Fasting with Christ

Well, it’s a confusing day for Christians, today, being both Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day.  Some people might be geared up for a valentine’s day date, but it’s also the beginning of Lent.  The worship service for this day begins with the following address:

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting.  This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism.  It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful, were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. In this manner, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need that all Christians continually have to renew our repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

And to make a right beginning, let us now pray for grace, that we may faithfully keep this Lent.

What we would go on to hear from the Gospels is excerpts from Matthew 6, wherein we learn about what to do “when you fast,” and so on.  On the surface level, this reading is appointed because it teaches us about the Lenten disciplines we are now undertaking.  But on a deeper level this shows us not just practical instructions and snippets of wisdom – for if that were all there is to it then this would be Law, no better than the covenant of Moses – but rather that this is also Gospel.  It shows us that there is dignity in self-denial.  We don’t have to make a big show of our religious piety because there is a blessedness intrinsic to those spiritual disciplines.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus taught earlier in the same sermon, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

And Jesus, of course, would go on to endure the most extreme of spiritual disciplines: imprisonment, trial, torture, and death.  When we are under disciplines, be it self-imposed or a result of other circumstances, we have a blessed opportunity to carry our cross as Jesus carried his.  It isn’t magical, or automatic, of course; it does take an act of the will to use our self-discipline or other sufferings to identify with Christ and endeavor to follow in his footsteps.  And we inevitably have elements of selfishness dogging us – sometimes we want to feel sorry for ourselves, or we want to invokes others to pity or to envy of our great patience and devotion.

In many cases that is itself the true spiritual discipline: learning to bear our lot with humility, not seeking temporal rewards for spiritual endeavors.

May this holy season of Lent be a time of spiritual refreshment for you, both in the sobering reality of our sin and our need for Christ, and in the hope-filled encouragement that Christ has already undergone the greatest of temptations and sufferings on our behalf, that the struggles of our lives also now have meaning, purpose, and the blessed fruit of eternal life with God.  To him be all the glory; amen.

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Learning from the Liturgy: Ash Wednesday

In our Texts for Common Prayer, the worship service for Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent, this year being tomorrow, February 14th) is described thus:

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent: a time of penitence, fasting and prayer, in preparation for the great Feast of the Resurrection.

The season of Lent began in the earliest days of the Church as time of preparation for those seeking to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. The forty days refer to our Lord’s time of fasting in the wilderness; and since Sundays are never fast days, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten Fast.

Throughout the Old Testament, ashes are used as a sign of sorrow and repentance, and Christians have traditionally used the same to indicate sorrow for our own sin, and as a reminder that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Like Adam and Eve, we have disobeyed and rebelled against God, and are under the same judgment, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19b).

But as we are marked with ashes in the same manner that we were signed with the cross in Baptism, we are also reminded of the life we share in Jesus Christ, the second Adam (Romans 5:17, 6:4). It is in this sure hope that we begin the journey of these forty days, that by hearing and answering our Savior’s call to repent, we may enter fully into the joyful celebration of his resurrection.

One of the options for the Old Testament reading, which was traditionally assigned for the Daily Office rather than the Communion service with Ashes, is from Isaiah 58.  This chapter, along with the Gospel lesson from Matthew 6, teaches an intrinsic unity between the spiritual disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.  Isaiah masterfully deconstructs the notion that fasting is meritorious on its own, arguing instead that a “true fast” is abstinence in union with charity, or giving of alms, and also sanctified in prayer.  To this day, these three disciplines are considered part and parcel one with another, and form the devotional basis upon which the observance of Lent is built.

Thus, on Ash Wednesday, we spend a great deal of time on prayers of penitence.  Rather than confining our penitence to a brief “Lord have mercy” near the start of the service and a confession prayer near the middle, this day sees a whole litany of penitence following the confession.  It is easy to say we are sinners, and even easy to say we are sorry for our sins, but sometimes it behooves us to reflect upon just how deep sin runs within our hearts.  And so this day’s liturgy assists us in that process, walking us through the various ways we offend against God and neighbor.

With this in-depth confession and penitence in place, we are then brought back to that place of forgiveness and absolution and, hopefully, awakened to pursue the heightened disciplines of the Lenten season with renewed ardor and devotion.  After all, we want to offer God a truly contrite heart (as Psalm 51 puts it), rather than the mere lip service denounced in Isaiah 58.

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The Bible is a book of Origins

This is part two of sixteen in a series, “The Bible Is…”

Where did we come from? and How did we get here? are two of the big existential questions that occupies the religious and philosophical imaginations of every culture in the world.  And the Bible, of course, addresses these questions throughout its many pages.  Although there are bits of insight into such matters in many different books of the Bible, two in particular focus on the subject of origins.  Both the book of Genesis and the Gospel according to Saint John begin with the words “In the beginning…”

The book of Genesis is named for a recurring introductory line “these are the generations of…” which occurs ten times throughout its pages.  This could be translated instead as “this is the genesis of” or “this is the origin story of”.  That the book of Genesis contains ten of these is significant, as the Old Testament Law of Moses would go on to introduce Ten Commandments, and other uses of the number ten throughout the Bible function like a musical motif, reminding the reader of the Ten Commandments and the Law.  The ten origin stories of Genesis are, similarly, a sort of preparatory echo for the reader.  For the book of Genesis is not a stand-alone book, but merely the first of a collection of five books (known together as the Pentateuch) written by Moses to set out the foundation of ancient Israelite law, ethics, and religion.  This will be dealt with in the next section of this series; among them Genesis functions as a prologue, a preparation or introductory background for the Covenant and Law that God set out with Israel.

Because Genesis is a prologue to the Old Testament Law, it is not primarily a book of history.  Although much of it is historical narrative in form, it is not historical in function.  Thus as we read this book we read it with a charitable sense of history.  We read about the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, and others, not for the purpose of chronicling the history of the world, but for the purpose of learning about God’s relationship with his people, Israel, and its neighboring clans and nations.  It’s less about “what happened back then” and more about “how we got to where we are now”, that is, up to the time of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.

The Gospel of John, although being one of the four books that tell the story of Jesus, also begins with an origin statement: “in the beginning was the Word.”  Even less interested in human history, John’s prologue in the first half of chapter 1 looks back into the eternal life of God, giving us a poetic and insightful glimpse into the reality of God: Jesus, as the Word of God, has always existed alongside God the Father and was an agent in creating the universe.  So as the bulk of the book goes on to narrative various events and teachings of Jesus, a focus unique among the Gospel books is maintained: Jesus is not just the Christ, the anointed one who is to save us from sin, but is God Almighty who had been known and worshiped from the beginning.

It is interesting that these two books of the Bible which deal most directly with the subject of origins are not actually straight-forward historical or scientific texts.  People today typically ask questions about the timeline of the universe – when was the sun formed, when was the Earth formed, when did life begin and when did humans appear?  But instead the Bible takes its own tack toward these questions, dealing instead with who the Creator is (in the Gospel of John) and the pre-history of how the Creator has been involved with his creation (in the book of Genesis).  Even if Christians differ on precisely how to interpret these books with regard to historical precision, it is at least an important consideration to observe that God teaches us of the distant past on his own terms, and not according to the fads or preferences of one culture or another.

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Learning from the Liturgy: the Pre-Lent Sundays

The three Sundays before Ash Wednesday are sometimes known as “the -gesima Sundays.”  -gesima is a Latin partial word, from Septuagesima and Sexagesima and Quinquagesima and Quadragesima.  These mean 70 days, 60 days, 50 days, and 40 days, respectively, and they refer to the approximate amount of time remaining until Easter.  Quadragesima is a Latin name for Ash Wednesday, when Lent officially begins, but the three Sundays before it (with increasingly ‘rounded’ approximations of the Easter countdown) form a sort of Pre-Lent season.

These three weeks were a transitional period: the Lenten spiritual disciplines had not yet begun, but some of Lent’s liturgical features were put in place, like the “burial of the alleluia” and the wearing of purple vestments.  Those who practiced especially severe fasting during Lent would use these three weeks to begin the fast in stages, giving their bodies time to adjust safely to the austere self-denial that awaited.

The first Sunday’s Gospel lesson was the Gospel of the Landowner paying his workers the same, even to the 11th hour (Matt. 20).  This prepared the Church for the labor of Lenten disciplines.

The second Sunday proclaimed the Parable of the Four Soils (Luke 8).  This reminded us of right reception of the Word of God.

The third Sunday recounted Jesus’ announcement that he was going to Jerusalem where he’d be arrested, killed, and rise again (Luke 18:31ff).  This was an apt sort of announcement that the penitential season of Lent was about to begin.

I’ve written all this in past tense because modern liturgical calendars have abolished this miniature season.  Perhaps some people think it redundant with Lent; perhaps others wanted to lengthen the Epiphany season; perhaps its function in the larger scheme of the calendar was not properly appreciated by the revisionists.  Whateverso it is a tradition largely gone from the Church today, observed only in the Eastern Orthodox traditions and the relatively few Anglicans who continue to use traditional prayer books.

Although we are not directly observing these special weeks of the Church year anymore, it can be beneficial to know about them.  They are part of the treasure of Church Tradition that reaches back well past a thousand years, and, rightly received, can be of great benefit to our spiritual formation as we work with the Church’s calendar to learn and grow in Christ.

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The Bible is the Gospel of Jesus Christ

This is part one of sixteen in a series, “The Bible Is…”

Perhaps the single most important thing to know about the Bible is that it is about the Gospel, or “good news”, of Jesus Christ.  Every page speaks of him in some way: some parts foretell aspects of his identity and work, some parts explain the impact he has on our lives, others speak of him directly.  Four books in the Bible are specifically called Gospels because they are direct accounts of his life, teachings, and works.  All Scripture speaks of Christ, but only four of its books are singly devoted to telling us his story.

There is much that can be learned from comparing the styles, emphases, and contents of the four Gospel books, but for the purposes of an introduction to the Bible it is easiest to begin with just one book.  Of the four, we will be looking at the Gospel according to Saint Mark.

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four, and arguably the most action-packed.  The phrase “and then” or “immediately” is used far more times in this book than any other, giving a sense of motion and advancement through the narrative.  Its comparative brevity and excitement is perhaps due to its author and purpose: Saint Mark was initially a traveling evangelist with Saint Paul, and then the protégé of Saint Peter.  Having a shorter, memorable, and more portable Gospel account would prove especially useful for his purposes.

Each of the Gospel books take on a slightly different focus regarding Jesus, and Mark’s is especially useful for the evangelist and first-time reader by emphasizing Jesus as King.  The book follows a rough outline of establishing Jesus’ authority (chapter 1), demonstrating it through his works (chapters 1-8) and teaching (8-10), the testing of his authority (chapters 11-15) and proof of his authority (chapter 16).  Although not perfectly chronological by modern history-writing standards, it is one of the more chronologically-precise books of the four, again making it an ideal introduction for the first-time Bible-reader.

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The Bible Is…

This year I’m undertaking a little project: summarize the Bible in several parts by grouping its component books together into categories.  The origin of this project came from the question “in what order should I read the books of the Bible if I’ve never read any of it before?”  In fact, I wrote a blog post about this nearly 4 years ago.  Reading straight through in canonical order from cover to cover has its value, but it can be very difficult and confusing for a reader unfamiliar with the whole Bible already.

What I proceeded to work out was an order of Bible book reading that started with the heart of its message and spiraled out from there.  This prioritized approach recognizes that some parts of the Bible are more directly pertinent to the Christian message than others.  “All Scriptures are god-breathed and profitable…” St. Paul affirms (1 Tim. 3:16), but it is perfectly safe to admit that not all parts of Scripture are equally profitable, or profitable in the same way.  Someone new to the faith will benefit much more from reading the Gospel of Mark compared to the book of Numbers.

The result is a break-down of the Bible’s books into 16 categories.  Throughout the year I will write brief summaries of each of these categories, with the aim to show not only what books are in the Bible, but how they function within the overall canon.  Of course, there is considerable overlap between the sixteen categories, but for sake of basic introduction I’m keeping each book within one category only.

Here is the plan.  The Bible is…

#1 the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark)

#2 Origins (Genesis, John)

#3 Teaching/Law [Old Covenant]
(Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)

#4 the New Covenant (Galatians

#5 History (Joshua, Judges, Ruth,
1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Luke, Acts)

#6 Fulfillment (Isaiah, Matthew)

#7 Theology (James, Romans, Hebrews)

#8 General Epistles (Peter, Jude, John)

#9 Song-Prayers (Psalms)

#10 Paul’s Epistles (1 & 2 Thessalonians,
1 & 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus)

#11 Great Prophets
(Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel)

#12 Preaching (Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Obadiah, Joel, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)

#13 Apocalyptic (Ezekiel, Revelation)

#14 Wisdom (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs)

#15 Perspective (1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Baruch, Tobit, Judith,
1 & 2 Maccabees, 1 & 2 Esdras)

#16 Self-Reflective
(Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus/Sirach)

 

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January 2018’s Update to the TCP

The Texts for Common Prayer of the Anglican Church in North America underwent another round of revision this month, following the latest meeting of the College of Bishops.  Everything is listed at their official website.  The following pieces have been updated:

  • Morning Prayer
  • Evening Prayer
  • Supplemental Canticles
  • The Decalogue
  • The Holy Eucharist: Anglican Standard Text
  • The Holy Eucharist: Renewed Ancient Text
  • Supplemental Eucharistic Texts
  • Collects for the Christian Year
  • Daily Office Lectionary

I’ve gone through them thoroughly, if not exhaustively, and will summarize the changes for those who are interested or curious.

Morning & Evening Prayer and the Supplemental Canticles

One of the two biggest changes is that asterisks are added to the Canticles, which are traditional marks of where to pause while reading or end a line of chant.  The Canticles which are Psalms have also undergone revision of their translation, hinting at the work on the new Psalter which has not been completed or released.

The other big change is the wording of the Gloria Patri.  It is now (once again) “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”  It’s only one word difference from before, but this is 1) on top of the “world without end” restoration early on from the shortened Roman and Episcopalian version, and 2) this is a refrain that is said many times in the Offices.

There are a couple other formatting changes, a couple edits to the translation of the Suffrage (primarily reflecting the meaning of the original Prayer Books rather than copying the Episcopalian revisions), and an extra Suffrage for Evening Prayer has been added.  The Opening Sentences saw some minor edits – one was swithed from Evening to Morning, a couple were cut, and a couple had their leading conjunction (finally) removed.  Also, the Supplemental Canticles now have numbers for ease of reference.

The Holy Communion

The Decalogue has undergone some significant rewording.  Instead of asking God to “give us grace to keep this law” we ask for him to “incline our hearts to keep this law”, which is (again) more faithful to the old Prayer Books, and is more theologically specific.  We don’t just need “grace” to do better, but our hearts need reorientation.

The previous setup of having three near-identical Eucharistic Rites has been reduced to two; the “Common Form” has been dropped.  Now we have the “Standard Anglican Text” and the “Renewed Ancient Text.”

The former is still of classic American Prayer Book content, with a couple options to omit two paragraphs of the Prayer of Consecration for those who want to shorten it (but why would you want to, really?).  A few edits to break down the old-fashioned run-on sentences have been implemented, and for folks like me who got used to the long “Standard Form” Prayer of Consecration it’ll take some getting used to.

The latter still has the “bidding prayer” style Prayers of the People and the abbreviated Confession like the current Episcopalian revisions, and its Prayer of Consecration has been significantly reworked to combine elements of the previous “Common Form” and “Ancient Text” rites.  The “mystery of faith” spoken by the congregation is put in there, and the post-communion prayer is still the short one.

In both versions, there is a curious reversion in the “Great Thanksgiving” or “Sursum Corda” dialogue back to the Episcopalian (and previous Roman) loose translation “it is right to give him thanks and praise” instead of the more elegant “it just and right so to do” that we’d enjoyed for the past couple years in the draft liturgies.  Changes like that are going to throw congregations off as they bounce around from one version to another.  I’m almost afraid to implement this in my congregation until I see it in hard copy in 2019, just in case.

The Supplemental Eucharistic Texts include one word change in one of the Opening Acclamations and The Exhortation, and a refreshed list of Proper Prefaces with a couple changes is now available.  The Offertory Sentences are labeled to have been edited, but as far as I could count, the list of verses is unchanged.

Collects for the Christian Year

I did not read every collect to compare them with the previous list.  It’s possible some grammar has been edited here, as in other places.  The main changes I noticed are the addition of more rubrics before and among the Collects, and the change of label for the Sundays after Trinity: instead of “The Sunday closest to ___” they are now “The Sunday between __ and __.”  This will make it easier for liturgical planners to figure out which Proper to use for which Sunday!  But it still doesn’t solve the problem of assigning a stable identity or name to each of these Propers.  As obnoxious as the Episcopalians’ system is, one can at least reference “Proper 20” in their book and know what it means from year to year.

Daily Office Lectionary

This is a completely new document from the previous one.  Instead of following the liturgical calendar it follows the secular calendar, which makes it much more accessible to the average church-goer.  It follows a much simpler pattern, generally reading 1 chapter of the Old Testament at a time, and a New Testament reading of no more than 30 verses at a time.  It does a weird switch half way through the year where the Gospels and Epistles switch places between Morning and Evening – this is likely a concession to the reality that many people only pray one Office a day, and thus an attempt to allow them to stick to either Morning or Evening and still get basically the whole New Testament covered.

Where this document falls short, though, is that it does not account for the holy days (“red letter days”) in the Liturgical Calendar.  Even the major holidays like Christmas are overlooked, resulting in some most inappropriate and embarrassing readings appointed for that day.  Were it not for this critical shortcoming, this would be an excellent daily lectionary.  Hopefully this will continue to be a work in progress.

What’s left?

The Task Force is still accepting feedback for much of the material in Texts for Common Prayer, but virtually the entire book is drafted and available online at the link provided at the top of this article.  The only major portion of the book yet unfinished is the Psalter.  They’re working hard to make sure we have a translation that is both beautiful and accurate, and an emphasis on reclaiming our heritage in the Coverdale translation is being pursued with vigor.  What has been made available of the Psalms in the Office and Supplemental Canticles suggests that they’re doing a good job in the pursuit of quality.

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