Lent and Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the forty-day season of Lent. Many churches, as part of their Ash Wednesday services, practice the imposition of ashes, in which the sign of the cross is made upon the heads of the faithful, as a reminder that we “are dust, and to dust we shall return.” The ashes are often the product of burning the palm branches from the previous year’s observance of Palm Sunday. The imposition of ashes is not a requirement, but rather a nice, visible reminder of the frailty of our lives, and Christ’s sacrifice for us. This begins the “purple season;” however, like Good Friday, Ash Wednesday can also be observed with simple black banners and paraments in the church.

From the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

During the forty days of Lent, God’s baptized people cleanse their hearts through the discipline of Lent: repentance, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent is a time in which God’s people prepare with joy for the Paschal Feast (Easter). It is a time in which God renews His people’s zeal in faith and life. It is a time in which we pray that we may be given the fulness of grace that belongs to the children of God.

The Transfiguration of our Lord

The Transfiguration of our Lord is a movable feast day that falls on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. Today was the Feast of the Transfiguration in churches that use the three-year lectionary; churches that use the one-year lectionary celebrated the Transfiguration a few weeks ago, and are wrapping up their “Pre-Lent” season today. The Feast of the Transfiguration is also the Sunday that marks the “farewell to alleluias” before Lent begins.

The Transfiguration is found in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-12; and Luke 9:28-36).  It is in these readings that Jesus’s disciples see Him in His glory on the mountaintop, accompanied by Moses and Elijah. The disciples are so excited about the wonder that they are seeing that Peter even offers to construct three tents, that they might stay on the mountain. Like the day of Jesus’s baptism, God the Father speaks out from Heaven, and recognizes Who Jesus is, and tells the disciples to listen to Him.

As we prepare for Lent, we share the feelings of the disciples, as expressed in the words of the hymn, “‘Tis Good. Lord, To Be Here:”

Tis good, Lord, to be here!
Yet we may not remain;
But since Thou bidst us leave the mount,
Come with us to the plain. Lutheran Service Book #414, verse four

Church Feasts, Festivals, and Commemorations

I’ve spent the last year sharing writings for each Feast, Festival, and Commemoration observed by the Lutheran church. So, you may be asking yourself, what is the difference between a Principal Feast of Christ, a Festival Day, and a Commemoration? I think I’ve finally got it figured out (although, I’m certainly open to correction if I screwed something up!):

  • Feast–These are the chief days of celebration, outside of the church year days such as Easter, and generally focus on events in the life of Christ, such as His Presentation in the Temple and the Annunciation to Mary, as well as days such as St. Michael and All Angels and All Saints’ Day.
  • Festival–These are days to recognize people who associated directly with Jesus, such as his disciples and his family. All of the people recognized on Festival Days are found in the New Testament. Holy Cross Day and Reformation Day are also Festivals.
  • Commemoration–These days recognize other notable Saints, including people from the Old Testament, such as Abraham, (and his wife, Sarah), Isaac, and Jacob, people from the New Testament epistles, including Aquila, Priscilla, and Apollos, early church fathers like Augustine of Hippo and Ambrose of Milan, and famous Lutherans, like Martin Luther and his wife, Katharina von Bora, Frederick the Wise, Philipp Melanchthon, and  C.F.W. Walther. Other pastors, missionaries, rulers, musicians, martyrs, and even artists are also recognized. These are all people who didn’t work directly with Christ, as His apostles did, but still worked to spread the Gospel in some way. The 325 Council of Nicaea is also included as a Commemoration Day, as is the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession.

Most of these dates are observed on the best known date of death for the individual, as that is the date they went to their eternal glory with Christ in Heaven. Men and women are both represented, as are many different countries from around the world. Principal Feasts of Christ can replace the regularly scheduled pericopes for worship when they occur on a Sunday, while festivals and commemorations do not.

December 29–David

From the LCMS website:

David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, ruled from about 1010 to 970 B.C. The events of his life are found in 1 Samuel 16 through 1 Kings 2 and in 1 Chronicles 10—29. David was also gifted musically. He was skilled in playing the lyre and the author of no less than 73 psalms, including the beloved Psalm 23. His public and private character displayed a mixture of good (for example, his defeat of the giant Goliath, 1 Samuel 17) and evil (as in his adultery with Uriah’s wife, followed by his murder of Uriah, 2 Samuel 11). David’s greatness lay in his fierce loyalty to God as Israel’s military and political leader, coupled with his willingness to acknowledge his sins and ask for God’s forgiveness (2 Samuel 12; see also Psalm 51). It was under David’s leadership that the people of Israel were united into a single nation with Jerusalem as its capital city.

December 28–The Holy Innocents, Martyrs

From the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

Matthew’s Gospel tells of King Herod’s vicious plot against the infant Jesus after being “tricked” by the Wise Men. Threatened by the one “born King of the Jews,” Herod murdered all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger (Matthew 2:16-18). These “innocents,” commemorated just three days after the celebration of Jesus’ birth, remind us not only of the terrible brutality of which human beings are capable but more significantly of the persecution Jesus endured from the beginning of His earthly life. Although Jesus’ life was spared at this time, many years later, another ruler, Pontius Pilate, would sentence the innocent Jesus to death.

December 27–St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

From the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

St. John was a son of Zebedee and brother of James the Elder (whose festival day is July 25). John  was among the first disciples to be called by Jesus (Matthew 4:18-22) and became known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” as he refers to himself in the Gospel that bears his name (e.g., John 21:20). Of the Twelve, John alone did not forsake Jesus in the hours of His suffering and death. With the faithful women, he stood at the cross, where our Lord made him the guardian of His mother. After Pentecost, John spent his ministry in Jerusalem and at Ephesus, where tradition says he was bishop. He wrote the fourth Gospel, the three Epistles that bear his name, and the Book of Revelation. Especially memorable in his Gospel are the account of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12), the “Gospel in a nutshell” (John 3:16), Jesus’ saying about the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-16), the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11), and Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene on Easter morning (John 20:11-18). According to tradition, John was banished to the island of Patmos (off the coast of Asia Minor) by the Roman emperor Domitian. John lived to a very old age, surviving all the apostles, and died at Ephesus around AD 100.

December 26–St. Stephen, Martyr

From the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

St. Stephen, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5), was one of the Church’s first seven deacons. He was appointed by the leaders of the Church to distribute food and other necessities to the poor in the growing Christian community in Jerusalem, thereby giving the apostles more time for their public ministry of proclamation (Acts 6:2-5). He and the other deacons apparently were expected not only to wait on tables but also to teach and preach. When some of his colleagues became jealous of him, they brought Stephen to the Sanhedrin and falsely charged him with blaspheming against Moses (Acts 6:9-14). Stephen’s confession of faith, along with his rebuke of the members of the Sanhedrin for rejecting their Messiah and being responsible for His death, so infuriated them that they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death. Stephen is honored as the Church’s first martyr and for his words of commendation and forgiveness as he lay dying: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60).