Seasons change

 

My family has four seasonal wreaths for our front door. On Memorial Day weekend, I put up the summer wreath—red, white, and blue, with a patriotic theme. On Labor Day weekend, I put up the autumn wreath—red, orange, and yellow leaves on branches. On or about the First Sunday in Advent, I put up the winter/Christmas wreath—evergreen branches, holly berries, and fake snow. On the second of March I put up the spring wreath—stalks of green grass, pink flowers, and butterflies.

Why the second of March? Because in the song “Camelot” (in the musical of the same name), King Arthur sings to Guinevere about the wonders of his kingdom. Among those wonders is that the weather obeys the royal command. “The winter is forbidden ‘til December and exits March the second on the dot. By orders summer lingers through September in Camelot.”

I have always been drawn to the Arthurian traditions. Whether it’s the Lerner and Lowe musical, or the T.H. White novel on which the musical is based, or Howard Pyle’s children’s stories, or the poems of Tennyson, or the late medieval rendering of Marlowe, or the earliest stories of King Arthur and his knights… it’s all  good. I have Camelot and Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail in my movie collection, and I recently went to the theater to see The Kid Who Would Be King.

I also enjoy historical research into the roots of the Arthurian stories. There may have been a battlefield commander, a Latinized Celt, named Arthur (or something similar) who fought the invading Saxons after Rome withdrew its legions from Britain. He may have built a round hut in which he met with his forces. The French romances of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot came much later. Traces of pre-Celtic religion and legend may have contributed to the stories in their earliest versions. But every generation, it seems, has added its own contribution to the story of King Arthur and his knights of the round table.

I’m sure that Lerner and Lowe chose the date of March 2 in an arbitrary way, because the date fits the song and not because it means anything more. But the date fits nicely as a near-midpoint between the First Sunday in Advent and Memorial Day weekend. Therefore, in the Salvageable house—as in Camelot—March 2 is officially the first day of spring. J.

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Why Christians worship

Every Sunday Christians get out of bed and get themselves ready for church. A few walk to church or take mass transit; most drive. Some Christians wear their finest clothing—a suit and tie, or a fancy dress and perhaps a hat—while others dress more casually—everyday shirts and slacks, or perhaps jeans, or sometimes even shorts. Most have breakfast before church; a few fast. They gather, and they worship. Some of them attend a class before or after the service. And, of course, not all Christians who worship gather on Sunday morning. Some gather on Saturdays, others on Wednesday nights, and still others at other times of the week. Some have very formal services: traditional and liturgical, following patterns that were set early in the history of the Church. Others are far more relaxed—they sing a few songs, they hear Bible readings and a message, and they pray together. Christian worship practices are very diverse, conducted in a great many languages in a great many styles, sometimes with more than a thousand in one place and other times with fewer than ten people in the building.

Why do Christians worship? The best beginning to the answer might be the negative way—offering a few suggestions that are not the reasons Christians worship.

  • Christians do not worship as a good work to earn God’s approval and obtain his blessings. Christians are saved by grace; not by works. Their works (including worship) are a response to being forgiven, redeemed and rescued. Their works (including worship) do not cause them to be forgiven, redeemed, and rescued.
  • Christians do not worship because God needs their attention. God is complete within himself; God does not need anything from anyone. Some creative writers have written fantasy novels in which gods require worship and fade to nothing when they are forgotten. The true God would exist without worship; he exists outside of space and time and is fully self-sustaining.
  • Christians do not worship to flatter God. They do not expect special favors from God because they attended a service. They do not think that God owes them anything because they came to church, sang his praises, heard the sermon, prayed the prayers, and put money in the offering plate.
  • Christians do not worship for purely selfish reasons. They do not gather for worship only for their own individual benefit. They do not come to church to be entertained or amused. A church service cannot compete for excitement, action, and suspense with a sporting contest or a good Hollywood movie. Nor should it try to compete with those events.
  • Christians do not worship to impress anyone else. They do not come to church to exhibit their piety, their faithfulness, or their wardrobe. They do not want to be admired for their singing. They do not gather to try to make a good impression upon anyone.

Of course, any gathering of Christians may include some people who think they are there for one of these reasons. There may be some who think they are earning rewards from God and others who want to impress their fellow Christians. There may be some who come to be enlightened or entertained and others who expect special blessings from God because they came to church. In fact, the real reasons for Christian worship are similar to some of the misperceptions listed above. Someone who has been told why Christians worship may have misunderstood the lesson they were taught. Others may be part of the crowd merely out of habit, not stopping to ask why they are there and what they expect from the service.

Why do Christians worship? First, we worship because God wants us to worship him. In the Bible he commands our worship. He says, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8).  “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).  “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 19:20).

Yet if worship is commanded, it still is not a good work that earns God’s approval. Obedience to God’s commands does not cause his love and mercy and his forgiveness. Rather, God’s love and mercy and forgiveness cause a Christian to do good works, including worship. A tree is recognized by its fruit (Matthew 7:20), but sound apples do not cause the apple tree to be healthy. Instead, when the apple tree is healthy, it will bear sound apples.

God wants us to worship him, not because he needs us, but because we need him. We need to remember his goodness; therefore, we praise him. We need to remember the things he has done for us; therefore, we thank him. We need to remember that we are sinners desperately needing rescue; therefore, we confess our sins to him. We could do any of these things alone, and most Christians probably do. But God also wants us to gather as a group to do these things so we can strengthen one another, support one another, and encourage one another as members of the same family.

After all, God loves us. He wants what is best for us. These gatherings are beneficial to Christians. And, because he loves us, God wants to hear from us. He does not need us to honor and praise him, but he knows that such activity is good for us. Our finest works—even our finest worship—is worth no more than the crayon drawing of a Kindergartener. Yet the love of God accepts these gifts and, in a sense, proudly displays them on the door of his heavenly refrigerator.

That is the second reason we worship. We need fellowship with God. When we gather with fellow Christians in the name of Christ, he is with us. That is true whether the gathering is in a church building, a private living room, or under a tree. Gathering in his name means more than gathering because we are Christians. Four Christians playing golf together are not the Church—not even if each of them whispers prayers of supplication or of thanksgiving on the putting green. Church happens when Christians examine the Word of God together, especially when they are seeking God’s promises of forgiveness to share with one another. Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are part of the reason Christians gather; neither of these Sacraments is a private act, but they happen when Christians gather in Christ’s name.

Therefore, God speaks to his people through his people. He communicates with us through one another. First, he spoke to the world through apostles and prophets. Now, he speaks to the world as his people repeat the message of the apostles and prophets. Some are called to preach the Word, to administer the Sacraments, and to lead the worship. But all those who participate in the service are sharing the Word of God with one another. However they contribute to the service, even if only in silent prayers, they are strengthening the body of Christ by their presence. They are encouraging their fellow saints. They are doing the work that God gave to his Church to accomplish.

All this is closely attached to the third reason Christians worship. God does bless us as we worship. We are not gathering selfishly to demand his blessings. We do not arrogantly tell God how and when to bless us. But he loves us so much that, when we gather as the Church, God gives us good things. Through the promises of his Word he gives us the forgiveness of our sins. He gives us the guarantee of eternal life in a perfect new creation. He gives us victory over the devil, over our sins, over the sinful world, and even over death itself. He gives us the strength to continue living as his people in this world as we look forward to the world to come.

For this reason, Christian worship is often called the Divine Service. When we enter God’s house, we are his guests. He serves us. In a sense, every Christian service is like Christmas, with gifts to be opened and celebrated. Those who miss the service for no good reason are depriving themselves. They are skipping Christmas, leaving gifts meant for them sitting under the tree. We come to church for fellowship with God. We leave bearing gifts that he lavishes on us because he cares so much about us.

As these gifts are given in the service, one Christian might be entertained. Another might be uplifted. A third might learn something new. Even for the Christian who does not feel entertained or uplifted or educated, the service still has benefits. It might strike some Christians as tradition-bound or repetitive or boring. Especially the traditional, liturgical service has been blamed for boring believers and visitors alike. But the very pattern of the traditional Christian service is family-friendly. The child who has not learned how to read still learns the liturgy and takes part in it and receives benefits from it. The young mother holding a baby can follow along because she knows what to expect. The elderly grandmother with failing eyesight and failing hearing also gains the benefit of repeating the same liturgy she has known since childhood. And all of them—the young child, the mother, the grandmother—are receiving from God Himself the forgiveness of their sins, the guarantee of everlasting life, and a share in the victory won by Christ for all his people.

The problem with traditions is not that they never change or that people find them boring. In fact, traditions do alter over time. The problem with traditions is that they require explanation. Simply doing them does not give them meaning. Learning what the tradition represents, why it has been preserved in the Church for so long, and what it communicates about God and his love—that makes traditions both meaningful and valuable.

A girl watched her mother prepare the pot roast for the oven. Before she put the roast in the pan, the mother sliced off the end of the roast and put it sidewise next to the larger piece of meat. “Why did you do that, Mommy?” the little girl asked. “I’m not sure,” her mother answered. “My mother always did that. We’ll have to phone Grandma and see why we’ve always done that.” Grandma, when she answered the phone, was just as puzzled about the question. “I’ve always done that,” she told her granddaughter. “I think my mother must have done that too. You know, her mind is still pretty sharp. Why don’t you call her at the retirement village and ask her the same question?

The elderly lady laughed when she heard the question. “When your grandfather and I first were married,” she explained, “the only roasting pan I had was very small. I had to cut the roast that way to make it fit in the pan. I guess I just kept doing it, and it was handed down from generation to generation.”

Traditions that are not explained become useless, even harmful. Consult Psalm 50 and Isaiah 1:10-15 to see how angry God became with his chosen people when they went through the motions of worship and sacrifice without thinking about what they were doing and without putting their faith in the Lord.

But the enemies of tradition—who hate no sentence more greatly than “We’ve never done it that way before—make a mistake when they toss out all traditions, the beneficial along with those that have lost their meaning. Different is not always better. Before making a change to a long-standing tradition, those in charge need to ask, “How will this make the service better? How will this help people see the promises of God more clearly? What will be lost to all of us if we make this change?”

Traditions hold people together. They tie generations together. They preserve the past and help people to learn their history. Every group of people has a set of traditions, and often those who mutter against tradition have ingrained habits that have become as traditional to them as the old ways they despise.

Therefore, this fall and winter I will be writing from time to time about the traditional worship of the Church. Some readers will find these lessons very familiar; others might be learning about some Christian traditions for the very first time, even though they have been Christians for a long time. I will be presenting these traditions in three sets. First I will write about the parts of Christian worship from beginning to end, explaining why the traditional liturgy contains various elements. Then I will cover traditions of the Christian calendar, from Christmas and Easter to the less known holidays, as well as the seasons of the Church Year. Last I will speak about various other traditions associated with Christian worship—traditions about the architecture of the church building, traditions about the way that worship leaders dress, and traditions about the items used to serve Holy Communion, among others. May our understanding and appreciation of traditional Christian worship grow through these explanations. J.

Candlemas (Groundhog Day)

Most people, whether believers or unbelievers, are familiar with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Far fewer are aware of the minor festivals of the Christian calendar, such as Candlemas, which is observed every year on the second day of February.

As Christians in the Roman Empire chose to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus (that is to say, his birthday) at the same time that Romans and Celts and Germans were celebrating various Yuletide observances, so Christians also chose to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus at the same time that Celts were observing a holiday they called Imbolc. This holiday falls halfway between the winter solstice near the end of December and the spring equinox near the end of March. In Ireland, some of the old customs of Imbolc have been blended into St. Brigid’s Day on February 1, but for most other European Christians and their descendants around the world, Candlemas has received the attention formerly given to Imbolc.

The second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke describes the birth and childhood of Jesus. The familiar account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, including the announcement by the angel to shepherds and their visit, comes from Luke. Luke also wrote that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day from his birth and was presented to God on the fortieth day from his birth. Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 puts the anniversary of his circumcision on January 1 and his presentation on February 2.

What is the significance of the presentation of Jesus? As at his circumcision, Jesus was fulfilling the Law for the benefit of all his people. The Law of God, given through Moses, required every firstborn son to be offered to God and purchased from God with a sacrifice. This presentation and purchase of the firstborn son reminded God’s people of the tenth plague upon Egypt, when God’s angel killed the firstborn son of every family in Egypt except for those who obeyed God, marking their houses with the blood of a lamb. The details of the plague, the Passover, and the remembrance are filled with images of Jesus and his sacrifice—the death of a firstborn son picturing the death on the cross of God’s only-begotten Son, the substitution of a lamb for some sons (and the use of the lamb’s blood to identify those who were protected) showing Jesus as the Lamb of God taking the place of sinners, and the purchase of the firstborn son in following generations showing the price Jesus paid on the cross to cover the debt of sinners. Because Jesus, on the fortieth day from his birth, was already obeying the commands of God, Christians are credited with his righteousness. We are free to approach the throne of God and even to call him our Father. Jesus took our place in this sinful world so we can take his place in God’s Kingdom.

Bonfires were lit in Europe on Imbolc night as part of the celebration of the holiday. Christian churches chose to replace the bonfires with many candles, filling the church with light to remember Jesus, the Light of the world. From that custom comes the name, Candlemas. I first encountered that name in the stories of King Arthur, for he and his knights would gather on Candlemas, as they did on Christmas and Easter, to celebrate and to await the beginning of new adventures. The king would not allow his court to eat the feast until some odd event had taken place, sending at least one knight off on a mission to rescue some victim or defeat some enemy.

Before the establishment of the National Weather Service or the invention of Doppler Radar, European Christians often trusted traditions about the holidays to make long-term forecasts of the coming weather. St. Swithin’s Day (July 15) in the British Isles was thought to set the pattern for the next forty days—either it would remain dry for forty days or it would rain for forty days, depending upon whether or not it rained that day. In Hungary the weather on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) predicted the kind of winter that was coming: “If St. Martin arrives on a white horse, it will be a mild winter—if he arrives on a brown horse, it will be a cold and snowy winter.” In other words, snow on November 11 promised a mild winter. So also, the weather on Candlemas was thought to predict the next forty days of weather: a clear and sunny Candlemas meant winter was only half over, but a cloud-filled sky on Candlemas morning meant that winter was over and spring was about to begin.

In Germany bears often took a break from hibernation around the beginning of February to check out conditions and get a bite to eat. The weather tradition for Candlemas became associated with the emergence of the bear and the question of whether it cast a shadow. German settlers in North America adapted the tradition to local wildlife, and thus began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Ironically, more Americans are aware of Groundhog Day than of Candlemas. The fame of Groundhog Day increased in 1993 with the release of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie has little connection to Christian beliefs. It is more suited to explaining the idea of samsara, found in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Samsara is the cycle of lifetimes in which one’s atman (roughly analogous to spirit or soul, but not exactly the same thing) keeps returning to this world until it has learned all it needs to know and is fully enlightened.

On Groundhog Day I check for shadows as I bring in the morning paper. This year, I will also remember to light a candle or two and celebrate the feast of Candlemas. J.

(Reposted from February 2, 2016)

Mealtime

I don’t want to create the impression that my childhood was tightly regimented, but you could determine the day of the week by seeing what was served for breakfast. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we each had one fried egg, one strip of bacon (or one sausage link), and four ounces of orange juice. Tuesday we had scrambled eggs, Thursday we had French toast, Saturday we had cold cereal, and Sunday we had pancakes. Sometimes we had coffee cake along with the scheduled breakfast–usually leftover coffee cake from some other event. Only three days varied the routine: on Thanksgiving and Christmas we had coffee cake for breakfast, and on Easter we ate breakfast at church after the sunrise service.

Lunch was usually sandwiches, and (in the winter) a bowl of soup. The sandwiches might contain deli meat or perhaps a salad made from eggs, tuna, or some meat left over from an earlier dinner. Side dishes might be chips, pickles, applesauce, or whatever else was available. Since I lived just down the street from the school, I had lunch at home every day of the week. Sundays we did not have lunch; we had dinner at noon, generally a major meal with a beef roast or ham or some other big piece of meat, along with a vegetable, a salad, and a starch (whether bread or potatoes). On Sundays we had supper in the evening–generally sandwiches, just like lunch the other days of the week. The other evenings of the week we had dinner in the evening.

Monday was always laundry day. Everything was washed on Monday: bed sheets, towels and wash clothes, and clothing. Weather permitting, bed sheets and some clothing were hung in the back yard to dry. Everything was ironed, even bed sheets and blue jeans. Monday night’s dinner was frequently leftovers from Sunday’s dinner, unless it was something else easily prepared.

Friday was grocery shopping day, followed by a thorough housecleaning. When we got up Friday morning, we had to clear the furniture so it could be dusted and also pick up things from the floor so the floor could be vacuumed. All those things were piled on the bed; when I got home from school, I was expected to put them all away again. Not only were the bedrooms dusted and vacuumed; the living room and dining room were also dusted and vacuumed, and the kitchen was mopped. Friday’s dinner was either a casserole or something else easy to prepare, such as spaghetti or Spanish rice con carne.

Christmas was the only holiday that interfered with these Monday and Friday schedules.

Every lunch, dinner, and supper included a dessert. Lunch desserts might be a cookie or a piece of cake; dinner desserts were often pie or something else fancy. Desserts were always homemade. Bread for sandwiches or for a side at a dinner was also homemade. Dinners always included a salad–usually lettuce and dressing, but sometimes coleslaw, and sometimes (generally in the winter) jello with fruit. Many of the vegetables we ate were home-grown, either fresh when in season, or thawed and cooked after being frozen. After dinner we each had one piece of candy. In November, my piece of candy would come from what I had received on Halloween’s tricks-or-treats. That often lasted until Christmas. Christmas stockings included candy, and candy was also given on Valentines’ Day and in Easter baskets. When holiday candy had been consumed, we generally each got a piece of candy from a box of chocolates.

Dishes were done after every meal. (We didn’t have a dishwasher.) My mother washed the dishes; the rest of us dried them and put them away. Sometimes we played guessing games while doing the dishes (“I’m thinking of something vegetable.”) and sometimes we sang songs (“I’ve been working on the railroad.”). Doing the dishes was inevitable after every meal, and no one was excused from the chore.

We always ate our meals at the dining room table. Television was not on while we ate, with a rare exception for a Chicago Cubs baseball game or Chicago Bears football game. For a while, we also made an exception during Sunday supper for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Often the radio was on while we ate, especially during breakfast, and at times records were played during meals, especially in December when we listened to Christmas music.

When my friends visited and stayed for a meal, they were startled by the formality of my family. The table was always set with a plate, a glass, a spoon, a knife, a fork, and a napkin for each person. Food was served from platters or bowls, never from pots or pans. When the food was on the table and everyone was seated, we said a quick prayer, and then we passed the food around the table. No one started eating until everyone had his or her food. Each of us was expected to eat all the food that we put on our plates. Second servings were permitted, but only after everyone had finished their first servings. Dessert was not served until each of us had finished the rest of the meal.

Mealtime was family time. No one missed a meal unless work or school or sickness made it necessary to be absent. We talked to each other while we ate (but never spoke with food in our mouths), reviewing the day’s events or sharing jokes we had recently heard. Often during Sunday’s dinner we would discuss the pastor’s sermon. Feeders outside the dining room window held seeds to attract birds, and sometimes we would comment on an unusual visitor to the feeder.

Mealtime was valuable time, both for nutrition and for family togetherness. Many of my warmest childhood memories took place in the family’s dining room. J.

Baseball talk

As of this writing (July 4, 2016), the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants are the best teams in the National League. The Cubs have the best winning percentage; the Giants, who have played three more games than the Cubs, have one more win than the Cubs. An old tradition said that the team leading the league on the fourth of July would win the pennant. I know that tradition did not always hold true before the creation of divisions, although I suspect it was true more than half the time. Since the creation of divisions it has definitely been true less than half the time. Often, even the team with the best record at the end of the regular season does not win the pennant.

The Cubs and the Giants each have patterns that might determine their path to the pennant. The Giants have won the pennant and championship on all the even-numbered years of the decade so far (2010, 2012, and 2014). The Cubs’ pattern is more complex. Since divisions and playoff series were invented, the Cubs have reached the playoff games seven times. Each time they have been eliminated by a different team. On two occasions they met a team in the playoffs which had eliminated them in a previous year. Both times the Cubs defeated that team—the Giants in a one-game tiebreaker in 1998, and the Atlanta Braves in 2003. Last year’s playoffs demonstrated that the Cubs are not eliminated by a team in their own division. That leaves only three teams that can deny them the pennant: the Colorado Rockies, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Washington Nationals.

Many baseball games remain to be played in July, August, and September. In the current standings, though, the Rockies and the Phillies are no threat to enter the playoffs. On the other hand, the Nationals lead the East Division of the National League. If the standings remain unchanged after the last games of the season, the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets would play for the Wild Card slot, with the winner playing against the Cubs. The Nationals and Giants would face each other.

Giants fans might believe that destiny is on their side, since 2016 is an even number. Given the Cubs’ pattern dating back to 1984, I would cheer for the Giants to beat the Nationals while the Cubs beat the Wild Card team. A Cubs-Giants match-up would favor the Cubs, since the Giants barred them from the pennant in 1989. A Cubs-Nationals match-up would favor the Nationals, since they have never kept the Cubs from advancing through the playoffs to the pennant.

In addition, the “Murphy” factor would remain in play for the Nationals. According to tradition, a billy goat named Murphy was barred from Wrigley Field in either 1908 or 1945, and Murphy’s owner cursed the Cubs, saying that they would never be champions again. In 1984, the first time the Cubs played in the National League playoffs, they were within one win of the pennant, but they lost three straight games in Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. Last year the Cubs were winning solidly in the playoffs until the met the New York Mets. The Mets’ offensive hero of their four victories over the Cubs was Daniel Murphy, who hit a home run in each of the games. Murphy now plays for the Nationals (and, as of July 4, had the best hitting percentage in the National League).

Real baseball is played on the field, but baseball traditions and superstitions are almost as fun as the game. The Cubs were on a record-breaking pace until injuries slowed them late in June; they are still likely to reach the playoffs where they will strive once again to earn a National League pennant and, of course, a world championship. Go, Cubs, go! J.

 

The season of Lent

This Wednesday many Christians around the world begin observing the season of Lent. This is a time of repentance, a time of somber reflection about our need for a Savior, and a time to prepare for the joyful good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter.

From early times, Christians used late winter for these purposes. Some had shorter seasons of Lent and some had longer seasons of Lent; eventually, they united in observing a penitential season of forty days, remembering the forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness as he battled Satan and his temptations. Those forty days are prefigured in the forty days and nights of rain during the time of Noah and the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday actually includes forty-six days, because the Sundays during Lent are not counted. Even in Lent, Sunday marks the weekly celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. Therefore, these Sundays are labeled Sundays in Lent, but not Sundays of Lent.

Even on Sundays, though, traditional Christians scale back during Lent. The Hebrew word “alleluia,” which means “praise the Lord,” is not said or sung during Lent. Some congregations do not decorate with flowers during Lent, and some do not use handbells or chimes during Lent. The hymns of Lent are somber and reflective, placing emphasis on our need for a Savior and on the work our Savior accomplished for us. Some of the traditional hymns of this type are: Come to Calvary’s Holy Mountain, Go to Dark Gethsemane, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, and O Sacred Head Now Wounded.

Many Christians use the time of Lent to fast. Fasting means going without something for a time. Sometimes a fast means no food at all—people are required to fast before some medical procedures. (Because people do not eat while they sleep, the first meal of the day breaks a fast—hence, breakfast.) Other times fasting means going without one kind of food or activity. Those who fast might give up candy, chocolate, soft drinks, coffee, alcohol, television, electronic games, or Facebook. Although the Bible does not command Christians to fast, Jesus clearly expects Christians to fast. He does not say “if you fast,” but “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16). The instructions that follow warn Christians not to fast to impress other people; if so, impressing other people is the only reward we receive. Instead, we are to act normally while we fast. We are, of course, free to tell others we are fasting, especially if they offer us something we have chosen to give up for Lent. But we do not fast to show off our faith. Likewise, a fast for physical benefits—giving up desserts to lose weight—is not a religious exercise. Those who lose weight during Lent have received their reward in full. When we fast, the purpose is spiritual benefits, not mere worldly benefits.

Religious people (not just Christians) have observed three spiritual benefits that come from fasting. First, fasting increases dedication. By giving up something I love for God, I prove to myself that I love God more. Second, fasting increases self-control. If I can say no to chocolate or to electronic games for nearly seven weeks, I will be strengthened to say no to temptations to sin whenever they come. Third, fasting increases compassion. When I fast voluntarily, I understand the poor around me who fast, not for spiritual reasons, but because they cannot have what they want because of their poverty.

Some Christians treat fasting lightly. When I was a child, my father gave up fresh watermelon for Lent, and my pastor gave up swimming in Lake Superior. I have found that fasting does help to focus my attention on Christ and his Word. Moreover, I have learned about myself through fasting. (I have learned, for example, that it is harder for me to live without coffee than without alcohol.) Fasting cannot be used to bargain with God. We cannot make demands upon the Lord and insist that he fulfill them because we have fasted. Like all Christian activity, fasting helps to build a relationship with the Lord. In our fast, if we are not seeking other rewards, we draw closer to Jesus and understand better both what he expects from us and what he promises us.

Fasting is not required. Every Christian may decide whether or not she or she will fast, during Lent or at any other time. Lent is not required. We are told to let no one judge us about Sabbaths, seasons, holidays, or matters of food and drink. In the history of the Church, fasting and Lent have been found to be helpful to Christians. However you spend your time between now and Easter, may the Lord bless your observances and use them to draw you closer to him. J.

Trinity Sunday, part one

Trinity Sunday—a long-standing tradition in the Christian Church—is observed one week after Pentecost Sunday. On Pentecost, Christians remember the work of the Holy Spirit in the world and in the church. On Trinity Sunday, Christians contemplate the mystery that the one God is three Persons and that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are one God.

In a future post I will write more about this theological mystery. On this occasion, I want only to address a part of that reality—the way the three Persons of the one God deal with Christians. Over the ages, Christians have tended to model theology with reference to these three Persons. From the earliest creeds of the Church to the most recent volumes of systematic theology, references are made to God the Father and his work of creation, to God the Son and his work of redemption, and to God the Holy Spirit and his work of sanctification.

Even this traditional way of talking about God can be misleading, since it tends to support the idea that the three Persons are three gods, not one God. This confusion is reversed by realizing that the three Persons do not act alone—all three are involved in creation, in redemption, and in sanctification. For example, God the Father is often called the Creator, but the first chapter of John’s Gospel and the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians both specifically state that Jesus the Son of God was intimately involved in creation. The second verse of the Bible says that God the Holy Spirit was involved in creation.

Likewise, while only the Son of God became human, lived according to the Law of God, died on a cross, and rose again from the dead, all three Persons of the one God are involved in redemption. God the Father planned the redeeming work of his Son and sent him to do that work, and God the Holy Spirit guided him in that work. Moreover, the Father and the Son are involved in the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit grants the gift of faith, but when Peter confessed his faith, Jesus told him that his faith came from God the Father (Matthew 16:15-17). Jesus also promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to his followers, and on occasion God the Holy Spirit is described as the Spirit of Jesus.

Does it matter which Person of God does which work in the world? It matters mostly that Christians understand that the work of Jesus was not his work alone but is the work of all three Persons of the Triune God. Trinity Sunday reminds us of the unity of the one God and the unity of all the work he does.

I have one more observation to make about the Holy Trinity, and this observation will lead into tomorrow’s blog. When religious people consider God the Father and the work of creation, many people can agree on this aspect of God. Jews, Muslims, and Christians of many kinds all agree that there is one God and that he created heaven and earth and everything that exists. The First Article (belief in God the Father and the work of creation) unites many religious people.

Jews and Muslims and some who call themselves Christian do not believe in God the Son. They consider Jesus a prophet and a teacher (or else a myth or a fraud), and they deny that he is the only-begotten Son of God. For most Christians, faith in Jesus separates their religion from the other religions of the world. The Second Article (belief in Jesus the Son of God and in the work of redemption) unites Christians and distinguishes them from other religious people.

Christians are largely divided about the work of the Holy Spirit. Some expect him to regularly perform the miracles he performed in Jerusalem on Pentecost. Others expect him simply to create faith in the Christian’s heart and to guide that believer in Christian living. Some groups of Christians hardly speak at all of the Holy Spirit. The Third Article (belief in God the Holy Spirit and the work of sanctification) divides Christians more than any other differences.

More about this tomorrow.

J.