This is the beginning of the first full week in Lent. We usually say the Great Litany during this week, and this is typically the only time of the year that we say it. However, I think that we should say it at least one more time in order to realize what we have said because we often don’t compute the whole of what we read the first time. By doing it a second time through, we assimilate it. We Episcopalians have a hard time with the word sin, which is the subject of at least the first half of the Litany. We love the second half of the Litany which has to do with our redemption and the death and resurrection of Jesus. We love the Eucharist, but it has no meaning without the confession of our sins which we are loath to acknowledge. I can almost hear you saying ”No, you are wrong! We are not sinners. We will not discuss sin. It is not something that Episcopalians talk about.” Well the Great Litany does, and it is in the Book, that is the Book of Common Prayer, and therefore it is worthy of note. We need to embrace our sins, that is really own them, if we are to expect a redemption. Redemption is meaningless without something to forgive.
This is the week of Ash Wednesday (February 25), one of the most important days in the Christian year. It is the beginning of Lent, the forty days before Easter, the day on which we are imposed with ashes and reminded of our sins. What is a sin? I suppose you might say that it is a breaking of the Law of Moses, The Ten Commandments. Or I suppose you might say that it is doing something bad however that might be defined. But I prefer to say that it is our willingness to close God out of our lives. On Ash Wednesday we confess our sins and ask forgiveness. The imposition of ashes symbolizes our need to confess and the act of confessing our sins publicly. We reflect on our penitence during Lent and refrain from using any language of celebration, such as alleluia, during this time.
Frederick Douglass, a social reformer according to the Episcopal Lectionary Calendar, is celebrated on February 20. Douglass was a Black spokesman for the Abolitionist Movement, editor of the North Star, and adviser to President Lincoln. He was also a slave who learned to read and ran away in order to escape the severe punishment that usually came with this skill when it was discovered in a slave. In the North, he was discovered by the Abolitionists who took him to Britain to speak against slavery. He was a very powerful orator and a key figure in persuading the British to stay out of the American Civil War. When the Civil War began, he encouraged President Lincoln to establish units of African American slaves to fight for their freedom while supporting the North. Lincoln did not develop these units of armed forces, much to Douglass’ disappointment.
“The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most vulnerable citizens.” Not long ago I received an e-mail with this quote from Carter, or maybe it is a paraphrase, but it is close whichever it is. And it made me start mulling over our current situation, especially since Joe Arn had raised the question: Are we, as Christians responsible for helping the poor? My answer to Joe’s question is: Of course! Just thinking about this statement of Carter’s may give us a clue about the man himself. He is a highly ethical man who takes his Christian commitment seriously without any reference to his political alignment. This is the sort of statement that a Christian would make, especially one who took the practical application of his belief seriously. It is not the sort of statement that a politician who was interested in winning in the annals of history would make. Only winners make those pages. When we focus on the weak and vulnerable, we show our love and compassion toward others. When we focus on winning at all costs, we show our disdain and disregard toward others. Have we lost our way as Christians? Do we care for each other or only for the winners? Is it hard to be a friend of the vulnerable?
This is the first week after Epiphany, and yesterday we celebrated the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. During this event, God proclaims that Jesus is His Son. Hence, this is a special day for us and we celebrate by repeating our vows or the vows that were said for us as an infant and by being sprinkled with water off of a rosemary branch. This is one of two central sacraments celebrated by the church. It is the initiation of each of us into the church, the body of Christ. There was a huge battle in the early church over the mark of membership into the church. Many felt that membership was marked by circumcision, which was a Jewish thing and signified that you were a member of the Jewish people who followed the law of Moses. That was fine for those Jewish males who joined the Way, but it did not work for women or Gentiles (anyone not a Jew). So Paul, with the backing of the church in Jerusalem, tossed out any physical mark of membership, making baptism the central requirement.