The First Sunday in Lent: A Journey of Bright Sadness Continues (Cycle A)

Worship on the First Sunday in Lent is really moving!

Every year we begin the service for the First Sunday in Lent by singing the Great Litany as The Processional.  This litany is referred to as “the Great Litany” not just because of its length but because it sums up all of our needs.  Through this prayer, the Church “sweeps up the whole world it its great and loving arms, and offers it up to God to be blessed and saved.” Throughout the Great Litany, the Church prays “Have mercy on us” many times, so it would be very easy to conclude that we are praying over and over for forgiveness of sins — but we’re not. In English the phrase “have mercy” reminds us of a condemned prisoner pleading for mercy and pardon from a judge.  But in Greek (of which The Great Litany is a translation), Kyrie Eleison has a wider meaning: the Church is praying for blessing, strength, rescue, pardon, the total outpouring of God’s generosity.  We are begging for God’s loving kindness and steadfast love.  We are beseeching the Holy One of Israel to lift us up from all of the pits into which we stumble. Kyrie Eleison: Lord have mercy.

And we sing The Great Litany in procession as a kind of enactment of pilgrimage, an icon of our procession through life, ever dependent on God for life.  At its best, the prayer in this sung form becomes almost a mantra-like means to meditation. When it is sung in procession, it reminds us of our dependence on God’s divine grace throughout our lives.

Today’s lessons are great! Genesis 3:1-21 tells again the story of our human fall into sin. It always breaks my heart to see Eve begin to doubt that God had told the truth when He said that she and Adam would die if they disobeyed Him and ate the fruit. And I recognize my own behavior when she cloaks her disobedience as somehow being a good thing: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise…” But then, we human beings always tell ourselves that we are acting from the best of motives. The story of what happened in the Garden of Eden is paired with Matthew 4:1-11. That Gospel reading from Matthew shows us that unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus trusted God and relied on His Word when He was tempted by the devil immediately following Jesus’Baptism. Romans 5:12-19 summarizes both stories: “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

The Hymn of the Day for the First Sunday of Lent is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God“, Luther’s best known hymn. It was written to interpret Psalm 46 “to the church of his own time and its struggles.” This hymn has become one of the most widely loved hymns of the Church because it is a battle hymn of utter confidence in God who fights for us and with us and by our side. (Just and Jesus Christ trusted the trust of the Word of God in his first skirmish with the Evil One.) It ends with the triumphant shout, “God’s Word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes who fear it; for God Himself fights by our side with weapons of the Spirit,  Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.  The Kingdom’s ours forever!” How perfect! (Those of you who are subscribers to my blog can see the YouTube videos of our Lent 1 hymns by clicking on the title of this blog.)

The Distribution Hymn for the First Sunday in Lent is “Thee We Adore, O Hidden Savior” by the great theologian of the Church, Dr. Thomas Aquinas. In this hymn, Thomas Aquinas has used the simplest expressions throughout, as though so tremendous a Mystery could only be approached in humility and devotion.  This tremendous hymn was written during the 1200s A.D., and we can see the antiquity of this hymn especially in verse 3.  This verse highlights the ancient belief that the pelican fed her young with blood from her own breast. This notion came from the fact that pelicans have a large bag attached to their underbill.  When the parent bird is about to feed its brood, it macerates small fish in this bag and then by pressing the bag against its breast, transfers the macerated food to the mouths of its young.  For medieval Christians, the pelican became an emblem of Jesus “Christ, by whose blood we are healed.”  And for this reason, you will find many examples of pelicans in medieval art. “Thou like the pelican to feed her brood didst pierce Thyself to give us living food; Thy blood, O Lord, one drop has pow’r to win forgiveness for our world and all its sin.”

The Words are: 1) Thee we adore, O hidden Savior, Thee, Who in Thy Sacrament art pleased to be; both flesh and spirit in Thy presence fail, yet here Thy presence we devoutly hail. 2) In this memorial of Thy death, O Lord, Thou dost Thy body and Thy blood afford: Oh, may our souls forever feed on Thee, and Thou, O Christ, forever precious be. 3) Thou, like the pelican to feed her brood, dost pierce Thyself to give us living food; Thy blood, O Lord, one drop has pow’r to win forgiveness for our world and all its sin. 4) Fountain of goodness, Jesus, Lord and God: Cleanse us, unclean, with Thy most cleansing blood; increase our faith and love, that we may know the hope and peace which from Thy presence flow. 5) O Christ, whom now beneath a veil we see, may what we thirst for soon our portion be: to gaze on Thee unveiled and see Thy face, the vision of Thy glory, and Thy grace. Amen.

The Recessional Hymn is “Creation Sings With Grateful Praise“, a hymn by Michael Tavella and Kile Smith. Mike wrote the text and the tune; Kile did the harmonization.  “Creation sings with grateful praise melodius strains to God above.  The heav’ns exalt with dulcet lays to God who makes all things by love. // The Father formed the farthest globe, which hurls through darkest regions deep.  He clothed the earth in splendid robe and placed us here His world to keep. // The Word beheld the Father’s face before all things, eternally.  To earth the Son brought heav’nly grace by death, then life, victoriously. // The Spirit is a blazing zeal, who kindles hearts by holy Word.  The cross upon our brows a seal, the baptized go into the world. // The darkest hour of Satan’s spite may seem like evil’s victory.  The Lord besets infernal might with triumph that all flesh shall see. // O Lord, we laud Your love so strong by which You shield the pilgrim saints.  Give us the will to fight the wrong and cleanse us all from sinful taint.” What a great hymn with which to walk out of this worship service and into the remainder of Lent. (I wish there were a YouTube copy, but there is not. Grrrr!)

Oh, I should probably mention that beginning with the First Sunday in Lent, we SING the Lord’s Prayer throughout Lent for the same reason we veil the crosses: to call your attention to what we are highlighting. In the case of the Lord’s Prayer, we really want you to think of the meaning of the words of this more-than-tender-prayer.  Consequently, we will sing the Lord’s Prayer during worship throughout Lent.

By the time the worship for the First Sunday in Lent is over, it always feels to me like we have really arrived in Lent.  Our focus has turned to Christ and His sacrifice of Himself for the redemption of the world. We are spending more time with God under the “penetrating gaze of holy love” (prayer), knowing both that He wants to transform us and and also that He describes Himself as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Joel 2:13).”  We are admitting to God our patterns of sin and working to change these (repentance), we are trying to grow closer to God (fasting or giving up a vice), and we are giving more time or money to charitable organizations so that there will be less suffering in this world Christ died to redeem (almsgiving).

God bless you in whatever spiritual discipline you have chosen for this Lent, your personal 40 Day Olympiad. May this Lent be for you a time of “bright sadness” and increased closeness with God. I wish you a blessed Lent.  And I hope to see you in church.

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