“Lift Him Up”
A sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday in Lent
at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
March 18, 2018
At the beginning of Lent, I shared with you a few thoughts about the Season of Lent. I mentioned that there are, what appear to me to be, “competing theologies.” The first goes back to the earliest days of the Church and speak of Lent as a time of preparation in which the Catechumens—those who were about to become incorporated into the Church at the Easter Vigil through the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist—received their final guidance before they were welcomed.
The other tradition, which came sometime later, was that of reconciling “notorious sinners.” My point was that I believe that we have so focused on the theology of the reconciliation of sinners that the theology of preparation for inclusion was lost. The end result is that Lent came to be viewed as a rigorous penitential season. My fear is that because of this emphasis we, as a Church, could miss out on an important opportunity to re-explore what it means for us to be a Church preparing to welcome others. Also, Lent could be a season in which we as individuals reflect on what it means for us to have been fully incorporated into the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. It provides, as well, an invitation to reflect on the role that the Sacraments play in our lives of faith.
The modern Liturgical Movement intentionally chose to return to the “sources” of the Christian experience. While there continued to be an appropriate focus on the importance of the Holy Scriptures (Hebrew and Christian), there was a “re-discovery” of Tradition. New translations of the writings of important thinkers from the second and third centuries gave insight into the practice of the early church.
Fascinating documents like the famous journal of The Pilgrimage of Egeria give an actual account of what happened at the Easter Vigil in Jerusalem in the 380’s. This account is fascinating—written by a woman from either France of Spain—and is the only account that we know of which actually gives any details of what happened in the Holy Land at the Easter Vigil. The conclusion which liturgists derived was that this account could represent an unbroken tradition which might go all the way back to the Apostles.
In the Episcopal and Roman Catholic traditions—though the same may well be true of others—there was an attempt to re-establish the Catechumenate. Documents like the Book of Occasional Services and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults lay out a plan for guiding adults to full initiation. Without hopefully getting into minute details, I would like to make a few observations about some of the suggestions which these guides propose.
First, there is a focus on what it means for “God to have taken on our humanity.” Humans have five senses: touch, sight, taste, hearing and smell. One of the beautiful practices proposed is the “signing of the senses.” When this is done, the sponsor makes the sign of the Cross over the hands, feet, ears, eyes, nose and mouth of the Catechumen. We are reminded that good worship appeals to all these same senses and seeks to engage us through them. Think of the beauty of our buildings (wood, stone, stained glass, flowers and altar cloths). Remember the elements we can touch—and even taste (water, wine, bread and oil). Think of fragrances like fresh flowers and incense (not always a blessing to those with allergies). Think of lights and candles, music and bells. All these things invite us to enter into the mystery of the Sacraments.
Second, there is the recognition that we are all called to change, to grow and to deepen our faith. In short, we are called to conversion. We are called to “newness of life.” We are called to think, feel, and act in new ways. This is symbolized by the “Exorcisms.” Now that is a word which has to immediately be explained. It has almost nothing to do with concerns about “demon-possession.” It might better be translated as “Prayers for Healing.” It comes from the recognition that we are all wounded, broken and fragmented. We need to be healed, restored, forgiven and more fully integrated. It also recognizes that we live in a world which is as confused, wounded and broken as we are individually. Even collectively, we have not yet arrived at our final destination. So, the Church too is invited to grow in faith, love and service. Early Christian practices may have involved things like first turning toward the West (where the sun sets and thus a place of fear and darkness) and breathing out–then turning to face the East (the sun rises there and so a place of light and hope) and breathing in. It may also have included things like the laying on of hands with prayer. There may also have been anointings with oil (not just something we use to cook food—in the early Church this was one of the best medicines which was available).
Third, even though the Catechumens were dismissed before the Eucharist because it was thought that the Eucharist was so holy and sacred that only those who fully part of the Church could participate, the catechumens were taught the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. They would have been exposed in Church to the Sacred Scriptures and would have stayed for the Sermon. Perhaps we should imitate them in these final days of Lent by intentionally and thoughtfully praying the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed.
The symbols used in Baptism were especially powerful: The white baptismal garment (which they would have worn for a whole week) symbolized new life in Christ—full of hope and free from stain or blemish, the sacred chrism (with the addition of aromatic herbs and spices), the new Easter light presented in the baptismal candle, and the kiss of peace as a new member. All these symbols intended to remind the Catechumen of the goal of their preparation. Through the Easter Rites they were freed from sin and welcomed into the Body of the Church with all the privileges and duties which that entailed. It meant that they could now count on the love and support of the entire Christian family. But it also meant that they, in turn, were called to extend that same love, support, hope and encouragement to their Sisters and Brothers in Christ. It also meant that through their incorporation, they were now called to active ministry in the Church. All the Baptized share in the ministry of Christ as “priest, prophet and king.”
Following Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, there was an intense period of formation called “Mystagogia.” This was a time to answer all the questions which had not been previously addressed. It was a time to explain “Salvation History.” Remember that the word “salvation” is derived from a root, “salus” that means “health” or “healing.” It did not primarily refer to a hope that after death one would go to heaven rather than to hell. Rather, it spoke of the ways in which God had been involved in human history—at every single moment. It spoke of the various “covenants” or ways in which God had intentionally interacted with humans to bring love, healing, restoration and wholeness. It spoke of special moments of grace to Eve and Adam, to the family of Noah, to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, to Moses and the People of Israel and to David and his family. But it also spoke of the ways in which each of those persons was a symbol of God’s outreach to the whole human family.
Especially in the Prophets, there was the notion that God’s love, caring and concern extended to literally every single person—and not only to those who might have been able to be connected to God previously. It spoke of the relationship with God moving to the intimacy of a covenant written on the human heart. This is the very imagery which we hear today in the beautiful reading from the Prophet Jeremiah.
Christians asserted that the fullness of God’s self-revelation was to be found in the gift and person of Jesus Christ. Both the Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel According to Saint John speak of the significance of the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed one and Promised of God, the incarnate Word, the Light in Darkness, the only-begotten Son of God, the Priest According to the Order of Melchizedek, the Son of Man lifted up on the Cross as the Banner of Hope to the Nations, the Wounded Healer whose passion, death and resurrection brings hope to the world. All these images remind us of who we too are, and what we are called to be.
A final thought. Next Sunday we will leave Lent behind and move into the Holiest of Weeks. On Palm or Passion Sunday we begin with the joyous entry of Our Lord into Jerusalem. We then move through the week to Maundy Thursday at which we remember Christ’s own words that he was giving us a new Covenant—his presence with us in Word, Bread and Wine—and a new commandment—that we love and serve all. On Good Friday we move from the Garden in Gethsemane to the scourging, the carriage of the Cross, the Crucifixion and to the Tomb. On Saturday evening and Sunday morning, we celebrate the surprise, joy and hope offered to us through the Resurrection.
Yet, we cannot forget that this Holy Week was often in the past a time of violence, hatred and oppression—and especially to our Jewish Sisters and Brothers. We cannot forget that great evils still exist in our world: Misogyny, Racism, Homophobia, Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Fear of the Elderly, Fear of the Young, and Xenophobia (to name a few). Holy Week reminds us that those sins and hatreds are diametrically opposed to God’s plan—and that if we allow them to continue, we prevent God’s plan from being realized.
I conclude with the words of a lovely hymn from my childhood—a beautiful song by Reba Rambo:
Lift Him up, Lift Him up
Lift the name of Jesus higher
Lift Him up, raise His banner to the sky.
He said if I be lifted up, I will draw all to me
Lift Him up, all ye people lift Him up.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord
Praise His righteousness forever
Praise the Lord, raise your voices to the sky
He said if you won’t praise my name,
then the rocks and stones will cry out.
Lift Him up, all ye people, lift Him up.
Show His love, show His love
Show His love to everybody
Show His love, raise your banner to the sky.
He said that by the love we show
they will know we’re His disciples
Show His love, all ye people, show His love.