Palm / Passion Sunday B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for March 24, 2024 (Palm / Passion Sunday B)

The Denial of Saint Peter

The Denial of Saint Peter (c.1607-1643), oil painting on canvas by Adam de Coster (c,1586-1643). Whitfield Fine Art, London. (Click image to enlarge.)

Liturgy of the Palms B

Gospel: Mark 11:1-11

Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday were once celebrated on separate Sundays, but the celebrations were combined in the time of ecumenism that followed Vatican II. As a result, we take a quick and startling turn in the course of Sunday’s worship. First we hear of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding a donkey and greeted as a king by throngs spreading their cloaks and leafy branches in his way, shouting “Hosanna!” And then, just a little later in the liturgy, we are yanked through a shocking reversal as those same crowds angrily shout “Crucify him!” This contrast sets a tone for Holy Week as we follow Jesus to the cross: God is always with us, in joy and in sorrow.

Alternate Palm Sunday Gospel: John 12:12-16

All four Gospels tell of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, riding a modest mount and hearing the acclaim of crowds. But each Gospel tells a slightly different story. John’s version, for example, is the only one that explicitly declares Jesus the King of Israel, and the only one that tells us the disciples did not understand what was going on. But all four versions share the image of crowds triumphantly waving branches – in John’s version, explicitly described as palms – and the crowd’s joyous shouts of “Hosanna!”

Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

On Palm Sunday as we chant this ancient hymn of celebration and praise – traditionally titled “A Song of Victory” – imagine a joyous crowd approaching the Temple, clapping hands and singing in celebration of the Lord their God, whose steadfast love endures forever. Its words of joyous praise for God’s works and God’s mercy foreshadow the words we sing in the Great Thanksgiving as our Eucharistic Prayer begins: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! … Hosanna in the highest.”

Liturgy of the Passion B

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

These familiar verses from Isaiah introduce us to the prophet’s familiar vision of the Suffering Servant. These evocative verses prophesy a servant leader who who would receive the enemy’s blows on behalf of the people in exile, and who would eventually guide them back home to Jerusalem. We must respect the original intent, but it is hard for Christian readers to ponder these verses without imagining parallels with Jesus, our messiah and king, who also suffered for us and taught us to give our backs and turn our cheeks to those who strike us.

Psalm: Psalm 31:9-16

Perhaps the Psalmist had Isaiah’s Suffering Servant in mind in framing this Psalm of lament, with its litany of sorrow, distress, grief, sighing, misery, scorn, horror, and dread. The speaker suffers. His neighbors scheme. They plot his death. It is hard to imagine a thought more pitiful than “I am as useless as a broken pot.” Yet amid all this misery, hope glows like the sun breaking through clouds: Trust in God, place our faith in God’s love, and wait to be saved.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

We might imagine parallels with the Suffering Servant in Paul’s writing, too, as he tells here of Jesus’s death on the cross. We accept Jesus as both fully human and fully divine, and all the Gospels show us glimpses of a Jesus who knew his stature and God-sent mission. Yet Paul, possibly quoting a very early Christian hymn, speaks poetically of a Jesus who willingly set aside his divinity, his equality with God – “emptying himself” – to bear the horrific pain of crucifixion as a vulnerable, frightened human. Jesus took on the full weight of all that suffering to show us the true exaltation of God’s love, calling us only to respond with love for God and our neighbor.

Gospel: Mark 14:1-15:47

Finally we come to Mark’s account of Jesus’ passion and death. The palm branches and hosannas are only memories now. We hear the dark, painful way of the Cross as we prepare to walk through Holy Week with Jesus. Watch closely as we see first Jesus’ followers, and then even his friends, slip quietly away, deserting him, leaving at the end only those few most close to him, and a Roman centurion – a pagan, a soldier of the hated empire – whose faith showed him the light and thus opens the way to us all.

Lent 5B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for March 17, 2024 (Lent 5B)

The Prophet Jeremiah

The Prophet Jeremiah (1508-1512), fresco by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican City, Rome. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

The consistent pattern of our Lenten Lectionary readings continues as Palm Sunday and Holy Week draw near: In the Gospels we have followed Jesus and his disciples toward Jerusalem. Our Hebrew Bible readings have told of God’s covenants with the people. The first reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent draws from the Prophet Jeremiah. The prophet laments that the chosen people have broken the covenant promise to walk in God’s ways that their ancestors made at Mount Sinai. Now Jeremiah tells of a new covenant that is to come. This one will be permanent, he says. It is not only written on stone tablets but directly on their hearts.

Psalm: Psalm 51:1-13

Legend tells us that King David himself wrote this psalm. In a powerful narrative, the prophet Nathan had confronted David after David sent his general, Uriah, to die in battle so he could take Uriah’s beautiful wife Bathsheba for himself. In poetic words that reflect covenantal ideas, the Psalmist pours out David’s shame and grief. He admits to wickedness, makes no excuses, but begs for God’s mercy and forgiveness to restore in him a clean heart. A heart on which God, perhaps, can write God’s covenant of love.

Alternate Psalm: Psalm 119:9-16

Psalm 119, the longest of all the Psalms, carries a message of covenant throughout its many verses: Those who follow God’s laws and teaching, modeling their lives on Torah so as to walk in God’s ways, will reap rewards. These verses, “With my lips will I recite all the judgments of your mouth,” seem to reflect God’s response in Jeremiah’s call to prophesy. When Jeremiah said, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy,” God answered, “you shall speak whatever I command you. … Now I have put my words in your mouth.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 5:5-10

The Letter to the Hebrews, scholars believe, was not addressed to a specific congregation. Rather, it was a broad appeal to formerly Jewish Christians who had returned to their original faith late in the first century to avoid the persecution falling on Christians by Rome. Its author argues that Jesus, as Christ, follows in the great tradition of Jewish high priests. That line goes back through millennia to Melchizedek, the ancient king and great high priest who had blessed Abram before God offered the first covenant to Abram and Sarai. As Jesus has become the source of eternal salvation who intercedes on our behalf forever, the unknown author writes, there is no longer any need for priestly sacrifice.

Gospel: John 12:20-33

It is not clear from John’s Gospel whether Jesus actually did consent to meet with the Greek visitors who told Philip that they wanted to see Jesus. John places them in this passage, perhaps, to emphasize that Jesus will draw in all people: Jew and Greek, men and women, slave and free; everyone. Now, as John’s narrative moves toward Jesus’s last Passover, his passion and death, Jesus has words for the world and the ages to hear: Just as Jesus must die to bear the fruit of salvation through his resurrection, we are the seeds of faith, called to grow in discipleship. Do we lie fallow and die, or do we grow and bloom where we are planted, bearing fruit as we follow and serve Christ?

Lent 4B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for March 10, 2024 (Lent 4B)

Moses and the Brazen Serpent

Moses and the Brazen Serpent (1618-1620), oil painting on canvas by Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9

Sunday’s first reading recounts the Book of Numbers’ bewildering account of God sending deadly poisonous snakes to punish an ungrateful people – and a curative bronze serpent that seems suspiciously like an idol. This might strike us as an ancient legend, easily ignored. But then John’s Gospel shows Jesus citing those same verses to set the context for the famous words in John 3:16, which we will hear in Sunday’s Gospel! This makes the serpent story a little more difficult to ignore. Here’s a way to internalize it: When you think you’re surrounded by snakes, look up. Remember that God is with us.

Psalm: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

The theme that we hear in this passage from Psalm 107 offers soothing balm after the shock of venomous snakes and bronze serpents in the reading from Numbers. The Psalmist invites us to repent, to turn back, to give thanks for God’s mercy with shouts of joy. Even when we are foolish, when we rebel, when we sin, when we are afraid, these verses offer reassurance: As soon as we cry out for God, God will respond to us as beloved children, granting us healing and salvation.

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10

This letter, likely written to the people of Ephesus and other communities by a later Christian leader writing in Paul’s name, imagines something just about as frightening and potentially deadly as a passel of serpents: A shadowy spirit, a “ruler of the power of the air,” stands ready to lure those who prefer passion and the flesh to a saving life in Christ. Like those healed by gazing at Moses’ bronze serpent, those who follow Christ are saved by God’s mercy and raised up by the gift of grace through Jesus. In words that would inspire some reformers a millennium and a half later, the author of Ephesians declares that we are saved by grace only, not by anything that we do to try to earn salvation.

Gospel: John 3:14-21

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” For many Christians, this week’s lessons could start and finish right there with John 3:16. But wait! Did Jesus just begin by comparing himself to Moses’ bronze serpent? This passage picks up in the middle of Jesus’s conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, who came to visit him by night. Surely Jesus is teaching from the Torah, with which both he and Nicodemus would have been intimately familiar; Numbers is his text. We cannot take John 3:16 out of its context without reading the verses that come before and after. John makes clear that we all have power to choose between darkness and the light. Just as God provided the Israelites a way to repent and be healed, so a loving God offers healing grace to all.

Lent 3B

em>Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for March 3, 2024 (Lent 3B)

Christ driving the money-changers from the Temple

Christ driving the money-changers from the Temple (c.1570), oil painting on canvas by El Greco (1541-1614). Minneapolis Institute of Art. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17

So far in Lent we have heard the ancient stories of God’s covenantal promises to Noah and Abraham. Now we come to the great covenant with Moses and the people in the desert at Mount Sinai. God promises that the people will become a holy nation, that they will live and prosper in the promised land. In return, the people agree to walk in God’s way, making a covenant that they will live in accord with God’s commandments. Now they hear those commandments uttered for the first time, echoing over the throng as God’s thunderous voice shakes the mountain. These ten simple principles sum up the way in which the people shall live, detailing how they are to love God and love each other.

Psalm: Psalm 19

“The heavens declare the glory of God.” This familiar hymn of praise and thanksgiving sings in exultation at the beauty and wonder of all God’s creation. In beautiful poetic language it shouts with joy about God’s gift to all the people of the world and to all the span of the universe. And within that creation, the hymn rings on, God’s laws and statutes – the great commandments – give us wisdom and joy and lead us to righteousness.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Paul’s first letter to the people of Corinth in northern Greece is listed among his greatest epistles. Throughout its 16 chapters we see him offering loving pastoral advice to a distant community that has been splitting into factions over a variety of issues. In this passage taken from near the beginning, Paul clearly expresses the overarching theme of this letter: The Cross unites us as one! We may appear foolish to both Jews and Gentiles for worshiping as God a man executed on the brutal Roman cross, a symbol of pain, shame and degradation. But their opinion doesn’t matter, Paul writes,because we prefer God’s “foolishness” to mere human wisdom. We celebrate God’s weakness over the limited power that humans consider strength.

Gospel: John 2:13-22

For the remaining Sundays of Lent we turn from Mark to John’s Gospel, beginning with the familiar story of Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the Temple. This narrative appears in all four Gospels, but curiously, while Matthew, Mark and Luke all place it at the beginning of Holy Week, in John we find it near the beginning of the Gospel, during an earlier trip to Jerusalem for Passover that none of the others mention. Moreover, John alone tells of Jesus not merely throwing over the money changers’ tables but fashioning a whip of cords to lash them in his anger at their exploiting the poor in the name of God. Then Jesus foreshadows his own passion and death, likening his own body to the Temple and declaring that he will “rise up” three days after his body’s destruction.

Lent 2B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Feb. 25, 2024 (Lent 2B)

Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan

Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan. Oil on canvas (1850), by József Molnár (1821-1899). Hungarian National Gallery. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Our first reading this week turns to another of the key Hebrew Bible covenants between God and God’s chosen people. This time God calls Abram and Sarai and tells them to go to a new land at their great age; Abram is 99 and they have had no children yet. They will be given new names – Abraham and Sarah – and in turn for accepting this call, God promises that they and their offspring will yield a great multitude of nations, and that God will be with their offspring forever. In contrast with God’s unconditional covenant with Noah that we heard last week, this covenant is reciprocal: In order for their offspring to gain the Promised Land (a promise made in the verses that our Sunday reading skips over), they and their descendants must “walk before God and be blameless.”

Psalm: Psalm 22:22-30

The theme of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, through their grandson Jacob, the son of their son Isaac, echoes in Sunday’s Psalm portion. The Psalmist exults in the eternal nature of that covenant with Jacob (whom God later renamed Israel), and calls on all of Israel’s offspring to serve God, because as a result of Abraham’s covenant they will be known as God’s own forever. Even now the priest echoes similar words in every baptism, while those being welcomed into the household of God are anointed with blessed oil.

Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25

Paul, too, evokes the eternal nature of God’s promise to Abraham’s descendants in this passage from Romans. He adds something new, too: He reaches out to include Gentile Christians within God’s promise. While Abraham’s descendants received God’s covenant through the law, Gentiles who become Christians now receive it through their new faith, Paul writes. Seeking to reconcile a faith community in Rome that included both Jewish and Gentile Christians, Paul assures them that they all are now children of Abraham and Sarah, through faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Gospel: Mark 8:31-38

In the verses just before this, when Jesus had asked his disciples who they think Jesus is, some guessed that he was John the Baptist. Some guessed Elijah, and others imagined him as one of the prophets. Peter, though, boldly declared, “You are the Messiah!” Surely, based on Torah’s tradition, they assumed that the Messiah would come to wage war, defeat their hated Roman overlords, and win Israel’s freedom. Jesus, though, warns that his way is not like that. He tells them that he will face rejection, punishment and death before rising again after three days. This is not at all what Peter wants to hear, but his protests earn him a startling response from Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan!” If you want to follow Jesus, he tells them, you must deny yourself. Take up your cross. Prepare to give your life in order to save it.

Lent 1B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Feb. 19, 2024 (Lent 1B)

Jesus and the Tempter

Jesus and the Tempter (c.1500), oil painting on panel by Juan de Flandes (c.1465-1519). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17

God makes a covenant with Noah, promising never again to destroy all human and animal life in a vast flood, and placing a rainbow in the sky as a vivid reminder of this agreement. As Lent begins, our Lectionary readings for the season start with this, the first in a series of covenants that God will make with leading figures in the Hebrew Bible’s ancestral stories. These are binding agreements between God and the people; agreements that the prophets will hold up as the standard by which the people must live in order to inherit the Kingdom.

Psalm: Psalm 25:1-9

This Psalm of praise, one of many that tradition attributes to the hand of King David himself, asks for deliverance and protection from enemies and scheming foes. This is a recurring plea in the Psalms, one that may reflect ancient Israel’s hard-won status as a tiny nation surrounded by foes. As we sing this Psalm, we express the joy of holding up our hearts and souls with willing trust in God’s compassion and love. Even in the face of triumphant enemies, the Psalmist sings of praise, not fear, and the hope of God’s faithfulness to those who have made covenant to follow God’s ways.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22

In this short passage from the first letter of Peter, the author builds on the themes of the first reading and psalm. The author reminds the people that they are now saved in the water of baptism, just as Noah and his family were saved in a world covered by water. Both saving acts are the work of God, but baptism is no mere bath that washes away dirt. It is, rather, an appeal to God – like a covenant – that provides a new beginning through the resurrection of Jesus, who now sits at God’s right hand as lord of all creation.

Gospel: Mark 1:9-15

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” How many times recently have we heard these booming words from above? We heard them in Mark’s account of Jesus’s baptism at the beginning of Advent and again at the beginning of Epiphany. We heard them again last Sunday at the Transfiguration. And now here we are again as Lent begins. As we move from the Incarnation toward the Cross and the empty tomb, we repeatedly remember God’s declaration. Now we move on from the baptism scene to hear of Jesus’s temptation in the desert. Then, in Galilee after Herod has arrested John, Jesus begins proclaiming the Gospel in Galilee: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Ash Wednesday

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Feb. 14, 2024 (Ash Wednesday)

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday (c.1855-1860), oil painting on wood by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885). Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Joel 2:1-2,12-17

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a season set aside for acts of devotion and sacrifice as we reflect on the wrongs that we have done and on the simple truth that we will not live forever. Our first reading is from the Prophet Joel, one of the minor prophets. The book that bears his name is only three chapters long, and modern theologians aren’t even sure when he lived. We know that “Joel” means “The Lord is God” in Hebrew; and Joel may have prophesied after the return from exile to Jerusalem. Much of the short book deals with the people’s prayerful response to a plague of locusts, and in that setting, this alternate reading offers a liturgical look at a period of penitence and sacrifice … something to think about as we enter Lent.

Alternate First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12

Our readings for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, begin with a warning from Isaiah. The prophet cautions the people that public demonstrations of fasting, prayer, sackcloth and ashes are not enough to please God. God expects us to show our righteousness instead in service and love of neighbor. As Jesus would later teach, Isaiah declares that God calls us to oppose injustice: free the oppressed, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked.

Psalm: Psalm 103 or 103:8-14

God, who made us from dust, knows well that we are but dust. We are human: broken and sinful, often wicked. Yet God’s compassion and God’s mercy are far greater than God’s anger. God does not punish us as we might fear that our sins deserve, but rather shows mercy wider than the world itself, forgiving our sins and welcoming us in a parent’s warm embrace.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul devotes a lot of energy to working out an apparent quarrel with the people of this contentious little church community. In this passage he speaks of reconciliation. He enumerates the many pains he has endured as a servant of God, and calls on the people to accept God’s grace and work together in Christ, who reconciled us with God by taking human form and dying for us.

Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

It is hard to imagine a more appropriate reading for Ash Wednesday than Matthew’s account of Jesus, midway in the Sermon on the Mount, teaching us how best to practice almsgiving, prayer, fasting, and self-denial of worldly pleasures. All of these have become traditional Lenten practices. Simply put, in words that might remind us of the Isaiah reading for this day, Jesus advises us to practice humble piety. Shun hypocrisy. Don’t show off. Keep our charity, our prayers and our fasting private. Don’t brag about our fasting. Don’t hoard fragile, transient earthly riches, but store in heaven the treasures that last.

Palm / Passion Sunday A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for April 2, 2023 (Palm / Passion Sunday A)

Liturgy of the Palms A

Gospel: Matthew 21:1-11

We celebrate Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday together as Holy Week begins. In this lectionary year we hear the evangelist Matthew’s account of Jesus’s triumphal procession into Jerusalem.

Christ's entry into Jerusalem

Christ’s entry into Jerusalem (1320), fresco by Pietro Lorenzetti (1280-1348). Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, Assisi, Italy. (Click image to enlarge)

In a variation that we only hear from Matthew, Jesus enters the city apparently riding two animals at once, reflecting the evangelist’s understanding of Zechariah’s prophecy that Israel’s shepherd-king would arrive “mounted on a donkey, and on a colt.” Jesus’s arrival in the city is exciting but tense: A large, noisy crowd surrounds Jesus in a city that Matthew describes as “in a turmoil.” Jesus has warned the disciples that he will be mocked, flogged and crucified. Soon he will anger the authorities again when he drives the money changers out of the temple, as the narrative hurtles toward his passion and death on the cross.

Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

As we enter church on Palm Sunday waving palm fronds – recalling Jesus’ traditional entry into Jerusalem before a cheering crowd – we chant verses from Psalm 118 that portray another festive procession in honor of our Lord and God. In familiar words we celebrate “the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Liturgy of the Passion A

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

When Christians hear Isaiah’s verses about the “suffering servant,” our thoughts naturally turn to Jesus Christ, our messiah and king. After all, our Creeds declare that Jesus suffered for us. Our Gospels reveal a Jesus who taught us to turn our cheeks to those who strike us, knowing that a peaceful response to enemies is no cause for disgrace. During Holy Week, though, it’s important for us to understand that Isaiah was not writing to Christians in a distant future but to a Jewish audience in his own time, a people living in exile in Babylon. They were a suffering body of faithful servants, awaiting a Messiah to guide them home.

Psalm: Psalm 31:9-16

Speaking in tones of lamentation, the Psalmist recites a litany of sorrow, distress, grief, sighing, misery, scorn, horror, dread and more. He suffers, his neighbors scheme; they plot his death. In the poet’s words, “I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; I am as useless as a broken pot.” Yet amid all this misery, hope glows like the sun breaking through clouds: Trust in God, place our faith in God’s love, and wait to be saved.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Paul sets out these poetic verses from an early Christian hymn, an ancient confession in song that preceded the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed by centuries. In these worshipful words we understand that Christ was fully divine, yet embodied in Jesus he was fully human too. The Son of God willingly set aside his divinity – “emptying himself” – to bear the horrific pain of crucifixion as a vulnerable, frightened human. Jesus took on the full weight of all that suffering to show us the true exaltation of God’s love, calling us only to respond with love for God and our neighbor.

Gospel: Matthew 26:14- 27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

Sunday’s readings reach their conclusion in Matthew’s long narrative of Jesus’s passion and death. We listen through the long journey from the Last Supper to the crucifixion. There is much packed into these two chapters, from Judas’ betrayal through the institution of the Eucharist; Jesus suffering in the garden, his arrest and trial, his journey to the cross and his death and burial. That’s a lot to grapple with all at once, so let’s reflect on one passage: When Jesus told the apostles during the Last Supper that one of them would betray him, every one of them was afraid. Every one, no matter how much he loved Jesus, wondered if he might be the traitor. Each in turn asked, ‘Surely not I, Lord?” As are we, they are human, frail and weak. And Jesus, loving us still, takes up the cross.

(As an abbreviated alternative, this Gospel may be read in shorter form, including only verses 27:11-54. This portion tells the narrative from the arrest of Jesus to his death on the cross. It ends with a foreshadowing of the resurrection with the opening of the tombs, while a Roman centurion and his soldiers recognize that Jesus was truly God’s Son.)

Lent 5A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for March 26, 2023 (Lent 5A)

First Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Our readings change in tone this Sunday as we turn toward Palm Sunday and Holy Week. The metaphorical reflections on temptation, faith and sight that we have heard so far in Lent now move toward explicit ideas of victory over death through resurrection.

The Raising of Lazarus

The Raising of Lazarus, oil painting on canvas, transferred from wood (1517) by Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). National Gallery, London. (Click image to enlarge)

In our first reading, the prophet Ezekiel imagines a valley filled with dry bones: an eerie and alarming sight. In these poetic verses, God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy, and as he does so, the dry bones become connected, covered with skin, and then breathed to life as a vast multitude. Ezekiel’s prophetic vision reveals God’s promise to restore exiled Israel to its own land, the land that God had promised Moses and the people at Mount Sinai.

Psalm: Psalm 130

Psalm 130 may be most familiar for its use, under the Latin title “De Profundis” (“out of the depths”), as one of the Psalms that the Book of Common Prayer suggests for the burial of the dead. Its hopeful cadences remind us that even in times of grief, pain and despair, we wait in hope for God’s love and grace. Even in death we await the resurrection, as in night’s darkest hours we wait for morning light.

Second Reading: Romans 8:6-11

This passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans offers a brief glimpse of his continuing examination of the distinctions between flesh and spirit. All of us – even Jesus, as fully human – live embodied lives. But, Paul goes on, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus have given us a new reality: When we accept God’s spirit within us through Jesus, we gain the hope of life, peace and resurrection.

Gospel: John 11:1-45

Why didn’t Jesus hurry back home when he got word that his friend Lazarus was ill? When he finally arrives, his friends Mary and Martha – devastated by the death of Lazarus their brother – confront Jesus separately with the same words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus assures Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. … everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Then, when Mary weeps, Jesus weeps with her. And then he goes to the tomb and raises Lazarus from the dead. The crowd looking on is amazed. But the verses that follow immediately after this passage reveal that the priests and temple authorities, fearful that Jesus’ bold acts will bring Roman retribution, decide that Jesus must die.

Lent 4A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for March 19, 2023 (Lent 4A)

First Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Through Sunday’s Lectionary readings we reflect on light and sight: What do we see, and how do we see it?

Healing the Man Born Blind

Healing the Man Born Blind (1605-1606), fresco for the Church of San Giacomo degli Spagnuoli, Rome, by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), later transferred to canvas. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. (Click image to enlarge)

In our first reading, we learn that God has rejected Saul as king of Israel. Now God sends a rather unwilling Samuel to take on the risky chore of finding a successor to Saul. God sends Samuel to Jesse the Bethlehemite, among whose eight sons God has chosen the next king. Samuel examines seven of the young men, one at a time, but doesn’t find God’s chosen one. Asking if there is any other, Samuel discovers David, Jesse’s youngest son, who had seemed such an unlikely choice that he had been sent to watch the sheep. But God saw the spirit in David that the others could not detect. David is to become king and will be next in the Messiah’s line.

Psalm: Psalm 23

Who doesn’t know and love the 23rd Psalm? It brings comfort in time of trouble and trial, reminding us that in our darkest hours and most threatening times, God walks with us, protects us and comforts us. Ancient tradition held that David himself wrote these verses. Most modern scholars doubt that. But kings and commoners alike can take joy from knowing that God’s rod and staff comfort us, and God’s goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives.

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:8-14

This short letter, probably written in Paul’s name a generation or more after his death, contains some problems for modern Christians who take it out of its historical and cultural context. It appears to sanction slavery, for example, and it firmly puts women in their place as “subject” to their husbands. Sunday’s short passage, however, offers a poetic view of light against darkness. Perhaps echoing John’s vision of Jesus as the light shining in the darkness, it points us toward the Gospel about the man born blind.

Gospel: John 9:1-41

For millennia many humans have held on to the troubling idea that blindness and other disabilities are God’s way of punishing a person’s sins or even the sins of their ancestors. In this Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that God does no such thing. In a long narrative we hear the intriguing details about how Jesus healed the man with a mixture of mud and saliva spread on his eyes and washed in a pool. Then Jesus disappears from the narrative, leaving us to listen in on a long and fruitless discussion among the Pharisees, the no-longer-blind man, and his family. Finally Jesus returns, and his words make clear that God works in the world through grace, not punishment, and that the miracle of healing cannot come from sin or evil.