Category: Feasts and Seasons

In 2018 fate has put Ash Wednesday on the same day as Valentine’s Day. Men nervously scour the pink laden aisles of Target and Kroger for last minute gifts for their wives or girlfriends, thereby observing Valentine’s Day as the national holiday of romantic love. Simultaneously, this year Christians will begin Lent, that solemn journey of penitence and remembrance that culminates at the Cross of Jesus. A smudge of ash on the forehead is an odd juxtaposition with the arrows of Cupid.

Yet the Bible more than once waxes nearly erotic in describing God’s longing for a
relationship with his wayward people. The Presbyterian theologian and preacher Francis Shaeffer once remarked, “This is the biblical picture, one that we would not dare use if God himself did not use it.” More on this in a moment.

In the Old Testament, one need look no further than the “Song of Solomon”, a poetic book full of sexual imagery, which is generally interpreted as a metaphor for God’s love for us. The book opens with the maiden (God’s people) waxing rhapsodic about her lover (God):

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
    for your love is more delightful than wine.
Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
    your name is like perfume poured out.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament we see numerous passages likening God to the husband of Israel. God’s relationship, his covenant, is essentially that of marriage. Isaiah 54 states “For your husband is the One who made you.” Hosea 2:15 states “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy.”

In the New Testament, Christ also compared himself to a bridegroom. For example, when the Pharisees criticized Jesus for not fasting, he replied: “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.” (Mark 2)

In Ephesians 5, we have a clear statement of this metaphor:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband (Ephesians 5:25-33).

Here is a more expansive version of that earlier quote from Francis Schaeffer:

The picture here is overwhelming. As the bride puts herself in the bridegroom’s arms on the wedding day and then daily, and as therefore children are born, so the individual Christian is to put himself or herself in the Bridegroom’s arms, not only once for all in justification, but existentially, moment by moment. Then the Christian will bear Christ’s fruit out into the fallen, revolted, external world. In this relationship, we are all female. This is the biblical picture, one that we would not dare use if God himself did not use it. (From The Church Before The Watching World, 1971; text available here).

Unfortunately, in this relationship we humans have long been the unfaithful party. As Jeremiah stated (in his eponymous book, chapter 3):

Then the LORD said to me in the days of Josiah the king, “Have you seen what faithless Israel did? She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there. … Go and proclaim these words toward the north and say, ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD; ‘I will not look upon you in anger For I am gracious,’ declares the LORD; ‘I will not be angry forever.

This topic would not be complete without a mention of the strange case of Hosea the prophet. As the book of Hosea opens, the prophet is asked by God to marry an actual prostitute, as an object lesson of the relationship between God and Israel:
When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.”

At the outset of the covenant, God knew that we would blow it. From the beginning, therefore, He planned a drastic measure to try to get us back. The Cross of Jesus is the end of that journey. It is God’s ultimate valentine to the world.

As Francis Schaeffer stated in his meditation on those opening verses of the Song of Solomon:

  We will remember the love which suggested the sacrifice of yourself; the love which, until the fullness of time, mused over that sacrifice, and longed for the hour of which, in the volume of the Book it was written of you, “Lo, I come.” We will remember your love, O Jesus, as it was manifested to us in your holy life, from the manger of Bethlehem to the garden of Gethsemane! We will track you from the cradle to the grave, for every word and every deed of yours was love. You, wherever you did walk, did scatter loving kindnesses with both your hands. As it is said of your Father, “God is love,” so, surely, you are love, O Jesus! The fullness of the Godhead dwells in you; the essence of love, nothing else but love, is your incarnate person.
  And specially, O Jesus, will we remember your love to us upon the cross! We will view you as you come from the garden of your agony, and from the hall of your flagellation. We will gaze upon you with your hands and your feet nailed to the accursed tree. We will watch you when you could, if you had willed it, have saved yourself; but when you did, nevertheless, give up your strength, and bow yourself downward to the grave that you might lift us up to heaven. We will remember your love which you did manifest through your poor, bleeding hands, and feet, and side.
  We will remember this love of yours until it invigorates and cheers us “more than wine,”-the love, of which we have heard, which you have exercised since your death, the love of your resurrection, the love which prompts you continually to intercede before your Father’s throne, that burning lamp of love which will never let you hold your peace until your chosen ones are all safely housed, and Zion is glorified, and the spiritual Jerusalem is settled on her everlasting foundations of light and love in heaven. We will remember all your love, from its beginning in the eternal past to the eternity that is to come; no, we will try to project our thoughts and imagination, and so to remember that, long as eternity shall continue, even forever and for evermore, so long shall your love exist in all its glory, undiminished in its luster or its force. “We will remember your love more than wine.”

(Schaeffer’s sermons on the Song of Solomon are available at GraceGems).

The recently observed Feast of the Presentation (also known as “Candlemas”) reminded me of an interesting YouTube video, a bit of living history, that I ran across some years ago. In 1997, a reconstruction of a Sarum rite Candlemas liturgy was conducted at Merton Chapel, Oxford.  The following link is to one portion of the service:

“Sarum” refers to medieval English worship practices centered at Salisbury Cathedral. The codification of the Sarum use was largely the work of Saint Osmund, nephew of William the Conqueror, who after the 1066 Norman conquest became Lord Chancellor of England (1070-1078) and then Bishop of Salisbury in 1078. His ceremonies and customs owe much to those of Rouen in Normandy, but were adapted in a way that he hoped would benefit both the French and the Saxons. It is noted that the Sarum rituals were more elaborate than other rites of the Roman Catholic Church, including the Tridentine.

In time the Sarum use came to dominate much of England, and the other rites (those of York, Lincoln, Aberdeen, Bangor, and Hereford, among others) were suppressed by King Henry VIII. The Sarum Rite influenced, and was in turn displaced by, the English language Book of Common Prayer after Henry’s death. Sarum usage enjoyed a brief revival from 1553-1559, under Queen Mary I.

The snippet of the Candlemas service above shows the Offertory. From the comments, I am informed that the background music is ‘Gaude, Gaude, Mater’ by John Sheppard. The musicians are from the Choir of the Church of Our Lady at Lisson Grove in London.

You can view the entire service in a series of YouTube installments, thanks to a YouTuber who calls himself “BrunoTheLabrador”.

Christians in many traditions celebrate on January 18 the “Confession of St. Peter”, or “The Good Confession”:

When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
(Matthew 16: 13-19, Holy Bible, King James Version)

Peter’s statement, which is subsequently praised by Jesus, is a breathtaking pronouncement of Jesus’ exalted status. It has been used and repeated by Christians down the centuries as a kind of “credo”, and in a broad sense Peter speaks for the Twelve as well as all of us here. (As recently as last year, I have witnessed this used in Evangelical churches as a profession of faith at the time of baptism). Here, Jesus is identified by Simon as “the anointed one” (the awaited “messiah”), and also “the son of God”.

Jesus turns about and gives the disciple a fresh identity, and engages in a bit of a pun. Simon was from henceforth to be “Peter” (“Πέτρος” meaning “stone”), and declares that his community of believers would be founded upon this rock (“πέτρᾳ” or “boulder”). One strand of interpretation has been to identify the church as being founded upon Simon Peter. The foundation stone is more likely not Peter himself but rather his confession, his belief.

In the words of one Dr. James Boyce, Professor emeritus of Greek and New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN:

Peter speaks for the disciples, for Matthew’s gospel and the community to which it is first addressed, and certainly for us, announcing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (16:15-16). Jesus confirms this “confession” by Peter as a mark of God’s blessing and as the “rock” upon which he will build his church (16:17-18).
(The full comments on this are available online at this site).

Lord God, on this day you revealed your Son to the nations by the leading of a star. Lead us now by faith to know your presence in our lives, and bring us at last to the full vision of your glory, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN

Lutheran Book of Worship, pg 15

This performance is by the London Symphony Orchestra and Tenebrae chorus under the direction of Sir Colin Davis.

Contrary to popular belief, the earliest Thanksgiving took place at Virginia’s Berkeley plantation:

Berkeley Plantation

“…wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perputually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god.”

(Instructions to Captain Woodleaf, Virginia Papers, 1619; available online here).

All Souls Day is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church on the day after All Saints Day. Historically it has been viewed as remembering the faithful departed who yet have time to serve in Purgatory, and are on their way to future heavenly blessedness. Observance tends to focus on family members. In Anglican churches, it is an extension of All Saints Day, merely remembering the faithful departed.

Lord God,
you are the glory of believers
and the life of the just.
Your son redeemed us
by dying and rising to life again.
Since our departed brothers and sisters
believed in the mystery of our resurrection,
let them share the joys and blessings
of the life to come.

(You can find this prayer in the context of “The Office for the Dead” here).

About 100 years before Martin Luther, a Czech scholar was burned at the stake, by Church authorities who had initially promised him safe passage (they later reneged on this on the theory that it is okay to lie to heretics). The year was 1415, and the Council of Konstanz was in session, dealing with numerous grave issues that had arisen and were threatening to weaken the authority of the Church (including multiple popes–not just two, but three different claimants to the title and office of “Pope”). For more on this Council, see our prior article on Konstanz). During the Council at Konstanz, John Wycliffe was condemned posthumously for his teachings, and Hus was put on trial. His death galvanized a host of followers, particularly in Bohemia (modern day Czechoslovakia), who formed a movement that foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation.

Jan Hus was born in about 1369 in Husinec, Bohemia. It is said that he decided to become a priest in order to lift himself out of poverty. He went to the Imperial city of Prague for his studies, obtaining a Master of Arts degree in 1396. He was ordained a priest in 1400. He continued to teach at the arts faculty and was named dean of the arts faculty in 1401. In 1402 Hus was chosen by the Czech masters of Charles College to be preacher of Bethlehem Chapel, a large and popular church. This role included supervision of two residential student colleges in connection with the chapel, where he served for the next decade.

He became a critic of the corruptions of the clergy, and an enthusiastic supporter of the teachings of John Wycliffe, whose works he translated into the Czech language. In the following years he was thrust into the forefront of the reform movement in Prague, and was supported by King Wenceslaus (of the Christmas song fame), who was jockeying to become Holy Roman Emperor. In 1409, the king maneuvered to give the Czech faction the decisive power at the University of Prague. Consequently, the bulk of the German faculty left and Hus was put into the role of Rector of the University of Prague. (The departing scholars included the founders of the University of Leipzig, which opened its doors in 1409).

Not long afterward Hus’ archbishop excommunicated him, not so much for heresy but for disobedience, in essence for supporting a different papal claimant than did the archbishop. Hus remained popular in Prague, supported by King Wenceslaus, and was free to teach and preach as before. Eventually the archbishop was forced to flee Prague, dying en route to Hungary in 1411.

In a foreshadowing of Martin Luther’s conflict with Tetzel, Hus became incensed over the sale of indulgences–the offering for sale of the Church’s purported power to grant forgiveness and shorten the time one’s relatives spent in purgatory. When the antipope John XXIII began pushing indulgences in order to wage war against his rivals, Hus was furious:

The pope was acting in mere self-interest, and Huss could no longer justify the pope’s moral authority. He leaned even more heavily on the Bible, which he proclaimed the final authority for the church. Huss further argued that the Czech people were being exploited by the pope’s indulgences, which was a not-so-veiled attack on the Bohemian king, who earned a cut of the indulgence proceeds. With this he lost the support of his king. (from Christianity Today).

The conflict boiled on, and Hus was excommunicated by the Roman authorities for disobeying a summons to appear in Rome. This time, the excommunication was enforced, and the entire city of Prague came under an interdict so long as Hus was permitted to preach. In 1412, to spare the residents of Prague, he left the city, retiring to the countryside where he wrote a number of treatises.

In 1415 Hus went to Konstanz hoping for a hearing before the great Council. Instead he was arrested and put on trial, where he was asked merely to recant. He refused, saying, “I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and completely just. In his hands I plead my cause, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but on truth and justice.”

After his death, open rebellion broke out in Bohemia and Moravia, and for a time the “Hussites” dominated. Over the next 20 years a coalition of Hussites and others defeated three armies sent to reclaim the region in what is known as the “Hussite wars”.

The Hussites did not directly lead to the more successful Protestant Reformation, but can be seen as an important predecessor that had similar aims. As the Christianity Today article notes:
Huss would become a hero to Luther and many other Reformers, for Huss preached key Reformation themes (like hostility to indulgences) a century before Luther drew up his 95 Theses. But the Reformers also looked to Huss’s life, in particular, his steadfast commitment in the face of the church’s cunning brutality.

Luther remarked upon reviewing the writings of Hus: “I was overwhelmed with astonishment. I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill.”

Eventually the Bohemian Reformation was crushed in 1620, and every inhabitant forced to become Roman Catholic by the victorious King Ferdinand II. Remnants of the Hussites diffused into Lutheranism or exist today as a number of small denominations, including the Moravian Church. Although Czechoslovakia is now mostly a secular nation, Hus remains very popular there; He was voted the greatest hero of the Czech nation in a 2015 survey by Czech Radio. His stature has risen a bit even in the Roman Catholic Church, which issued a kind of apology through a speech by pope John Paul II in 1999.

For further reading:

A prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is celebrated today:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen