Sermon Seeds: Breaking Chains
Seventh Sunday of Easter Year C
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
Worship resources for the Seventh Sunday of Easter Year C are available at Worship Ways.
Additional reflection on creation care by Professor Eleazar S. Fernandez, United Theological Seminary
by Kathryn M. Matthews
The adventures of the apostles continue in this wonderfully detailed story of exorcism and outrage, mob scenes and courtroom drama, liberation and celebration, with Paul at the center of the action, and God very busy at work everywhere. The gospel is spreading, according to Luke, and the church is growing in leaps and bounds, drawing converts (as usual) from the most unexpected places, and succeeding in surprising ways. Our text this week teaches theology while telling a story, perhaps the best way to do both.
In last week’s reading from Acts, we met Lydia, the Gentile woman of considerable means who brought herself and her whole household to faith in Jesus Christ, with a group baptism held in the midst of great joy. Paul and his entourage, including Silas, and the narrator (perhaps Luke himself), and others, must have been feeling pretty good about how things were going. They followed their routine of going to “the place of prayer,” perhaps down by the river where they had first met Lydia, or even to a synagogue. We can believe that they kept to their practice of prayer and teaching, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, whether or not things were going well.
Speaking from the margin
On his regular trips to the place of prayer, Paul kept encountering a woman who was very different from Lydia. While Lydia was a woman of position and many possessions, with her own household and a business to run, this other woman, really a young girl, was a person in the street, a slave-girl, a possession herself, owned by other humans but also held captive by a spirit that appeared to give her special powers.
Scholars describe such people as “diviners” who were believed to be able to predict the future but also to see more deeply into realities the rest of us might miss; in the Greek culture, these powers were linked to the god Apollo, whose worship center at Delphi had a snake as his symbol. Paul Walaskay explains that people would come to these people to ask them questions which they would answer while in a trance, as if the god were speaking through them. Just as we have shops on city streets with the sign “Psychic” out front, it would not have been uncommon to encounter a young girl like this one in urban settings, just tending to business (Acts, Westminster Bible Commentary).
A small-business enterprise
The picture Walaskay paints of this young girl is somewhat different, then, from the stories we have heard about people tortured by spirits and demons usually encountered (and exorcized) by Jesus and his followers. This girl is a lucrative small-business enterprise for the men who own her. Like so many young girls, she is used by those who have figured out a way to make money with her, but her strange public announcements about Paul and his little band of missionaries, we suspect, do not bring much income to her owners. Her wording sounds odd to our ears, because she calls them “slaves,” and refers to a God that is not her own as “the Most High God,” although we note that it was not uncommon for Gentiles to call the Jewish God by that name.
It’s intriguing to hear the extra meaning commentators read into what happens next: the text plainly says that Paul was “very much annoyed,” so it seems fair to say that this exorcism feels like an impulsive action born of irritation. Paul is tired of being heckled by the spirit that possesses her and can recognize who he is, who his God is, and what he has to offer. He’s focused on doing what he came to do, and healing slave-girls doesn’t seem to be at the top of his agenda. Paul finds her distracting, ironically, even if she does proclaim the truth. Is she too loud, or too repetitious, or is it just too much for the truth to come from such a strange source? Interesting questions to consider, but in any case, Paul turns and heals her, just to quiet her down.
What happens to the girl now?
There are some readers of this story, however, who believe that Paul was moved by compassion for the young girl. Ron Hansen infers from the text that Paul could see the “alien spirit” holding the girl hostage, a demon that was going to use the Christian faith itself “for its own corrupt purposes, either to discredit the faith or to hide behind it.” This strikes me as a bit of a stretch, because it doesn’t seem like there was time for Paul to ponder what was happening inside the girl. While Paul seems more intent on going about his business without this pagan girl either supporting or impeding it, Hansen claims that the girl’s welfare is paramount in Paul’s mind, more than even her “false praise” (“Living by the Word,” The Christian Century May 4, 2010).
What is much more puzzling, and much more troubling, is a question several commentators linger on: what about this young girl’s life afterward? Isn’t she still a slave, and isn’t Paul moved to help her beyond freeing her from the spirit that possessed her? Lawrence W. Farris has a provocative take on this passage: he’s haunted by this slave girl and by the way Paul fails to challenge the system of slavery that holds her bound just as much as the spirit had, for Paul doesn’t try to share the gospel with her (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
Who “distracts” us from mission?
Are we expecting too much of Paul, a man of his time and culture? Curiously, Farris says that Paul is, in a way, challenging the system that keeps the girl in bondage, but the text doesn’t really indicate that as much as it describes his annoyance at being interrupted, or perhaps, heckled. Paul was on a mission, and he didn’t really see the girl or her healing as part of that mission, and certainly not as at the heart of it.
What mission are you on in your church, and what is at the heart of it? What “suffering slave girls” may annoy you on your way and yet draw you back to the heart of God’s call? Would these marginalized people recognize you as a “slave of the Most High God”? Is Paul’s undone work left to later times and cultures, and if so, what is left for us to do, in our own time?
What keeps us bound?
There is another thread to this interpretation that focuses on the many ways we humans are captive to forces seemingly more powerful than we are. There are powers that keep us bound: old prejudices, systemic injustice that we don’t even see but certainly benefit from, a need for security, fear that makes us strangers from one another, resentment that grips us and keeps us apart…perhaps we don’t call these “demons” or even “spirits,” but they are powerful indeed and we need to be set free from them.
At the same time, this metaphorical use of these words should never obscure our perception of the reality of human trafficking, which is perniciously alive in the world today, long after we may think that slavery is a thing of the past. This text provides a good opportunity to lead our churches into deeper reflection on this topic, and a deeper commitment to end this great evil.
Shall we disturb “the peace”?
The girl is quickly left behind when the men who own her decide to go after Paul and his companions. The kangaroo court that follows seems to have little to do with the exorcism, when the men make all sorts of accusations against the missionaries. They don’t even try to recover the money they lost, Ron Hansen writes: “They don’t want justice; they want revenge” (The Christian Century May 4, 2010). And they go about it in an ugly way, claiming that these Jewish visitors were causing trouble with their strange customs and teachings (16:20-21).
The charge of disturbing the peace is an easy and vague enough charge to put on “trouble-makers” of every kind, and this past week’s anniversary of the May 4 Kent State tragedy is a reminder that this is true in every age. Paul Walaskay notes the irony in this charge, since the slave girl was actually the one disturbing the peace, not Paul (Acts, Westminster Bible Companion).
Is capitalism a “spirit”?
What is really going on here? Is Paul, as some scholars claim, threatening the economic injustice of slavery, even indirectly, by depriving these ancient “businessmen” of their livelihood? Should the church hear a warning here, as Ronald Cole-Turner suggests, that we will get into trouble, too, if we speak out for economic justice, even in a capitalistic culture like ours, where business reigns supreme (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2)? Is capitalism a god, a spirit, a power that must not be questioned, let alone silenced? Is it inappropriate, as we go about our ministry, like Paul, to do or say things that might in fact “disturb the peace,” the strange peace we have made with systemic injustice?
We do not know what is in Paul’s heart and mind when he drives the spirit from the girl, but we do know the price he and Silas pay, after the crowd turns on them, and the authorities order them flogged and thrown in the deepest, darkest part of the prison, where despair thrives. And yet that is exactly the opposite of what happens, because we read of the two men, chained at their ankles and unable to move around, still singing hymns and praying and capturing the rapt attention of all the other prisoners. More excitement ensues, however, when an earthquake hits and the prison that holds Paul and Silas captive is broken open and they are able, if they wish, to walk free.
Don’t leave the jailer behind
We also don’t know why Paul doesn’t run, but we suspect that he knows the price that his jailer will pay: Ron Hansen notes the distinctive compassion of Christian practice that leaves no one behind and no one out, even the most unexpected people, like slaves and jailors, even if it would things much easier (“Living by the Word,” The Christian Century May 4, 2010). What happens next is one more illustration of the power of the gospel to transform lives, when the jailer and his family (like Lydia and her household) are baptized into the faith.
As so often happens, these are outsiders coming in, responding wholeheartedly to the good news Paul preaches, an inclusive gospel of grace. Paul Walaskay draws a wonderful parallel between this text and Paul’s familiar baptismal text in Galatians 3:28, for we see here no difference, no lines drawn between people coming from very different backgrounds and places: “Our narrator,” he writes, “has skillfully expanded Paul’s groundbreaking statement in Galatians 3:28 into an elegant story. ‘There is no longer Jew [Paul and Silas] or Greek [Lydia, the mantic, the jailer], there is no longer slave [the mantic] or free [Lydia, Paul], there is no longer male [Paul, Silas, the jailer], or female [Lydia, the mantic]; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus'” (Acts, Westminster Bible Companion).
Being free, being saved
Once again, we hear the question of liberation, of salvation, of freedom. The jailer asks Paul what he must do to be saved, and Paul answers simply that he should “believe on the Lord Jesus.” This is still a difficult question today, and Paul’s answer presents its own challenges as well. Perhaps we need to spend much more time on what it means to “believe” (Marcus Borg has written so helpfully on this in books like The Heart of Christianity), and what it means to be free (and not just in the often worn-out, political sense in which “freedom” is used to justify war).
One of the most powerful captivities of our age, besides materialism and militarism, is the way fear can imprison us in our convictions and our desire for security, making us unable to open our hearts and minds to others, to events, to the God who still speaks through them. How amazed the jailer must be, just as he’s about to kill himself, to see that the prisoners are still there! Fear almost leads to death, but compassion leads to his life, and his family’s life, being transformed. It would be wonderful indeed to know what happened to the jailer after Paul left, but perhaps we get a hint of that in our own day, every time we hear the rest of the story from those who have found their way to faith and healing, especially because of the kindness and mercy of another.
The power of song
A note about Paul and Silas singing, late at night, in prison: when we think of slavery and, later, the Civil Rights movement in our own country, we remember the power of prayer and song in holding a people together who were in their own form of captivity. There is hardly a better, and more appropriate place, for prayer and singing hymns.
Lawrence Farris observes that everyone in this story needs to be freed, not only the slave girl but also the men who used her (possessed by greed), the men who judged Paul (possessed by fear and a hunger for power or maybe for the public peace), the jailer (a victim in his own way), and, most surprisingly of all, Paul and Silas themselves, who need to be freed from their narrow way of thinking (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
Learning from our distractions
What’s the surprise that greets us on our way to ministry, the obstacle that has something important to teach us, or better yet, the opportunity that obstacle may offer for us to do something really amazing for the sake of the gospel? Whether it’s small and personal, for one individual, or big and communal (maybe even global!), like taking down a corrupt system, it is still a call. And we are free to say yes, or to say no and continue on our way.
The details that follow in the story of Paul’s trial, imprisonment, and release, bring the story alive for us. What does it feel like to put yourself in the place of each of these characters in the story? Are there powers that keep you bound? Are there tasks that distract you from God’s own mission? What do we learn about the people in this story who are on the edges of what’s happening? For example, how does it strike you to have a name attached to a woman in last week’s reading (Lydia) but not to the man (the jailer) in this week’s reading — unusual for the Bible! But of course the possessed slave girl is unnamed, and she is also unnoticed as a human being, as a child of God.
Who we are, and what we do, as followers of Jesus
There is one more note that is irresistible: how can we read this story and not have our memories come alive with all the talk of washing wounds, being baptized, and sharing a meal? Doesn’t that sound familiar to us across all the centuries, and isn’t it at the heart of who we are as followers of Jesus? Just as we read the stories — the adventures — of these apostles and teachers, we might turn an attentive ear to the stories of those around us, and the amazing and holy moments in our own lives as well, when God has been most certainly at work, bringing freedom, new life, new possibilities for the world God loves.
We don’t just read a story like Paul’s, or Peter’s, or Lydia’s: we are part of that great story, that great adventure. In the weeks ahead, the adventures continue, throughout the book of the Acts of the Apostles, but even today, two thousand years later, in the church that claims to follow Jesus in our day, and in a world still captive, a world still hungry for good news.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews serves 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:
Charles W. Colson, 20th century
“I can work for the Lord in or out of prison.”
Gene Tierney, 20th century
“I existed in a world that never is – the prison of the mind.”
Thucydides, 5th century B.C.E.
“The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.”
Walter Cronkite, 20th century
“There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.”
Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, 21st century
“Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, [people] are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.”
Rosa Luxemburg, 20th century
“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 20th century
“To simply think about the people, as the dominators do, without any self-giving in that thought, to fail to think with the people, is a sure way to cease being revolutionary leaders.”
Toba Beta, 21st century
“You’re still in prison if you do nothing better in freedom.”
This essay attempts to interpret three of the lectionary texts for this Seventh Sunday of Easter (Psalms 97; Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21), to identify and articulate their main insights, and to appropriate them for our contemporary context, particularly in relation to the challenge of eco-justice.
Psalms of God’s Assurance: Righteousness and Justice as Foundations (Psalms 97)
When “clouds and thick darkness” (v.2) are everywhere, making it difficult for many to see God’s handiwork in the cosmos, nature, and human history, Psalm 97 gives the resounding assurance that the God of life reigns and that the foundation of this reign is “righteousness and justice” (v.2). God created the cosmos according to sedaqâ (righteousness) and God acts through the workings of nature and the unfolding of human history on the basis of righteousness and justice. Righteousness and justice, even when clouded and covered by darkness, are the foundations of God’s cosmic — ecological, sociological, and political — order. Order is predicated on justice and righteousness. When sedaqâ reigns, the created world is in harmony, a state of well-being or shalom.
Integrating multiple lenses (ecology, economics, and politics), we can say that God reigns and justice and righteousness have prevailed when right relations exist between beings in the web of life. Ecologically, this means, for humans, finding their proper place in the web of life and allowing other beings equally to thrive and flourish. They can do so, however, only by leaving behind ecocidal thinking and adopting an ecological sensibility that puts human beings in intrinsic interdependence with other beings; this means that the well-being of humanity cannot be isolated from the well-being of the whole ecosystem. Extending ecological right relation to the realm of political economy, this means the practice of “table manners” (economics as table manners of the oikos or household, which is derived from oikonomia) that makes it possible for everyone to have full access to the table or to the resources that sustain life. Minimally, this means that even when there is little food at the table, everyone must have their proper share. Maximally, this means being able to enjoy abundance when resources are available. Moreover, this means the reign of a political economy that takes into account the sustenance of those who are yet to come — the next generation.
Sadly, our experience testifies to the work of forces that continue to undermine the foundations of God’s creation, which are righteousness and justice. Wherever we go, we see righteousness and justice being trampled upon and violated. Our religious tradition names this violation of justice or right relation sin. Sin is a violation of right relation: it is a violation of right relation with God — the source and creator of life; it is a violation of right relation with other human beings; and it is a violation of right relation with the rest of creation. Injustice brings discord and shatters shalom. When violation happens, the whole web of life suffers. When the natural world is violated by humans through rapacious destructive practices, nature suffers, which, in due time, will have catastrophic consequences that will affect all. We are witnessing the consequences of our ecological sins: climate change (particularly global warming that is causing sea levels to rise and stronger storms to occur with more frequency), flash floods, landslides, etc. Though everyone is affected, especially when the ecological disaster reaches catastrophic proportion, oddly, the ones with lighter ecological footprints suffer disproportionately. Evildoers may triumph, but not forever. The day will come when they will be put to shame (v.7) and the faithful will experience deliverance (v.10).
Acts of Exorcism: Prophetic Naming and its Necessity (Acts 16:16-34)
The darkness around us is deep; it is difficult to see God when “clouds and thick darkness” are everywhere. The deep darkness is not only “out there,” it is also “in here” or in us. Yet, no matter how painful and risky, we have to name the “clouds and thick darkness.” Only then do our eyes start seeing through the darkness.
We may call this prophetic naming exorcism. Exorcism is an appropriate act, for our current social malady (ecological devastation and social inequality that is breeding violence and hopelessness) is at heart a matter of faith and idolatry (Psalms 97:7). Idols are human creations that have been given the status of eternal securers. This is true of the system of organized greed and inequality. Profit is the god of the religion of the predatory global market — a system of organized greed. The priests or ministers are the economists, the evangelists are the advertisers, the lay people are the consumers, the cathedral is the shopping mall. Competitive spirit is virtue and inefficiency is sin. The only way to salvation is “shop till you drop.” And, if Jesus “saves,” we want to know where he shops. It appears that the place where most people crucify their intellects is the shopping mall, on the altar of profit and consumerism. Daily we bow and crucify our intellects, saying, “credo quia absurdum est” (I believe because it is absurd).
Our lectionary text in Acts (16:16-34) takes us to the nature and heart of exorcism. The Apostle Paul’s act of exorcism to a slave girl who “had a spirit of divination” (pneuma pythona—literally “a spirit, a snake”) touched the center of idolatry — profits for her slaveholders. His act of exorcism undermined the source of profit for the slaveholders who benefited from the slave girl’s power of divination. As would be expected, the slaveholders did not take the attack on their business lightly: they acted swiftly to make sure that Paul and his companions were punished. Paul and Silas were seized and dragged into the market place before the rulers (v. 19). Then the slaveholders presented trumped-up charges: Paul and Silas were Jews disturbing the peace of the city and they were advocating customs not lawful for Romans (vs. 20-21). The economic offense that Paul committed — sabotaging the economic base of the slaveholders — was concealed under the political rhetoric of preserving the peace and security of the city. Given the charges — “foreigners” or “aliens” disturbing the peace of the city, introducing contaminants to the customs, and subverting the dominant way of life — the outraged crowd, with the approval of the guardians of power, turned into a mob and joined the attack against Paul and Silas. After they were attacked and beaten up, Paul and Silas were thrown into prison.
Though the above account happened a long time ago, it is so familiar to many of us in our contemporary situation. Protection and maintenance of a system that brings profit for the few at the expense of the many is at the core of the idolatrous system. Anyone who challenges the system will be dealt with, as we have seen in many parts of the world, with extreme brutality. As protest and resistance can be expected from awakened and organized people, it is no surprise that the system of organized greed and inequality intensifies security measures, passing additional legislation and increasing the budget for security. Wherever this system of organized greed and inequality is presently invested and seeking profits (large-scale plantation, logging, mining, etc.), we see militarization, repression, and extrajudicial killings. If the system can be severe in silencing opponents or whistleblowers who are citizens, it can be more so in dealing with “foreigners” or “resident aliens.” They may receive the threat of deportation or imprisonment if they speak their minds on critical issues (e.g., immigration reform, gun control, foreign policy, etc.).
Taking Courage: Where Does Our Hope Lie? (Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21)
Our lectionary texts seem not to offer any easy way out of our sorry mess, or any kind of silver bullet that would fix our global malady. While our text in Acts speaks of an instance of conversion (metanoia), and conversions do happen, the “clouds and thick darkness” of our global misery continue to hover over our sickly body politic. Nonetheless, while we should not expect any easy way out, we are offered the assurance that the God who is the Alpha is also the Omega (Rev. 22:12); that the Creator is also the Savior; that those who have suffered have not suffered in vain; and that those who wait in active hope shall receive what has been promised. Yes, our texts do not offer any easy way out but they call us to continue to live and act in hope, which is to live and act as if the new day has already arrived. Those who live as if the new day has already arrived are intentional about making their faith bear on their politics, which they understand not only as the art of the possible but also of making what has been declared impossible come within the range of the possible. This they can do because God’s grace is sufficient for their needs (Rev. 22:21).
Dr. Eleazar S. Fernandez is Professor of Constructive Theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
For further reflection:
Jiddu Krishnamurti, 20th century
“Analysis does not transform consciousness.”
Maya Angelou, 21st century
“What you’re supposed to do
when you don’t like a thing is change it.
If you can’t change it,
change the way you think about it.”
Alan Cohen, 20th century
“Scared and sacred are spelled with the same letters. Awful proceeds from the same root word as awesome. Terrify and terrific. Every negative experience holds the seed of transformation.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 20th century
“We always pay dearly for chasing after what is cheap.”
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
God is ruler! Let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness
are all around God;
righteousness and justice
are the foundation of God’s throne.
Fire goes before God,
and consumes God’s adversaries
on every side.
God’s lightnings light up the world;
the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before God,
before the God of all the earth.
The heavens proclaim God’s righteousness;
and all the peoples behold God’s glory.
All worshipers of images are put to shame,
those who make their boast in worthless idols;
all gods bow down before God.
Zion hears and is glad,
and the towns of Judah rejoice,
because of your judgments, O God.
For you, O God,
are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods.
God loves those who hate evil;
God guards the lives of God’s faithful;
God rescues them from the hand of the wicked.
Light dawns for the righteous,
and joy for the upright in heart.
Rejoice in God, O you righteous,
and give thanks to God’s holy name!
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
[Jesus said:] “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.”
So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!