The Meaning of the Cross in the Twenty-First Century: A Lenten Study

The Meaning of the Cross in the Twenty-First Century
A Lenten Series
Tuesday Evenings—March 7-April 4
7:00 pm
Grace Church Guild Hall 

Session I. The Death of Jesus in the New Testament

            Preparation:

  1. Read Mark 1:1-16:8, or Mark 14-15
  2. Read Philippians 2:5-11, I Corinthians 1:18-31, I Corinthians 15:3-4
  3. Read Hebrews 5:1-10, 9:1-23

Reflection Questions:

  1. How would you characterize Mark’s portrayal of Jesus? What are some of the key aspects of his ministry and activity?
  2. Looking closely at Mark’s depiction of the crucifixion, what is the meaning of Jesus’ death for Mark?
  3. What are some of the central elements of Paul’s understanding of the cross? What sort of “problem” does the cross present for Paul?
  4. What are some of the dominant images and words used for Jesus Christ in Hebrews?

 

Session II. The Meaning of the Cross in the Christian Tradition

Preparation. Read the following hymns from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982

Reflection Questions:
1) What are some of the themes or images that dominate these hymns? What understanding of the crucifixion is reflected in the hymns?
2) Compare the imagery across the four hymns. What differences and similarities do you notice?
3) What attitude or experience of the crucifixion is implied for the writer/singer of the hymn?

 

Session III. The Cross in Feminist Perspective:

Preparation: Read the selection from Elisabeth SchusslerFiorenza’s Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet.

Session IV. The Cross and the Lynching Tree:

Preparation: Read the selections from James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Session V. Exploring the violence of the cross

Preparation: Read the selection from J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 2nd Edition.

 

A White Lent

1. Now quit your care
And anxious fear and worry;
For schemes are vain
And fretting brings no gain.
To prayer, to prayer!
Bells call and clash and hurry,
In Lent the bells do cry
‘Come buy, come buy,
Come buy with love the love most high!’

2. Lent comes in the spring,
And spring is pied with brightness;
The sweetest flowers,
Keen winds, and sun, and showers,
Their health do bring
To make Lent’s chastened whiteness;
For life to men brings light
And might, and might,
And might to those whose hearts are right.

3. To bow the head
In sackcloth and in ashes,
Or rend the soul,
Such grief is not Lent’s goal;
But to be led
To where God’s glory flashes,
His beauty to come nigh,
To fly, to fly,
To fly where truth and light do lie.

4. For is not this
The fast that I have chosen? –
The prophet spoke –
To shatter every yoke,
Of wickedness
The grievous bands to loosen,
Oppression put to flight,
To fight, to fight,
To fight till every wrong’s set right.

5. For righteousness
And peace will show their faces
To those who feed
The hungry in their need,
And wrongs redress,
Who build the old waste places,
And in the darkness shine.
Divine, divine,
Divine it is when all combine!

6. Then shall your light
Break forth as doth the morning;
Your health shall spring,
The friends you make shall bring
God’s glory bright,
Your way through life adorning
And love shall be the prize.
Arise, arise,
Arise! and make a paradise!

A Lenten carol written by Percy Dearmer. I’m grateful to Thinking Anglicans for drawing my attention to it. It’s lovely because of its quite joyful evocation of the beauty of springtime. And it is powerful in shifting the focus of Lent away from personal piety toward works of justice. I’ve borrowed the text from A Clerk of Oxford

 

Forty for 40: A Literary Reader for Lent

A remarkable collection of readings for the forty days of Lent. I think I’ve found one of my lenten disciplines!

Compiled by Nick Ripatrazone who writes:

Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert are the spiritual and dramatic origin for the season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday.

There are some old familiar pieces here and many that I don’t know and look forward to exploring.

Unruly Wills and Affections

The Collect for the Fifth Sunday in Lent is one of my favorites, full of rich imagery and language. I didn’t preach today because I spent it with our kids. They’ve been learning about the Eucharist and today I talked with them about it during the Liturgy of the Word. At the offertory, we rejoined the main congregation and the children gathered around the altar for the Great Thanksgiving.

All this meant that I really hadn’t spent any time with the propers this week, so the beautiful collect came to me as a wonderful surprise while I was presiding at the early service:

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

It has an interesting history. It derives from early sources (the Gelasian and Gregorian sacramentaries), where it was used in the Easter season. Cranmer appointed it for the Fourth Sunday after Easter. His translation was altered in 1662, introducing the phrase “bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners.” The 1979 Book of Common Prayer moved it to its current location. It seems much more appropriate as a Lenten collect than as an Easter one.

I’m taken by the understanding of human nature expressed in the prayer. The phrase “our unruly wills and affections” certainly implies sin, but doesn’t dwell on human sinfulness. But there is also an appeal to God working in us to effect our salvation, the request to God to give God’s people grace “to love what you command and desire what you promise.”

It then moves out to put us in our context–amid the swift and varied changes of the world and expresses the hope that we might focus our attention not on the constantly changing scenery around us, but on our true hope.

John Donne, 1631

A Hymn to God the Father

By John Donne

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
         Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
         And do run still, though still I do deplore?
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
                        For I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
         Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
         A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
                        For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
         My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
         Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
                And, having done that, thou hast done;
                        I fear no more.

From The Poetry Foundation

John Donne, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, brilliant poet and preacher, died on this day in 1631.

Blessed are you… The Beatitudes and Discipleship

I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship as I prepare for our Lenten Bible Study on the Sermon on the Mount. I’m not sure when I last spent any time with this Christian classic (25 years, 35 years?). Coming back to it after all those years, it’s striking both in the way it reflects its historical context and the ways in which it transcends its time and still speaks to us decades later.

For example, after going through the beatitudes, explaining them and showing how they speak immediately to the situation of Jesus’ followers in the first century, Bonhoeffer asks whether the community described in the Beatitudes exists anywhere on earth. His answer:

Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found–on the Cross at Golgotha. The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it is found all. From the cross there comes the call “blessed, blessed.”

The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified!

Earlier, he points out that Jesus called his disciples blessed in the crowd’s hearing and that “the crowd is called upon as a startled witness.” From this he posits the essential unity of disciples and people. In his discussion of the Beatitudes, Bonhoeffer tends to emphasize the tension between Jesus’ followers and the world but here he stresses the commonality. It’s easy to read him (and to some degree the Beatitudes themselves) and place ourselves on that same grid. We hear a lot these days about the persecution of Christians in American, for example. But I wonder whether the perception might change if the emphasis were on the ways in which the people of God are meant to be a blessing to the communities and world in which they live.

In this week’s lectionary reading from Genesis 12, God calls Abram and Sarai out from Haran into the Promised Land, telling them, “I will bless you … so that you will be a blessing” and “in you all the families of the world will be blessed.” It’s easy to recoil, raise our defenses, withdraw or try to fight back when we encounter opposition. The world sees plenty of that from Christians. What might it be like to offer oneself and one’s community of faith as a blessing to its neighborhood and the world?

 

God remembers that we are dust, and that’s Good News! A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

As I was preparing for Ash Wednesday this year, I took the opportunity to reflect on my past observances of the day. That’s one of the wonderful things about the discipline of a blog. It’s something of a diary in which I reflect publicly on the liturgy, lectionary texts, and other matters, as well as posting all of my sermons. So I went back through the past few years since I’ve been at Grace, and even further. As I read, I remembered, not just the more recent Ash Wednesdays but all the way back to the very first service at which I presided as a lay person because the Rector of the parish had taken a new call and the Interim Rector was not yet in place.

Some of those years were memorable because of what was happening in the world around us. In 2003, it was the imminent invasion of Iraq. In 2011, as we knelt to say the litany of penitence during the 6:00 service, the square outside erupted in noise in response to the State Senate’s final passage of Governor Walker’s budget repair bill.

It may be quiet on the square today but still our hearts may be unquiet because of other concerns: the tense situation in the Ukraine, human suffering in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere; and here at home deep, apparently insurmountable political conflict and worsening inequality. We also bring our own more intimate concerns: job loss, illness, loved ones, broken relationships, our doubts and fears. We’re distracted, too, by the fact that we’ve come here from work or school, from a day of errands. And some of us will go from here back to what we were doing, a desk full of work, or homework, or the myriad little details of daily.
In the midst of all of that busy-ness today, we’ve decided to pause for a few minutes, to hear and recite familiar, ancient words, to receive the sign of the cross marked with ash on our forehead, and to hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

That’s really what Lent is. Just as this service today marks an interruption in our daily routine, so too does Lent interrupt our daily lives and offers us an opportunity to take stock of ourselves, to remind us of who we are, and most importantly, to remind us of who God is.

Ash Wednesday lays us bare. The shock of a smudge of ash on our forehead and the ominous words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” cuts through all of our self-defenses, all of the images of ourselves that we project to the world and to ourselves, bringing us back to the fundamental reality, we are dust and ash.

It’s easy for us to focus on ourselves on Ash Wednesday—ashes, the litany of penitence, the prayers—all of it seems like an invitation to wallow in our sinfulness. Of course, it’s important to take a steely eyed, unemotional look at ourselves; but that’s not the end of the story. The liturgy, the prayers, the readings also remind us of God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, and God’s love.
But at the same time, for all that, Ash Wednesday reminds us of who God is and who we are in light of God. The collect of the day begins, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.” We are God’s beloved children, God’s creatures, even if we’ve been created from the dust of the earth.

The Psalm we just recited emphasizes God’s mercy:

For as the heavens are high above the earth, *
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west, *
so far has he removed our sins from us.
As a father cares for his children, *
so does the LORD care for those who fear him.
For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.

Just as we are told to remember that we are but dust, so the Psalmist says, God remembers that we are but dust. In our case, the reminder is so that we remember our mortality; that God remembers we are but dust is a sign of God’s care and mercy for us—extended to us because of our nature, our humanity, and our frailty, precisely because we are dust.

Therein lies the power of this day; the power of this smudge of ash on our foreheads. I know that many of us are uncomfortable with going through the rest of the day with ashes on our foreheads. We are uncomfortable with it because we hear Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” He seems to be telling us not to make a display of our religious practice and faith. But I would point out first that his warning is not about practicing one’s faith but about doing it in order to be seen by others.

So, if you decide to wipe the ashes off your forehead as you leave the church, that’s OK; there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you decide to go through the rest of the day with those ashes on your forehead, that’s OK, too. You’ll likely forget about them until you get a quizzical look from the cashier while you’re standing in line at the grocery store, or a helpful colleague at work will tell you that you have something on your forehead. Ashes can be a witness, a sign of God’s grace.

For it’s not just a smudge on your forehead. It’s the sign of the cross, marked on your forehead just as when we baptize babies, trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads with the oil of chrism, and say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever. We bear the sign of God’s powerful love carrying it into the world, offering it to everyone we meet.

The ashen cross is not just a sign of our mortality and need for penitence. It is also a sign of God’s grace and love, a sign of God’s forgiveness. To mark our foreheads with ashes is to remind ourselves and the world of God’s redemptive and gracious love, to remind us that God brings life out death, that God brings life out of dust. God remembers that we are dust and God’s mercy extends even to us.
Thanks be to God!