Learning from the Liturgy: Ascension Day

Happy Ascension Day, everyone!
Here’s what I wrote for my congregation last year about this holy day:

Leorningcnihtes boc

Ascension Day is perhaps the most under-celebrated important holiday in the calendar.  Representing one of the lines of the Creeds (“he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father”), this holiday marks a significant turning point in the Gospel story and sets the stage for how the Christian’s relationship with God is defined.  We often think of it as an awkward point between the Resurrection of Jesus (Easter) and the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), but even in itself the Ascension is a major event.  What I’m setting out to do in this post is draw from the various Scriptural and traditional resources of the Church’s liturgy to explore some of the basic teachings and implications of this great and underappreciated day in the year.

The Event of the Ascension

Christ’s ascension is described in three books: Mark, Luke, and Acts.

In Mark’s Gospel…

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Reading Acts at this time of year

We saw a few weeks ago how the book of Acts has a prominent place in the modern Communion lectionary through Easter week.  We’ve seen that the book of Acts may be read from in place of the Old Testament lesson through Easter season.  Now it’s time to look at why Acts shows up at this time of year, in the Communion lectionary, and at none other time.

The book of Acts holds a unique position in the canon of Scripture.  It is not an Epistle, nor is it a Gospel.  It’s like the Epistles in that it’s looking at the life of the Church after Jesus ascended; it’s like the Gospels in that it’s a collection of narratives.  Its very introduction makes it out to be a sort of sequel to the Gospel according to Saint Luke.  Ultimately its literary contribution to the Bible is much more like the historical books of the Old Testament – showing us the power and presence of God in the world through his people.  That likeness, perhaps, is why the book of Acts is almost always provided in place of the Old Testament lesson in the Communion lectionary.

As for the time of year… Acts has a particular focus on the life of the Church immediately after the Gospel work of Christ Jesus.  It re-tells the story of his ascension, it tells the story of the Day of Pentecost, and provides first-hand insight into the immediate history of a few of the apostles, as well as some of the missionary and church-planting ministry of St. Paul and others.  As the great feast of Easter (due in part to the ancient custom of holding baptisms at the Easter Vigil) has a particular liturgical emphasis on new life in Christ, it was only natural that the book of Acts came to be a go-to book in the season following.  Let’s take a look at how the book of Acts is read in the ACNA Sunday Communion lectionary:

Year A

Easter II – 2:14a, 22-32 – Peter preaching Christ from the Old Testament
Easter III – 2:14a, 36-47 – Peter preaching repentance unto faith in Christ
Easter IV – 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60 – diaconate established, Stephen martyred
Easter V – 17:1-15 – Paul is attacked for preaching the Gospel to Greeks as well as Jews
Easter VI – 17:22-34 – Paul preaches to the Gentiles
after Ascension – 1:1-14 – the ascension of Jesus

Year B

Easter II – 3:12a, 13-15, 17-26 – Peter preaching repentance unto faith in Christ
Easter III – 4:5-14 – Peter and John examined by the Jews for healing in the name of Jesus
Easter IV – 4:23-37 – the church rejoices and grows in generosity
Easter V – 8:26-40 – Philip preaches to and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch
Easter VI – 11:19-30 – the church grows among Gentiles and is generous abroad
after Ascension – 1:15-26 – the replacement of Judas with Matthias

Year C

Easter II – 5:12, 17-22, 25-29 – the apostles are arrested for preaching Christ
Easter III – 9:1-19a – Saul (to be Paul) converts on the road to Damascus
Easter IV – 13:14b-16, 26-29 – Paul preaches Christ mostly from the Old Testament
Easter V – 13:44-52 – Paul is abused for his conviction to preach to the Gentiles
Easter VI – 14:8-18 – Paul and Barnabas heal a cripple
after Ascension – 16:16-34 – Paul exorcises a demon, is imprisoned, and preaches to his jailer

Noting the Patterns

If you just look at the chapter and verse numbers, it’s hard to see there’s any rhyme or reason to these tours through Acts.  But when you note what those readings contain, similar contours can be traced in each of the three years of the lectionary cycle.  The first three Sundays mostly follow a pattern of preachingresistancetriumph & growth.  Easter V and VI then deal with the spread of the Gospel among the Gentiles, typically to the chagrin and anger of the Jewish synagogue members.

The odd Sunday in this sequence is the Sunday after the Ascension.  In Year A it just repeats the Acts 1 lesson from Ascension Day; in Year B it (sensibly) deals with something that occurred between the ascension and Pentecost.  But in Year C it seems to be rolled into the Eastertide progression of readings from Acts, noting some of Paul’s ministry (and abuse) among the Gentiles.

Advice

When preparing for Eastertide and the Sunday after Ascension, the preacher(s) ought to make a decision: either commit to using the Acts readings each Sunday along the way, or commit to using none of them during this period.  These readings are not paired with the Gospel or Epistle, much less the Collect of the Day, but form a sequence of five or six Sundays exploring the spread of the Gospel from the apostles to the Jews to the Gentiles.  Whether they are the preaching focus or not, they form a sequence that ought to be carried through from start to finish, if they are to be used at all.

In my case, I was committed this year to preaching the “Epistle” texts from Revelation, so I opted not to use the Acts lessons, preferring to have OT lessons that would match the Gospels so there’d be more unity to the liturgy on a given day.

Whatever you decide is appropriate, be sure you stick with it through the season to maximize the liturgical benefit, one way or the other!

Reading 1 John in Eastertide

This evening we begin reading the epistle 1 John at Evening Prayer, and will go through it over the course of the whole week.  As I noted with 1 Peter a little while ago, this is an appropriate daily lectionary experience because it matches up with the Sunday Communion lectionary on one of the three years of its rotation.  It doesn’t match up perfectly in real time, of course, but the idea of reading 1 John in Eastertide is achieved both in Year B on Sundays and in the middle of May in daily Evening Prayer.

What makes 1 John an Easter-appropriate epistle such that it got assigned to this season in one year of the Communion lectionary?  In part, it’s an echo of the historic lectionary for Eastertide, which features 1 John and 1 Peter and James as the Epistle lessons through the season.  Digging deeper, the style of 1 John is very similar to the Gospel of St. John, which also gets heavy coverage in Eastertide and other major festal seasons and occasions throughout the year.  1 John has emphases on community, belonging, love, and release from sin, which all connect easily with the tradition of reading Acts in Eastertide, and the more general “result of the resurrection” frame of mind that this season is all about.

The opening prologue to 1 John also betray the unusual status of this book.  It is billed as an epistle of John but its writing style is much more like a homily or address.  Thus it makes for great reading and hearing but a far more difficult study than a more orderly epistle like those of St. Paul (at least in my opinion).  Despite the general challenge of making sense of how this book is structured and organized, the opening verses are one of my personal favorite passages of Scripture.

If you’d like a homily to accompany you in Evening Prayer today, here you go:

The Logic of Eastertide (Traditional)

When looking at the Easter season in the old and new calendars, the most annoying challenge right off the bat is the fact the numbering system changed.  The modern system is “The #th Sunday in Easter” starting with Easter Day, and the traditional system is “The #th Sunday after Easter”, starting with the modern Easter II.  So if you just use numerical shorthands, the old and new calendars will be off by one.  I suppose the modern system was making a point of identifying Eastertide as a single unit, rather than a succession of days following the high point of Easter day itself.

Anyway, the traditional calendar with its one-year lectionary had a certain flow to it which is relatively well imitated in the modern calendar.  We’ll get to the modern one in a couple days; today we’re just looking at traditional Eastertide.

Easter Day

The resurrection of Jesus is clearly set forth, complete with multiple witnesses in the Gospel reading (John 20:1-10), today’s celebration aptly applies the resurrection to all God’s people. The Epistle (Colossians 3:1-11) chimes in with the reminder that we have died with Christ and been raised with Christ, by virtue of our union with him in Baptism. The Epistle then goes on to direct us toward heavenly Christ-like lifestyles and attitudes, which is also the prayer of the Collect.

The Octave Day – The First Sunday after Easter Day

The focus remains very close to Easter Day itself: examining the benefits of the resurrection of Christ for us. And they are many: the Collect notes the dual doctrines of justification and sanctification that flow from his death and resurrection, the Gospel (John 20:19-23) speaks of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Epistle (1 John 5:4-12) points us knowing this testimony from God.

The Second Sunday after Easter Day

Today the Easter focus on the resurrection is expanded to include how Jesus was also an example for us to follow. Specifically, we follow him as sheep follow their shepherd. The Collect and lessons each speak of God as our shepherd, gathering us, keeping us safe, and holding us close to him. Thus today is commonly nicknamed “Good Shepherd Sunday.” But it is the Epistle (1 Peter 2:19-25)) and the Collect that turns these beautiful descriptions into instructions: we are to follow and imitate Jesus, even if it means suffering for doing nothing wrong. Knowing of his resurrection gives us hope for ours, too.

The Third Sunday after Easter Day

This Sunday we are reminded of a consistent biblical pattern: suffering and pain is temporary, while joy is eternal. In the Gospel (John 16:16-22), Jesus pointed this out to his disciples concerning his approaching death and resurrection.  The Collect and Epistle (1 Peter 2:11-17), then, take this theme and apply it very practically: because we know that the pain and suffering of life this world is temporary and the joy of God’s kingdom is eternal, we ought to live in such a way that is consistent with that eternal life.

The Fourth Sunday after Easter Day

This Sunday, we are reminded that the resurrection life in Christ is one that is patterned after and ordered by God. The Epistle reading (James 1:17-21) describes this by asserting that we must listen to the word of God, because it saves us and renews us. Additionally, it mentions gifts from above, and the Gospel reading (John 16:5-15) gives an example of this: the Holy Spirit who leads us into all God’s truth. The Collect, finally, takes these themes of listening, and gifts, and disciplines them into one beautiful and coherent prayer.

The Fifth Sunday after Easter Day (Rogation Sunday)

For the past couple weeks, hints of a change of focus have arisen as the Gospel readings have focused more and more on the departing of Jesus and the arrival of the Holy Spirit.  Now, with the Ascension Day approaching, this focus begins to take center stage as all today’s propers deal with the idea of gifts and provision from God.  The Gospel (John 16:23-33) speaks of the coming gift of the Holy Spirit.  What the Epistle reading (James 1:22-27) does, and subsequently the Collect, is turn towards us and remind us of the responsibility that comes with such wonderful gifts: thinking and living according to the will and life of the Spirit given to us.

When you look at the course of the season, there are three major contours that can be traced.

  1. The Epistles move from the exalted “theological” writings of 1 John to the more balanced writings of 1 Peter to the bluntly practical writings of James.  This is something like descending a staircase from the lofty heights of Easter toward the more tangible earthly mission that will be given in Ascensiontide and Pentecost.
  2. The Gospel lessons are all from John.  In general, his gospel book tends to be treated as the “festal” book, containing the exalted texts for the high points of the Christian year such as this.
  3. Overall, these Sundays move from dealing with the resurrection of Jesus into his Upper Room Discourse where he speaks extensively of the Holy Spirit.  The Easter resurrection focus this transitions toward the topics of Pentecost.

One oddity resulting from these seasonal progressions is the fact that there are several readings from week to week that take you out of sequence, even backwards, through single passages.  This happens with 1 Peter 2 for two Sundays, and with John 16 in the last three Sundays.  Again it should be pointed out that in the classical prayer book tradition, continuous readings through Scripture was the function of the daily office lectionary; the Sunday Communion lectionary dealt with Gospel topics on a seasonal basis.

Anyway, that is the traditional set of Sundays in the Easter season.  If you’re more familiar with the revised common lectionary you will probably still recognize some of this shape.  But we’ll get into that, and the comparison between them, later this week.

The Lamentations in Holy Week

A couple months ago we looked at the book of Lamentations in the daily office lectionary.  There, we noted how the book functions as a sort of appendix to the book of Jeremiah, giving expression to the deep sorrow of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians.  The book is a series of five Hebrew poems, alphabetic acrostics of varying length and elaborateness, each bewailing the destruction of Jerusalem from a different point of view, be it the third-person perspective of an observer, personifying the city itself, and others.  Each chapter is its own poem.  Apart from the Hebrew acrostics, other elements show up from time to time: there are call-and-response elements pop up, as if some of these poems were used for a liturgical community lament around the wrecked Temple.  The varying of perspective, too, enables one to embody the experience of the city itself, or the Temple itself, looking at the destruction and devastation from several angles.

We also noted that one of the simplest appropriations of this book in a Christ-centered manner is to connect the Old Testament Temple building to the New Testament Temple of Christ’s Body, which was destroyed on that first Good Friday and “rebuilt in three days” as Jesus promised (John 2:21).  Now that Holy Week is here, it’s time to return to that christological reading of Lamentations.

Popular evangelical piety today has very little room for lament, much less lament over the death of Christ.  Although one of the central tenets of Evangelicalism is crucicentrism – being “cross-centered” – there is comparatively less attention to the actual death of Christ than in the older liturgical tradition.  Evangelicals will readily accept the importance of his death, but “liturgically” apply it in a different way.  You can see this most clearly in the popular hymnody and contemporary praise songs of modern evangelicalism, where the death of Christ is inextricably linked to his resurrection, and celebrated as a set of events for which we give thanks.  What love Christ showed us upon the Cross!

This is not untrue, of course, but it is only one approach to Christ’s death.  The wisdom of the liturgical tradition is the ability to consider these Gospel events from multiple perspectives.  Palm Sunday highlights our complicity in the death of Christ by juxtaposing the Triumphal Entry and the Crucifixion in one worship service.  Maundy Thursday (and to some extent, Good Friday also) highlights the high priestly work of Jesus on the Cross.  Elements of the Good Friday service in modern Prayer Books (and pre-reformation tradition), namely the Veneration of the Cross, take a more visceral approach to the death of Christ, considering the means by which Jesus was killed and thus wrought our redemption.  The Lamentations, finally, which our Daily Lectionary appoints on Thursday and Friday (and this Customary recommends for Midday Prayer beforehand, too) contribute to the angle of mourning.

Christ has died.  This was unjust!  As the city of Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon not only symbolized but actualized the presence of God among his people, so too did the physical body of Christ actualize the presence of God in this world.  The destruction of the first Temple building was both a cultural trauma and a spiritual loss… so much more is the destruction of the Temple of Christ’s Body!  Unlike Jerusalem, Jesus was not guilty of mass apostasy, so the analogy is not perfect; but if you consider the idealized Jerusalem and the divine purpose of the Temple of Solomon, then its destruction is worthily lamentable, just as it is right and proper to weep over the death of Jesus.

It may be the question of some evangelicals unfamiliar with our tradition, at this point, why one should lament the death of Jesus anymore, since the resurrection has already occurred.  First, it’s just like Christmas or Easter – Jesus isn’t a baby anymore, and Jesus isn’t walking around Earth anymore, yet we still celebrate his birth and his resurrection.  It would be inconsistent and imbalanced not to observe his death as well.  Second, for those who go so far as to question all such commemorative holidays, there is the simple biblical example of identificational ritual worship.  Specific rites and rituals aside, one of the clearest lessons we see in the Bible about how to worship God is the use of identificational rituals – the communal re-living of past events that shape and form our identity.  For the Jews under the Old Covenant that was the Passover, the Giving of the Law, and a number of other events that shaped their history and came to be commemorated.  For us that means the Gospel events around the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit.  These cornerstones of historical events shape who and what the Church is.  To “pick favorites” among them at the neglect of others is to create an imbalanced sense of identity.

And so, if just for parts of one week in the year, we weep with the daughters of Jerusalem, with the Virgin Mary and her friends, over the cruel and unjust death of Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord and our God.  And the book of Lamentations helps us do that.

The Numbers in Numbers

I wrote this a few months ago from extra background information when I was preparing a sermon from the book of Numbers.  Since the Daily Lectionary is about to switch over to Numbers at the end of this week, I thought I’d reblog this for you all in preparation.

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One of the prominent (and obvious) features of the book of Numbers is that it begins and ends with a census – or numbering – of the people of Israel.  By tribe and family, the men of fighting age are counted, reported, and tallied over the course of several slow-going chapters.  Few readers find this riveting stuff, placing Numbers near the bottom of the popular favorites list for many Christians.

It should be noted that a large portion of the middle of the book does contain a collection of unique and insightful stories about the travels and exploits of God’s people during the majority of the 40-year wilderness period.  The censuses at the beginning and end of the book are tallies of the people near the beginning and the end of that long stretch of time, so what is contained in between is the majority of what we know for…

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Holiness and Marriage and Mary

Yesterday was the feast of the Annunciation, one of the major holy days of the Christian year.  Only one reading in the Daily Office Lectionary was specially altered to befit the day, however.  (This is my main disappointment with this particular lectionary, that it provides only scant observance of the major holy days, often offering only one special reading, and even then often doubling one of the readings from the Communion service.)  But what we did have was an interesting “accidental” convergence of topics.  The evening reading yesterday was from Ephesians 5, and this evening finishes that chapter.  Because it’s the Daily Office Lectionary we’re able (and ought) to read these lessons in the context of the whole book; but in this instance we’re able to read it also in the context the Annunciation.

How does this help?

The strict call to holiness in the first half of chapter 5 leading into the beautiful description of marriage in the second half take an extra sense of oomph with the Annunciation fresh on our minds.  There were have the angel telling Mary that’s she’s a “grace-filled one” (full of grace in Catholic translations, favored one in Protestant translations).  There we have Mary offering her fiat to the New Creation – “fiat mihi…” = “be it unto me…”  There we have her virginity intact, and her betrothal to Joseph.  In short, she is modeling almost everything we see in Ephesians 5.

Whether you go on to believe the historic Marian doctrines or not – her perpetual virginity, her sinless life by God’s grace, her bodily assumption into heaven – at least this moment of the Annunciation sheds a great deal of light on her and her husband-to-be.  They’re called the Holy Family… Christ was literally present in the marriage of Joseph and Mary, and in their life together.

So consider keeping this extra context in mind as you read the rest of Ephesians 5 tonight.  You may just discover a newfound respect and devotion regarding our Lady!  And for some this may finally be that breakthrough in understanding the difference between the veneration of the Saints and the worship of God.

For glory and for beauty

This morning’s Old Testament lesson is Exodus 28 (or excerpts thereof) in the ACNA Daily Lectionary.  Shortly after chapter 20 is where lots of people who attempt to read the Bible cover-to-cover start to falter and lose momentum… all this stuff about the Tabernacle and its furnishings starts to wear on the reader.  Chapter 28 details the vestments for Aaron the Priest and his sons.  This might be interesting at first, but 43 verses of it can feel rather tedious.  So let’s give a bit of insight into this chapter, which will perhaps stir up some interest and clarity!

A refrain that bookends this chapter (found in verses 2 and 40) is “for glory and for beauty.”  This is a significant structural device in the writing style of this chapter, which is related to a variety of literary devices and structures found throughout the Old Testament.  This simple refrain both introduces and concludes the entire “vestment law” contained in this chapter, and sheds light on the purpose of everything therein.  All the attention to detail, all the colors and pieces that come together to form the whole.  Even the symbolism which is explained in the text, such as the Breastplate of Justice having twelve precious stones that represent the twelve tribes of Israel that the priest bears on his heart, is subject to this “glory and beauty” principle.  It’s not just symbolic, but it’s glorious and it’s beautiful.

Some traditions are (or are a least stereotyped to be) overly-focused on one side of this or the other.  “Everything about the OT vestments was symbolic, and we can preach the Gospel from that!” says one group of people, who often overlook the “glory and beauty” principle and thus fail to make any connection to the use of vestments in the New Testament.  Others may focus on the glory and beauty and forget about the explicit symbolism, and thus go on to make up their own symbols for their own modern sense of vestiture.  But it is important that we take in the whole teaching of chapter 28: vestments exist to glorify God and to be beautiful to the human eye, and they carry with them explicit symbolic weight.

Therefore, as we look to Christian vestments, we must remember the same principle: is the detail and appearance of our vestments glorifying to God, or is it simply thrown together?  Is it beautiful, or merely functional?  Further, various Christian vestments carry certain symbolic meanings – are these symbols known to our congregations?  Does the appearance of a particular vestment cooperate with its symbolic purpose or reinvent it?

Liturgical vestments aside, the “glory and beauty” principle could even be considered, to some degree, for how everyone dresses when going to church.  The reason for wearing one’s “Sunday best” is not mere tradition, but actually has a root in seeking to be glorifying to God (testifying that He is Worthy) and beautiful to the human eye (that person values worship)!

I’m not going to get into the specifics of Anglican vestments here, but if you want to read some of the absolute basics, the Anglican Pastor blog has a beginner’s guide.  It’s very much from a “current practice” perspective, without much historical scope, but it’ll get you started toward understanding what you’ll see today in a lot of churches.

Reading Proverbs

For most of this month, so far, our Daily Office Lectionary has been leading us through the book of Proverbs in Evening Prayer.  It’s a different style of writing than most of the rest of the Bible, but it’s not all that difficult to read.

Or at least it wasn’t for the first 9 chapters.  Over the weekend we reached chapter 10, and something in the style has changed – you may find it suddenly more of a slog to get through.  The ideas are jumping around, the analogies and pictures aren’t consistent anymore, it’s as if the nice writing style suddenly collapsed and we’re stuck with a high school student’s bad attempt at plagiarism.  What happened?

Chapters 1-9 of the book of Proverbs are a series of speeches or coherent discourses – usually a paragraph or two long – extolling the virtues of wisdom.  “Listen to your father” (that is, your teacher), the writer opines, “Wisdom calls to you from the streets; receive her invitation“.  It may not be everyone’s favorite or familiar writing style, but at least the sentences connected to each other.

Starting in chapter 10, most of the rest of the book is comprised of individual proverbs, or sayings.  Occasionally you’ll find a bunch grouped together with a discernible logic, but much of the time they seem random.  The good news is also the bad news: they are random.

Okay, that’s not 100% true.  Writings like these are preserved oral teachings.  A teacher would recount strings of proverbs to his students, who would memorize them in turn.  The book of Proverbs makes this abundantly clear when you read it in Hebrew: from one proverb to the next, there is usually a word in common, or a case of rhyme or assonance, or a thematic link, or some other mneumonic device to help you remember what comes next.  Translated into Greek or Latin or English or any other language, most of those subtle memory-helpers are simply lost; all we can see is perhaps the occasional repeated word or repetition of a theme or metaphor.  The intricate word-play is usually lost in translation.

Now, unless you have a personal goal of memorizing the Proverbs, that isn’t a big deal – you don’t need those memory markers if you’re not planning on memorizing them anyway.  After all, this is the age of print and of digital data; you can read these almost anywhere you go.  However, the fact that these proverbs are presented in virtually random order can make them difficult to read.  How can you process and internalize one idea when the very next verse hits you with a completely different idea?

The book of Proverbs, therefore, is one of the few parts of the Bible that is not really served very well by a daily lectionary.  Most of the proverbs in and after chapter 10 are literally stand-alone verses, and are thus best read and considered individually.  The chapter-a-day approach of a daily lectionary like ours is like a fire-hose of proverbs!  So if you want to study and/or meditate on the proverbs, you’ll need to do so outside of the liturgy.  Perhaps you can grab a verse or two from the evening’s reading and revisit them after Evening Prayer concludes (or even during Evening Prayer in an appropriate period of silence).  Perhaps you can devise your own reading plan through this book that works more slowly, and thus spend time with smaller batches of proverbs apart from the Daily Office.

In the meantime, enjoy the fire-hose of divine wisdom!

The Logic of Lent

The season of Lent is one of the more topically scripted seasons of the year, due in part to its relative brevity and narrow focus.  As is often the case, the traditional calendar is clearer than the modern calendar in terms of the ebb and flow of the season, the modern calendar losing some of its coherence due to the 3-year cycle of readings.  Nevertheless, a basic contour can still be discerned.  Rather than looking at traditional and modern Lent separately as we did for Epiphanytide, we can consider the tradition both old and new together.

The First Sunday of Lent is about the temptation of Jesus.  This has always been the case, and has not changed in modern practice.  Year B of the modern calendar almost drops the ball on this due to the fact that Mark’s Gospel only mentions the temptation in one sentence, rather than relating the whole story like Matthew and Luke.  The Collect, too, is the same in both traditions, seeking to imitate Christ’s abstinence that we may move towards holiness.  This is a strong “best foot forward” experience for the first Sunday of the season, making sure we’re on the right path with our spiritual disciplines that began on Ash Wednesday, with the right godly goals in mind.

The Second Sunday of Lent is a mixed bag in the modern lectionary.  The three years yield the Gospel sayings of Jesus ranging from “you must be born again,” “take up your cross and follow me”, and his lament over Jerusalem.  The latter two suggest a theme of looking ahead toward the liturgical culmination of Lent in the Passion of Jesus, while the former hangs back with another sort of starting place for the season.  Traditionally, the Gospel lesson was about the Syro-Phoenician (or Canaanite) Woman’s great faith over which Jesus marveled.  The Collect built off that, praying that God would keep us defended in body and soul because we’re defenseless (like that woman).  Although that Collect remains in our Prayer Book, it does not seem to have a strong connection with the modern Gospel readings.

The Third Sunday of Lent traditionally was very similar to the second, pairing another Collect asking God to look upon us and keep us defended with another healing story from the Gospel, this time an exorcism with subsequent teaching about demons.  Our Prayer Book supplies an expanded version of that Collect (first introduced in the 1979 Prayer Book) and pairs with the Gospel stories of the woman at the well, the cleansing the temple, and Jesus’ call to repent followed by the parable of the barren fig tree.  The traditional pairing makes this Sunday much like the previous, while the modern Collect and lessons lean more heavily on our “restless hearts” and “heartfelt desires” that need to be rightened, healed, or cleansed.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent is interesting in that one of the three years in the modern lectionary lines up with the traditional Gospel: the Feeding of the 5,000.  The traditional application of this, in the Collect, was a prayer for relief instead of punishment, marking this Sunday as the lighter and more hope-filled Sunday in the Lenten sequence, visually marked by the wearing of rose vestments instead of violet.  Our modern calendar, however, puts in a Collect about Jesus being our true bread from heaven, emphasizing the original Gospel story but setting it in a different context, especially in years A and C when the Gospel lesson is about the man born blind or the parable of the prodigal son.  In that light, there isn’t as much reason to retain the “Rose Sunday” tradition in the modern Lent.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent, nicknamed Passion Sunday, is an anticipation of Palm Sunday.  A noteworthy feature of the traditional lectionary was that major Sunday commemorations tended to have a follow-up Sunday to further explicate its meaning, but in the case of Palm Sunday, that follow-up had to be a preview Sunday instead.  Originally, the Gospel was Jesus’ speech about “before Abraham was, I am” – asserting his divinity.  This was paired with a lesson from Hebrews about his priestly sacrifice, so the theological import of his death on the Cross would be better appreciated on the following Sunday.  The modern calendar carries out a similar function using the Gospel stories of the resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus’ saying that “the son of man must be lifted up,” and the parable of the wicked tenants.  The traditional Collect was similar to those for the 2nd and 3rd Sundays, with a thematic similarity to the Collect for Good Friday, making it serve as another “preview” of the Passion to come.  The modern Collect, however, is a transfer from what was originally an Eastertide Collect, asking God to fix our hearts where true joy is to be found, despite our unruly wills and affections.  As far as I can see (thus far), this somewhat weakens the traditional Passion Sunday function.

The Sixth Sunday of Lent is usually called Palm Sunday, and it is the day we hear the great Passion Narrative as the Gospel.  The Collect is the same, old and new, drawing upon the Epistle (Philippians 2:5-11, also unchanged) to apply Christ’s passion to us; the only difference is that the historic lectionary sticks with Matthew’s Passion and the modern cycles between Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  We’ll look at this in greater detail when Holy Week draws nigh.