Seven Weeks of Advent?

Something that I and other preachers often observe throughout the month of November is how the Sunday Communion lectionary transitions so smoothly into Advent from the end of the Trinitytide season. Whether it’s the traditional calendar or the modern, the readings naturally anticipate many of the major Advent themes: eternity, Christ’s judgement & reign, the Kingdom of God, our glorification in Christ. In both cases Advent does not come out of nowhere, but is a natural “next step” in the calendar’s cyclical presentation of the whole Gospel of Christ throughout the year.

But Advent has some pretty tough opponents these days. It normally begins on the coattails of Thanksgiving in the USA, and the commercialization of Christmas tends to drown out the distinction of Advent from Christmas. The hustle and bustle of culture, school, and general “holiday prep” makes it all too easy for the Christian today to miss the season of Advent completely. What can be a beautiful, quiet, and deeply spiritual experience is frequently truncated to a cardboard box with 24 numbers on it and chocolates inside.

I know what we need, MORE ADVENT!

Some eleven years ago now, a group of Episcopalians and Methodists came up with the idea of extending Advent from four weeks to seven, and thus The Advent Project was born. Nothing much came of it, and it never left the confines of liberal Protestantism. Unlike most liturgical innovations from that crowd, however, this idea was based on some rather sound principles: (1) Advent was a 40-week fast in the Early Church, (2) the secularization of Advent & Christmas needs to be combated, and (3) this could be accomplished without substantially changing the lectionary as it stands.

It’s also worth noting that the modern calendar authorized in the Church of England actually sets forth a sequence of “Sundays before Advent” (sometimes nicknamed Kingdomtide) which deliberately explores some pre-Advent themes. The liturgical color of red is put forth there as an alternative to the more traditional green.

The Advent Project’s 7-week plan, however, makes a lot of sense. When the popular secular and church cultures alike have made a mess of something like the season of Advent, why not turn to the Early Church for help? And if we can do that without yet another change to the lectionary, doesn’t that sound like the perfect solution?

Actually this is a silly idea.

But every good idea has its downsides. If you extend Advent to seven weeks in length, that means it begins on the Sunday within November 6th through 12th, meaning that roughly two years out of seven there is going to be a conflict between All Saints Sunday and the First Sunday of Extended Advent. Celebrating All Saints’ on the first Sunday of November is actually a 20th-century innovation, but the sort of congregation that is likely to adopt the 7-week Advent is probably also the sort that observes All Saints’ on the first Sunday of November, and thus there will be this conundrum to face on a regular basis.

Furthermore, the idea that Advent is so special that it needs its own pre-season reveals a telling bias. The traditional calendar has three weeks of Pre-Lent, smoothing the transition beautifully from Epiphanytide to Lent; but the modern calendar has thrown them out, resulting in a jarring shift of gears from Epiphany/Ordinary Time to Lent with only one Sunday (unique to Anglicans and Episcopalians I think) to bridge the gap between them. (That Sunday does, admittedly, use the Transfiguration as a brilliant hinge to make that shift from Epiphany to Lent, but it’s still just one little day with Ash Wednesday following too soon for anyone to prepare themselves spiritually.) The fact that there is interest in restoring dignity to Advent while neglecting Lent indicates what might be considered an imbalanced set of spiritual and theological priorities.

Also, let’s be real, what are the odds that a proposal like this, which has been dead in the water since 2011, will ever catch on?

Let’s see how it works!

Having played devil’s advocate, I want to turn now to providing some positive suggestions on how the spirit of the extended Advent idea can be used fruitfully, particularly in my context, using the authorized 2019 Prayer Book of the Anglican Church in North America.

The Advent Project had a clever idea: take the seven O Antiphons and appoint each of them as the theme or motif for each of the seven Sundays of Extended Advent. If you present them in their traditional order (with just one pair switched) they line up with the modern lectionary quite nicely. The collects in the 2019 BCP are different from those in the 1979 BCP, so many of the original idea-matches from the Advent Project are not applicable. But there are different ways that the same idea can work. Let’s walk through them:

Proper 27 / Third Sunday before Advent / Superadvent I: O Sapientia

SUNG VERSE: O come, thou wisdom from on high, who ord’rest all things mightily…

COLLECT: As the song prays that we might follow in the ways of Wisdom, so too does the collect pray that we purify ourselves as Christ (our wisdom) is pure so that we will be like him upon his second advent.

GOSPELS: Matthew 25:1-13 Parable of the WISE and foolish virgins
Mark 12:38-44 The learned scribes are unwise in their conduct, the poor widow is wise in her generosity
Luke 20:27-38 God is God of the living, not the dead; the Sadducees were not wise to understand this

Proper 28 / Second Sunday before Advent / Superadvent II: O Adonai

SUNG VERSE: O come, thou Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height…

COLLECT: As the song remembers the giving the Law, the collect prays for an abundance of good works (which the Law directed but was powerless itself to bring about).

GOSPELS: Matthew 25:14-30 Parable of the talents, in which one servant fails to invest his talent
Mark 13:14-23 & Luke 21:5-19 Do not be deceived by false Lords (adonai’s)

Proper 29 (Christ the King) / Last Sunday before Advent / Superadvent III: O Rex gentium

SUNG VERSE: O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind…

COLLECT: The song and the collect both pray for the end of human division under the unifying reign of Christ the King.

GOSPELS: Matthew 25:31-46 The King will judge the sheep from the goats for his kingdom
John 18:33-37 Jesus admits to Pilate that he is a king
Luke 23:35-43 This is the King of the Jews

Advent I / Superadvent IV: O radix Jesse

SUNG VERSE: O come, thou Rod of Jesse’s stem, from ev’ry foe deliver them…

COLLECT: The song prays for deliverance and victory, matched in the collect’s reference to putting on the armor of light.

GOSPELS: Matthew 24:29-44 & Mark 13:24-37 At the coming of the Son of Man, his elect will be delivered
Luke 21:25-33 Keep watch and pray that you will escape all these things at the end of the age

Advent II / Superadvent V: O clavis David

SUNG VERSE: O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heav’nly home…

COLLECT: The song prays for the path to misery be shut and the heavenly way opened, and the collect sets forth the Scriptures as a vehicle for blessed hope.

GOSPELS: Matthew 3:1-12 & Mark 1:1-8 & Luke 3:1-6 John the Baptist’s preaching points the way/highway/path to Christ

Advent III / Superadvent VI: O Oriens

SUNG VERSE O come, thou Day-spring from on high, and cheer us by thy drawing nigh…

COLLECT: The song’s language of dispelling darkness and night is matched in the collect’s prayer for repentance and cleansing upon hearing the prophets’ preaching.

GOSPELS: Matthew 11:2-19 Jesus affirms to John’s disciples that he is dispelling the darkness as promised
John 1:19-28 & Luke 3:7-20 John the Baptist proclaims that the Christ is drawing nigh

Advent IV / Superadvent VII: O Emmanuel

SUNG VERSE: O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel…

COLLECT: The song bids us await the appearance of the Son of God, and the collect also prays for him to come among us.

GOSPELS: Matthew 1:18-25 They shall call his name Emmanuel
Luke 1:26-38 He will be called the Son of the Most High
Luke 1:39-56 Fetal John the Baptist recognizes the newly-conceived Jesus

A final personal note of recommendation.

Surely if you dig through the Epistles and Old Testament lessons of the modern lectionary you will find further connections to these themes. But it should be emphasizes that this schema is not how the lectionary was designed to be interpreted. Using these seven O Antiphons in this manner only gives coincidental lines of interpretation. They’re not bad lines of interpretation, but they don’t account for everything, nor do they even begin to exhaust the potential of these Sundays’ themes and lessons.

I have used this Extended Advent concept once, a few years ago, and plan to use it again in 2023. I did not, and will not, rename the Sundays before Advent as if to make an official Pre-Advent season; rather, I treated it like a sermon series, preaching on Jesus in the Old Testament images that those seven antiphons/verses portray. We also sang the corresponding verse of the hymn each week, needless to say. I do recommend other priests and pastors give this a try sometime, too. 2023 is a good opportunity for it because All Saints’ Sunday won’t conflict with the first day of this sequence!

That having been said, there are plenty of other ways to anticipate Advent in the final Sundays of the church year. As early as “Proper 24” (Oct. 16-22) the Collects of the Day give themes that summarize the course of Christian life and discipleship and anticipate eternity – bondage from sin (24), live among things that are passing away (26), and so on – not to mention the lectionary’s meanderings into the later Prophets, and 1 & 2 Thessalonians around the same time. (I suppose Year B is the weak one of the three, when it comes to explicit anticipation of Advent.) The seven-week Advent idea is a nifty one, and can be used gently to draw upon the wisdom and resources of the Early Church without having to tinker with the liturgy we’ve received by authority in our own day. But it’s one approach of many, and I pray that you and yours will be enriched with the blessed hope of eternal life that this time of year directs us toward!

The Lessons at Compline

Traditional orders for Compline did not have a Scripture lesson as such, though the devotional reading of 1 Peter 5:8-9a has been a mainstay of the office – often near the beginning of the liturgy.  As the Office of Compline entered into the 20th century the lessons (both in Anglican and Roman practice) took on a distinct position in the liturgy, mirroring the other Offices in the daytime.  The Canadian and American Prayer Books of 1962 and 1979 included three readings from Jeremiah 14, Matthew 11, and Hebrews 13, as does the Church of England’s Common Prayer (2000).  The additional readings from 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10, 5:23, and Ephesians 4:26-27 (and Jeremiah 14:9a again) are drawn by the modern Roman Liturgy of the Hours.

The Four Primary Scripture Lessons in the 2019 Prayer Book:

Jeremiah 14:9

Particularly appropriate for Fridays and other penitential days, this verse comes from a plea for mercy despite Israel’s sins.  Famine and disaster has struck, yet despite their unworthiness Jeremiah pleads for God to save his people once more.  As the worshiper prepares to sleep, this verse echoes the same cry of the heart: “Leave us not!”

Matthew 11:28-30

One of the Comfortable Words in the Communion service is found here, taking a more literal context of finding “rest” after the burden of the day.

Hebrews 13:20-21

These verses are a benediction, delivering the blessed promise of sanctification at God’s hand.  The image of being “brought again from the dead” is a source of peace in preparation for sleep.

1 Peter 5:8-9

This is the quintessential Compline verse.  It highlights the spiritual danger typified by sleep, and the need for wakefulness.  In this sense it also provides the raison d’être for the service of Compline: it is our act of sober-minded watchfulness at night, resisting the prowling darkness that surrounds us at this time of night.

The Seven Additional Scripture Lessons:

Isaiah 26:3-4

The promise of God’s “perfect peace” upon those “whose mind is stayed” on him is “an everlasting rock” of hope, appropriate for bedtime.

Isaiah 30:15

This is the verse that inspired the popular Collet for Quiet Confidence (#82 on BCP 670), and provides another liturgical purpose for the Office of Compline: return and rest in the Lord.

Matthew 6:31-34

Putting the mind at ease at the end of the day can be difficult, and the Lord’s exhortation “Seek first the kingdom of God… do not be anxious about tomorrow” can be precisely the correction one needs right before bed.

2 Corinthians 4:6

The imagery of light shining out of darkness is a straight-forward connection to the devotional place of Compline in the overall life of worship.

1 Thessalonians 5:9-10

The death/sleep versus life/awake theme is evoked in these verses, infusing our act of going to sleep as an act of faith and trust in God’s predestination and Christ’s death for us.

1 Thessalonians 5:23

This verse is another benediction, and the language of being “kept” is appropriate for the context of Compline.  As we sleep, only God can keep us; in the same way, only God can keep us blameless and sanctify us completely before the dawn of Christ’s return.

Ephesians 4:26-27

Similar to 1 Peter 5:8-9, these verses remind us of the active danger of the devil and our need to take action to give him “no opportunity.” Specifically, the worshiper is reminded to give up sinful anger before the day is over – Compline is our last chance to repent before we sleep!

Faithfully Stay the Course

February 24th is Saint Matthias Day in the traditional liturgical calendar. Some churches and provinces have moved him over to May 14, closer to Ascension Day and Pentecost, where his story in Acts 1 fits right in from a biblical-narrative perspective. But we’ve still got him in late February, usually in Lent. It’s always nice to have a feast day in Lent – we get a little break from the penitential tone! – but there’s also something appropriate about observing this Saint during Lent: Matthias is only one of the twelve Apostles because he was selected to replace Judas, the traitor.

There are two lessons that I’d like to draw from this liturgical observance (and from Acts 1:12-26).

  1. Apostolic authority is a critical point for the unity of the Church.
  2. Every Christian must faithfully stay the course of the faith.

On the point of apostolic authority, this is something I like to try to mention during Ascensiontide but often don’t have time – (there is a lot of fantastic theology and lessons about Jesus and his ministry to us to tease out in that brief mini-season, and I seldom have opportunity to write or preach about ecclesiology then) – the eleven considered it vitally important that they replace Judas and restore their number to twelve apostles. Jesus had just told them that while it was not for them to know “the times or seasons” concerning the Kingdom of God, but that they would “receive power” when the Holy Spirit would descend upon them. And this wasn’t entirely in the future; Jesus had already “breathed on them the Holy Spirit” giving them authority to forgive and retain sins. In that authority they’d already been entrusted with, they took it upon them to select and ordain a new twelfth man – Matthias. St. Peter even quotes Psalm 109 to acknowledge the necessity of this act: “Let another take his office.” And in the Greek, the word translated “office” is the source for the word “episcopate” – the office of an overseer, or bishop.

They knew that when the Holy Spirit would descend upon the whole church (on the day of Pentecost) the leadership had to be ready. Ancient Israel was founded with Twelve Tribes, and the New Israel was to be re-founded with Twelve Apostles – this was a very self-conscious and -aware decision, they knew the significance of what they were doing.

And, although the nature of the authority of those first Apostles is different from the authority that has been passed down among the Bishops ever since, the apostolic role of the bishops assembled is still critical for the church today. On their own, bishops might be little more than super-priests, pastors of megachurches, or of multi-site churches. That’s where cynicism from tired or burned church-goers (or skepticism from presbyterians and congregationalists) thrives. The real power, or authority, of the bishop is not so much in the individual as in the episcopacy as an institution and a group. One bishop can go astray about as easily as one priest or pastor, honestly. But a group, or college, of bishops, is another matter. Yes, a group can be corrupted too – we consider the entire Roman Church to be in error for example. But a church is at its best when its bishops speak together with one voice, in accord with the Church global and temporal.

An example of this was just demonstrated last month when the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America concluded a year of deliberations concerning the issues of ministering to people with same-sex attraction. It’s one of the greatest ministry challenges of our time, and must be met with careful biblical attention and loving attention to the situation of people today. Their excellent statement can be read online here.

But of course, there are always people who want to add their own nuances, pick at words, and even twist or re-cast what has been said. No small online furor has followed, muddying the waters and making some people wonder what the exodus from the Episcopal Church was all about if we’re just going to re-tread the same ground all over again. One of the angles of corrective response is an article in which a respected Anglican examines for us the nature of the teaching authority of bishops as a unified body. I commend that reading to you also!

But this also leads us to the second point about the election of Matthias to be the new 12th Apostle – he was “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us“. And, critically unlike Judas Iscariot, Matthias faithfully stayed the course. He did not falter from the way of Christ; he remained constant like the other eleven.

Other Scriptures read on this day attest to this also: Psalm 15 asks the hard-yet-important question of who can dwell on God’s holy hill; Philippians 3 gives us the example of “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus“. Simply put, there is a way that leads to life, and a way that leads to death. Judas chose the latter for himself; we must choose the former. Yes, salvation is not simply about what you choose – the real work of salvation is Jesus’ death on the Cross for the sins of the world, but if you reject his sacrifice on your behalf then you’ll have to find another way to pay for your sins… and there isn’t one.

The story of St. Matthias taking Judas’ office, or episcopacy, is a sobering reminder. Please, faithfully stay the course of the faith. In Christ alone is salvation wrought, and only his Body (the Church) offers him to us.

A Series of Related Commemorations

The calendar of commemorations in our new Prayer Book today lists three women: Lydia, Dorcus, and Phoebe. Normally, as you may be aware, only one commemoration per day is the norm. Sometimes if a group of people were martyred together they’ll share a date, and sometimes (even more rarely) a few people with similar legacies are remembered together. This “affinity group commemoration” phenomenon is mostly a feature of the Episcopalian calendar since 1979, though some rare examples of these entries have carried over into our calendar and/or can be found in other traditions also.

Just for one example, Lydia has been commemorated as a Saint in many traditions over the years, but her feast day varies widely. The Romans remember her on August 3rd, various Eastern churches commemorate her on March 27th, May 20th, or June 25th. Some Lutherans celebrate her on October 25th. We, with some other Lutherans and the Episcopalians, have her down for January 27th.

What is particularly interesting about this date for commemorating Lydia and Dorcus and Phoebe (since we don’t have clear traditions of when they died, which would be the normal date for a Saint’s Day) is that they are on Day Three of a three-day series of commemorations. January 25th is the Conversion of Saint Paul, January 26th is for Saints Timothy and Titus, and January 27th is for Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe. This string of remembrances is a real “Book of Acts Party”, I once joked, and makes a lot of sense. Together these six people form a sequence both historical and missiological:

  1. God calls Saul (eventually to be known as Paul) to faith in Christ
  2. Paul ordains ministers (Timothy and Titus) to continue his work
  3. More people convert (Lydia, Dorcus, Phoebe) and continue the advance of the kingdom

Thus this trio of celebrations is worth pointing out to our fellow church-goers as a biblical and liturgical reminder of the call of the Church to make disciples and grow. The different roles are important to note, because sometimes we assume that “mission” and “evangelism” is best done by professionals – or least by particular individuals with special zeal and drive. Saint Paul was an extraordinary individual, Timothy and Titus were bishops, they can be most inspiring but also very difficult to relate to. This is where the three women may come in helpful.

Lydia was a wealthy woman, who lived in Thyatira, in Roman Macedonia. She was essentially the first European convert to Christianity. She was already a “worshiper of God”, which means she was probably familiar with basic Jewish teachings and believed in the God of Israel, but (most importantly) “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” and she and her household were subsequently baptized. She heeded the Gospel, brought her family along, and then supported the ministry of Paul and his companions with her considerable means. Believing in the mission of the Gospel and supporting it with hospitality and finances is no small thing!

Dorcas, also named Tabitha, was a devout woman faithful in Christ and abundant in good works. Her ministry of providing for the poor and needy made her most beloved in her community and when she died many people showed St. Peter the clothing she had made for them, beseeching him to pray for her and raise her from the dead, which he did. Her resuscitation “became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” Thus even though she did directly participate in “evangelistic outreach” as we might call it, her good deeds gave her a positive reputation that, when recognized by the Church, brought many to share the faith she proclaimed. The light of her good deeds was seen, and many others came to the Light as a result.

Phoebe, finally, is a person of some controversy in modern Christian circles. She is described as a “διάκονον” from which we have the word Deacon. Some argue she was a Deacon in the formal ordained sense, like the men in Acts 6. Some argue she was a Deaconess in the context of the Early Church’s practice: a non-ordained minister who assisted with the baptism of women and works of mercy in the community. Others take the word in its general sense – a “servant of the Church”. Whatever the precise interpretation of this word, we know that Phoebe was an active member of the Church at Cenchrae (probably a village near Corinth) who traveled to Rome, perhaps along with the letter that St. Paul had written to them. She was to be received “worth of the saints” and to be helped in whatever she might need, because she was a “patron of many” as well as of Paul himself. A patron indicates she probably was rich, like Lydia, and provided financial and/or hospitable support for the traveling apostles and the local church. As a woman of means, perhaps she was able to be active in other ways – supplying the church and the ministers, caring for the sick, bringing alms to the poor, or any number of other services for the cause of the Gospel.

So we remember today the great contribution of these three women; their service to the Gospel and the Church was incalculable and their names endure forever through the Scriptures and the liturgical calendar. It is helpful for us to commemorate people who made a great difference through seemingly “ordinary” means… maybe just maybe we can be inspired to spend and be spent for the cause of Christ, ourselves.

Getting uncomfortably close to Jesus

It’s the feast of St. James of Jerusalem today. We’ve got a brief round-up prepared for this holiday, plus a little devotional.

This year, meanwhile, we’re looking at the New Testament lesson appointed for Morning Prayer on this major feast day: James 1. Specifically, just the verse first.

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greeting.

St. James 1:1

Compared to all the other New Testament Epistles, this really stands out. To the casual reader it doesn’t even sound like he’s writing to Christians! But this makes perfect sense when the reader considers two key things about his context.

  1. It was universally understood among the first Christians that the kingdom of Israel was being re-founded around the throne of Jesus as King. The New Covenant, further, brought a new rite of entry into the covenant people: baptism instead of circumcision. Gentiles, therefore, were eligible to join Israel with unprecedented ease! When James writes to the “twelve tribes”, he means the “Israel of God”, the Church, which St. Paul refers to in Galatians 6:16.
  2. James was based in Jerusalem, so when he wrote to his fellow believers elsewhere they were naturally considered “the Dispersion”, literally, those who weren’t in or near Jerusalem.

That said, St. James of Jerusalem did have a distinctly Jewish view of Christianity. His epistle, of all in the New Testament, reads the most like an Old Testament treatise, drawing heavily on biblical Wisdom literature and the Law of Moses. He speaks of the apostolic testimony, of course, and makes references to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, but the tone is very much reflective of someone who was raised Jewish and continues to live according that culture.

Despite this strange character compared to the majority of the New Testament’s wide-eyed perspective towards a Gentile-inclusive future, the epistle of James gives us an unexpectedly close portrait of the world in which Jesus walked. He kept the Law, he lived under the Old Covenant (thus fulfilling it), his cultural references were almost 100% parochial Jewish. Although James’ language doesn’t represent the majority tone of the Apostolic witness, it does bring us very close to what one might have experienced had one walked with Jesus during his earthly ministry.

This “awkward Jewishness” about James is compounded when you consider one of the few references to him in the Gospels. Natives of Nazareth expressed their unbelief regarding Jesus in this way: ““Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?”  And they took offense at him” (Matthew 13:54b-57a). One of the reasons (or excuses) that some people rejected Jesus was that they knew his family and relatives. They were “too close” to him to take him seriously.

And that sort of thing can be a challenge for Christians, sometimes, too. We know about his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. We hear about his relatives, including this James. They’re unapologetically Jewish, undeniably 1st-century Roman Palestinians. And still we exalt and worship that Jesus as God-in-the-flesh. St. James can bring us very close to Jesus, and sometimes that can be a little uncomfortable. It’s somehow “safer” to imagine Jesus in isolation, with no mother, no relatives, just a man descended from heaven. But, thank Him, that isn’t who he is; he’s a real person from a real lineage and race and region.

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.