Sunday, February 7, 2016

Last after The Epiphany, and Quinquagesima

Luke 9: 28-43

Good morning.  The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the Sunday Next before Lent, on the old calendar Quinquagesima.  50 days more or less until Easter Sunday.  The team planning the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper and Mardi Gras party –the day after tomorrow--are fully engaged in their preparations, and we are all of us in this transitional time encouraged to be thinking through the character of our Lent in 2016. 

It’s of course a very old tradition that Christians set aside this time from now through Holy Week with particular attention, though everybody doesn’t approach it in the same way.  It might have something to do with chocolate or alcohol or something.  But we all find different things helpful.  Back in the 1970’s when I was still smoking cigarettes I always had the bright idea to give that up for Lent, which usually turned out to be a lost cause—and probably in some ways actually a detriment rather than an enhancement of my spiritual life.  Not a time to set yourself up for failure.  This will be the word announced this coming Wednesday at our Ash Wednesday services, for all of us to hear with seriousness and intentionality:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP 265).

As you probably know, I often turn in my own intentions about the building up of my  rule and pattern of Christian life to the Rule of St. Benedict.  An early 6th century guide to the life of an intentional Christian community that has continued to shape those kinds of communities and the wider church ever since.  And just to notice what St. Benedict’s Rule says about Lent.  In Chapter 49 he begins, “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent.”  When he says a monk here, we would read that more generally as any member of the Christian community.  “A continuous Lent.”  Which is to say that Lent is about being more intentional and consistent and consciously focused, not about adding exotic and extraneous practices and disciplines.  We might say that what we would do during Lent are the kinds of things we know that we really should be doing all the time, but may not always have the focus or will power to make the time or energy to do. 

So Benedict goes on, “we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times.  This,” he says, “we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits”--which is always a good idea!—“and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to compunction of heart, and self denial.”  So Lent about not rushing through some arbitrary checklist of prayers and worship and study in a superficial way, but to take the time to slow down, to make some space, and to go deeper into our thoughts and emotions.  Not to rush a prayer or a reading, but to allow God’s presence to touch our hearts.  “In other words,” Benedict concludes, “let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.”  A certain careful moderation here: a lightness of spirit even Lent, with our eyes always on the festival finish-line!

A couple of friends of mine have announced that in addition to stepping back from their usual dinner-time glass of wine and desserts this Lent,  they are also going to “fast” from Facebook and Twitter.  Perhaps that’s the 21st century version of Benedict’s suggestion about a fast from “idle jesting.”  Or perhaps in any of these areas if complete abstinence would be too much, to take a more moderate step.  Fasting from some food or drink on Wednesdays and Fridays, limiting recreational use of the computer to a half an hour a day, and so on.  In any event, to remember that what we are pointing toward is a way to make space in ourselves for reflection and growth, and for the joy and spiritual longing of Easter.

In the new lectionaries this Last Sunday after The Epiphany and Sunday before Lent has been associated with the gospel story of the Transfiguration, as we’ve heard this morning in the reading from Luke 9, and with the associated support both in the Old Testament and the Epistle with the account of Moses and his encounter with God on Mount Sinai.  Something so powerful that as Moses came down again to the people his face was literally shining with the brilliant glory of the divine light.   The light so vividly radiant that Moses needed to wear a veil before others could stand in his presence—but as Paul reminds us, with Jesus now the light shines in such a pure and direct way that no veil will be necessary. 

As the Collect for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany has it, “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.” 

The passage of St. Luke this morning is rich and actually kind of complicated. Jesus leads them to the mountaintop, where the fullness of his glory is revealed to them.  The bright light, and the two great figures of Israel’s life in God, Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, God’s Word, now unified in Jesus.  As St. John would later write, The Word became flesh.  And in this moment the fulfillment is at the center, the glory of the Cross: “they were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  Years later Peter would write in the first chapter of the letter we call Second Peter, “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty, for when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”

The last section of the story in our reading  Jesus and the disciples come down the mountain.  They find a world in the grip of evil.  Which is of course what we find every morning when we step outside the front door.  The crowd is buzzing, and a father is begging Jesus to do something, anything, to release his son from the grip of the devil.  So much for the spiritual mountaintop retreat.  And Jesus says, bring him to me.  And before another word can be said, as the son is being escorted into the presence of Jesus, the demon explodes, implodes, in a crisis, unable to maintain his hold--and he is rebuked, cast out, and the boy is at once healed and made whole. 

We see with our own eyes what the disciples at the mountaintop have seen and known, the power and the glory of the Son of God.  All about his power, his victory.  Nothing can stand before him.  To echo St. Paul in Romans 8: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature.”  We might hear echoing around us Martin Luther in his great hymn, A Mighty Fortress.  “And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us; we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us; the prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.”  He is Lord of all.  And so this wonderful line to conclude our reading, Luke 9:43: “And all were astounded at the greatness of God.”

That would be my word, my wish for all of us on this Quinquagesima, the Sunday before Lent, and as we consider the days ahead, as we join his last great procession,  the journey to Jerusalem and the Cross, all the way ahead to the angel-filled empty tomb and joyful Easter.  That we would open ourselves, and make space in ourselves, in our hearts and minds and spiritual imaginations, for him:  “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word,” and so like the crowds at the foot of the holy mountain, like the disciples, in the presence of Jesus, to be astonished, to be astonished, at the greatness of God.  

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