Meditation for Easter Sunday - April 12, 2020
‘There is a sound of exultation in the tents of the righteous!’
If Good Friday and Holy Saturday brought us face to face with the deep mysteries of the God who in the flesh undergoes great suffering and lays Himself down in the cold earth He has made, then Easter Sunday confronts with greater Mystery still.
Victory has erupted in the midst of bitter defeat, Life in the very heart of death. So impossible is this rupture with all that we know and live by, that Mary Magdalen, that unsurpassed disciple, on Easter morning stands outside the tomb, weeping. We all know how the world works: the relentless path of constriction, of steady loss, of death, the final assault on our war against decay. The disciples saw this with their own eyes in the course of the Son of Man toward Golgotha; and Mary Magdalen stood nearby when the terrible death-rattle of the Son of God overcame this Life-giver. Little wonder that she stood outside the tomb and wept! How pitiless seems this war against the right and the righteous! How often we stand outside, looking in on this suffering, mourning the path that appears so unappeased, so inevitable.
And yet: there is sound of exultation in the tents of the righteous! Israel, so wounded, so beaten and shattered, yet lives and with the LORD’s might arm has conquered! This day we Christians exult in Christ’s victory, this impossible overturning of all that we believe we know about the world and its terrible ways. On this day, the King assumes His throne; on this day, the Lord of Life declares victory; on this day, the Son of Man appears in His glory, a Risen Life that cannot taste death –rather, death must taste Him. This the deepest Mystery of God, that our ways are not His, that our destiny is not His final word, that even death will serve Him, and declare His Reign.
This day we are given the gift of Resurrection, the last, the perfect, the most glorious gift. May we rejoice in it; may it linger; may we shout out to every death in this death-dealing world: you will not conquer, you will not last, you will not destroy; God has acted, and the world is now bathed in the golden Light of Eternity.
Thanks be to God!
The Lessons Appointed for Use on Easter Day (Principal) Year A
or Jeremiah 31:1-6
or Acts 10:34-43
or Matthew 28:1-10
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Meditation for Maundy Thursday - April 9, 2020
‘I, the LORD, will pass through Egypt that night.’
There is a haunting in the depths of Maundy Thursday, a great mystery and alarm, that joins in God’s mystical time, the terrible Passover of Israel with the specter of arrest and execution in Jesus’ last meal with His disciples.
‘This is the night,’ our cantor sings at the Easter Vigil, when the LORD carries His people out of slavery into freedom; and it is into this night that the events of Maundy Thursday unfold.
Why do these two mysterious events of freedom and of death take place at night? Why does the menace of the LORD God’s liberating fury unleash itself at night? Why does Judas go out, and John tells us solemnly, it was night? Perhaps we might say that religion is not always a matter of sunlight and of the day. There is joy and laughter, grace and delight, in our faith: I do not mean that it is all a work of the night! But there is also night in the Christian life. We all undergo suffering we cannot explain or understand. We watch as others, perhaps those dear to us, behave in ways that shock us, or betray what is tender and prized. Any serious student of history has read of years, entire decades, perhaps lifetimes we must call, in this Biblical sense, an era of the night.
Our own inner lives may touch this night; at times be overwhelmed by it. It seems that our Good God has particular work for the hours of the night. He meets Jacob at the Jabbok then; He calls to Abraham and makes covenant with him in deepest night; He awakens the boy Samuel during the night watches; He passes terrible judgement on Egypt at night; and as the Incarnate Son, He receives trembling Nicodemus at night, He breaks bread and washes the feet of those who would deny and betray Him at the end of day.
It may be that the most precious freedom can be bought only by the terrible workings of the night: the cost, the sorrow, the strangled cries of grief and contrition, all mingled with the most astonishing acts of mercy and humility and liberty. When the altar is stripped bare, and we leave the sanctuary in silence, and go into our nights, may this elixir of mystery and suffering and freedom linger, making all our days taste of this Divine and Heavenly night.
The Lessons Appointed for Use on Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
Meditation for Palm Sunday - April 5, 2020
‘If anyone says anything to you, say this: the Lord needs them.’
How are we to think about our lives, the lives of our intimates, the lives of creatures that surround us in this earthly home? This Sunday the Scripture tells us that we are to answer: the Lord has need of them.
The Lord will bring in His peaceable Kingdom not without us: He will incorporate us, in measures great and small, into His victorious entrance into a sorrowful and rebellious world. It is easy, I think, for each of us to minimize or even deny our place in this great Divine drama. We imagine, perhaps, that the great-souled figures –the prophets of our day; our saints –will participate or lead this mighty work of Christ’s sovereign reign in the world. But not us, the ordinary pew-sitter, the priest in some small parish, the child, the aged and frail! But Palm Sunday tells us that the Lord has need of us, the little ones: His Realm will ride in on the praises of little ones, and on the patient, sturdy, and unseen steps of His lowly creatures.
During this season of repentance, we might well reflect upon the times we have considered or treated others as if they were peripheral to the main scene, even a bother to the fine work underway in this place or that. But the Lord this Lent trains our eyes to see them in another light: They are the very ones the Lord needs! Of course we know that the Eternal and Almighty God can very well bring in the Realm of Heaven without His creatures: He does not need us as we need and depend and cannot live without Him. Yet He give us this share in His great work of redemption: to stand at the ready; to lift our voices; to put our shoulder to the wheel; to carry a burden. Perhaps even more than these, He gives us fresh eyes to see one another as those prize colts, standing tethered to a small plot, outside Bethphage, waiting for the word to break loose and come. To all the creatures, human and animal, the waters of the Jordan and the Great Sea, and trees who clap their hands at the Lord’s coming, and the stones that will cry out in witness: all of them, the Lord needs.
May our eyes be opened to this grace this Palm Sunday!
The Liturgy of the Palms
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word
Matthew 26:14- 27:66
or Matthew 27:11-54
Meditation for the Fifth Sunday in Lent - March 29, 2020
This is the great miracle in the New Testament, the raising of Lazarus, four days dead: this is the promise of Ezekiel’s vision fulfilled in the wonderful working of Christ, the Resurrection and the Life. Sinews and flesh and breath are returned to Lazarus through Christ’s mighty call: Unbind him and let him go!
This is the great liberation we all seek, the unbinding we all look for. We long for our very dry bones to be made alive, young with the spirit of life, and free to move into the world, unhampered and unrestricted, free to return to our homeland. In John’s Gospel, the sign that Jesus provides remains a Lenten miracle, however, for it exists still within the world of suffering, of rejection, and death. Jesus travels to Bethany, well aware that He moves ever closer to His death. His disciples know that too: Thomas Didymus says, 'Let us go with Him also, so that we may die with Him.' Even Lazarus knows that his very life has put him and Jesus in danger.
The week before the final Passover, Jesus comes to spend supper with Mary and Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. The crowds press in to see this sight: the very dry bones of Israel alive in Lazarus at table with his friends. But the offense of this sign cannot be mistaken. Lazarus, too, must die, chief prelates say, along with His Lord. Life of this kind, a life quickened by Christ, overturns the world, its habits, its pieties and its rulers; the world will fear and despise it, even as it longs still for that renewal and hope. The raising of Lazarus, like the return of exiles to Israel, will come at a cost in this world; the Holy is a rebuke to the religious and the profane alike.
Lent is the season to take measure of the cost of discipleship.
The Lessons Appointed for Use on the Fifth Sunday in Lent Year A
Meditation for the Third Sunday in Lent - March 15, 2020
We live in the world bordered by Massah and Meribah; we are the murmurers before the Lord. Always in us is an airless thirst, a restless dissatisfaction, with the way the world is, and the way the world receives and treats us. This is the thirst the Israelites knew in the wilderness, the life-thirst, we may call it, that the Samaritan woman knew, on that hot noon-day, at Jacob’s well.
Lent is the season in which we face our thirst squarely. Some of us know that life-thirst, the broad, symbolic world of dryness, immediately and painfully, even in the midst of plenty. It may be that we simply long for more –more of the world’s goods, more of its recognition and honor and material security. For this kind of thirst, Holy Scripture tells us, there is no slaking. We are longing for the water that one days quenches and the next leaves us parched. It may be that we have known want, and we or our family have had to wander in the waste places, searching for water. For those of us who have know this searing insecurity, thirst can dominate a life, even when now secure and well provisioned. For these one-time wanderers know a truth Lent should teach the rest of us: that ours is a precarious world, the form of things passing away, as the Prayer Book puts it.
Not all thirst is symbolic, of course; far from it! We now live in a thirsty world, a once green earth that is giving way to desert, each year, more and more. Our globe now knows immigrants in search of water, pushed out from sere lands onto the highways of the world, seeking shelter, seeking homeland, seeking a cup of water from the fertile nations. Like the Israelites we ask: Is the Lord among us, or not? Like the Samaritan woman, we wonder: How will Christ give us living water in such a world? Lent is the season for self-examination and repentance. Let us face our thirst directly and boldly, and turn to Christ for the living water He alone will give; let us strike that Rock with the staff of our prayers and our longings and receive the water that will spring up into eternal life.
Meditation for the First Sunday in Lent - March 1, 2020
‘For the free gift is not like the trespass.’ The Apostle Paul tells us something profound, something deeply mysterious about the very nature of God. In God, and for God, the wheels of justice turn on another axis, move to another cadence. For the Good God, the gift of grace in Jesus Christ does not take its measure from the sin, even the many sins, committed over seasons and centuries; no, it takes its measure from the lavish and utterly astonishing freedom of God to be gracious.
We know all too well what strict justice is. It is the world and the pitiless rule we all live by. We can think immediately of examples from society at large, and from our daily life: our penal justice system, our courts, our schools, our ball fields and our work places. There, to commit an error, to violate a code or rule, to trespass, is to receive our exact penalty: we must pay back exactly on the scale of our theft. Of course there is proper and virtuous justice, too. Our first parents received the penalty for their trespass, and it was justly deserved –expulsion and labor by the sweat of their brow, pain and thistles and thorns in the very earth they plow. That is our world too, by inheritance and descent, for we too are children of Eve, kindred of Adam. But we exercise a kind of justice that has no place for ‘skins of mercy’ to clothe the naked. All too often in our own hearts we wish to visit on another the full penalty of their fault: we will make them pay, we say in a telling phrase, a piece of ‘Adamic flesh.’
But wonderfully, just penalty is not the last word from Almighty God! The Apostle Paul was seized by a vision of the Risen Christ that told him of another calculus, another rule in the Heavenly Places. The free gift of Jesus Christ abounds for the many. Something in the crystalline logic of exact counting has been broken, and something –Someone! –abundant has been poured out. That is Jesus Christ, the One who brings life and mercy and renewal and pardon and joy. ‘Grace abounds all the more,’ Paul tells us, and that is Gospel in the midst of Lent.
Meditation for Ash Wednesday - February 26, 2020
During this liturgy, the Celebrant invites us to observe a holy Lent through self-examination, self-denial, prayer and the meditation upon Holy Scripture. The invitation closes with these striking words: ‘to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.’ Two phrases stand out, the ‘right beginning’ of repentance, and the ‘mark of our mortal nature,’ both caught up in the solemn gesture of silent, knelt prayer.
Why does repentance require a ‘right beginning?’ It seems as though we could simply enter into our regret and sorrow for sin without any preamble, any preparation. But the Prayer Book liturgy instructs us otherwise. We must learn how to repent; what it looks like; and before whom we show contrition. There is a bodily dimension to repentance. It is not simply words, nor an inward movement of a heavy heart. To kneel publicly is rare these days. But on Ash Wednesday the whole people of God kneels down before our Lord and Maker. This is not the end of repentance; by no means. But it is the right beginning. On this day, as on the solemnity of Yom Kippur, the congregation kneels before the Holy One, a sign of reverence, of deep contrition, and of unmistakable belonging.
This is the ‘mark’ of a creature destined for dust. We do not owe Almighty God only our sorrow; we owe Him our very life. We are finite, and this day we acknowledge, as none other, the stamp of mortality that is ours, our body and soul. We will return to our Maker through dust, and the sign we make to acknowledge this solemn truth is our bent knee, and our silence.
About the Meditation Author
The Rev. Katherine Sonderegger, Ph.D., is the William Meade Chair of Systematic Theology. She joined the VTS faculty in 2002. Dr. Sonderegger completed her Ph.D. at Brown University. She previously earned a D.Min. and STM from Yale and an A.B. in medieval studies from Smith College. She is the author of That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew: Karl Barth's "Doctrine of Israel" (Penn State Press, 1992) and Systematic Theology, Vol 1 (Fortress Press, 2015). With Margaret Adams Parker, she is author of Praying the Stations of the Cross: Finding Hope in a Weary Land (WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2019). Dr. Sonderegger is a member of the American Academy of Religion, Kampen-Princeton Barth Consultation, Karl Barth Society of North America; American Theological Society, and Society for the Study of Theology.
About this Lenten Meditation Project
Lent is a time for reflection, for giving something up, or for taking on something new. It is a time for silence and rest from the myriad distractions of this world so that we can hear and inwardly digest relevant messages. During this entire Lenten season, Virginia Theological Seminary will share Lenten meditations from the Rev. Katherine (Kate) Sonderegger, Ph.D., a prolific writer with a deep theology. Dr. Sonderegger’ s works have been described as “extraordinary, eloquent, rich, and alive with spiritual allusions.” VTS is honored that she will lead the Lenten Journey, beginning with Ash Wednesday and continuing weekly throughout the Lenten Season, culminating in daily offerings during the Triduum and on Easter Sunday.