Saturday, January 30, 2010

Septuagesima, Part II

From ancient times a parable has been defined as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Jesus commonly taught by means of such stories. The parables always seem simple because they use familiar and ordinary things, such as vineyards and wages, employers and employees, hard work and idleness. But the “heavenly meaning” is usually elusive. The parables make sense only to those having minds renewed by the Holy Spirit. To non-Christians, they make no sense at all.

To unpack the parable in today's Gospel, we have here a series of symbols. The men of the market-place are lost mankind. The householder who invites them to labor in his vineyard is God, merciful and generous. The vineyard itself is God's kingdom, clearly set apart and distinct from the market-place. The repeated invitation into the vineyard, given early in the morning, again at the third hour, the sixth hour, even at the ninth and eleventh hours, reflects the persistence of God in His incessant offer of the Gospel. The pay-out of wages at the end of the day points to the last judgment. And the wage itself?

At this point we seem to run into trouble. It all seems so very unfair. Anyone familiar with common business practices in ancient times or now will immediately understand the point of the objection, “These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.”

This parable, centering around this complaint, is all about God's sovereign grace, His unmerited love, His baffling generosity. Tragically we have attempted to domesticate and subdue that Gospel with the silly notion that “God helps those who helps themselves,” that He simply makes us an offer and awaits our cooperation. The most dangerous substitute for the Gospel is the devil's lie that God wants us to do our best and when we fail He will somehow step in and help us out.

Grace, symbolized in the wages paid to the eleventh hour workers, will forever be illogical, senseless, unfair to the unregenerate mind. That is why the hymn-writers so frequently describe grace as “amazing.”

The griping ingrates who complain against the householder feel that somehow they have been cheated or ill-treated. What escapes them is that the householder is generous to all, at no loss to them, but only at great expense to himself. That is the price paid for us on the Cross. That infinite price entitles the householder to say, “Many be called but few chosen.” May He never say to us, “Take that thine is, and go thy way,” for that is the way which leads to perdition.

Septuagesima, Part I

In ancient times, this was the Sunday when adult converts were enrolled for Baptismal instruction. Easter itself was the occasion for Baptism; Lent was primarily a period of instruction for new converts. That bit of background sheds light on the Epistle and Gospel appointed for this “Third Sunday before Lent.”

In today's readings we have the Christian life compared to (1) running a race, (2) toiling in a vineyard, and (3) receiving a reward. C. S. Lewis has written in the Screwtape Letters of the “Law of Undulation” in the spiritual life. At times the life of faith is like running a race, but mostly it is just toiling in a hot vineyard. But to concentrate on the reward, the parable makes it quite clear that the reward which God bestows on the Christian is absolutely a matter of His sovereign grace. The householder is not in the least reluctant to appear inconsistent, arbitrary, even unfair. “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own? Is thine eye evil because I am good?” The whining complaints of those who have labored the entire day miss the point that the householder is, above all, generous. He has graciously made a place in his vineyard for the laggards who have wasted the day in the market-place.

The whole idea of grace has all too often been trivialized into a tawdry secular notion of “unconditional love.” That understanding of grace (really a misunderstanding) would rewrite the parable to say that the householder forgets his vineyard, joins the laggards in the market-place, and at the end of the day divides his entire fortune with them. A false gospel which promises everything and requires nothing will quickly have a large audience; churches which proclaim such a message will always have full parking lots.

In today's Epistle we hear one of St. Paul's most solemn statements: “lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” Those are words which must make us stop and think! The great apostle himself seems to contemplate a possibility of losing his own soul. That was the real danger, not just for those left behind in the market-place (how many were there whom the householder did not invite?) but even for those who “have borne the burden and heat of the day.” Those whining ingrates are the Biblical paradigm for zealous Churchmen who never learn the Good News of Unmerited Grace. The petty rules of “I demand what I deserve” are left behind when we leave the market-place for the vineyard, where we are mercifully saved from our own just deserts.

As we approach Lent with its blessings and its demands, the Householder Himself comes to us, inviting us to leave the market-place of our spiritual sloth and come into His vineyard. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Are you one of the many, or the few?

The Last Sunday After Epiphany

Today would not be quite complete if we did not sing Hymn 54, marked in our Hymnal “for the last Sunday after Epiphany.” This hymn reflects a fine point of sound liturgical usage and perhaps a bit of unpacking may be helpful in our enjoyment of the hymn. As St. Paul says, “I will sing with the Spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.”

The liturgical point is that from Septuagesima Sunday (which comes a week from today) until Easter Day, the Greek word “Alleluia” is not heard in the worship of the Church. That word, in Hebrew “Hallelujah,” meaning “Praise ye the LORD,” is our ultimate exclamation of joy. It expresses the joy unique to Easter, Resurrection-joy. The word is so joyful that we have never quite accepted a translation, but kept it in its Hebrew or Greek forms.

In Mediaeval worship, there was a little ceremony of “saying farewell to Alle-luia” on this final Sunday of the Epiphany Season. Therefore this lovely hymn was written. In the first Stanza, a contrast is drawn between the worship of the Church in heaven, “the choirs on high,” where “Alleluia” is sung forever without interruption. But we are not in heaven yet, so our worship cannot realistically maintain this tone of elation. (Don't people who are “happy all the time” get on your nerves?)

For the time being (that is all our time here on earth), we are still sinners. By God's gracious justification, we are “simul iusti et peccatores,” righteous and sinful at the very same time. But Lent, beginning on February 17, calls us to face with courage the fact of our continuing sinfulness even in our justified state. The third stanza of our hymn states, “For the holy time is coming Bidding us our sins deplore.” That “time” is, of course, the holy season of Lent.

Stanza two plays on a contrast between Jerusalem and Babylon. Jerusalem is the true home of God's people, Babylon is the place of our exile, the exile brought about by our habitual sinfulness. But in a larger sense, Jerusalem is our heavenly city, our home of eternal destiny, and Babylon is the fallen and corrupt world in which we live. As Psalm 137 reminds us, we cannot “sing the Lord's song in a strange land.”

So do not think it odd or peculiar that we refrain from singing “Alleluia” during that portion of the year when we recall that we still live in “the strange land” of our sinful existence. Instead, rejoice that for most of the year, from every Easter until the next Septuagesima, God mercifully permits us to sing the “songs of Sion” in our earthly worship. “Grant us, blessed Trinity, at the last to keep thine Easter in our home beyond the sky.” Septuagesima and Lent are painfully typical of “this present evil age,” but Easter, Ascensiontide and Pentecost are the promise and down-payment of the world to come.

Epiphany III

Following the visit of the Gentile Magi and the Baptism in the Jordan River, the miracle at the Cana marriage feast is the third manifestation of the God-Man in the Church's liturgical celebration. To many commentators, this seems to be a miracle almost unique, in that it does not serve any critical human need. Other miracles of Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, raised the dead. But this miracle merely saved an ordinary family from social embarrassment. Is this situation, with no-one sick, hungry, or dead, too prosaic to warrant Divine intervention? Recalling a wedding in my own experience when the caterer almost failed to appear, surely the Cana wine shortage cried out for God's help. No human need is beneath God's compassionate attention.

As St. John relates the event, the miracle seems almost like a parable in the constellation of symbols. The wedding itself recalls God's marriage covenant to Israel and Our Saviour's taking the Church for His bride. The transformation of water into wine reminds us of the Old Testament, with its types and shadows, giving place to the New Testament, in which the Word is made flesh. From another perspective it symbolizes sinners' being made into saints. Even the number of water-jars seems significant: six (as in the Days of Creation) frequently bespeaks incompleteness, just falling short of the mystical seven. And the presence of the Blessed Mother (not seen again in John until she stands at the foot of the Cross) is not without great importance. Both times Jesus addressed her as “Woman,” echoing Gen. 3:15, naming her as the New Eve, “mother of all living.”

At bottom, this episode is important because John tells us this was “the beginning of miracles.” The first half of the fourth Gospel is organized around an ascending series of six (that number again!) miracles. These form a crescendo of intensity and power, with the climax in the raising of Lazarus from the dead. John takes us from the gift of new and better wine to the restoration of life to a stinking corpse (his symbol for lost sinners). The seventh miracle, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus Himself.

The response to the miracles progresses in a counter-direction. The wine of Cana aroused pleasure and delight. “Thou hast kept the good wine until now.” But the succeeding miracles triggered growing animosity. The beneficiary of one miracle, the lame man of John 5, himself became a betrayer of Jesus. The hostility of sinners, like the power of God, found its climax in the desperation of the Jews: “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs” (John 11:47). We know the resolution of that quandary.

So John's magnificent Gospel carries us from “the beginning of signs” to “many signs.” The greatest sign, surely, still continues in the healed and transformed lives of all whom He encounters.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Epiphany I, Part II

Both Christmas and Epiphany celebrate the same event and same truth, but the difference in which the two great holy days are observed is painful. Christmas has become a popular secular holiday, whereas Epiphany (in spite of the slang use of the word itself) is barely known. In churches Christmas is celebrated with much ado. Congregations are filled and God is worshiped gloriously with our finest music and best liturgy. Epiphany is celebrated, if at all, with the plainest of plain services and tiny congregations. For Christmas we decorate our churches and our homes, making them beautiful for the Infant King. At Epiphany we take those decorations down and pack them away. Joy gives way to gloom, in the wretched cold of January. Now which observance is more like the Event itself?

Theologians speak of Christ in His two states, the state of His humiliation and of His exaltation. God's self-exhibition was first of all a revelation of His humility. It may seem rash to speak of “the humility of God,” but it is necessary to remember that His coming to earth was not an interlude, a change of plan, a deviation from the script. The babe visited by the shepherds, the young child worshiped by the wise men, the precocious boy who startled the teachers of the law, all were manifestations of God as He truly is.

St Paul wrote (1 Cor. 1:27-29), “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, God hath chosen the weak things in the world to confound the things that are mighty, and base things of the world hath God chosen, yea things which are not, to bring to nought things that are, so that no flesh should glory in his presence.” Of course the Apostle was describing his Corinthians converts and the methods by which they had been won for Christ: foolish, weak, base. But the humility of the Infant Church was firmly grounded in the humility of God Incarnate in Jesus Christ.

That no flesh should glory!” The Gospel makes sense only to those who remember why it was necessary in the first place. The original and most enduring sin was the pride of Adam and Eve, who aspired to be equal with God, “knowing” (that is, determining for themselves) “good and evil.” Their offspring can be saved only by a drastic event of humiliation, a radical leveling of our pride. A desperate situation required a Divine intervention.

The shepherds, the wise men, the doctors in the Temple, have one thing in common with us. Left to our own devices, they and we knew very little of what God is like. But in Jesus Christ we have seen God face to face. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” And as we see Him clearly, our sin is exposed, our pride is levelled, and our boasting is put to silence.

Epiphany I, Part I

After the Feast itself of the Epiphany we have a season of varying length, which can be as short as one Sunday or as long as six. The Gospels appointed for these Sundays all maintain the theme of “manifestation” in one way or another. Today's Gospel presents Jesus as a mere boy (at an age when boys can be difficult to live with) speaking of “my Father,” and revealing Himself as God's Son. On Epiphany II we read of His Baptism, when the heavenly voice declared, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Then comes Epiphany III, the lovely account of the miracle at Cana's marriage feast which simultaneously saved a poor family from social disgrace and manifested Jesus as the One to bring a new marriage bond between God and His people. On Epiphany IV, Jesus manifests Himself as the One who heals, and then reiterates the theme of Epiphany Day itself, the welcome of the Gentiles into the kingdom of God. Epiphany V shows a simple manifestation through teaching. Epiphany VI describes the “Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” The ultimate manifestation of God Incarnate yet remains to be seen, but the Gospel promise is that He will indeed make Himself visible to all the world.

Epiphany VI has a thrilling Epistle reading, which contains the verse, “It doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him.” This speaks of the renewal of the Image of God in us, damaged by sin but reconstituted in sanctification. So at the End, His manifestation is our manifestation; His Epiphany becomes our epiphany as well. Imagine looking at yourself in the mirror in heaven! What a make-over, what a face-lift that will be! You will look like Jesus, as the Image of God has been restored.

In the early Epiphany Sundays we have a series of readings from Romans 12 and 13. These readings all describe the morality of the Christian lifestyle. These are impressive in their very simplicity. No painful moral dilemmas, no impossible commandments, just a series of suggestions. But the key to the entire two chapters is in one exceedingly demanding verse: “And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Not conformed, but transformed! The message of Jesus, God Incarnate, is not for the self-satisfied but for those who are willing to be changed, made over, rehabilitated. If you like yourself the way you are, the Gospel is not for you, for the Gospel is all about internal and external change. And that, again, is God's ultimate and greatest self-disclosure.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Epiphany

Because we celebrate the Birth of our Saviour on Dec. 25 and His Manifestation (that's what the word epiphany means) on Jan. 6, we might be tempted to think that His birth and His self-disclosure were two different events. His birth, in fact, was the beginning of Jesus' self-revelation as God in the flesh. The Epistle we read on Christmas Eve makes this clear, with Paul's ringing words, “the grace of God which bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.” That verb “appeared” in the Greek is precisely the word from which “Epiphany” is derived.

It is fascinating to observe how the vocabulary of Holy Mother Church is borrowed, and promptly corrupted, into the secular language. All sorts of people nowadays who know nothing and care less about our holy days are nattering mindlessly about epiphanies. As non-Christians throw around a trendy word, it seems to mean a flash of insight or a surprising new idea. It originates purely and strictly in the human consciousness.

But as the Bible uses the word “appeared” or “epiphany,” it is a far greater thing. When the Wise Men saw the star, they discerned a new flash of light from the skies, as far away from them as it was unexpected by them. When the shepherds were startled by the glory of the Lord shining round about them, they did not congratulate themselves for having a new idea. When Isaiah wrote “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” he did not mean that they remembered to bring their flash lights.

When God became man at Bethlehem, to be wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, something totally new occurred, something which had never been anticipated or precisely foreseen. For all the prophecies of Jesus which fill the pages of the Old Testament, never had it been revealed that the eternal Word would become flesh. That was not a human idea at all; such a thing had not even been revealed in advance. An enfleshment of the incorporeal God (“without body, parts or passions”) was unthinkable, to devout Jews, to sophisticated Greeks, to cultivated Romans alike.

The Incarnation, also known as the Epiphany of God in Jesus Christ, puts the whole human race into the predicament of Job, who was finally compelled to say, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee.” Job did not claim to have suddenly stumbled on a new idea; he has seen God Himself! When we see in the mysteries of Christmas and Epiphany God Himself made flesh, we are reminded that Lent is not far off. So with Job let us say, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” As He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, the Gospel story quickly tells us how He was wrapped in a shroud and laid in a tomb. That also is an epiphany we would never have arrived at on our own.