St. Mary Magdalene: From her love all fear hath fled

Happy Saint Mary Magdalene Day!  One of our scripture readings at Morning Prayer is special for observing this feast day: Luke 7:36-8:3.  This is an interesting case, so let’s take a closer look.

Like several New Testament characters (most notoriously the various men named James), the identity of Mary Magdalene has undergone some scholarly debate.  She has at times been identified as the same person as Mary of Bethany, though that theory is not in vogue today.  She has also been identified as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears.  I’m not sure how commonly-held this view is today, either, however, our Prayer Book does retain the possibility that this is true.  The evidence, such as it is, can be found in the appointing of Luke 7:36-8:3 as a single lesson on her feast day.

The tail end of chapter 7 of St. Luke’s Gospel tells the story of “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” who brings an alabaster flask of ointment into a pharisee’s house to wash Jesus’ feet with it and her tears and kisses.  An overkill scenario to a sensibility for sure, but it is unmistakably a picture of unadulterated love.  Jesus uses this immediately as an illustration for a parable.  He concludes with a word of gospel: “her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.

Chapter 8 then opens, “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out… and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”  There is no explicit connection between the woman in the previous story and Mary Magdalene here, but the ancient writing style might imply that the previously-unnamed woman is now a named follower of Jesus.  After all, if Mary Magdalene was able to bring expensive perfume to the literal feet of Jesus, she must have been a woman of some means, and likely able to continue providing for him and apostles, as verse 3 describes.  And there are other instances in the New Testament where people refer to themselves very obliquely (like Mark and John), and refer to others by differing names (Nathaniel = Bartholomew, and Thaddeus = Jude).

At the very least, the woman of Luke 7 has a similar spirituality to Mary Magdalene: both are very emotive and physical about their love for Jesus.  Perhaps you know the sort in your own church or Christian connections: people (usually women) who have such a profound emotional love for Jesus, who smile at his name and sigh with arms outstretched as if they’re in love.  For those who are more intellectually-minded it can be easy to scoff at these enthusiasts and their apparent crush on Jesus.  But the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, tears, and kisses, and Mary Magdalene clinging to Jesus in the garden after his resurrection both testify to a legitimate spirituality of emotive love and adoration.  If the woman of Luke 7 and Mary Magdalene are not the same person, they sure had a lot in common.

So let’s take a look at how this feast day – and theory of Mary’s identity – can play into the liturgy of the Church.  There is a song I came across in the Saint Dunstan Hymnal (related to the Saint Dunstan Plainsong Psalter) which is an Office Hymn from the 17th century, and it illustrates a way of acknowledging her spirituality and example.

O Father of celestial rays, When thou on Magdalene dost gaze,
The flame of burning love appears, Her icy heart dissolves in tears.

Wounded by love, she hastens o’er The feet of Christ her tears to pour,
Anoints them, wipes them with her hair, And prints adoring kisses there.

Fearless, the Cross she will not leave: And grieving, to the Tomb doth cleave:
No ruthless soldiers cause her dread: For from her love all fear hath fled.

O Christ, true Charity thou art; Purge thou the foulest of our heart,
Fill ev’ry soul with grace and love, And give us thy rewards above.

All laud to God the Father be; All praise, eternal Son, to thee;
All glory as is ever meet, To God the Holy Paraclete.  Amen.

The testimony of her devoted love ranges from the time of her conversion and repentance, through the Cross, to Jesus’ resurrection.  “For from her love all fear hath fled”, applying in her example the teaching perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18).

This example she has left us is valuable.  You can love God with your emotion.  Your devotions can be expensive and extravagant, if that is your honest offering.  God’s love, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness should have a serious impact on the sinner’s outlook.  The more you realize how much has been forgiven, the more you can love God and others in return.  For all the intellectual considerations of right doctrine, and all the logistical considerations of right worship, the value of a exultant heart can never be overlooked.  The Gospel is worth “thinking about” correctly, yes, absolutely; but it is also worth celebrating with the fullness of human emotion.

Introducing the Four (!?) Books of Kings

The Daily Office Lectionary in the 2019 Prayer Book starts us in on 1 Samuel this morning.  This is the beginning of a long journey through four books with a continuous historical coverage.  In fact, the two books of Samuel and the two books of Kings are so closely related that they are known in the Greek Old Testament as the four books of the Kings (or alternatively, 1-4 Kingdoms).  This is not commonly known among English-speaking Christians today apart from the Eastern Orthodox, though it was given a shout-out in the 1611 Bible authorized under King James.

1 Samuel, or 1 Kings

Anglican Prayer Book lectionaries historically have walked through these four books in the summertime; the way ours is set up it takes us from July into November (since we’re reading from them in Morning Prayer only, and not Morning & Evening Prayer in parallel like the older daily lectionaries).  As time goes on, our lectionary does something that a couple other 20th-century lectionaries have done, and include elements from 1 & 2 Chronicles interspersed with the material from 1 & 2 Kings.  This has the downside of interrupting the continual “voice” of the four books of Samuel/Kings, but is arguably balanced with the gain of the several stories unique to the Chronicles.

A large swathe of history is covered in these four books, but, like the earlier book of Joshua, it is subject to a gradual fast-forwarding effect.

  1. 1 Samuel deals with the life of the Prophet Samuel (he is born in chapter 1 and dies in chapter 25), and the life and reign of King Saul.  In all that’s approximately 80 years of history.
  2. 2 Samuel deals with the reign of King David, approximately 40 years.
  3. 1 Kings begins with the death of David, and takes us just over 100 years, through the reigns of Solomon and 8 Judean kings and 8 Israelite kings.
  4. 2 Kings zips through close to 300 years of history, covering the demise of both the Israelite and Judean kingdoms.

In addition to that accelerating-time-coverage effect, there is also a shift of emphasis in the latter two books away from stories about the kings themselves and toward the lives of certain prophets, especially Elijah and Elisha.  Indeed the amount of material dedicated to the succession from Elijah to Elisha, in the beginning of the fourth book (2 Kings 2), is reminiscent of the attention given to the birth of Samuel (1 Sam. 1-2) and the establishment of the reigns of Kings Saul (1 Sam. 8-10), David (2 Sam. 2-5), and Solomon (1 Kings 1-2).

Besides these connections within these four books, there are also major connections to other parts of the Bible.  The Song (or prayer) of Hannah, Samuel’s mother (1 Sam. 2) is a prototype for the Song of Mary (or Magnificat) in Luke 1, and the divine provision of Samuel’s birth prefigures the hand of God in the conception also of John the Baptist and of Jesus.  King David would go on to become one of the foremost Messianic figures in the Old Testament, forever after cited as an ancestor of the Christ.  King Solomon would go on to become a subtle antichrist figure, starting off as a wise and powerful ruler and ending up an apostate tyrant whose annual income would be re-used in the book of Revelation as “the number of the beast” (1 Kings 10:14 & Rev. 13:18).  The Prophets, especially Elijah and Elisha, performed many signs and miracles that Jesus would later copy and teach about.  The fall of Jerusalem and eventual leniency toward the last king (2 Kings 25:27-30) would set the stage for the later Prophets and the Second Temple Era, a dramatically different phase of Hebrew history that led straight to the events of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So although there is much history in these books, one can see that the most fruitful readings of this material is not to be purely historical, but typological or Christological: how do these events and characters point ahead to Christ?  How is the Gospel foreshadowed?  What do we learn here about the People of God, the Church?  We will see the centrality of listening to (and obeying) God’s Word, the hopeless imperfection of man, the deadly dangers of idolatry and faithlessness, and the loving-kindness (or covenant-faithfulness, or heseð) of God.

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.

Filling in the Blanks: Joshua

I skipped a Friday post for a Saturday post this week because today (June 13th) is the last consecutive reading from the book of Joshua in Morning Prayer.  After today we skip from chapter 10 to chapter 14, and after that jump all the way to chapter 22 to finish the book from there on.  That’s a lot of skipped material, what’s going on?

The book of Joshua contains a lot of writing that is stereotyped and repetitive, as well as lengthy portions that are essentially maps in prose form.  Think of the first half Joshua as a train: it starts moving very slowly (conquering one town at a time, with specific stories at each encounter), then it speeds up bit by bit as it gives an account of the conquest of the Promise Land in larger and larger pieces.  It is obvious that there is a lot of history that isn’t being handed down here; we get a few specific stories in the beginning and the rest of the territory is basically assumed under Israelite control, with very little description of how things went.

Then in the second half of the book you get some very lengthy descriptions of tribal boundaries.  This is incredibly boring reading for most people, wading through geographic references (mountains, rivers, hills, fortifications) that most of us know little about – and many of which are not even identified with certainty by archaeologists anymore.  But most Bibles today have maps in the back… if you look closely at the one(s) with the early tribal borders then you’re basically looking at a best-guess depiction of what the second half of Joshua is trying to describe.

So yes, all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for instruction, edification, and so forth, but some parts are going to be more useful than other parts.  For the Old Covenant Jew, this was extremely important, outlining when their tribes and families were to inhabit and dwell.  To the Christian, this is almost completely relegated to historical interest.  There are Gospel overtones, of course: the intricate detail God goes into as he “makes a place” for his people in Palestine is a reminder of the intricate detail he goes into now as Jesus “makes a place for us” in the heavenly Jerusalem.

And so, most daily lectionaries omit almost half of the book of Joshua; it’s a lot of reading for very little unique benefit.  But if you do want to take the time to read through the omitted chapters, consider using this Customary’s Midday Prayer Lectionary, which picks up with chapter 11 today and continues through the ten omitted chapters one day at a time.

Sometimes you should change the biblical text

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Now there’s a title that will get just about any serious Christian a little worried… “sometimes we should change the biblical text”?  What mad heresy is this?

So let’s get straight to the Weird Rubric of the week.  It’s on page 737.

When a Lesson begins with a pronoun, the reader should substitute the appropriate noun.

Yeah, so the title of this article is kind of click-bait… the change to the biblical text here is actually just a swapping out of a pronoun with a noun.  For example, today at Morning Prayer we’ve got a Gospel lesson from Luke 22, starting at verse 39.  “And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him.”  This is a great example because you can read the entire paragraph and still never find out who “he” is.  Obviously it’s Jesus; it usually will be in the Gospels.  But sometimes it’s not immediately obvious, so it is prudent (and canonical, or rubrical) to replace the first “he” with “Jesus” so the congregation understands what’s being read.

Some who are especially zealous for the integrity of God’s Word may still not like this, so I should point you to another precedent for this practice.  Bible translators already do this!  In the Greek, the New Testament uses pronouns even more often than we do in English, such that in order to render the text more clearly there are plenty of instances where the Greek text says “he” but the English puts in the person’s name.  For example, slightly earlier in Luke 22, you’ll find verse 33 is a quote from Peter and verse 34 is a quote from Jesus. Now, it’s part of a dialogue, so it’s not too confusing to repeat “he” for both speakers, but it’s more clear to put the names in.  Thus does the ESV.

A similar practice, not directly mentioned in the rubrics of the 2019 Prayer Book, is to omit a proposition or connecting word (such as “therefore” or “for” or “but” or “then”) if one is placed at the beginning of a reading.  The length and contents of a lectionary reading, especially at the Holy Communion, has been evaluated already.  It presents a full and complete thought, such that having a connecting word at the beginning can prove more distracting than helpful.  Yes, these connectors remind us that the passage belongs in a larger context, but that is always going to be the case whether there is such a word there or not.  So it’s usually best to drop such words when found at the top of a reading, to allow the text to stand on its own so the hearers can receive it more easily.  Let the preacher deal with the context if and as necessary.

For the most part, this advice is more pertinent to the readings at Holy Communion than in the Daily Office. This is because the Daily Office Lectionary is continuous – nearly every reading picks up where the previous day’s reading left off.  Connecting words and pronouns are thus less distracting, because the previous chapter or passage has already been heard the day before.  In the service of Holy Communion, we almost never have that advantage; and even when we do, there’ll typically have been a whole week past since the previous contiguous lesson, so having those pronouns replaced will still be a helpful reminder.

If you find this a little tricky to keep track of, consider this instruction on page 716:

The public reading of Scripture in the liturgies of the Church is among the most important features of any act of worship. No one should be admitted to this high privilege who has not thoroughly prepared the passage to be read, so that the lesson can be read with clarity, authority, and understanding.

Make sure you practice at public reading!  A smooth reading experience makes a smooth listening experience possible. Today’s “weird rubric” is there to help you make that happen.

Evening Prayer on the Day of Pentecost

Here’s a little surprise, or bonus, for this evening: I’ve recorded the Daily Office of Evening Prayer for Pentecost evening!

Outline so you can have your books (2019 Prayer Book, ESV Bible, and a Hymnal) ready and follow along:

  • Opening Sentence (BCP 55)
  • Confession of Sin (BCP 41)
  • The Invitatory (BCP 43)
  • Abide with me (Hymnal)
  • Psalm 145 (BCP 461)
  • First Lesson: Acts 2
  • Canticle: Magnificat (BCP 45)
  • Second Lesson: Acts 10:34-end
  • Canticle: Nunc dimittis (BCP 46)
  • Apostles’ Creed (BCP 46)
  • The Prayers (BCP 47)
    • Collect for the Day of Pentecost #1 (BCP 614)
    • Collect for Resurrection Hope (BCP 49)
    • Prayer for Mission #1 (BCP 51)
  • Anthem: Hail thee, festival day (Hymnal)
  • One-minute Reflection
  • Additional Prayers (BCP 675-680)
    • #98 For the Acceptance of Prayer
    • #99 For the Acceptance of Prayer
    • #100 For the Answering of Prayer
    • #108 After Public Worship
    • #115 For the Coming of God’s Kingdom
  • The Great Thanksgiving (BCP 51)
  • Closing Prayers (BCP 52)

3-Step Spirituality in Ezekiel 3

Yes, yes, this is a liturgy blog, not a Bible Study blog, but I’m a pastor, not just a priest, so some crossover is going to be inevitable from time to time.

But, to encourage you to watch this anyway, I actually do use the liturgy as an illustration for the biblical point I was exploring.  If you sometimes struggle to teach your congregation about the liturgy, this may be an example of one way of employing it in your preaching.

Ascension Day – Antecommunion

For Ascension Day under the COVID-19 closure, I thought it would be nice to try something different.  Please forgive the box of kid’s toys in the background, and my hair’s a bit of a mess (I’m taking advantage of social distancing to regrow my hair into a ponytail while nobody has to look at it).  This is a reflection of the simple reality that worshiping at home can be difficult.  Nevertheless, whatever the challenges, the prayers of the Church never cease!

If you want a generic outline for Antecommunion, you can view or download one here: Antecommunion leaflet

The hymn I sang after the Peace (in the place of the Offertory) is See the conqueror mounts in triumph, #151 in the Book of Common Praise 2017.

Evening Prayer Audio: Eve of the Ascension

For a special treat I decided to prepare an audio recording of Evening Prayer today

To follow along, here’s the outline:

  • Opening Sentence: Hebrews 9:24 (BCP 55)
  • Confession through Invitatory (BCP 41-43)
  • Evening Hymn: O blest Creator of the light (2017 hymnal #240)
  • Psalm 104 (BCP 403)
  • OT Lesson: Ecclesiastes 6
  • Canticle: Magnificat (BCP 45)
  • NT Lesson: 3 John
  • Canticle: Nunc Dimittis (BCP 46)
  • The Apostles’ Creed (BCP 46)
  • The Prayers (BCP 47)
    • The Collect of the Day: Ascension Day (BCP 613)
    • Collect for Protection (BCP 50)
    • The 2nd Prayer for Mission (BCP 51)
  • The Anthem: O Jesus, crowned with all reknown (2017 hymnal #148)
  • Homily: Being Rich Is Pointless?
  • Occasional Prayers #48-51 (BCP 660)
  • The General Thanksgiving (BCP 51)
  • The Grace (BCP 53)

Summarizing Eastertide

I know Eastertide is about to shift gears, or even end, depending upon how you understand the bounds of the Easter season, but it’s better late than never… here is the next video in my series on the Church Calendar.

Subject Index:

  • 00:00 Definition & Major Themes
  • 05:38 Historical Features
  • 09:06 Walk-through in the 2019 Prayer Book
  • 12:40 Daily Office & other features
  • 17:36 A Collect for Strength to Await Christ’s Return

Links for further reading: