Filling in the Blanks: Judges

Unlike its predecessor Joshua, the book of Judges gets almost full coverage in the 2019 Prayer Book’s Daily Office Lectionary.  Only the last five chapters are omitted.  If you want to “fill in the blanks” and read those skipped chapters, this Customary’s Midday Prayer Lectionary starts in on that material today.

So let’s take a look at what’s going on here.

The book of Judges is, mostly, a history of twelve judges (six major, six minor) who ruled the tribes of Israel in the period of history before the rise of the monarchy under Saul and David.  The last five chapters, however, are kind of like two appendixes, stuck on as additional stories that take place somewhere in line with the centuries outlined in the majority of the book.

Chapters 17 & 18 tell the story of Micah and his Levite priest, providing a sort of origin story for the rife idolatry that took hold over the tribe of Dan from early times.

Chapters 19-21 tell the story of a Levite and his concubine (legally, his actual wife, but called a concubine because Levites don’t have tribal land allotments to pass down or inherit) and of a holy war against Benjamin that results when she is brutally raped and killed.

Why are these chapters omitted from our lectionary (apart from the generic reason that you’ve got to squeeze the Bible into one year somehow)?  This time we don’t have an easy out: the original Prayer Book lectionary of the 16th-18th centuries included the entire book of Judges, so ours is a reduction of coverage, not an expansion, as is usually the case.  Ours is an improvement over what’s in the 1928 and 1979 lectionaries, but it’s not a full restoration back to the 1662 standard.  Why?

Without insight from the Liturgy Task Force, I can only guess.

The story of Micah & his Levite “priest” is a wicked story, telling of the descent of a whole tribe toward notorious apostasy.  It is a “bad example” story, with very little good in it for a Christian to seek to imitate.  Perhaps it was thought that there are enough examples of sin in the biblical literature already, that this episode was ruled expendable to make room for more immediately edifying readings elsewhere.

The story of the Levite and his concubine, the crimes against her, the resulting war and subsequent insanely sinful plans to rescue the tribe of Benjamin from extinction, is also quite low in “good examples.”  It’s a brutal story, perhaps the most vivid account of rape in the Bible – it may be that the current cultural climate would benefit from careful study of a story like this, rather than public reading.  There are also a number of concepts and events in this story that are difficult to understand without particular instruction and explanation: what it means for the Levite to have a concubine, why he chopped her dead body into twelves pieces and mailed them around the country, why genocide seemed like a good idea, and why more rape and abduction seemed like a good solution to prevent the genocide.

There may be something I’m missing here; terrible as they are, these are stories I would not have chosen to drop from the daily lectionary.  Still, every Bible-in-a-year plan or daily lectionary is going to have its shortcomings somewhere; I’m not going to say this one’s absolutely perfect.  So if you want to read those skipped stories, consider picking them up in Midday Prayer over the coming week or so.

Filling in the blanks: Ezekiel

I’m posting this a week later than I probably should have… maybe that was a mistake in my pre-planning.  Anyway, back on June 21st we read Ezekiel 47 at Evening Prayer, and then didn’t come back for its final chapter, 48.  Before that we’d skipped chapters 44-46, and 41-42, which I briefly explained and summarized in a video that Friday.  But there’s more: chapters 19-32 were skipped; that’s about 30% of the book gone right there.  Chapters 38 & 39 also were omitted.  Altogether, approximately 45% of Ezekiel is not in our daily lectionary.  The evangelical reader is probably annoyed right now.  “What gives?”

If historical precedent is any consolation….

  • less than 18 chapters (38%) appear in the 1979 Book’s daily lectionary
  • about 16 chapters (33%) appear in the 1928 lectionary
  • maybe 13 chapter (27%) appear in the 1922 lectionary in the 1662 Book
  • nearly 23 chapters (47%) are in the 19th century’s lectionary in the 1662 Book
  • only 12 chapters (25%) are read in the ORIGINAL Anglican daily lectionary

So with us reading 55% of the book, that’s a massive increase compared to every Prayer Book before ours.

But of course, someone who is not as optimistic about the wisdom of the Church and the value of the Prayer Book is still going to argue: what’s “wrong” with so much of Ezekiel?

I’m not going to analyze, explain, and defend the mentality of each prayer book in our history, other than to say that Ezekiel is one of the least-accessible Prophets to read fruitfully without a great deal of study, and so when it comes to the public daily reading in the churches it is more profitable to spend time on other portions of Scripture that are more readily understandable and clear to the people in the pews.  That said, let’s take a quick look at what the 2019 Prayer Book’s daily lectionary omits.

Chapters 19-32 are a series of oracles, prophecies of condemnation and judgment, against Jerusalem, Israel & Judah, Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt.  They vary in style and tone, and there are few “famous” images among these chapters, such as the Ohola & Oholiba parable for the unfaithfulness of Israel & Judah.  These aren’t “unimportant” chapters, as such, but they are “redundant” with a fair bit of the Prophetic Corpus of the Old Testament.

Chapters 38-39 form the prophecy against the mysterious Gog and his land, Magog.  This has been interpreted in many different ways, pointing to the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, and even to a yet-future world power in the End Times.  When it comes down to it, this is not mere prophecy, but apocalyptic literature, which comes with its own special interpretive challenges.  I suppose that the restoration of the book of Revelation into the daily lectionary has mitigated the need to to rely on its even-more-puzzling Old Testament forebear.

Chapters 41-42 and 44-46 are basically a series of pictures in prose form.  Here we find the lengthy description of the New Temple, which I talked about in the video post linked at the beginning of this article.  Chapter 40, in the lectionary, is sufficient for giving the reader the “establishing shot”, to use a TV/movie term, and chapter 43 describes an event or scene there.  The rest, omitted, do provide additional prophetic insights of course (they are scripture), but the majority of that material is a slow slog through a lot of measurements and repetitive formulae.

Chapter 48, similarly, is an extension of the information in chapter 47; together they describe a map of new tribal allotments.  You can read more about that here if you like.  For the Christian, the important lesson is in the promise of God that he will bless his faithful people; the specific land boundaries are simply images that prefigure the perfection of the New Heaven & New Earth, so grinding through all the geographic descriptions is not strictly necessary for getting the point across.

That said, if you are a “completionist” when it comes to reading the Scriptures, you can always pick up this Customary’s Supplementary Midday Prayer lectionary to fill you in on the missed chapters of Ezekiel, scattered throughout the summer.

A Prayer that actually isn’t out of date

Among the litany and prayers in the Prayer Book tradition, one of the groups in the “for the needy” category is for those who travel.  Here is Occasional Prayer #53, from page 662 in The Book of Common Prayer (2019).

O God, our heavenly Father, whose glory fills the whole creation, and whose presence we find wherever we go: Preserve those who travel [epsecially ___]; surround them with your loving care; protect them from every danger; and bring them in safety to their journey’s end; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

As much as I love history and tradition, this has often been an odd prayer subject for me.  Traveling is so much safer today than it was “back then”.  You can fly around the world in airplanes just about anywhere and although accidents happen your chances of coming home safe & sound are incredibly high.  So in my own prayer life whenever I encountered this sort of prayer, I would usually apply it in my heart to people I know who travel for a living, like truck drivers.

You can also spiritualize this sort of prayer really easily.  The Journey is one of several biblical images for the Christian life; we are all pilgrims on the Way of Christ, seeking our eternal abode in that heavenly city.  That’s a great and fruitful allegorical use of this prayer, complete with “every danger” that besets the Christian Journey.

But this prayer must have merit also in its “literal” construction.  And you know what?  COVID-19 has provided a context where this prayer has become more useful and meaningful.  When there is a plague, pandemic, or other widespread disaster or concern, traveling becomes a lot more dangerous.  Popping ’round the corner for groceries with a face mask is one thing, but traveling across multiple State lines in the US, where the infection rates have either fallen or dramatically risen (depending on the state and region) can get rather squirrely.  What differences in policy will I run into if I stop in New York State versus Pennsylvania?  Does Connecticut have the same guidelines as Massachusetts?  Does a family have to take particular self-quarantine measures if a household member has traveled a few hundred miles and back?

These are not questions we should be panicking about, or asking in fear, but they are issues to be concerned with and to seek mindful answers to.  Travel has become more complicated, and public health issues do make traveling more “dangerous” in one form or another.  So if you’re not accustomed to praying this Prayer For Those Who Travel, perhaps for now you’ve got a useful context for it.

Customary & Commentary ANNOUNCEMENT

By my count, we are past 100 days of ‘Covidtide’ now, and I’ve got to be honest, this season has not been kind to me, or to many others.  But I did my best to keep this blog going because, when it comes down to it, this is about prayer and worship, and the Christian soul is veritably nourished by prayer and worship.  We need to support one another on our knees before the Lord of mercy and grace, and this blog is one small way that I try to help my fellow Christians, especially Anglicans (or at least Anglophiles), to continue steadfast in the life of prayer and hopefully grow in those disciplines too.

But this blog was not meant to be the “main thing” here.  It’s called The Saint Aelfric Customary.  And if you go back to the front page you’ll see that the “main thing” is supposed to be the writing and provision of an actual Customary.  There has also been a statement of intent and purpose on this page since this project’s beginning in October 2018.

My announcement today is that I am beginning to work, in earnest, toward the writing of this Customary as well as some Commentary on the Prayer Book liturgy!

For the time being, this will mean that I will update the Customary page(s) once a week, and also write one blog post per week that commentates on something from the 2019 Prayer Book.  The latter I have been doing informally for over a year now, but I am aiming to be more specific and comprehensive from this point on.

There is also now a shiny new drop-down menu in the Header of this website.  “Customary” still goes to the same Customary index, mostly empty for now, but “Commentary” now has a handy-dandy menu of different pages so you can browse old entries more easily by subject matter.  That, I believe, will make the reference value of this site significantly more useful.

May the Lord bless this work, and all ye who read it, comment, question, and otherwise engage with it as we all journey through the sacred liturgy in the Way of Christ!

– Fr. Brench

Ecce, Deus, it’s Trinitytide!

In the 2019 Prayer Book we’ve got a nice collection of ten Supplemental Canticles to spice up the Daily Office a bit.  I’ve written about them before, in general, and I’ve made recommendations as to when one might most appropriate use each of them.  You can find that article here.

Today let’s look at Canticle 8: Ecce, Deus, on page 85, which this Customary appoints for regular weekdays through Trinitytide.  This short canticle is taken from Isaiah 12:2-6, but if you compare the text of this Canticle to, say, the ESV translation of the Bible, you’ll find that the phraseology is quite different indeed.  Most of the differences are verb tenses (something that is honestly kind of squirrelly in Hebrew anyway) and prepositions (which also are pretty loose in Hebrew), which is already enough to give a different “feel” to a text without actually substantially changing the meaning.

As it turns out, the wording used in the Prayer Book is the same as that found in the 1979 Book, where Ecce Deus is Canticle 9 on page 86, named “The First Song of Isaiah.”  So this translation was done by the Rev. Dr. Charles Guilbert, who was heavily involved in the crafting of the 1979 Book and in particular its Psalter.

The text of the Canticle itself is actually two psalms strung together.  Isaiah 12:1-2 and 4-6 are brief songs of praise to God for his deliverance, connected by verse 3.  The first part is more directed toward God, speaking of and to him; the second has more of a human audience in mind, calling upon others to give God praise and thanks also.  Both in formal Bible translations and our liturgical translation, this pattern of praise followed by invitation can be discerned.

The rubric on page 85 indicate that it is appropriate for any time, noting that its themes and content have no specific connotation toward Easter or Advent or any other particular occasion – it is a Canticle for all seasons!  So this is as good a time as any to enjoy Ecce Deus, if you ask me.

The Collect for St. John’s Nativity

Today we celebrate the birthday of Saint John the Baptist!
We’ve looked at this holy day in the Church Calendar before; here you will find three brief takes on the significance of this feast: Happy Birthday, John the Baptist!  You can also read a little about his life and of some lectionary history for his feast day here.

This year, I’d like to look at the Collect for this Day.  Here it is in the 1662 Prayer Book:

ALMIGHTY God, by whose providence thy servant John Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Saviour, by preaching of repentance; Make
us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching, and after his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

For the most part, this is the same as what we’ve got in the 2019 Prayer Book today.  The first half is virtually identical; only the word doctrine is now swapped out for teaching, which means the same thing, though the connotations have changed slightly.  Today the word doctrine more often is used to refer to a specific area or type of teaching, rather than biblical-theological teaching as a whole.  So that’s a subtle language update that helps preserve the original meaning of this prayer.

It’s also important to note that doctrine/teaching is paired with a holy life.  An unvirtuous teacher is not a good Christian example, neither is a virtuous man with sloppy theology.

The “purpose” section of the Collect, in the second half, is a bit more rearranged, however.  We pray that we may follow John’s doctrine and example so that…

that we may truly repent (2019)
that we may truly repent according to his preaching (1662)

Both versions start with this, and rightly so!  The call to repentance was the most obvious and prolific subject of his preaching that we find in the Gospels, most especially in Luke 3.  The phrase “according to his preaching” is not in our text of the prayer, probably dropped for its redundancy with the subject of his doctrine/teaching in the previous phrase.

boldly rebuke vice (both)

This is the second purpose for our following his teaching and life.  This, too, was a major part of his recorded preaching, as the identification of vice and sin is rather necessary for a genuine call to repentance.  The difference is that the modern prayer puts this second while the 1662 prayer puts this in the middle of the list.

patiently suffer for the sake of truth (2019)
patiently suffer for the truth’s sake (1662)

Third in the modern prayer and last in the old, suffering for the cause of God’s truth is part of St. John the Baptist’s example.  Being last in the 1662 form of the prayer, this has a place of subtle emphasis; it’s the last thing we hear, a sobering “last word on the matter”.  John was a martyr, after all, and many, many others would soon follow him.

and proclaim the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord (2019)

Absent from the traditional collect is the theme of proclaiming the advent of Jesus.  Some might read this to be pretentious: John the Baptist was a unique herald, The Forerunner, specially imbued by the Holy Spirit to “prepare the way of the Lord” and point people to his relative, Jesus, when his ministry began.  We are not called or qualified to anything on par with that!  But we do proclaim the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord, even though we don’t know the day or the hour of his return, nor even have a promise that he will return within our lifetimes.  The return of Christ is a reality that permeates the New Testament epistles, and has also characterized the liturgy (particularly that of Holy Communion) ever since as we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  So we follow in John’s footsteps in this ministry of proclamation, albeit on a different level of the scale.

 

Introducing the Creed of Saint Athanasius

One of the “Documentary Foundations”, on page 769 in the 2019 Prayer Book, is The Athanasian Creed.  It is offered there without comment, much like it is in the back of the 1979 Prayer Book, except this time in a normal font size so you don’t have to be especially young and spry in order to read it.

There is, however, a rubric in our Prayer Book that point to it.  On page 139, among the Additional Directions Concerning Holy Communion, we are told that the Athanasian Creed may be used in place of the Nicene Creed on Trinity Sunday and other occasions as appropriate.  This is probably the most widespread use of that Creed today.

In the classical Prayer Book tradition, however, it received a bit more use.  In the 1662 Prayer Book, for example, we find this rubric:

Upon these Feasts, Christmas-day, the Epiphany, St. Matthias, Easter-day, Ascension-day, Whitsunday, St. John Baptist, St. James, St. Bartholomew, St. Matthew, St. Simon and St.
Jude, St. Andrew, and upon Trinity-sunday, shall be sung or said at Morning Prayer, instead of the Apostles Creed, this Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of St. Athanasius, by the Minister and people standing.

That’s 13 times a year this Creed was ordered to be said.  If you’re curious about why those feasts were selected, and not others, the best I can offer is that the principle feasts of the year are covered (Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday), and beyond that one feast per month is chosen, such that this Creed would be heard about once a month, usually near the end:

  • January: Epiphany (6th)
  • February: St. Matthias (29th)
  • March: Easter sometimes
  • April: Easter usually, Ascension sometimes
  • May: Ascension usually, Pentecost sometimes
  • June: Pentecost usually, Trinity, St. John Baptist (24th)
  • July: St. James (25th)
  • August: St. Bartholomew (24th)
  • September: St. Matthew (21st)
  • October: St. Simon and St. Jude (28th)
  • November: St. Andrew (30th)
  • December: Christmas (25th)

Anyway, let’s look at the Creed itself.  It’s called Of Athanasius because he is the traditionally-acclaimed author, though historical scholarship has indicated that it’s most likely a product of his school of thought, or his tradition so to speak, rather than of him himself.  Thus some like to refer to it by its first line in Latin: Quicunque vult.  But the appellation of Athanasius is appropriate nonetheless, as this does express his theology quite clearly.

In terms of contents, this Creed is by far the best and most robust resource in the Church’s arsenal when it comes to teaching the doctrine of the Trinity.  In the way it is formatted in our Prayer Book, most of page 769 deals with the Trinity, all of page 770 does, and the first “verse” of it on page 771 concludes the section on the Trinity.  The rest of the Creed (page 771) proceeds in a fashion very similar to the Nicene Creed, outlining the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  But even this uses more developed language to expound the two natures of Christ (in close union with the 3rd and 4th Ecumenical Councils, again indicating a post-Athanasius origin).

Let’s be honest, this Creed can be a bit of a tongue-twister, and its repetitive phrases can make it difficult to understand without familiarity.  But if you read it slowly and carefully, its logic will be clear, as two things are being established very methodically: there are three Persons in the Trinity and there is one God in Unity.

Apart from its length, this Creed has other features that have contributed to its decline in popularity over the past 200 years: its vehement insistence on orthodoxy for salvation.  Note how it begins:

Whoever will be savedbefore all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

It ends with the same tone:

This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.

The good news here is that it never says “understand”, only “hold” or “keep” or “believe”.  So if you or your child or your uneducated Christian friend don’t really understand what this Creed is saying, you or they are not damned.  We keep the faith, we hold and believe the faith, however well we understand and grasp its particulars in our minds.  The mystery of the Trinity is one of the greatest mysteries and paradoxes that can be found in the Scriptures, yet this Creed reminds us (and carefully explains) that no true Christian worships three Gods, or blends the Father, Son, and Spirit together into one person, neither do we blend the divinity and humanity of Jesus together into some sort of demigod half-breed.  We hold to the intellectually-difficult yet simple truths that the one God exists in three persons, and that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.

So that, I hope, puts to rest any fears that the anathemas (condemnatory statements) may rile up in the heart of the reader.

If you and your church did not say the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday this year (and let’s face it, very few of us even had the chance to!) consider taking up the tradition of the classical Prayer Books and saying it at Morning Prayer on John the Baptist’s birthday tomorrow!  It’s not technically authorized in our Prayer Book, but to do so would be in accord with the spirit of the rubrics, if not the letter.

St. Alban, Britain’s Protomartyr

Today is the commemoration of Saint Alban, one of the early British Saints whose name appears in the calendar of the 2019 Prayer Book.  His death date is listed as “c. 250” – the c. is for circa, Latin for “approximately”.  In this particular case, this approximation is more of an average… dates given for his death in early sources have discrepancies ranging from 209 to 304.  Also, if you’re curious about the word “protomartyr,” it means “first martyr”, or more technically, first recorded martyr.

You can read his abridged hagiography on Wikipedia if you like; two of our major sources on his story are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and The Ecclesiastical History by St. Bede – both are major source of information for Christianity in Britain in the first millennium A.D.  In short, Alban was a Briton who harbored a Christian priest hiding from state persecution.  Alban came to respect the priest’s faith and holiness and converted to Christ also.  When soldiers came to arrest the priest, Alban put on the priest’s garments and offered himself in the priest’s place.  His self-sacrificial subterfuge was soon found out, but he was tortured and eventually executed instead of the priest anyway.  On the way to his execution a river was miraculously dried up so the execution party could avoid a crowded bridge and a spring appeared to quench his thirst, both incidents heavily reflecting stories of Moses and Jesus.

The tricky thing about hagiographies, of course, is that this is a very stylized way of writing which only gets more elaborate over the course of history.  And even if the religious content was not an issue, there is also the simple reality that we don’t have a lot of original information from this many centuries past.  It may be that these miracle tales are historically accurate, but it’s also very likely that these stories have been told and retold in particular ways and with particular embellishments to teach the hearers something apart from the actual history of these Saints.  I would suspect, for example, that the crossing of the river on dry ground and the appearance of the water-spring are additions to the “real” history of Saint Alban, added not make Alban look super-special nor to trick posterity into believing a lie, but to illustrate the virtue of Alban’s faith by adding biblical allusions to the crucifixion of Christ and the Exodus led by Moses.

You who read this probably already know: I love history.  I even wrote a short article entitled Why History Matters a few years ago.  You might be puzzled, then, why I’m so positive about sharing a hagiography that even I admit is probably not strictly historically accurate?  The answer is this: we learn from hagiographies in much the same way we learn from history.  These old writings bring us into worlds that are different from our own, where people think differently and conceive of similar ideas in dissimilar ways.  How we understand and relate to history is very different from how they understood and related to history before them.

So as we go through Saint Alban’s Day, I encourage you to give thought to the witness of those who would die for the faith, for the name of Christ.  Regardless of what historically happened on his way to his execution, his example of truly committed faith is instructive and inspiring.  And, I daresay for most of us comfy Americans, a healthy humbling shock.

As we remember martyrs according to our Prayer Book (from page 637),

Almighty God, you gave your servant Alban boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Visions of the New Temple – Ezekiel 40

Today at Evening Prayer we begin the final phase of the book of the Prophet Ezekiel.  I was a bit tired when filming this video, so forgive my facial expressions… covidtide has been difficult on all of us.

As for the content matter itself, the hermeneutic employed here, looking at Ezekiel chapters 40 through 48, is one that applies handily throughout the Old Testament: we’re not simply studying and learning history, but through historical visions we receive insight into the very Gospel of Jesus.