the Old, here New Covenant worship actually anticipates what would happen to the worship of the Old after it did not accept the New. Here's how.

Jesus said, Destroy this Temple and in three days I will build it up. They thought he meant the physical Temple in Jerusalem. Don't we always do that? Just a few days ago we thought great, here's the Messiah to cast off the Romans and begin the era of universal peace. God's just fine as long as it's our idea. But he meant himself. He is the Temple, he is the High Priest, he is the sacrifice. And you know what? He'd better be, because unless he is, we ought to call the whole thing off because he got what he deserved, not by claiming to be Messiah which we thought was a man anyway, but by claiming to be God, which is blasphemy punishable by death. Unless you are God. He said he was God and he is, but he was put to death. We say we're good people really and therefore all going to the same good place, but we're not, yet we think we're going to live.

Well, the real Temple to which the physical Temple pointed, Jesus, was destroyed and in three days built back up in rising from the dead. And just as he said, the generation that saw that had not passed away before the end of the world as previously known before it -- the Temple destroyed, the priesthood killed and scattered, the sacrifices ended. This happened by the Romans on the ninth of the Jewish month of Ab, which falls somewhere between what we call late July and mid August, in 70 AD, or CE (Common Era). And you know what? That was exactly the day on which the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, or BCE (Before the Common Era) and the people hauled off into captivity.

Jeremiah told them it was coming, and after it came, though overwhelmed with what had happened, he told them this was not because the enemies' gods are stronger than ours but because ours is giving us what we deserve for our faithlessness, and for that Jeremiah was branded a traitor to his religion and people, flogged at the Temple and left for dead in a pit. His Lamentations was written at the destruction of the first Temple. Tisha Be'Av, or the Ninth of Ab, is marked in the synagogue with the reading of DT 4:25-40 for the Torah portion and Jeremiah 8:13-9:23 for the haftorah, or the related reading from the Prophets.

But that is not all. Guess what? In the evening of that day Jews gather for the reading of Eikha, which is -- Lamentations! One sits on the floor like a mourner rather than in a seat. It is a full fast day to the max -- no eating, no drinking, no bathing, no leather shoes, no perfume or make up, no sex, although you can smoke or go to work. Tradition has it the Messiah will be born on Tisha Be'Av, the only happy thing about the day.

At the conclusion of the Passover Seder, one sings "Next Year in Jerusalem". But the Last Seder was in Jerusalem, and the full and final Passover sacrifice has been offered, as we commemorate on this day. The Temple has already been destroyed though the physical one still for a time stands, and so, we read Lamentations. But this Temple will be raised again in three days! We read Lamentations on this Friday of Lamentations not in mouring over the loss of two Temples and in hopes for a third, as if we were under the Law of Moses, in fact not in mourning at all for the "Temple" but for our faithlessness which destroyed both the physical Temple and the Temple Jesus to which it pointed.

You looking for a purpose to drive your life? Wanna find your best life now? Wanna make things sensitive to seekers? Looking to put Jesus first? Well here it is, pal. We read Lamentations, and celebrate Holy Week in our various traditions and liturgies in union with believers before us, now, and to come, precisely and for no other reason than to profess ourselves and proclaim to those who don't know it yet the knowledge that the Temple is indeed raised up again after three days, with the mercy seat of the loving God who opened it for us open to all through the body and blood of the Passover Lamb, even Jesus the Christ!

BAM! 

The Cross. Makes all the difference. Here's some Gospel about it.


14 April 2014

Maundy Thursday / Gründonnerstag 2014.

Maundy.

Now there's a word for you. Just like a lot of that liturgical stuff, doesn't seem to make any sense in the real world of ordinary spoken language, does it? Is there a maundy anything else? What is it to be maundy? As if that isn't enough, to German speakers this Green Thursday. OK, green is plain enough, but what's green about this day? Hey, maybe we should just skip the whole thing and put Jesus first, or at least call it "holy" Thursday and quit bugging people with weird words, huh?

Well, those names came about because of putting Jesus first. Here's the deal.

How This Night Is Different Than All Other Nights.

In Holy Week the church commemorates the saving acts of Jesus. Not that we don't do that all year, but this week we add to that laying them out over the days they happened as actual historical events, things which really took place, in the order they happened, not just religious or theological beliefs. In her liturgy for Maundy Thursday, the church commemorates the night before Jesus died, when Jesus gathered with his Apostles to celebrate the Passover seder, which is the memorial meal commanded in the Law celebrating the night before the exodus began out of bondage in Egypt so they could receive the Law at Sinai and go to the Promised Land.

The seder was already centuries old in Jesus' time. Early on in a traditional seder, the youngest person able to speak, noticing that there are many things different in this meal than in any other, asks "Why is to-night different than all other nights?" In our times, the person then asks four detailed questions about the differences, but in Jesus' time there were five, the fifth question being why to-night is everything roasted, but as that related to the existence of the Temple it was discontinued after its destruction in 70 A.D. To answer the questions, the Magid, which means "the telling", the 5th of the 15 parts of the seder, is done, which tells the whole story of the Exodus with explanation as to why everything is done as it is.

The Apostles didn't know it, but they were about to get not just a night different than all other nights, but a seder different than all other seders, in fact, the last seder under the Law of Moses! Imagine how astounded the Apostles must have been when Jesus, instead of the well known words of the seder they were expecting, said something entirely different at the breaking of the bread and the third of the four cups of wine.

What's up with the Four Cups? It comes from Exodus 6:6-7, where God expresses the deliverance in four ways: 1) bringing out; the first cup, at the opening Kaddish or blessing; 2) delivering; the second cup, at the Magid or Telling; 3) redeeming, the third cup, at the Birkat Hamazon or Grace After Meals, and the point at which the focus of the seder shifts from gratitude for past deliverance to hopes for future deliverance; 4) taking; the fourth cup, at the Hallel or Psalms of Praise.

OK, so how clear does he have to be, if you know the seder? At Motzi and Matzah, the 7th and 8th part of a seder, the breaking of the bread, which is already different than the usual meal, with the regular blessing at the breaking of bread followed by the blessing for the Passover bread the matzah, instead Jesus up and says "This is my Body"! And at the Third Cup, at the Grace After Meals, the Birkat Hamazon or Barekh as it is called at Passover, the 13th part of a seder, right when the focus shifts to future redemption and an extra cup is poured for Elijah who heralds the Messiah, instead Jesus up and says "This is my Blood"!

Must have blown them clean away! And ought to blow us clean away too, as here, clearly, unmistakeably, he has taken the Passover Seder and made it his body and blood, the body and blood of the Lamb of God, whose sacrifice to-morrow would take away the sins of the entire world, but to-night he passes transformed seder on to us as his last will and testament, to have until he comes again!

Why is to-night different than all other nights, indeed!

And so the church celebrates mass to-night, or Divine Service with Communion if you prefer, a mass as always yet also a mass in remembrance of that first mass ever, the mass he celebrated on the night we commemorate to-night, at once both the last seder, or last supper, of the Old Covenant and the first mass of the New. The purple vestments of Lenten penance are set aside and white is used. The Gloria, which has not been said during Lent (of course, if one follows the newer Vatican II style liturgies it isn't said anyway a good bit of the time!) is now said again -- and then, along with mass and Communion, disappears again until the Resurrection.

And to emphasise that the lamb now goes to the slaughter for our sakes, not only do mass and Communion go away until Easter, but after mass the altar is stripped bare of all its usual stuff not to return until Easter, while Psalm 22 (or 21 in some numberings), a traditional Jewish prayer of the dying, is recited -- My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?

How This Night Is "Maundy".

Then, the most amazing thing happens -- so amazing we don't do it very often, even in liturgically observant parishes, maybe we can't bring ourselves to do it much, it's just a little too stark and graphic. A wooden clapper gives the signal, the deacon sings the Gospel of the day -- which is John 13:1-15, the account of the Last Seder, but the next verses telling the Crucifixion we will not hear until to-morrow -- while the celebrant takes the action Jesus took told in John, and washes the feet of twelve people.

During this washing, a series of antiphons are done, starting with one drawn from John 13:34 -- a new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you. In Latin, this begins "mandatum novum", a new commandment; our word mandate derives from the Latin mandatum for commandment, and so does the word maundy. Hence the name -- this is the day of the new commandment, mandatum or maundy Thursday! Hard to put Jesus any more first than to name the whole day after his giving his new commandment! Than to do what he did and as he said in the Gospel for the day!

Normally a modern seder concludes with the 15th part, the Nirtzah, "Next year in Jerusalem!" or, if you are already there, "Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem", a Messianic hope since this can only happen when the Messiah comes. But this same Jesus, who makes the Passover seder his body and blood, shall, as we see to-morrow and at Easter, himself be the Temple, destroyed and then rebuilt, as it were, in the Resurrection! We are already there, the rebuilt Jerusalem and its Temple right before us, his testament and pledge of our salvation!

How We Are.

That's our liturgy. And what of us? We're Peter. When Jesus got up during the seder and prepared to wash his disciples' feet and came first to Peter, what did Peter say? OK? Sure Lord, doesn't seem to make sense but I know this must be right if you say so? No, he questioned Jesus: Lord, dost thou wash my feet? How often is that our response to Jesus -- you really mean that Lord? To which Jesus said, What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter. Right, I'll get it later; not good enough, not to Peter, not to us. So Peter says Thou shalt never wash my feet! Just like us, imposing our ideas of what God should do even in front of God himself, in person or in Scripture.

So Jesus makes it just a little clearer for him: If I do not wash thee, thou shalt have no part with me. Peter then gets it, but, just as we do, then runs to the opposite, no less extreme than before, and still imposing his idea of what God should do and his idea of what he should do before God himself -- Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head! Do we not do the same? Run from one self willed idea of God and our interaction with him to another, from one rejection of his word to another, all disguised as an acceptance -- anything, anything at all except just what he said!

We run from the washing of the feet liturgically like we run from the new commandment itself in all aspects of our lives, wanting it to be, like Peter, after our ideas rather than God's. We can no more save ourselves than a man can wake himself from the dead, as CFW Walther said in one of his sermons. But the good news is we don't have to wake ourselves, so why don't we quit trying? He has done it for us, and this night given us his body and blood as the pledge and testament of our salvation to be ours until he comes again in glory!

Almost forgot -- about Green Thursday. Nobody really knows. It's a German thing. Some say it comes from the Latin dies viridium, Tag der Grünen in German, the Day of the Green Ones. Huh? Who are the Green Ones? Those who are now fresh and green after forty days of Lenten penance. Some say it comes from the practice of eating green vegetables this say. Some say it comes from green rather than white being the liturgical colour at one time, replacing the Lenten purple. Some say it comes from greinen, to weep. Some say other things.

But for sure, Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin name for the day, Dies Mandatum, the day of the new commandment. The liturgy shows us the new commandment in the giving of the Eucharist and the washing of the feet. May we Peters, as we stagger in our lives between No, never and Well OK then but let's do it this better way, come to just do it his way!

10 April 2014

Palmarum / Palm Sunday and Holy Week 2014.

"Who do you say that I am?"

What Is Holy Week?

Holy Week, or Great Week as it is also called, concludes the preparation for Easter. The church in her liturgy does in a particularly intense way this week what she does all year, which is, present the Gospel revealed in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Gospel readings for this week follow the Biblical order of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, a tie between the events of the Gospel accounts and the liturgy that not even the three year Vatican II lectionary and its wannabes could break.

Palmarum or Palm Sunday offers the Passion account of Matthew. Monday in Holy Week does not have a Passion account, but rather the passage from John where Judas' unbelief, which like so many after him was disguised as a concern for the poor, is expressed six days before Passover, when Jesus was in Bethany, where Lazarus had died and and who was now at table with Jesus. Tuesday in Holy Week offers the Passion account of Mark. Wednesday offers that of Luke, and is sometimes called Spy Wednesday in reference to Judas' betrayal. Maundy Thursday (aka Green Thursday) and Good Friday (aka Lamentation Friday) both offer the Passion account of John, Thursday for the institution of the Eucharist and Friday for the Crucifixion.

In this way, the church reads through all four accounts of Jesus' suffering and death, in New Testament order, culminating in the account of St John, which is read over two days, and also commemorates the events in the order they happened. Holy Thursday has the part from St John about the Last Seder of the old covenant becoming the Divine Service of the new covenant, and the sacrament of Communion in his body and blood he instituted that night, but not yet the part about the crucifixion nor any veneration of the cross. Good Friday has the part about the crucifixion and death in which he gave his body and blood for us historically, and the veneration of the cross, but not Communion which he gave for us sacramentally the night before he suffered as the pledge of the redemption gained in his historical act the night he suffered.

Thus we have Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, the sacramental event of his body and blood, and the historical event of his body in blood, in both the readings and the services in their order.

Palmarum, or Palm Sunday.

The events we the church remember this Palmarum day ask us who do we say Jesus is, because they present one answer to this question. We already know the end of the week's story -- the man welcomed with wild cheering by the crowds this day in a few days will be executed as a criminal among criminals.

But this day, such an end is not in sight -- except to Jesus. Covering a person's path is a sign of great esteem, widely practiced in the ancient near East and still a part of our mentality, as in "roll out the red carpet" from the custom of royalty. Joshua was given the same triumphal accord. Joshua -- who led the people into the Promised Land as the Lawgiver Moses could not. Joshua -- a name that is with the name Jesus a variant of the same name, who would lead the people into the eternal Promised Land as the Lawgiver Moses could not. Here, perhaps, was the Messiah! Here, perhaps, was the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of the Messiah predicted by Zechariah, to whom our Gospel account, Matthew, refers!

So how does the wild joy of seeing what is or at least may well be the Messiah come turn to a criminal's execution? It is not because Jesus turns out not to be Messiah, but because Messiah turns out not to be the Messiah we want.

Does not Zechariah speak of the removal of chariots and war horses from Jerusalem, breaking battle bows, with a reign of peace from the Jordan throughout the Earth? Yes he does, but let us not congratulate ourselves by saying that thinking of the Messiah in the political and social terms of removing the Roman occupation from the land was the failing of the Jews of Jesus' place and time, something that no Jew or Gentile in more enlightened times, oh, say us in our time, would ever do.

It wasn't a reaction to the Romans. The mainstream of the entire Prophetic tradition, from the Prophets themselves to the atmosphere in which the Apostles were raised to our own time, is that Messiah is a man, not God, not a God-Man, who will usher in a lasting era of universal peace here in this world, not a world to come, in which the light of the true God first given to a nation called out from the nations will be extended to all nations -- nothing about sin, forgiveness, justification!

Is that not the Messiah we all want -- Jew and Gentile alike, then as now? A Messiah in earthly terms, one who will straighten out the mess of things here on earth, with no reference to the mess being of our making, one who allows us to live long and prosper right here, one who asks not repentance and conversion but simply to do good works like he did, one who is about giving us a purpose driven life rather than giving us the sacrifice that takes away our sin, one who is about about giving us our best life now rather than eternal life, one whose religion is not about what he has done but what we will do to follow him? And do we not, Jew and Gentile alike, then as now, turn away from him when he turns out to be not the Messiah we wanted?

Jews typically do not believe Jesus is Messiah not because they fail to see how Jesus fulfills the Messianic prophecy, but because they do not see the Messianic prophecy as pointing to anything like Jesus. This was a persistent problem even for the Apostles. Gentiles typically do not believe Jesus is the Messiah not because they fail to see how Jesus fulfills the Messianic prophecy, in fact many of them say he does, but because they too find the Messianic prophecy to be a matter of a good man showing us the way to live as good people, to become better people, and find in Jesus such a man. That is why Scripture describes the Gospel as a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.

In the Hellenistic, which is to say Greek based, culture that surrounded Jesus' time and place, many religions existed featuring gods who had miraculous births, worked miracles, acted on behalf of man, entered the city, died and rose again, and whose followers partook of rites of bathing and eating and sacrifices, called mysteries, which the Romans termed sacraments. The Greek Dionysus, whom the Romans appropriated as Bacchus, the Persian Mithra and the Egyptian Osiris are the best examples but there are many others.

Is this Jesus too? Is he simply another failed Jewish Messiah, whose followers, when what will happen after Messiah comes didn't happen after he came, simply recast Messiah in the Hellenistic terms to fit Jesus so they could continue to say he was Messiah after all, thereby obscuring his true value as a moral teacher? Or, is he simply another Hellenistic mystery cult figure, perpetuated by those who derived power from presiding over the mysteries, obscuring the real Jesus and his true value as a moral teacher?

Who Do Men Say That I Am?

Think he didn't see that coming? That's why he asked the question "Who do you say that I am?" But note, that was not Jesus' first question. The first question was "Who do men say that I am?" And indeed, who DO we say that he is -- one of the great prophets of Hebrew Scripture come back, one of the great moral teachers in human history over whom, as with other great teachers, has been laid religious fables by those who claim to follow him but in fact falsify the historical person for a figure of faith, and in any case, a teacher, a model, an example.

Would we not cover the path of such a figure with palms, since that is the saviour we want? And would we not be just as mistaken as those who covered his path thinking here was deliverance from the Roman oppression and the start of the era of peace? And, on finding out that is not who he is, would we not shout as well, Away with him!

Who Do You Say That I Am?

That is still who men say he is. So then he asks, Who do you say that I am? Simon answered, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus told him flesh and blood had not revealed this to him, but his Father who is in heaven. Flesh and blood, that is, human wisdom, never reveals this unto us because it is beyond all human wisdom and contradicts all human wisdom. Therefore it cannot be arrived at by human wisdom nor chosen by human decision, but is the gift of the God and only the gift of God.

Human abilities even with Law and Prophecy and Writings from God could not grasp it; human wisdom apart from revelation constructs bits and pieces of it around mere fable characters who cannot deliver. Either way the natural knowledge of God written in every human heart strives for something it senses is there but cannot discern, and which can only be given by the gift of God.

The Sanhedrin had it exactly right. Jesus was not executed because he said he was the Messiah. One can claim that, and simply be wrong or right. The Messiah is a great man, but a man. He was executed because he said he was God. One cannot claim that without blaspheming God -- unless it is true. We'll take a Messiah who is a great man and leader and teacher, we'll lay palms to cover his path, we'll rejoice that what we want is at hand, but when it turns out instead he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed to be raised again on the third day, well, it shall not be like that with the Messiah we want, and thus we become an offence to him, Satan, savouring the things of Man rather than God.

Who do men say Jesus is? All kinds of things, as we have seen. Things for which we will joyfully lay palms to cover his path, or at least accord him a place in the gallery of the great teachers and moral figures to be so honoured.

And then he asks each of us, Who do YOU say that I am?

Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!

Well somebody say Amen! And here's a little Gospel lift for your Palmarum devotion.


24 March 2014

Problem Pregnancy? The Annunciation, 25 March 2014.

The Annunciation. So what was announced? The story is related in the Gospel according to St Luke, 1:26-38. The angel Gabriel -- which means "God is my hero" in Hebrew -- announced to a Jewish girl named Miriam, better known in English as Mary, that God wanted to cause her to become pregnant with the promised Messiah, and that she should name him Joshua -- which means in Hebrew "God rescues" -- which name is better known in English as Jesus, from the Latin for the Greek for the Hebrew.

Of course, if God is causing the pregnancy, God is not the parent but the father. The complication is, Mary is engaged to a man named Joseph who presumably will be taking care of causing her pregnancies, and in their culture engagement was pretty much was marriage, just the time between the promise of marriage and holding the wedding ceremony, so if she said yes but Joseph did not believe "It's OK God did it" -- not something a guy is inclined to believe -- he would be within his rights under the Law of Moses to have her put to death. Mary knew that. How's that for a problem pregnancy?

So while it's fine to get all into the miracle of a pregnancy cause by divine intervention rather than human intercourse, it might be well to spend a little more time on this -- Mary faced a real hard decision on this pregnancy, like the risk of death, it was not at all convenient for her, but, she trusted God and said yes. Luke also records that Yes, in the famous Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55, which has become a central part of the Divine Office about which this blog recently posted, associated with Vespers or evening prayer in the Western church and Matins (which if you mistake the Catholic Church for the catholic church no longer exists) in the Eastern church.

How about that, the Messiah comes from a troubled pregnancy. Maybe we can put that in the context of troubled pregnancies as well as of the Messiah; there is only one Messiah, but we have a lot of troubled pregnancies. Far from being something shunned or ignored, Christianity and the Christian Church started with one!

And how about this, notice that the date on which the Annunciation, which would then be the date of Jesus' conception, is celebrated exactly nine months, the period of human gestation, before 25 December, the celebration of Jesus' birth. Which shows, and makes the church calendar a witness, that life begins at conception. In fact, the beginning of Jesus' earthly life on this date was such a big deal that it was New Years' Day, the beginning of the new year, until relatively recently, in Mother England (where it is also known as Lady Day) until 1752 when the Gregorian (as in Pope Gregory the Great) calendar replaced the Julian (as in Julius Caesar) calendar.

Although the Western church calendar does contain provisions for moving it should it fall in Easter, which is possible, the Eastern church moves it under no circumstances whatever, so important is the celebration of the beginning of Jesus' life, and it would be celebrated as well as, for example, Good Friday. How's that for a statement that life begins at conception?

This pro-life statement is not an accident but quite intentional. When Dionysus Exiguus (Dennis the Short) worked the calendar details out, which was meant not to just work the calendar details out but to fix a date for the observance of Easter, he assigned the beginning of the new year to the feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, since, because that is when Jesus' life began, that is when the time of grace began, and the years would be counted as before (anno domini, in the year of Our Lord) or after his conception, not after his birth.

They still are, but the world has erased much of the reference, first moving New Years Day, then, thinking life begins at birth really, calling the years, since the Gregorian calendar is in use now throughout the world in lands with a Christian history or not, the Common Era, or Before the Common Era. But when you see that AD still used, remember, it meant originally not just the year of our Lord, but the year of our Lord starting from the date of his conception.

And when you don't see the AD (anno domini, in the year of our Lord) or BC (before Christ) but instead CE (common era) or BCE (before the common era), remember it is the world's way of erasing the reference to Christ in how years are numbered in the calendar of Christian origin now in general use worldwide.

Lady Day has some echoes even in the secular world. It is the first of the four quarter days, marking the quarters of the year, when rent is due and servants are hired, and Lady Day as the first is also when landowners' contracts with farm workers began. 25 March in the old Julian calendar became 6 April in the new Gregorian calendar, and 6 April to this day begins the tax year in the UK.

To be complete, the quarter days align roughly with the solstices and equinoxes, and they are Lady Day, 25 March, Midsummer Day, 24 June, Michaelmas, 29 September, and Christmas, 25 December.

So Happy Lady Day, and especially to those ladies in troubled pregnancies with tough times ahead if you go through with it. God gets it, he chose to come into the world that way. His mother gets it too. So does his church. We're all with you, and welcome you to be with us.