28 January 2014

The Presentation of Our Lord (Candlemass), 2 February 2014

Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm 84
Psalm 24:7-10
Hebrews 2:14-18
St. Luke 2:22-40

Background:  The Presentation of Our Lord
This feast day used to be known to us as The Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and in that name lies a history.  The feast originated in the Eastern Church as a feast day that celebrated “The Meeting” (Hypapante), although the Armenians call it “the coming of the Son of God into the Temple.  It is known in Jerusalem in the fourth century and then was introduced to the Constantinopolitan churches by Justinian in 542 CE.  It was first celebrated in the west in the seventh century, found in the sacramentaries of both Gelasius and of Gregory.  The day, then, was called “The Purification of Mary,” and the associated procession with candles was introduced at that time, as it appeared in other Marian feasts.  Originally the procession had a penitential aspect to it, and purple vestments were worn. 

As the day evolved, the blessing of candles to be used during the year was added and the name of Candlemass was introduced, especially in England.  It marks the end of the Christmass celebration and serves as a bridge to the Passion.  See especially the Gospel where Simeon says: and a sword will pierce your own soul too."  The background for the purification rites of the Hebrew Scriptures can be found in Leviticus 12:2-8, where the particulars of ritual purity are laid out in terms of the time of the purification, different for son than daughter, and the type of offering is prescribed.  It is this law that Mary fulfills in the ceremonies described by Saint Luke.

Malachi 3:1-4

Thus says the Lord, See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight-- indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

Malachi, named for an unknown prophet (the name actually means “my messenger”), was written probably in the sixth century BCE.  We know this from the mention of the rebuilt temple in 3:1,10, and from the list of sins that Malachi laments, for they are the same list of vices that are mentioned in Nehemiah, and Ezra.  The action of the book centers on the Temple, and the sermons resound on the theme of marriage.  The reading for this morning is taken from the fourth oracle – “Yahweh, the God of Justice” that extends from 2:17 through 3:5.  The message of the reading speaks to the prophet’s hope of a coming messiah. Unlike other prophets who centered their messianic language on a present figure, this prophet hopes for someone that is not yet.  Malachi’s readers would have known the God that intervenes in human history – the promises to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, God’s presence at the Red Sea, and the Covenant at Sinai. 

In the second paragraph, God becomes the object of our and the prophet’s observation, as comparison after comparison are applied to God’s presence in history, and God’s hoped for presence in the future.  The sentence: “then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord,” needs our attention to Malachi 1, where the prophet speaks against the sacrificial practices of Jerusalem.  Here the former times are linked with a renewed practice of present and future times. 

Breaking open Malachi:

1.     In what ways are you God’s messenger?
2.     What is the message you’ve been given to report?
3.     How can the offerings of the present day Church be purified?

Psalm 84 Quam dilecta!

How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.

Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.

Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.

They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
hearken, O God of Jacob.

Behold our defender, O God; *
and look upon the face of your Anointed.

For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, *
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.

For the LORD God is both sun and shield; *
he will give grace and glory;

No good thing will the LORD withhold *
from those who walk with integrity.

O LORD of hosts, *
happy are they who put their trust in you!

This is a pilgrim psalm that expresses the intense longing (with overtones of the erotic) of the pilgrim for the temple, “my being longed, even languished” (Alter).  The brief mention of the “bird” that has found a home gives us an idea of jealousy, that such a humble creature could have constant access to the sacred courts.  The associations of temple and pilgrim provide for a hopeful and exuberant association.  The desert through which many had to pass in order to “go up” to the Temple is described as “a place of springs.” 

There is a metaphor in the psalm that is worthy of some meditation, namely the notion of “O Lord of hosts (armies)”, and the “climb from height to height”, which Alter[1] translates “they go from rampart to rampart.”  That this longing for God’s dwelling should be also seen as a longing and dependency upon God’s strength and rule, should become grist for not only the preacher’s mill, but for our devotions as well. 

Breaking open Psalm 84:
  1. What have you longed to see in your lifetime?
  2. So you long for time in conversation with God?  Why?
  3. How does your prayer life give you strength?


Psalm 24:7-10 Domini est terra

Lift up your heads, O gates;
lift them high, O everlasting doors; *
and the King of glory shall come in.

"Who is this King of glory?" *
"The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in battle."

Lift up your heads, O gates;
lift them high, O everlasting doors; *
and the King of glory shall come in.

"Who is he, this King of glory?" *
"The LORD of hosts,
he is the King of glory."

In this familiar psalm we think of the Advent hymn.  In its final verses (7-10) some propose a separate psalm whose verses focus not on the pilgrims, but on the “King of glory,” who enters the city.  The repetition of refrain verses might indicate a series of versicles and responses sung or spoken during a liturgical procession into the city.  Perhaps this is a recalling of the move of the Ark of the Covenant into the Temple proper.  There is a military air to the verses as well, and in a way, perhaps, this is similar to the comments on psalm 84 (above) where the Temple = strength and God’s protection.  For those of us celebrating the Presence of Christ in the Temple, the question of “Who is the King of Glory” directs our attention to the little baby who has been brought there by Mary.

Breaking open Psalm 24:
  1. Who do you think is the king of glory?
  2. For what are the pilgrims hoping?
  3. For what do you hope?

Hebrews 2:14-18

Since God's children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

This reading seems to be intended by the framers of the lectionary as an elegant commentary on the day, “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” The author of the Letter to the Hebrews if fascinated with the ritual of the Temple, and is equally fascinated with Jesus’ as the great high priest performing that ritual.  So it is that Jesus is brought to Temple (and later to Baptism) to fulfill all things.  Jesus does not ride above the difficulties of life, but “he himself was tested by what he suffered.”  It is a difficulty that Simeon, in the Gospel, hints at as well, and it is a reality that is the center of the good news. 

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. What does the incarnation mean to you?
  2. What about the humanity of Jesus speaks to you?
  3. Have you been tested such as Jesus was?  How?

St. Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel."

And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-- and a sword will pierce your own soul too."

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Luke begins his story with introductory comments on the cultural and religious aspects of the action.  He cites the Law, and describes the family’s response to its requests.  This is not only a moment for Mary, but for Jesus as well.  Both are subject to the demands made by the Law.  In complete agreement with Luke’s concentration on the poor, Mary and Joseph offer a humble offering – two turtledoves, the offering of a poor family.

Once that is completed the lens quickly focuses on Simeon, righteous and devout.  He looks forward to the “consolation of Israel”.  (See II Kings 2:11 – in rabbinic thought, this conversation’s subject was “the consolation of Israel” which would be revealed with the coming of Elijah.  Luke sees Simeon as prophetic, for “the Holy Spirit rested on him.”  Thus he is shown as knowing the true nature of the child brought to him, whom he takes up in his own arms - such an eloquent description of the Incarnation.  Simeon’s call is to be a watcher, and his task is completed with the appearance of Jesus.  His song, the Nunc Dimittis, seems to be an executive summary of not only his life, but of his hopes as well.  He is finished, and all things are completed and move on into a new future that includes gentiles as well.

Simeon’s blessing is difficult; for it is blunt about the downside of the incarnation, even to Mary’s own soul.  Anna seems to follow in a train of female prophet’s from the Hebrew Scriptures: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hanna, Abigail, Hanna, and the wife of Isaiah.  She is a widow of Phanuel (Face of God), and would have occupied an honorable place in Jewish society.  She is the psalmists (84) ideal, living in the Temple and worshipping there.  Like Simeon she waits, and once she has seen, she proclaims.  With their blessings, the two introduce the Holy Family to a new life – a life of growth, strength, and understanding – most likely for all of them.

Breaking open Gospel:
1.      How do you understand Simeon’s aside to Mary?
2.      Have you suffered in your faith?  How?
3.      What female prophets have you known?  What did they say?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, 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. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1]      Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, a Translation and Commentary, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2007, page 298

21 January 2014

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 26 January 2014

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
I Corinthians 1:10-18
St. Matthew 4:12-23

Background:  The Sundays after the Epiphany

When I arrived at All Saints’ on Sunday, after having been away for a couple of Sundays, I was surprised to see that they used the Wedding at Cana Gospel for last Sunday (Epiphany II) thus preserving all three of the Orthodox emphases at the Epiphany (The Magi, The Baptism, The First Sign).  These readings are a good launching point for what is to follow, and the discarded Gospel reading for last Sunday (Behold the Lamb of God) would be an excellent starting point as well.  These Sundays are interrupted this year by the Presentation of Our Lord (2 February), however the themes will still remain, especially in the Nunc Dimittis, the song of Simeon.  It is interesting that we sometime become way laid by the event-driven nature of the Festival Half of the Liturgical Year, and it is these Sundays that are the antidote.  If you look at the Gospel readings throughout this series of Sundays, we see a laying-out of what it is that Jesus teaches, more than what Jesus does.  The question that needs to be answered by us is not “who is Jesus?” (although that is a laudable question) but rather “what is it that Jesus taught?”  That question is difficult for some Christians to answer.  Jesus’ comment to Peter, James, and John as they come down from the Mount of Transfiguration is interesting – “keep silence about this (the vision) until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”  Jesus’ teaching needs perspective, the perspective of the resurrection.  In those two things we can begin to answer the “Who is he?” question.  For now, however, we need to sit at the feet of Jesus and hear his words about life.  The mystagogy will come later.

Isaiah 9:1-4

There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

If we are reading the text closely, we will begin to wonder who the “he” is in verse one, who holds the lands of the Northern Kingdom “in contempt”?  It is, in the prophet’s mind, none other than YWHW who does so?  So we face two questions, the first “What?” and the second “Why?”  The “what” is easily answered by history.  In 734 BCE and again in 732 BCE, Tiglath-pileser, the Assyrian ruler forced the lands mentioned in verse one into the Assyrian Empire.  The prophet mentions these lands: Zebulun, Naphtali, and probably an elided text, which mentions the Plain of Sharon, and the mountain of Gilead as well.  In this move Tiglath-pileser forced the parting of the western, eastern, and northern provinces of Israel and made of them Assyrian administrative units. 

So now we need to confront the “why?”  If we follow the pattern of preaching not only in Isaiah, but in Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea as well we will see the “why.”  The abandonment of Israel, by God, was the result of the abandonment of God by Israel.  Now the prophet wonders, is this a permanent situation, or does the prophet harbor a hope of reconciliation.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  Thus we are introduced to the prophet’s hope.  The huge disruption that the Assyrian occupation represents does not separate the people from the God who has seemingly punished them.  There will still be joy and retribution.  In an era when we see great religious conflict, and ancient Christian centers being either destroyed or displaced, we can wonder along with the prophet about where God is in all this.  Here Isaiah sees joy in the midst of dire times, “as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  Here is a paradox worthy of Saint Paul.  That those who wrote the Gospel of Saint Matthew existed in similarly dire times only adds grist to the mill.

Breaking open Isaiah:

1.     Do you live in dire times?  Describe them?
2.     Has God abandoned you, or do you have hope in God?
3.     Why does the prophet entertain the notion of hope?

Psalm 27:1, 5-13 Dominus illuminatio

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
the LORD is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?

One thing have I asked of the LORD;
one thing I seek; *
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days
of my life;

To behold the fair beauty of the LORD *
and to seek him in his temple.

For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe
in his shelter; *
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling
and set me high upon a rock.

Even now he lifts up my head *
above my enemies round about me.

Therefore I will offer in his dwelling an oblation
with sounds of great gladness; *
I will sing and make music to the LORD.

Hearken to my voice, O LORD, when I call; *
have mercy on me and answer me.

You speak in my heart and say, "Seek my face." *
Your face, LORD, will I seek.

Hide not your face from me, *
nor turn away your servant in displeasure.

You have been my helper;
cast me not away; *
do not forsake me, O God of my salvation.

The words of verse one of the psalm seem to reflect the prophet’s emotions in the first reading for today.  If Isaiah frames his hope in terms of “light and rescue”, then so does the psalmist.  What will follow the psalmist’s initial voice of hope is a voice of despair and supplication.  These sentiments are outlined in the missing verses (2-4).  What follows in the verses following are a vision of what God will provide in dire times.  These expectations are set in a forbidding setting, the wilderness, where the psalmist speaks of God’s goodness with the mouth of a nomad; “He conceals me in the recess of his tent, on a rock he raises me up.”  The juxtaposition of the notion of a tent and a tabernacle make this an interesting image of a God whose dwelling is like a home.  Such an attraction is mirrored in verse 4, “that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” 

Other familiarities are used by the psalmist.  It is “God’s face” that is sought.  Moses wished to see God, but that was denied him (Exodus 33:18-23).  The psalmist is not put off by God’s response to Moses, rather he listens to his heart, “seek my face.  Your face, Lord, I do seek.”  There is however, a more striking familiarity (one that is shattered) in a verse that is not used in this morning’s reading.  The text shows the conundrum that faced Isaiah as well.  “Though my father and mother forsook me, the Lord would gather me in.”  Though the most basic of human relationships disappear or vanish, God promises to always be there.

Breaking open Psalm 27:
  1. What is the “light” that gives the psalmist hope?
  2. What is the “rescue” that he sees as well?
  3. Is the church a “home” for you?  Why or why not?

I Corinthians 1:10-18

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Paul is quick to address the problems in Corinth, the appearance of divisiveness and “party spirit.”  In spite of what seems to be divisions in the congregation (the Greek word is the root of our own word “schismatic”, although the text does not imply theological division) there is yet Eucharistic unity.  The problem seems more to be one of provenance.  Who brought you in?  Who initiated you into the community?  Paul gives several examples of how such divisions might have begun, but squelches them all with, “is Christ divided?”  One wonders if these divisions are echoes of the role of both Jew and Gentile within the church?  For Paul, it is interesting that he says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the Gospel.”  Conzelmann[1] offers a possible explanation to Paul’s comment by noting that “anyone” can baptize, but Paul must preach.  That is his commission.  Paul notes that it is difficult enough to proclaim the Gospel, “the cross is foolishness” so he most proclaim and not with “eloquent wisdom.”  The divisions confuse the proclamation of the community.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. How is your congregation a community?
  2. What divides it?
  3. What reunites it?

St. Matthew 4:12-23

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

"Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea-- for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

In a way, Matthew sets a stage for the ministry and teaching that we will observe in the coming Sundays.  First there is reminder of the Baptist, and his fate.  Preaching the Gospel of repentance does have its consequences.  Matthew also places us in the locale of Isaiah’s great hope, and of Israel’s great downfall.  The effort is to tie Jesus to the prophet’s hope about the “great light.”  In spite of the Baptist’s fate Jesus continues to preach the Gospel of repentance.  Matthew would have us be aware of two groups, as he sets his stage for Jesus’ teaching: the crowds and the disciples. 

Appropriate to the following Sundays of Jesus’ teaching, we are introduced to the disciples with the call of James and John.  In last Sunday’s gospel we might Andrew and Peter.  One is struck by the immediacy of their response, “immediately they left the boat, and their father, and followed him.”  Was there a relationship prior to this invitation that made easy their prompt response?  Or, was it the attractiveness of the message – the great light? At any rate their feet are set upon the path, and soon they are journeying throughout Galilee following the One who teaches and proclaims. 

Breaking open Gospel:
1.      What does “righteousness” mean to you?
2.      In what ways did Jesus “fulfill all righteousness”?
3.      How does the Spirit pursue you?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1] Hans Conzelmann, I Corinthians, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthains, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1975, page 36.