Reading the Lamentations

Our Daily Office readings for the evening continues through the Jeremianic literature with the book of Lamentations.  We’ve worked our way through the book of Jeremiah itself already, and touched upon the book of his assistant, Baruch, and are now reading from Lamentations, which is traditionally attributed to Jeremiah’s hand.

An unusual amount of biographical information about Jeremiah himself is preserved in the middle of the book bearing his name; it relates his dicey interaction with the leadership of Jerusalem.  He prophesies doom and gloom for Jerusalem, and the leaders of the people generally see this as an act of treason – how can it possibly be God’s will to lead the Gentiles to victory and destroy His own temple?  The end of the book of Jeremiah is another historical note about the fall of Jerusalem largely repeating material in 2 Kings 24.

This rather depressing ending sets up for a sort of appendix, which we know as the Lamentations. This 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. Despite the mournful subject of all five laments, some very famous glimmers of hope shine through: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness” (3:22-23).  You may be familiar with a famous hymn inspired by these verses.  Perhaps, after reading chapter 3, you may be so moved to sing that hymn as an Evening Prayer Canticle, or an Anthem after the Collects.

Structurally, the book of Lamentations is very simple.  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.

Spiritually, 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).  Indeed, parts of this book will be read again during Holy Week, in which that bewailing of the destruction of all we hold dear is given an explicit Christocentric context.

This time around, perhaps it’s best to try to keep the historical setting of the Lamentations in mind for now; walk with Jeremiah and/or the Hebrew survivors of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586BC, and mourn with them.  Come Holy Week, we’ll use some of these words again to mourn with the disciples (and all of faithful humanity) over the even more grievous destruction of the Temple that is Jesus himself.

Introduction to Baruch

One of the greatest blessings about the Bible’s contents is that it provides us with multiple accounts and perspectives on a large portion of the major events, stories, and people within.  There are four Gospel books, each telling the story of Jesus in a different way.  Echoes of several events recorded in the book of Acts can be found throughout the New Testament Epistles.  And in the Old Testament there are a number of books that overlap with one another in their historical coverage.  Sometimes this can be seen as a problem, for there are a number of instances that don’t seem to match.  The exact sequence of events at the last supper, at Paul’s life-changing encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, and the lifespans and reigns of several Israelite kings are difficult to reconstruct with the conflicting information found in different accounts throughout the Bible.  Many, if not most, of these issues can be harmonized with more careful study of the text, and an attentive eye to the writing style and emphasis of the particular authors.  But even as some of these challenges remain, it is a source of blessing for us.  It keeps us honest about the human element in the authorship of the Sacred Scriptures; it reminds us that the Bible exists to communicate Christ, and not to quibble over minor and inconsequential details like how long a particular Old Testament king lived in Jerusalem.

The book of Baruch, with appended Epistle of Jeremiah, is an offering of further perspective to the ministry and book of the Prophet Jeremiah.  The prophet Baruch is mentioned several times in the book of Jeremiah as his scribe and assistant (cf. chapters 32, 36, 43, 45).  For the most part this book serves as an answer to some of Jeremiah’s instructions to those who were going to Babylon in exile.  Chapters 1 and 2 in particular match up with Jeremiah 29, suggesting that some of the exiles were indeed beginning to live in faith and penitence, respecting their new masters in their temporary exile home.  The Epistle of Jeremiah, sometimes treated as chapter 6 of Baruch, is a further treatise against idolatry.

Those are what I tend to consider the major features of the book of Baruch, but oddly enough the ACNA Daily Lectionary only gives us two chapters of this short book to read, and it’s none of the above!  Instead we are to read chapters 4 and 5 which speak words of comfort to the Jewish exiles in Babylon.  As chapters 1 & 2 indicate, there were some among the exiles who did come to understand that the destruction of Jerusalem was God’s punishment for their idolatry, and they repented of their sins.  To such penitent believers, hope and comfort could be preached: God had a future for his faithful people.  These chapters are like the “Words of Comfort” in our Communion liturgy that follow the Confession and Absolution.

As you delve into these chapters this evening and tomorrow, think of this as the “light at the end of the tunnel” that Jeremiah yearned for in his long and painful prophetic ministry and his assistant finally gets to see.

Those wicked long readings…

Something great about the ACNA Daily Office Lectionary is that it has a return to the fantastically simple style of our 16th and 17th century lectionaries of reading one chapter at a time.  Back then, that reading pace typically applied both to the OT and NT daily readings, whereas for us it’s mostly just the OT readings that are thus treated.  It’s so much easier when you don’t have to fiddle about with “what verse to stop with” – just read one chapter at a time, and continue it tomorrow.  Simple!

The downside with this approach, of course, is that some chapters are longer than others.  When I tried a 1662-inspired lectionary, at first I found this irritating.  But eventually I came to appreciate the variety of length: sometimes you get a longer story, sometimes it’s short and sweet.  Nevertheless, some chapters are just really long compared to others.

This morning brings us to one such example: Genesis 41.  Clocking in at 57 verses, this chapter packs a punch with two lengthy pieces of the story of Joseph in Egypt.  The first 36 verses detail his interaction with the Pharaoh and interpreting his dreams about the coming bounty and famine; the last 21 verses detail Joseph’s rise to power through the implementation of his vision-based proposal.  It’d be nice to be able to break these up into two different readings, but there just isn’t enough space in the calendar to play with chapter divisions like this.

If you’re a completionist, using the lectionary to read as much of the Bible as possible each year, then you’ve just got to tough it up and read 57 verses in one go.  If, however, you’re praying the Office with a lighter devotional approach, and concerned more about getting the sense of the Scriptures without necessarily reading each word – or if for some reason you need to shorten the reading or have a time limit for the Office as a whole – there is another way.

The ACNA lectionary comes equipped with an “Optional abbreviation” for a number of the larger chapter readings throughout the year.  The entry in the lectionary table for this morning’s Old Testament reading is:

Gen 41 † 1-15,25-40

This means that if you want to shorten the chapter, simply read verses 1-15, then skip to 25 and read through verse 40.  In so doing, you cut out a fair bit of repetition (which is very common in Hebrew storytelling), and abbreviate the lengthy description of the honors Joseph went on to receive, as well as cut out the implementation of the plan that was already described and approved.

Here’s an interesting analogy: reading chapter 41 in its entirety is like reading a sermon, whereas reading the shortened version (vv 1-15,25-40) is like reading the blog post summary of the sermon.  The full version has a beginning, middle and end: “This is what we need to do, this is what we will do, this is what they did.”  A good sermon format is often similar: “This what I’m going to say, this is me saying, this is what I said.”  The blog post version is much more succinct: “Ain’t nobody got time for dis, so here’s the deal.”

Personally, I’m a big fan of reading the Bible in full throughout the year.  If we seriously believe it is the Word of God in literary form then we really ought to be poring through its pages diligently, consistently, and completely.  But as a stay-at-home parent with young children I have come to appreciate all the more how truly difficult it can be for many people to carve out that time for the longer Scripture readings.  So while I see the full-chapter readings in lectionaries like ours to be the ideal to reach for, I must assure you that there is no shame in opting for the shortened version as need arises.

Retelling History in the Prophets

Okay, so, I can’t help it… let’s look at Jeremiah again.  This evening’s reading from that book continues through some more historical material culminating in the Fall of Jerusalem in tomorrow’s reading (chapter 39).  If you were to do a side-by-side comparison, you’ll find that this is lifted almost word for word from 2 Kings 25.  This will happen again towards the end of this month, as the last chapter or two of Jeremiah also reflect on the Fall of Jerusalem, bringing us back to 2 Kings 25.  So in the Daily Office lectionary you can trace lines of connection from February 9th and 22nd to November 12th.

The almost-perfect word match raises a lot of questions for biblical scholars, too.  Does this mean that Jeremiah wrote 2 Kings?  Did the writer of 2 Kings just copy Jeremiah’s writings?  Did an anonymous editor of Jeremiah add that excerpt from 2 Kings in order to add context to Jeremiah’s biographical material?  It’s one of the many mysteries of the Old Testament that will probably keep us guessing until we pass into the next life wherein we can finally ask the authors ourselves.

This happens in the book of Isaiah, too; chapter 37 extensively retells 2 Kings 19 and/or 2 Chronicles 32.  Again, who wrote what, who copied whom, who edited what and when, are unanswerable questions that remind us that the history of these writings are very long and very complicated.  That story will draw a line of connection from October 5th (Kings) to November 24th (Isaiah).

How does this help one to worship in the Daily Office and appreciate the Scripture readings therein?  Well, not a lot, honestly.  These observations are mostly background, context… more appropriate for study material.  But what we can notice and learn here is that some major events like the Fall of Jerusalem show up in multiple places in the Bible, and we will accordingly hear about them several times throughout the year as they come up.  This is obviously (and more frequently) true considering the great overlap between the four gospel books.  But for now, enjoy taking these stories in Jeremiah’s context.  Later this year we’ll hear some of them again in another setting.

The Passions of Jeremiah & Jesus

Tonight at Evening Prayer, according to the ACNA daily lectionary, we will read Jeremiah 36 which begins a sequence of chapters of historical material depicting what might be termed ‘the Passion of Jeremiah.’  Although it does not lead to his death, he comes pretty close in chapters 38 and 39.  Meanwhile, in Morning Prayer, we’re getting into the Passion of Christ in John’s Gospel.

Because the Daily Office Lectionary is primarily a tool for reading the Bible sequentially, there is little to no intentionality to the combination of the lessons within a given day.  Nevertheless it is fortuitous to the reader that we should come to the sufferings of Jeremiah for the word of the Lord at the same time as we read of the sufferings of the Lord himself.  Notice the innocence they both have, before the face of the people.  Notice the innocent verdict afforded them by royal authority, and yet how they inspire the hatred of the populace at large.  One can even compare and contrast the way in which Jeremiah and Jesus respond to their accusations.

This is liturgy blog, not a Bible Study blog, but as Jeremiah is my favorite of the prophets I couldn’t let this slip by unmentioned.  Notice the pattern of the confessor or martyr that these two stories establish.  Even if the “official” authority figures find God’s people innocent of crime, that does not mean they will be safe from public ire for the message they bring.  It is the same for a confessor or martyr in any age – whether a government or individual ruler finds Christianity favorable or not, the unbelieving element in society will always be adversarial towards us.  Cozying up to King Zedekiah would have done Jeremiah no good, nor was Pilate able to save Jesus simply because he didn’t have a problem with him.  Likewise the Christian should take note that we do not derive our true public safety by means of law and government.  If the Gospel is offensive to a given culture, then members of that culture will not be kind to us no matter what those in charge may say.

May we strive to be as blameless and innocent as Jeremiah and Jesus.  May we recognize, as we considered yesterday, our frailty and need for the protection of our maker.

Keeping the liturgy faithfully according to the tradition of our forefathers is well and good.  But be sure you let it, especially through the words of sacred scripture, grow and transform you to reflect more and more the One whom the liturgy proclaims.

The Presentation / Purification / Candlemas

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

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

The Collect

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

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

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

Morning Prayer readings

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

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

Holy Communion readings

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

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

Other readings

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

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

The Canticle of Simeon

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

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


The Blessing of Candles

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

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

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

Lectionary Convergence: 1 Corinthians

This week we’ve got a somewhat rare event: the Daily Office Lectionary and the Sunday Communion Lectionary are crossing one another’s paths.  The Epistles in Evening Prayer started us in on 1 Corinthians a week and a half ago, and this evening is reaching chapter 12.  Yesterday and the Sunday before, the Communion lectionary has also been taking us through chapter 12.

This sort of double exposure probably happens a few times a year, at different times depending upon which year in the 3-year cycle it is.  This can be an excellent opportunity to get a perspective check on the Communion lectionary readings.  That lectionary, by default, is unable to be as comprehensive as a daily lectionary; it has to cut corners, it has to summarize books of the Bible and move on.  It is the function of the Daily Office to slog through virtually everything and put it all in context.

Having Evening Prayer take us through the bulk of 1 Corinthians in the past ten days, and finishing the book in the coming week, will be a helpful overview to remind us of the larger context as we listen to the 1 Corinthians lessons at the Sunday Communion services for the next few weeks until Lent begins.

This Morning: Resurrection

This morning  our Old Testament and New Testament lessons, which have been independently walking through the books of Genesis and John, step onto the same subject for a brief moment: resurrection.

Genesis 22 is the story of Abraham and Isaac, the father offering his son on an altar, though not having to go through with the actual spilling of blood.  As the anonymous New Testament author explains it,

Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”  He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back (Hebrews 11:17-19).

Thus Genesis 22 is a sort of prototype resurrection story, prefiguring the Cross of Christ, and we usually hear it read in the Good Friday liturgy.

The New Testament lesson from John 11 is the story of the resurrection of Lazarus.  This is one of the lessons offered in our Burial Office due to its prominent place as a vivid and explicit example of the resurrection power of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Not only does he perform a miraculous resurrection of a man four days dead, but he also speaks of his own inherent life – that Jesus himself is resurrection, he himself is life.

Obviously, it is a plain coincidence that these two lessons are read together today.  The nature of a Daily Office Lectionary is to read through the Bible in sequential bits, not to try to connect the dots between Scripture (that is the function of a traditional Communion lectionary, which our modern ones unfortunately only do half the time).  Nevertheless, the co-incidence of explicit resurrection themes in Genesis 22 and John 11:1-44 is refreshing and noteworthy.  You might even want to grab an Easter-appropriate Canticle in place of the Te Deum… instead of saying Surge illuminare (#2) how about Cantemus Domino (#5), Dignus es (#6), or Cantate Domino (#7, Psalm 98)!

Confession of St. Peter at Morning Prayer

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

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

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

The Evening Epistles

This evening, the ACNA daily lectionary begins reading through 1 Thessalonians.  It just completed the Epistle to the Galatians, which could be said to have some thematic links to the Circumcision / Holy Name on January 1st and the Epiphany on the 6th.  But 1 Thessalonians, often known for its attention to the subject of the return of Christ, doesn’t really have much connection with the Epiphany season.  So what’s the logic here?

It must be remembered, first of all, that this is a simple lectionary; its purpose is to take us through the Bible with as little interruption and skipping around as possible.  Normally, this would mean going through the Epistles in canonical order (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, etc.).  But for this lectionary it seems the designers decided to bring us through chronologically, starting with the Epistles of St. Paul.  Galatians is thought to be his earliest, followed by those to the Thessalonians, then the Corinthians, and so on.  When the Pauline Epistles are finished in early April, the General Epistles are covered (Hebrews, James, Peter, Jude, John) into late May.  Then the cycle will be ready to repeat soon after.

Some readers may lament the decision to use the ‘secular calendar’ for our lectionary, rather than the liturgical calendar.  But 1) the daily lectionaries in the Prayer Books followed the secular calendar for centuries before switching over to the liturgical one, 2) this way is simpler and more accessible to more people, and 3) with our version of the Revised Common Lectionary at the Sunday Eucharist, we already get a lot of seasonally-appropriate Scripture readings.  The Daily Office Lectionary doesn’t need to pick up that task in addition.

So as you pick up 1 Thessalonians tonight, keep in mind that you’re walking through the written legacy of Saint Paul, and don’t try to force connections with the Epiphany season.