Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bless This Food

Maundy Thursday is the commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist. This so-called last supper Jesus had with his friends, I think, seems to have been an ordinary meal rather than a Seder. In an ordinary meal, the host, usually the head of the house, started the meal with a cup over which was said a blessing, then bread was, blessed, broken and shared which began the actual meal. When the meal was over, the host offered another cup, called the Cup of Blessing which ended the meal. Here’s what Luke says that makes me think this:

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God." After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, "Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. Luke 22:14-20

There is also no mention of the bitter herbs and other items that made up a Seder. Why do I think this matters?

I think there is another meaning to the Supper besides the institution of a ritual meal in the context of worship. I propose that Jesus is telling his friends, “Any time you eat a meal,” i.e. break bread and drink wine--the usual table drink--”remember this time we ate together. Remember me and all I said and did and be glad.”

If I’m right, it could give a whole new spin to “saying grace,” or “saying the blessing” at our meals. We might move away from the pro forma recitation of some mumbled words and actually thank God for his love as shown in its completeness in Jesus.  Something on which to reflect as we continue our trek through the Holy Week observances and emerge different on the other side.

PS. Wonder what blessing Jesus said. A common Jewish blessing was something like this: Blessed are you, Lord God of Creation. Through your goodness, we have this [bread, wine] to offering, which earth has given and human hands have made. Neat huh?

Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What's In A Name?

It’s easy to think liturgical practices or customs associated with them have been around forever. In The Episcopal Church, there are still people who only knew the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the guide for such things. Even though it was replaced in 1979, many still long for the 1928 customs and practices because “that’s the way it always was.” But, of course, anyone with a historical perspective knows that’s not the case about much of anything.

Sunday is Palm Sunday. At least it would be called that if we were still observing it as I did as a kid. Today it is more likely to be called something like The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, with an emphasis on Jesus’ suffering. Every since it began to be celebrated, it has involved the use of palms in a procession of some kind. Hence the Palm Sunday name. Observances certainly emphasize Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem where he is proclaimed Messiah by the crowd. Why palm branches? Palm branches were a Jewish symbol representing triumph and victory. The crowd, no doubt, expected their deliverance by this donkey riding Messiah and, since he was thought to be God’s anointed, victory was certain. They waved palm branches as we do as well.

Like many customs of the Church, exactly when it began to be observed is unclear. The usual assumption is that it originated in the Jerusalem church sometime in the third or fouth century. We have good evidence that by the fifth century the observance had spread as far as Constantinople. In the sixth and seventh centuries there were some additions made to the practice which became the norm. Palms were ritually blessed before being used and the habit of having the procession in the evening gave way to a morning procession. In the eighth century, these practices became widespread in the Western Church.

The Sunday of the Passion begins what Christians have long called Holy Week. The Sunday service itself, condenses the services of the week into a single day. We celebrate triumph, we experience the Last Supper, we listen as the story of Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion and death are retold. The more complete Holy Week will observe the origin of the Last Supper on Thursday night, Maundy Thursday. The next day will commemorate Jesus’ betrayal, trial, abandonment by friends, crucifixion, and death. We call it Good Friday because without Jesus’ death, there could be no resurrection in glory. Though a painful day, it looks forward to the third day.

We can think of the Sunday of the Passion as an occasion to reflect on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. We can reflect on what was accomplished in his suffering and what was made possible by his resurrection. Perhaps as we reflect we will think about how quickly the crowd went from shouts of praise to demands for his death. We can use this week to rethink how quickly we may be prone to turn away from the demands of faith, too. It could make Easter Sunday an entirely experience for us.

Holy Lent, Jerry

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Dinner parties are always something of a celebration. Usually we’re just celebrating our friendships with others. But, now and then, the occasion is very special and the celebration calls for something equally special. That’s the scene in this coming Sunday’s Gospel. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus have invited Jesus to a dinner party to celebrate Jesus having raised Lazarus from the dead. 

We can understand that impulse can’t we? Even dramatically smaller good deeds done by a friend urge us to respond in some way. With the restoration of a family member, because of Jesus’ love for him, the urge to respond knows no bounds. To prove that, when everyone is gathered, Mary takes a pound of “pure nard” and anoints Jesus’ feet. Spikenard, from which nard was extracted, was a very expensive aromatic ointment. Because of its value, it was typically kept in an alabaster box, also an expensive material. Just how expensive was this anointing? A pound of nard in Mary’s time was worth a year’s income!

Not only does Mary offer this precious ointment, she humbles herself at Jesus’ feet to anoint them and then wipes his feet with her hair. As the full bloom of the sweet nard fills the house, no one could have missed the radically intimate and sacrificial offering Mary has made. I’m certain the conversation came to an abrupt halt as everyone watched this sensual and extraordinary gift. Of course, some of that silence may have resulted from the forbidden nature of a woman actually touching a man who was not family, never mind touching the feet and wiping with her hair. To everyone except Mary, such boldness was unthinkable.

How could all who witnessed this failed to be touched? You would have been; I would have been. Sometimes when I think about this incredible act, I almost tear up at her devotion and love. Of course, not everyone was touched. Judas ruins the moment by complaining the nard could have been sold and given to the poor. And it surely could have. As I write this, Catholic Cardinals have gathered from around the world in what can only be described as the splendor of the Sistine Chapel to elect a pope who will reign from the extravagance of St. Peter’s. All that money associated with those two buildings could have been spent on the poor too. The cost of this gathering and the cost of the papal garments the new Pope will wear could have been given to the poor. In the novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, the newly elected and reluctant Pope makes it clear he intends to begin to divest the Church of its wealth for the sake of those in need. A scandalous idea then and now.

This is always the tension we face as Christians. We feel driven to give our best in our buildings to honor our God and the passion and victory of Jesus. We use silver and gold vessels as a sign of our desire to show reverence to the consecrated bread and wine which sustains us spiritually. At the same time, we know we could use jelly glasses and paper plates with the cost of the silver and gold helping the poor. In some way, we must find it in ourselves to do both. To offer our nard while also multiplying loaves and fish to feed the hungry.

It is not an easy path and no matter how it’s walked we will be subject to criticism. However, the certain truth is that both these impulses--to honor with magnificence and to honor with service--are seen in the Gospels as valid. Balance, that must be that for what we strive. And, balance will always require sacrifice.

In thanksgiving for God’s generosity, Jerry

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Today's New Word: Laetare

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may remember during Advent I wrote about Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete Sunday is the third Sunday in Advent and has a counterpart during Lent: Laetare Sunday. Laetare is a Latin word that means “rejoice.” The commonplace name for this Sunday is Refreshment Sunday. No, it’s not a time when we expand our after service hospitality offerings. 

Thursday of the third week of Lent is the halfway point of the season. If we were keeping Lent as it was kept a couple of centuries ago, Lent would have been a painful and solemn time. Actual fasting would have taken place and we would have all felt the terrible weight of our sins day in and day out. Traditionally, the organ was never played during Lent. Hangings in the Nave were spare and somber, purple for the pulpit, lectern, and altar and all the crosses veiled in the black of mourning. You may have noticed an old tradition of no altar flowers has been resumed; instead we see sticks and a small bit of greenery.

Twenty days of deprivation and despair are hard to bear, and though technically, Sundays don’t require the rigors of Lent to be practiced, most Christians don’t make exceptions. Consequently, we’re tired and feel beaten up--if we’ve kept a Holy Lent. So, to prepare us for the final sprint, the organ was allowed to play. Flowers made their way back to the altar and the purple hangings gave way to rose hued ones. A passage often read on this Sunday gives the day its name, “Rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow,” from that great prophet and poet Isaiah. A one day and one day only reprieve. 

The point of Gaudete Sunday and Laetare Sunday is the same. We are provided with encouragement to continue our spiritual journey through the penitential aspects of both seasons. We’ll hear this coming Sunday the Gospel lesson of the Loving Father, usually known as the Prodigal Son. This poor selfish and sinful young man suffers for “a season” and then, humbly returns home, willing to be a servant in his father’s home. But, he discovers a loving parent who has been eagerly waiting for him to return and he is restored to his position as son. Do I need to make this point anymore clearly?

Be refreshed, Jerry