Lenten Meditations

Up off the floor from my cold, if not entirely healed . . . I hope to return to (ir)regular posting soon. I left my last post (the comment on Article XXI) unfinished, and there are some follow-up thoughts as well. Readers may wonder why, with so much happening—the approach of General Convention, the work of the Special Commission on the Windsor Report, etc.—I continue with a commentary on the Articles. Stay tuned; there is a method here. Among other things, I am trying to lay out the ecclesiological groundwork necessary for understanding what has happened and the consequences of whatever it is that will take place this summer in Columbus and beyond.

Meanwhile, I offer two pieces I composed for the highly commendable enterprise of Karen B. of Lent & Beyond in her series of Lenten Meditations by Anglican Bloggers. The first was posted on her site last Monday, the second today. I hope they are of some use.


The Tyranny of Death

In looking at the lessons for today, Monday in the fifth week of Lent, I noticed something odd. The 1928 ECUSA Book of Common Prayer has for its Epistle reading for the Daily Office 1 Corinthians 15: 12-19. Yet the 1979 Prayer Book has set the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians for the first week of Easter.

It is easy to see why the composers of the 1979 lectionary should place this passage immediately following Easter:

(12) Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? (13) But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; (14) if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then our preaching is in vain [Greek kenon, “empty”] and your faith is in vain [“empty”]. (15) We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if is true that the dead are not raised. (16) For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. (17) If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (18) Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. (19) If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. (RSV)

I cannot read the minds of those who set the earlier lectionary, but why would such a passage be read before Easter rather than after? I would like to make a suggestion as to why this “resurrection” passage makes such good Lenten reading.

It is something of a theological commonplace to say that, in contemplating the human condition stemming from the fall of Adam, western Latin Christianity has focused on an inheritance of a tendency to sin resulting in death, whereas the eastern tradition has preferred to speak of an inheritance of death resulting in a tendency to sin. The locus classicus of this discussion is Romans 5, especially verses 12 to 14. It is not my purpose here to rehearse those arguments, or to suggest a preference for one view over the other, or to discuss the questions of the state of the human will that inevitably arise. Rather, it is to propose only for purposes of this meditation using the lens of the inheritance of death and of sin as its consequence (rather than the other way round) to see why this is such an appropriate passage for Lent, what it says about the deliverance we long for, and why we fast in preparation for it.

The late Eastern Orthodox theologian and historian John Meyendorff (whom I had the privilege to meet when he served on my dissertation defense committee) liked to refer to the Orthodox understanding of man’s fallen state as “the tyranny of death.” By this, he meant that, in the Byzantine tradition, the universality of death creates a condition in which sin is inevitable. The fallen world we inhabit is not a world in which man sins and therefore dies, but in which he dies and therefore, in his desperate efforts to cope with this terrifying reality, drives away his awareness of it through either sensual satisfactions or achieving an immortality on his own terms and at the expense of anyone in his way. We recoil at the more obvious instances of this, whether it be drug addiction in the case of the former, or the quest for power in the case of the latter—Hitler’s Reich was to last a thousand years. But these are only the cases easiest to spot. In truth, our entire world is arranged around the inevitability of death: bank accounts, personal status, careers, et cetera, and these just as surely exert a constant pull on our egos as any need to obliterate our consciousness through chemicals or build monuments to ourselves like Shelley’s Ozymandias. It is surely no accident that, in the immediate enthusiasm of the church after Pentecost, private property was abolished (Acts 4:32-36), and just as surely no accident that it didn’t last. In Meyendorff’s words,

Mortality, or “corruption,” or simply death (understood in a personalized sense), has indeed been viewed, since Christian antiquity, as a cosmic disease which holds humanity under its sway, both spiritually and physically, and is controlled by the one who is “the murderer from the beginning” (Jn. 8:44). It is this death which makes sin inevitable, and in this sense “corrupts” nature. Byzantine Theology

It is this tyranny of death that captures our consciousness by the terror of nothingness, that the passage in 1 Corinthians speaks about and that Lenten discipline is intended to stand against. For if it were only from our sins that Christ came to save us through suffering in our place, why should Christ rise at all? “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” In fact, we believers are actually worse off than the heroin addict or the egomaniac, since our hope is delusory.

Thus, as the Christ was not merely sacrificed for our sins but raised so that we might share in his divine life, so we do not fast to atone for our sins—to the Christian that ought to be obvious—nor to meet some legal obligation (the dreaded “works righteousness”), nor even for “spiritual discipline,” which is a fine phrase but misses the point. Instead, Christian discipline, heightened in Lent through fasting, is an effort to practice by anticipation living in a world without death as we someday shall in reality, a world where material joys abound but do not control or corrupt us because, alive in God, they shall be ours to enjoy forever, without the terror of death to create an insatiable appetite or an ego’s black hole. The Lenten fast is thus act of faith in the resurrection, a declaration in the teeth of all the world’s temptations that our faith is not empty, that we do not hope in Christ “for this life only.” It is an asceticism for the common man, and the paradox of Lenten denial is its affirmation of the goodness of creation, a creation we are intended to enjoy forever.

(20) But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. (21) For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. (22) For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.


In both the 1928 and 1979 Prayer Books of the Episcopal Church, the Old Testament readings for the daily office start Monday of Holy Week with Lamentations. This is the moment in the liturgical year for this little book—only nine pages in my annotated RSV—to make its mark.

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see, if there is any sorrow like my sorrow which was brought upon me, which the LORD inflicted on the day of his fierce anger. Lamentations 1:12

Sometime about 920 BC, King Solomon died, and the kingdom his father David had created—a small but respectable mini-empire by the standards of the ancient near east—was unable to remain united. For the next two hundred years, the Israelites were divided into two nations, the southern kingdom of Judah where a descendent of David continued to rule, and a northern kingdom of Israel where a rival dynasty was set up. Then in 722 the northern kingdom was destroyed in an unsuccessful rebellion against the Evil Empire of much of the Old Testament, Assyria.

They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword shall rage against their cities, consume the bars of their gates, and devour them in their fortresses. My people are bent on turning away from me; so they are appointed to the yoke, and none shall remove it. Hosea 12:5-7

Following a standard form of imperial control, the Assyrians removed entire populations from the rebellious Israel (the so-called “ten lost tribes” of Israel) and resettled them across the near east, while others were moved into the former territories of the Israelites, or Samaria (hence the origins of the Samaritans—2 Kings 17:21-41). For all intents and purposes, the people of the northern kingdom go off history’s radar screen for good.

In the south, a descendent of David continued on the throne of Jerusalem. The kingdom of Judah appeared to have survived. However, almost a century and a half later, in 586 BC, Judah too participated in a rebellion, this time against Babylon, one of the successor states of Assyria, and the people of Judah were no more successful than their relatives in the north. Jerusalem was destroyed, its walls torn down, and the temple, built by Solomon and proclaimed by the prophets as the only true place for sacrificial worship of the LORD, was destroyed as well. The throne on which God had promised that a descendent of David would sit forever, and the temple where His glory dwelt, were both gone, and the people of Jerusalem were exiled as their northern brethren, this time to Babylon, clear across the fertile crescent in the Tigris and Euphrates valley.

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion . . . How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? Psalm 137:1, 4

Lamentations is attributed to Jeremiah, though his authorship is doubtful. Whatever. It is a lament over the ruined city, the apparent victory of the enemies of the LORD, and a cry of despair at Judah’s failure.

How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the cities has become a vassal . . .

Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.

The Lord has scorned his altar, disowned his sanctuary; he has delivered into the hand of the enemy the walls of her palaces; a clamor was raised in the house of the LORD as on the day of an appointed feast. Lamentations 1:1, 3; 2:7

And yet . . . unlike their cousins to the north, these Israelites do not vanish. They do not go off the radar screen. With the capture of Babylon by Cyrus of Persia in 530 BC, they are permitted to return, to rebuild David’s city and the LORD’s temple. Nor is this a mere restoration of the status quo ante. In the vision of the author of the last chapters of Isaiah, the victory of Cyrus (the anointed of the LORD, Isaiah 45:1) and the restoration of the Israelite nation is the beginning of the extension of the rule of the LORD over all the earth.

“Listen to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; for a law will go forth from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. My deliverance draws near speedily, my salvation has gone forth and my arms will rule the peoples . . .”

“Thus says the LORD God, who gathers together the outcasts of Israel, I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” Isaiah 51:4, 54:5

The author of these chapters in Isaiah believes that this is the mission, the purpose of the LORD’s servant on earth, the nation of Israel, to serve as the instrument whereby the LORD who controls history will alter history’s course in the direction of salvation. And this nation-as-servant theme is famously personified in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah we all remember, particularly in Holy Week.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. Isaiah 53:3-5

When the actual incarnation of this servant of the LORD enters history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, not only is the history of humanity summed up in his life (what St. Irenaeus in the second century would call ‘recapitulation’) and the curse of the tree of Eden reversed—so is the history of Israel. From exile in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15) and descent from David, Jesus re-enacts the crucial moments of Israelite history. Before he can alter history, before he can fulfill his mission as the recapitulation of humanity, he must complete the re-enactment of Israel, which includes destruction, exile, and the lament of his followers.

The LORD has scorned his altar, disowned his sanctuary . . .

This time, the LORD’s temple is the body of Jesus (John 2:19-21); His sanctuary is Golgotha, His altar the cross. This time, the exile is to hell. This time, the lament is that of his followers . . .

But thou, O LORD, dost reign for ever; thy throne endures to all generations. Why dost thou forget us forever, why dost thou so long forsake us?

Restore us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old! Or hast thou utterly rejected us? Art thou exceedingly angry with us? Lamentations 5:20-22

. . . and this time, the return from exile is to inaugurate the eternal reign of the son of David.


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