On the Way

III. Sunday in Lent

The second half of this article depends heavily on a lecture by iconographer Aidan Hart which I was privileged to hear last year; today’s appointment of Psalm 19 and a passage from I Corinthians, along with the choice of a setting of ‘Christus factus est’ as the anthem for Evensong ( following Our Lord’s prediction of His Passion at the Cleansing of the Temple from St John’s Gospel ) has provided the impetus to finish putting these thoughts in order and place them in some kind of context.

The lenten season for the most part has only incidentally to do with the observance of Our Lord’s Passion, which properly belongs to Holy Week. Lent’s origins lie rather in a short watch-fast just before Pascha; the longer preparation of candidates for Holy Baptism at the Easter Vigil, along with that of their sponsors and even the whole community in solidarity with them; the preparation of excommunicates and other penitents to be reconciled to the Church on Maundy Thursday; and a forty-day ascetical fast in imitation of Our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness.

As it is now constituted, Lent combines all these distinct, if related, strands into a general call to turn (a better translation of the Greek metánoia – literally, ‘changing one’s mind’ – than the commonly used ‘repent’) from all that impairs our communion with God and one another. For some this call will be fulfilled for the first time in Holy Baptism; others will have need of the Church’s formal rites of reconciliation or of public, particular reaffirmation of their baptismal vows; all will find value in the Church’s invitation to ‘self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word’ (Exhortation on Ash Wednesday), and ‘works of mercy and renew[al] by [God’s] Word and Sacraments’ (Eucharistic Preface for later Lent) as they make afresh their commitment to the Way – a word which is perhaps the earliest term for Christianity, [Ac 9], but also found in such phrases as the ‘way of the Lord’ [Is 40, echoed in the Baptizer’s own proclamation and his father Zechariah’s Song in Lk 1], the ‘narrow way’ of Our Lord’s teaching, and so forth.

That very Way is the subject of Psalm 19. This is most obvious in the second part of the Psalm (vv. 7–14), a paean to the law (tôrâh – though the word might be better translated ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction’), commandment (mitzvâh), testimony, statutes, and judgements of the Lord. This emphasis on what sound like legal terms may well put us in mind of the Ten Commandments (appointed for today as part of the lectionary’s Lenten series setting forth God’s continual re-creation of His people as played out in the history of Israel, brought to a head in the work of Christ, and recapitulated in the life of the believer and the Church), perhaps secondarily of the 613 mitzvot or, closer to home, our Lenten practices. Certainly specific moral and ethical instruction is part of what is meant by the term tôrâh, and spiritual and practical disciplines are ways of attempting to live out or apply God’s tôrâh in our own lives and circumstances.

But, as many other Psalms [especially, e.g., 1, 15, 18, 25, 37, 85, 119, 139, 146, 147] remind us, the Way of the Lord is much deeper, broader, higher, and more inscrutable than a mere code of behavior. The creation accounts found not only in Genesis 1 and 2, but in this Psalm and others [8, 33, 74, 89, 104, 148], Isaiah [40.21–31; 45], the wisdom literature [Pr 8.22–30; Si 24, 42–43], and the New Testament [ Jn 1, Cl 1, Hb 1, and Rv 4.11, 10.6 ] remind us that what is variously called God’s Breath / Wind / Spirit (the concept comprehended by a single term each in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin – rûach, pneûma, and spíritus, respectively), Wisdom, and Word / Sense / Order (lógos) is nothing other than the creating and sustaining structure and fabric of all that is, encompassing everything from the fathomless depths of cosmology and quantum physics to the endless wonder of the living world to the mysteries of the human heart and the broadest concepts of love, justice, mercy, and peace.

The first part of Psalm 19 and today’s Epistle connect the Way / Wisdom / Word of God with Christ and His saving work. The Epistle explicity calls Christ ‘the wisdom of God’ [1Co 1.24], the one by or through whom – as many of the other passages listed above tells us – all things are made and sustained. And the sun of Psalm 19.5 is traditionally identified with the Son, the bridegroom with the Bridegroom. Christ, the Lógos of God, comes forth from His heavenly dwelling* not only in creation but in His further advents in the flesh, in grace, and in glory, and thus the ‘dwelling’ [ Hebrew chûppâh, still the word for the ‘canopy’ at a Jewish wedding, but also meaning ‘chamber, room’, and indeed ‘bridal chamber’] is identified with Paradise (literally, an enclosed garden), Our Lady’s womb, the Church, and also the heart of the individual believer. This very image is found in several hymns, as I have written elsewhere.

This procession from and return to His heavenly home – indeed, His Way (the word translated here as ‘course’ is the same as in the instances of ‘way’ mentioned earlier, in the New Testament and the Septuagint [hodós]) – finally leads us to consider the text ‘Christus factus est’, part of the great hymn of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation from the Epistle to the Philippians (usually sung or read in Passiontide and on the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ but chosen as an anthem for this occasion to reflect Christ’s prediction of His Passion in today’s Gospel). Here we see Christ divesting Himself of the glory that is properly His (‘you wrap yourself with light as with a cloak’ [ Ps 104.2]), putting on our frail flesh (the ‘garments of skin’ provided for us [Gn 3.21] after we, in contrast to Him, ‘counted equality with God as something to be grasped’ [ Pp 2.5] rather than as a gift). He came forth from his tent [chûppâh] of light [ Ps 19.5] and pitched his tent among us [ Jn 1.14 ] (and the tent of the nomad is made of skin). Through His utter self-emptying and self-giving, taking our own glorified flesh to heaven in the Ascension, he reclaimed for us the glory (reflected and contingent glory, but glory nonetheless) that is properly ours (‘you crown [man] with glory and honor’ [ Ps 8.5b]), and restores to us our rightful place ‘a little lower than ’elôhîm’ [ Ps 8.5a] (the word is translated ‘angels’ here in the Prayer Book Psalter but elsewhere refers to God, or a god or gods or divine beings).

And so Christ is our Suitor: the one who woos us, but also the one who clothes us in our wedding-garment [Mt 22]: we ‘clothe ourselves with Christ’ in Baptism [Ga 3.27], ‘transforming the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory’ [ Pp 3.21].

Christ is the Joiner: Wisdom [ Pr 8.30] was ‘joining’ in creation – the Greek translation, at least, harmózô, means ‘to join’ as in carpentry, but also to betroth or marry, and is the source of our word ‘harmony’ – and was not joinery Our Lord’s familial trade, and did He not promise to rebuild the Temple in three days’ time?

Christ is the Bridegroom of Ps 19, Is 61–62, Mt 25, and Rv 19 and 21 (and St John the Baptizer is the best man [ Jn 3.29 ], and St Paul the father of the bride [2Co 11.2], where harmózô is used again). He fits us to Himself, reconciling the world [2Co 5.19]; orders and adorns (fits out) all things (‘adornment’ comes from ‘order’, just as its Greek-derived equivalent ‘cosmetic’ comes from ‘cosmos’); cleanses the Temple in today’s Gospel and makes fit our dwelling-place, and bids us do the same for Him: ‘Adorn your thalamus [a translation of chûppâh in many of its senses], O Zion, and receive Christ, the King’, the Church sings at Candlemas, the Presentation of Our Lord and the consummation of the marriage between Bride and Bridegroom (and the traditional baldachin or ciborium over a Christian altar is quite like a chûppâh), when ‘the Lord whom [we] seek will suddenly come to His Temple’ [Ml 3.1].

And so in Lent we turn once again to address our Maker, asking that we may follow in His Way, the Way of the Cross and the Way of all things. We join with the evangelists, of whom it is also said (after Rm 10.18) that ‘their sound has gone out...’, in articulating Creation’s wordless praises, witnessing to the glory of God to a world that too often forgets it.

*  ‘The Deep’ [tehôm], though an important part of biblical cosmology, is not explicitly found in the Hebrew here – though in Cana‘anite cosmology, the dwelling of ’Êl was said to have been in the midst of the sea, on or in a mountain at the fountains of the two rivers at the spring of the two Deeps (the waters above the heavens and the waters beneath the earth) – and possibly in a tent (cf. Ps 15.1: ‘O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?’)