The Heart of the Prayer Book System
The Rev. Dr. Robert
D. Crouse, 1996.
"All of you be subject
one to another, and be clothed with humility:
for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble." (1 Peter, 5)
In the cycle of the Christian Year, in the
ancient lectionary - that cycle of Epistle and
Gospel lessons which has served the Church for
well over a millennium, and still survives in our Book
of Common Prayer - the essential message of Holy Scripture,
God's word to us, is set before us in an orderly
and supremely logical way. As we follow the
lessons appointed for the Sundays and the great
festivals, as we meditate upon them, as we open our minds
and hearts to understand the pattern and meaning of them,
we are led, step by step, into an ever deeper
and clearer perception of Christian truth and the essentials of Christian
In the first half of the year from Advent
to Trinity Sunday, the cycle of lessons sets
before us in due succession those great works
wherein the mind and heart of God are manifest in Jesus
Christ, those great works whereby our redemption and
reconciliation are accomplished, and we are
called to new life in the Spirit. All that teaching,
all that revelation and illumination, is magnificently
summed up in our adoring contemplation of God
the Holy Trinity. A door is opened in Heaven, and souls are caught up in worship, with angels and archangels;
we "rise to adore the mystery of love".
As children of God by adoption and grace,
and heirs of eternal life, we are to be partakers
of the divine nature, partakers of that mystery.
With open face beholding as in a glass the glory of
the Lord, we are changed into the same image from glory
to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
(II Cor. 3:18) "Changed into the same image":
therein lies the meaning, the logic, of our lectionary
for this long season of Sundays after Trinity.
What is involved here is a spiritual system,
a design for sanctification, a programme of
practical spirituality. For half the year, we have celebrated the mystery of
love - the revelation of God's charity; and
now, in this Trinity season, we draw certain practical conclusions from that. The practical starting
point is set out in the very first lesson for
the season, from the First Epistle of St. John:
"Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also
to love one another".
It is the revelation of God's love, God's
charity, which is the basis of Christian spiritual
life. The starting point is the divine love: "Herein
is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins".
That is the basis and starting point, and
therefore the lessons for the first few Sundays
after Trinity concentrate upon that, in its
various aspects, and draw out the practical implications for
us. Thus, on the first Sunday, the theme is the self-giving
charity of God; and the necessity of emulating
that self-giving charity as the ground of our
own spiritual life is practically illustrated
in Jesus' parable of Dives and Lazarus. Then on the
second Sunday, the theme is the infinite generosity of God's
charity, with the practical lesson illustrated
in the parable of the great supper. Now, on
this third Sunday, the theme is the humility
of God's charity.
In the Gospel lesson, the story begins with
the publicans and sinners gathering around Jesus
to hear him. The publicans were tax-collectors,
and were not very highly regarded, for various reasons. In the first place, they were seen as collaborationists,
or lackeys of the foreign Roman overlords;
but beyond that, they were in a very dubious
position morally: the Roman government farmed
out tax-collection to local agents, and gave each a quota
to raise as best he could. The agent's own income would
depend upon whatever extra he could squeeze
out of his unwilling victims. To speak of a
publican was to speak of the most despicable sinner
imaginable - not at all the sort of person with whom a teacher
of religion should associate.
That's what the Pharisees and Scribes complained
about - "murmured" about:
"This man receiveth sinners and eateth with
them". These Scribes and Pharisees were notoriously
righteous; they were the scrupulous interpreters,
observers of the law, and they thought that Jesus ought to pay attention to them, instead of cavorting with
Jesus told them two stories: the story of
the lost sheep, and the story of the lost coin.
And the point to these stories is surely very
simple: salvation is for those who need salvation, for those
who are lost: "joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that
repenteth more than over ninety and nine just
persons who need no repentance".
Certainly, the Scribes and Pharisees also
needed repentance and salvation, but they did
not think so; they stood proudly upon their
worthiness, their righteousness as observers of the law. Their sin did not consist in their keeping of the law, of
course - the law is holy and just and good -
their sin consisted rather in the pride wherein
they despised the publicans.
The lesson, then is this: the self-giving
and infinitely generous charity of God cares
for all with watchful providence; and it is a humble charity, which descends and condescends to the lowest:
"God resisteth the proud and giveth grace unto
the humble," says our Epistle. And once again,
the manifest love of God, now manifest in humility,
is to be emulated: "all of you be subject to one another,
and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud
and giveth grace to the humble".
To put this is more theological terms: what
we have here is a lesson about the absolute
priority of God's grace in the work of salvation:
grace which is not according to any human merit or worthiness, but God's free and infinitely generous gift.
And therefore there is no place for human pride.
As our Collect indicates, even our desire to
pray is God's grace.
So pride is just a vicious deceit; it is
the work of the devil who, "as a roaring lion,
walketh about seeking whom he may devour". Therefore,
"be sober, be vigilant".
The intent of these lessons, and the lessons
for the following Sundays, is to show how the
virtues and graces of Christian life are based
upon and derived from the manifest charity of God, God's
free grace, the mystery of love; and thus, the lectionary
for the Trinity season offers us a systematic,
logically ordered, biblical moral and spiritual
theology. The character of this ancient Eucharistic
lectionary is often misunderstood and misconstrued. It
is not, and was never intended to be a substitute for Bible
reading and Bible study; that can be done much
more completely and thoroughly in other contexts:
in the Daily Offices, in Bible study groups,
in private study, with the help of commentaries, and so
The Eucharistic lectionary offers, instead,
a systematic, doctrinal, moral and spiritual
teaching, by way of Biblical texts; and none of the many recent alternative
lectionaries even begin to serve that purpose.
It is an important, and really a basic, part of our Christian heritage, ancient and ecumenical, which
it seems to me we must receive thankfully, cherish
devoutly, and ponder in our minds and hearts
week by week.
May God's grace support us in that undertaking.
© R.D. Crouse, 1996.