Saturday, March 28, 2009

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes on The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B

Passion Sunday and Passiontide

In the Book of Common Prayer this Sunday is entitled: “The Fifth Sunday in Lent Commonly Called Passion Sunday. The old Latin name was Dominica in Passione Domini.
The name of Passion Sunday has been given to the second Sunday before Good Friday froom time immemorial, because on that day the Lord began to make open predictions of His coming sufferings. Those sufferings also begin now to be commemorated in the Scriptures for the season. J. H Blunt, Annotated Book of Common Prayer, New edition, (Longmans, Green & Co., 1892)
This Sunday was also known as Judica, from the use of Psalm 43, Judica me, Deus. as the Introit. This is the Introit appointed in the Prayer Book. Other names for this Sunday that were used for dating documents in the old times were Isti sunt dies and Dominica mediana; I hav enot yet discovered why these names were used.
In the revised liturgy, the name Passion Sunday has been appropriated to the Sunday Next Before Easter, now known by the rather cumbersome title “Sunday of the Passion with the Liturgy of the Palms”. Nonetheless the readings to some extent continue to point more clearly towards the Passion. For a brief note on the Roman usage, see
Blunt notes that at “the last attempt to alter the Prayer Book in 1688”
[1] a new Collect was proposed for this Sunday. He gives the text of the proposed Collect, which despite the rather prolix style of the time might be of interest:
O Almighty God, Who hast sent thy Son Jesus Christ to be an High Priest of good things to come, and by His own Blood to enter in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us; mercifully look upon Thy people, that by the same Blood of our Saviour, Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot unto Thee, our consciences may be purged from dead works, to serve Thee, the living God, that we may receive the promise of eternal inheritance, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
It is the custom in some places to veil pictures, crosses, and statues at this time; in the Prayer Book rite, red may be used instead of violet from Passion Sunday. In The Ritual Reason Why Charles Walker explains this custom thus:
Veiling or covering is a sign of mourning (Isa 25.7); and in some parts of the church the crosses and pictures were accordngly veiled throughout Lent. The spirit of the Passion-tide veiling seems to be, that the Church would draw off our attention from everything except Him whose suffering she is commemorating, bidding us “consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners.” It was also synbolical of the hiding of our Lord’s glory during his earthly life, and especially during His ignominious and bitter Passion.
In that that last point the symbolism might appear to jar with the note in today’s Gospel of the lifting up of the Lord as his glorification, “the great Johannine apprehension that the Passion is the divine Glory” (Temple). In the mystery of the Cross both glory and humility are found together and operate together, and it is a mistake to lose sight of one or the other. As with the most important doctrines (such as unity in Trinity, the union of divine and human nature in the one Christ) we are called to hold what appear to be opposites together, grasping as it were with both hands, lest we lose hold of either and fall into error. On this general principle See Eric Mascall, Via Media.

The Readings
Jeremiah 31.31-34
Jeremiah was either born or began his ministry in 627 BC; it continued until sometime after 580, probably in Egypt. He was descended from the priest Abiathar, whom Solomon had banished to Anathoth (1 Kg 2.26-27); In Jeremiah’s time, Babylon succeeded Assyria as the dominant power in the Middle East. Jeremiah witnessed the return to worship of the Lord (instituted by the Judean king Josiah), and then (after Josiah's death in battle in 609), the return of many of the people to paganism. At the fall of Jerusalem in 587, Jeremiah emigrated to Egypt.
This prophecy was written after the fall of Jerusalem. It follows the prophecy in which Jeremiah rejected the belief that descendents were punished for the sins of the ancestors (the proverb, “The father’s have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” 31.29) and declared: “everyone shall die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge” (31.30)
Jeremiah opposes an increasingly limited concept of the Sinai covenant and affirms that YHWH will cut a new covenant inscirbed on the hearts of the people. “To cut” a covenant is the oldest expression for covenant making. See 17.1, 32.38-40; Ezekiel 11.19, Hos 2.20. (I think this note is from NOAB, and apologize if I stole it from someone else.)
The Psalm
There is a choice of Psalms today. Psalm 51 is the Miserere, the greatest of penitential Psalms. (It might be good to listen to the splendid setting by Allegri in preparation for Sunday.) The superscription, which is not in the liturgical psalter says that it is a Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. It was recitred on Ash Wednesday and is repeated again at Matins of Holy Monday, and in the traditional service of Tenebrae. Used today, it is linked to the first reading by the verse Cor mundum crea in me, Deus, et spiritum firmum innova in visceribus meis, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me”. The mediaeval rabbinic commentator Rashi added to “Create for me a pure heart, O God” the words “so that I do not stumble again.”
The other choice is 119.9-16, which may also be understood as a prayer for a new heart.

The Epistle
Hebrews 5.5-10 speaks of the suffering of Christ, the Son of God and the true Priest. On Melchizedek, and indeed for an expansion of the meaning of this passage, see Hebrews 7.1-22: 7.22 ties the whole complex of ideas back to the reading from Jeremiah: “accordingly Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant;” a better, and hence a new one.
This reading also recalls the Lord’s agony in verse 7, “he offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” The NOAB comments that his prayer was heard in the sense that he learned obedience by submitting to the divine will, which involved death.

The Gospel, John 12.20-33.
The fourth Gospel does not recount the agony in the Garden, going straight to the betrayal and arrest (John 18.1-3). However, verses 27 and 28 of today’s passage incorporate the essence of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden). “Here we find the substance of the prayer then offered, though at a less pitch of tension, as befits the moment. What took place in the Garden was not an isolated crisis; it was the focus of a lifelong temptation and of a lifelong ictory over temptation.” [William Temple]
This, then is the hour for which we have been waiting since the sign at Cana (John 2.4: my hour has not yet come). As at the Agony in the Garden, Jesus fully accepts the Father’s will and offers himself to be lifted up for the life of the world. Therefore, in this hour is the judgement of the world and the casting out of its prince. Though it will seem to be the triumph of the world —of Caiaphas and the priests, of Pilate and his master of Rome, of the fickle crowd thirsting maybe for little more than excitement— all these are judged and condemned by the one condemned to the Cross. Indeed, recalling that the Greek for judgement is κρίσις (krisis), we realize that this is the Crisis of the world, the hour of choice to which all who look on the uplifted Son of man are called and in which the healing of the world is offered (see John 3.14-15)
We need to note that in verse 25 the word “life” is used for two different words in the original, and that the distinction which is missed is important for understanding verse 27.
25 Those who love their life [psychē] lose it, and those who hate their life [psychē] in this world will keep it for eternal life [zōē].
27 Now my soul [psychē] is troubled. And what should I say, 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.
Archbishop Temple’s comments on these verses are helpful: "There are two Greek words here, and we have to use ‘life’ for both. The ‘life’ which we must not love, the life in this world, is the animal life with all that goes with it of sentience and its pleasures. The other word, used in the phrase Life eternal, is the vitalizing enrergy itself." And a little further on, “Life comes through death, but it is real death, and the soul shrinks from it. In Greek the word for soul is that which is translated ‘life’ in life in this world. His whole human nature, His natural humanity shrank from what lay before Him."
Finally we return to the beginning of the passage. The coming of Jesus’ hour is marked by the request of “some Greeks” to see Jesus, that is, to meet him and speak with him. This passage follows immediately the account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12.12-19), which ends with the Pharisees’ observation, “You see that you can do nothing; look, the world has gone after him.” It has been suggested that the Evangelist mentions the Greeks as a confirmation of these words.
It is sometimes said that the request of the Greeks that opens this passage should be written on every pulpit so that that preachers may see them and be reminded of their task: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Perhaps it should be memorized by all Christians so we may always be prepared to represent him to the world.

That is all the time I have this week. Please note, it is likely that rather than producing new notes for Palm Sunday and Holy Week I will simply refer you to the archived postings from last year, since the readings are for the most part the same in all three years..

[1] This date may suggest, at least in part, why the liturgical revisions of recent years were overdue.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lent IV (Part II): Lectionary Notes

Some Thoughts for Lent IV, Year B

The Collect
The Collect for Lent IV in Years B and C seems to allude to the miraculous feeding and the Brad Discourses of the Fourth Gospel, although neither of these themes are mentioned in the Gospels or the other readings appointed. May we take it that this is a remaining allusion to the old “Refreshment Sunday”. It is interesting to note in this context that in the modern Roman rite the Entrance Antiphon for today in all three years is Rejoice, Jersualem!

The Readings
Both the First Reading (Numbers 21.4-9) and the Holy Gospel (John 3.14-21) were read on Holy Cross Day: some comments on these readings may be found in the posting for that feast on this blog (see September 12 2008).
The First Reading.
The people of Israel are now in the desert probably near the northeaster edge of the Sinai peninsula (southwest of the Dead Sea.) They had set out from Kadesh and attempted to pass into Canaan through Edom, whose king refused them passage and came out against them with an army. So they set out to go to Mount Hor, where Aaron died, after which they began a long to the Red Sea (the Gulf of Aquaba) and around Edom. The imaptience of the people is explained as arising from hunger and dissatisfaction with the manna, but repulsion by Edom and the death of Aaron surely made things worse. A plague of serpents was seen as God’s punishment for their grumbling. The serpents are described as “fiery”. This has been interpreted to refer to their venom, hence the translation “venomous”. Another suggestion is that it refers to their colour.
There is no suggestion in this readingthat any divine honours were paid to the serpent of bronze (Nehushtan). However, it was kept and became an object of popular worship during the Israelite monarchy, and the people offered incense to it (the serpent was one of the symbols of the worship of Baal). It was smashed to bits during the reforms of Hezekiah (about 701 BC) because it was thought that rendering homage to it was incompatible with faith in Yahweh. (2 Kings 18.4):
He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.
The Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22.
An exhortation to groups of pilgrims to “give thanks to the Lord”. Verses 1-3 are a general call to thanksgiving; particular groups are addressed ion the rest of the psalm. Verses 17-22 are the thanksgiving of those healed from sickness. As we read this section today we are reminded of the events of the first reading. A particular resonance is found in v. 18, “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.” The setting of this psalm is probably the Temple in Jerusalem, but nothing more is known of its occasion.The reference to those saved fromn the four corners of the earth (v. 3) has been taken to suggest that the psalm was composed after the Exile. The RCL notes on this Psalm are not very useful.

The Epistle: Ephesians 2.1-10.
Scholarly opinion is divided about whether the letter to the Ephesians is the work of St Paul; this soes not affect the letter’s status as Scripture, and so need not detain us now. There si a comment on the question in the RCL notes for this Sunday. Tos save space I will add nothing to Mr Haslam’s comments on this passage [].

The Holy Gospel: John 3.14-21
It was my great joy this week to find a good and inexpensive copy of Readings in St John’s Gospel: First and Second Series, written by William Temple when he was Archbishop of York. This is one of the most valuable resources for a meditative study of the fourth Gospel. I do not believe it would be going to far to say that it deserves a place in the library of every thinking Christian.
Temple’s comments prompt me to suggest that today’s Gospel should be read in tandem with that for next Sunday, John 12:20-33, since in both our Lord speaks of his “being lifted up”. We should remember that the original word means both “lift up” and “exalt” (the same play on words is found in a different sense in Genesis 40). I also think that the RCL comment that “the reading should probably include v. 13” is quite correct.
Referring to v. 13 and the opening of today’s Gospel, Temple wrote:
It is not enough that the Son of Man should come down out of heaven; He must be lifted up. The necessity—must—is grounded in the nature of God. Because God is what He is, this ‘lifting up’ is inevitable. But as yet its meaning is undisclosed. In itself the word suggests triumph; and that is part of its meaning. But the reference to the serpent in the wilderness makes it clear that something more specific is in view. What that is becomes plain when He says ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me’ (xii.32, 33). But here that reference to the Cross is not yet so clear as to obscure the thought of triumph: so we are prepared to have the thought of triumph in our minds as we approach the Cross, and to enter into the great Johannine apprehension that the Passion is the divine Glory.
The Passion could not be this if it were barren of results; but its purpose is known —that everyone that believeth on him may have eternal Life.
With that statement we come to what Luther called “the Gospel in miniature,” and Temple “the central declaration, more central for Christian faith than even The Word became flesh”. If this is true it is surely vain and foolish to think of making any brief comment on this verse. Yet one point I found in my reading might usefully be repeated. In one old commentary I found on The Internet Archive it is noted that God did not send but gave his only Son: ”gave” implies much more than sent; it expresses entire surrender —the gift carried to the utmost limits of sacrifice, if needs be, so that not only is the sacrifice offered in death, but that the Sacrificial Body should be partaken of. “My Father giveth you the true bread which is from heaven.” It goes on to quote the Prayer Book Exhortation : “Almighty God our heavenly Father … hath given his only Son … not only to die for us, but also to be our spiritual food and sustenance in that holy Sacrament.”
We will end on a lighter note. Some decades ago a Roman Catholic scholar in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, noted the difficulties experienced by those who translate the Scriptures into the languages of East Asia. An interesting, if extreme example of this involved John 3:16.
This verse was translated by a Thai scholar and then given to an ordinary Thai reader. His understanding of the translation was this: “For God lusted after the world so much that he gave his Son, so that those who are gullible to accept him may have the misfortune of not dying but living forever.” In the cultural context of the reader the rendering was quite understandable. Words like ‘love’ and ‘believe’ had simply been translated in a way that was ambiguous to that ordinary person. Moreover … for the Buddhist, life and living are miserable realities as they know them, and their continuation is hardly something to be desired.
The point he was making was that someone besides the scholar must be involved in the work of translation. The ‘man in the street’ must be consulted, at least in some capacity.
From The Bible Today, ca 1970

Lent IV (Part I)

Mothering Sunday

Since at least the mid-17th Century the Fourth Sunday in Lent has been known in England as “Mothering Sunday”. On this day children and young persons living apart from their parents would go home for the day, usually bringing a cake for their mother. It was generally accepted that apprentices and serving-girls had a right to the day off. The custom appears to have originated in the western side of England and later spread to the midlands; it never seems to have been universal, as some writers in the 18th and 19th centuries stated that they had never heard of it before. There is no proof for or against the idea that the custom was founded on an earlier Church custom of parishioners visiting the Mother Church on Lent IV, but the authors of The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore hold that “given the regional nature of the family-visit Mothering Sunday it seems unlikely that there is a connection between the two customs”.
It should not be forgotten, though, that the Epistle for this Sunday in The Book of Common Prayer, which is taken from the fourth chapter of the Letter to the Galatians, includes (and in the last Canadian revision begins with) the verse, “Jersualem which is above is free; which is the mother of us all.” Nonetheless, Blunt’s Annotated Book of Common Prayer (new edition, 1892), which mentions this verse in its notes, makes no reference to “Mothering Sunday”.
It has also been suggested that the name Mothering Sunday is a corruption of “Midlenting Sunday”. A French name was “Mi-Carême”. We do not have space to discuss the use of rose-coloured vestments and increased festivity on this day except to remember the custom at Rome on Lent IV of blessing the “Golden Rose” which was presented by the Pope to some person for distinguished service to the Church in the past year
The American Mother’s Day, which Miss Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia persuaded Congress to establish in 1913 (some say she used emotional blackmail to achieve this end, asserting that if they did not support the day the legislators did not love their mothers), was brought to Britain by GIs in World War II and became popular. It was there established on Mothering Sunday (rather than the Second Sunday in May). It seems to me that to keep an ecclesiastical Mother’s Day in Lent, no matter how tenuous its authority, is preferable to celebrating a foreign and almost entirely commercial day in May which is, after all, nothing but a pseudopomp.
The traditional Gospel for this Sunday is the Johannine account of the feeding of the five thousand (John 6). From this Gospel comes the name Dominica Refectionis or Refreshment Sunday. The Introit was Laetare, Jerusalem, whence another name for this Sunday.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes for the Third Sunday in Lent
15 March, AD 2009

The BAS provides two Collects for each of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays in Lent: one for Year A and one for Years B and C. Although no other Sundays are treated in this way, the anomaly is not explained in the book. The Collects provided for Year A seem fit the Gospels appointed for that year, while those of the other Years do not seem to have been chosen for this reason. It would be useful to have a note in this point.

The first reading unavoidably reminds me of the woman who is supposed to have remarked, “I don’t think the Ten Commandments should be read in Church: it just puts ideas in people’s heads. This reading continues the theme of the covenants the theophany at Mount Sinai at which the Lord himself spoke the Decalogue [Exodus 20.1-17].
Our modern versions obscure the fact that the Commandments were given in the second person singular, thereby laying the responsibility not only on the community but squarely on each individual.
The first commandment as traditionally translated is Thou shalt have none other gods but me; the RSV and NRSV give before or besides me. However, the Jewish translation I refer to online and the Vulgate give “You shall not have the gods of others [deos alienos] in my presence.” Another possible translation is “strange gods” The Septuagint has θεοὶ ἕτεροι, which can be other, a neighbours, strange, or foreign. The mediaeval rabbinic commentator Rashi says of this:
The gods of others, which are not gods, but that others have made them for gods over themselves. It is impossible to interpret this passage to mean: gods other than I, since it is a disgrace for Heaven to call them gods along with Him. Alternatively: strange gods, for they are strange to their worshippers. They cry out to them, but they do not answer them, and it appears as if it [the god] were a stranger, who never knew him [the worshipper].
Some English Puritans used the fourth commandment as an argument against having holy days other than Sunday, taking “six days shalt thou labour” as forbidding rest on those days.
On the different ways the Commandments are numbered, see the Clippings on this passage at the Revised Common Lectionary Site, where there are also useful comments on the other commandments.

The second half of Psalm 19, a hymn of praise for the Law of the Lord which balances the hymn of praise for God’s handiwork in nature, is very similar to Psalm 119, likewise using six terms for law. In verse 9 it is possible many scholars think that “word” would be a better reading than “fear” (see Psalm 119.11 in the RSV).

In regard to the Epistle, 1 Corinthians 1.18-25, I will not make any extensive comment now, since I have just found an interesting article that comments on Paul’s use of the ideas of wisdom and folly in light of the Old Testament use of those words and have not digested it well enough to pass on. The notes at the RCL site should be of use. In my own notes I found an interesting comment by Kenneth Leach in We preach Christ crucified: the proclamation of the cross in a dark age (1994) that twice in recent years Good Friday had fallen on April Fool's Day; it is the feast of Divine Folly.

My notes and thoughts on the Gospel passage [John 2.13-22] are as yet too undigested to be presented usefully here before Sunday. For technical comments see the RCL site. I will only make two comments here. The first is that it might be useful —at least for personal reading —to take it in an anagogical way and refer the cleansing of the temple to the cleansing of one’s own person (meaning body and soul, one’s whole life). This is something one cannot ever really do for oneself. Another image is Aslan’s removing of the dragon's skin from Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
The other comment is that in Jesus’s answer to the demand for a sign, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” the layers of meaning become clearer if it is known that the Greek verb rendered "raise up” [in the original ἐγερῶ, ἐγερεῖς] was also used to refer to erecting building, and it would have been quite natural for the Jewish authorities to have understood him to mean, “I will rebuild it in three days”, with absolutely no hope of understanding the deeper meaning.
It’s twenty to five on Friday afternoon and I have no idea what the sermon will be on Sunday, so I had better stop now: while this work ia often a helpful part of the homiletical process, it can't replace getting one's nose to the grindstone. Amici mei, Orate pro me!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes on the Second Sunday in Lent
8 March, AD 2009

The addition of a weekly Lenten Study to my schedule makes it even more difficult to produce an adequate comment on the Sunday lectionary for you. Nonetheless, here are a few things that have come to mind.
The RCL provides a choice of Gospel readings for this Sunday. The second choice, Mark 9:2-9, is the Gospel of the Transfiguration. This follows the Roman lectionary, which reads the transfiguration on Lent II but not on the last after Epiphany. Adding to the possible confusion, the Collect seems to suit the theme of the Transfiguration. However, if the Transfiguration was read two weeks ago, Mark 8:31-38 will be read today.

This Gospel reading is an excerpt from a longer section (Mark 8:27-9:1) and should be read in context before it is heard on Sunday. Only in this way can we understand that the teaching that that the Son of man must suffer and the following exchange with Peter is given in the context of the decisive confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. The parallels to this passage are Matthew 16.13-23 and Luke 9.18-22; see also Matthew 10.38-39, Luke 17.33, and John 12.25. It is worth noting that it is a good idea to use a study Bible, such as the New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha: some of the notes on the verses just cited are quite helpful.
The passage that is read has two closely related sections. In the first, verses 31 to 33, we hear Jesus first prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection and its sequel, in which Peter rebukes Jesus and is himself rebuked. Many things are worth noting in this passage. One is that Jesus is not said to have `told` them that the Son of man must suffer, but to have `taught` them.
The second section, verses 34-38, is addressed to crowd as well as the disciples, that is, not only to those who are committed to following him, but to all who hear him. This teaching, that whoever would follow Jesus is to deny self, take up the cross, and follow, is obviously a central thought for Lent. While the term self-denial as used of fasting and abstinence is a concept far more limited than what our Lord here means by denying yourself, it is a very important means for learning to turn to follow the Lord.
I do not have the time to do more than note the very important point that self-denial in either sense is not the same as self-hatred or even self-loathing. The difficulty is that in seeking to find ourselves in anything less than God, what we find is a false self; it is from that we must turn. I can’t say anything more about this just now, except that it would be a very good question for Bible study group.

The omission of seven verses from the first reading, Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, rather blurs the point of the passage. This is the second covenant in the series begun with Noah. Unlike that, which was a covenant with all human beings and all living creatures, this is a covenant with Abraham and his offspring forever. Compare with this another account of the covenant with Abraham in Genesis chapter 15. In the missing verses (17.8-14), circumcision is given as the sign of the covenant. One would not want to accuse the fine folk who frame our lectionaries of squeamishness, or a lack of confidence in the intelligence of Church people, so there must be some other reason for this omission; I can’t think of what it could be.
I am reminded of a schoolbook of church history written by an English clergyman, the father of a friend, in which circumcision is defined as “a circular cut made on a part of the body as a tribal mark.” Talk about squeamishness!
The other things to note in this passage are the importance of the change of Abram’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah, and the fact that Sarah is not merely the means by which the covenant is fulfilled, but is herself a recipient of God’s blessings.

The Psalm is 22. 22-30. Note that the verse numbers differ in different translations: these are the verses in the liturgical psalter of the BAS. In the BCP the verses are 23-31. This is the final section of Deus, Deus meus, the first words of which our Lord cried out from the cross.

The passage from S. Paul's letter to the Romans (4.13-25) is a comment on God’s promise to Abraham, in the context of Paul’ treatise on Justification by Faith. An outline of chapter 4 might be beneficial for those who want to read this before Sunday.

4.1-8: Abraham was justified by faith, not works
4.9-12: Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. So circumcision, though a sign of the covenant, does not itself justify.
4.13-25: The true descendants of Abraham are those who have faith in Christ.

In Chapter 5 S. Paul moves on to the Consequences of Justification (1-11) and to the extremely important analogy and
contrast between Adam and Christ (12-21; see also 1 Corinthians 15.20-28).