A cute game, a strange truth. Ashes, ashes, we are all falling down. Falling down on our knees, falling flat on our faces - our faces on the ground, on the earth from which we were taken and to which we will return. Ashes, ashes. The church that was smeared with ashes just a few days ago now gathers for the first of six Sundays within the forty-day time of Lent, days that will take us to Holy Thursday night and the three days of our Passover in Christ.
These six Sundays in Lent are like and not like all other Sundays of the year. As on all Sundays, we assemble and we attend to God's word in scripture and preaching and we intercede for the whole world; we gather at table to give thanks and praise and then come hungry and thirsty to share the meager banquet of the body and blood of Christ. But how are these six Sundays different from all others? More than any other time of our year, on Lent's Sundays we may be so thankful to be embraced within the assembly.
We are needful of knowing that Lent is not my own private task, doesn't depend on me alone, but is the doing of this assembly, this congregation, and beyond that the doing of all the baptized and the about-to-be-baptized over all the world. Here together each Sunday we sense that in song and sight and prayer and peace. However we may have kept or not kept other Lents, this one is here right now and just beginning. We have time to submit to it, time to take it on with gusto, time to put aside certain things - each of us knows or can find out which ones - and help each other keep this Lent together.
Perhaps in our lifetimes it has never been so clear: Here, right here, in every assembled church, is where the body of Christ must be built up and must learn to love the world as God has loved the world. Here, right here and in small groups and praying households, is where we can open the scriptures to one another and at the same time and the same breath open the world to one another.
Where are our ashes, then? They were not intended only for a brief moment last Wednesday. If we have washed them off or rubbed them in, let it be for appearances, but the truth is that those ashes are here on our faces, on our hands and feet, on the outside and on the inside. The ashes are not simply one single thing. Their Lenten work is to tell us about ourselves and our church and our world.
We don't get to Easter just by staying alive for forty days. We get to Easter again and again by keeping Lent again and again, marked with the ashes. So today and for the next five Sundays we come here clothed a bit differently in our hearts, spirits, minds. Today the church reads from Genesis about the tree and the banishment. Look what happens, the scripture says.
Look what we have done and do now. Blessed with much, we grab for a little more. Does any one of us doubt it? It's a story with ten thousand thousand variations, an ancient story that goes fiercely on today. We who keep Lent have to know this: It is not tragedy that is being told; it is the mystery of human freedom.
The poet John Milton began his "Paradise Lost" by saying that he would sing: Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste Brought death into the world, and all our woe. And when at last he tells of Eve and Adam expelled from Paradise, he imagines the couple taking their first steps: They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld Of Paradise, so late their happy seat, Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon; The world was all before them. Yes, they cried a little, he says, but then they wiped their tears, blew their noses and looked about, no doubt full of amazement and wonder: The world was all before them! The poet knows what we are like, what we can be like. The wonder and the ashes are all part of us. These days of Lenten discipline bring on the time of testing, training for the race, struggling for the prize.
The whole story will get turned upside down. Adam and Eve, naked in Paradise and sewing up leafy garments, will bring us to Jesus, stripped of all garments and naked on the cross. The hunger for more of this or more of that, more of everything, the deep hunger that brought Adam and Eve to taste the tree's forbidden fruit, brings their descendant Jesus to go fasting into the wilderness for forty days - and then refuse to turn hunger on its head: Not by bread alone are we to live, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
We don't go sad into Lent, even in these sad times. We go with some speck of hope, some sense that together we can make a modest try, or maybe this year a bold try, at getting ourselves into the fray. We don't go gloomy; we go with some glimmer that, as is whispered today, another world is possible. We don't have to grind this world into global warming.
We don't have to keep food on our tables at the expense of hungry people. We don't have to live constrained and afraid, behind walls. We don't have to find joy in fads and all sorts of frenzied entertainments. We don't have to do what we're told by the powers that be. Beginnings can be made. What else is Lent for in our lives and in our church's life together?
Like mother Eve and father Adam, we can rejoice to be together facing whatever beauty and whatever terror. Like Jesus, we can be led by the Spirit and, being simple as doves and wise as that serpent, we can enter this Lent. Simple as doves, so we don't agonize endlessly over the odds of success. Wise as serpents, so we go out eyes wide open when we confront all the harm and suffering around us, all the harm and suffering we inflict by what we do and what we do not do as a church or a neighborhood or a nation.
How do we do this Lenten turning round, we the ashes-wearing children of Eve and Adam, the sisters and brothers of Jesus? Always we do it together, members of Christ whether within the household or the parish or the larger church. And always we start by reinventing those disciplines that for centuries have been the marks of Lent: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. What is Lent's fasting? Let's use our common sense and our imaginations. What if we ate only food that was good for us? What if we ate in rhythms that allowed us, most of us so far from hunger, to know bodily hunger?
What if we ate simply and adequately from the basic foods and seasonal foods only? After all, is it necessary for apples to travel thousands of miles so you can have fresh apples any time of year? If we are to know the joy of giving thanks over the simplest food, we need to renew our senses of taste and beauty and our sense, too, of justice. Baptized people mean to come here to the table every Sunday hungry: hungry to be with one another, hungry to hear the word of God, hungry for the great thanksgiving and hungry for the holy Communion.
But what do we know of hunger? In our place and time, it would be absurd to think of fasting as only about food. We are all wooed hour by hour to indulge, to take our eyes off the needs and beauty of the world and instead to stuff ourselves like good consumers. We need Lent's fasting discipline in many areas.
So with the disciplines of prayer and almsgiving. What is a simple rhythm of prayer we could make our own - as basic as morning and night prayers - that would give measure and proportion to our lives, that would make us daily praise God for all the good and intercede with God for all the hurt? And so with the giving of alms: What direction should we be starting on with the way we spend our possessions, our money, our time, our energy, our learning, our experience? How can we use these to bring health or joy or hope or solidarity to some who are needful of it?
How can Lent be a sort of experiment in daring acts of justice? All our stuff really isn't ours anyway, and we can thank God for that. Can we find smart ways to keep it circulating? Are we only after the reality that could be ours if tomorrow we became truly poor and hungry people? Not at all! We are after what the ashes proclaim: Repent and believe the good news. We are after the freedom of the children of God. That is finally what prayer and fasting and almsgiving work in our hearts and bodies, such a freedom as Jesus knew and preached.
Now there are great powers on this earth set against such freedom. These powers dealt with Jesus and they'll deal with us, though more subtly. We know these powers firsthand because we have our stake there also. Again, we go simple as doves but wise as serpents. The good habits we acquire this Lent are not necessary only for the forty days.
Used by permission.
This series of homilies strives to "unfold the mysteries" where liturgy and life meet. One understanding is this: Though the homily may well begin in the day's scriptures, it wants to reach beyond. It wants to engage more of the whole ritual of the church and, even regarding scripture, it wants to work from an understanding that the scriptures of a liturgical season are a whole. This Third Sunday of Lent has texts that need to be heard in light of what has gone before and as preparation for what will come the next weeks. And the scriptures of this Year B of the cycle need to be heard as part of a larger Lenten scripture that embraces all the years.
The preacher needs to be mindful of this whether it is ever directly mentioned or not. Note that the Lectionary offers the option of a much shorter first reading on this Sunday, no doubt the work of the same hand that allowed most of the Easter Vigil's readings never to be heard. There are perhaps two or three places in the entire Lectionary when the "shorter" reading makes sense.
This is not one of them and the homily below needs the full reading from Exodus.
The Season of Lent
Gabe Huck This is our third time to gather on Sunday since Lent began on March 1, and it is something of a turning point. The texts of scripture assigned to be read at the Sunday liturgy are arranged in a three-year cycle. What we heard this morning we heard three years ago and we will hear again three years from now. But Lent's first two Sundays can make us forget this because every year on those first two Sundays we read the same two Gospel stories. On the First Sunday in Lent we always tell of how Jesus fasted and struggled against the power of evil in the wilderness.
Two weeks ago today we heard about this from the Gospel of Mark who tells it in just four or five intense sentences. A year ago we heard it at greater length from the Gospel of Matthew and next year from the Gospel of Luke. Every year this fasting-in-the-wilderness story summons us to keep Lent, to engage in this contest, to make these forty days an intense training to be what we were baptized to be.
Then a week ago, on the Second Sunday of Lent, the Gospel was that story of Jesus with Moses and Elijah on a mountain, talking about the Passover of Jesus that was to happen in Jerusalem. We heard Mark's telling of the transfiguration this year, but a year ago it was Matthew and next year Luke: same story as it had come to be told in different communities.
But on this Third Sunday in Lent, in each of the three years we hear a different Gospel. Now is a year when Mark's Gospel is read year-round on almost every Sunday, but beginning today we have three Sundays of not reading Mark. Instead, the Gospel comes from John. So that is one way to see this Sunday taking us round a corner, deeper into Lent.
It is also the first of those Sundays when those to be baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil come before the community for the scrutiny. That word "scrutiny" should be taken to heart by all of us for Lent intends scrutiny for all of us. For the catechumens it means what it says: They are to undergo a certain scrutiny. What do those who are helping you toward baptism have to say about your readiness? Baptism is nothing to trifle with. We take it seriously here. Today and on the next two Sundays the catechumens need testimony of their efforts, and we pray over them that with God's grace they will recognize and choose what is good and reject what is evil.
We who are already baptized witness this. Though baptized, we are still in that struggle, still striving to accomplish what was promised in those waters. This year, with the lateness of Lent, this Third Sunday comes a day before the equinox. When spring begins tomorrow, in the northern hemisphere light gains the upper hand. Only then does the Christian calendar start to wait for the next full moon and only after that first full moon of spring can our Lent time come to an end because on the very next Sunday we can celebrate the Easter Passover of the Lord around the font and the table.
What might it mean that the center of our year depends not on the return of some date on a human calendar, but on the earth circling around the sun, and on the moon circling around the earth, leaning on its axis so that we have seasons? So Lent today grows a bit and we see how it is woven of many materials, many colors.
The first readings of these Sundays are as vital as the Gospels, but the first readings in Lent are not chosen for some relation to the Gospel as is the case through much of the year. Rather, on these first three Sundays of Lent the first readings seem to summon the whole long procession in which we stand.
We read two weeks ago of Noah, the flood, the rainbow to seal God's covenant. And last Sunday we read of Abraham and Isaac in one of the hardest stories in scripture. In other years on these Sundays we read of Adam and Eve or of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses before the burning bush or later bringing water from a rock in the wilderness. So far away, so long ago all these stories and characters, but here we are, reading them again to discover not some moral or some history, but rather to discover what is the meaning of this assembly, of ourselves, of this church that is so woebegone yet no stranger to suffering and death and promise.
As Paul wrote to that church at Corinth: The foolishness of God - we've all experienced it - is wiser than all our human wisdom. And the weakness of God - can you doubt it when you have known Christ crucified and when you have witnessed the betrayals even within this church - the very weakness of God is stronger than all our human strength. Amid all this, a few moments ago we read from the book of Exodus what we know as the Ten Commandments.
This is one more story of covenant between heaven and earth, between God and humankind - like the covenant with Eve and Adam, with Abraham and Sarah. But in the story of Moses, the terms of the covenant between God and the people are spelled out. Perhaps we have in the past thought of these commandments as "laws" or "rules. They are terms of an agreement, a covenant. As such, they were seen by Israel as a gift, a wonder, something to delight in. These ten terms of the covenant bring together on the same tablets what seem to us very different kinds of things.
There are those things that are done or not done day by day between human beings in their various communities: killing or not killing, stealing or not stealing, lying or not lying, adultery or no adultery. And there are those things that seem to be about one's religious life: bowing down only to the one God, honoring God's name, keeping holy the Sabbath day. It used to be that illustrations of Moses and the tablets of the Law put these about God on one side, and those about killing and lying on the other side. But the scripture makes no such distinction.
It seems all of one piece. How we behave, how we place ourselves and conduct ourselves in every dimension of life on earth, all that is woven in a single fabric with the ways we manifest our bond to the God who loves us. Not killing rather than killing, seeking and holding to truth rather than carelessness or harshness toward truth: in so many day-by-day ways we make our lives' basic choices not in moments of crisis but in what we learn to do by heart: morning by morning, Sunday by Sunday, Lent by Lent.
Living in these rhythms allows us to rehearse over and over exactly who we are, whose we are.
Scripture does not imply that three commandments are about religious responsibilities and seven are about social responsibilities. They are all religious.
Watering the Tree: Sermon offered on Third Sunday in Lent, March 7, 2010
They are all social. They come together, these ten, as a powerful and compact way of proclaiming a way of life. What are the habits of this community's heart? How are we known to each other and to the world? We are to be the people who refuse all the false gods - and who name them publicly in the choices we make and the paths we take. Hearing today the full scripture text of the commandments we may be struck by how long those first three are and how short the last seven.
We may only have heard these first three reduced to: 1. I am the Lord your God, you shall not have other gods before me. You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day. But that is not the way scripture writes it, and the full text opens up the meaning. What is all this about the Sabbath? Luke , the account of Jesus preaching at the synagogue in Nazareth. The Isaiah scroll is handed to Him, and He unrolls it to the reading from the Prophets for the day, reads the lection, and then preaches on it.
That this practice was carried over into the worship of the Christian church is seen from references made to it, such as that given in 1 Timothy , "hews erchomai proseche tei anagnwsei, tei paraklesei, tei didaskalia.. Paul's use of anagnwsis is very descriptive, since it is the word consistently used in the Septuagint to translate arqm.
Thus the first part of the passage could also be translated, "Until I come, give attention to the selected reading of the day. In passages such as 1 Thessalonians and Colossians , Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and apparently aware of it, tells these churches that his letters are to be read in the service again using anagnwsis, so perhaps "be readings" then circulated to other neighboring congregations that they may use them as well.
As the Gospels were written and circulated, they too were read in public worship. As is to be expected, the practice of reading Scripture was rather consistent. Justin Martyr d. In some places there was a continuous reading from Sunday to Sunday until a book was finished. Some areas of Spain and France used lessons made from a mosaic of Scripture, piecing together short selections from various parts of Scripture. And while some places read two lessons each Sunday, others read as many as four.
Overall, lectio continua, the continuous reading of a book from Sunday to Sunday, seems to have been the prevailing practice in one form or another. However, as the church year developed, the practice of lectio continua waned. Already in the first century the Church was celebrating Easter, which soon became the celebration of Easter and Pentecost, which soon became the celebration of Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany, which soon well, you get the idea. By the fourth century the festival half of the church year as we know it Advent - Pentecost was generally established, complete with days set apart for commemoration of saints and martyrs.
These festivals and commemorations required their own readings and thus interrupted the lectio continua. As the "interruptions" became less the exception and more the rule, lectio continua gave way to prescribed readings. So that the pastor would know what the prescribed reading was, bishops had indices prepared, which gave not only references but showed the first and last words in each lesson. Because books other than the Bible were sometimes used e.
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These books included not only the readings for each day, but often some commentary as well. Some comes, commentary and all, may even have been prepared so that they could be read during the service, functioning as Ante-Nicean church postils. It was not long before books were prepared with the lessons actually written out, saving the step of having to look them up elsewhere; epistles written out in an epistolarium, the gospels in an evangelarium.
A book with a complete set of lessons was called a lectionarium. The same was also true for the Epiphany season, since it wasn't until the fourth century that Christmas and Epiphany became distinct festivals. The date and authorship of this document is disputed, however at the very latest it was written by someone in Even then, it provided assigned readings only for Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.
The rest of the year was still covered by optional propers included in the comes, or by the whim of the local bishop or pastor. Three hundred years later, Charlemagne decided to standardize liturgical practices in his domain, and as part of this had his religious advisor Alcuin 9 do a revision of the Comes Hieronymi. What Alcuin basically did was take the Gregorian Sacramentary, the current standard in Rome, and introduce it to Charlemange's empire.
This was a monumental step in church history, since it standardized worship in the Western Church and put everyone west of the Carpathians literally on the same page, at least for the festival part of the year. And because he was seeking to shorten the service, Alcuin introduced two major changes in the lectionary. First, he eliminated the reading of the Old Testament lesson. Secondly, he shortened many of the epistle and Gospel readings. Where before a lesson could have been as long as two or three chapters, now it was usually a single account from a gospel or section from an epistle that dealt with a specific topic.
There were probably a number of reasons for both these changes, but what is likely the main one was the decreased literacy of both people and clergy effected by the barbarian invasions. The next major change to the lectionary would not come until the 13th century and the establishment of the last generally accepted major festival of the Church: Trinity Sunday. This festival soon came to dominate the second half of the church year, and with that came the establishment of assigned propers for the entire year. In itself this was not new; some places had actually established year-round propers as early as the 4th century.
But the High Middle Ages saw the strengthening of both monarchies and the papacy, both of which liked to have unified practice. The era of cuius regioeius lectio was over, and with the general adoption of the Sarum Missal at the end of the 13th century the liturgical practice of the Western Church, year round, was governed by the Historic lectionary. The Reformation never really asked the question "Should the lectionary be changed?
Calvin took a somewhat more restrained approach, abolishing both church year and lectionary but substituting a lectio continua, since he saw homiletical value in having some sort of assigned reading. The Lutherans, true to form, only wished to abolish or reform those things which obscured Christ or promoted false doctrine. The lectionary did not fall into either of these categories, and thus was retained with only slight revision by the Lutherans: They added propers for Trinity 25 and 26, eschatological lessons meant to connect the end of life with the end of all things.
They also moved the commemoration of the Transfiguration from the fixed date of August 6 to the last Sunday after Epiphany, a fitting climax of the season which celebrates the manifestation of the glory and deity of Christ. This was not to say there was not criticism from the Lutherans. Certainly the time has not yet come to attempt revision here, as nothing unevangelical is read, except that those parts from the Epistles of Paul in which faith is taught are read only rarely, while the exhortations to morality are most frequently read.
The Epistles seem to have been chosen by a singularly unlearned and superstitious advocate of works. But for the service those sections in which faith in Christ is taught should have been given preference. The latter were certainly considered more often in the Gospels by whoever it was who chose these lessons. In the meantime, the sermon in the vernacular will have to supply what is lacking.
Considering the times he was perhaps over-sensitive to anything which seemed to detract from Sola Gratia. Indeed, in the end we see that even Luther took himself with a grain of salt, since despite his comments Luther himself prescribed the use of the Historic lectionary in both the Formula Missae and Deutsche Messe, 12 and all Lutheran altar books continued in their use of it. Even the Augsburg Confession and the Apology testify to its official use in Lutheran congregations, when in speaking about tradition and the Church the Lutherans stated: "Many traditions are kept on our part, for they lead to good order in the Church, such as the Order of Lessons in the Mass [i.
It served as the basis for our postils and devotional books, our hymnody and church music, and even until the mid 20th century was the index for every Lutheran hymnal. To be sure, other lectionaries were prepared. In the churches of the Prussian Union known as the Eisenach Conference produced a lectionary, popularized in the United States by Dr. Lenski and his notes on the series.
The Synodical Conference produced a series which was adopted in The Scandinavian Lutheran Churches produced a three-year lectionary in It means that there are plenty of resources for it, including many written by the Lutheran Fathers. Six hundred years also means that there has been time to work out most of the bugs. Unlike other lectionary series except those based on the Historic series , the propers for the day always match up with the readings, enhancing the theme for the day, and the lessons within each season flow together to create a seasonal theme.
Indeed, of all the lectionaries the Historic is the most well-organized; there is even method in the seeming madness of the Trinity season. If repetitio mater studiorum est, then here is where you will find the most repetitio. This is especially an advantage in our era of decreased biblical literacy. At the same time, because it is a one year series, it uses a limited number of texts.
The Historic lectionary grew during times when it was common to have services on days like Easter Monday, which may also explain why some lessons are now omitted. In the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod resolved to appoint a commission which would work with other Lutheran church bodies to produce a new common hymnal, a contemporary heir to The Lutheran Hymnal.
These were distributed through the publication of a series entitled Contemporary Worship. Contemporary Worship6, produced in , dealt with the church year and calendar and introduced two new lectionaries. This concern is not simply the product of change in society and church; it has deeper roots. It reflects a variety of influences in current theology, social-ethical involvements, developments in worship practice, and especially the influential biblical theology movement of recent decades.
Thus in September of the ILCW simply followed suit, expressing its preference for a three-year series. In the ILCW published a revised one-year series, and two years later published their magnum opus, a new three-year series, patterned after the Roman Ordo.
The ILCW three-year series somewhat returned to the practice of lectio continua with the basic principle of assigning a synoptic gospel to each year. The Gospel of John is used in all three during the Sundays after Easter and also serves to supplement St. Mark in Year B. In an effort to re-introduce the reading of the Old Testament, a First Lesson, usually selected from the Old Testament, was assigned to each Sunday which was to coordinate with the Gospel reading.
The exception to this is the Sundays after Easter, where selections are chosen from Acts. Epistles were also assigned to each year to be read lectio continua, and thus no special effort was made to coordinate the Epistle with the Gospel selection. In choosing selections, the committee asked itself a number of questions. Can this passage be expounded meaningfully today, can one preach relevantly on it? Do the readings as a whole reflect the whole counsel of God? Is the reading exegetically defensible?
Are there textual problems in the Hebrew or Greek which render the meaning of a passage uncertain? Is the reading ecumenical? How widely is it used to express past usage and current practice? Like most common resources, there are now actually several versions of the ILCW lectionary in print. The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary uses essentially the same version of the one found in Lutheran Worship.
For the most part the variations in the different versions are minor, often focusing on the length of the reading e. Should we read all of St. John9, or just selected verses? Many pastors welcomed the opportunity to preach on a new variety of texts. The general practice of lectio continua used in the series can give a congregation a chance to get the flavor of a book, which can especially be helpful in the gospels. And with the popular acceptance of the series there are now a number of sermon helps and worship materials based on it.
The greatest disadvantages to the ILCW are its origin and length. The series was created by an inter-Lutheran group that is theologically liberal, and its theology often shows up in their selections for readings. John is not in the ILCW , of miracles done by the apostles, and often allows for the omission of readings that condemn sins such as adultery and homosexuality. The most glaring omission is the lack of any texts which deal with the judgment of sinners.
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Traditionally, these readings were used on the Second-Last Sunday of the Church Year, but now they are either omitted or listed as optional. The one exception is the parable of the sheep and the goats, but this was likely retained because it retains the possibility for moralizing. In fairness, I also examined the ILCW lectionary found in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, where most of the optional, "offensive" material has been restored as part of the readings, and where the judgment day readings are listed for the Second-Last Sunday.
If you are getting bulletins and worship materials from Concordia or Northwestern, you are using a version of the ILCW similar to this one. And just as the brevity of the Historic Lectionary is both good and bad, so is the length of the ILCW three-year series. Parables and accounts that would have been heard every year are now heard once every three years, and if one follows the preaching cycle are preached on only once every nine years. Also, except for most of the Sundays during the festival part of the church year, the thematic approach to Sundays has been lost.
It should also be noted that the argument of "the more Bible, the better" is not without its fallacies. It is especially useful is to recognize and expound on the Biblical Type contained in the Old Testament which prepares and adds understanding to the Gospel. The use of the Old Testament type in the homily will help add fullness to the explanation of the Gospel. Review the biblical reflections for the Sunday at Dr. Scott Hahn's "Breaking the Bread" shown on the home page of this web site, and Fr. Cantalamessa homily for examples of how the Sunday theme is used in a sermon. Also see the St.