Holy Saturday: Funeral for a Herring (corrected)

Posted on April 19th, 2014

From Francis Weiser’s Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs:

An amusing custom is practiced in Poland on Holy Saturday. The boys of the villages “bury” the Lenten fare, herring and zur, in a mock funeral. The herring (a real one or a wooden image) is first executed by hanging, then a pot of zur is shattered against a rock or tree; finally the fish and the pieces of the pot are interred with glee. No longer will these tiresome dishes be eaten, at least not until next Lent.

Sermo Dei: Holy Thursday 2014

Posted on April 17th, 2014

Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread and gave it to His disciples. And the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ immediately started an argument among themselves.

 

St. Luke tells us, “Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest.” (Luke 22:24 NKJV) After this, they slept instead of praying. Then, they fought, Peter cutting off a man’s ear. Then they ran.

 

But first, they argued. About who was greatest.

 

John tells us that Satan entered the heart of Judas. But Judas was not the only one inspired by Satan that night. For Satan’s work is not only in things provocatively, spectacularly evil. Satan’s work is done when one person puts himself ahead of another.

 

There is a theory that Judas didn’t really want Jesus to die. He was trying to provoke Jesus, force His hand to seize the kingdom. I don’t know if that’s true, but it fits. The kingdom of power is what all the disciples wanted. They’d argued about this before: who would have the positions of honor in the government Jesus would establish, like when a new administration comes into power here.

 

That desire for power, honor, and respect is what leads them all to refuse each other, and their Lord, the most basic hospitality of washing feet.

Footwashing

Jesus does what they should have done. Which is perfect, because that’s the entire story of Jesus. He does what Adam should have done, what Cain should have done, what Israel should have done, what Jonah should have done. Jesus is the perfect man, who perfectly performs the Law.

 

It is written, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4 NKJV) The end. Not “the end” as in “over and done with.” For the Law is not bad.

 

Does that surprise you? We think of the Law as bad, because by it we are judged, by it we are condemned, by it we merit God’s wrath and displeasure, temporal death and eternal punishment.

 

But the Law is not bad in itself. It has become fearful for us, or a thing of derision for mankind, because it expresses the mind and will of God. The Law articulates perfect love for God and your neighbor. Respect for body, spouse, property, name.

 

Christ doesn’t take away the Law. He does it. The Scriptures sum up the whole Law with a single word: Love.

 

So hear again the beginning of the Maundy Thursday Gospel (John 13:1-15, 34-35): “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” (John 13:1 NKJV)

 

To the end. Not “to the finish.” Not over and done with. Otherwise it would mean, “He loved them until His crucifixion, and then He stopped.”

No, it means, “This was His goal. For this reason He was born, for this reason He came into the world, this is the goal of Jesus: to bring mankind into perfect love: the love of God.”

 

What does that look like? It looks like the footwashing: where the Lord is a servant.

 

Now stop and consider your arguments with other people. Your complaints about them. Your pride. How you would like things to be different. How you would like others to do what you say, think as you think. We have not only particular sins to confess. Our minds, hearts, temperaments, attitudes are corrupt. We would fit right in with those arguing fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots. We have ideas, we want power, let someone else do the menial work of washing feet.

 

The kingdom of God will never look like Judas or Peter imagined at that time. When the kingdom of God is fully consummated, it will look like the upper room—service, love—without the arguments.

 

In Corinth, tonight’s Epistle reading, they were arguing there too. The rich were judging the poor, and the poor were hurt and angry. St. Paul tells them to stop judging each other, and let each man judge himself. “If we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged” – i.e., be judged by God. How do we judge ourselves truly? By judging ourselves as sinners. Through confession. Acknowledging not only our arguments and disputes, but also acknowledging that the core of our twisted heart is filled with bile: the desire to dominate, control, consume, possess.

 

These are the people that Jesus loves—argumentative, prideful people bent on consumption. And having loved them, He loved them to the end, to the goal, to the culmination and fulfillment of humanity.

 

Jesus is what it means to be human. You and I are sons of Adam. In the fall, we lost what it meant to be fully human, to be in communion with God and to love and care for the world and each other. Jesus is the end and the goal.

 

In the Supper we get forgiveness—forgiveness for all our stupid and petty sins, and also the horrible ones we are terrified to tell the pastor or anyone else. But there is something more here too. There is food, the food of Christ’s Body and Blood. Food to nourish.

 

The bread of sweat and labor is our daily bread, the bread of the curse. This bread does not come from our sweat and labor, our work, but it comes from Christ’s work. It’s a gift. Thus this bread we do not consume like all our other food. This bread consumes us. Christ’s end, His goal, is to bring us into Him, to give us a share and part with Him. He wants to share with us His inheritance, and also His life.

 

That means a resurrected body, but also a new heart, a new spirit, a new person who might actually wash feet, that is, love sacrificially, and do it freely, willfully. Not out of compulsion, not because you have to, not because there are prizes or points attached to it, but because that’s what it is to be truly human, that’s what it is to be in Jesus. Jesus is bringing humanity to its end, its goal.

 

So who receives this Sacrament worthily? Lenten fastings and disciplines are indeed a fine outward training, but that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in Jesus, the end of the Law, the goal of humanity, who washes feet, makes Himself a servant, and says, “Take, eat; this is My body, and I give it to you.” That’s the Jesus who loves us “to the end.” And so we follow Him. To the end.

Holy Thursday Matins 2014

Posted on April 17th, 2014

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do?

 

You could go the route of pleasure. Enjoy some last bites of your favorite food. Play a game. Watch your favorite movie or show.

 

Maybe you’d try to finish up something left undone. Make sure everything was put in order. You might even have some things to hide – or destroy. Things you don’t want anybody else to find out about. Things that could embarrass you.

 

What does Jesus do? He knows that His friend, Judas, has made a secret deal with His enemies. Soon, men with clubs and torches and swords will come, in the dark of night, and take Him away. They’ll beat Him up, humiliate Him, tell lies about Him, kill Him.

 

If you knew all that was going to happen to you, what would you do?

 

What does Jesus do? He washes the feet of His disciples. (Holy Thursday Gospel: John 13:1-15, 34-35)

Foot washing

It shouldn’t have been this way. One of the disciples should have done it. They call Him “Lord” and “Master,” “Rabbi” and “Teacher,” Pastor and Christ. But when Supper time came, all each disciple thought about was himself. Not Jesus. Not the other disciples. Not the poor people out on the street with no place to spend the holiday.

 

Luke tells us that on this night, the disciples actually argued with each other about which of them was the greatest.

 

Meanwhile, the One who really is the Greatest is making Himself the least, the servant. He does the job nobody wants to do. Do you like cleaning toilets? Changing dirty diapers? Scrubbing floors? Have you ever been around someone with bad body odor? Imagine a bunch of rude fishermen who haven’t had a shower in awhile, who have walked all over Judea and Jerusalem. Their feet are covered with soot and sand, dirt and donkey dung.

 

The servant is supposed to clean them. That’s what servants do. So that’s what Jesus does. Why? Because that’s who He is. Servant. He is the Lord of the Universe, but He makes Himself the lowest person, and does it gladly.

 

Why? Out of love. Not a sappy, sentimental Valentine’s Day kind of love. It’s the love of a Brother, a Father, a Husband, a caring teacher, a powerful warrior, a shepherd who fights bears and lions to protect his flock. It’s a dying love, a love that is glad to get down in the ditch, the dirt, the gutter, where there are filthy feet and oozing sores and everything unpleasant. He goes through it all so that His disciples will have this last memory, this last experience before He is taken away of how much He loves them.

 

And there’s a lesson for us. He does everything for us. But we are His discipuli, His pupils, His students. Which means, we are to repeat the action of the teacher.

 

Wherever other people are, there you’ll find feet to wash. It might be actual feet that need washing. But most of the time that will just be an image, an example: help the person who needs helping, wash what needs washing, forgive sins. Why? Because that’s what Jesus does. He loves. He washes. He forgives. And we, His discipuli, His pupils, get to do that too. Because Jesus has already done everything for us.

“I’m not stopping to be interviewed”

Posted on April 16th, 2014

Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, has an opinion about death, judgment day, and heaven:

Mr. Bloomberg was introspective as he spoke, and seemed both restless and wistful. When he sat down for the interview, it was a few days before his 50th college reunion. His mortality has started dawning on him, at 72. And he admitted he was a bit taken aback by how many of his former classmates had been appearing in the “in memoriam” pages of his school newsletter.

But if he senses that he may not have as much time left as he would like, he has little doubt about what would await him at a Judgment Day. Pointing to his work on gun safety, obesity and smoking cessation, he said with a grin: “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”

(New York Times, via Mark Hemingway)

Death: suspension of the law of nature

Posted on April 16th, 2014

My mother sent me this quotation from Flannery O’Connor. I don’t know the source, but it’s beautiful:

The virgin birth, the incarnation, the resurrection . . . are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of those laws. . . . [It] would never have occurred to human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace, in the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature.

Sermo Dei: Palmarum 2014

Posted on April 13th, 2014

“Friend, why have you come?”

So Jesus said to His betrayer.

So He says to you. “Friend, why have you come?”

Judas seeks to betray Him.

Others seek to control Him.

Soon they will beat Him, batter Him, abuse Him.

Yet Jesus calls His betrayer “friend.” “Friend, why have you come?”

 

What is this? Does Jesus not understand? Is it irony, tongue in messianic cheek?

 

No. He understands what is happening.

Nevertheless, He calls His betrayer “friend.”

 

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-31-_-_Kiss_of_Judas

 

Betrayal hurts.

There is a prophecy of Judas in the Psalms:

“Even my own familiar friend in whom I trusted,

Who ate my bread,

Has lifted up his heel against me.” (Ps. 41.9)

“My own familiar friend.” Betrayal hurts.

Still, Jesus calls Judas “friend.” He means it. Jesus always means it. His friendship is open to the end.

 

In place of the term “friend,” the Greek translation of the Psalms uses the astonishing expression “Man of my peace”:

“For even the man of my peace, in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, lifted up his heel against me.” (Brenton)St. Paul says to the Romans, “As far as it depends upon you, live at peace with all men.” And so Jesus does. He remains the Man of Peace all the way to His cross.

 

It doesn’t take many years of living in this world before someone you counted as a friend acts as your enemy. Our innate response is to turn and respond as an enemy. I will make the one who made me suffer pay. I demand an apology! I demand respect!

 

This is not the way of Jesus. He remains a friend to Judas. He continues to count Judas as “the man of my peace,” even as they come with weapons of war.

 

What weapons do you sling? Hate-filled glares. Scowls of derision. Laughter, mocking. Lies, slander.

 

To you, Jesus repeats His words for Judas.

“Friend, why have you come?”

Put down your weapons. Put down your selfishness. Put away your angry words. Put away every pretense, every fiction you tell others and yourself about who you are.

 

You are a beggar, so beg.

You are a mortal, so seek the One who gives life.

You are hungry, but all the food you stuff in your mouth bloats the stomach while starving the soul.

“Friend, why have you come?” What were you expecting from the liturgy today? What were you expecting from the Church? What were you expecting from Jesus? “Friend, why have you come?”

 

We want answers to the creeping sadness in our hearts, the lurking sickness in our bodies, the random meaninglessness of it all.

 

“Friend, why have you come?”

We want to believe everything will be okay. So we join the crowd, wave the palms, and follow the cross into church.

 

Follow the cross. That’s why we’ve come. To follow the cross. That’s what Jesus does, that’s who Jesus is: He is ever the crucified one, the friend who gives His life for the selfish, deluded, prideful cowards who pretended not to know Him.

 

What made them come – that crowd assembled on the first Palm Sunday?

They came because He dried the tears of Martha and Mary. It was their brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from death just the day before.

 

For them, Jesus wept. For Jerusalem, Jesus wept. And for you, Jesus wept.

Which means, He suffers. Not just for you. With you. He sympathizes, suffers along with you. The Man of Sorrows knows your sorrow. The pain of your divorce. The agony in your back and your joints. The loneliness and betrayal. The anxiety for your kids. The crying when you don’t even know why.

 

And He knows your part in all the selfishness and stupidity, the arguments that never should have been, the words you cannot take back.

 

A friend sticks with you when you’re down, when everything has gone off the rails. That’s how Jesus is Friend. He comes as Friend to all the human race, gone entirely off the rails, and shares in the suffering of Adam and his children.

 

So in the Church, we turn to Jesus and say, “Friend, why have You come?” And He replies, “I have come to be the Friend of sinners. I have come to be your Friend, Father, Brother, Bridegroom.”

 

Jesus relates to us sinners, us who have not been friends to Him or most anyone else, He relates to us as perfect friend and makes us family. So we become not merely onlookers to a Palm Sunday parade; we become not merely spectators to a crucifixion, but participants along with Him in His resurrection.

 

In the kingdom of God, in the resurrection, we will not be spectators but participants in the life of that new family. In his book Jesus and the Demise of Death, Matthew Levering puts it this way: “The blessed will share in God’s own Trinitarian communion not as onlookers, but as real participants, caught up into God’s life rather than being observers” (p113). We will participate in the life of God as family members: sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, bride to the Bridegroom. We will share together in the new life of the perfect family, a family undivided by strife. This family is filled with love but untouched by lust. This family joys together, laughing and singing and playing, never knowing the horrible sorrow of loss and betrayal, divorce and death.

 

So how will you answer Jesus, who says to you this day, “Friend, why have you come?”

Say to Him, “I have come to repent. I have come seeking Your forgiveness. I need Your body to nourish my mortal flesh. I need Your blood to cleanse me from sin. I have not been a friend, but I seek now Your unconditional friendship: now, through death, and into the ages of ages.”

 

Roots and Orthodoxy

Posted on April 11th, 2014

In Washington, D.C., a new church held its first service on March 30. Called Roots DC, they meet in a bar and appear, from their website, very post-modern. Among other things, they present themselves as a church for those who are “looking for a way of life instead of a system of doctrine.” That’s nothing new on the American church scene.

On April 4, a former Missouri Synod clergyman, Joshua Genig, wrote about his departure to Eastern Orthodoxy, after just a few years of service as a pastor. Genig has a reason for not wanting to discuss his conversion with detractors: “I have embraced a way of life, not a set of dogmatic presuppositions.”

Thus you have a modern convert to an Eastern church, and a post-modern church plant, professing the same core value: Christianity as a “way of life,” not doctrine (teaching). This is a false dichotomy, an attempt to put asunder what God has joined together.


The heart of the apostolic church is found in Acts 2, in the life that flowed from the pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost and the gift of Holy Baptism with its gift of the Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. First in the list of things the new believers dedicated themselves to was the “apostles’ doctrine (τῇ διδαχῇ τῶν ἀποστόλων, Acts 2:42).” Without the doctrine, there is no basis for the communion (τῇ κοινωνίᾳ τῇ κλάσει τοῦ ἄρτου) and the liturgy (“the prayers,” ταῖς προσευχαῖς).

The heart of Christianity is the Word of Jesus.

For Genig, the liturgy is the organizing principle of the Church. “The liturgy is the very hermeneutic of continuity and principle of unity.” I do not believe Christianity can be centered on rituals apart from doctrine, or a “way of life instead of a system of doctrine.” The heart of Christianity is the Word of Jesus. “Thy Word is truth,” and the Church prays with Jesus, “Sanctify us in that truth,” a Wordy, verbal, doctrinal truth. Doctrine is teaching, and it is how disciples (pupils) are made: “Make disciples … baptizing … and teaching them…” (Mt. 28).

cranach-wittenberg-altarpiece

My parish is devoted to a rich practice of the liturgy; we have not abandoned the Lutheran Confession that “we celebrate the Mass with [great] reverence and devotion” (See AC and Ap XXIV). But that liturgy is not our hermeneutic; rather, Christ Jesus and Him crucified is the hermeneutic. Without the correct doctrine, the liturgy is not beautiful, but an abomination. This is true whether the liturgy is adorned with richly-colored pictures and pleasant smells, or performed in a tavern with a guitar. The Gospel drives the liturgy.

Without the correct doctrine, the liturgy is not beautiful, but an abomination.

This was the message the sainted Professor Kurt Marquart articulated in his incredibly important “Liturgy and Dogmatics” (click here for the PDF). Like Genig, I learned to love the liturgy at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. But there are grave dangers in misunderstanding liturgy’s role in the church, promoted by such influential writers as Alexander Schmemann and Aidan Kavanagh. The exaltation of “richly ambiguous corporate actions” causes Marquart to ask, “Why the flight from doctrinal clarity?” This common flight from doctrinal clarity makes the modern convert to the Eastern church and the post-modern pub theologian sound so very similar.