Sunday, March 26, 2006
Lent 4: Homily on Christian Nurture
"Why is he wearing pink"—so began an otherwise forgettable sermon by a fellow student at Nashotah House in my preaching class. That line has always stuck in my head, however, especially after filling in one Sunday three years ago at Ss Peter & Paul in Arlington. Fr Page was out of the country in his work as an airline pilot and Fr Hightower, who was supposed to return before Sunday, was delayed in London. He called the diocesan office in search of a supply priest. There were no retired clergy available on that day, but as a diocesan curate, I was able to fill in on short notice. It was the Sunday for rose-colored vestments. But when I got there, I was shocked at what I saw. The vestments were not rose; they were pink—spring break pink, neon pink, Brazilian bikini pink. I joked that both of the parish priests had conveniently fled the country rather than be seen wearing pink vestments.
We wear pink (or more properly rose) on this Sunday because it is a time of joy and refreshment in this penitential season. This is signified in several ways. The vesture is a lighter color than the traditional dark purple. There is a old tradition in the Western church of returning to the older practice of acapella singing during Lent. If so, the organ may be played again on this day and flowers may be put on the altar. Today is known as "Laetare Sunday" from the old Latin introit: Laetare, Jerusalem—"Rejoice, O Jerusalem." Today is a time of restrained joy even in the midst of sadness, mourning, and penitence. It is also known as Refreshment Sunday or Sunday of the Five Loaves It was also called Rose Sunday because the Golden Rose, sent by the popes to Catholic sovereigns, used to be blessed at this time.
In England, it is called Mothering Sunday. On this day it was custom to make a pilgrimage to the cathedral—the mother church of the diocese. On this day, it was also customary that posies would be collected and distributed to mothers and women in the congregation. Another tradition associated with Mothering Sunday is the practice of "church clipping" whereby the congregation form a ring around their church building and holding hands, embrace it. Also, Mothering Sunday became a day when domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mother and family. Today, it is generally celebrated as the British equivalent of Mother’s Day in America.
Looking at all these traditions, it occurred to me that the common theme of this day is Christian nurture, and it comes none too soon. For most of us, this is about the time in Lent when we need some tender loving care, for by this time, we have likely struggled to keep up our Lenten discipline, and we need some encouragement for the rest of the way. Nurture is something we don’t hear a lot about, but it is very important, for the Church is our family and the Church is our mother. She nourishes and guides us in our pilgrimage to Christ in heaven. The word nurture comes to from the Latin for the care and love shown in a mother nursing her infant child. Nurture captures what God does for us through his bride the church—feeds us, sustains us, cares for us, shelters us, protects us, warms us, and gives us live.
I recall how I was stuck the first time I saw the Madonna painting by Jean Fouquet [left], where Mary’s breast is exposed, waiting for the infant Jesus to nurse—Botticelli has a similar painting [right]. It strikes one as a bit shocking, but is this not the way it should be? After further investigation, I found that the oldest known image of the blessed Virgin Mary is a painting of her from the 2nd century on a wall of the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome [below]. She is depicted nursing the infant Jesus.
Today, I’d like to call three things to your attention about Christian nurture: that God wants to nurture us, that we must be open to being nurtured, and that God wants us to nurture one another in the Church.
First, always remember that our God is a loving God who always wants to nurture and care for his people. Indeed, his loving concern stretches back even before we responded to him in faith and became his people. Or as St Paul so eloquently stated in today’s epistle: "God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come, he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" [Eph 2:4-6].
We see the riches of God’s grace when Christ feeds the multitude in today’s gospel. Jesus always had compassion for people; he took notice of their longing and their suffering, and he wanted to remind us that God the Father sees these things and want to meet the needs of people. So Jesus brought good news to the broken hearted, he healed people of diseases, cast out demons, and freed people from the bondage of sin. Today, he sees the crowd that have come to hear him and has compassion. He feeds the multitude in a way that is a vivid and miraculous sign of God’s care for his people and God’s abundant generosity.
A meal is a sign of fellowship, but it was also a foretaste of the messianic banquet. It foreshadowed the eucharistic feast upon a sacrifice—the Lamb of God. The medieval Christians adopted the image of a mother pelican feeding her young as a symbol of the Eucharist, for it was said that if she did not find food, the pelican would pick at her breast to feed them with her own body and blood. It’s another image that seems shocking, but is this not the way it should be?
Our God is a loving God who wants to nurture and care for his people. But, secondly, we should understand that we must be open to being nurtured by God, and he wants us to be receptive to him. It would seem logical that everyone would be open to the nurture of God, but that is not always so. It is a special grace that opens our hearts to God. While God desperately longs to be close to (and care) for his people, he will not overturn their free will in order to do so.
Consider for a moment the tragic rejection of Jesus that final week in Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday he was hailed as a king entering the city in triumph. On Good Friday, he was executed to appease the angry crowds. Matthew and Luke record in their gospels that at one point Jesus looked out over the skyline of the city of Zion, and with tears in his eyes, lamented, saying, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to bring you God’s message! How often I’ve wanted to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not allow it!" [Mt 23:37;Lk 13:34].
Jesus wants to gather you together in his church close by his side, under his sheltering arm, defending you from all evil, nourishing you with the Word and the Sacraments, guiding your steps in life, bringing healing and wholeness to your marriage and family. He wants to nurture you in prayer, study, and almsgiving. Will you let him, or stop him? We get a choice. Our God is a loving God who wants to nurture and care for his people. And we must be open to receiving the nurture of God.
Thirdly, we should realize that God wants us to nurture one another in the fellowship of the Church. By his design, the Church was established as a community of people, called out from the world and gathered together to be his own. We minister to God as a priestly people, but we also minister to one another in his Name. When one part of the Body suffers, we all suffer. We are our brother’s keeper. Jesus gave us the example in his own life and work as our Savior. God did not get rid of sin with the wave of his hand. The Word of God was incarnate as a human being, to share human experience, to bear the burden of sin for us—a burden we could not bear on our own.
This is the reason for the Incarnation and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The author of Hebrews tells us, "Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people." [Heb 2:17] In Jesus exercising his priestly ministry on the altar of the cross, we see that God’s will is not that pain and suffering should be avoided, but that
it should be shared.
Jesus was the willing pelican nurturing her young. Are we willing to go out of our comfort zone when we see others hurting? Are we willing to be the instrument of the Lord in their situations? Are we open to being the Jesus others encounter in the world? Jesus Christ has gone out of his way to nurture us in every goodness. As we remember together today that God wants to nurture us, that we should be receptive to his nurture, and that we should nurture one another (bear one another’s burdens) in Christ, let me leave you with the words of St Paul, with which he opens his second letter to the Church in Corinth:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in every affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are afflicted, with the comfort by which we are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort also" [2 Cor 1:1-5]. In the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.