Sexagesima & St. Paul

The Lord said unto Noah: The end of all flesh is come before me: * make thee an ark of wood, that thereby the seed of all flesh may be saved.

Antiphon on Magnificat, Vespers of Saturday

The second week of preparations for Lent and the Holy Spirit guides our hearts to the story of the Flood. It is easy to get distracted by arguments about where the Ark of Noah is now, or even if there was an ark, or even a flood at all. Such challenges ought to be answered to be sure – but not as if they are central to the meaning of this story. The point is much more challenging than that. I do not doubt that the Bible contains history, but I do not believe history as a science is needed to make the Bible true. It is true because it is God’s Word. How its truth is discerned depends on the traditional criteria of reading in the Church. Especially the Liturgy.

The end of all flesh is what the Lord has purposed to bring about because of the evil that flesh has visited upon God’s creation. We are that flesh – better yet I am that flesh – that very of which God has said He will end it. Annihilate it completely because it grieves Him He has made this flesh … God is grieved at my offences and He has purposed that I should reap the fruits of the sins I have sown …

And God saw the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth and it grieved him at his heart.

Matins, Lesson ii

Here is the point of the story. I am a sinner. And because of me creation suffers. I have grieved God’s heart and God has given Judgment. God’s judgment is coming down and hits sinful flesh like a tsunami wiping it all out. The waters covering the earth are simply the completion of the reversal of the story of creation. We have seen creation in the readings of last week and no sooner had we read it than we began reading the story of its un-creation. The return from a habitable, very good, earth to an earth empty and void. Unfit to sustain life. Sin is here revealed in all its ugliness, that in spite of its appealing promises it is death. St. Paul’s warning rings true: “the wages of sin is death (Rom, 6.23).”


Station at the Basilica of St. Paul

It is no accident that the Spirit of God has brought us (by means of the liturgy) before the Teacher of the Gentiles. The Christians of ancient Rome would have gathered at one Church (the collecta) and gotten ready to move from there to St. Paul’s Basilica – chanting the Litany of the Saints on the way there. We are here to learn from this great teacher about God’s grace and about the true depth of sin. We are here gathered to hear St. Paul unmask the patterns and clever designs of our sinful hearts. We are here to learn not to trust in anything we do, but to put our faith in God and in the ways and means He has chosen. We are gathered here to have St. Paul be our teacher and father in Christ – so that through his ministry God may gain sons and daughters to occupy His Kingdom. That we having been taught and having matured in Christ through Paul’s ministry may be able to overcome all adversity and become ministers of the Good News ourselves. Therefore we pray:

O God, who seest that we put not our trust in anything that we do; mercifully grant that by the protection of the Teacher of the Gentiles we may be defended against all adversity.

Traditional Collect for Sexagesima

Or … at least we used to pray so. For Thomas Cranmer – the author/compiler of the Book of Common Prayer has foolishly trusted in his own abilities rather than God’s revealed and given means and he therefore changes this prayer radically. The changes poor Thomas came up with were not an attempt to dust off the liturgy so that the Spirit’s truth might shine the more clearly. Quite the opposite. Dr. Cranmer’s work is motivated by Protestant doctrine and seeks to abolish the Holy Spirit’s work and to replace it. After all … the foolishness of the Reformation is wiser than the wisdom of God …

Or is it? The traditional collect presumed the biblical, catholic (and thus Christian) truth of God’s grace and its means. The New Testament is largely written in the voice of St. Paul even if the message is not Paul’s but God’s. The collect in Thomas Cranmer’s rendition entirely removes the reference to St. Paul. The doctrinal assertion made by this move is not hard to understand. God cannot minister to us through others, certainly not Saints. God can only minister to us directly. Of course not even the Reformers can be consistent in this line of thought since even they have “ministers” in their congregations. No matter how low church they get. The truth of the matter is that God does minister to us by mediation of angels and saints (Pseudo-Dionysius is right! ) but God also deals with us directly and without mediation (Evagrius is right too).

Though the collect denuded of its strong emphasis on God’s ministering to us through St. Paul is unfortunate and offensive to a Catholic, it is not heretical as such. Certainly Thomas’ motivation to change the collect was decidedly heretical, However there is no heresy in the assertion of the collect itself proclaiming God’s power to protect. So even here, though the liturgy and its meaning are damaged by the doctrinally motivated assault on the older tradition, the Prayer Book avoids going over the cliff of heresy (if only by accident rather than by design). In fact asserting God’s power is a great and wonderful thing! But how God exercises His power is not bound to the doctrine of the Protestant Reformation. God can – and does – exercise His power through the ministry of angels, saints, and even ministers in congregations.

Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Traditional ending of the Epistle for Mass

The traditional Epistle reading is much longer than the one provided in the Prayer Book and provides a fuller image of St. Paul and the point he is trying to make by his own example. The first step in becoming righteous – like Noah, Paul, and even more like Jesus – is to become humble. Not to trust in anything we have done. can or could do. To rely on God alone. I am sure that this is what Dr. Cranmer would also emphasize: to rely on God alone. But as a Catholic I am not willing to restrict God’s prerogative to minister to us through His Saints as well us without mediation. We are infirm and weak. We cannot sustain ourselves by any other means than God’s.

In the Epistle St. Paul is speaking and teaching. But he does not proclaim himself. He does not trust in anything that he has done or can do. His trust is in God. In his person as much as in his teaching St. Paul points to Jesus Christ. The One who sows the seed. For Jesus Christ is the sower of the seeds which when they come to fruition bear the fruits of salvation.

At that time: When much people were gathered together, and were come to Jesus out of every city, he spake by a parable. A sower went out to sow his seed. And so on and that which followeth.

Matins/Mass: Incipit of the Gospel according to St. Luke, 8. 4.

In the Gospel we are in the presence of the One St. Paul proclaims. The One prefigured by Noah: Jesus Christ. The Gospel for today is where this post must end. The Lord explains His own parable:

GOSPEL. Saint Luke 8:4-15
4 And when much people were gathered together, and were come to him out of every city, he spake by a parable:
5 A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.
6 And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture.
7 And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it.
8 And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
9 And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
10 And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.
11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.
12 Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.
13 They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.
14 And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.
15 But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.

Fr. Gregory Wassen


About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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One Response to Sexagesima & St. Paul

  1. Charles Smith says:

    I could read your posts all day…

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