Thursday, April 5, 2018

Comfortable Words


During Lent, we use the Penitential Order to begin our worship. It isn't particularly penitential except that it begins with the recitation of the Ten Commandments and the Confession. In that way, it shifts our focus at the beginning of worship from praise to penitence, which feels fitting for Lent. At the early service, one of the hallmarks of the Easter season, therefore, is the restoration of the Comfortable Words--those sentences of scripture that follow the Confession and Absolution in the Rite I service and that are not used with the Penitential Order.

I love the Comfortable Words. I love all four of the sentences, and I say them all each week. My colleague only says one of them perhaps because he feels that saying only one makes the one he chooses more potent. The rubric says that "a Minister may say one or more of the following," but the 1928 prayer book, from which the Rite I liturgy is taken. assumes that all of them will be said. I think it's particularly comforting to hear the cadence of all four sentences of scripture. But I think it's worth noting how the fourth of those has changed AND how Sunday's reading from 1 John renders it.

In the NRSV, John 2:1-2 reads, "If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." Actually, the sentence begins with a "but." John begins this line of thought by exhorting his readers NOT to sin. "But," he writes, "if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father..." Yet it's the end of verse 2 that is worth noting. The NRSV describes the sacrifice as "atoning" and declares that it is sufficient "for the sins of the whole world."

The word "atonement" is one of the few theological terms that has its origins in the English language. It isn't just clever for the preacher to say that it means "at-one-ment"; that's actually where the word comes from. The NRSV suggests to us that, even if we sin, Jesus Christ, our heavenly advocate, intercedes on our behalf through his sacrifice that reconciles us (i.e. makes us one) with God. And John makes it clear to his readers that the sacrifice of Jesus has the power to reconcile the whole world to God.

In the 1979 prayer book, after pronouncing the absolution, the minister says, "If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world." The prayer book uses "perfect offering" instead of "atoning sacrifice." Maybe that's to keep the blood out. Maybe that's because it's right before the offertory. Or maybe it's because of the Greek word John uses in his letter.

In the 1928 prayer book, the minister would say, "If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the Propitiation for our sins." That's it. First, it's worth noting that the comfortable word in the old prayer books leaves out the part about Jesus' sacrifice being sufficient for the sins of the whole world. Maybe that's because we don't want people to think that they can be forgiven unless they come to church. Or maybe it's because those of us in church want the smug superiority that universal forgiveness seems to deny. Or maybe it's simply because the unedited verses are pretty long and cumbersome. For whatever reason, though, the latter part is left off. The more interesting bit, however, is how the sacrifice is described.

The 1928 prayer book preserves the word "propitiation." That's what the KJV would have called it. During Holy Week, we used the CEB, which tries to strip away most of the theologically laden words so that anyone--even without the most basic theological education from a children's Sunday shcool class--could read the Bible and understand it. Naturally, it doesn't use that word. It tells us that Jesus is "God's way of dealing with our sins," which is what the word means and might actually be better than "atoning sacrifice," but it doesn't really get at the heart of the Greek word that John chose.

John uses ἱλασμός. That word has traditionally been translated as "propitiation." But that's not a word we use very often anymore. Unfortunately for us, it only occurs twice in the New Testament, both times in 1 John. It does occur in 2 Maccabees and in several of Plutarch's writings (see this website), and, in those cases, it is used to mean "expiatory sacrifice." The sense, therefore, is that sins are being forgiven, that anger is being appeased. The result of that might be at-one-ment, but the action itself implies a removal not a rejoining. The sin, the guilt, the anger are removed. The one-ness comes after that. Maybe, in that way, the "perfect offering" of the 1979 prayer book is a decent approximation, but I find that people don't just want to know that Jesus is the source of their reconciliation with God; they want to know how it happens. And the "propitiation" of Jesus Christ is the answer.

Sometimes routine loses its shine, and the Comfortable Words are one example. We are glad to have them back in our early service, but this Sunday's epistle lesson--even if it isn't mentioned by the preacher--is an extra chance to recapture their power by hearing the words a second time. Sometimes we need to strip down the comfortable English and get back to the awkward, rough words of the original language. Sometimes we need a theologically rich but difficult word like propitiation--not because it says everything we need to hear and not because it can stand without explanation but because it brings us deeper into the complicated thing that the Bible is saying to us. No, I don't want to change the 1979 version of this Comfortable Word, but I do want to dwell in its comfort even more fully than usual.

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