Revised Common Lectionary for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; and Mark 8:31-38
This is the second Sunday on which I will answer some of the questions put to me by members of the congregation. We had several detailed questions asked about the liturgy so I deal with those as a group today.
One question was, “Why are different colors used throughout the church year and what do they mean?” We use colors in our worship because color is expressive and reflective of mood and meaning. William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury whom I quoted last week, is frequently quoted as having said, “Christianity is the most materialistic religion in the world.” What he means, of course, is that Christians acknowledge that God made the world of matter, the world of things, and that the world of matter is essentially good, as God pronounced it in the creation story in Genesis 1. “All things bright and beautiful…The Lord God made them all” the children’s hymn declares. Since God made them and declared them good, we are to receive all that God has made with thanksgiving. We are to enjoy it all for as long as we have breath. Part of that enjoyment is using and appreciating the many colors of the rainbow in our worship.
At the present time, the most commonly found color sequence used in churches of all denominations is that of the Roman Catholic Church, with white, red, green, and purple as the principal colors. Lutherans and Anglicans often add blue to this list, and some congregations make use of scarlet or “blood red” during Holy Week. Blue is used in the Advent as symbolic of hope. White is used at Christmas and Easter, at other Feasts of the Lord, and on the feasts of saints who were not martyred as symbolic of light, joy and purity; sometimes gold is used as an alternative to white. Red is used at Pentecost to symbolize the flames of the Holy Spirit and on the feasts of martyrs to symbolize the blood they shed for their faith. Purple is used in Lent as symbolic of mourning and repentance. Purple may also be used in Holy Week, or scarlet or the blood red Lenten array, a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, may be used. The “neutral color” used during the Sundays of Ordinary Time following the Epiphany and following Pentecost is green, which symbolizes growth. This general color scheme has been followed in most English churches since the 16th Century and, thus, in most Episcopal parishes since the founding of our province of Anglicanism after the Revolutionary War.
Another parishioner asked why I raise my hands at certain points, or bow at others, or genuflect, or make the sign of the cross; in other words, why do we Episcopalians, and in particular the clergy, make so much use of our bodies in worship? My mother, who was reared in a tradition where one entered the church and sat down and didn’t move until the service was over, often asked this question. Rather than answer with regard to each specific movement, and there are detailed reasons for each, let me answer in general that we worship with our bodies, not just with our minds or our hearts. Just as Jesus was God “embodied” in human flesh, so we are both spirit and flesh. The guiding principle behind all ritual gestures and movements is the idea of the incarnation. In the incarnation we believe that God took a human body in Jesus of Nazareth and lived a human life among us in that body, so what we do with our bodies is important.
The old rule in the Episcopal Church used to be “Stand to sing, sit to listen, kneel to pray.” But liturgical scholars tell us that until the late Middle Ages and even into the Reformation, people stood to pray, often raising their hands to heaven. So now The Book of Common Prayer (1979) generally lists standing before kneeling as the preferred option for prayer. Standing, it has been said, is more a corporate posture; kneeling, a private one.
The most specific question I got was from someone who drew a picture (of a host with a wedge-shaped piece broken out) and asked, “Why do you hold up the Host like this?” This is an ancient tradition in the church going back into the early Middle Ages, if not to the very origins of the eucharistic liturgy. In our eucharist, the large host is broken (the breaking of the bread symbolizes the death of Jesus) and what is called the “fraction anthem” is said, usually “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” After the People’s response, as all present are invited to receive Communion, the Bread and the Chalice are displayed, the two halves of the Host rejoined symbolizing the Resurrection; they are shown by the missing “wedge” to have been broken as a memorial of Christ’s wounds shown to St. Thomas to prove that our Lord had been crucified and raised from the dead.
None of these things, in and of itself, is terribly important. Whether the presiding clergy wears green or blue or some other color really doesn’t matter. Whether he or she bows or not at a particular moment or makes the sign of the cross at a specific time really doesn’t matter. Whether we chant a part of the service or not really doesn’t matter. How the presider invites the People to receive the Sacrament really doesn’t matter. At least, taken individually they don’t really matter … but taken as a whole they are very important … the whole is greater than the some of its parts, and if we change or abandon any of the parts, we should do so carefully and with understanding of what we are doing.
A friend of mine recently told me about a problem she has with her sister-in-law. “When my sister-in-law cooks,” she said, “she likes to substitute ingredients for those in the recipe. One time I gave her the recipe for a chicken-and-walnut dish that her husband, my brother, likes, and she served it one night when I was over. In place of walnuts, she had used raw peanuts. And for chicken, she had substituted beef. In fact, every major ingredient had been replaced. ‘This is terrible!’ my brother said after one bite. My sister-in-law glared at me across the table and said, ‘Don’t blame me! It’s your sister’s recipe!’”
Replacing even one ingredient in a recipe can have significant effect on the whole dish. As the Hindu philosopher Sivananda once said,
A mountain is composed of tiny grains of earth. The ocean is made up of tiny drops of water. Even so, life is but an endless series of little details, actions, speeches, and thoughts. And the consequences whether good or bad of even the least of them are far-reaching.
Details are not simply picky details; they are important. The award-winning furniture designer Charles Eames once remarked, “The details are details. They make the product. It will in the end be the details that give a product its life.”
Doing liturgical worship is like following a recipe. Liturgy invites participants to worship God holistically, with body, mind, and spirit. Sometimes worship is reduced to the intellect, but God invites us to worship more fully. Participants in liturgical worship with all its colors, gestures and movement are more than an audience, more than mere spectators; they are celebrants. While our intellects may be engaged by a sermon, our bodies usually are not, but in liturgical worship, our bodies and senses are fully engaged. Our bodies participate along with our minds and spirits through physical acts of bowing and genuflecting, crossing ourselves, rising and coming forward to receive Communion. Like the individual ingredients in a recipe, none of these elements alone is terribly important; working together, they combine into something of great beauty.
The senses are engaged through visual means in art, candles, colors, symbols, and ritual gestures, through the smell and smoke of incense, through the hearing and singing of music and bells, through taste and touch of Communion and the Sacraments. All of these invite us to lift up our hearts, minds, and bodies to God in praise, adoration, and worship. A part of worshiping God liturgically includes our obedience to St. Paul’s mandate to “offer yourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to the Lord” (Romans 12:1). When we worship God in a liturgical setting, we are honor this admonition; we see and take part in the bigger picture. In this way, liturgy is symbolic of everyday life; not content to be mere audience, simply spectators, liturgical worshipers are participants and celebrants.
Which brings me to today’s story from the Gospel according Mark. Jesus has taken Peter, James, and John up the Holy Mountain and they have seen him transfigured. As they proceed from there to Jerusalem, he has asked them who people think he is and, more pointedly, who they think he is; Peter has exclaimed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!” (Matthew 16:16; Mark 8:29) Now, continuing their journey, he is teaching them what that means, giving them the big picture, as it were, but Peter gets hung up on the details and protests. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him,” but Jesus (perhaps anticipating the modern notion that “the Devil is in the details”) replies, “Get behind me, Satan.” He will not let Peter’s temptation to focus on and amend a detail derail the bigger plan. “You are setting your mind on human things (the minor details), not on divine things (the big picture).” (Mark 8:32-33)
Jesus then calls all the disciples and others in the crowd to join them and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) What, he asks them, will if profit anyone to gain the world (mere details) at the cost of their life (the big picture). Australian theologian Bill Loader says of this story:
These verses have caused considerable confusion in Christian spirituality. Who is doing what? Which self am I denying? With which self am I doing the denying? Is it a matter of not doing what I want to do – for a while, perhaps during Lent – only then to return to myself? Is it saying I need to hate myself or, at least, constantly put myself down – or, if I want to make a good impression, keep doing so when others are listening. It is little wonder that many people have been confused by the rules of the game. (First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary)
People get confused because we are all often like Peter, focusing on details and failing to see the big picture. And yet, if we look only at the larger vision paying no attention to its parts, we can fail to reach the goal. Major league catcher Rick Dempsey, who played for a lot of teams but mostly for the Baltimore Orioles, once said that good baseball players can’t think about the big questions like winning the World Series or winning a long string of games. He said that a good catcher has to break the game down to its smallest parts: one game, one inning, one pitch at a time. “If you’ll play it one pitch at a time, you’ll eventually look up and see that you won the game.” (Story related by Kyle Childress in Following Jesus One Step at a Time)
So it’s something of a balancing act – details balanced with the big picture – seeing the larger vision without losing track of each step necessary to get there. It’s like doing liturgy – we pay appropriate attention to the parts while taking part in the whole, neither focusing too closely on the details nor forgetting about them. And this is the way to make sense of what Jesus says to the crowd in this Gospel lesson.
Jesus calls each of us to take up our cross and follow him; he doesn’t in any way offer to carry our cross for us. Now, please be aware that Jesus is not saying simply, “Deal with the annoying details of your personal life.” Those burdens of our everyday lives are not our “crosses” – if anything they are those thorns in the flesh of which St. Paul complained in the Second Letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 12:7). Listen again to Christ’s full statement: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It’s not about the little details of our own lives; it is about our service to others. Just as Jesus took up his cross and struggled and suffered for the benefit of others, taking up our cross is about working for the benefit of others.
If Jesus took away our struggles and hard work and suffering on behalf of those around us, he would be taking away the meaning and purpose of our lives, as mysterious and inscrutable as it may all be to us most of the time. He does not call us to take up his cross, but to take up our own, and Jesus’ cross does not take away our crosses. That wasn’t and isn’t what he is about, for that would leave us with nothing meaningful to do.
By calling us into the hard work of a life of purpose, sacrifice, and love for others, Jesus gives us back our lives; he redeems the details of our lives in the context of his larger vision. He saves us from meaningless days and years of having nothing to do but deal with our own petty details. He opens us up to see the needs of the world around us and to respond to them saying, “I’ll do something, because if I don’t no one else will.” He gives us back hard lives that are not merely about our small selves, but about God’s bigger picture.
In our Epistle lesson today (Romans 4:13-25), St. Paul reminds the Roman church and us that we are called to faith in this larger vision, to “being fully convinced that God [is] able to do what [God has] promised.” The great Disciples of Christ preacher Fred Craddock says that St. Paul’s retelling of the story of Abraham “reminds us that God is both the subject and the object of faith. As the subject of faith, God initiates faith. …. And the one who believes is responding to and trusting in the God who calls and [who] promises.” Thus, he says, the example of Abraham provides us a roadmap for the Lenten journey:
For the one who believes in the God who gives life to the dead, the Lenten journey is … a revisiting of one’s own experience. [This] makes the traveler through Lent a pilgrim. Without this faith one is simply a tourist. (Craddock, Lenten Roadmap, The Christian Century, March 8, 2003, p. 18.)
Living the Christian faith is a balancing act – details balanced with the big picture – seeing the larger vision without losing track of each step necessary to get there. In liturgical worship, it calls you to be not merely an audience, but celebrants. In the Lenten journey and throughout life, it calls you to be not merely tourists, but pilgrims; not merely spectators, but participants. So take up your cross and follow Jesus into God’s bigger picture. Amen.