Thursday, October 6, 2011

Matthew 21:33-46

It all sounds strangely familiar. God planted a vineyard and said be fruitful and multiply.  “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit.  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  And God blessed them.  And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply.  And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.  And the Lord God planted a vineyard in Eden, and there he put the man whom he had formed.  Man and wife were naked and not ashamed. It was all very good.  But not for long.
Soon enough Cain killed Able.  And man rebelled against God from the very beginning, killing the prophets, and stoning the messengers.  Through sin and unbelief, the universe has been rent and torn asunder. 

If anything, today’s parable captures the absurd stupidity of sin.  The tenants cry out “This is the heir.  Come let us kill him and have his inheritance.”  You might say this is like finding Bill Gates Son and thinking that by knocking him off, you would receive his inheritance.  Sin is stupid and absurd.  It doesn’t make any sense. Eve believing that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was harmless, was stupid and foolish.  Adam failing to protect his wife from the attacks of the devil was foolish and stupid.  Thinking that money brings happiness is ridiculous.  Sleeping together before marriage is foolish.  Thinking that drunkenness makes you socially likeable is stupid, it always does the opposite.  Children, rebelling against your parents, simply because they care for you and look out for your good, is also stupid.   

Thinking that God’s Word is just some fictional stories to teach children some good morals is also foolish and stupid.  Thinking God’s perfect and holy law should change for our personal preferences and Twenty-first century cultural trends is stupid.  It is not enlightened, progressive, or smart.  It is unbelief.  Plain and simple.
Jesus calls us to repentance, we are not called to hunker down and give crafty explanations for our behavior – or why our sins should be excused.  Our parable today is about judgment: Jesus says “And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”  When the Lord comes he will not seek explanations or stories from us, but repentance, faith, and holy living.

Today’s parable is all about love.  Oh love how deep, how broad, and how high.  The love of God for foolish and irrational sinners.  Even after the wicked tenants, had beaten, killed, and stoned His messengers – the owner of the Vineyard kept sending servants – until finally He decides to send His only begotten Son, saying “They will respect my Son.”  But the tenants saw the Son, and said to themselves, “This is the heir.  Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.  And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him”

It was Jesus, the Son of the Vineyard Owner – the eternal Son of the eternal Father - who was cast outside the city walls of Jerusalem.  Killed and cut off from the land of the living.  Come let us kill him yelled the tenants.  Just as the crowds cried out “Crucify Him – Crucify Him.”  The fact is that it was our sin that brought about the death of God’s Son.  This is the reality that every Christian must know in his heart and believe.  

Peter preached his Pentecost sermon with these Words, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, YOU crucified and YOU killed by the hands of lawless men.”  It was our sins – each and every one – that was laid upon the back of God Himself – the suffering servant – the Holy Innocent Lamb of God – that takest away the sin of the world.

He took your sins and paid the penalty.  And by his stripes we are healed.  To the wicked tenants – to us poor miserable sinners – He prayed for us “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And He gave up His spirit.  God raised him up, losing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.  He descended into hell to proclaim victory over sin, death, and every perverse evil – over Satan himself.    

Jesus is the vineyard and the winepress – He is the blessed drink – He is the servant and the priest.  He is the vine and we are the branches.  He brings life – the bread of immorality and the drink of salvation. The great ironic twist of the Parable is that the blood-thirsty cry of those evil tenants, turns out to be a prophecy that comes true.  They say “Let us kill him and have his inheritance.”  Ironically, it becomes true.  By the death of Jesus we become God’s heirs and receive His inheritance – We receive everything that belongs to him.     

Oh Love, how deep, How broad, how high.  What wondrous love is this?  As we sang in our hymn “For us by wickedness betrayed, For us, in crown of thorns arrayed, He bore the shameful cross and death; For us He gave his dying breath.

God is for you in every way because God, in the words of St. John “is love.”  God is love, a deep, broad, and high love.  Beyond all thought and fantasy.  He is nothing but love for you.  God has no wrath or anger left for you, because Jesus has intervened.  You are therefore blessed beyond measure and rich beyond your imagination.  You are a son – an heir of heaven – adorned with the loveliness and righteousness of Jesus.  You are faithful through the promise of your baptism – and receive the forgiveness of sins at this altar.      

I have been asked to say a few words about the LWML. So let us consider just a few women in the Bible. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, and Esther. There is Mary and Martha. Elizabeth, Dorcas or Tabitha – a kind a gentle woman who produced clothing for the poor and needy.  She dedicated her life to the Gospel and served the church and her community with acts of charity and mercy.Priscilla assisted Paul in his missionary journeys – serving as deaconess in the Corinthian Church, in Syria, and among the Ephesians.

And there is Mary, the mother of our Lord.  She and Mary Magdalene were the first people to the tomb. The women believed in the Resurrection.  They came to anoint the body of Christ – to anoint him with spices and oil.  In this way, women were the first altar guild.  They were preparing for the sacraments.  Throughout the Gospel women believed in Christ and loved to serve him.  And maybe more importantly they loved to be served by Him.

The church is the bride of Christ – feminine in the highest sense – receiving and being filled with the love of Jesus – her groom.  Being presented to Him as a spotless bride.  Absolutely beautiful!  For the blessed women at St. Paul, your labor is not in vain.

God highly favors you as he favored Mary.  She sang “My soul doth magnify the Lord and Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.  For he hath done marvelous things to me.”  God has done marvelously for you, and your service at St. Paul in Wittenberg, causes the angels to rejoice in heaven. 

You have brought destruction to Satan’s kingdom, by serving on the altar guild, by visiting the sick, praying for the needy, assisting with funerals, writing letters of encouragement in the name of Christ.  Or simply by being a Christian friend.  For Lutheran ministries and missions around the world.  By supporting the seminaries, schools, and the work of God’s kingdom, by praying for your pastor and this whole congregation.  These are not small things.  Everything that You ask in His name He will give you. So know that you are appreciated.  And that you service is blessed.

And may God move us all to serve willingly in our community in the strong name of Christ.  And may we all be ready when he comes again, by being built on the rock of Christ – the chief cornerstone.  Amen.   

Friday, September 2, 2011

Get Behind Me Satan (Matthew 16:21-28)

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "Far be it from you, Lord!  This shall never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man."

Last week we were able to sing the praises of Peter the Rock.  Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God.  It is the work of God that Peter believes and it is the work of God that you believe.  But what does it mean that Jesus is the Christ? 

After Peter’s confession, Jesus foretells his Death and Resurrection.  From that time forth Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things…be killed, and on the third day be raised.

In today’s reading, mere moments after Peter’s confession, he desperately tries to convince Jesus that it doesn’t need to me this way.  Jesus, You are the Messiah! The Savior, who will save Israel!  Surely, not suffering and death.  Not for the Christ, the Son of God.  “Far be it from you Lord!  This shall never happen to you.”  It is hard to imagine exactly what Peter had in mind for the Christ.  Maybe they thought Pilate and the Roman emperor could be overthrown by Jesus.  Maybe they thought Jesus could give them power, fame, and better control of their lives.  Maybe they thought Jesus could give them success and a better lifestyle.  It is awfully hard to say exactly.    

Nevertheless, Peter refuses the idea that the Christ should be tried and crucified by the authorities.  I am unaware of anywhere else in the Gospels where Jesus seems more disturbed and upset than here.  He turns to Peter “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a hindrance to me.  For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

It seems easy to poke fun at Peter for trying to dissuade Jesus from going to the cross.  But in modern Christianity we see common trends.  Indeed we see the marks of a Christ-less, cross-less, pain-free, Christianity.  It is common for false preachers to speak about Jesus as just a moral teacher – a guru for self help - interested in social justice crusades – or to co-opt religion for political ends.

When we in this country talk about “in God we trust” and “I believe in one nation under God” do we have the crucified Christ in mind – or some other god?  Are we talking about Jesus born of the virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius pilate?  The God raised to life and present in the sacraments of the church?  I am unsure.

But there is something of a Christless, Cross-less, blood free Christianity that permeates American culture.  There is a little Peter in all of us who thinks that God ought to have nothing to do with going to a cross to die the death of a criminal.  Like Peter, this is against our reason and basic common sense.  It’s disturbing and offensive.  If we are honest with ourselves.  That the same God who made the heavens and earth should be stripped naked and nailed to a tree. 

Therefore, we should surely sympathize with Peter.  Can’t God just give us prosperity and success, health and happiness? Can’t he do likewise.  Blood, nails, suffering, death – good heavens, why!  Can’t he just zap evil forces with a snap of his fingers.  Anything but a cross.

Get behind me Satan, is what Jesus says.  To look for God apart from his bitter passion and death, is for Jesus, at least, a trick of the devil.            

Jesus describes following Him as taking up our cross, whereas the apostle Paul explained those words by saying, "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," Many today describe the Christian life as one continuous success story, with never a setback. Some claim that God doesn't ever want His children to get sick. Others maintain that God wants Christians to be wealthy. And still others promise certain and sure success in God's kingdom if only we use the right methods and programs, and implement the proper committees.

As Jesus took up His cross of suffering, so His followers have their cross of suffering to take up. It is by no means the same cross of suffering; His far surpasses ours. But there is a similar cross that we are to carry as followers of Christ crucified. Just as Jesus' mission as our Savior was not accomplished in the way in which the Jews expected it to be accomplished, so also the life of Christ's followers is not what we would expect. If you seek to find God apart from his bitter suffering, passion, and death, you are not dealing with the true God but a false god.

Even the secular world understands a basic truth here.  As the saying goes, “There is no gain without pain.” As the Lord says “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

God reveals his very nature in going to Jerusalem.  Reveals his character and His heart in going to the cross.  It is God’s nature – his personality – his will to suffer – specifically for your sins.  It is for the sake of self-sacrificing love and self-giving love that Jesus goes as a lamb to the slaughter.  That is who God is.

God, the true God, cannot be found apart from his suffering, death, and resurrection.  That is where God desire that you find him.  The religions that seek to find him elsewhere are all frauds.  There is no other religion on earth that has a god that suffers, for they are all false religions.  There is no other religion that offers the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  The only true religion is the religion of the cross.  The suffering servant.             

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. We are promised suffering. Saint Peter writes in his first letter “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.” (1 Pet. 4:12-13)

Job asked, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10) Earthly suffering is used by the sovereign God to His purposes. “I am the Lord, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these.” (Isa. 45:6-7) Indeed, the only path to glory leads us to the cross.  And God is found in the cross.  You have a God that suffers, and therefore a God who identifies with you and your sufferings. 

He too was betrayed by a disciple and friend.  They had gossiped against him.  He too had lies told about him.  God too toiled and did sweat blood in the garden.  If you suffer in your body, aches and pains, and disease, consider the sufferings of the Christ.       

Holy Scripture says “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (Jas. 1:2-4) “Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” (1 Pet. 4:1-2) The cross is ours in this life, and glory shall not be ours until our perfection is complete through Christ the Lord.

He will do whatever it takes to make us holy.  But for now, continue to take up your cross and follow him.  Fulfill your callings.  Be steadfast and vigilant in your station in life.  Work hard at your employment. Suffer well and be kind in a marriage that is less than always happy.  Care for your family.  Love them.  Children honor your parents, even if they are at times unbearable.  Deny yourself for their sake.  Lose your life for His sakes and you will truly find it.  The way of the cross, after all, is filled with joy.   

It is fitting that we finish with Luther’s Small Catechism.  Deliver us from evil.  What does this mean?  We pray the following: “We pray in this petition, in summary, that our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when our last hour comes, give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.

In the name of Jesus.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Looking at the Liturgy of the Divine Service

Introit really just means “entrance,” and calls for the use of an entire psalm during the entrance of the clergy (Pope Celestine, early fifth century).  It marked the beginning of the service, and took place during the procession as clergy approached the altar.  Many times either clergy traveled and entered the church at that time (urban liturgy) or the sacristy was located near the narthex.  It is now more common to have the sacristy near the sanctuary itself, which slightly changes the practical need for a processional.  Nevertheless, many churches make use of the processional during the Introit.  The carrying of the processional cross and the singing is edifying for the congregation, as they confess that the living Christ, fresh from the grave comes among them to distribute his gifts and redeem them.  

It was common for the introit to be sung antiphonally between two choirs alternating choirs.  Otherwise clergy may chant, while choir repeats a response or antiphon.   The structure proceeds from antiphon, psalm verses, Gloria Patri, and antiphon.  It is a common practice in many Lutheran churches to simply sing a hymn out of the hymnal. 

               The Holy Scriptures are filled with the cry of eleison (Mt. 9:27, 20:30, 15:22; Mk. 10:47; Lk. 16:24, 17:13).  Usually it is the full Kyrie eleison me, or eleison hemas.  The liturgical use is shortened simply to Kyrie eleison.  It is hard to think of a more lovely and shorter prayer than Kyrie eleison, for it is rich in its liturgical and theologically meaning.  Throughout Jesus’ ministry sinners in need of his mercy cry out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mk 10:47).  It seems fitting that the Divine Service begins with a Kyrie Eleison, that the church would respond to the Lord in desperate need of mercy and the gifts He brings.  The sinner comes before God as a beggar, with a boldness of faith, that desires that which the Lord has – namely his righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.        
               Apart from the biblical narrative, historically it is common for a prince or king to process into a town, while the people would say ‘kyrie eleison.’  While historically there is a secular usage here, the expression receives its truest significance and meaning with the advent of the true king and priest, Jesus Christ who comes into the midst of the worshipping congregation.  The Gallic Pilgrim Etheria details the Jerusalem liturgy in 390, starting the at the end of Vespers, “The bishop rises and stands before the rails, that is, before the cave, and one of the deacons makes the customary commemoration of individuals one by one. And as the deacon pronounces each name the many little boys who are always standing by, answer with countless voices : Kyrie eleyson, or as we say Miserere Domine? And when the deacon has finished all that he has to say, first the bishop says a prayer and prays for all, then they all pray, both the faithful and catechumens together.”[1] 
Pope Gelasius is credited (492-496 AD) with introducing the Kyrie-litany.  The list of petitions in this litany correlates closely with the themes of the general prayer prior to Gelasius, “We are justified in concluding that Gelasius had removed the general prayer for the Church, and had substituted the Kyrie-litany.”[2]  This original text, known as the Deprecatio Gelasii is exceedingly rich in scope, the 15th petition begging our Lord, “That our flesh may be free of blemish and our souls living in faith, Hear us, Lord, hear us.”  In the Rule of St. Benedict the litania (or supplicatio litanie ed est Kyrie eleison) was part of the ending of every Daily Office and was used to introduce the Lord’s Prayer (true also for the LSB).  In Lauds and Vespers, priest prayed a fuller litania, like that in the Deprecatio.

During the reign of Gregory the Great, the longer Kyrie was reduced to the simple threefold bid: “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.”  This is what we commonly use for our Divine Service.  A great treasure of the Lutheran Service Book is its Litany (the Altar Book offers a musical setting).  There is a ninefold invocation of Christos and Kyrios which serves as a prelude to the public orations prayer.  The litany plumbs the depths of the marks and holy mysteries of the church – incarnation, nativity, baptism, precious death and burial, and of course the resurrection.  The eleison is orated as “Have mercy,” “Spare us, good Lord,” Hear us, O Lord,” and “Help us, good Lord.”  The congregation asks for help in the hour of death, and mercy and deliverance for woman, children, and infants.  The Lutheran Litany when prayed by a congregation sounds like a swelling symphonic prayer.  Even when spoken, the varieties of eleisons have a deeply harmonious quality about them, given the lyrical rhythm and drama which moves from pestilence and bloodshed, then concluding with a threefold Agnus Dei.  Alternative settings of the Kyrie include LSB 942-944.  The Kyrie is also commonly used in Matins and Vespers. 

The Gloria has its origins in Luke’s Christmas story where an army of angels appears, praising God saying “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those who have his good will!”  The worshipper may see a connection with the proper preface during the service of the sacrament, “together with angels and arch angels and all the company of heaven…”  Therefore, this is a Christological hymn that points clearly to the incarnation and long expected Messiah that has now come.  He is the Son of God, the true Lamb that takes away the sin of the world.  It is significant that the Christmas story and the doxological praise applied to incarnation is linked with the Lamb of God who atones for the sins of the world.  The celebration of the birth of the child by angels means that this child is in fact born to die as a human sacrifice for sin.  Therefore in the Gloria, placed at the beginning of the service, we are already pointed toward the Lord’s Supper, which is the sum and substance of the Gospel, accompanied with the preached Word.  His resurrection is in view given that He sits at the right hand of God the Father as the crucified one – interceding before His heavenly throne.  In this simple hymn one can see a restoration of all things in heaven and on earth (Eph. 1:10).  The hymn also has a great deal of emphasis on the relationship of the Trinity in the Son’s redemptive work, for we see each Person of the Trinity addressed.  It is helpful for a beginning hymn of praise to understand that all praise is doxological and Trinitarian in shape. 

Jungmann notes that the Gloria, like the Kyrie was not created originally for the liturgy of the Mass, but was rather an heirloom from the treasury of ancient Church hymns.[3]  It seems to me however, that given the frequency of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the first two centuries, it is hard to imagine that this hymn was not intimately linked with the Supper.  The Gloria is always a song of the congregation and not a special choir or t be done by the clergy.  This hymn is indispensible in the liturgy, though it is often omitted during advent and lent.  Besides that which is commonly sung in the hymnal setting, LSB 946, 947, or 948 might alternatively be used. 

In ancient liturgies, that which preceded the Collect was considered part of the entrance rite.  The Salutation marked the beginning of the actual service itself.  It is a pastoral greeting common in both the old and New Testament (Judg. 6:12; Ruth 2:4; Luke 1:2; 2 Tim. 4:22).  It has also been considered a sort of “little ordination,” calling to mind the Christological nature of the holy ministry.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus, resurrected from the grave stood among the disciples and said, “Peace be with you,” showing them his pierced hands and side.  The Salutation is used practically to reorient the congregation to the collect, Gospel reading, preface, post-communion collect, and the Benediction. 

The erroneous way to see the Salutation is to see it as a mere “Hi, how are you doing…nice to see you” sort of greeting, which it is often made to be.  The Salutation indicates a very special relationship between the pastor and people that is provided by Jesus Himself – who comes to preach and feed his people.      

The Collect is prayed to gather together the petitions of the congregation, presenting them to God.  I have also heard that the collect serves as a sort of summary for all the prayers.  After the “let us pray” (Oremus), a congregation often observes a brief period of silent prayer, where each worshipper prepares himself for the service and prays for his specific need.  The collect, which is prayed after this brief and individual silent prayer, serves as a unified petition on behalf of the whole congregation.  The historic collects have been retained by Lutherans and placed to coordinate with the lectionary readings.  The collects are always brief, closing with a Trinitarian praise.  It is a preparation for the readings of Holy Scripture and the Service of the Sacrament.  I am interested in restoring some of the historic collects (particularly certain feast and festival days) for use in the home for prayer.  The collects are simple and can be internalized by use in catechesis and the daily office of prayer.  

The offertory and offering take place after the sermon, and should be seen within the liturgy of the sacrament of the altar, and in the Divine Service as a whole.  The offertory hymn is taken from Psalm 51, the most well known of the penitential psalms.  This psalm is likely the most significant psalm in the Church’s liturgy, being in the opening vesicles for Matins and Vespers, as well as the Introit for Ash Wednesday.  Though this hymn plumbs the depths of despair and is often categorized as a psalm of lament, it is certainly a song of praise and great delight.  “Cast me not away from your presence” is a desperate plea for mercy that indeed knows that God delivers on His promises.  To be cast away from the presence of God and His mercy is the worst of all possibilities.  This prayer is a confession that God will forgive sins and create a clean heart through the blood of Christ.    

The offering which accompanies the offertory chant has been expressed in numerous ways throughout the centuries.  Bread and wine has been a common offering to be brought forth, with the bread being brought forth to the altar in a linen cloth or basket.  Material gifts might also be brought forth from among the faithful, though those gifts are not brought to the altar.  I am told from those who have visited Lutheran churches in Africa, that it is common to bring forth chickens or small game as offerings for the congregation.  At my field work congregation in Wolf Lake, Indiana I once saw an elderly woman bring vestments that she has sewed up to the pastor during the offering.  I was very much touched by the remarkable work of piety and devotion.  Even more remarkable is that she understood that her gift was an act of worship to take place in the Divine Service.

It is most common simply to offer gifts in the form of money to sustain the congregation.  These gifts support the parish pastor and go towards the upkeep and activities of the congregation.  These gifts that are offered are not given out of compulsion nor out of fear but out of a joyful and thankful heart.  Christ has come into the flesh to offer Himself as the sacrifice for sin, that we poor sinners may be redeemed and forgiven.  Out of faith toward God and love toward the neighbor, the Christian offers the sacrifice of thanksgiving and tithes the gifts that God has given Him for the benefit of the congregation.    

The prayers which precede the preface often call upon God for a right use of the Sacrament, certain blessings associated with the season of the church year, as well as for good government and special needs of the congregation.  These prayers form a sort of bridge which leads to the communion liturgy itself.  Saint Paul writes to Timothy, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (1 Tim. 2:1).  These prayers stand in some contrast to the Roman Mass, where the priest begins to inaudibly pray as a unilateral work, apart from the participation of the congregation.      

The Sanctus is derived from the prophet Isaiah’s vision and has long been sung in the church’s liturgy.  The emphasis on the holiness of God as the Holy One of Israel is significant.  The word holy in Hebrew literally means “separate.”  After the fall man has been separated from God by his sin.  To stand before the presence of God meant death for the sinner, for sin cannot live before the holiness of God.  Everything changes however, with the advent of Christ.  Through his sacrificial death, which cleanses men from their sin, they can now access God’s holiness – come before Him and commune with holy things.  Those who approach in the name of the Lord are blessed and holy because of the intervention and mercy of Christ.  The threefold repetition is a confession of the three persons of the Trinity.  All of creation bows to God’s holiness which fills earth and heaven.  The word Sabaoth, which remains untranslated, can be rendered as “Lord of armies” or “heavenly hosts.”  There is no doubt a sense of awe and wonder at the singing of the Sanctus, and a great deal of mystery is involved.  Heaven is joined to earth through the person of Jesus who comes to forgive and bless His people.  There is a sense of movement that the congregation is approaching (or being approach) by God and the holy things – namely the body and blood of the risen Christ. 

Because the congregation may enter into the presence of God, through holy baptism and the mediation of Christ, the congregation can pray, “Our Father.”  This is the prayer for the baptized and for those who can be admitted to the Lord’s Table.  The holiness of God is reiterated as heaven meets earth in Jesus.  Where the Sanctus evokes heavenly armies and the multitude and the incomprehensible holiness of God, the Lord’s Prayer makes it clear that God is indeed for me, in fact, that He is “Our Father,” or my Father.  His supreme holiness is not in that He is far from me, or separated from me, but rather that He deigns to be close to me and with me.  He desires to do so in an intimate and merciful way, through eating and drinking.  His presence is not terrifying for me, but is good for me through the giving of His Son, along with His work and benefits.  The Lord’s Prayer therefore can be seen as a Eucharistic prayer through the fourth petition, along with the prayer for forgiveness and deliverance from temptation.  It is helpful to consider that daily bread also includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body and all that which is included in Luther’s explanation.

The Words of Institution immediately follow the Lord’s Prayer.  The Verba is not a word for word reading of any particular Gospel or epistle text.  It includes a number of texts and this might help suggest the fact that the Lord’s Supper was taking place in the church before any written Gospel or epistle text.  We know that the church was “continually devoted to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42).  There is therefore an oral tradition that has a pre-biblical tradition.  For Lutherans the emphasis is no doubt on the forgiveness of sins which is what it’s all about.  For where there is forgiveness of sins there is life and salvation and heaven itself.  The Supper is no mere reenactment or memorial meal for Christians.  There is no need for the Christian to ascend by faith to commune with a Christ who is far off in a distant heaven.  Christ has come near and His true Body and Blood is eaten and drunk for the forgiveness of sins. 

The Pax Domini recalls the risen Christ, fresh from the grave, showing his pierced hand and side to the disciples in the upper room.  The peace of the Lord means reconciliation between God and man and therefore also love toward each other.  In some of the ancient liturgies and still common today is the kiss of peace, as a concrete expression of the love toward each other found in the new life in Christ.  The communion that God brings is not simply a matter of “God and me” but is also corporately directed outward toward love of neighbor and congregational life.  The Lord’s Supper, along with the forgiveness of sins, absolves man of his sins before God but also liberates him from sins that stand between him and his neighbor.  There is therefore a vertical and horizontal movement in the Divine Service.  Man is reconciled to God and therefore to his neighbor.  Many Christian churches find the kiss of peace to be a salutary part of the liturgy where the saints express their love for each other as forgiven children of God.  Needless to say, this practice is somewhat culturally determined and Christian congregations are in freedom to observe this practice in whatever way they find edifying.  Many congregations observe a greeting of peace that greatly obscures the simplicity and clarity of the Lord's Supper.  The Peace is not some love fest where we shake hands and ask folks how their weekend is - that is for coffee hour.  If congregations are to observe a greeting among one another during the communion liturgy it ought to proceed from a robust confession of the Verba and the peace that forgiveness and reconciliation offers.  While the interest in kind greetings is itself a pious gesture, the practice can possibly detract from the more important meaning that it is God Himself who is present to serve His people.  The Lord’s Supper is not a community event for all, but is given for baptized and penitent sinners who need the benefits that Christ brings.

The Agnus Dei recalls the words of John the Baptist who confessed Christ as He approached the Jordan to be baptized, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29).  John alludes to the scapegoat who carries the peoples’ sins away (Lv. 16:21-22).  The congregation confesses that Christ is the sacrifice who bears the sins of the world, taking them to the cross.  In this hymn the Lord is present in flesh and blood offering Himself for the life of the world.  Before Jesus can be understood as teacher or example par excellence, He is first to be understood as sacrifice and meal.  Jesus is the spotless Lamb, the Son of God, perfect and holy in every way.  He willingly takes the sins of humanity and places them on Himself.  In the great exchange all that is rightfully Christ’s is given to the sinner – his righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  In the sacrament of the altar the Christian receives a tangible manifestation of that forgiveness – receiving Christ Himself with all His benefits.  The sacrifice is to be eaten and drunk.  There is a sense of wonder and awe in the Agnus Dei as the Lord’s body and blood are being distributed.  The most common confirmation bible verse is best understood here in the liturgy as the true nature of God’s love is seen, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16).

The Nunc Dimitis follows the distribution, recalling the words of Simeon who waited in the temple for the consolation of Israel.  It had been revealed to him that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ (Lk. 2:26).  The Christian can likewise say that he has seen his salvation now that Christ has come in His Word and Sacrament to feed His people.  The Nunc Dimittis is a Lutheran contribution to the liturgy and a salutary one.  The hymn confesses that I have everything I need, namely Jesus Himself.  I may now depart in peace knowing that my salvation has been accomplished.  I have received His forgiveness and blessings.  I have communed at the altar of God, being fully reconciled.  The hymn ends with a Trinitarian and doxological praise.  I may go out into the world in the freedom of the forgiveness of sins and the peace which Christ brings. 

The thanksgiving and collect which follow conclude the communion rite with a prayer of gratitude for receiving the sacrament and the benefits it grants.  There is an emphasis on faith toward God and love toward one another, suggesting that liturgy and worship can be taken out into the world where we are enabled to serve God and neighbor with the joy that Christ brings.  The Benediction gives God’s blessing which is gracious.  His face shines on the congregation with love and mercy on account of Christ.     

Artwork at top: Joos van Cleve (1485-1540), detail "The Last Supper"
[1] Full text of Pilgrimmage of Etheria found here
[2] Joseph A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (Benzinger Brothers, New York, 1959), p. 191.
[3] Ibid., 132.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Brief Reflection on St. Augustine's Confessions

Humility has a very special place in Saint Augustine’s Confessions.[1]  Though he writes rather extensively on virtues, be they kindness, love, charity, and so forth, it must be stated that humility is particularly set apart.  What is so significant about humility for Augustine?  What does this reveal about his personal life?  How does humility inform how we think of Holy Scripture and how it is appropriated?  What does Augustine’s concentration on the virtue of humility mean in light of his conversion to the catholic faith?  What bearing does it have upon his conception of God?  Any of these questions deserve a great deal of attention and can hardly be exhausted.  I will however, provide a brief meditation on Augustine’s thinking on humility and its implications for Christology and Christian living.      

In the narrative of Augustine’s conversion, the primal sin of pride is set in direct opposition to humility.  It is precisely pride, the desire to be something other than what man authentically is in Christ, which wages war against Augustine in his desire to fully belong to God, and thereby enter into the catholic faith.  Augustine roots pride in the first sin and the consequent fall, “My stiff neck took me further and further away from you.  I love my own ways, not yours.  The liberty I loved was merely that of a runaway.”[2]  Pride, like evil itself, is irrational like the wandering of the prodigal Son.  Augustine reflecting upon stealing the pears recalls, “I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself.”[3]        
Prior to Augustine’s conversion he is primarily seeking one thing, “I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart.”[4]  This questing apart from God’s divine condescension and humility of Christ will of course be a disastrous course and a dangerous one.  Nevertheless, God is guiding and governing all things.  Therefore, this pilgrimage for wisdom is not an inherently evil or ungodly thing.  Movement and pilgrimage is good, for praise is the innermost and most powerful desire of man.  As Augustine opens his confessions, “our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[5]  For in seeking him they find him, and in finding they will praise him.

That main obstacle that clings to Augustine, which for so long delays his conversion and baptism is pride.  This willful pride which directs the orientation away from God is not simply some vice or personal shortfall for Augustine.  Pride is that which places one in direct opposition toward God as He is.  Augustine often links pride with a willful wandering “but I traveled away from you into a far country to dissipate my substance on meretricious lusts.”[6] Pride moves one toward a dissolution and fragmentation of the self.  Though pride and the pleasures of lusts come with certain promises, be they wisdom or enjoyment, honor or prestige, the result is the exact opposite.  Augustine in book XIII reflects upon the corrosive nature of pride and its consequence:

The haughtiness of pride, the pleasure of lust, and the poison of curiosity (1 Jn. 2:16) are the passions of a dead soul.  The soul’s death does not end all movement.  It’s ‘death’ comes about as it departs from the fount of life, so that it is absorbed by the transitory world and conformed to it.[7]   
The haughtiness of pride therefore brings with it death.  A life filled with willful pride moves one to be cut off from the very source of life, and is therefore conformed to the transitory world bringing about what amounts to self-extinction – to be something other than what man truly is – in fact to be nothing at all.  All of Augustine’s wanderings and intellectual achievements in the public arena as rhetor, professor, intellectual, follower of Mani, and neo-Platonist, ultimately does not result in continence and rest in God.  As Augustine begins to make certain discoveries in his pilgrimage, it is precisely the on-going battle with intellectual pride that stands in his way. 

As humility begins to be revealed to Augustine, it is not humility as such that is found, certainly not as a particular virtue or ethical principle.  At this point Augustine is able to confess, “The Word was made flesh, so that our infant condition might come to suck milk from your wisdom by which you created all things.  To posses my God, the humble Jesus, I was not yet humble enough.  I did not know what his weakness was meant to teach.”[8]  Augustine here reveals that humility is not a mere virtue among others, but has to do with the very existence and being of God Himself, and furthermore informs and shapes how Christ is appropriated to the sinner still bent on his own pride.  Though disillusioned with Manichaeism, the wisdom of the Platonists is not yet able to instruct him in what the “humble Jesus” is meant to teach.  Augustine writes: “Those pages do not contain the face of this devotion, tears of confession, your sacrifice, a troubled spirit, a contrite and humble spirit…In the Platonic books no one sings: ‘Surely my soul will be submissive to God…They disdain to learn from him, for he is meek and humble of heart.”[9] 

When it comes to Augustine’s conversion and the way of humility, the haughtiness of pride most importantly leads astray from a more complete Christology.  The way Augustine sets up the contradistinction between pride and humility it seems to point toward a misrepresentation of God.  Over and above all else, it is intellectual pride that cannot grasp the coming of God into the flesh, born in the form of a servant.  He writes, “You wanted to show me how you resist the proud and give grace to the humble,’ and with what mercy you have shown humanity the way of humility in that your Word was made flesh and dwelt among men”[10]  The way Augustine speaks of humility is that it is indeed the very portal for knowing God and knowing one’s very self.  Humility is “the way,” for Augustine, and descriptive of who God is in his nature.  Through Augustine’s own narrative, he seems to make it clear that pride in one’s self distorts one’s conception of who God is and who He can be.  Apart from the exercise of humility, how could God become man and why would he be willing to do so?  What sense would there be in God humbling Himself in the form of a servant.  Augustine writes what he considers to be his “principle error:”

In particular I had no hope that truth could be found in your Church, Lord of heaven and earth (Gen. 24:3), maker of all things visible and invisible.  The Manichees had turned me away from that.  I thought it shameful to believe you to have the shape of the human figure, and to be limited by the bodily lines of our limbs...That was the principle and almost sole cause of my inevitable error.[11] 
Augustine’s feverish quest for knowledge and understanding in a sense undermines the search for continence that he is truly seeking, insofar as he seeks mere knowledge and noetic understanding apart from the wisdom of the Incarnation.  Eventually, his intellectual pursuits lead him to despair and disillusionment, “I had no confidence, and had lost hope that truth could be found…I had lost all hope of discovering the truth.”[12]   Only very slowly does Augustine come to see that God is not to be sought above but rather below.  His own life bears witness to this movement.  Augustine writes of what must eventually take place, “They are no longer to place confidence in themselves, but rather to become weak.  They see at their feet divinity become weak by sharing in our coat of skin.”[13]  Therefore, Christian faith cannot be understood without seeing the humility of God Himself.  Only when we ourselves come down from our lofty places of pride can we see where God has come down to us.  There is two movements, God’s divine condescension to man to be among us in our scarred humanity, and man’s descent from his pride and vain spiritual imagination.  God works both descending movement.  Regarding Augustine’s own humbling he writes, “My memory calls me back to that period, and it becomes sweet for me, Lord, to confess to you by what inward goads you tamed me; how you level me by bringing down mountains and hills of my thoughts and made straight my crooked ways and smoothed my roughness.”[14]            

Humility, in addition to being a Christological reality, is also the hermeneutical key to reading and appropriating the Holy Scriptures.  Reflecting on his days in Milan and approaching the Scriptures for the first time he writes, “The Bible offered itself to all in very accessible words and the most humble style of diction.”[15]  In Augustine’s attempt to know and master, the simple humble texts of the Scriptures simply did not match the lofty prose of a Cicero, Seneca, or Virgil. Several years ago Benedict the XVI reflecting on Pope Gregory the Great spoke of humility, particularly in regards to approaching the Scriptures.  Benedict says Gregory:

“energetically underlines this function of [sacred Scripture]: To approach Scripture simply to satisfy one's desire to know, means to give in to the temptation of pride and thus expose oneself to the risk of falling into heresy. Intellectual humility is the main rule for one who seeks to penetrate supernatural realities flowing from the sacred book…He was profoundly impressed by the humility of God, who in Christ made himself our slave; he washed and washes our dirty feet.[16]

Benedict went on to reflect on the ministry of the Gospel itself, saying that a bishop "must imitate this humility of God and, for love of God, be able to make himself the servant of all in a time full of tribulations and sufferings, to make himself the 'servant of the servants.”  Augustine and Benedict are of one mind here: humility is central to the Christian faith and life in the church.  Humility is descriptive of who God is and what man is in Christ for the neighbor. 

In the opening prayers of Confessions[17] it is clear that the narrative as a whole will be indecipherable if one does not well note Augustine’s highly developed Christology: “In seeking him they find him, and in finding they will praise him.  Lord, I would seek you, calling upon you – and calling upon you is an act of believing in you.  You have been preached to us.  My faith, Lord, calls upon you.  It is your gift to me.  You breathed it into me by the humanity of your Son, by the ministry of your preacher.”[18]  The union of Christ’s humanity and His divinity, as second Person of the Trinity is no doubt central for the Confessions.  As Augustine moves away from Manichean error toward neo-Platonism, and finally conversion, it is ultimately the “door” of the Incarnate Word that must be opened to him.      

            Augustine writes, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives and the door is opened to the one who knocks’ (Matt. 7:7-8).  These are your promises, and when the promise is given by the Truth, who fears to be deceived?”[19]  In short, the door by which Augustine enters is the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, found in the scriptures and sacraments.  Although the Oxford printing heads this particular section with the title, “The Bible is the firmament,” I am not sure that Augustine himself would use this language, although he does write, “you have stretched out the firmament of your book like a skin.”[20]  These scriptures however, for Augustine, are not a book as such, but rather the viva vox of a God who speaks, “marvelously speaking and marvelously creating in Your Word, Who is Your Son and Your strength and Your Wisdom and Your Truth”[21]  In this way, Augustine can speak of the sacred writings as flesh and skin, for the content is Christ.  This can best be seen in chapter 13 where the first few chapters of Genesis are opened up not as some ancient biblical history but as descriptive of the catholic church by way of preaching, sacraments, and worship.        

Augustine would no doubt link his conversion with Holy Baptism, in which he took off his doctor’s robe along with the wisdom of the world, to descend into the wisdom of Christ.  Although his conversion is found here, it must not be seen as a mere punctiliar or episodic event.  Augustine’s conversion was long and drawn out, like many a post-modern man’s pilgrimage through a treacherous and dark forest of prideful ambitions, dangerous sects, and heresies, which all threaten to damn and confound.  Augustine begins his Confessions with the prayer, “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[22]  Therefore, the door by which Augustine enters through the scriptures and through the person of Christ, though rooted in baptism is a pilgrimage, to be sure – a lifelong journey to find rest in God Himself.    

Augustine’s allusion to the door in light of Matthew 7:7-8 must be seen through the story of his conversion.  The birthpangs of conversion in Book VIII, I believe, is a fine place to start.  In many ways, the conversion of Victorinus prefigures his own conversion.  Victorinus, an African professor of rhetoric himself, and translator of Neo-Platonic writing, might stand as a sort of microcosm of the entire narrative of Confessions.  Here the great scholar, rhetor of Rome, confesses the catholic faith on the plank before the marveling crowd of commoners, and descends into holy baptism.  Like Augustine, he had not held the catholic faith to be the embodiment of faith, and to a greater extent than Augustine had been hostile to the primitive religion: “The old Victorinus had defended these cults (pagan) for many years with a voice terrifying to opponents.  Yet he was not ashamed to become the servant of your Christ, and an infant born at your font, to bow his head to the yoke of humility and to submit his forehead to the reproach of the cross.”[23]  We learn that his conversion was brought forth by Simplicianus, who urged Victorinus to the reading of Holy Scripture, along with the fatherly admonition, “I shall not believe that or count you among the Christians unless I see you in the Church of Christ.”[24]  Augustine links the conversion of Victorinus with the Prodigal Son, and therefore links the conversion to his very own.  The dramatic conversion and baptism of the famous rhetor personifies the narrative of Augustine’s Confessions.  The primal sin of pride, to rise over and against where God’s has placed one’s self, is at last overcome by virtue of humility and divine life in holy baptism and Christ’s cross.     

During this time, Augustine felt increasing anxiety about his metaphysical speculations and philosophies independent of an external authority, “I chattered away as somebody in the know…Had I continued to be such an expert, I should have gone to my destruction.”[25]  What follows is a discourse on the Romans 7, as a reflection upon Augustine’s sparring with lusts and the chains of sexual desire.  Soon “Lady Continence” beckons Augustine toward a more chaste and pious life:

To receive and embrace me she stretched out pious hands, filled with numerous good examples to follow.  There were large numbers of boys and girls, a multitude of ages, young adults and grave widows and elderly virgins.  In every one of them was Continence herself, in no sense barren but ‘the fruitful mother of children’, the joys born of you, Lord, her husband.  And she smiled on me with a smile of encouragement as if to say: ‘Are you incapable of doing what these men and women have done?  Do you think them capable of achieving this by their own resources and not by the Lord their God?[26]
It is hard to over-emphasize this particular passage and its significance as Augustine will soon be converted, entering in through the narrow door.  It shows the condescension that man himself must make to be made a partaker in God’s love and His grace.  The example for a wisdom par excellence is set by children, boys and girls, grave widows and elderly virgins.  The icons of wisdom are no longer Cicero or contemporary neo-Platonists.  His entrance into Truth and the catholic church will not be some intellectual pursuit or worldly quest for a hidden wisdom, but is rather predicated upon a humility that allows one to be dependent upon another.  Not dependent in the Schleiermacher sense of “ultimate dependence,” but rather upon a piety of posture that is despairing of one’s self, open to being addressed and spoken to by another – namely Christ.[27]  It is this realization and shifting of orientation that plants Augustine in a state of lament under the fig tree, where he weeps in the language of the Psalter.  The allusion of Adam is no doubt clear (Gen. 3:7, Jn 1:48), and one might even anticipates God’s own corresponding lament, “Where are you?” 

It is in this state of bitter agony and despair that Augustine hears a child, saying, “Pick up and read, pick up and read.”[28]  Under the fig tree, despairing of his own resources, only now is he ready to open up the Scriptures by way of humility.  Concerning the Scriptures, Augustine recounted in an earlier stage of his life, “I was not in any state to be able to enter into that, or to bow my head to climb its steps…My inflated conceit shunned the Bible’s restraint, and my gaze never penetrated to its inwardness…I disdained to be a little beginner.  Puffed up with pride, I considered myself a mature adult.”[29]  Receiving the Scriptures, hearing them, and being addressed by them required a certain humility, which at earlier stages of Augustine’s life was simply not possible, “the Bible did not stand out by its high authority and if it had not drawn crowds to the bosom of its holy humility.”[30]      

As the voice of the child beckoned him to the reading of the scriptures, we find that his countenance changed and in turn he interprets the voice as “a divine command to me to open the book and read the first chapter I might find.”  Upon reading from Paul, “All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.  Then I inserted my finger or some other mark into the book and closed it.”[31]  It does not seem a stretch of the imagination to see that Augustine has Thomas in mind, who demands to see and stick his fingers right in Christ’s side.  It is fascinating that Augustine links Thomas’s encounter with the risen Christ to his immersion in the Holy Scriptures.  The significance lies in the fact that the sum and substance of the Scriptures is the Word made flesh.  That is to say Christ is the content of the Scriptures.  Therefore, Augustine can pray, “Who but you, O God, has made for us a solid firmament of authority over us in your divine scripture?  For the ‘heaven will fold up like a book’ (Is. 34:4), and now ‘like a skin it is stretched out’ above us.”[32]  As Thomas was presented with the risen Christ as God and Lord, Augustine encounters God in the experience and exercise of Scripture and His Word.  The Scriptures are not simply a text, but descriptive of the activity of the love between Christ and His Church mediated by the Word and sacraments.   

[1] Henry Chadwick. Saint Augustine: Confessions. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2009.
[2] 38.
[3] 29.
[4] 39.
[5] 3.
[6] 70.
[7] 291.
[8] 128.
[9] 131.
[10] 121.
[11] 85.
[12] 90.
[13] 128.
[14] 159.
[15] 96. 
[18] 3.
[19] 246.
[20] 282.
[21] 225.
[22] 3.
[23] 135.
[24] 136. 
[25] 126.
[26] 151. 
[27] I find that most adult Christian converts begin entry in the church by way of desperation, more so than any other particular factor. 
[28] 152.
[29] 40.
[30] 96. 
[31] 153.
[32] 282.