Tag Archives: way of the cross

Stay thirsty, my friends | Sermon for Proper 24C

At St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Menasha, Wisconsin (where I serve as deacon) we’re in the middle of a six-week series of sermons on the Beatitudes, sayings of Jesus that are found in the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew.

Jesus is addressing Jews and Samaritans and Greeks, a mixed crowd of believers and non-believers, those who think they belong and those who have been told they don’t.

He says we are “blessed” – happy or fortunate – when we are poor in spirit, when we are meek, when we mourn. He’s announcing the coming of God’s kingdom, where things are as God intends them to be.

Today we’re on the fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Righteousness is when things are as God intends them to be.

Righteousness comes from the Greek word dikaiosune, meaning fairness or justice; my wife tells me that in German, the word for righteousness is like “richtig” – meaning that things are done correctly.

Righteousness is divine approval; what is deemed right by God.

Those who are righteous are those who are as they ought to be. Those who receive a righteous judgment are those who are treated justly, fairly, correctly – as God would have them treated.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, then, are those who eagerly desire to see everyone treated as God would treat them.

Fr. Aran told us two weeks ago about the rabbinical way of riffing on Scripture in what is called a “remez.” I want to riff on just one word, the word thirst – righteousness may feel like too big, too abstract a concept. Thirst we can understand.

A remez is the second of the four traditional levels of interpretation of the biblical text the historical, philosophical, homiletic, and mystical.

So here’s another philosophy – a remez – about thirst that you’ll recognize:

“Stay thirsty, my friends.”

The Most Interesting Man in the World does not really hunger or thirst for righteousness, does he? He thirsts for adventure and acclaim that set him apart from other people. In fact, with his recent well-publicized blast-off to Mars, he’s about as far apart from us as he can get.

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He’s more “up in heaven” than “down here on earth.”

The flip side of that beer commercial (on the day before my third sobriety anniversary) is a very down-to-earth story about Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Frustrated by the slow growth of the AA Fellowship, and anxious about the thousands of copies of his “Big Book” Alcoholics Anonymous remaining unsold in a warehouse, he spoke to Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest who appeared at his New York apartment one cold, rainy evening in 1940. As the story goes,

Soon Bill was talking about all the steps and taking his fifth step (telling the exact nature of his wrongs) with this priest who had limped in from a storm. He told Father Ed about his anger, his impatience, his mounting dissatisfactions.

“Blessed are they,” Father Ed said, “who hunger and thirst.”

Bill replied, “Is there ever to be any satisfaction?”

Father Ed said, “Never. Never any. Keep on reaching – in time your reaching will find God’s goals, hidden in your own heart.”

He reminded Bill W., “You have made a decision to turn your life and your will over to God … you are not to sit in judgment on how God or the world is proceeding. You have only to keep the channels open … it is not up to you to decide how fast or how slowly AA develops … For whether the two of us like it or not, the world is undoubtedly proceeding as it should, in God’s good time.”

Father Ed basically describes the pattern of the Christian life, what we call the way of the Cross, and Bill began to learn that night that he had to turn his thirst for success and the approval of others toward self-sacrifice instead, putting down his own ambition in favor of working his own program, one day at a time.

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“We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

We Christians learn about the way of the Cross, what we call “the way of life and peace,” from Jesus himself, especially from the way we see him act as the end of his life and ministry draws near.

The Beatitudes come from the beginning of his ministry, where he is drawing large crowds.

But even before that beginning, just after his baptism, Jesus had to face a trial of temptation. He is alone in the desert and the Devil appears to him.

“You look hungry; why not make these stones into bread?”

Jesus realizes that he must turn his own hunger, his concern for his own life and ministry, his power as God’s beloved, which could just make him self-sufficient, into concern for others. He must aim his hunger elsewhere, as the Word of God will teach him.

His ministry must be about feeding others (and with overflowing baskets of bread, in fact) while he eats the bread of life from God’s word which, as Paul later reminds Timothy, “is useful for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

But at the end of his life, on the night before he died, he is once again all alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” Perhaps in his Agony he remembers his own parable “about the need to pray always and not lose heart.”

“I’m thirsty,” he says to the Father, “but I don’t want to drink this.”

“Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done.” The prayer he taught to his disciples – the Lord’s Prayer which we pray daily in the church, the Lord’s Prayer that many AA meetings close with – rises to his own lips: “Thy will be done.”

Jesus must aim his eagerness for the Kingdom of God, finally, away from all success, away from the crowds, away from his closest friends, and toward the one final act in the drama of redemption which only he can perform.

He gives up his freedom. He is bound and arrested, tortured and mocked, beaten and finally crucified as though he were a murderer or a thief. He endures injustice and unfairness and what is not right for the sake of the whole world.

As he hangs from the cross, Jesus says with nearly his last breath, “I thirst.”

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He aims what he thirsts for at the heart of the Father, and “earth and heaven are joined, and we are reconciled to God” (BCP 287).

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 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Being filled in the sense that Bill W.’s story and more importantly, the example of Jesus, suggests is less about the achievement and more about the process.

The fellowship is growing too slowly for the Wall Street money man’s tastes, but it’s not about him. He must work the Steps himself and stay humble.

The Devil is persuasive to a hungry man in the desert, but he resists the temptation to use his newfound power for himself only.

The cup is bitter, like “sour grapes that set one’s teeth on edge,” like sour wine mixed with gall, but the thirsty man drinks it so that God’s will for the whole world will be fulfilled.

Over time, and with constant practice, as we do our best to set aside our ambitions and focus on our own way of the Cross – as we try daily simply to carry out our ministries fully – we will find that our reaching and God’s goals have become one.

“It’s not up to you to decide … We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

Righteousness will come about not because we aim to “save the world” – which Christ Jesus has already done anyway “by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” (BCP 334) – but because we aim what we thirst for, our ambitions and desires, at what we can do for the sake of others today.

So, stay thirsty, my friends.

Amen.

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A kingdom of priests in the meantime

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:4-10)

We are what he has made us

In the Daily Office is we read the Scriptures and respond to them. We do not simply listen to the words of God day after day; we speak back to God in words spoken by Christians over the centuries.

So this morning we do not just read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he reminds them that they are “alive together with Christ,” a new creation in Christ by God’s grace.

We also respond to God, saying “Splendor and honor and kingly power are yours by right, O Lord our God.”

That response is in Canticle 18, one of the two appointed for Friday mornings, and it helps us understand why we offer praise.

  • God created everything that is
  • By his will they continue to exist
  • Christ — the Lamb that was slain — has redeemed us for God
  • That redemption is for all people on earth, who rightly offer to God “worship and praise, dominion and splendor, for ever and for evermore.”

We come to understand that through God’s grace we are now the “kingdom of priests” that the Revelation to John describes (Rev. 5:9-13).

Created in Christ Jesus for good works

But we exercise our royal priesthood not just by praising God in the Daily Office, or at the Eucharist, or in our private prayers.

We are a kingdom of priests “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”

Whatever those good works may be, from organized programs to individual acts of charity and kindness, we Christians offer them to people in order to communicate hope.

Our Christian hope comes in large part from knowing that we fit into a larger story of meaning and purpose — what the Collect for Fridays calls “none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP 99).

We serve those who are suffering by entering with them into their experience, and we remind them by our actions that their “way of the cross” is not the end of the story. This is the wisdom of recovery work, for example. We witness to God’s power in our lives by the example of our own suffering and healing.

We serve those who struggle by helping them see how everything is shot through with God’s presence, even when it seems darkest and even if the glimpse we offer is faint.

In the meantime

Ascensiontide, as the Church calls the time between Ascension Day and Pentecost, is an “in-between time” for the first disciples.

Jesus has left them — he “ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things” (BCP 226) — but it’s not the Day of Pentecost yet, and the disciples haven’t yet received the power of the Holy Spirit that he promised.

Many people around us live in that “in-between time” all the time.

They have lost a spouse or a friend or a job, or they themselves feel lost, and they cannot imagine life any differently. They may have no sense of promise for new relationships or they may feel powerless over their circumstances; they have lost hope.

Like Jesus, we minister most effectively when we enter into people’s lives and show them what transformation can look like. In his incarnation Jesus entered into our human lives, and by his dying and rising he shows us the divine life we are created for.

We are a kingdom of priests in the meantime. We praise God for keeping his promise and we perform the good works we are created for in order to give God’s people (that is, all people) the promise of hope.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (BCP 226)

12 Steps of Christmas | Christmas Day

Step One – “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Today’s service of Morning Prayer for Christmas Day can be found here.

Humility

“Who cares to admit complete defeat? Practically no one, of course.”

So begins the explanation of Step One of Alcoholics Anonymous in the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (21).

In my own case, the fall was both abrupt and literal — from a successful performance at a client event in the morning to a bruising, drunken fall in front of clients and colleagues on the marble floor of the hotel lobby that evening.

The next day I flew home knowing I would be fired, then waited, head in my hands, to tell my wife the news.

I had, through my drinking, lost a job I loved and any self-respect and self-confidence I had clung to in the face of growing concerns about my alcohol use.

“Once this stark fact is accepted,” says Step One, “our bankruptcy as going human concerns is complete” (21).

Imitating God in his lowliness

According to the Christian tradition, humanity generally was pretty much bankrupt and definitely in need of God when God decided to send his Son to live as one of us. That’s the background to the Christmas feast that we celebrate today.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, answers his own question: “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly?”

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Humility, to Bonhoeffer, means “laying down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger.” It means imitating God by remaining lowly.

This resonates with the way early Christians like Paul described Jesus:

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited, 
   but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
    he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

“The glory of God precisely in his lowliness” is what we see in the manger at Christmas.

At Christmas God laid down all power, all honor, all reputation and became a human being, vulnerable just like us. Who are we to be anything but vulnerable like him?

Following Jesus in the way of the cross

This morning we have in Morning Prayer one of the juxtapositions that make the Daily Office such a rich source for reflection.

It is Christmas Day, and so in the first of the collects we speak of our gladness and joy and confidence in God.

Because it is also Friday, however, we immediately pray “that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

Collect of the Day

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A Collect for Fridays

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Humility is not a one-time admission that we get over and done with. Rather, it is an acceptance of our proper place in relationship to God and to other people, who may also be powerless, whose lives may also be unmanageable.

We do not remain bankrupt, however. The explanation of Step One continues: “Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be the firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built” (21).

While we do begin to build purposeful lives again, we must also recognize that our daily experience will continue to involve suffering and frustration.

But that is the pattern of falling and rising that Jesus laid down throughout his whole life, from the most humble beginnings as a baby born in poverty, to his preaching and teaching, and to his trial and execution for a crime he did not commit. As Christians we are called to follow him in that pattern of life, that way of the cross.

Like practicing the Christian faith,

Practicing A.A.’s remaining eleven Steps means the adoption of attitudes and actions that almost no alcoholic who is still drinking can imagine taking. Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant? Who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done? Who cares anything about a Higher Power, let alone meditation and prayer? Who wants to sacrifice time and energy in trying to carry A.A.’s message to the next sufferer? No, the average alcoholic, self-centered in the extreme, doesn’t care for this prospect—unless he has to do these things in order to stay alive himself. (24)

God, mercifully grant that we, imitating your lowliness and following Jesus in the way of the cross, may find these 12 Steps none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I am small and of little account … come and see

I am “in between jobs” for the second time in 18 months.

Because I had so much free time during Lent, I think, I have been dwelling a lot on the notion of “smallness.”

Perhaps it’s time to get off the road and work closer to home. Perhaps it’s time for me to shift my ambitions, to discern what few things I must do instead of chasing all of the things I could do.

Perhaps it’s time to put down roots instead of spreading wings.

Perhaps this frame of mind that I’m in caused the words of Psalm 119 to strike me so powerfully this morning: “I am small and of little account.”

Your word has been tested to the uttermost, *
and your servant holds it dear.
I am small and of little account, *
yet I do not forget your commandments.
Your justice is an everlasting justice *
and your law is the truth.
Trouble and distress have come upon me, *
yet your commandments are my delight.
The righteousness of your decrees is everlasting; *
grant me understanding, that I may live. (Psalm 119:140-144)

We don’t know much about Philip beyond what we read in today’s Gospel lesson, and we can’t even sort out who the biblical James really was — talk about obscurity!

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1:45-46)

But that simple invitation from an obscure follower turns everything around. Philip invites Nathanael to know Jesus, and Nathanael, “an Israelite in whom there is no guile,” comes to love Jesus.

That simple invitation to “come and see” also echoes in two of the Friday prayers in the Daily Office.

Every Friday morning, we ask God to “mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP 99).

Come and see, says Jesus to his disciples. Follow me in the way of the cross. “Trouble and distress” may come upon you, but I am with you, he says. You will find life and peace with me.

I would guess that most of us who pray the Office regularly also pray this Prayer for Mission on Fridays, too:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (BCP 101)

The way of the cross that we follow with Jesus is not only suffering, but also compassion. The Spirit we share with Jesus not only draws us in to intimacy, but also leads us out to embrace.

Here, we pray that we may extend the same invitation to others that Christ extends to us. We pray that we, small as we are, “may bring those who do not know [Christ] to the knowledge and love of [Christ].”

I don’t know what Philip and James expected when they began to follow Jesus. I don’t know what to expect in the next stage of my work and ministry. But I look forward to finding out.

How is God calling you to “come and see” what’s next in your life?

Rehearsing the whole of the faith

Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:48).

Picture the scene in Jerusalem in the late fourth century:

“Immediately a throne is placed for the bishop in the major church, the Matryrium …. The bishop [teaches them the law] in this way: beginning with Genesis and going through the whole of Scripture during these forty days, expounding first its literal meaning and then explaining the spiritual meaning. In the course of these days everything is taught not only about the Resurrection but concerning the body of the faith. This is called catechetics” (134*).

These are the words of Egeria, a Spanish woman who spent a year in Jerusalem on pilgrimage and wrote letters home about everything she saw and how the Church in Jerusalem worshiped.

It’s entirely possible that the bishop she saw on the throne teaching the catechumens (those who were preparing for baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter) was Cyril himself.

Cyril taught his fellow-Christians about living in the way of the cross, about repentance and forgiveness, dying and rising, and he helped develop the doctrines that became the Nicene Creed.

Cyril wrote about the way of the cross in his Catechetical Instructions, saying that “Jesus never sinned; yet he was crucified for you. Will you refuse to be crucified for him, who for your sake was nailed to the cross? You are not the one who gives the favor; you have received one first. For your sake he was crucified on Golgotha. Now you are returning his favor; you are fulfilling your debt to him” (136).

Christians then and now walk in the way of the cross during Holy Week, putting ourselves imaginatively in the places where Jesus himself was arrested, carried his cross, stumbled and fell, and was crucified. We will observe Stations of the Cross in Solidarity with the Persecuted Church at St. Thomas on Palm Sunday and three times on Good Friday.

The pattern of dying and rising that we rehearse through Holy Week and Easter is the pattern of the Gospel and of life in Christ.

We learn through experience that repentance and forgiveness are the way forward in relationships, that falling and rising again move us toward deeper union with God and each other, that our failing and falling lead us into greater dependence on God “who so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son to the end that none should perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Sometimes it’s the Church that teaches us this pattern, but often it’s a mentor or support group or teacher or 12-Step program.

Jesus himself not only teaches but embodies this pattern. “Then he opened [the disciples’] minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things’” (Luke 24:45-48).

Cyril and the believers in Jerusalem kept Holy Week by walking the Way of the Cross from place to place in Jerusalem, from the Martyrium to Golgotha, from the Mount of Olives to the Holy Sepulchre, and Cyril spent his time and energy with catechumens, “opening their minds to understand the scriptures.”

He taught them that “in learning and professing the faith, you must accept and retain only the Church’s present tradition, confirmed as it is by the Scriptures. Although not everyone is able to read the Scriptures … we have gathered together the whole of the faith in a few concise articles … this summary of the faith was not composed at any human whim; the most important sections were chosen from the whole Scripture to consitute and complete a comprehensive statement of the faith” (447).

So as we prepare ourselves to walk the Way of the Cross during Holy Week …

As we reflect on the falling and failing in our lives and see God at work to redeem and raise us …

As we open each other’s minds to understand the Scriptures …

Let’s follow Cyril’s example “in learning and professing the faith,” and let’s also join Cyril and Egeria and our fellow pilgrims in rehearsing “the whole of the faith in a few concise articles.”

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The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen. (BCP 358)

* Page numbers for the passages from Cyril and Egeria refer to J. Robert Wright’s Readings for the Daily Office From the Early Church (Church Publishing, 1991, 2013).

Solidarity with the persecuted Church

The Catholic Herald in the UK recently published Maronite Archbishop Samir Nassar’s reflections as A Way of the Cross in solidarity with the persecuted Church. Archbishop Samir is the Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, and he serves as Episcopal Shepherd of the Syrian Commission for the Family.

Here, for the convenience of any who may wish to use this Way of the Cross in their parishes this Lent, is a booklet (gently adapted) and formatted for double-sided printing on US Letter size paper (8.5″ x 11″).

It is offered in hopes that, as we journey toward Jerusalem this Lent and Easter in solidarity with our persecuted sisters and brothers in the Church throughout the world, we may together bear witness to the power of the cross to overcome death and the grave, and to open to us all the resurrection life of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Why do we call this Friday “Good”?

Just as every Sunday is for Christians a reminder of Easter and the resurrection, every Friday is a reminder of Good Friday and the crucifixion.

At Morning Prayer every Friday, we pray:

Collect for Fridays

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen. (BCP 99)

Just as we live in the light of the Resurrection, we walk in the way of the cross.

Fr. Richard Rohr says:

I believe that the Mystery of the Cross is saying that the pattern of transformation unto God, the pattern that connects, the life that God offers us is always death transformed. The only pattern is the pattern of death and resurrection. We submit to it with trust because Jesus did.

Rohr calls this One Big Pattern “transformative dying.”

On the other side of that dying, whether it is physical illness and death, or the “daily dying to self” of the prayer book, or admitting our powerlessness over our sin, on the other side of that dying we find the truth.

The American author Reynolds Price says that the Gospel of John can be compressed down to a single sentence, “the sentence mankind craves from stories”:

The Maker of all things loves and wants me.

The Maker of all things loves and wants me — loves and wants every single one of us, loves and wants all of us so much that God was willing not only to endure the limitations of becoming human, but also to endure the suffering and death that is our lot in life.

Because he died and rose again, we too can experience “transformative dying,” can claim our small part of the one big pattern.

That’s why we call this Friday “Good.”

Collect for Fridays

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen. (BCP 99)