Tag Archives: Lent

Tangled Branches

The Hub, March 20, 2019

Recently, I came across a piece of art called “Majesty,” by Tacita Dean. Inspired by one of the oldest, most massive, twisted, complete oaks in the United Kingdom, the tree has certainly witnessed much history and has become a symbol of the community. Using an enlarged black and white photograph of the tree split over four overlapping fiber-based papers, the artist used white gouache to painstakingly make every twig on every branch uniquely visible. In person, this reveals the intricate lacework of that ancient yet still living tree.

As we travel through Lent, we are encouraged to use varied disciplines to examine the lacework of our lives. Thus, we gather for Wednesday night worship in community. We will reflect upon some fruits of our faith: grace, mercy, justice, righteousness, wisdom, hospitality, and service.  Despite our being battered by all the elements of life, even sin, life remains. And so, each week, we are adding simple bands of varied colored clothe to a symbolic tree of life. This dead tree will grow and change, and we will begin to note our beautiful interconnectedness to every twig and branch of the Church, as well as to the one called Jesus. As Lent ends, we will remember yet another tree – how Jesus rode on in majesty only to be hung on a cross for our sake. As Isiaiah proclaimed, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them” (Isa. 42:9). It is Christ’s love that connects us forever and even now brings forth new life.

Originally published in The Hub, a weekly email of Christ Lutheran Church, Fredericksburg, VA.

© 2019 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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In Christ’s Defeat, Our Victory: Meditation on Psalm 118

Psalm 118 is perhaps the consummate psalm for Palm Sunday and as we enter Holy Week. Throughout the Gospel According to Matthew, the gospel writer has lifted up how Jesus was the fulfillment of all God’s promises in the Jewish scriptures. For example within the text, Matthew recounts five major lessons of Jesus’ teachings; much as there are five Books of Moses. When Jesus delivers his first recorded teaching in Matthew, Jesus gives his commands called the Beatitudes from a mountaintop; much like Moses was given the Decalogue on a mountain. Fourteen prophesies are explicitly connected to the actions of Jesus; fourteen being the traditional number of generations between Abraham and the establishment of the Davidic Dynasty, fourteen from David to the exile in Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to Jesus’ birth. It isn’t much different with Psalm 118. As with many, this psalm reflects aspects of the life and death of Jesus.

Psalm 118 is often recited as part of the Hallel, a Jewish prayer consisting of a verbatim recitation of Psalms 113 through 118. The Hallel is used for praise and thanksgiving on holidays such as the Passover, when the Jews recall the Angel of death passed over Jewish homes in Moses’ time leading to their freedom from Egyptian slavery. As Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, he deliberately enters “mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” This fulfills the apocalyptic prophesy of Zechariah 9 regarding the coming ruler of God’s people and the judgement of Israel’s enemies.

To an oppressed people under Rome’s authority, Jesus was considered by many a messianic figure in the political sense. They quote Psalm 118 (verses 25-26), “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Many likely expect Jesus to precipitate their freedom as Moses did long ago and reinitiate a Davidic kingship. In celebration, they will “Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar” – the way to the Temple where Jesus will come into his final conflict with his adversaries.

Yet, Jesus hasn’t come to be king in that sense. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.” (v. 8-9). Like the ritual sacrifices in the Temple, Jesus will become a bloody, final sacrifice for our sake. Throughout the week, Jesus will remain in conflict until he is finally betrayed. He will be surrounded by adversaries like bees, pushed hard, and find himself crowned with thorns (v. 12).  He will die on a cross like a rebel, falsely accused of proclaiming himself king. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” The Temple will be destroyed in 70 CE, but the church, Christ’s body, will rise in its stead.

Thanks to God’s steadfast love, we will never be rejected. Through Jesus’ cross and resurrection, we have access to our Father in Heaven and forgiveness for our rebellion in sin. With Jesus, our lips and hearts can pray with confidence, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.” Through the events of this upcoming week, we become conquerors with Christ (see Romans 8). We can rightly sing a song of victory – the victory of Jesus for our sake.

Christ’s peace be with you as we enter Holy Week together, Pastor Lou

 

Please enjoy a musical meditation on Psalm 118 from the Ecumenical Community of Taizé

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Ash Wednesday – Not really cancelled, just different

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With regret, Messiah Lutheran Church and School‘s building will close at 6:00 pm tonight. There will be no Ash Wednesday service.

Reviewing several television and government weather forecasts as well as other public safety resources, it seems our region is expecting an inch or less of snow accumulation. Unfortunately, a number of these same resources suggest that it could come fast and with heavy “bursts” causing a quarter mile or less visibility in some areas. Wind gusts could reach 30 mph with temperatures dramatically falling into the single digits this evening. Wind chill is expected to be in the below zero range (-5). Melting prior to nightfall is expected to refreeze causing hazardous road conditions into tomorrow.

The snow is supposed to arrive in our region right as we would have gathered for worship (5:00 pm – 8:00 pm). As our membership comes from such a wide expanse of territory in our region, we are cancelling tonight’s service for safety reasons. Yet for those interested, we will offer the imposition of Ashes on the First Sunday of Lent, February 22 at both services.

In addition, it is important to understand that the imposition of ashes need not be done only in a church or by a pastor or priest. As our upcoming Wednesday night Lenten program, “The Priesthood of All Believers,” will help remind us, we are all called to ministry and every home is a little church. For those interested, there is a home liturgy available through the article, “Ashes on Ice: Celebrating Ash Wednesday at Home.”

The imposition of ashes on the forehead as a sign of repentance recalls the Jewish practice of wearing sackcloth (a coarse, black cloth made from goat’s hair), fasting, and sitting in ashes as a sign of mourning or repentance. Christians began to practice this ritual by the 10th Century AD. It became an official rite of the church by the 13th century. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Methodists, and other liturgical Protestants continue this tradition. The practice serves as a symbol of our mortality as well as the regret we share over our individual and collective sin. Imposing ashes in the sign of the cross, it serves to witness to others and remind ourselves that we are sinner-saints, people who struggle with sin but who also rely on God’s grace. It echoes the marking of a cross on our foreheads with anointing oil during our baptism.

In all the above traditions, a pastor, deacon or lay person can impose the ashes. Although ashes can be distributed “on the go” at any location, we prefer to gather corporately during public worship as a reminder of our interconnectedness in a fallen world.  We suffer from and contribute to individual and systemic sin. We live in hope with all the heavenly host and communion of saints.

Thus in the spirit of the prophet Joel’s admonition, we seek to live in a manner that reflects the short time we have to live out our baptismal call and share Christ’s love. We gather together in a spirit of repentance but also in hopeful expectation of Christ’s imminent return: Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. (Joel 2:1)

Life is too short, and Judgment Day will surely come for all. Yet as part of the communion of saints, trusting in Jesus, we are never alone. Even on that terrible day, forgiveness is ours. With confidence, we may await the day of Christ’s return.

While we wait, let us cooperate with the grace offered us to reform our lives. Let us struggle to love God and others all the more.

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Preparing the Barren Fields

Sun Snow, by Trenton Jones (2015)

Sun Snow, by Trenton Jones (2015) Gizmodo.com

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37)

As we approach another Lenten season, I see barren farm fields around us. In the midst of winter, they don’t look like much. They are tired and seem spent. Yet with the right amount of gifts from God (water and nutrients) as well as care from the farmer (tilling, planting, weeding, etc.), these same fields will become abundant signs of life as we enter spring.

This is much as our Lent should be. We intentionally cooperate with the grace of God to promote and nurture life and love in the world. Following chosen disciplines and special worship or by making extra efforts of charity and service, we tend to the plot of land God has given us. We till and plant (reflecting on our lives, confessing our sin, and turning with expectation toward God’s promises). We weed (repent) and grow (renew). This sacred process is not just for us but also for our neighbor as we seek to share the love and grace we ourselves receive.

Yes, as we enter Lent, we return once again to the mission fields. We seek to reconnect to Christ and one another. What will you do to cooperate with God’s grace and nurture new life? Certainly, Jesus offers us his love freely, and so we could just watch and wait for spiritual growth. Yet as good farmers know, seeds of faith grow better with intentional love rather than lukewarm care.

Grace abounds, but Jesus invites all of us to roll up our sleeves and grow with God this Lent. Come join Jesus in the fields before us and witness the miracles God can do through your life and love.

Christ’s peace,
Pastor Lou

This post was originally published in Messiah Lutheran Church and School’s newsletter, The Messenger (February 2015).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Food for Thought

psalm34_8-taste-the-goodness-of-the-Lord“O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Psalm 34:8

Ironically a time commonly associated with fasting, Lent can prove a time of refreshment and renewal. Through intentionally refocusing our faith, seeking out spiritual disciplines, service, and yes, even simple food and fellowship together, we can grow as children of God and be used to build Christ’s church.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus first invites his followers, “Come and see.” To walk with him and share his life, that’s where we will come to know him – and perhaps ourselves and our purpose – all the more. Rooted in faith, we often grow by doing. When Jesus calls himself the living water or bread of life, you’ll also read that Jesus invites all to come to him, to taste and see, so that we will never hunger and thirst again.

Certainly, faith in Christ alone saves us, but his intention is for an active, communal faith that blesses us and others. It is a faith that calls us to assemble regularly to feast on his Word, share our gifts to honor God as well as for the good of others, and ultimately “remember” him and meet him; receiving his body and blood as a means of grace through his holy supper. This prepares and empowers us to go back out into the world, where we come to him in the lost, lonely, sick and dying. We become the vessels which carry his living water and bread of life, and yet, we often (if not always) find ourselves blessed more by such compassion than those we serve.

At home or away, we can always take private moments of prayer and meditation, but we are and remain the body of Christ. Jesus doesn’t want us to go through this life alone. Faith in Christ implies relationship with God, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and all our neighbors. For such love always feeds our lives, and Jesus seeks to love us always.

Yet, will we come to the feast being offered us? Do you feel you have been too busy laboring for your daily bread, running after things that don’t last, or beat up by the world, empty or alone? Perhaps you realize you haven’t loved Jesus as you should – that you are human? Well, don’t just sit there. I encourage you to come join your local family of faith. Come, taste and see. Rediscover the love that you were always meant to share.

Everyone is invited to eat, drink and be merry with Christ and his church this Lent, for “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (Psalm 34:22). That’s surely something to celebrate with our lives.

Peace,
Pastor Lou

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2014 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Where in the world was Jesus on Holy Saturday?

Harrowing of Hell

Harrowing of Hell

As the Passion ends, we leave with Jesus laid in the tomb. Was he asleep? No, scripture clearly strives to prove and proclaim that Jesus truly died on that cross. Did he go to heaven? Actually, scripture leads us to believe that Jesus was somehow still miraculously at work but not in heaven.

Our Lutheran confessions state that “we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power.” (See Solid Declaration, Art. IX.) Luther seems to have believed it an ultimate mystery that Jesus descended. Nothing tells us if he did so in “humiliation” or in glory, but we should just believe the faith in which we baptize (see the Apotles’ Creed: Jesus descended into  sheol – in Hebrew the place of the dead, sometimes called hades).

Early Christianity believed this and scripture alludes to it in such passages as 1 Peter 3:18-20: For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water.”

In the Old English, harrowing was the term fused to describe Christ’s descent. Ancient icons often show Jesus amidst previous saints of the Jewish Testament, standing on the gates of sheol now opened. The gates are often an “X” or Chi in Greek, reminding us that Jesus is Χριστός, or Christ – the Annointed One and our Messiah come to save us from sin, death and the Devil.

Christians may debate whether Jesus entered triumphantly or suffered more indignities, but mainstream Christianity looks to both scriptures and the faith handed down to us. Jesus’ entrance into the grave was not the last of his journies for us. With sundown, his burial was complete. The Jewish sabbath had begun, and Jesus went to work. The Saturday of our Holy Week is indeed good (holy), and we rightly rejoice even as we wait for the Day of Resurrection. Jesus has come to save all his people.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

 

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There is no shame in humility

Italy Vatican PopeA response to “Pope’s foot-wash a final straw for traditionalists” as reported by the AP

Within an ancient culture that didn’t count women during the government census or necessarily notice or respect them in the home, it is not a real shocker the bible doesn’t often mention women.

Despite this, it remains most probable that women were an important part of Jesus immediate community and present at his final Passover Feast. Matthew reports that at the feeding of the 5,000, the count did not include women and children.[i] Or later, Matthew shares that women who “had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs” watched as he died.[ii] (Was this perhaps after preparing and sharing in his last Passover Feast?). There are other attestations from other Gospel writers as well which some see as supporting that women were among his disciples and active in his ministry.

Whether you agree or not, or think women had their feet washed by Jesus or not, Jesus’ greatest intention on Maundy Thursday was to teach us to love and serve everyone (“one another”) as he had us. After all, Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum (meaning “commandment”), and it was used in the early Latin Vulgate translation of John 13:34: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Using scripture to interpret scripture and seeing Christ’s own example, it is hard to argue that this command to love only covered Christians. Christ longs for his family to grow.

Yes, this final teaching echoed Jesus’ earlier ones. What’s the greatest commandment?[iii] Who is our neighbor?[iv] Jesus reached out to all those marginalized by society whether Jewish or not. We are not to become their stumbling block.[v] We are to let “the children” come to Jesus.[vi] Indeed, we are to love whoever might be thought as “the least of these” – perhaps children, inmates, the poor, women (in many cultures still), anyone we tend to label as “sinners”, and non-Christians. Matthew is said to have been the most Jewish of the Gospel writers; at least his writings reflected many Jewish teachings and responded to many Jewish biases about their being the chosen ones of God. Yet, he shows Jesus to be incredibly open and loving to all. Jesus longs for relationship!

Despite this, some traditionalist Roman Catholics have become more and more vexed by Pope Francis’ election and recent behaviors. He has cast aside signs of regalism. He has acted in ways lifting up the priesthood of all believers. He has expressed openness to Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and people of other faiths entirely. As in Argentina when a Cardinal, Pope Francis seeks simplicity, and he lives that way. Not the least of their issues with him, many traditionalist have expressed “the horror” (not my word, but often found in their tweets and posts) that the Pope would wash not only the feet of a juvenile women who happened also to be a prisoner, but in one case was Islamic. “He cultivates a militant humility, but can prove humiliating for the church,”[vii] Fr. Bouchacourt, head of the traditionalist, schismatic St. Pius X Society, said. I have seen similar less than charitable comments by other traditionalists, even from some of those who haven’t broken from the Roman Catholic hierarchy but instead claim to love and obey it. Some even suggest Pope Francis’ behaviors are just a show in violation of scripture.[viii]

If signs of humility are embarrassing to the Roman Catholic Church, then I bluntly but in love suggest these folks take a look at Jesus’ own behavior. Jesus often intentionally exemplified his teachings through public behaviors. That’s what teachers and leaders need to do. Jesus prayed in public at times not for his own sake and not for a show, but so that others could be comforted and learn of God’s love.[ix] He purposefully embodied earlier prophesies to help reveal his identity, such as by riding a young donkey into Jerusalem.[x] (Certainly, Palm Sunday was quite a spectacle.) Some of the same conservatives – those who were so protective in promoting the sanctity of the conclave and agressively argued that the election process was in the Spirit’s presence and following God’s will – turned on Pope Francis that first night.

Even as a Lutheran, I would agree that the Spirit is involved in leading the Roman Catholic Church, but I would also argue the Spirit seeks to guide all other denominations as well. Institutions made of fallible humans can err (a very Lutheran attitude to be sure), but we still remain Christ’s church. Despite the historic divisions of the universal church, Pope Francis holds one of (if not the most) prominent positions of Christianity. To be ashamed of such humble, public actions that so many “of the least” will take notice of seems the real shame to me.

This Lutheran says, “Good for Pope Francis!” Perhaps I shouldn’t care so much, but I (like countless other Christians) hope and pray for the coming reality of Christ’s own prayer that we live as one.[xi] We are the church together, not our denominations, through the grace of our shared faith and baptism. I humbly support my brother Francis in his efforts to make Christ’s love known in the entire world.

After all, Jesus asked us to love and support one another. He never said with our human minds, hearts and ways that we always would agree on everything.

Postscript: Vatican responds to complaints: http://bit.ly/Z02evs


[i] See for example Matthew 14:13-21.

[ii] See for example Matthew 27:55-57.

[iv] In response, Jesus taught about the Good Samaritan. See Luke 10:29-37.

[v] Read Matthew 18.

[vi] See for example, Matthew 19:14.

[viii] See for example Matthew 6.

[xi] See John 17.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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