Saturday, February 22, 2020

Quinquagesima Sunday

Quinquagesima. It’s a lovely word to get your tonsils round, isn’t it? Say it with me … Quinquagesima.

That’s the ancient Latin name given to this Sunday, the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday. What does it mean?  

It ought to mean something really exotic, didn’t it? You know, something like “the Feast of St Quinqua, holder of the golden orb of Gesima, slayer of dragons, and defender of the poor”.

‘Friad not.

It just means ‘fiftieth’. Today marks the fact that in 50 days from now, we will celebrate the rising of Christ from the tomb at Easter.

But hang on. Some of you are doing the math, and thinking to yourselves ‘that can’t be right! If Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, and its 40 days long, how can today be 50 days from Easter?

That’s because many of us forget that the 40 days of Lent do not include the seven Sundays of Lent. Sundays are days of celebration – each one a mini-Easter, during which the triumph of Christ over the grave is remembered and praised. They are also days of relief from the strictures of Lent. So for those of us who face the prospect of 40 days of abstinence with dread, the church kindly provides us with one day in seven when we are permitted to eat chocolate, or drink that glass of beer!  Then add the three days from today until Ashe Wednesday - and there is your 50 days until Easter.

More importantly than any ecclesiastical numbering system, today’s focus is really on the story of the Mount of Transfiguration. Our Gospel reading of this morning reminded us of how Jesus met on the mountain with Moses and Elijah – The Lawgiver and the ultimate Prophet (before Jesus himself). They strengthened him and encouraged him for the journey ahead…the journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

This evening’s readings pick up the same theme. The first reading came from one of the apocryphal books of the Protestant Canon….not part of the Canon of Scripture, but an ancient reading which still has something to teach us.

Ecclesiasticus is another juicy word to get our tongues around. It actually means ‘church book’ – because it is a text which was readily available to early Christians, and so it was often read in services. Its proper name is ‘the Wisdom of Sirach’ – or even more fully, ‘the Wisdom of Joshua, son of Sirach’. It was written around 200 years before the coming of Christ, and, as such, is one of the latest pre-Christian books that we have.

Sirach’s wisdom was a very personal thing. One the one hand, he advocated the use of physicians to heal the sick – demonstrating that 200 years before Jesus, the notion that sickness was a punishment for sin was beginning to lose its force. That, of course, was something that Jesus himself would go on to teach.

On the other hand, Sirach was certainly a man of his time. He advocates the use of harsh punishment to control both slaves and women! Which is one of the reasons why the Protestant church has never recognised his writings as canonical.

Nevertheless, Sirach was well known to the people of Jesus’ time, and the passage that we heard just now was one that had particular relevance. In it, Sirach praises Elijah for being the great prophet that he was, and also, intriguingly, promises that Elijah will return to ‘calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury’.

This one line, from a dubious and idiosyncratic writer, had huge intellectual force in its time…and it still resonates today. It is why the people of Jesus’ time kept asking whether he, or John the Baptist, were Elijah. It was somewhat of an obsession of theirs, because the Book of Sirach was so well known to them. Which just goes to show that if you repeat even a stupid idea enough times, people will begin to believe it – as we have seen in the recent politics of our own time.

The idea that Elijah would return to ‘calm the wrath of God’ is one of the main foundations of the idea that Jesus died to save us from an angry God. Which, again, I want to suggest to you is an idea that needs serious examination.

God might well be angry with humanity. In our second reading, which takes place immediately after Jesus comes down from the mountain, there is certainly a lot of frustration building up in him! “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?”

And then, when the disciples report that they couldn’t cast out a troublesome demon, Jesus thoroughly excoriates them for their lack of faith. “If you just had a little faith!” he says, in exasperation. “A tiny little bit of faith…as tiny as a mustard seed, then you could move mountains!”

Yes, God certainly is capable of wrath towards his faithless and perverse generation. But, to then make the leap of saying that Jesus had to die to somehow appease that wrath seems, to me, to load the meaning of the crucifixion with too much weight.

After all, we teach and believe that Jesus is God. There’s a certain weakness of logic in suggesting that God had to die in order to appease God’s own wrath. Isn’t there?

I rather prefer the theology of the 10th century office hymn which we just heard in the setting by Thomas Tallis. ‘O nata lux’ is a hymn of praise to Jesus, the ‘nata lux’ – he who was born of light, recalling the opening of John’s Gospel. ‘God of God. Light of Light.’

But the hymn then goes on to contemplate the meaning of Christ’s incarnation, and of course, that must include his death. For the unknown writer of the hymn, Jesus is the God who deigned to be hidden in flesh…the God who gives up his divinity, to become one of us, and to die as we might die. Why? The entire purpose of Jesus’ incarnation is summed up in the final line of the hymn: Jesus came to rescue the lost, and to join us in one body.

That – for me – is a far more compelling notion than the notion of a wrathful God whose anger can only be appeased by his own death. Instead, Jesus comes to us, perhaps out of frustration that we have failed to listen to Moses and Elijah, perhaps frustrated that we have not even the faith of a mustard seed, and he reaches out to us. He reaches out, and draws us in. He rescues us from our own blindness and stupidity, and draws us into union with himself. By sharing in our humanity, he dies our death. By sharing with us his divinity, he transcends death and draws us into his own body.

‘Listen,’ says St Paul, ecstatically absorbing the glorious truth, ‘I will tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.’ Like Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, we too will be changed and given glorious new existence in the kingdom of our father.

And all because of the event we will celebrate together, just a quinquagesima from now!


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