Category Archives: Holy Day

Ash Wednesday

ash-wed-pictureRemember That You Are Dust

Ash Wednesday is traditionally a day of fasting and repentance. In many liturgical churches ashes are placed on the foreheads of each participant. Ashes were a sign of penitence in the Ancient Near East, particularly in Judaism.

Recall this example from the Old Testament. Jonah preached to Nineveh that God was going to destroy the city and the people listened:

So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.  (Jonah 3:5-8)

Notice that the King of Nineveh decreed that the people must turn from evil. God is never impressed with meaningless rituals.

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.   (Matthew 6:1)

As a campus minister I remember a particular Ash Wednesday service when a school official who wanted to know at what precise time I would be doing the “imposition of ashes” (making the customary sign of the cross in ashes on a person’s forehead). She did not want to sit through the scripture readings, homily, or prayers. The mere sign of the cross on her forehead would prove that she had done her religious duty.

Let us consider these instructive words of Jesus?

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

We cannot impress God with our rituals or our piety. Why should we try to impress others who must also stand before His throne, as we are required? God is calling us to a holy fast – one in which we come before Him in true repentance.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.  (Joel 2:12-13)

The Ash Wednesday service serves as a reminder of who we are and whose we are. Man was created out of dust by the hand of God. Our lives are sustained by His very breath. One day His breath will be taken away and we will have to give an accounting to Him of how we lived our lives.

Ash Wednesday is a check to the triumphant Christians who have arrived and no longer need to acknowledge their sins before God. It questions the “once saved, always saved” mentality.

Meaningless ritual? It might be for some. The act of fasting and repentance was not meaningless to the King of Nineveh. Jesus did not say that we should not fast. He said that we should not make a show of it. If we do, we may receive approval by some, but not by God. God looks at the heart.

If we say that we have given our heart to Jesus and yet deliberately sin, how should our God judge our act of contrition? The Book of Hebrews has the answer:

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.   (Hebrews 10:26-27)

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The Presentation

bellini2Purification

Today we celebrate The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Joseph and Mary. From the Gospel of Luke we read:

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  (Luke 2:22-24)

Let us look at this event as if it were part of a three act play. This was the first act of purification – a ceremonial purification. Mary was considered unclean on the birth of her child, according to Jewish law. After a waiting period of about forty days, she and Joseph were required to offer up their son to God. Mary would then be considered pure and her child would be declared holy before God.

A ritual of ceremonial purification was not without meaning or significance. It was a rehearsal of a spiritual purification which was to come. Today, in many churches, parents present their children to God with the expectation that these children will be raised in the Christian Faith.

At the time of Jesus’ presentation the prophet Simeon blessed the family of Jesus and said to Mary:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)

This prophecy foretold the second act of purification – a purification of the Law of God. Simeon prophesied that Jesus will bring about major changes in Judaism. Jesus said that he did not come to set aside the law but to fulfill it. The essence of the Law had to do with loving God and neighbor, but it had become merely an elaborate set of rules to follow. As the Word made flesh Jesus demonstrating by his life the true righteous requirements of the law. God requires transparency and truth. We cannot cover up our sins by our works.

Joseph and Mary were presenting Jesus to God in the Temple. Jesus would soon change the whole temple worship by becoming the temple himself. He would become the new Temple by satisfying all the requirements of the old Temple. His blood, spilled on the cross, would become the atoning sacrifice for all our sins once and for all.

From Hebrews we read:

Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.   (Hebrews 2:14-15)

The last act of purification has to do with the purification of the saints. We read in Malachi:

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.   (Malachi 3:3-4)

The Apostle Paul writes that Jesus, by his atoning sacrifice, is able to present us pure before the Father:

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him — provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.   (Colossians 1:21-23)

Paul makes it clear that we must continue in the Faith. Jesus makes this promise for those who do:

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.   (Matthew 10:32-33)

Mary and Joseph presented Jesus holy to God. Jesus turned the tables. He presents Mary and Joseph and all saints as holy to God. Mary and Joseph offered up their son before God. God, the Father, offered His Son as a sacrifice to us all that we may be made holy before him. The Presentation of Jesus is our presentation as well.

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Conversion of Saint Paul

the-conversion-of-saint-paul-bartolome-esteban-murilloA Conversion Experience

Saul was on the road to Damascus to arrest Christian believers. While in route he experienced one of the most dramatic conversions recorded in the Bible. In his own words:

“I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, `Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ I asked, `Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, `I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles– to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ ”  (Acts 26:12-18)

Well, that was Saul. He was persecuting Christians. Do we have any zealous people in the Church today who are persecuting their fellow parishioners? Well, that is another story.

What about those who have grown-up in the Church? Do they need a conversion experience? We need to understand that the Apostle Paul did grow-up in the Church. He grew up in Judaism which was the only church in his day. The rest of the world was pagan. He was living by the rules. He was educated in the best rabbinic tradition. Here is how he described himself:

circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.  (Philippians 3:5-6)

I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.  (Galatians 1:14)

We understand, of course, that this was the way Saul described himself before his conversion. How did he describe himself after his conversion?

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.  (Romans 7:15-19)

Paul goes on to say:

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!   (Romans 7:24-25)

Conversion opened Saul’s eyes to reality. His religion had failed him. He needed more than religion. His his Lord Jesus Christ did not fail him:

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.  (Philippians 3:7-11)

Saul become the great Apostle Paul who wrote two-thirds of the New Testament. Does his testimony speak to us today? What is our testimony? Are we merely rules enforcers or are we ambassadors for Christ? The lost in this world is counting on us give witness to the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.

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Confession of Saint Peter

jesus-peter1Who Do You Say That I Am?

In today’s readings we examine the most important question in all the world. From the Gospel of Matthew:

When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”   (Matthew 16:13-16)

How fitting it is to have the Confession of Peter observed within the Season of the Epiphany. Peter was first among the apostles to confess that Jesus is the Messiah. The Apostle Peter’s earthly testimony compliments the heavenly one. At the baptism of Jesus God the Father spoke from heaven, testifying that Jesus is His beloved Son.

Peter’s testimony was quite remarkable. At a time when there was much confusion and speculation about who Jesus was, Peter had come to a clear and concise conclusion about Jesus’ identity. He did not do so by his own reasoning alone, however:

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  (Matthew 16:17)

We remember that Peter not only confessed Jesus as the Messiah, but later he also denied Jesus. Just before the crucifixion Peter proclaimed that he would never leave or forsake Jesus. But Jesus knew better. He understands the frailties of human beings:

Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”  (Luke 22:34)

Jesus gives us this warning concerning our confession:

Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.  (Matthew 10:32-33)

Peter discovered that he could not continue in the Faith on his own strength. He needed the strength that only God could provide. We remember that Jesus forgave Peter and restored him after the resurrection. Our confession is important. Our continual confession is all important.

In Peter’s own words:

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”  (Acts 4:12)

Today many people are confused about who Jesus is and what may be His place in history. Many biblical “scholars” have disputed the person and ministry of Jesus. Yet, we have God’s testimony and Peter’s testimony recorded in Holy Scripture. What will be our recorded testimony? How will we confess Jesus before men? At a time when Christians are being persecuted we will need God’s help to build and strengthen our faith as He did Peter. This will be all the more true for the troubling days ahead.

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