Happy Saints Cyril & Methodius Day?!

It’s February 14th, you know what that means…

valentine

Wait one sec… <checks calendar> …well we were all expecting St. Valentine’s Day, but no, it’s Sts. Cyril and Methodius.  Isn’t Valentine a Saint?  Yes, and he’s actually older – earlier – than Cyril and Methodius.  This probably only heightens the question, therefore: why do our calendars highlight those guys instead of Valentine?  I mean, Valentine was a martyr, and that usually puts one at the “top” of a list of Saints.  Insofar as one can rate “saintliness,” martyrdom is usually top-rate.

But there is one “category” of sainthood that tops a martyr: Apostles.  Obviously, Cyril and Methodius are not among the original twelve, or even among the first generation of Christians.  Rather, they were apostles of a later sort – what we might call missionary bishops.  They were sent to a new unreached people-group, the Slavs of Southeastern Europe, to preach the Gospel and establish the church among them.  They became bishops in time, and were thus the “Apostles to the Slavs.”

And their efforts, not without controversy at first, went beyond what we normally read about with historic apostolic missionary bishops.  Far from the imperialist mindset that frequently follows well-meaning missionaries, Cyril and Methodius actually learned the local language, began to invent an alphabet for them to write their language down, and began to celebrate the divine liturgy in their local language too.  This was in the 800’s, a point in which everything Christian was generally either in Greek or in Latin (the Coptic, Assyrian, and Armenian churches had departed by this point), so the adding of a third major liturgical language was viewed with some suspicion at first.  Nevertheless, the Cyrillic alphabet survives to this day, used by churches and nations that represent a massive portion of the world today.  Old Church Slavonic is also now considered an “ancient” standard in Eastern liturgy.

Now, obviously, all Saint are important.  Even further, all Christians, members of the Body of Christ, equally belong in Christ.  In that sense, there’s no comparing or ranking that can be done.  But liturgically speaking, you can only really have one commemoration per day.  Because Cyril and Methodius were brothers who worked together in the same mission, they get teamed up to share a holy day (14 February is understood to be Cyril’s death date).  And because their contribution to the global church makes a bigger splash than St. Valentine, who was executed on the same day of the year, they usually get liturgical priority over him.

So if you want to combine these commemorations today, perhaps you take someone out for a Valentine’s Day date, but write him or her a note in Russian or something 😉

Looking Ahead: St. Matthias Day

February 24th is the date our calendar holds for celebrating Saint Matthias.  One could say Matthias was the “second twelfth apostle.”  The Collect for his day makes this explicit:

Almighty God, who in the place of Judas chose your faithful servant Matthias to be numbered among the Twelve: Grant that your Church, being delivered from false apostles, may always be guided and governed by faithful and true pastors; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Some modern calendars appoint his feast day for May 14th, landing him close to when Ascensiontide takes place.  That’s a modern change that actually makes some good sense: his only story in the Bible is in Acts 1 – he was elected and chosen by lot to replace Judas in the 10-day period of time between the Ascension of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.  But the ACNA’s calendar is holding onto his traditional date February 24th.

This year that puts his feast day on a Sunday, which (many people need to be reminded) is now explicitly permitted, if not also suggested, in our calendar that we can celebrate the feast day right then and there on that Sunday in place of the regular Sunday-after-Epiphany.  The relevant rubrics have been cited here before.

Now, if Lent started earlier, this wouldn’t be an option; Sundays in Lent cannot be overridden by major feast days.  If you are using the traditional calendar, this also would not be an option, as the three Pre-Lent Sundays cannot be overridden either.  But for the majority of us in the ACNA, using the modern calendar, it’s a regular Sunday which therefore can give way to an other prayer book major feast day such as St. Matthias.

So, despite what a lot of the popular Ordo Calendars and online daily office algorithms suggest, feel free to let loose this Saint’s Day on his proper day this month, Sunday February 24th!

Minor Feast Day: Cornelius the Centurion

Today’s commemoration in our calendar is Saint Cornelius the Centurion, whose story is recorded in Acts 10.  He was a devout believer in God, but a Gentile.  He kept regular “hours” of prayer, and during one of these he received an angelic vision affirming his devotion and almsgiving, that these have risen as “a memorial before God.”  As a Gentile, he was separated from God under the Old/Mosaic Covenant, but as he would soon find out, there is a New Covenant that was available to him.

He wasn’t the first Gentile to convert, but he was basically the first Gentile that an Apostle sought out, preached to, and baptized.  Acts 10 is sometimes nicknamed “the Gentile Pentecost,” as the Holy Spirit powerfully fell upon the household of Cornelius in the same way that he fell upon the Samaritans in chapter 8 and the Jews in chapter 2.

Like some of the other holy days we’ve noted in the past few weeks, Cornelius’ commemoration is particularly on-point for the Epiphany season.  Indeed, we need only look two days behind us, to Candlemas, to be reminded of the great Epiphany promise in Christ: to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of [God’s] people Israel.  The light of the Gospel, through the angelic vision and the preaching St. Peter, shone in the household of Cornelius, and he and his family and servants – his entire household – were baptized into the Body of Christ.

If you, or someone you know, are typically skeptical of observing saints’ days, especially the longer list of optional commemorations, keep examples like this in mind.  It’s more than just about the man Cornelius.  It’s about the light of the Gospel advancing into new territory.  It’s about celebrating the fruit of faithful preaching and obedience to God.  It’s about affirming the honest search for God.  It’s about giving flesh and bones, real life stories, to the great theological topics and truths highlighted in the liturgical calendar year.

The Presentation / Purification / Candlemas

February 2nd is the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, also known as The Purification of Mary, or Candlemas for short.  I thought I’d take up some of the liturgical tid-bits that characterize the celebration of that day, and point out something of how they inform us of the Christian Faith, and biblical interpretation.

There are three primary worship services in Western liturgical tradition: Morning Prayer (or Mattins), the Mass (or Communion or Eucharist), and Evening Prayer (or Vespers).  Although they are normally held throughout the day in that order, the Communion service is the “principle” celebration of the day; that means that the scripture readings in that service are usually the most significant ones for the given holiday, and the readings in the Office are supplementary.  Also, what exactly the readings are, and how many of them exist, will vary between different specific traditions.  Older Anglican Prayer Books differ slightly from newer ones, and Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox liturgies also have slightly different choices in many cases, but over all the similarities tend to outweigh the differences.  With that in mind, let’s dive in!

The Collect

The “Collect of the Day” is a prayer that is meant to collect together the theme(s) of the day from the Scripture readings.  Looking at how this is done in a given Collect can reveal the theological, devotional, or practical emphases that the tradition is putting forth.  Here is one Collect for the feast of the Presentation:

Almighty and everlasting God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

This focuses on the historical event (Jesus’ presentation in the Temple) and draws a spiritual analogy to the end product of our salvation: the Day we are all made completely holy in Christ such that he may present us to the Father as adopted members of the household of God.  It also points out that Jesus was in “our flesh,” providing an emphasis on the incarnation and the exchange that takes place: God entered into our humanity so that we can enter into His divinity.

Morning Prayer readings

One Old Testament reading that some of the classic Prayer Books set forth for the Office of Morning Prayer is Exodus 13:1-16.  This makes for a great first reading on this holiday because it gives the Old Testament Law of Moses background for what’s going on with Jesus and his family.  In the wake of the Passover (Exodus 12), God instructs Moses that by destroying all the firstborn males in Egypt except for those households protected by the blood of the Passover Lamb, all firstborn males in Israel now belong to Him.  Therefore they must be redeemed (or bought back) after they are born.  It’s like a first-fruit offering, except because children are not to be sacrificed, they are to be paid for instead.  (Interestingly, it’s the same concept as an indulgence – a debt is owed, but another form of payment is accepted.)

This is what Mary and Joseph were doing in the Temple with 40-day-year-old Jesus; they were obeying this law going back to the time of the Exodus.

Holy Communion readings

Across the board, the Gospel reading for this holiday is Luke 2:22-40, as that is the account of the event on which this holiday is based.  There we find the story of Jesus’ family in the Temple, Simeon recognizing Jesus and singing his prophetic song (or Canticle), and Anna the prophetess recognizing Jesus and sharing the good news of His arrival as well.

The Old Testament reading often included here (including our 2019 Prayer Book) is Malachi 3:1-5.  Much of that passage provides material for the preaching of St. John the Baptist, which inevitably draws the participant in the liturgy back to the season of Advent.  For there we heard for one or two Sundays about John and his preaching, and the accompanying Advent theme of the future return of Christ for the final judgement echoes in this reading too.  But most importantly, the very first verse here says “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.”  Obviously this has multiple fulfillments, as Jesus visits the Temple many times in his life and significant things take place at several of those visits.  But this is his first arrival in the Temple, and there are two people there (Simeon and Anna) who had been seeking him there.

Other readings

An Epistle reading found in some Daily Office lectionaries is Galatians 4:1-7.  There we find a theme mentioned briefly in the Collect – our own becoming sons of God.  It also mentions the dynamic of moving from being bound to the Law to being adopted as sons.  Jesus himself, it says, was “born of a woman, born under law,” which this holiday describes.  So the sharing of Christ in our humanity leads to our sharing in his divinity, because “since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.”

One reading often used at the end of the day is Haggai 2:1-9.  This prophetic writing speaks of the newly-build second temple and its inferiority to the original built under King Solomon.  And yet, God promises that it will be greater in glory, for “in this place I will grant peace.”  This promise is empty and void throughout Old Testament history; it is not until Jesus arrives there that God’s presence actually ever even enters the Temple again!  As the Christian goes through Evening Prayer and sees this promise of peace at the end of the Old Testament lesson, he or she will be drawn back in memory to the Gospel reading earlier, specifically the words of Simeon: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.”  Haggai’s words are directly answered by Simeon in Luke’s Gospel book!

The Canticle of Simeon

Let’s stick with Simeon’s song for a moment here.  It’s Luke 2:29-32, specifically, and is actually used throughout the entire year as a canticle (prayer-song) in the Daily Office.  Traditionally it’s a canticle appointed for Compline, the bedtime office of prayer.  In that context, it is read by Christians sort of in union with Simeon with our approaching bedtime as a picture of our eventual death (as Simeon had been promised that would not die until he’d seen the Savior).  In Anglican practice, the Canticle of Simeon is also used in Evening Prayer, but the end-of-day/end-of-life context and effect is the same.  My point is that a regular participant in the liturgy will be intimately familiar with the Canticle of Simeon.  As a result, hearing it in the liturgy for this particular holiday will have an interesting effect.

Two major promises stand out in the Canticle of Simeon: Christ will be a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and will be a light to be the glory of Israel.  The theme of light coming into the world is echoed throughout the seasons of Advent (Romans 13:12’s armor of light), Christmas (John 1:9’s light coming into the world), and Epiphany (Isaiah 60’s light shining upon the nations).  So as this holiday wraps up the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle, the theme of light is brought to the foreground and celebrated quite visually.

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The Blessing of Candles

This holiday’s nickname is Candlemas, because of the tradition of blessing candles on this day.  All the candles to be used in the Church for the coming year are gathered up to be blessed for their sacred purpose.  Additionally, other candles are blessed and distributed to the people to carry in procession and to take home.  This is a physical enactment of what we learn from Simeon – Christ is the light of the world for all nations, including ourselves!  One can also find in the Gospel books the words of Christ, “you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14 and following).

Light does many things.  It drives out darkness and exposes what’s hidden.  Thus, the blessings spoken over the candles include both penitential aspects as God’s people repent of their sins, and apotropaic aspects as demonic spirits are to flee from the light of Christ.  The Scriptures do attest, after all, that the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).  So, by receiving candles and lighting them, we participants in the liturgy are given physical reinforcement to the words and teachings of Scripture that we are God’s adopted children, receiving Christ the light of the world promised in ages past by the Prophets.  And we receive this not just as some abstract teaching, but as historically linked to real events that actually happened.  Christ the Light of the World is not just a spiritual reality that occurs in our hearts, but is grounded in the real arrival of the real Christ child in the real (though now long-gone) Temple.  And with all that in place we are pointed to look ahead to the Day we each are presented in the heavenly temple to our heavenly Father by our adoptive brother, Christ Himself.

This post, apart some new edits, was originally published on my blog Leorningcnihtes boc, on 3 February 2016.

Last Christmas Hymn: From East to West

Tomorrow is the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, or, the Purification of Mary, celebrating the events of Luke 2:22-40.  As I’ve suggested and explored here before, using these 40 days from Christmas Day until tomorrow is a great way to crawl through the massive collection of Christmas songs in our hymnals.  A good choice for the last of these hymns is From East to West, from shore to shore.

This is an ancient hymn, its text written in Latin by Coelius Sedulius around the year 450.  As often is the case with ancient hymns, its English translation has been set to several different tunes, so I’m not going to include a YouTube link this time; the lyrics will have to suffice.

From East to West is a good choice for the end of this extended run of Christmas hymns because its lyrics touch upon some thematic material that makes it fitting for this point in the calendar:

  1. The appeal for “every heart”, “from East to West, from shore to shore,” to awake and sing about the newborn Christ, is very Epiphany-appropriate.  The song starts immediately with that world-wide invitation to worship Jesus.
  2. The epiphany theme of revealing the divinity of Jesus is also prominent in this song, which identifies him with godly epithets such as “the everlasting King” and “the world’s Creator” and “the Lord most high.”
  3. Mary plays a relatively prominent role in these lyrics, anticipating her prominent role in the feast of the Presentation tomorrow.  Here she is celebrated, “a maiden in her lowly place,” who becomes “the chosen vessel of his grace.”  In the doxology, the final verse of the hymn, Jesus is named as the “Virgin-born.”

In all, this is a fantastic hymn that works for Epiphanytide almost as well as for Christmastide.  I wouldn’t be afraid to pull it out almost any time of year, come to think of it, if I knew I’d be preaching or teaching Christology.  It plays out the dual reality of Jesus’ humanity and divinity, his lowliness and his exaltation, marvelously.

Perhaps you can read or sing it at the Daily Office or other time of devotion today?

From east to west, from shore to shore Let ev’ry heart awake and sing
The holy child whom Mary bore, The Christ, the everlasting king.

Behold, the world’s creator wears The form and fashion of a slave;
Our very flesh our maker shares, His fallen creature, man, to save.

For this how wondrously He wrought!  A maiden, in her lowly place,
Became, in ways beyond all thought, The chosen vessel of His grace.

And while the angels in the sky Sang praise above the silent field,
To shepherds poor the Lord Most High, the one great Shepherd, was revealed.

All glory for this blessed morn To God the Father ever be;
All praise to You, O Virgin-born, And Holy Ghost, to thee.  Amen.

Canticle of the Martyred

For perhaps the first century of the life of the 1662 Prayer Book, January 30th was a national holiday (literally, holy day) with its own special liturgical observances.  Morning Prayer, the Communion, and Evening Prayer each had their own unique edits for this day.  The commemoration appointed was for the Martyrdom of King Charles I at the hands of the Puritan Parliament that went on to outlaw the Prayer Book and suppress the office of bishops, in addition to temporarily ending the monarchy in England.  This holy day, with its special liturgies, was eventually removed from the Prayer Book, I suppose it was a bit too nationalistic.

Check it out for yourself, if you have the time; it’s very interesting!  But let’s just glean a couple things from this defunct holy day to see what we can learn about the potential in Anglican liturgy for special occasions.

Observation #1 – the Anglican Church called for prayer and fasting

Stereotypically we think of appointed fast days as a Roman Catholic or East Orthodox practice.  Yet the Church of England does have a tradition of such days also.  Most Fridays, technically, were intended as such.  And January 30th was, for a time, an additional day of fasting.  Here is the introductory text in the 1662 Prayer Book for this day:

A FORM of PRAYER with FASTING, to be used yearly upon the Thirtieth Day of January, being the Day of the Martyrdom of the Blessed King CHARLES the First; to implore the Mercy of God, that neither the Guilt of that sacred and innocent Blood, nor those other sins, by which God was provoked to deliver up both us and our King into the hands of cruel and unreasonable men, may at any time hereafter be visited upon us, or our posterity.

¶ If this Day shall happen to be a Sunday, this Form of Prayer shall be used, and the Fast kept, the next Day following. And upon the Lord’s Day next before the Day to be kept, at Morning Prayer, immediately after the Nicene Creed, Notice shall be given for the due observation of the said Day.

While the intersection of State and Church might be a bit too much for our palate today, the idea that the Church can call for a day of fasting and prayer is clear.  There are occasions in the life of a country or region when special prayer and fasting can (and should) be called for.  However one feels about the appropriateness or execution of this particular example, it nonetheless stands as an example of how we might go about such an occasion.  It substitutes a number of prayers, lessons, and canticles for the usual ones appointed, giving the liturgy of the day a different flavor and emphasis without breaking from the ordinary flow of worship.

Let’s zoom in on just one of those liturgical changes from the old January 30th material.

Observation #2 – the Invitatory Canticle

“¶ Instead of Venite Exultemus, the Hymn following shall be said or sung; one Verse by the Priest, another by the Clerk and people.”  To translate it from the 17th century language to that of the ESV Bible…

Righteous are you, O LORD, and right are your rules.
You have been righteous in all that has come upon us,
for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed.
They conspire with one accord; against you they make a covenant.
For I hear the whispering of many, terror on every side,
as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
Speaking against me with lying tongues,
they encircle me with words of hate, and attack me without cause.
Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread,
has lifted his heel against me.
They repay me evil for good; my soul is bereft.
Those who watch for my life consult together and say, “God has
forsaken him; pursue and seize him, for there is none to deliver him.”
The breath of our nostrils, the LORD’s anointed,
was captured in their pits, of whom we said,
“Under his shadow we shall live among the nations.”
Foe and enemy enter the gates of Jerusalem, saying,
“When will he die, and his name perish?”
“A deadly thing is poured out on him;
he will not rise again from where he lies.”
Malicious witnesses rise up; they ask me of things that I do not know.
This was for the sins of her prophets
and the iniquities of her priests,
who shed in the midst of her the blood of the righteous.
Let my soul come not into their council;
O my glory, be not joined to their company.
For in their anger they killed men.
The man of your right hand,
the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be an affliction.
We fools! We thought that his life was madness
and that his end was without honor; but he is at peace.
For though in the sight of men he was punished,
his hope is full of immortality.
Has he not been numbered among the sons of God,
and his lot among the saints?
O LORD, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance:
do good to Zion in your good pleasure.
Accept atonement, O LORD, for your people Israel,
whom you have redeemed,
and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst
of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.
Do not sweep my soul away with sinners,
nor my life with bloodthirsty men.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you.
You destroy those who speak lies;
the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!
Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself,
you despise them as phantoms.
Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!
Righteous are you, O LORD, and right are your rules.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be; world without end. Amen.

This is a fantastic Canticle, working together a wide range of verses from throughout the Bible.  The old Prayer Book even had the courtesy of giving us all the references:

Ps. 119:137, Neh. 9:33, Ps. 73:2-3, 2:2, 83:5, 31:13, 109:2b-3, 41:9, 35:12, 71:10b-11,
Lam. 4:20, 4:12, Ps. 41:5b, 41:8, 35:11, Lam. 4:13, Gen. 49:6, 80:17, Wis. 3:2, 5:4b, 3:3b, 3:4, 5:5, Ps. 94:1, 51:18a, Deut. 21:8, Ps. 26:9, 51:14, 5:4, 5:6, 73:19, 73:20, Rev. 15:3b,
and Ps. 119:137.

Although this Canticle is officially defunct, the style of its arrangement has been copied in later developments, perhaps most notably for Remembrance Day in the Church of England, which has its own special liturgies with unique Canticles and so forth.

I heartily recommend reviving this Canticle for appropriate occasions.  If you’re not as big a fan of observing the martyrdom of Charles I, then perhaps you can use it for the commemoration of a different martyr.  We have no shortage of martyrs in our calendar of commemorations, after all!

Confession of St. Peter at Morning Prayer

As is often the case, today’s holiday, the Confession of Saint Peter, has a special reading for the Morning Office: Matthew 16:13-20.  As our new ACNA daily lectionary likes to do, this lesson is a repeat of the Gospel lesson at today’s communion service.  So if you’re saying the Daily Office but have no Eucharist to attend today, you still get the primary story of the holiday.  The downside is that if you do attend today’s Communion, you hear the same passage twice rather than hearing something different to deepen and enrich the day with further scriptural insight.

As we noted last week, this feast day is an excellent “epiphany moment”, revealing the divinity of Jesus through the words of Peter.  This feast day is actually a modern addition to the Prayer Book tradition; it first appeared for us in 1979.  And this seems a good contribution to the calendar, in my opinion, reinforcing the traditional epiphany theme.

If you haven’t been doing so, perhaps this is a good day to pull out the Surge illuminare as the first Canticle at Morning Prayer, too.  If you have, then perhaps bring back the Te Deum in honor of the major feast!

Saint Anthony of Egypt

January 17th is the commemoration of Saint Anthony of Egypt.  He is known and remembered as one of the first hermits, from whom the monastic tradition would grow and develop.  His Life, or biography, was written by Saint Athanasius and is one of the first of its kind in Christian literature.  In that document we read that he was not seeking to “escape the world” for the sake of solitude and peace, but to do battle with the devil (or demons, at any rate) in his own soul.  Cloistered monastic or parish priest, lay person or ordained, we all face against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Nevertheless, it may feel a bit odd to commemorate a man like Saint Anthony during the Epiphany season.  At least in the modern calendar tradition, Epiphanytide is missionally focused, and the life of solitude exemplified in today’s commemoration is decidedly inward-focused, not outward.  As it happens, there are at least two ways that we can link this commemoration to the Epiphany season’s mission theme.

First, we see in the life of Anthony the reminder that no matter where we go geographically, the same spiritual forces of darkness will be waiting for us.  In the mission field (be it on a distant continent or your around your neighbor’s grill in the back yard) we will find opposition.  There is an enemy to contend with, we will be wrestling with beings not of flesh and blood.  The example of Saint Anthony reminds us that we must be ready for battle, especially as we seek to increase our service to God’s kingdom.

Second, history shows us that, paradoxically, the seemingly-inward-focused monastic tradition has greatly benefited the missional movement of the Church.  Much of Northern Europe was evangelized by monks!  In Anthony’s case, he sought solitude in the desert to fight against evil alone, and other would-be hermits came to live nearby caves so they could benefit from his wisdom.  He soon had a community of hermits – monks – and ordinary people from the cities soon started visiting this monastic community for spiritual guidance, insight, and advice.  This pattern has repeated all over the world: an intentional community of worship, fellowship, and solidarity is established, people “come and see,” often a whole village or town arises next door, and the Gospel advances into that region.  We are thus reminded, at least, that there is more than one way to go about mission and evangelism.

The Baptism of our Lord

Tomorrow, the majority of Christians across the world will be celebrating the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ.  As we discussed earlier this week the Baptism of Jesus was originally simply a part of the Epiphany Day, but in the modern version of the Epiphany season has been placed on the first Sunday so we’ll all be sure of celebrating it, at the expense of the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple.

One of the handy things about the story of Christ’s baptism is the fact that three of the four Gospels relate it, and it’s the same three books that the revised common lectionaries highlight each year: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Mark’s telling of the baptism of Jesus (which we heard last year) is extremely short; it’s hardly more than a single verse, giving little context for the preacher to deal with the event itself, and perhaps therefore turning to other theological connections to the event as brought up in the other readings.  This year, however, is from Luke’s Gospel, which tells us something of the ministry of John the Baptist and more details of the event of the baptism itself.

A few misunderstandings about the baptism of John sometimes float around in popular artwork or teaching.  The mode of this baptism is not related – whether Jesus was fully immersed in the river or simply stood in it and had water poured on his head.  The Holy Spirit descended in the appearance of a dove after Jesus came out of the river, not (necessarily) the moment after he emerged from being fully immersed.  And this baptism was not even Christian baptism, either.  As Acts 19 notes, those who only received the baptism of John had to be baptized again in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as Jesus instructed.

The way this Sunday is observed in the lectionary, depending upon how you look at it, either creates some liturgical tension, or adds theological richness.  The tension lies in the fact that the readings from Acts 10 and Isaiah 42 emphasize the baptism of Jesus as a “missional” moment, instead of making it out to be an epiphany of Jesus to be God, as the traditional epiphany season would have done.  But if the reader and the preacher keeps the epiphany theme in mind, then the emphasis on mission – a light to the nations – can be seen as an enrichment to the traditional focus of Epiphanytide.

Oh, and, as usual, don’t forget to start the use of tomorrow’s Collect at Evening Prayer tonight!

Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit: grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit, that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Looking Ahead: two Friday Feasts

Happy Friday!  Happy Epiphanytide!  It’s unusual to have such a long beginning to the Epiphany season, having a whole week between the Day (January 6th) and the first Sunday.  It’s as if the wise men are staying to party with the holy family extra long this year 🙂

As we look ahead at the next few weeks, a succession of major feast days await us.  The two remaining this month are both on Fridays: the Confession of Saint Peter on the 18th and the Conversion of Saint Paul on the 25th.  The former was not in the historic prayer books, but now adorns our modern calendar.  If your church has a regular Friday worship service, these two holidays stand as special opportunities to celebrate the work of the Gospel in the New Testament as well as to flesh out the Epiphany season even further.

For, although we don’t know the dates of the original events – when Peter declared “you are the Christ, the son of the living God”, and when Paul encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus – it is appropriate that we celebrate these critical gospel moments during the Epiphany season.  Both of these holidays celebrate epiphanies, revelations, or showings of who Jesus is.  They fit right in to the season’s traditional overarching theme.

Eight days after that will be February 2nd, a Saturday, when the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Purification of Mary is observed.  That is the 40th day after Christmas, matching the event being 40 days after the birth of Jesus.  We’ll hear more about that when it draws near, but it’s good to mark one’s calendar ahead of time so these major holidays of the church year don’t surprise us when they arrive.