Monday, January 9, 2017

Five-Part Faith

In my former parish, the youth group leads a Feast of Lights service of light on the Sunday evening closest to the Epiphany. Celebrated in many parishes, this service marks how the light of Christ entered the world and spread to Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the magi, John the Baptist, the twelve disciples, and so on. What makes the service particularly interesting to me is the transition from the biblical text to the Church's story as the light of the gospel spreads to the saints and martyrs of Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Candles are lit for Robert Hunt, the chaplain who came over with the first successful English colony at Jamestown, and David Pendleton Oakerhater, the Cheyenne artist who was ordained a deacon and served as a missionary in Oklahoma. Eventually, the congregation's candles are lit, and we process out into the street to proclaim our commitment to the gospel's continuing propagation.

In a way, the spirit of that service is captured in the collect for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. It is not only the prayer we will pray this week. It is also an image of the faith we proclaim. Like most collects, it has five parts, and each of them is a reflection of how the gospel transforms us and the world.

"Almighty God..." - The address identifies the one to whom we make our prayer, and, in this case, it is simply God the Almighty. Notice that we aren't praying to the "Father," even though the next phrase will acknowledge explicitly the Son. God is the source of light--not only God the Father but the triune God.

"...whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world..." - The acknowledgment is my favorite part of a collect as it provides the theological warrant for the prayer. This is the thing that we believe about God (or us or the world) that becomes the foundation for our request. This is a statement of why we are directing this prayer to God in the first place, and, in this case, we are praying to God because God's Son is the light of the world. We believe that in the Incarnation God brings God's light to creation most fully. Jesus is how we see God's light. He is the basis for our relationship with God.

"...Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory..." The pleading is the actual request itself. This is what we are asking of God, and, in this case, we are asking that God's people (that's us), having had God's light shine on us through Word and Sacraments (more on that in a minute), may shine that light ourselves. I think it's interesting that we don't identify the recipients of this request as "we" but as "God's people." Of course that's us, but it's more than us. It's bigger than our parish, our tradition, our denomination. It's all of God's people. And this prayer assumes that those people have been illumined by the Word and Sacraments that we share and celebrate. This is study, reading, preaching, and proclamation. This is Baptism and the Lord's Supper. This prayer identifies the usual means by which God's people receive the light of the Incarnation through Word and Sacraments--the most basic two-fold piety of the Christian life. And the focus of our request is that we ourselves might therefore shine with the same brilliance as Christ himself. May God enable God's people, when fed by the Word and Sacraments, to reflect that light.

"...that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth..." My second favorite part of a collect is the aspiration--the "what are we asking this for?" part of the prayer. This is the "so that" part, which isn't found in all collects but, when it is, helps ground our prayer on an even larger foundation that the need we express. We're asking God to enable us to shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, but for what reason? So that that light might shine through us to the rest of the world until Christ is "known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth." This is evangelism. This is the sharing of the light of Christ. And, in this collect, it comes not from those who go to seminary and work as preachers. Nor does it come from those who dedicate their lives to serve as missionaries in far away places. That light is spread by the people of God who are immersed in God's Word and nourished by the Sacraments. This is the aspiration of the Christian life: to share the light of Christ with others.

"...through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever." The pleading wraps it up, but it is always worth remembering that we are not asking this prayer on our own but are pleading with God through God himself. God enables our prayers. We ask this through Christ. Our prayer is made to God through the channel/door/vehicle/relationship that we have in Christ. The image of the subject pleading before the powerful king is apt but only to a point. Because of Christ, our prayers are never brushed aside. They never fall on deaf ears. Through our baptism, we have been united with God through Christ, and our prayers are made to one who knows us and loves us as God's own.

This week, the lessons feel like a reflection of yesterday's lessons. We're back to another Servant Song in Isaiah. Jesus and John the Baptist are still talking about the baptism in the River Jordan. But this collect helps me remember that the light, which came to the world in the Incarnation, has come to us, and we are called to share it with the world. It does not shine only in the Incarnate One. We see it not only as Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism. It has come to us, and we must let our light shine so that others may see and know Christ as Lord.

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