The heart of the gospel

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tissotannunciationToday is a fairly rare occurrence in the liturgical calendar: it’s Good Friday, but it’s also Annunciation, March 25. The next time this will happen is 2157, if that gives you any idea. The Church holds off on celebrating Annunciation if it falls during Holy Week, and I’ve seen varying opinions on where to move it to, but just the fact that they both fell on the same day this year is incredibly fitting.

On Annunciation, we ponder how the Angel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary and told her that she was to be the mother of the Savior. Through the word Gabriel spoke, the Virgin Mary conceived  by the power of the Holy Spirit — yet another example of how God’s Spirit is always present with and active through God’s Word. (March 25 is nine months before December 25, Christmas — get it?) So this is the day that the Word became flesh for us. Jesus took on a fully human nature, assumed from the Virgin Mary, which meant that now He would be born, grow, learn, eat, breathe, play, worship, live — and finally, die.

That’s what Good Friday is for. We focus on the death of Christ, the Lamb of God, who paid for all sins of all people of all time — including you, gentle reader. Yes, you! He looked ahead in time, and with you on His mind knew that one day He would go to the cross, and die. Just like we do, He too had a definite span to His days — only He did not stay dead. The celebration of that comes on the “third day”, Easter Sunday, but today, we meditate on just how much free forgiveness costs — the unutterably steep price Christ paid to redeem us for God.

Annunciation and Good Friday. On one, He takes on a human body, to share our human nature; on the other, He sacrifices that body on the tree of the cross and dies, so that we might be free from sin and death forever. Take off your shoes, friends, for here we stand before the central mystery of our faith: the Word made flesh, dying so that we might live. The eternal Son of God lays down His life, that we from death might be free forever. It deepens your appreciation for the gospel, doesn’t it?

John Donne wrote a poem on this same occasion in his lifetime. Read it, and take a moment for yourself to appreciate what really happened on Good Friday.

Annunciation, Good Friday — the focus is the same. The heart of the gospel: it’s all about Jesus. A blessed Annunication, and Good Friday, to you all.

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On Annunciation and Passion Falling on the Same Day, 1609

by John Donne 

TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s Court of Faculties,
Deals, in sometimes, and seldom joining these.
As by the self-fix’d Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where th’other is, and which we say
—Because it strays not far—doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to him, we know,
And stand firm, if we by her motion go.
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar, doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud ; to one end both.
This Church by letting those days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one ;
Or ’twas in Him the same humility,
That He would be a man, and leave to be ;
Or as creation He hath made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes ; He shall come, He is gone ;
Or as though one blood drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all,
So though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords.
This treasure then, in gross, my soul, uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

silent night -- good fri

Small beginnings

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009-joseph-jacob300x225When the children of Israel go down to Egypt to live, they were only 70 in number. That might seem like a lot for one family, but when viewed against the great mass of the Egyptian nation who would be their new neighbors, Jacob’s family must have felt small and insignificant. Even more than that: strangers, foreigners; out of place.

Yet God has a way of making His people fruitful. He blesses us and ensures that we continue to grow and increase in strength — both outwardly and inwardly. He blesses us with physical offspring, but even if we don’t have these to boast of, He still pours out His blessing on us — on we who seem so few, the flock of His hand and sheep of His pasture. We, too, continue to grow and attain new strength, even as He continues to bless us. His Holy Spirit ensures that we will bear the fruits of the Spirit, and continue to advance in the faith He has planted deep in our hearts, and in the hearts of our children. He nourishes us and is the strength of our hearts and our portion forever.

So take heart. You are not insignificant, for He sent His Son to die for you — even though you are only one. His love extends that far — even to you! Even though we who love the truth are too often a tiny band, whose continual efforts to be faithful and live according to the truth seem to be frustrated at every turn, in Christ we know differently. We are a little flock, to be true, but we are part of a far greater and more glorious body — His Body, the holy Christian Church. He has made us part of it, and we are His. To Him be all glory and praise, amen.

Now these are the names of the children of Israel, which came into Egypt; every man and his household came with Jacob.

Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah,

Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin,

Dan, and Naphtali, Gad, and Asher.

And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls: for Joseph was in Egypt already.

And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation.

And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.

— Exodus 1:1-7

The strange coincidences of our lives

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babymosesAfter Moses’ mother had waterproofed the basket (or ark, if you prefer another nuance of the Hebrew), she put the baby in it and set it among the reeds at the river’s edge. Then, with Moses’ older sister watching from the bank, she went about her day, no doubt praying to the Lord that nobody would find her baby.

But somebody did — and not just anybody. Pharaoh’s daughter, of all people, is the one who finds the basket with its infant cargo. Pharaoh’s daughter! Not Pharaoh himself, or one of his soldiers; not even one of the common Egyptian people — but one of the few people in a position to help the infant, with the compassion to match! Surely God’s plan is on display here.

Thus do the strange coincidences of our lives take place: the random meetings, the seemingly inconsequential choices we make that end up determining the course of vast swaths of our lives. People we meet (or never meet); schools we go to (or not); books read or unread; phone calls, messages, letters replied to or never received; turns, roads, paths we take (or not) — we are the sum total of our choices, with a generous dollop of blind chance mixed in, or so it seems.

Yet we are not products of blind chance, nor does chance rule our lives. God does. His eyes saw our unformed bodies; will He not guide and direct us in the way best for us? He is the “God who sees [us]”; shall we ever live any part of our lives out of His view, away from His oversight and help? He never slumbers nor sleeps, and even the night is as light as the day to Him. “In Him we live and move and have our being.”

Then we need fear no depredations of fortune, no accidents, no mistakes that would rob us of what He has promised us. Christ has been raised from the dead, and He is with us forever. His word of peace still goes with us, whoever we meet, whatever we go through: “Behold, I am with you always.” “Take heart, be of good courage and at peace with God, it is I.” “Do not be afraid.” This is the guarantee that He gives us, freely and in His love; signed in His most holy blood, ratified by the Father who raised Him from the dead.

And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.

And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it.

— Exodus 2:4-5

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A baby afloat

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baby-moses2Scripture tells us that when Moses was born, his mother “saw that he was good” — what a wealth of love and tenderness is wrapped up in those words! What conviction that this child, a gift of God, was someone special! Surely every mother has a measure of that – or, one hopes, should.

But she could no longer keep him quiet, so she had to come up with a plan. We have a three-month-old right now, whose name is Joey, and while ours is a placid, smiley baby, I can well appreciate how they’re not all like that. (His older brother, Mark, would have been one of those harder to keep quiet. He’s two right now. I’ll just let that stand without further comment.)

Her plan is the now-famous Moses basket: take an ark or a casket (the Hebrew can have that meaning), waterproof it, and set it in the edge of the river Nile, among the reeds. It’s ingenious, really. The baby would be close at hand, so she could still tend to his needs, but he wouldn’t be on the premises. The river might even rock him to sleep. If he did make noise, the setting of a river bank, so foreign to a newborn, would lead people to disregard it.

Witness a mother’s love in action — the lengths to which she will go. Surely this had to have been planted within her by the Almighty, the source of all love, who compares Himself to a mother, that we may better comprehend His tender, fierce, stop-at-nothing love (e.g. Isaiah 66:13). Moses’ mother takes her place alongside women like Lois and Eunice, Timothy’s mother and grandmother, Sarah, the wife of Abraham, and the blessed Virgin Mary as worthy role models and godly women.

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It’s striking that Scripture describes the infant Moses’ container (vehicle?) as an ‘ark.’ Our Lord has placed us within the ark of the Christian Church (I Pe 3:20-22). He’s placed us there for safekeeping — now and forever. Through Holy Baptism, we are kept safe through the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. We emerge from the water eternally safe and alive, delivered from the rage of all our enemies. We are as pure and fresh and clean as newborns — truly we are born again (John 3:5). And these promises are true even for the very youngest! Praise God for His marvelous gift!

And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi.

2 And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.

3 And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink.

— Exodus 2:1-3

“We must obey God rather than men”

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puahThe Hebrew midwives present a problem for some people. They essentially lie to Pharaoh, disobey the God-given authority over them — and God blesses them for it. Why?

The Hebrew midwives were putting into practice the words  that Peter would utter centuries later to the Sanhedrin: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The midwives could not in good conscience have killed the baby boys and followed Pharaoh’s command, because that would have broken the 5th Commandment. One hesitates to weigh which command or word of God is “worth” more, or is more valuable, but here the choice was clear. They chose to disobey the king of Egypt’s wrongful order, and figured they’d decide how to square it later if, and when, the time came.

en06sep40c_youngGod blessed that choice. He made His chosen people stronger and more numerous through the midwives’ godly work. God, as the Author of life, loves life. He wants us to preserve it and reverence it, not for its own sake, but for the sake of Him who gave it to us. Life is a precious and fragile thing, not least because we cannot produce it on our own. Believers value life as the wonderful gift of God that it is.

Contrast that with the culture we live in today! Today, convenience, avarice, and lack of love link hands to steal life away from the most vulnerable members of our society. What does it say about us that we countenance the killing of the unborn, and that hardly anyone even mentions it anymore? For those who despise God’s gift of children, of life itself – as well as the Giver of those gifts – they will find out what it is to struggle under the burden of unfruitfulness and barrenness. Here we speak not of those to whom the Lord in His wisdom has not yet bestowed the gift of children, but rather those who disregard God’s teaching about children and human life and ignore it – in their hearts and in their actions. If people devalue children, or view them as a hindrance instead of a gift from God, they will find out why God says children are a gift from Him — in what they lack.

Midwives do God’s work, in that they work to help bring new life into the world. They are God’s masks, as Martin Luther says, God’s way of doing His work through their sweat, their attention, their sleeplessness, and their care. If you know a midwife, give her a hug today, or thank her. Like much vitally important work in the world, the material rewards they reap do not always match up with the good that they do — but some work is worth doing, regardless of what you’re paid for it. (The same goes for nurses, teachers, pastors, and parents, for that matter.)

Life is a gift of God — not only physical life in this world, but eternal life with Christ. That’s something that can never be bought or earned. It can only be given to you, through faith in His Son Jesus Christ, born of a woman, born under law. By sharing our human life and dying in our place, then rising again, He gives us eternal life. From our first cry until our last breath, He is the “source, goal, and guide of our lives, now and always.” Thanks be to God for the life He gives.

And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah:

16 And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.

17 But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.

18 And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men children alive?

19 And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them.

20 Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty.

21 And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses.

22 And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.

— Exodus 1:15-22

 

Picking fights with God’s people

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The Pharaoh who took over after Joseph rose to power did not seek to dominate the children of Israel from a position of strength, but rather one of weakness. He felt threatened by the numbers and vigor with which the Lord had blessed the children of Israel, and he felt compelled to do something to counter them. So he put harsh slave drivers over them, and made it his policy to crack down on the children of Israel.

Often, we, too, have to contend with those who feel threatened by us. Often it’s when we are minding our own business, or even engaged in doing something good and praiseworthy. We try and help others, or be peacemakers and children of God, as He urges us, and instead of others listening and accepting what we say (never mind being grateful — gratitude is a lot to ask sometimes in a fallen world) we meet with resistance and even outright opposition: deceit, conniving, or backstabbing.

When we run into such treatment, we should not be dismayed, “as though something strange were happening to us”, as St. Peter reminds us (1 Pe 4:12). Rather, we should remember that opposition will naturally be the Christian’s lot when he or she joyfully confesses the gospel — and that such opposition does not come from a position of strength, but rather one of weakness and even desperation. If the enemies of the gospel thought themselves secure, why would they feel the need to resort to duplicity or lies? The Church is not the only one to know this lesson. As even a professed unbeliever like the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has noted, “Often we attack and make ourselves enemies, to conceal that we are vulnerable.”

Therefore “do not fear what they fear, do not be frightened” (I Pe 3:14); rather, hold Jesus Christ as Lord in your heart, and entrust all things to His loving care. He knows how best to defend and protect you, while still accomplishing His purposes. The enemies of His Word cannot thwart that. To Him alone be glory and honor, amen.

Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.

And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we:

10 Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.

11 Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.

12 But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were grieved because of the children of Israel.

13 And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour. …

–Exodus 1:8-13

Joy after the Snow: A Devotion on Isaiah 55

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our trees snowLiving where we do in southern Minnesota, there’s not a real need to explain how snow works. (We get a refresher every week or so — sometimes more.) Yet with all the complaining, the bellyaching, the schedule delays, changes in plans, and cancellations, it’s easy to forget the positive side of the snow. Not only is it pretty (some of the time — dirty snow is a sad sight), but most importantly of all, it brings moisture that we need. When spring comes, the snow melts and then the fields are ready for planting, and we are provided for for another year.

Snow do not come down without having an effect. It’s impossible. It may not seem like it at the time — it may seem like nothing’s happening, when the world around you is frozen and silent — but it will have its effect at the proper time.

God’s Word is like that. It may not seem like it’s working, but it always is. It accomplishes what God wants, in His time — not always ours! And that’s fine! He knows how best to accomplish His aims. God has perfect patience to wait for the exact right moment. But let’s not deceive ourselves, either: when He knows the right moment has come, He can act fast – faster than any of us can discern or perceive. And when He does act, it’s decisively, because His Holy Spirit is inseparably given with that Word. That’s why it’s so powerful. That’s why His promises, given in that Word, always come true.

And that’s why we have hope. The promises God makes — and keeps — through His Word give us joy. They assure us that one day we will “come forth”, as Isaiah says.

From where will we “come forth”? What does Isaiah mean by this? Ultimately, we will come forth from our graves on the Last Day. We will hear the voice of the Son of Man, and all who hear will live. We will not stay in the “dust of death”, for “God will redeem my life from the grave; He will take me to Himself” (Psalm 49:15).

Then the ancient curse of sin will be finally be fully and completely undone, when “instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree”. In Genesis, God cursed the ground by decreeing that it would bear thorns and thistles instead of allowing mankind to easily grow crops. Weeds are part of the curse of sin, under which we all labor. When Jesus returns, He will undo all the effects of sin, because He has destroyed sin by His death and resurrection. The full fruits of that victory will only be seen on the Last Day, however. Creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed; until then, we trust that what we will have fully on the Last Day and in heaven — freedom from sin, peace, joy, and the most intimate communion with God — we have now by faith.

Jesus’ victory over sin includes not only weeds that infest our fields and gardens, but the sin that lives in our own bodies; illnesses and sicknesses of every description; old age; and even death itself. Looking ahead, and knowing what Jesus has won for us, what He’s promised us, and what He will do, we rejoice too. We look forward to the day when all creation rejoices with us, and we will see all of God’s promises kept before our eyes. May He keep us faithful until that day!

For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater:

So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.

For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the LORD for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

— Isaiah 55:10-13

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Daily and fully

I may not be able to spark a reformation of the entire Western Church, but I can teach my own children.

One of the great benefits of drilling my progeny in the Small Catechism is that I review it for myself. I find that when I go back to the Enchiridion and repeat it word for word, as Doctor Luther advises us, I constantly find new and wonderful things in the old, familiar words. I honestly don’t think I would have done that for myself had I not been gifted with children by the Lord God, but I thank Him for them, and for the chance to dwell on what God tells us.

I had another such moment the other day. We’re drilling the Third Article of the Creed right now, along with its explanation. As we went through it, I was struck forcefully by the following words:

In this Christian Church He daily and fully forgives all sins to me and all believers.

This is such a basic truth that we sometimes pass over it. Ask your average layperson what God does for them, and along with feeding them and caring for them, defending them from danger, etc, they will invariably mention that God forgives their sins. But sometimes I fear that we spin that phrase off our lips without our brains or our hearts truly engaging it or learning what it means.

Note how Luther dwells on that forgiveness. Daily and fully — so you don’t have to wait for it; so you don’t have to work off the rest of our sin, or part of it, as we’re accustomed to doing with the people in our lives. Too often we treat each other in that way: “Okay, I forgive this offense — mostly — but I’ll hold your past sins over your head, and if you mess up again I’ll trot this time out. Just so you don’t forget I’m better than you.”

Sinners-Wanted

“Jesus sinners does receive…Even I have been forgiven!”

God doesn’t do that with us…even though He could. He knows all things, and yet He promises to remember our sins no more (Jer 31:34). How wonderfully amazing is that? God, who knows all things, even the things that could have happened but didn’t, promises that He will forget and not actively remember your sins anymore! They are gone — sunk in the sea of Christ’s blood, which He poured out on the cross! (Micah 7:19) “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” (Rom 8:1) So rejoice! Forgiveness comes to you, daily and fully, through faith in Jesus’ blood. You are well-pleasing to God, even despite your imperfections and your faults and your flaws and your shortcomings, when you are in Christ, because “He daily and fully forgives all sins to me and all believers in Christ.”

So come to Him — hear His promises — believe the good news! Be what you are — a rotten sinner — so that He may make you as He is — holy, perfect, and sinless! Through faith in His Son, you are forgiven. It is possible! Repent and believe the good news!

The making of a true Biblical exegete

erasmuscomputerMany pastors nowadays use computer programs to help them study God’s Word. These programs, while often pricey (not all are), can be very useful. You can compile an excellent library in a very portable format in a hurry with one of these. I use one myself (Logos, for those who are interested.)

But these programs have drawbacks, too.

Logos — or Accordance or whatever you use — can give you meanings of words (or a start at understanding meanings, more accurately — meaning has a large contextual component), it can tell you how many times a word appears, and all sorts of trivia about it that may or may not be useful.

But it can’t make you an exegete.

The computer program can’t apply your heart, brain, and guts to a text, and let that text apply itself to you however and as much as the Holy Spirits wills. Only a man of God can do that. Logos does not have the fear of the Lord — we do. It does not have the capacity for reverence that removes its shoes before the burning bush, or kneels before the manger, or stands at the foot of the cross.

But we do.

So use that reverence, that fear of the Lord. Bow before His holy Word and then open it — and let it work His will in you. That’s how you make an exegete.

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A different sort of Veteran’s Day

Today, Nov 11, is Veteran’s Day in the United States, where we remember all those who have served in our armed forces. Today the Christian Church commemorates St. Martin of Tours, who started a career as a Roman soldier before deciding that he might serve the Lord better as an evangelist and bishop (today we’d say pastor).

It’s an interesting coincidence that on the day where the nation thanks our soldiers, the Church also thanks her Lord for the service of a former soldier. In his service as a bishop, Martin displayed many of the virtues commonly seen in the military — energy, endurance, courage, a clear-sighted practicality, abundant loyalty and unswerving obedience to his “superiors” in the faith (for want of a better term — perhaps it would be better to say “fathers” in the faith). Several times he chose to follow Hilary, the bishop who was his teacher and pastor, into exile. Martin also displayed the compassion that comes from true strength, and the truest strength is faith in Christ. The story is told that during his days as a soldier, as he rode along, Martin saw a half-naked, shivering beggar by the side of the road. Martin immediately stopped, cut his cloak in two with his sword, and gave half to the freezing unfortunate. How many of us would hack our coats in half to give to a homeless person? Yet that’s exactly the sort of thing that Martin of Tours became known for.

All this reminds us, too, that proclaiming the Gospel is not for wimps. It takes a certain amount of dedication, fortitude, courage — in short, the grit that comes from a living trust in the Savior — to face down the challenges of life and the rage of the old enemy, Satan. It takes discipline to push your flesh down and not give in, and a certain amount of daring to not care what the world will say or what it will do to you for preaching Christ. “Endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ,” St. Paul advised Timothy, and that’s good advice for us all. Being a Christian is rarely easy or fun (the devil, the world, and your flesh see to that), but the victory that Christ gives in the end is worth it.

Lord God of hosts, Your servant Martin the soldier embodied the spirit of sacrifice. He became a bishop in Your Church to defend the catholic faith. Give us grace to follow in his  steps so that when our Lord returns we may be [found] clothed with the baptismal garment of righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

— from “A Year with the Church Fathers,” p.354

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