Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Sunday with so many Names—March 2, 2008

Let us reflect upon the Sunday which this year has the date March 2, for it is much undervalued and often misunderstood.

No other Sunday in the Christian Year has been given so many names or titles as the Fourth or Middle Sunday in Lent, the period of forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. These names provide a window into the liturgy, doctrine and spiritual discipline—as well as the social customs—of western Christian civilization in days past.

As the western Church used Latin throughout the medieval period, let us begin with the Latin name, Laetare Sunday, which is taken from the Introit sung by the choir at the beginning of Mass on this Sunday, Laetare Jerusalem, “Rejoice, O Jerusalem.” This introit is from Isaiah 54 which is cited in the Epistle of the Mass for the Day, Galatians 4:21ff.

Certain relaxations from the strict discipline of Lent were allowed on this fourth Sunday, of which the most obvious a long time ago were the placing of flowers on the altar, and of the playing of the organ at Mass and Vespers. Rose-colored vestments were allowed instead of purple, and the deacon and subdeacon wore dalmatics, instead of folded chasubles, as on the other Sundays of Lent. So the name Rose Sunday, suggesting the theme of controlled joy for this day, was used.

Arising from the Gospel sung at Mass, which is the account of the feeding by Jesus of the five thousand (John 6), the Sunday has also been called, Refreshment Sunday. So it is not surprising that there arose in England a special food delicacy to eat on this day of relaxed discipline; and this traditionally was Simnel Cake. [This is a rich fruit cake with a layer of almond paste on top and also in the middle. The cake is made with 11 balls of marzipan (a confection made of ground almonds or almond paste, egg whites and sugar, often molded into decorative shapes) icing on top representing the 11 disciples (Judas is not included). The cake was boiled in water, then baked. The Lenten fast dictated that the simnel cake be kept until Easter. The word Simnel is said to have been derived from the Latin word "simila" which means a fine wheat flour mainly used for baking a cake. There is also an interesting legend associated with the use of the word Simnel. It says that once a man called Simon and his wife Nell had an argument over whether the Mothering Sunday cake should be baked or boiled. Ultimately, they did both. So the cake came be to named after both of them and was called, SIM-NELL. ]

In the Church of England it has been a common practice for a long time to call this day. Mothering Sunday. And there are two explanations for this name. First, it was the custom for people to go to the “Mother Church” of their area—the Cathedral or Abbey—on this day and for families to meet up there. Servants were usually released on this day from duties to be able to do this. Often flowers were picked and taken to be given to mothers at the reunion of families. They went “a mothering.” Secondly, in the Epistle for the Day, Galatians 4:21ff. there is found the sentence: “The Jerusalem which is above is free and she is our mother.” So this day, in theological terms, is the celebration of the Church, whose true center is in heaven where the Lord Jesus is, and She (the Bride of Christ) is the mother of all baptized believers. For from her they hear the Word; by her they are baptized and nurtured; from her they receive the Holy Communion; by her they are married and by her they are buried, and sent off to the heavenly Jerusalem.

Regrettably, in the UK Mothering Sunday has been secularized into Mothers’ Day. while in the USA the official, national Mothers’ Day occurs on the Second Sunday in May, allowing churches—if they are orthodox— on March 18 to celebrate the Church as the Bride of Christ and the Mother of the faithful, while not forgetting God the Father. For you cannot have Almighty God as your Father unless the Church is first your Mother!

The Book of Common Prayer (1662 & 1928 USA & 1962 Canada) has both the traditional Epistle (Galatians 4) and Gospel (John 6) as the Lessons for Holy Communion for the fourth Sunday in Lent.

Theological Reflection

The Jerusalem that is above, that is the Lord Jesus Christ and his redeemed people of the new covenant in heaven in an everlasting ordered society and reality, is free – that is, free from all forms of bondage due to sin, the law of Moses, the weakness of the flesh, the conditions of space and time and any other possible means of restriction and constriction. And thus free to love, serve, adore and worship the Holy Trinity.

Further, this heavenly Jerusalem, this perfection of the Church as a fully redeemed, sanctified and glorified people of the new covenant of grace, is for baptized Christians still on earth, “our mother.” That is, those who are the baptized disciples of Jesus Christ, and are pilgrims and sojourners on this earth in transit to the realms above where Christ now is, are to look to, and to regard, God’s Church in her heavenly, everlasting perfection as their “mother”.

Jerusalem as a city on earth was regarded in Old Testament times as not only the city of David and Solomon but also, and more importantly, as the city of God. For there was the Temple, and there was the focus and center of the Covenants, both the Mosaic and the Davidic covenants. Jerusalem was the “mother” of faithful Jews and to her they went in pilgrimage for the great festivals of the Old Covenant; towards her they faced when they prayed; from her bounty they believed that their covenant life before God came; and without her they were as lost people. Jerusalem was nothing less for them than the city of God on earth. and in and around her the final events of human history would take place, as all roads would lead to Jerusalem and all people come there to worship the LORD.

The Church as the new Jerusalem is likewise the very center of the activity of a covenant, this time the new covenant, wherein Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit are engaged in the regenerating, nurturing, teaching, sanctifying and redeeming those who believe the Gospel, repent and are baptized. In this covenant, by the word of the Lord and the power of the Spirit, in Baptism a believer is born again, born into the kingdom of God and the Church. It is the Church as mother who is the sphere where he is born again, where he is nurtured and taught, and where he is fed by the word of God and by the food of the holy Eucharist, the Holy Communion of the body and blood of Christ. The Church as mother caring for her children provides the ministers who do the holy work of administering the sacraments, preaching and teaching, and providing moral and spiritual direction, with pastoral care. Thus the Church as Mother takes care of the new-born persons from their baptism right through to their funeral service and then receives them into her everlasting abode to be fully and really members of the holy and free Jerusalem which is above.

It has often been said that a sinner who desires salvation from God cannot have the First Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Father, as his Father unless he first has the Church, the Church of the Father and the Son, which is the new Jerusalem above, as his mother. This is true, very true, and is what is particularly celebrated on Lent IV.

However, in affirming it, we must realize that the Church is the creation of the Blessed, Holy Trinity and therefore is, in no way whatsoever at all, to be seen as an equal of God the Father. Certainly the new birth, the being born again, occurs within the Church, but it is an act that is only possible by the presence and agency of the Holy Spirit at the direction of the Lord Jesus Christ. And most certainly after a person is born again by the Spirit, he has the high privilege and gospel duty to address the First Person as “Our Father.” The task of the Church is to act like a mother in bringing souls to birth, and in nurturing, feeding, teaching, guiding and caring for them. Yet she only does these things, through her ministers and members, as they are inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit and in obedience to Christ. As the mother actively caring for her family, she is dependent upon the love of the heavenly Father, the grace of the Incarnate Son and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Just as our Lord Jesus Christ is more than what the eyes saw and the ears heard when they beheld Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee or Judea, so the Church is more than the visible reality of the congregations/churches we know. For the truth about Jesus was/is that he is certainly man, assuredly human, but he is also divine – he is One Person made known in two natures, divine and human – and of course the divine is, as it were, hidden behind the physical appearance of male humanity. Thus the full nature of the Church as the new Jerusalem is also, as it were, hidden behind and experienced through the presenting reality of the preaching of the Word, administering of the Sacraments, exercising of discipline, fellowship, worship, pastoral care and acts of charity of the local churches.

The new Jerusalem is with Christ in perfected glory and she is wholly free – free to love and serve God totally, and she is wholly free to be a people who love each other without any restrictions or reserve; and of course she is free from all sin, weakness and impurity. She is the perfect Bride of Christ.

However, for believers as pilgrims on earth and until the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus and their full redemption, the Jerusalem above is the gracious Mother embracing them in her arms so that they may all know the Father as their Father, and truly be his adopted children. She reaches out to them through the sometimes very ordinary means of grace known in the local church. To have God as our Father we must have the Church as our mother for God has chosen to make us his children through his grace which we receive from the embrace of the Mother, the Jerusalem above which is free.

Dr Peter Toon Lent 2008

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