QUINQUAGESIMA SUNDAY – Esto mihi
Introit: (Ps. 31) Be thou my God and defender, and a place of refuge, that thou mayest save me: for thou art my strong rock, and my castle: be thou also my guide, and lead me for thy Name’s sake. Ps. In thee, O Lord, have I put my trust, let me never be put to confusion: but deliver me in thy righteousness, and save me. Glory be … Be thou my …
Collect: We beseech thee, O Lord, graciously to hear our prayers: that we, being loosed from the bonds of our sins, may be defended against all adversity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned. The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord God will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed. He is near that justifieth me; who will contend with me? let us stand together: who is mine adversary? let him come near to me. Behold, the Lord God will help me; who is he that shall condemn me? lo, they all shall wax old as a garment; the moth shall eat them up. Who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God. (Isaiah 50.4-10)
Gradual: (Ps. 77) Thou art the God that only doeth wonders: and hast declared thy power among the people. V. Thou has mightily delivered thy people, even the sons of Jacob and Joseph.
Epistle: Brethren: Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift ofprophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there betongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. (I Corinthians 13)
Tract: (Ps. 100) O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands: serve the Lord with gladness. V. Come before his presence with a song. V. Be ye sure that the Lord he is God. V. It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves: we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished. For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: and they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again. And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken. And it came to pass, that as he was come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the way side begging: and hearing the multitude pass by, he asked what it meant. And they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by. And he cried, saying, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me. And they which went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace: but he cried so much the more, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me. And Jesus stood, and commanded him to be brought unto him: and when he was come near, he asked him, saying, What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee? And he said, Lord, that I may receive my sight. And Jesus said unto him, Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee. And immediately he received his sight, and followed him, glorifying God: and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise unto God. (St Luke 18.31-43)
“Are we blind also? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.” (John 9.41)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus announces His final journey to Jerusalem, where “all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished.” He foretells that He must suffer and die, and afterwards rise again. “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.” That is what Lent is all about: we “go up” with Him to contemplate and share in His passion, to be healed and transformed by that vision of divine love. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him might have eternal life” (Jn 3.14). And our going up to Jerusalem is a journey out of darkness into light, into the understanding of the mystery of divine love in the passion of Christ.
I Corinthians 13 is no doubt one of the most well-known passages of Scripture, and is especially popular at weddings. It evokes warm fuzzy feelings of idealistic sentiment which can appeal to people of any faith, or even no faith at all. “All you need is love” seems to be the message, and who could object to that? But what is “love”? Contrary to the popular slogan “love is love,” the word “love” in the Bible is used to translate at least three very different Greek words, as well as at least as many Hebrew words. So exactly what type of “love” is St Paul extolling in this lofty passage? Well, he is certainly not referring to romantic infatuation, friendship, or sexual desire. The august King James Version uses the word “charity,” an anglicization of the Latin caritas, to express the Greek word ἀγάπη [agape], and this New Testament Greek word carries much the same meaning as the Old Testament Hebrew word חֶסֶד [hesed]. Most modern translations render this word simply as “love,” but the English word “love” does not mean entirely the same thing as the Greek word ἀγάπη. Then again, the word “charity” usually carries a different connotation for us today than it bore in the 16th century. When we hear “charity,” we usually think of financial or material gifts to non-profit organizations. For St Paul, it clearly means much more than that. “Charity” is an active virtue that bears fruit in the avoidance of evil, and in selfless devotion to others. The virtue of love, or “charity,” is inherently self-sacrificial as our Lord taught both with His words and with His life: “Greater love [ἀγάπη] hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15.13). According to John, God is ἀγάπη.
God’s love is perfect, eternal, and flawless. It is always aimed at the dignity and welfare of others. God’s love is God’s life. God’s love is the divine power that unites the Three Divine Persons in one Godhead. No human word is sufficient to describe God, or even what we become if we truly live in Him and He in us. The New Testament tried, albeit inadequately, to express this greatest of all virtues with the Greek word ἀγάπη. We, even more inadequately, translate this as “charity” or “love,” but the word means so much more than that. So all those things which ἀγάπη is, according to St Paul in I Corinthians 13, are what we ought to be. It is this charity or love which defines the Church, our relationship to God, our relationships with one another, and our outreach to the world. We exist because God loved us first, before we existed to love. He created us to join Him in the communion of divine love. God, who is complete in Himself, gains nothing by creating—He does not become more God; neither would He become less God if all creation ceased to exist. And even when we sinned against Him, He continued to love us.
Now we often assume that all these wonderful things St Paul is saying in I Corinthians 13 are about us. But are they? Can we even pretend to be so loving, gentle, long-suffering, humble, honest, kind and good? In short, St Paul is saying, “You are completely out of tune, and all your words and deeds are just endless noise. Your accomplishments and abilities, even your life, are worthless. Unless …” In actual fact, these verses do not a describe you or me at all; rather they present a standard by which we must acknowledge our own lack of love or charity. But this passage does describe someone. That charity—that self-giving love—is found and has shown itself perfectly in Jesus Christ, in His self-emptying (kenosis) in the mystery of the Incarnation, and more especially in His suffering, death, and resurrection. For us, the definition of “love” is the Cross of Jesus Christ. Our Lord tells His disciples, and us, about this journey to Jerusalem, this pilgrimage of love, which He undertakes willingly for our sakes. In His suffering and death, we truly see long-suffering and kindness. Rather than harbouring envy, He emptied Himself for us. He humbled Himself and made a selfless sacrifice for the sins of the whole selfish world. “Charity is not easily provoked”—think of His cross and passion. “Charity beareth all things”—the mocking and spitting and scourging. “Charity believeth and hopeth all things”—Our Lord committed Himself into the Father’s hands and promised Paradise to the penitent thief. “Charity endureth all things, and never faileth”—He suffered, died, and rose again triumphant over sin, death, and hell.
We are shown what love—charity, ἀγάπη, caritas, חֶסֶד—really is by the cross and passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Hereby we perceive the love of God, because He laid down His life for us. “God commendeth His love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8). This is the message and meaning of the cross, and of our Lenten journey with Jesus to Jerusalem—to witness, to behold, to experience the exceeding great love of our Lord and Saviour for us, and for the whole world. Thus, when St Paul speaks of “love” in I Corinthians 13, he is preaching no less than Christ crucified. God chose willingly to suffer and die for the redemption of the world. There is no greater love than this. As we begin this Lenten season, the historic lectionary of the Church presents us with this Epistle as a means of self-examination, urging us to look behind and beneath our words and thoughts and deeds, to their very source within our hearts—to our motives. This passage then provides us with a measuring stick, a holy standard by which to judge our own Christian maturity. St Paul shows how the Christian virtue of “charity” is opposed to all envy, pride, anger and malice, forcing us to ask ourselves, “Am I long-suffering, kind, humble, selfless, gentle, pure, honest, true, patient, persevering, generous, full of faith and hope? Another interesting and valuable exercise, along these same lines, would be to read this passage through, substituting the name “Jesus” for “charity” (or “love”).
Our Gospel lesson illuminates this self-sacrificial virtue. Our Lord, consumed with love for His creation, begins His final trip to Jerusalem where He will “be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again.” Love led our Lord to His death. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4.10). But this glorious mission, this demonstration of God’s love for the whole world, is also a mission and a love for each person individually. Thus, in the second part of our Gospel reading, Jesus heals a blind man (St Mark alone names him as Bartimaeus). This encounter is not just a coincidence, but a physical way of illustrating the spiritual circumstances in which each of us find ourselves—a parable, as it were, of our own situation. In various places in the Gospels, we read that Jesus warned the disciples of His coming passion and death, but they could not accept it. That was not the proper story-line of the Messiah. In today’s passage, the Gospel repeats three times for emphasis: “And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken.” The disciples had ears, but they could not hear His words. They had eyes, but they were blinded to the truth. They cannot see the meaning of His impending suffering and death, or the love of God shining through it, because they did not want to see. We, who live after the fact, who have heard the Passion read year after year, and who have Christ’s death and passion presented before in every celebration of the Mass, can find ourselves in the same position. We are all blind beggars—blind to our own sins, our own unbelief. We all know at some level the meaning of Christ’s passion and death, but to know it at a level that changes our hearts and lives, we must cry out in faith, like this blind man, for mercy to see, and to understand.
So, on His way to Jerusalem, Jesus passes through Jericho. A huge crowd goes before and behind Him, but not one of them recognises who Jesus truly is or what He is about to accomplish. They are blind, every one – except the blind beggar. Hearing a commotion, he inquired what it meant. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the man, the teacher from that little backwater town in Galilee. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1.46). The people of Nazareth certainly did not think so. “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” they jeered, and then tried to throw Him off a cliff.
But notice what Bartimaeus calls Him – not “Jesus of Nazareth,” not “son of Joseph,” but “Jesus, Son of David.” Without the benefit of sight, and contrary to what he hears, he recognises Jesus for who He really is. This is the miracle of faith. He confesses what everyone else in the crowd is unable to see. “Jesus, Son of David.” Jesus, the promised Messiah. He is the King of Glory, and is on His way to Jerusalem to be crowned. The Lamb of God is passing by, bearing the sins of the whole world, and only a blind man can see it. This is how God works. He hides the Gospel in plain sight, and it seems like foolishness to those who are perishing. Only the blind beggar could see, for he saw Jesus with the eyes of faith.
Those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be quiet. In the eyes of the world, the only thing more offensive than a beggar, is a beggar who is confessing Christ. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”Notice that the ones trying to silence him were the very ones leading the procession, the ones who appeared to be walking with Jesus. So it is today. Wherever the true Gospel is preached, it always causes offence, often within the church. “Why are you always begging God for mercy? You talk too much about sin. Stop preaching about the cross. We don’t want to hear that. Tell us how wonderful and virtuous we are!” How could this man from Nazareth be God in the flesh? How could his journey to certain death in Jerusalem be the fulfilment of God’s eternal plan of salvation? How could the power of God be revealed in the weakness and foolishness of the cross? This is the message of the Gospel, and everyone who confesses this truth will endure the scorn of the world.
Yet the greatest miracle in this story had already taken place when Bartimaeus cried out to Jesus. God had already given him the gift of faith. “Without faith it is impossible to please God: for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He is, and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him” (Heb 11.6). Bartimaeus confessed who Jesus is, and in faith that God would reward him, he pleaded, “Have mercy on me!” Scripture tells us that we walk by faith, not by sight. Faith recognises Jesus, the Son of David, where others see only a man from Nazareth. Faith discerns the Body and Blood of Christ where others see only bread and wine. Faith makes the good confession, promising to suffer all, even death, before falling away. Faith cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk 18.13).
Bartimaeus has no pretensions. He simply admits his need and begs Christ for mercy. And so his eyes are opened, he receives his sight, and what does he see, but the love of Christ, then face to face? We too sit by the wayside begging. The meaning of Jesus and His sacrifice is perhaps not very clear to us. This journey with Jesus is the journey of faith: “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Vision is the reward of faith. Faith is an excellent thing, and so is hope, but they are only the beginning. In heaven there will be no need of faith, or of hope. In heaven there is only charity, the bond of love which unites lover and beloved. “For what shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8.35). “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Lent is a time to grow up and put away childish things. We, too, need to have our eyes opened, that we may begin to grasp the breadth and length and depth and height of the love of Christ (Eph 3.18). And what do those dimensions represent, but the Holy Cross Itself, reaching out to us in all directions?
Earlier (Luke 9.51), we are told that Jesus set His face like flint toward Jerusalem. The Via Dolorosa began not at the governor’s palace where the cross was placed on His shoulders, but at His baptism, where the sin of the whole world was laid upon Him. From that moment, Jesus was headed to Calvary, and nothing would deter Him—not Satan’s temptations to bypass the cross, not Peter’s rebuke or the pleading of His disciples, not compassion for His blessed Mother, not even His own fear and anguish of spirit. He was on His way to suffer and die for you and me, and nothing could stop Him – until this moment. Jesus heard the beggar’s plea, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” and He stopped. He stopped just long enough to say to the beggar, to you and me, “The sin I carry is yours, and the cross I bear is for you.”
Before we are able to show forth this kind of ἀγάπη-love, we, like blind Bartimaeus, must have our eyes opened so that we may see ourselves as we truly are. Blessed John Keble writes in one of his Quinquagesima sermons of the blindness that sin causes: “And in the next place, if we have not been very particular with ourselves in time past, how can we be sure that we are not even now under the dominion of some grievous sin, blinding our mind’s eye, and hindering us from truly judging of ourselves? so that we have need of deep thought, and earnest prayer, over and over again, before we can so much as find out our grievous sins: much more, before we can properly repent of them.” We must pray that our eyes might be opened to see our hidden sins and that we may see and remember the coming day of judgement. For “If our eyes were but really opened to see what is fast coming upon us; death and judgement, heaven or hell; Christ on His throne, the saints and Angels around Him, the graves opened and the dead raised, the judgement set and the books opened: surely we should think little in comparison of the trouble and anguish of confessing our sins here, whether it be to God or man, with the comfortable hope of having them forgiven and cured, for Jesus Christ’s sake, and by the help of His Holy Spirit.” (Keble)
“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.” This is the journey of Jesus to the cross, but we are invited to go with Him, to follow Him in love. This is the great theme of Lent. While the Epistle confronts us with our own lack of love, as well as Christ’s infinite love, its ultimate purpose is to show us what can be. This “charity” is a virtue inspired and infused by the Holy Spirit, reforming us into the likeness of Christ. Our final destination is the Jerusalem above, but we must all first pass through the Jerusalem below in order to get there. Love is the door into Lent, but more importantly, the door out of it. On Maundy Thursday, we will hear again His commandment to love one another, as we behold how He has loved us, both in lowly service and in supreme sacrifice.
The purpose of the Lenten fast is directly related to this – it is allowing God to reorder and perfect all our loves. Habits are formed by discipline. The goal of all our disciplines must be this growth in the love of God, by drawing nearer to Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. The disciplines of Lent are for the nourishment of our childish souls, to wean ourselves from the noxious sweets of self-indulgence and worldly preoccupation, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt 6.21). Jesus bids us to go up with Him to Jerusalem, and to find our treasure there, and He will show us ever more plainly what divine love looks like as we journey with Him. The end of our Christian life is simply this: to be in love with Jesus, caught up into the very life of the Trinity. As people of faith, we cannot behold this Love without being changed. Our labours in this Lenten season are intended to increase our love for God and for our neighbour. We seek to remove the sinfulness that refuses, hinders, or blinds us to opportunities to practise sacrificial love. It is through the practice of ἀγάπη-love for others and through defeating sinful attachments to the things of this world that we can love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And only then are we able truly to enjoy and love this world, as Christ did. Without this love, Lent is valueless. Let us then pray to the Father, through Jesus Christ our Saviour, that He would send His Holy Spirit into our hearts and fill us with His most excellent gift of charity—self-giving, steadfast love, for God and for our neighbours—for without this we are spiritually dead.
“Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
Collect: O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Spirit, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee; Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.