Tuesday, March 28, 2006

How Much Is Enough?

Saint James Fordham • Lent 4b 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Andrew said, There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they among so many people?
The season of Lent, as I noted a few weeks back, is a traditional time for restricting some of our ordinary activities, not because they are bad for us, but so as to increase our awareness and sharpen our senses and sensibilities a bit: as Benjamin Franklin once observed, hunger makes the best appetizer! But on this fourth Sunday of Lent, it is also traditional to “lighten up” just a little bit — just as in Advent, we change to rose vestments instead of purple just for one day.

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Our Scripture readings start us off on a still-somber note, however. We hear of Jerusalem’s infidelity, its sinful priests and people. You know, things were bad in the Temple long before Jesus came storming in with that whip of cords we talked about last week. In spite of the warnings of the prophets, in spite of the dedication of their ancestors, who suffered so much to settle in the land, and build the Temple to God’s glory, the people and priests in Jeremiah’s day have been unfaithful, defiling God’s house, and despising God’s word. As Jeremiah tells us, the women at home were baking little crescent cakes in honor of the moon goddess, and in the temple itself idols had been set up by priests more interested in profit than in prophecy, to honor gods that were not God. So the people and priests alike have been punished and sent into exile in Babylon.

Yet by the end of this passage, the violet bruises of exile have turned rosy under God’s healing touch, and the good news comes that Cyrus is going to rebuild the temple and let the captives return home.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians continues the rosy view. He describes the immeasurable riches of God’s grace; and then the Gospel tells us how Jesus fed the multitude with just five loaves and two fish. In short, today’s Scriptures lift us up for a moment above the sadness of Lent, and give us a glimpse of the glory that is there up ahead, on the other side of Calvary.

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But today’s scriptures also give us clear guidance on a subject dear to every pastor’s heart: church growth — but not just in numbers but in faith and in grace. We all want Saint James to grow, to continue to grow; but we want it to grow in the right way and in accordance with God’s will; and there’s more to that than mere numbers. So let’s look at our Scriptures for today and seewhat they tell us about growth.

Right from the start, the reading from Chronicles lets us know that God has to come first. The people of Israel have been growing alright — but in the wrong way. In the interest of quick growth they have compromised and connived with the nations round about them, and begun to worship idols even in the temple itself. Not content with polluting God’s house, they also pollute the land, and to squeeze every last shekel of profit from it they stop observing the Sabbath — letting neither land nor worker rest. You’ll realize, I’m sure, from our reading of the Ten Commandments last week, that they have broken three out of the first four commandments already!

So God allows invaders to burn down the defiled house, and sends the people into exile in Babylon, to let the whole country lie fallow for seventy years worth of Saturdays. This is to teach the people that God comes first, and God is not to be displaced by idols, however popular, whatever the consensus, and that the Sabbath rest is not a suggestion, but a commandment.

God knows that people and fields work better and grow more when they stop working and take a rest once in a while. Few workers are as unproductive as those who are overworked, and few farms are as unproductive as the ones over-plowed and over-harvested, without a chance to recover their fertility through a fallow time.

This is just as true in the church. We can get so busy sometimes in our work for God that we forget God himself in the hectic flurry of the work! The sabbath-time that God gives to us is for us, as Jesus affirmed: “the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath allows us time to reflect, to lie fallow for a bit, to regain our perspective, to alter our course if need be, and collect our thoughts and energies, renewed and refreshed and with a new focus on God and God’s will for us. This is part of our reason for Lent: to pause and reflect before we proceed. So our first lesson for church growth is: keep God at the center and take your time.

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The passage from Ephesians picks up on this theme: that growth comes through the grace of God that saves us through faith. We never will grow if we keep doubting God’s promise that we shall grow. And we never will grow if we trust only in ourselves, our own abilities and works. It is God who inspires both the will and the deed, who gives us the impulse to move and the ability to move.

The Church grows because it is the living Body of Christ, not because it’s got the right stewardship program, or a nice music program, or a glossy ad campaign or a healthy endowment fund. All these things may help a church to grow, but if a church is not planted firmly upon the foundation of Jesus Christ it will quickly crumble, and become a desolate habitation instead of a lively presence of God, a spiritual dwelling for the Most High. It is God’s doing, not ours, that makes us grow in grace through faith; it is God’s gift to us, an unearned gift, as Paul told the Ephesians, lest anyone should boast. In fact, tying in the first principle, one of the reasons God asks us to keep the sabbath, to stop working part of the time, is to remind us that we are not doing it on our own: even when we are at rest God is still at work. We can indeed, as the saying puts it, “Let go and let God!”

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And yet, as our Gospel reading shows us, we are not entirely passive participants in God’s enterprise of growth. God takes what we have and transforms it to his ends when we give it up for him to work with.

Notice how Jesus starts off, feigning ignorance, wondering how in the world all of these people are going to be fed, testing the disciples to see what they will come up with. And as in so many other cases the disciples flunk, Philip and Andrew both throwing up their hands because there isn’t enough to go round. But Jesus pays no heed to their concerns, their logical concepts of resource management; he simply takes what is there, gives thanks, and feeds a multitude.

Notice that he starts with thanksgiving. You can guess that Phillip and Andrew are thinking, “Yeah, thanks a lot! Enough for a few sandwiches to feed five thousand!” But Jesus gives thanks for what is rather than worrying about what isn’t. Jesus starts with what he has, which is something — he doesn’t make bread out of stone or thin air. He doesn’t give into the temptation that Satan laid before him in the wilderness. Instead, he makes more bread out of some bread, his thanksgiving transforming what seemed to be too little into enough for everyone to have as much as they wanted.

In the same way God grows the church through us — even when we seem barely able to do the minimum in a world in so much need — God takes us, his own workmanship — when we place ourselves in his hands, and in thanksgiving breaks us — not to destroy us but to use us to enlarge the Body of Christ. God grows the church through the church.

When we place ourselves in God’s hands, and give God thanks for the blessings he gives, and take advantage of what we have — the time and space and means to do God’s work, even if it doesn’t seem like enough — we will find ourselves growing both inwardly and outwardly, in faith and grace and numbers too. Five loaves can feed five thousand, when thankfully placed in God’s hands.

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And this is where the final learning from today’s Scriptures comes in. After the meal on the hillside, after all ate until they were stuffed, Jesus told the disciples to gather up all the fragments left over, so that nothing might be lost.

And that still holds: let nothing, let no one be lost. Some churches keep going as people come and go, flowing in one door because they sniff something they like, and then out the other as their noses get out of joint over this or that. And no one seems to care in these churches with revolving doors because there are always newcomers. But that is not the way God wants the church to grow.

We all know people who left the church over the years for one reason or another. I’m not talking about folks who have moved to North Carolina, mind you, even less those who have moved from our company to the heavenly banquet — but those who have fallen away or lapsed.

We all know people, maybe even members of our own families, who had a Christian childhood but lost touch with the church as adults. We probably all know people who have never felt they had a good reason to come to church in the first place!

But Jesus doesn’t let that stop him. Jesus just says, gather up the fragments, that nothing may be lost! Our God is not a God of acceptable losses, my friends. God wants it all, every last one of his sons and daughters, gathered into his kingdom, united in his love, filled with his grace.

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This is the church-growth plan for which this rosy-tinted Sunday provides a vision and a goal. We are to start with God as the foundation, honoring God alone, putting nothing in God’s place, and taking time to take God to heart in a blessed Sabbath-rest. We are to continue in the grace and in the knowledge of God — who working in us through faith leads us to the good works done in his name. Then, in that faith and trust, we are to offer what we have in thanks, even when it seems like we don’t have enough. How much, after all, is enough? How much is enough when more is gathered up in leftovers than there was in fixings? For after all of our efforts undertaken under God’s gracious will, when we are blessed with abundance, even then we are to waste nothing, to let nothing, to let no one be lost.

This is the way the church grows, my brothers and sisters. This is the way the church grows and becomes what it is meant to be, Christ’s body on earth to do his will, working in us that which is well-pleasing in his sight, to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for evermore.+

Monday, March 20, 2006

Good Housekeeping

SJF • Lent 3b 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG

I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind. Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Every human society on earth, every culture, every household has it rules. Whether these are laws handed down from on high by the hand of God, like the Ten Commandments; or enacted by an elected legislature such as our U.S. Congress or state assembly, or simply the rules set in place in our own households — such as who does the dishes or takes out the garbage — some sort of rule or law is useful for the orderly operation of a nation or a household.

I remember when I was young, a family friend of mine also came from a large family — and like mine lived in a fairly small house. I was always amused when I went to visit, because his parents had put up by a novelty sign by the front door: a mock version of an old Western saloon sign giving the house rules, customized with their family name — so this one said the Smith Saloon House Rules, and then went on to list such things as, “all empty seats must be shared” and “no more than six in a bed” and “please use the cuspidors.” (I didn’t know what a cuspidor was; but when it was explained I recognized them immediately — those odd shaped buckets for people to spit tobacco juice into were a common feature of the TV Westerns and cowboy cartoons!) Such were the Smith Saloon House Rules.

In our Old Testament reading we hear God deliver the House Rules for his people Israel — there would be plenty of other rules as well, but these were the ones that God wrote himself in letters of fire on tablets of stone: the Ten Commandments. We reminded ourselves of how important we still hold these to be, even though we are not Israelites, when we used them at the beginning of our worship, in the form that Anglicans have called the Decalogue since the days of the first Book of Common Prayer. We Christians give this portionof the law of Moses a central place in our understanding of God’s will, and we regard this portion of the Law not simply as the code of a peculiar people, a wandering tribe of Middle Eastern nomads, but as still having something to say to us in the ordering of our lives. Even our secular society, divorcing these laws from their religious context, gives them a place of honor as a monument in human legal history — along with the Code of Hammurabi, and the Analects of Confucius.

But what happens when we treat these commandments as a monument or a historic document rather than as a set of real house rules. What happens when they no longer are seen as guidance for one’s actual daily life, but simply become decorative artifacts — what they call giving lip service to God; all show and no go! There was once a Boston businessman famed for his hard dealing, who told writer Mark Twain, “Before I die I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; climb Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud at the top.” Twain replied, “Why not stay in Boston and keep them.”

And of course, the problem is in keeping them — as even Mark Twain himself discovered in later life as tragedy hemmed in this great writer of comic tales, and he ended in skeptical and agnostic bitterness towards both humankind and God. The truth is that it is easier to give lip service than to put one’s hands to work. It is easier to erect a monument to the 10 Commandments on the courthouse lawn than to reform the justice system; it is easier to recite the Decalogue than to observe it.

Saint Paul knew this well — it’s what he is trying to explain in that passage from his letter to the Romans which we heard this morning. Knowing what is good, knowing what is right, isn’t enough. Even when we want to do good, we end up doing what is wrong. As Paul puts it, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do!” He describes the situation as a civilwar or a rebellion — the willful flesh fighting against the mind that delights in God’s will, the head and heart unable to control the hands that find evil lying close by, and take it up for evil use. Finally Paul cries out in desperation, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And then of course he gives the triumphant answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

The simple fact of the matter is that on our own we are unable to help ourselves, unable to save ourselves. However good our intentions, however well we know our household rules, we cannot on our own obey them — apart from him. Paul uses the most powerful imagery at his disposal when he says that we have been sold into slavery under sin — even though in our minds and our hearts we want to be obedient to the law of God, our flesh holds us back and keeps us slaves to sin: We have lost the Civil War, slavery has not been abolished, we have been taken prisoner and captive and sent back to the plantation to toil under the hot sun and the whip of a merciless master. Who could possibly liberate us from this captivity?

Well, the answer for us is the same as it was for Saint Paul: thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. And our gospel passage today shows him at work in this process of liberation — wielding the whip not of a slave master, but storming into the temple like Indiana Jones, to clean God’s house of the refuse that has piled up there — contrary to God’s house rules! Yes indeed, tolerating these money changers and dove sellers isn’t just a bad idea — it’s against the law! According to the law the Temple is sacred territory — and these money changers and merchants have set up shop within the its precincts; and the chief priests have allowed it because of the kickbacks that have greased their palms.

And so Jesus comes along to set things right: to clear out these lawbreakers, and restore the house of God to its purpose as a temple and a dwelling place for the Spirit ofGod,where the prayers of God’s people may ascend in the smoke of the sacrifice — prayers not only of the Jews, but also of the Gentiles who have placed their hope in the God of Israel and have come to Jerusalem to worship and praise.

So it is that Jesus wants to enforce the rules of his Father’s house. But there is a more personal dimension to this. Jesus goes on to say that even if the temple is torn down he will raise it in three days — and he refers to the temple of his own body. But let us all remember, my sisters and brothers in Christ, that we too are temples set apart for the presence and the dwelling of God. We too are called to open our hearts that God might come and dwell within us.

And what prevents this? Have we made room for God in our hearts? Can we, on our own? Even though we know the house rules, have we, no less than the chief priests of the temple, compromised and capitulated to the force of sin? Who are the money changers of our hearts? What tables have been set up to clutter the court of our temple? What profusion of sheep and cattle and doves throng to bleat and low and coo — the noise and hubbub of the fairground and the marketplace drowning out the voice of prayer? What den of robbers have we set up in our hearts? Who can deliver us from this unfaithfulness, this captivity and distraction?

None other than our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. He is the only one who can cast out the moneychangers from our hearts, and cleanse our temple to make it fit for God to visit. Let us today, one third through our Lenten journey, commit ourselves anew to the rules of God’s household: let us fling wide the portals of our hearts to let our Lord and Master Jesus Christ come in, bearing if need be that whip of cords, to cleanse our hearts of all the iniquity from which we lack the power in ourselves to free ourselves. Let us commend ourselves and one another to God, who alone has the power to cleanse us from our secret faults, and deliver us from our offenses, to wash us through and through so that our hearts and minds, our words and deeds, may be acceptable in God’s sight, who is our Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Meditations on the Way of the Cross

by Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG

V. We will glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ:
R. In whom is our salvation, our life and resurrection.

Let us pray. (Silence)

Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

First Station

Jesus is condemned to death

V. God did not spare his own Son:
R. But delivered him up for us all.

The Lord who set his hand upon the deep,
who stretched the compass on the heavens’ face,
who planned the universe and gave it life,
here, now, is trapped — the victim of a plot.
The judge is judged, and shares a sinner’s fate,
while Pilate, at the warning of his wife,
evades his guilt with water and a towel,
delivering up the one who would deliver
the world that owed him all of its existence.
The very ones who call out for his death —
that he deserves to die — owe him their breath.
Let us pray. (Silence)

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

Second Station

Jesus takes up his Cross

V. The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all:
R. For the transgression of my people was he stricken.

The eternal word now mutely keeps his peace
and opens not his mouth. The worthy one,
held worthless now, takes up his heavy cross.
The one who bore the weight of all the worlds
now wearily takes up a cross of wood.
The Lamb of God who takes away our sins,
in meekness his last pilgrimage begins.
Let us pray. (Silence)

Almighty God, whose beloved Son willingly endured the agony and shame of the cross for our redemption: Give us courage to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Third Station

Jesus falls the first time

V. Surely he has borne our griefs:
R. And carried our sorrows.

A star shot from its place in heaven and fell
down to the depths of the abyss. Was Christ’s
descent less terrible, his humble stooping down?
Yet humbly he had washed the apostles’ feet,
so now he falls to wash away our sin.
Can we do less than kneel here and adore
the one who all our sin and anguish bore?
Let us pray. (Silence)

O God, you know us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: Grant us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers, and carry us through all temptations; through JesusChrist our Lord. Amen

Fourth Station

Jesus meets his afflicted mother

V. A sword will pierce your own soul also:
R. And fill your heart with bitter pain.

A mother’s pain! to see her own child die —
tragic reversal, when age sees youth undone.
The heart that stored such hope, such promised joy
now breaks to see the ruin of that hope.
Yet breaking, that heart’s hope finds its release
and brings the world the promise of its peace.
Let us pray. (Silence)

O God, who willed that in the passion of your Son a sword of grief should pierce the soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary his mother: Mercifully grant that your Church, having shared with her in his passion, may be made worthy to share in the joys of his resurrection; who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen

Fifth Station

The Cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene

V. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me:
R. Cannot be my disciple.

Simon didn’t know who Jesus was;
just that he’d better do as he was told:
take up that cross and carry it a while.
What unknown hands lift crosses from our backs?
Who serves us? And what strangers do we serve?
Whom do we serve, if not our Lord himself,
who told us that as we each do unto
the least of them we do it unto him?
To follow him we must take up that cross —
to save our lives our lives must suffer loss.
Let us pray. (Silence)

Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son came not to be served but to serve: Bless all who, following in his steps, give themselves to the service of others; that with wisdom, patience, and courage, they may minister in his Name to the suffering, the friendless, and the needy; for the love of him who laid down his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Sixth Station

A woman wipes the face of Jesus

V. Restore us, O Lord God of hosts:
R. Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

He came to show us all that we could be,
to stand displayed a perfect man, that we
might have a model for our lives. Instead
we turned away; and worse, we cursed and mocked
his beauty, so much greater than our own.
Yet all our hurts and harms could not deface
the inner glory of his perfect soul,
and his wounds only served to make us whole.
Let us pray. (Silence)

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Seventh Station

Jesus falls a second time

V. But as for me, I am a worm and no man:
R. Scorned by all and despised by the people.

How can he bear that weight? How can he bear
the gathered sorrows of a billion souls?
How bear these sins, since he is innocent?
It is no wonder he should fall, beneath
the heavy weight of all this unearned guilt.
All we like sheep are scattered, wandering, lost;
we set the price; and he has paid the cost.
Let us pray. (Silence)

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen

Eighth Station

Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

V. Those who sowed with tears:
R. Will reap with songs of joy.

What tears are these? Whence comes this grievous moan?
Is it for him, or for the loss of hope?
If this is how the world will treat its Lord,
what hope is there for anyone? For us?
If green wood burns so easily, what flames
will ravage those whose hearts and souls are dry?
It seems for our own sins we’d better cry.
Let us pray. (Silence)

Teach your Church, O Lord, to mourn the sins of which it is guilty, and to repent and forsake them; that, by your pardoning grace, the results of our iniquities may not be visited upon our children and our children’s children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Ninth Station

Jesus falls a third time

V. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter:
R. And like a sheep that before its shearers is mute, so he opened not his mouth.

Where is the light? The candles have gone out!
There is no hope, no way to see the way;
the one we hoped would lead us has collapsed.
Yet in his fall, this third bone-weary fall,
his voice cries out, Remember me, O Lord;
and God, who hears the fallen, will not fail.
Up from the depths and darkness without light,
he calls on our behalf through our long night,
his prayer ascending God’s high throne unto:
Father, forgive; they know not what they do.
Let us pray. (Silence)

O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Tenth Station

Jesus is stripped of his garments

V. They gave me gall to eat:
R. And when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink.

The night before, he’d spoken of his blood,
and blessed the cup of wine, removed his robe
and kneeling, washed their feet; and later, in
the garden kneeled again, and asked his God
to let the cup of bitterness pass by.
All comes together here: wine, blood and gall.
The garments are removed, the veil undone:
We see the naked glory of the Son.
Let us pray. (Silence)

Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Eleventh Station

Jesus is nailed to the Cross

V. They pierce my hands and my feet:
R. They stare and gloat over me.

The carpenter of Nazareth is brought
at last to Skull Hill’s bloody, dismal mound.
Between two criminals, hemmed in by sin,
the sinless one is nailed upon the cross.
How many times had he with his own hands
wielded the hammer, pegging wooden frames,
or driven nails. He’d made good yokes, good yokes
for oxen at the plough, or at the cart.
Yet here he is undone with his own art.
Let us pray. (Silence)

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

Twelfth Station

Jesus dies on the Cross

V. Christ for us became obedient unto death:
R. Even death on a cross.

What legacy is this, what parting gift?
A mother loses one son, gains another,
as John, belov’d disciple, gains a mother.
The end has come; time for one bitter taste
of vinegar on a sponge, a gasping breath,
the words of commendation, and of death.
Let us pray. (Silence)

O God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; who lives and reigns now and for ever. Amen

Thirteenth Station

The body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother

V. Her tears run down her cheeks:
R. And she has none to comfort her.

Long, long ago, an angel called her bless’d
and full of grace. Did Gabriel know the course
her life would take, the life of her womb’s fruit,
the Son of God — that it would come to this?
And did he know as well that this was not
the end, that there was more — far more — to come?
Yet Mary’s grief is not relieved in this,
as on his wounded brow she plants a kiss.
Let us pray. (Silence)

Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness; for your tender mercies’ sake. Amen

Fourteenth Station

Jesus is laid in the tomb

V. You will not abandon me to the grave:
R. Nor let your holy One see corruption.

His foster father was named Joseph, too;
in death, he takes another Joseph’s tomb.
He had no earthly father of his own,
nor would he have a grave but as a gift.
His birthplace was a stable let on loan,
his burial in a tomb another built.
And all this was to free us from our guilt.
The Way is ended, now the tomb is sealed —
our eyes have seen the love of God revealed.
Let us pray. (Silence)

O God, your blessed Son was laid in a tomb in a garden, and rested on the Sabbath day: Grant that we who have been buried with him in the waters of baptism may find our perfect rest in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen

To Christ our Lord who loves us, and washed us in his own blood, and made us a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.