Monday, 3 February 2020

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 9 February 2020,
Third Sunday before Lent

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste how can its saltiness be restored?’ (Matthew 5: 13) … ‘Sal Sapit Omnia’ (‘Salt Savours All’), the motto of the Worshipful Company of Salters at the former gates of Salters’ Hall in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday, 9 February 2020, is the Third Sunday before Lent.

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland, are:

The Readings: Isaiah 58: 1-9a (9b-12); Psalm 112: 1-9 (10); I Corinthians 2: 1-12 (13-16); Matthew 5: 13-20.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

A chandelier in the Wieliczka Salt Mines, outside Krakow in southern Poland … salt was used in the Temple to season incense and offerings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Introducing the Readings:

Our readings offer an opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of religion, or to discuss how religious worship is hollow and meaningless unless it leads to compassion and justice.

The Gospel reading continues reading from the Sermon on the Mount. The images of salt and light as explanations of true discipleship and true religion offer interesting illustrations of what true religion is.

‘Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations’ (Isaiah 58: 12) … the classical ruins at Butrint in southern Albania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Isaiah 58: 1-9a (9b-12):

In Year A, we are reading through Saint Matthew’s Gospel. But in Saint Luke’s Gospel, Christ begins his public ministry in the synagogue reading from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah (see Luke 4: 1-14).

The scroll of Isaiah was given to him, and the portion he read from includes part of this reading. In fact, the three verses he read do not come in sequence: Isaiah 61: 1, part only of verse 2 and a portion of Isaiah 58: 6. And so, even if Jesus had been handed a pre-selected portion of Scripture to read – perhaps following in sequence from two or more previous readers – we see a deliberate choice on his part to roll back the scroll and to insert a portion of that extra verse, Isaiah 58: 6. He then told the congregation that the Scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing.

This portion of Isaiah was written after the Exile, and this passage speaks not only of their religious observances but of the people’s attitude towards God.

The people are described as fasting regularly, going to the Temple daily to pray for God’s favour on their wars and political decisions. But, in truth, their religious practices are no more than mere ritual. They continue to oppress their workers and plan warfare.

Instead, God wants true worship that signifies proper relations: ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?’ (Isaiah 58: 6-7).

These are the very values emphasised by Saint Luke in his account of Christ reading from Isaiah in the synagogue, and the very values emphasised by Saint Matthew in his account of the Sermon on the Mount, which we are reading from these Sundays.

Should the people put into practice these values, God will shine his light on them, heal and restore them, protect them and be present among them: ‘Here I am’ (verse 9). God will be present with his people, guiding them and meeting their everyday needs. When they return from exile, the streets they live on, their houses and gardens, the walls of Jerusalem will be rebuilt and restored.

‘Light shines in the darkness for the upright’ (Psalm 112: 4) … light lights up the parish church in Laytown, Co Meath, in the winter darkness (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Psalm 112: 1-9 (10):

Psalm 112 commends those who shine light in the darkness for the upright; those who are gracious and full of compassion; those who are generous in lending; whose priorities are justice and giving freely to the poor.

This is where to find praise and honour, this is the state of well-being of godly people, who fear God and who obey his commandments.

They will be blessed with descendants, wealth, riches and godliness; they will be examples to others; they will enjoy true happiness; they will be long remembered; they will have no fears; they will triumph over their foes; and they will see the end of wickedness that threatens them.

Those who are spiritual discern all things (I Corinthians 2: 15) … the Swiss Alps at Kerns, south of Zurich (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

I Corinthians 2: 1-12 (13-16):

Over the previous two weeks, we have read in this letter to the Church in Corinth how the Apostle Paul has condemned the factional disputes that have been dividing Christians in the city, and how he has sought to correct their immaturity in the faith.

Saint Paul tells them they are spiritually immature, relying on what they see as human wisdom or philosophy when they should be trusting in the power of God.

Saint Paul urges them to rely on God’s wisdom and mystery – perhaps even calling on them to rely on the sacraments, he uses the word μυστήριον (mistérion), see verses 1, 7, which is also translated as sacramentum in Latin.

God’s love and God’s plans are hidden from others, and only the Spirit alone can lead us to true knowledge of God comprehensively (verses 11-12). But this makes no sense to those who have not received God’s gifts – once again he may be referring to Baptism and the Eucharist.

None of this makes sense to those who are unspiritual and rely on foolishness, but they make sense to those who seek God’s gifts and who are open to living according to God’s teachings and instructions.

A pulpit carved into the Wieliczka Salt Mines, outside Krakow in southern Poland … the carving in the background depicts the Flight into Egypt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 5: 13-20:

We are reading from the Sermon on the Mount, and last week [2 February 2020], in the reading for the Fourth Sunday before Lent – the alternative to the commemoration of the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple – we heard Christ describe the qualities and rewards of those who are blessed, the Beatitudes (Matthew 3-11).

In this Gospel reading, Christ uses two metaphors to show the disciples the essential qualities of being his followers.

The disciples are to be ‘the salt of the earth’ (verse 13). In reality, despite what is said here, salt does not easily lose its taste. However, in Judaism salt symbolised purity and wisdom and was used to season incense and offerings to God in the Temple. Should it become ritually unclean, it had to be thrown out and was no longer to be used by the worshipping community or its liturgies. Similarly, if Christians lose their faith they are no longer part of the worshipping community and its liturgy, and may as well be discarded or thrown out.

Roman soldiers were given salt rations and this Sal is the origin of the word ‘salary.’ A soldier failing in battle or falling asleep at his post was ‘not worth his salt.’

The disciples are to be ‘the light of the world’ (verses 14-15). They are to stand out, like a city on a hill, and to lead others to Christ, who is a light to the Gentiles (see Luke 2: 32) and the true Light of the World (see John 8: 12).

Christ then reminds the disciples that he has come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them (verses 16-20). What does he mean by the fulfilment of the Law? This is explained fully in our first reading: ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly’ (Isaiah 58: 6-8).

And it is explained too in the Psalm: ‘Blessed are those who fear the Lord and have great delight in his commandments’ (Psalm 112: 1); light shines in the darkness for them because their priorities are compassion, generosity to the poor and justice.

‘Blessed are those who … have great delight in his commandments’ (Psalm 112: 1) … ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil’ (Matthew 5: 17) … the Ten Commandments above the altar in the Guild Church of Saint Martin-within-Ludgate, Ludgate Hill, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Matthew 5: 13-20 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’

‘No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket’ (Matthew 5: 15) … candles in the Church of Saint Spyridon in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Reflecting on the readings:

On the previous Sunday [2 February 2020], we celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas, marking the end of the season of Christmas and Epiphany. In three weeks’ time, the Church Year, the Liturgical Calendar, changes dramatically at Ash Wednesday [26 February 2020] as we begin the Season of Lent.

In between Candlemas and Lent, in the Church of Ireland, we are calling these Sundays the Sundays before Lent. But in the Church of England and in many other churches, the Revised Common Lectionary provides for counting these Sundays as the Sundays in Ordinary Time. In the Church of Ireland, next Sunday [9 February 2020] is the Third Sunday before Lent; but in some traditions in the Church of England and in other churches, it is also known as the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Ordinary Time returns after Pentecost, but once again in the Church of Ireland we have a different way of counting and numbering, and so we count the Sundays after Pentecost or the Sundays before Advent, rather than counting the Sundays in Ordinary Time.

Sometimes we can become so used to the daily routine that we truly feel that most time is ordinary time, very ordinary time, with the ordinary round of tasks and daily life.

But, we ought to ask ourselves, what is wrong with Ordinary Time?

What is wrong with being ordinary?

Being ordinary is a quality of the great poets. The mature style of Philip Larkin, as Jean Hartley observes, blossoms when he starts to observe ‘ordinary people doing ordinary things.’ Hugo Williams sees the turning point for John Betjeman as the moment he took account of the harder, unprotected world of ordinary excellence.

TS Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton,’ the first poem in The Four Quartets, is set at this time of the year, when all things are full of air and grace. For Eliot, it is in the movement of time, ordinary time, that brief moments of eternity are caught.

As Saint Paul reminds us in the epistle reading next Sunday, the revelation of God in Christ is the intersection between eternity and time (see I Corinthians 2: verses 1-5; see Isaiah 58: 8-9).

In our Gospel reading [Matthew 5: 13-20], Christ speaks of the eternal values and truths that the Law and the Prophets point to (verse 17), and points himself to the promise and the coming of the kingdom (see verses 18, 19 and 20). Yet he does this while drawing upon very ordinary, everyday, domestic images: salt and its role in preserving and cooking food; lights and lamps that give domestic light in our houses and homes; bushels and baskets; hillsides and homesteads; and so on.

Life and time can be very ordinary – time is ordinary – when things keep going on and on, round and round. But even as we wait for the kingdom, that life and that time, in their ordinary ways, are worth celebrating, time after time, in everyday ordinary life.

The central discussion in TS Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ is the nature of time and salvation. Eliot emphasises our need to focus on the present moment and to know that there is a universal order. By understanding the nature of time and the order of the universe, we are able to recognise God and to find redemption.

He emphasises that the present moment is the only time period that really matters, for the past cannot be changed and the future is unknown. He describes how consciousness cannot be bound within time, yet we cannot actually escape from our own time, even if we waste this ordinary time. He concludes ‘Burnt Norton’ with these lines:

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

As we move on in life, we waste sad time more and more, as we settle, as we prosper, as we age. Slowly but surely, we slip away from the chores and routines that mark out and make up the reassuring rhythms of ordinary life.

We hire someone else to clean our house because the amount of time it would take us to do it is ‘worth’ more than we have to pay. We order in takeaway food rather than cooking for ourselves because it saves ‘valuable’ time. We have our dry cleaning delivered to our offices rather than doing our own ordinary errands on an ordinary Saturday morning.

And then, as we try to commodify time and to trade in time, this distortion of our values takes a grip and seeps into our lives. We start evaluating even important relationships in the same way. We miss a child’s ‘Nativity Play’ and think we can make up by buying a new game for their DS. We constantly miss dinner at home with our partner, and then think we can make up for a year’s worth of an empty chair at the table by splashing out on an expensive Christmas present.

Gifts and games can be bought. But ordinary time with those we love can never be bought, and can never be bought back.

Time and money cannot be compared. Time cannot be traded on the exchanges or bought in SuperValu or Sainsbury’s. Christ spends time – typified in the lengthy time on the side of the mountain during the Sermon on the Mount, which we are reading from – Christ spends ordinary time with the disciples, teaching them in ordinary ways about who he is and what the cost of discipleship is, what the cost of following him is. In that ordinary time they spend with him, they will come to realise who Christ truly is.

Christ teaches us, time and again, that time spent with friends and family resists commodification. Because ordinary time is an essential part of what makes up our relationships. I cannot buy time, and I cannot buy friendship and love. And the more time I spend with people, paradoxically, the more time they have for God (see verse 16).

A close friend is not someone I meet solely at the big functions in civic, church, business or academic life, is not someone I exchange business cards and email addresses with, or someone who occasionally clicks Like or Share on my Facebook postings. A close friend is someone I spend significant time with, and this means not just quality time, but ordinary time too.

Friendships are knit together not only by taking part in shared activities, but by sharing and reflecting on the memories of those activities over the course of the years in ordinary time.

For the first Christians, Sunday was not a day of rest; it was a regular, ordinary working day in ordinary time. Yes it was also the first feast; but for the first Christians, the great and joyous mystery of the cosmos and of salvation was celebrated regularly on an ordinary day, in an ordinary house, in the midst of ordinary life.

This original social context for our Sunday celebrations vividly represents how in-breaking eternity, clothed in time, truly sanctifies ordinary time, giving it a meaning that transcends our temporal trials and travails in this everyday life. This validation of human time, of ordinary time, takes place within the Eucharist, Sunday after Sunday.

No human time that has its meaning anchored in Christ’s salvific activity can possibly be commodified, reduced without distortion to a monetary value and bought and sold to further our selfish desires. Indeed, Professor Cathleen Kaveny of Notre Dame University suggests that the story of the betrayal of Christ by Judas for thirty silver coins testifies to this truth.

The liturgical calendar of the Church is designed to help us to appreciate each moment of salvation history, even while viewing it all from the eternal perspective of the resurrection. The liturgical year begins with Advent, a time of waiting, followed by the season of Christmas, including Epiphany and culminating with Candlemas. Then follows this Ordinary Time, in which the earthly life of Christ is recalled and celebrated, Sunday after Sunday.

Next we have Lent, preparing us for Holy Week’s ‘real time’ commemoration of the events we celebrate each Sunday. Easter follows, and then Christ’s Ascension and the Day of Pentecost. Then along comes another, second, but longer season of Ordinary Time that ends with the feast of Christ the King.

Time in the liturgical year is not freely exchangeable – it cannot be traded, bought or sold. So, we do not fast at Christmas, nor do we feast on Good Friday. Each time and season in the liturgical calendar conveys something of the uniqueness of the opportunities we are presented with, the time-bound character of our invitations and obligations, and the need to lay hold of them in a moment of decision.

We cannot make up for having ignored Lent by observing our own private penitential season in the first week of Easter – no more than we can make up for having forgotten a partner’s anniversary or a child’s birthday by giving a bigger or more expensive present the next day or the next week.

And the Church fails to grasp the intersection between temporal reality and eternal truth when it misses the opportunity to hear the ordinary concerns of people when they articulate them. In missing the opportunity to listen to the Occupy protesters in London some years ago, the community of Saint Paul’s Cathedral missed an opportunity, a moment in time that can never be presented in the same way again. In this failure, a blessèd opportunity to express the mission of a cathedral – to allow the nation to speak to the Church and the Church to speak to the Nation – was lost, never to be recovered in quite the same way again.

We must guard against losing our saltiness, against hiding our light, against living in the reality of ordinary time which Christ is born into and which the Kingdom of God is breaking into.

TS Eliot reminds us, ‘Only through time time is conquered.’ In the economy of salvation, time is imbued with mystery. The fundamental mystery of the universe, the depth of its meaning, is the very reality of God himself. The Kingdom of God is truly but only dimly present in our midst, but will be revealed in God’s own time.

In the opening lines of ‘Burnt Norton’, Eliot writes:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

So, may we enjoy being ‘At the still point of the turning world.’ May we enjoy ordinary time, celebrate ordinary time, enjoy the ordinary things of life. Ordinary time is not a commodity to be traded or exchanged. For we are truly blessed when, in the movement of time, ordinary time, we glimpse brief moments of eternity.

‘… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5: 16) … candles lighting up the chapter and choir stalls in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour (Ordinary Time, Year A): Green.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
who alone can bring order
to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity:
Give your people grace
so to love what you command
and to desire what you promise;
that, among the many changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Collect of the Word:

Faithful God, you have appointed us your witnesses,
to be a light that shines in the world:
let us not hide the bright hope you have given us,
but tell everyone of your love,
revealed in Jesus Christ the Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Merciful Father,
you gave Jesus Christ to be for us the bread of life,
that those who come to him should never hunger.
Draw us to our Lord in faith and love,
that we may eat and drink with him at his table in the kingdom,
where he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste how can its saltiness be restored?’ (Matthew 5: 13) … bags of salt tablets outside the Ice House Hotel on the Quayside in Ballina, Co Mayo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested Hymns:

Isaiah 58: 1–9a (9b–12):

647, Guide me, O thou great Jehovah
125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed
535, Judge eternal, throned in splendour
712, Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord
497, The Church of Christ in every age
510, We pray for peace

Psalm 112: 1-9 (10):

591, O happy day that fixed my choice

I Corinthians 2: 1-12 (13-16):

11, Can we by searching find out God
567, Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go
220, Glory be to Jesus
232, Nature with open volume stands
594, O Lord of creation, to you be all praise
248, We sing the praise of him who died
247, When I survey the wondrous cross

Matthew 5: 13-20:

86, Christ is the King! O friends, rejoice
381, God has spoken – by his prophets
324, God, whose almighty word
382, Help us, O Lord, to learn
589, Lord, speak to me that I may speak
503, Make me a channel of your peace
526, Risen Lord, whose name we cherish

‘No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket’ (Matthew 5: 15) … candles in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Rethymnon on the Greek island of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The hymn suggestions are provided in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling. The hymn numbers refer to the Church of Ireland’s Church Hymnal (5th edition, Oxford: OUP, 2000).

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden’ (Matthew 5: 14) … the lights of the Monastery of Serra do Pilar in Vila Nova de Gaia above Luiz I Bridge, the River Tagus and the city of Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)


In reading and preparing for the reflection in this posting, I was grateful for ideas expressed by Professor M Cathleen Kaveny in ‘Living the fullness of Ordinary Time: a Theological Critique of the Instrumentalization of Time in Professional Life’ (Communio, Winter 2001, vol 28, no 4, pp 771-819).

She is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor Boston College since 2014, and a former Professor of Law and Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. That paper was a revised version of the Baker-McKenzie Lecture in Ethics at Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 2001, published as ‘Billable Hours in Ordinary Time: A Theological Critique of the Instrumentalization of Time in Professional Life’ in the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal.

Other references:

TS Eliot, The Complete Poems & Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1969).
Sarah Arthur, At the Still Point (Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2011).
Hugo Williams, John Betjeman, Poems selected by Hugo Williams (London: Faber and Faber, 2006).
(Professor) Conor Gearty, ‘St Paul’s – reflection on the court ruling on eviction,’ 11 January 2012.
Patrick Comerford, ‘A Sunday in Ordinary Time in Cambridge,’ a sermon preached at Choral Evensong in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, 5 February 2012.

‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5: 16) … light streams into Saint Stephen Walbrook Church, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

No comments:

Post a Comment