2020 Lent V – And He Shall Purify

Postulant Ken Kubo
29 March 2020

“For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”– Hebrews 9:13-14

This week marks the beginning of Passiontide, the home stretch of Lent, when we as a Church walk with our Lord along His Way to Calvary and the sacrifice He will offer up on behalf of all of us. This year, it seems a bit too close to our reality. We have been told that the situation will get worse before it gets better, and we see that reflected all around the world. We see our science and technology doing battle with a scourge borne out of nature – and let us continue to pray fervidly that we win that battle decisively! – but it is not turning out to be a quick or easy foe. While some of the early panic appear to be easing, although toilet paper remains elusive on store shelves, the long campaign is only beginning to take its toll on households, particularly with the impact to jobs and savings. Much of this is far above any ability of ours to affect, and some will say “all we can do is pray.” And that’s not actually a bad place to start. Recall that litanies have been created and used throughout history in times of peril, whether of war, famine, or disease. Our own Litany from the BCP descends from The Letany (1544) composed by Thomas Cranmer at King Henry VIII’s behest while conflicts with the French and Scottish were troubling the state. The Letany itself follows the form of the Middle Age processions used at Rogationtide and times of special distress. While our parish traditionally uses the Litany during penitential seasons, I think you’ll agree that it’s called for by these times in general. The rules of social distancing will keep us from gathering in any kind of procession, but given that our attendance extends beyond our parish, this virtual congregation may be the best way to “beat the bounds” of our extended, electronic cure.

In times of trouble, it is common to turn to the Lord for all those things bigger than ourselves. That is one of the benefits of faith – having something beyond us to rely on. The blood of bulls and goats sounds like the beginning of one of those folk remedies some turn to in these times. Although the blood of bats and pangolins has been implicated in the spread of our current troubles. For the Jews of Our Lord’s time, these were examples of sacrifices used to fulfill obligations of Mosaic Law, to purify oneself of minor transgressions of the commandments, and in general to draw closer in communion with God. It’s important to note that none of the ritual sacrifices collectively called korbanot relieved the giver of sins by themselves. Even with full acknowledgement and atonement, korban could only expiate unintentional sins, transgressions of commandments due to ignorance. In drawing on this custom, Paul demonstrates the difference in scale between the old guilt and sin offerings and the freely given blood of Christ. As we say – and will say again some day – “The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” The old ways could redeem only the least of sins and only for this life – Christ redeems all sins for life eternal.

Our Lord changes the dynamic from focusing on the past and atoning for actions to starting with a clean slate and living arightly moving forward. One does not earn salvation by burnt offerings or rituals or even a well chanted Litany or, in fact, any other works that we can do. After all, what is the fair market value for infinite forgiveness or eternal life? Certainly more than even a whole storage unit filled with Clorox wipes. It took Our Lord’s sacrifice to pay the tab; the Infinite embracing mortality. As we move forward, we still do good works in Our Lord’s name, but not past-facing and thus dead works. Our motivation is serving Our Lord in the correct spirit, and so our works are living and growing in the vineyard of the heavenly Kingdom. Our Lord demands of us not perfect form or ritual but a spirit that chooses to love and serve God and love and serve our neighbors. This is the mindset behind the bumper sticker slogan WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?). The reality that we remember in Passiontide, of course, is exactly what Jesus did for us. We should be thankful that we are not called upon to do what Jesus did and all the more thankful that He did it. It is taking great fortitude and courage for all the peoples of the world to make their way into the uncertain and challenging future. Consider though the greatest courage displayed by He who knew where the road was leading and walked it anyway. Rather than hold ourselves to that standard, perhaps we should set a less lofty but still noble goal for ourselves – What would Jesus Want Us To Do? Within our merely human strengths and with the resources afforded us in in this world, how are we called and what road does that lead us down?

“Through light and dark the road leads on till dawns the endless day, when I shall know why in this life I walk the King’s highway” – Evelyn Atwater Cummins

Remember that Passiontide was not universally dark; mid-journey, we have Palm Sunday and Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. All worthwhile journeys have that mix of good times and bad, they are not what Teddy Roosevelt termed “a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” As we follow the path of Passiontide, we see Our Lord at the peak of his earthly ministry, His conflict with the religious and temporal authorities, His humiliation and sacrifice for our redemption. Passiontide leads us through the light to the darkness before the dawn, when even His closest followers had lost faith because they didn’t understand what had happened and what was yet to come. We have the advantage over them because, well, we’ve read the Book and we know that the ending is not just happy but life-changing and that the saddest of parts is not the ending of the story.

In William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, that story is described in part as “…chases, escapes, true love, miracles!”  And this is the story that we walk. As Our Lord reaches out to share His Good News, there are many times that He faces death at the hands of an angry mob, as we hear in today’s reading. And each time, He is able to hide himself and escape because His time is not yet come. He is the Lamb of sacrifice whose blood will redeem all those who believe, and it is to that singular time and place of sacrifice that He walks of free will and with full knowledge. God Himself has provided the Lamb. Being fully human as well as divine, He does not relish the agony that lies ahead, but reverses Adam’s sin by submitting to divine will, driven by the truest love ever – laying down His life not for (just) a friend or a cause but for the salvation of an entire people and strangers yet unborn. While we look to the miracle of Easter, we must understand that every step of this journey builds miracle upon miracle for our redemption.

In these times, it is critical to remember that the story of the Passion is a story of chases, escapes, and especially true love and miracles and, moreover, a story of choices. Though we depend more on bleach wipes and hand sanitizer for the purifying of the flesh, we still must remember that this is a story where it’s blood freely offered that purifies our spirit – something that we could never ask for or buy or deserve of our own earning – that calls us to an active life of faith. So use that living spirit to pray for the safety and security of all our brethren, to help others in need, and to hold true to our Christian calling. “Cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1) We do not know all that our way ahead holds, we know only that Christ has conquered fear and death for us by the way He chose.

O most mighty God and merciful Father, help us humbly to accept your workings in our lives; bring us through the doubts and uncertainties forced on us by the world, strengthen us to your holy purpose, and guide our footsteps in your ways, that all that we do and all that we are may prosper and find favor in your sight, during this Lenten journey and all our days.