First Sunday in Lent Year C
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Worship resources for the First Sunday in Lent Year C are at Worship Ways
Additional reflection on Luke 4:1-13
Lectionary preaching notes on Luke 4:1-13 in preparation for the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering 2019 by Mary Schaller Blaufuss
A Place of Justice and Grace
by Kathryn M. Matthews
Wasn't it little Simba, in The Lion King, who heard his father's voice reminding him, "Remember who you are"? And didn't that reminder help Simba in deciding what he needed to do next, how he needed to act? What we do and who we are, or who we believe ourselves to be, might be seen as a DNA molecule, twisting and turning together in a beautiful and necessary dance.
As Christians, we trace our lineage and our identity to our ancestors in faith, the people of Israel long ago. Those ancestors wandered in the wilderness, lost their way, hungered and thirsted, rebelled against God and put their trust in idols made of gold. You might say that they were just like us. And like them, we need to remember, to hear the story that shaped us and to be reminded of where we came from, and especially of the One who has brought us this far.
Time to linger over our spiritual lives
Today's reading comes at the beginning of another Lenten season, a time of lengthening days…not just in hours but in slowness, in taking time to linger over our spiritual lives, over our identity as a people of faith, over the texts that form us and the quiet places in which God speaks to us, still.
(The word "Lent," in fact, comes from the Old English word for "spring," because of the lengthening of those days.)
Timothy Shapiro urges us to observe Lent as a kind of Sabbath space in which we take the time to engage our scripture texts not as solitary students but as communities in which we allow "more time for the Word to work in the soul" (New Proclamation Year C 2007).
This far by faith
Here, at the beginning of Lent, we might begin by looking back: back at the story of the Israelites so long ago, grateful for having been brought "this far by faith," as the great African American hymn says. Ironically, the Israelites were slaves freed by God to find a new home, and African American Christians were brought to a new land as slaves.
The people of Israel, we recall, were in the wilderness for forty long years, a number that holds deep meaning and recurs in the Bible. Rachel Held Evans notes that the number "forty symbolizes a prolonged period of hardship, waiting, and wandering - a liminal space between the start of something and its fruition that often brings God's people into the wilderness, into the wild unknown" (Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again).
That long story is painful in many places, but the memory is of a God who was with the people every step of the way, and gratitude is the first response to the story. Gratitude, and then generosity. We begin Lent with a reminder, an overview, of the history of a people as well as a command to remember always the hand of God active in our lives and to give thanks by offering not our leftovers but our first fruits to God.
Where did we come from?
We read the story of "where we came from" over and over, and most of us have some awareness of Jacob, our "wandering Aramean" of an ancestor, and the time Israel spent in the wilderness, and the falling of Jericho's walls, and so forth. But do we connect who we are with this story, or with the pieces we know?
If Lent can be seen as another "New Year's" experience for us, a time of resolution to get "in shape" spiritually, with more time to read and pray and serve, then Bible study is an important part of this practice, and beginning with the story of a people on the edge of the Promised Land is not a bad place to start. In many ways, we see ourselves as already living in a land flowing with milk and honey, not to mention countless other delights.
But who do we say we are now, and how do we behave? How did we get here, by our own efforts, or by the grace of God?
Generosity as response
If it truly is by the grace of God, how do we express our gratitude? Giving in the United Church of Christ averages 1.9 percent of income; how might this passage from the Book of Deuteronomy inspire you to reconsider your own giving to the church? What is your spiritual practice of generosity?
This passage, this ancient story, can be seen as instructing us about giving to the community where we are formed in faith, where we learn, through the generosity of others and are inspired to be generous ourselves. In the church, we're even nurtured in giving by those who lived long before us but provided for us nevertheless.
How does this passage also inspire us in our voting, our political beliefs, our hope and vision for our public life, and our sense of who we are as a nation, in which we care for "the widow, the alien, and the orphan," too?
What kind of world do we dream of?
Whether we are exercising generosity (ideally, as a spiritual practice) in church or in our family or in society in general, we are expressing a commitment to create "a place of justice and grace."
Sharing what we have with others, working hard to build a society that protects the most vulnerable and offers fairness to all--this is how we thank God for what we have, and how we demonstrate our trust in God's goodness for the future. It's also how we show respect and love for all of God's children.
Giving with joy
In these instructions that shape our identity as much as our ritual, we find a command to "make sacrifices of well-being, and eat them there, rejoicing before the Lord your God." We might recall these words even as we bring our offering forward, an exercise in some churches that is often marked by awkwardness or stiffness, or perhaps even reduced to simply a plate or basket in the back of the church.
Today's reading challenges us as pastors to re-think our offering and its place in the liturgy as an expression of thanks and joy, a response of the people to hearing the story and finding their place within it. After all, we Christians are people of memory, too, and were told to "do this in memory of me" every time we gather at the table for the feast.
This is God's law
And all of this, the celebration, the remembering, the sharing, and the thanksgiving, all of this is not just a good idea or a suggestion. It is to be carved in stone: "You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very clearly."
While the churches continue to argue over who's allowed to be at the table, and who's included in the story, God's law "very clearly" draws us toward gratitude and sharing. That is who we are, and what we are called to do.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces, 20th century
"The final secret, I think, is this: that the words 'You shall love the Lord your God' become in the end less a command than a promise."
Francois Roustang, 21st century
"To discern God's will, our first care must be to let things and beings assume their own value and their own weight, to thrust aside previous impressions and to welcome as a living reality this world in which God is at work."
The Dalai Lama, 21st century
"Because we all share this planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. That is not just a dream, but a necessity. We are dependent on each other in so many ways that we can no longer live in isolated communities and ignore what is happening outside those communities."
Julie Salamon, Rambam's Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give, 21st century
"In a story about the clients of the Bowery Residents Committee responding to the World Trade Center tragedy: Were the BRC clients responding to brain signals instructing them to help? Are we wired to cooperate? The New York Times has reported that we possibly might be. In an article about scientists who studied neural activity, Natalie Angier wrote: 'Hard as it may be to believe in these days of infectious greed and sabers unsheathed, scientists have discovered that the small, brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy.'"
"It is the heart that does the giving; the fingers only let go."
Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, 21st century
"Let's work together to make this world more like God's dream and less like our nightmare."
Thomas More, 16th century
"Give us, good Lord, the grace to work for the things we pray for. Amen."
Ludwig van Beethoven, inscription on his Mass, 19th century
"From the heart it has come
To the heart shall it go."
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
"Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity."
Parker Palmer, In the Company of Strangers, 20th century
"Perhaps the revival of America's public life will be aided most by those who learn to go deeply within, who (as Thomas Merton did) touch the heart of God within themselves, that heart in which they are related to all other selves."
Additional reflection on Luke 4:1-13
by Kathryn M. Matthews
Lent, again. At the beginning of a new church season, we take stock of where we are in our biblical reflections. The lectionary has provided a challenging path for preachers and hearers alike through the season of Epiphany.
We've been led from the baptism of Jesus in Luke's Gospel, to the beginning of Jesus' ministry in John's Gospel (no wilderness or testing time there, but a festive wedding where Jesus turns water into wine); back to Luke's Gospel for Jesus' inaugural address in his hometown synagogue, followed by the locals' unpleasant reaction to his words; to the calling of the first disciples; and finally, to the Transfiguration, which occurs all the way "forward," in chapter nine of Luke's Gospel.
The season of light draws to an end
In all these readings, God shows Godself in the world: it's no wonder then that Epiphany is the season of light. We've also been coming to understand who Jesus is during this Epiphany season, as the stage is set for his ministry.
The same thing could be said of Luke's Gospel so far: Luke has been preparing us for what Jesus is going to do, and what he is going to teach, by making sure we have a clear sense of who he is.
We're not in Epiphany anymore
Lent feels like a very different kind of season from Epiphany, one that begins on a somber note, in the desolate wilderness, with a story that reminds us of traditional Lenten practices like fasting, giving things up, and spending time deep in prayer.
The story seems to set the right tone for all those resolutions we've made for the next six weeks. However, we might be so distracted by what we are supposed to do, or intend to do, that we lose track of what God is doing out there, in the wilderness.
Jesus' way of ministry
Yes, this is one more opportunity for us to deepen our understanding of who Jesus is, although we were told quite clearly on the first Sunday in Epiphany, by the voice from heaven at Jesus' baptism, that he is the beloved Son of God.
Today's lesson is more about the way, and the why, Jesus is going to go about his ministry: we might say that the ground rules for his ministry and mission are set. The Son of God is not here to grab power for himself, or to show off how much he matters to God, or to work magic for the masses. That's not how it's going to work.
In training for ministry
Luke never lets us forget that the Spirit of God is upon and in and with Jesus, not just at his baptism, and not just in the wilderness (although certainly at both of these times), but throughout the entire Gospel. After Jesus' baptism, he goes out, led by the Spirit, to a long time of reflection and fasting in the wilderness, as Marcus Borg describes it, "beyond the domestication of reality provided by culture and human interchange" (Jesus: A New Vision).
In preparation for important sporting competitions like the Olympics or the Super Bowl, athletes face trials and tests in preparation for what they are about to do. Richard Swanson says, in an understated sort of way, that Jesus' test prepares him, too, for what he is about to do, for "he will turn the world right-side-up again. This is a fairly large task" (Provoking the Gospel of Luke).
What holy people do
Jesus is following in the footsteps of other Jewish holy men like Moses and Elijah and John the Baptist, and the earliest hearers of the Gospel would have remembered them just as the "forty days" he spent there would have suggested to them that it was a long sojourn.
(I remember when my dad used to say that he had told us something "four-teen times"; perhaps our ancestors in faith got the message about "forty" just as we knew Dad meant a lot of times.)
A difficult struggle
What happens next is witnessed by no one except Jesus, but Luke gives us a sense of the struggle that Jesus endures out there in the wilderness. Scholars are in remarkable agreement in their interpretation of this passage about Jesus facing an adversary who almost comes across as a "friend" who offers things that sound perfectly reasonable and good at first.
After all, why shouldn't Jesus satisfy his hunger with a little bread, and wouldn't it be great if Jesus (instead of the hated Romans) ruled the world, and how impressive would it be if Jesus flung himself off the temple roof and a thousand angels came to rescue him? (We can almost hear the tempting voice say, "That would be awesome!")
Jesus didn't do PR
If Jerusalem had witnessed that one amazing thing, early on in Jesus' ministry, perhaps there would be no need for the rest of the Gospel, right? Well, maybe not, Sharon Ringe writes: "Public relations stunts also contradict the gospel" (Luke, Westminster Bible Companion).
Indeed, how many times in his ministry would Jesus have to wonder if the crowds gathered because they wanted to see wonders rather than to hear the good news? (And wouldn't we have done the same thing?)
Who is "the devil"?
Moderns and post-moderns alike will probably wonder about "the devil" Jesus encounters in the wilderness. Commentators describe him, of course, as the personification of evil, although, as Richard Swanson writes, "Luke did not imagine pitchforks, horns, pointy tails, or the red long-johns that you see in cartoon devils" (Provoking the Gospel of Luke).
No, it might be closer to imagine instead a seductive voice offering very "good" things to Jesus, an attractive strategic plan for his ministry.
Where does the struggle come from?
More than one writer even suggests that the tests come from deep within Jesus himself, hungry and alone and wondering: N.T. Wright suggests that "the devil's voice appears as a string of natural ideas in his own head. They are plausible, attractive, and make, as we would say, a lot of sense."
This, Wright says, is a very "personal and intimate" struggle for Jesus, who, we remember, was fully human as well as fully divine (Luke for Everyone).
The Bible can be mis-used
And "the devil" not only offers attractive things but backs them up by quoting Scripture, which just shows how easily the Bible can be, and has been, used for entirely wrong purposes. A sermon on this text might explore the voices in our "domesticated" culture that offer us seductively "good" things that lead us, alas, away from God.
There is more in this story to "ring the bells" of Luke's audience. The tests Jesus faces during his forty days remind us of the tests faced by Israel during their forty years in the wilderness long ago: about trusting God to provide, and worshipping only God, and moving forward into a way of life under the rule of God of justice, mercy, and peace. Things didn't always go so well in that earlier test faced by Israel, and Jesus himself will be tested again throughout his ministry.
What really matters?
His disciples, including us today, will have much to learn from that struggle, about priorities and power. We don't often draw apart from the cacophony around us, or the incessant electronics of our lives, or the overload of messages and material objects, all of which seem to set up a smokescreen between us and God. Sometimes they're a smokescreen, and sometimes they're a thick, thick wall reinforced by our possessions, our place, our prestige--our security.
In a way (perhaps small, compared to forty days alone in the wilderness and a test by the devil himself), our ongoing economic troubles, especially income inequality, have been an opportunity to re-examine our priorities and reflect on where we place our trust, as well as what holds power in our lives.
This Lent, even better than, say, giving up chocolate, we might develop a daily spiritual practice of reflection on God's provision, God's abundance, and God's power in our lives. We might learn to reframe our lives.
Sacrifice and spiritual growth
Speaking of giving up chocolate: preachers face congregations this Sunday who might find the very concept of Lent outdated and maybe even irrelevant or too "church-y." (Is Lent "religious," rather than "spiritual"?) We can get into the Christmas season much better than we can enter into Lenten reflections and discipline.
Isn't it old-fashioned to "give something up for Lent"? Isn't it more positive to do good works, and to rest, and to grow spiritually, for example, rather than thinking in negative terms, like sacrifice and giving things up?
Yes and no. Certainly, we're not pursuing salvation through works, but I do wonder if it's not unlike getting in shape physically, which usually entails letting go of the things that pack on weight just as much as it requires doing positive things that will lead us toward better health, like adding exercise to our daily routine.
A spiritual fitness program
One way to think of Lent, then, might be as a spiritual fitness program. No single dimension is enough, for what is required is a whole-life effort to be more loving, more trusting, more courageous, more humble, yes, but also lighter (as in less burdened), more hopeful, more filled with joy, even here in Lent.
If, for example, we're carrying a grudge, our load will be lighter if we let it go - a very different kind of thing to give up. If we are preoccupied with material things - food, our car, our house, for example, including worry about all three - we could set our minds to other things: giving an extraordinarily generous gift to another, or seeing things from another's perspective (which really takes willpower, and is a great spiritual practice).
Seeing more than one side
A particularly challenging Lenten practice this year might be to strive, through generosity of spirit, to see "the other side" in our political debate during this painfully polarized and endless election season, to find value in the views of those who disagree with us and even more, to respect them and grant them the benefit of the doubt before wondering about their intentions and vision.
And speaking of generous gifts and spiritual practices, what if we tithed for the six weeks of Lent? At the end of the Lenten season, would we be able to look back and see God's hand at work in the world, through our faithful giving? Would we see something of great wonder, even in the quiet wilderness of our own humble efforts?
Who is Jesus, really?
On the one hand, the story of Jesus being tested by the devil in the wilderness, and passing that test, is about Jesus being the Son of God, and not about setting an example for us. Just in case we had any doubts at this point in the story, Luke makes that perfectly clear.
On the other hand, many writers do find in this story a word for us in our own struggle to be faithful and to grow deeper in our trust in our God.
I would like to highlight the writing of two women in this regard. Mary Gordon has written a thoughtful and thought-provoking book, Reading Jesus: A Writer's Encounter with the Gospels, in which she reflects on this story, evoking the hunger Jesus felt, that most human of experiences, and one that involves both body and soul.
The word, however, is not just "hungry" but "famished": "Famished: you can feel it in the cave behind your ribs, in the midriff's empty drum," Gordon writes; Jesus was in a state of "depletion, an almost dangerous, desperate state."
Hunger and vulnerability
Hunger could have made Jesus "vulnerable" to the test he faced of putting the devil in his place, with just one word, one call to God. "One of the rare human achievements," Gordon writes, "is to be so sure of oneself that one resists the temptation to prove one's own worth to someone else."
Maybe, in your own way, you face the temptation to "prove you are effective, prove you are beloved," Gordon writes, the temptation to "try authority on for size, and on top of it, glory….Authority. Glory. What are they but the signs that the world recognizes our worth?" (Reading Jesus: A Writer's Encounter with the Gospels).
This happens to ministers, of course, but it happens to all of us in one way or another. What really "proves" our value, our effectiveness, our belovedness?
Raising the bar of "faith"
No matter how far away that ancient wilderness is, or how far above us Jesus is, Barbara Brown Taylor brings the story home to us in our own spiritual lives. She begins her sermon, "Lenten Discipline," with a short history of the way Lent developed, after Jesus' followers had grown a little too comfortable and had lowered their expectations of both God and themselves (we might say that they had "lowered the bar" of the life of faith).
Taylor's description of our ancestors fits us painfully well today, as we too have found ways to accommodate the culture around us, completely (or at least uneasily) at ease with those conflicts between faith and that world, the conflicts that ought to trouble our souls.
Filling the empty places
Her history is helpful, but then she challenges us to approach Lent as a time for "spring housecleaning" for our souls, finding out what the "pacifiers" are that cushion our existence, making us feel safe and comfortable, making us think we can get along without God. (This is true even when these pacifiers are merely distractions from the pain and the struggles of faith.)
Taylor then takes us on a Lenten journey of examination and trust, but it doesn't sound easy, and she doesn't give us any free passes, either. And that's a good thing, I believe. She challenges us to name our particular addictions, the things "we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone"; she exhorts us to avoid them for forty days, and then to be attentive to how preoccupied we are by what we have given up (Home by Another Way).
Yes, "how" we practice our Lenten disciplines matters, including the spirit in which we fast. But so does the decision to practice a discipline in the first place, and to let God work through that practice to shape our faith into one that endures and grows and thrives, no matter what is going on around us, no matter what happens in our lives, no matter what we encounter out there, in the wilderness.
God in the wilderness with us
Speaking of wilderness, perhaps the most moving words come from John Stendahl, who evokes the wilderness – not only the wilderness in which Jesus was tested, but every wilderness in which we wander, at one time or another: "For the desert is not God-forsaken nor does it belong to the devil. It is God's home. The Holy Spirit is there, within us and beside us. And if we cannot feel that spirit inside of us or at our side, perhaps we can at least imagine Jesus there, not too far away, with enough in him to sustain us, enough to make us brave" (New Proclamation Year C 2001).
And so, let us set out now on the journey of Lent, toward the cross, and remembering always the empty tomb beyond.
For further reflection:
Mary Oliver, Upstream, 21st century
"'Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view,' [Emerson] says, and suddenly that elite mystical practice seems clearer than ever before, and possible to each of us."
N.T. Wright, 21st century
"Christian holiness consists not of trying as hard as we can to be good but of learning to live in the new world created by Easter, the new world we publicly entered in our baptism. There are many parts of the world we can’t do anything about except pray. But there is one part of the world, one part of physical reality, that we can do something about, and that is the creature each of us call 'myself.'"
Dorothy Soelle, 20th century
"All true theology begins in pain."
Edward Abbey, 20th century
"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit."
T.S. Eliot, 20th century
"The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason."
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 20th century
"Whatever their bodies do affects their souls. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out..."
Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, 20th century
"The greatest temptations are not those that solicit our consent to obvious sin, but those that offer us great evils masking as the greatest goods."
Fulton J. Sheen, 20th century
"Why is it that any time we speak of temptation we always speak of temptation as something that inclines us to wrong. We have more temptations to become good than we do to become bad."
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
"Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl: it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling."
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"I know God will not give me anything I can't handle. I just wish [God] didn't trust me so much."
Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, 21st century
"People couldn't become truly holy, he said, unless they also had the opportunity to be definitely wicked."
Henri Nouwen, 20th century
"Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions....Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the 'Beloved.' Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence."
When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us."
When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me." You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
You who live in the shelter
of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow
of the Almighty,
will say to God,
"My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust."
Because you have made God
the Most High
your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
For God will command God's angels
to guard you
in all your ways.
On their hands
they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot
against a stone.
You will tread on the lion
and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent
you will trample under foot.
Those who love me,
I will deliver;
I will protect those
who know my name.
When they call to me,
I will answer them;
I will be with them
I will rescue them
and honor them.
With long life
I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
"The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written,
'Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'"
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
'He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,'
'On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"
Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."