Tag Archives: Easter

Flowered by Christ

Easter St. Peter's  with family (2)We have a lovely tradition in our local parish church. The Sunday School children and staff “Flower the Cross.” Shortly before the sermon in our Anglican liturgy, during the “sermon hymn,” we process up the central aisle carrying flowers to the chancel steps where a thick white cross, about six feet tall awaits us. The cross has deep holes that penetrate the beams and we insert the stems into the holes. Soon the white cross is covered in brilliant color.

This year as I helped small hands reach for the cross to add another flower, I thought how each of us was like those flowers and stems and bits of green. We each had our own colors and characteristics and we carried them to the cross. We each had our own talents and treasures and we offered them to the cross. We each had our own joys and sorrows and we slipped them into the deep holes of that wooden cross.

The white cross welcomed us, pulling us into its wood, and in some way we became part of that cross of Christ. And with the flowering we were flowered too, changed, reborn into new life.

For Easter celebrates new life, not only spring and its seeds bursting into blossoms, but our own new resurrected life. For forty days and nights we have been dormant seeds buried in the dark soil of Lent. We waited and we watched and we prayed for this glorious Easter morning when death dies and life lives, rising from the tomb, Christ’s tomb, our own tombs.

There is no point to Christianity if one does not believe in the resurrection of Christ and its revolutionary effect upon us all. In the resurrection, suffering and sorrow change into love and joy. Darkness becomes light, and the words of the psalmist are fulfilled: 

“If I say, peradventure the darkness shall cover me; then shall my night be turned to day. Yea, the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day; the darkness and light to thee are both alike.” (139:10-11)

Today we are covered by darkness. We hear of wars and rumors of wars, of new horrors, new terrors. Brussels, Paris, London, San Bernardino, Boston, New York, Fort Hood. Evil robs youth of innocence, prompting massacres in schoolyards or classrooms. Darkness spreads across the face of the earth.

And so we reach for the light in the darkness that enshrouds our world, entombs our people. We look to God, the author of love and life. We look to the only man who claimed to be God, who rose from the dead, the one whom St. John describes as “the true Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (KJV, 1:9)

Why I believe in the resurrection and its challenge and others do not, I do not understand. For the evidence is there, clear as the light of day. But I suppose one must seek it, desire it, even long for such belief. For believing costs us. Believing means turning toward the light of love and away from the darkness of self. My bishop often said, “all doubt is moral.” I’m not sure if all doubt is moral, but I’m beginning to agree that belief requires a change of heart, an honorable discipline, a code of ethics that challenges us to change our ways. It is sometimes tempting to doubt, when belief accuses and demands our time, talent, and treasure. Demands our hearts and souls and bodies.

And so Easter’s resurrection message is a radical one. It says to our world, as Father James Martin writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Listen!” Listen to what the resurrection means for us! For the resurrection demands that attention be paid to a man who conquered death. Attention must be paid to his words, his deeds, his miracles of healing and feeding and calming storms and walking on water. Attention must be paid to his claims to be God, and to his Church’s claims after his ascension to Heaven. For the Church he founded, a stepchild of the Jewish temple, witnessed to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, again and again, in word and deed. Christians died tortuous deaths for their belief in Jesus Christ and who he was. They did not invent him. They knew him. And the witness continues.

Today Christians die daily for their belief in this God-made-man. They cannot deny Christ, cannot deny his light, his joy, his glory. They have been changed, reborn. They cannot go back to the darkness of self.

On Easter morning I thought of these things as I handed a flower to one of the children and helped her shove the moist green stem into the deep dry hole, into the wood of the cross. In that moment, she was part of the cross. She stood back and smiled, satisfied, and reached for another. Our baskets empty, we recessed out to the Sunday School.

We had given ourselves to Easter’s resurrection cross, and Christ had returned the gift a thousand fold. The dead wood had been reborn. So had we. For each of us had been flowered by and with Christ.

Passionate Passiontide

440px-Kruis_san_damianoWe are entering Passiontide, a time when we consider the great sacrificial love of God.

As I watched the passionate protesters at the huge Trump rally at the University of Illinois last week, I was struck by their hatred, not only of Mr. Trump and his supporters but far more importantly their dismissal of his right to free speech. Their own speech was all that mattered to them. They were all that mattered to them. No-one else could speak. Their world was small and dark, turned in upon itself, devouring itself, like cancer or gangrene. Such a world, such a place, Christians call Hell. 

For without God (and Hell is the absence of God), passion is uncontrolled and undirected. It becomes misplaced and dangerous. Whatever our passion might be, if it is not God directed and Christ-filled, it turns inward upon itself. It seeds destruction, including the source of the passion, the individual himself or herself. 

The word passion, as my bishop often said, is the union of the words love and suffering. For God became man to bring us close to him. By taking on our flesh and suffering with us, as we suffer, he redeemed and continues to redeem our suffering, our mortal flesh. We join him on the Cross and we join him in his Resurrection. This is called the atonement, the at-one-ment, for we are pulled into God by his becoming one of us. 

And so today on Passion Sunday the Church pauses and reflects on the Passion of Christ, the last two weeks of Lent – Christ’s painful path to Golgotha, the hill of the skull. All images of Christ in our parish church are hidden behind purple cloths, and we feel a visceral loss of love, to sense in some way what the world would be like without Christ. In the next weeks we will follow Christ on his path to Calvary as best we can, some of us better than others, depending on age and infirmity, time and desire, and most of all, depending on our love, our passion to follow him. 

I have come to believe, in my sixty-eight years, that we cannot experience goodly, Godly, passion without God. And we cannot experience God without the Church, his Body. We are not meant, as creatures created by a loving Father, to be alone, to meet our life’s challenges alone. We are meant to be loved and to love, and we can only do this through Christ and his great gift of himself.

The gift of Christ, the Son of God, was given to us two thousand years ago in Bethlehem and then on the Cross on a hill outside Jerusalem. In those moments, history breathed once again, as the fresh air of God’s love blew upon the world, changing it forever. Mankind turned up another path toward love, learning the meaning of true passion, God-filled love. Those who accept the gift never look back to the dark days of un-love. Those who accept the gift look forward to a lifetime and an eternity of glory and unearned love.

The gift of Christ, the God-Man, the incarnated Son of God, is, as they say, a gift that keeps on giving. With every Eucharist, God the Son is re-membered, made newly present in the Real Presence. With every Eucharist, God the Son mystically enters our bodies and re-members us. As Christ becomes one with our flesh, he dwells within, renewing, inspiring, with his love. His prayer becomes ours, and our prayer becomes his. Every day is an Epiphany, a day of manifestation and seeing. Every day is a day of becoming like the Wise Men at the manger, a day of understanding the manifold works of God. 

For as Christ became at-one with Man, he gave us a means – through his Body the Church – to become at one with him individually. Love is personal, tender, touching. God loves us, each and every one of us, each with our unique personalities. We are precious to him. He loves us personally, tenderly. He reaches out to us and touches us in every Eucharist. 

Only God can order our passions, whatever they may be, to be goodly, to be Godly. And with the ordering of loves, comes the ordering of our sufferings and sacrifices. Nothing is lost. All is offered up to the Cross, and all is returned a thousand fold. 

And so we enter Passiontide, a vigorous ride in and into our life with God. We ride confidently, knowing we are riding high and on to Easter’s resurrection.

Touching Love

Writing2I have been given the remarkable opportunity to look through boxes containing the sermons of the late Archbishop Morse, to possibly be published by the American Church Union. They were written on loose sheets on lined yellow legal pads. Some were jotted on hotel stationery. Some had their own colorful pocket folders, faded and spotted with time, water, and tea, and some were bunched with others by topic. Many were written in purple ink, his favorite, earlier ones in black ballpoint. There were even some typed from his seminary days, with notes in the margins from homiletics professors.

I hadn’t expected to find such treasures since he usually preached without notes.

I soon sorted them into seasons of the Church Year, but many sermons could have been preached anytime anywhere, and often were, as noted by his wife in the top corners in her neatly penciled script: date, feast date, parish. Some were added to, so that a sermon from 1961 lived on in 2006, having journeyed through half a dozen congregations, each time changed slightly according to hearers and season.

I began to type, words of hope, words of mystery and miracle, words of love. There was always a sense of happy wonder at the works of God among men and in his own heart and life.

At St. Thomas Anglican Church in San Francisco on February 18, 1990, Sexagesima Sunday (today’s Sunday in the Church calendar), he preached something like this: 

“We are in that wonderful three-week period of preparation for Lent, defined in the Prayer Book as the Pre-Lenten Season. These three Sundays are a period of reflection, and expectation for the severity of Ash Wednesday, the 40 days of Lent, Passiontide, and Holy Week. They are sort of hinges on the door that swings between the joyful mysteries of the Epiphany and the sorrow and suffering of Lent – the recalling of the passion and the death of Jesus Christ.”

Hinges on the door swinging between seasons. He was a poet. And, it occurs to me as I type his words, and now these words, that we are all poets searching for meaning, reaching for words to describe our human existence, to understand who we are. That is what poetry does, in the end, for it uses intense imagery to evoke sensory perceptions that will help us make sense of life. Christians have found such ways and such words in Sunday worship and so live poetic lives. We pray, and with prayer we use words to meet and touch the infinite, eternity, the source of all love, indeed, Love itself. We pour water in baptism to fill the reborn with God’s Spirit. We consecrate bread and wine to fill us with Christ in the Eucharist. We fill the finite – our own flesh – with the infinite. And we do this through the consecration of matter.

Sacramental Christians do not separate spirit and matter. The union of soul and body is the profound sacrament of Creation. In Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the hand of God touches Adam, filling him with life, the life of His Word, God the Son, the Christ, the Logos. All creation reflects this sacramental action of love.

It is a beautiful day in the Bay Area today, this middle Sunday in Pre-Lent. This creation around us is windswept and cold, the air washed by last week’s rain. Puffy white clouds slip through pale blue skies, winter skies hoping for spring. The green hills reflect the glory of God, for they are indeed his creation, just as we are.

The Church Year reflects the natural year in many ways. The date of Easter follows the vernal (spring) equinox (nearly equal days and nights), for the Jewish Passover was celebrated on the first full moon following the vernal equinox, and it is recorded that the death and resurrection of Christ occurred following Passover. And so our days lengthen, become Lenten, moving toward that date of the Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox, March 27, 2016, Easter, Resurrection Day.

The door of the season opens to preparation, penance, and hope. We scour our hearts and invite Almighty God in to dwell. We sing and we dance the liturgies of the Church to unite matter and spirit, time and eternity. Soon we hear the song, feel the rhythm, the poetry of words made flesh.

My calloused fingertips have been hard at work, carrying words and throwing them onto the keyboard, words that scurry across the screen and, I understand, rest in a memory chip or megabyte, to be invited one day to re-appear on screen and paper.

And so the bishop’s purple ink on the yellow papers, water marked and parched and smudged, moves from his fingers to mine, from his heart to yours. This seems right, for the recurring theme I have found so far in these joyful sermons is Love. That God is Love. That is why the Christian life is so love-ly, so full of love, so full of joy, of color, of music, of beauty, and of truth.

Christians, if they are faithful, touch Love itself.

Easter Flowers

IMG_0485 (2).3The glories of Easter and Eastertide lift me into familiar joy, one that I expect each year. And yet this joy surprises me with its nuances, colors, and music: the lilies on the altar, the flaming candles, the removal of the purple coverings, the triumphant hymns and processions.

Easter often signals the arrival of spring, and the natural world reflects the supernatural with sunshine. This Easter in the Bay Area a long desired rain descended from the heavens, splattering our dry California soil. It was a too-short rain that came and went quickly, but it peaked Easter morning. Still we were dry inside the ark of the church.

After the Scripture lessons and Creed, and before the sermon, the children flowered the thick white Easter Cross placed at the foot of the altar steps. They shoved bright blossoms into the deep holes, and watched the wood of the cross come alive. Just so, I thought, Mary Magdalene came to the empty tomb and found the living Lord walking in the garden.

The Gospel appointed for Easter Day, the highest holiest day of the Christian Year, details Mary Magdalene’s visit to the empty tomb in a manner found in histories, not myths or legends. These specific details had been passed from one generation to another orally in the early Church, and were recorded decades after the event. So it is not surprising that the accounts vary a bit, but in the essence they are the same: Jesus, their Lord, had risen from the dead.  

The accounts agree on another key fact, that the women, not the men, made the discovery. Had these resurrection stories been invented, those who found the empty tomb would have been men not women. And yet, remarkably, the apostles did not find the tomb first; they didn’t even believe the women when they ran back to their hiding place and told them. It is Mary Magdalene who makes the discovery, and at first she doesn’t understand what has happened either, thinking the body has been stolen, a detail that could not have been invented. 

In John’s account, Peter and John return with her to the tomb and see the linen cloths lying to the side. John understands: he remembers the scripture foretelling his rising from the dead. Peter does not understand and they return home, leaving Mary Magdalene to encounter the “gardener.” 

Picture 089Unique to John’s account is this moving conversation between Jesus and Mary Magdalene: 

But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

         And they say unto her, “Woman, why weepest thou?”

She saith unto them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.” And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.

         Jesus saith unto her, “Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou?”

She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, “Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.”

Jesus saith unto her, “Mary.”

She turned herself, and saith unto him, “Rabboni.” (Master)

Jesus saith unto her, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.”

Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.        (John 11-18, KJV)

The risen Christ makes numerous appearances on earth before his ascension to Heaven, but even with these accounts, many today do not believe in the resurrection of the Son of God. Some of us need help, it seems. I was one of those. 

I was converted by reason, arguments I read when I was twenty, made by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. I made that first step of faith (I didn’t feel I was leaping) and found an Anglican church (Lewis was Anglican) to find out more. Experiencing my first Anglican liturgy in the spring of 1967, I was entranced, overwhelmed by beauty. I began the dance of a lifetime, weaving Heaven into my earthy world. 

I am still dancing, learning new movements and new steps, and enjoying the many other dancers in the Body of Christ, the Church, who dance with me and alongside me, helping and teaching me. 

And so, each Easter as the dead wood of the white cross comes alive with reds and blues, greens and yellows, pinks and purples, flowered by the children of our parish, I am thankful. I am thankful for Mary Magdalene and her faith and her witness to the glorious Resurrection of Christ; I am thankful that I could tell her story in my novel, The Magdalene Mystery, and in the telling understand how truly historical those resurrection accounts really are, deepening the belief I found forty-seven years ago, strengthening Lewis’s reasonable reasoning.

But most of all I am thankful for the Son of God among us, having risen on Easter morning, having walked the earth to appear to many, and with us today in the Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine. I rejoice in God’s great love: to be born among us, to live, die, and rise again, to take us with him into eternity in this world and the next.

Waving Our Palms

palmsundayWe sat in the front pew, the children and the teachers, waiting and watching. The purple-draped altar, the purple-draped candlesticks, the purple-draped medieval crucifix all stood solid and royal and richly beautiful.

We have been waiting throughout Lent, waiting for this momentous week, considering our hearts and our lives and our habits of love or un-love. Yet Palm Sunday is the day we end our waiting and begin our acting. As Christ entered the gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, so we enter Jerusalem too, as we take part in the stupendous drama of the Son of God’s last week before his crucifixion, the week that Christians, all over the world, call Holy Week. 

Holy Week marks the days leading to Easter. The last three days, the Tridium, begin with Maundy (commandment) Thursday when we remember the Last Supper and Christ’s commandment to “love one another” as he gave himself to us in the Holy Eucharist. That same evening we strip the altar and turn out the lights, reflecting Christ’s arrest and abandonment in the Garden of Gethsemane. We even create a garden of flaming candles to honor the reserved Sacrament that has been removed, and some of us will “keep the watch” all Thursday night, undoing that desertion in Gethsemane.

On Good Friday, remembering God’s good death that saves us from ourselves, we watch as eternity intersects time and the earth quakes. The Son of God is crucified; the tree of Eden becomes the tree of Calvary, reversing Eden.

Some of us keep the Holy Saturday vigil, entering a darkened church and lighting it with flaming candles as the new day of Easter approaches. Some of us, like Mary Magdalene, will rise on Easter morning to find the tomb empty and to celebrate the risen Christ – and our own resurrections – with colorful flowers on a white cross and lots of happy singing.

But today, Palm Sunday, we waited and we watched in our pew, for soon, soon, we knew we would be given our blessed palms. As the Gospel was read, describing what we were soon going to act out, I entered into the liturgy, this moment of meaning created by time and tradition and creedal belief over two thousand years. I entered the story and walked alongside that colt carrying Our Lord through the gates of Jerusalem. 

So this morning, the children and the teachers stepped to the altar rail and received their palms, then stepped back to their pew. Soon all those in the rows behind us received theirs too. “We’ll follow the cross,” I whispered to the children, and we waited for the clergy and acolytes to step into the nave and begin the procession. The choir sang joyfully the resonant hymn, “All Glory Laud and Honor…” and we followed the cross, leading the congregation, waving our palms and singing too. 

Ritual is an art-form, and art is mankind’s way of expressing the great truths of his existence. Liturgy uses many art-forms: poetry and prose, music and drama, songs and prayers, symbols and settings richly textured with meaning. Ritual is a deeply satisfying way to express who we are, why we are here, where we have been and where we are going. It expresses what God, in his immense love for his creation, has done for us, and continues to do for us. 

The dramas of Holy Week and Easter are part of the greater drama of the entire Church Year found in Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox traditions, and to a lesser degree in other Christian bodies. But Easter is the culmination of that year. Since Advent and our waiting for Christmas, we have been preparing for Easter’s Resurrection. Christmas means nothing without Easter, for it is the Resurrection that marks Christ as the Son of God. It is Easter that makes us sit up and take notice and ask, “If he did rise from the dead, then who did he claim to be, and what did he command? What does he command today? Who exactly is he? Does he really love us that much to die for us?” 

As someone once said, Christianity is all about the Resurrection. If you believe in the resurrection of Christ from the dead – and there is ample historical evidence to support such belief – then the rest follows easily. And the rest is, oh my, a glorious journey, full of color, meaning, certainty, and the love of God singing to you at night. 

But I am ahead of the story and the week opening before us – we are still at the gates of Jerusalem. The children and the teachers followed the cross around the church, and the congregation followed us. Today being a fine sunny morning, we followed the cross outside into the neighborhood and around the front and back to the narthex doors. Our priest pounded on these gates: Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem! The doors opened and we entered the heart of the ark of the church, stepping up the red carpet toward our front pew. 

And so now we step into Holy Week, prayerfully, awe-fully, watching, waiting, and acting out this grand drama of the love of God, as once again, eternity intersects time.

Time Turning and Returning

PassiontideThe altar was draped this morning in purple – purple covered everything, it seemed – the tabernacle, the giant candlesticks, the huge medieval crucifix, the Lady Altar, the lecterns. We were drowning in purple. And so I considered my purple, penitent past, one which I revisited recently. 

I returned to a place I had not visited in thirty years, a city in which I had lived in the 1970’s, for the funeral of an old friend gone to Heaven. He was a devout Christian; he knew where he was going and he knew the way. He was eight-two, my son’s godfather. We had been in touch by phone and through Christmas cards, but not much else. 

So my son (42) and I (67) flew north to Vancouver, Canada. And as we flew above the clouds, I traveled back in time to a younger version of myself. The younger version, a girl in her twenties, peered over my shoulder that day of the funeral as though watching and taking stock of who she would become one day. 

I considered from time to time, as we prayed the prayers over the ashes in the Anglican Church, sitting with old friends in the pews, the unique journeys we each had made to this place and this day in this year 2015. I learned more about journeys, those stories, later over coffee and sandwiches. My friends had suffered death, illness, and loss. But we were joyful in spite of it. Children had grown to be parents, just like my son, and I marveled at these children now in their forties who once played together and flew kites on the green lawns of Stanley Park. Our children had grown up. And of course I noticed other graduations: retirement, gray hair, silvery beards. 

IMG_0437 (2)My son’s godfather, Frits Jacobsen, whose ashes we placed reverently in the square space in the cemetery grass, was a rare creature, a Christian bohemian. Born in 1933, he emigrated from Holland to Toronto with his young family after the war. Many years later he resettled in Vancouver and made a humble living as a book illustrator. He devoted countless hours to his church, his community, and the poor. He was self-supporting with his pen-and-ink drawings. He might have been confused with the hippies, a generation later, but he was far nobler. He lived in a garret in Shanghai Alley, Chinatown, in old Vancouver. Today the building is adjacent to the newly redeveloped Olympics and World’s Fair district, but back in the 1970’s it was a poor, albeit quaint, neighborhood, with soup kitchens and lines of homeless. 

IMG_0425My son, with the help of his miraculous IPhone, found the address. I recognized the door, with the 522 painted over it. We took photos from all angles. It was when we headed back to the car, time telling us it was time to leave for the funeral, that a lovely young lady came through 522. We asked what floor she lived on. The top, she said, curious. Could we come up? we asked. My son explained our connection with the former inhabitant (Frits had moved with the area’s redevelopment). When she learned that an artist had lived there, she was delighted to invite us in. And once again, as I climbed the familiar stairs to Frits’ studio and smelled the same musty stairway smells, that other girl I was, so many years ago, smiled from behind my shoulder. I pinched myself as I watched my grown son climb the stairs ahead of me, for I could see the four-year-old blond towhead clambering up behind him to visit his Uncle Frits. 

Frits, opining in his heavy Dutch accent, with his beret and his trim beard, was both gregariously joyful and astutely serious. He brooked no compromise with his Christian beliefs and would follow those who pledged the same. He was sure the Apocalypse was imminent. He judged his culture and he judged rightly, I believe, although he was a bit too harsh, to my way of thinking, on other denominations within the Body of Christ. Frits had his opinions and wasn’t shy about voicing them. And we loved him for it. He was a breath of fresh air. 

After the graveside service last week we gathered again to recall Frits and how he would love our gathering. We looked at his artwork, shared plates of fruit and salad. We laughed a good deal, and we knew Frits would have liked that. We remembered how we had found one another at church, our glorious Anglo-Catholic St. James, and how we had formed friendships including singles, couples, and young families. We didn’t have much, but we liked to talk about faith, about Lewis and Tolkien, about books, about theology, and we would gather together over wine and cheese and pineapple upside-down-cake. We picnicked at Stanley Park and dreamed where our lives would take us. For we were young then, and our future spread before us. We were fearless, undaunted. We embraced living. 

And so as I revisited my earlier life, more battle weary but also more wise, I guessed my friends felt the same. We looked different and yet the same, and we wove together the years we were apart in our conversations, asking, remembering, wondering why this and how that and where was so and so and what happened then. Each of us carried a universe within us; we had lived most of the universe already, and the stories, like planets, revolved around one another once again. 

I realize now as I write this, how rich we all are to have lived so long, to have so many stories texturing us and coloring our lives. Some are painful tales to be sure, but some are joyful. The threads of the weaving are both dark and light, drab and colorful. 

And also, as I now think back on this morning, Passion Sunday, when we enter the heart of Christ’s story – who he was, who he is, how he saved us from death to be with him – I understand a bit more than I did last year at this time. For my own passio – my story of moving through time, suffering the wounds of life and celebrating the healings – is fuller than it was even then, one year ago. For each of us, as Christians, are not only a part of God’s great creative project for his creation, but are also part of God’s great creative project for each of us individually, if we say yes, if we say, “be it unto me according to thy word.”

And so as we enter Passiontide, we look to Palm Sunday and Holy Week. We consider what it all means, our lives and the lives of those we love, weaving them together in our prayers and offering our new coat of many colors to God. We look to Palm Sunday and Our Lord’s entrance through the gates of Jerusalem. As the children waved the palms, just so we wave our lives woven by each minute, hour, day. We lay down this fabric of our lives before the Son of God who rides on a donkey through the holy gates. We lay them down alongside the children’s palms.

And we look forward to the glories of Easter.

Running the Race

Ash WednesdayToday is Septuagesima Sunday. I have read many confusing explanations for the term Septuagesima Sunday. The simplest one I have found comes from the classic work, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Eds. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1957, 1997):

“Septuagesima (Latin for ‘the seventieth [day before Easter]”). The third Sunday before Lent and hence the ninth before Easter. The name, which first occurs in the Gelasian Sacramentary [mid-8th century], seems not very appropriate, as the Sunday indicated is in fact only 64, and not 70, days before Easter; but perhaps it was coined by reckoning back the series ‘septuagesima’, ‘sexagesima’, ‘quinquagesima’, from Quinquagesima Sunday, which is exactly 50 days from Easter.”

Simple? One way or another, I find the three weeks preceding the beginning of Lent a fascinating tradition. I’m grateful that a few Anglicans still observe this little season, at least those that follow the traditional 1928 Book of Common Prayer, dating to 1662, which in turn translates missals dating to the eleventh-century Sarum (Salisbury) rite and even earlier monastic hours.

Often called Pre-Lent, these three weeks bridge Epiphanytide and Lent. They help us focus on what is coming, to consider how we might observe Lent in this year of 2015. And of course Lent prepares us for Easter. So we enter the deep heart of Christianity in these weeks. We travel from Christmas to Easter, from birth to death to resurrection, mirroring our own journeys of birth to death to resurrection.

I have been focusing intensely this last week on finishing up my early draft of The Fire Trail. And I did indeed finish it. I printed it and boxed it and put it in the mail to a local editor who will help me improve the story from many perspectives, using many writers’ tools. We will sculpt the manuscript, adding and deleting, journeying to final submission to my publisher. I have been running a race to the finish, ignoring phone calls and putting off the dentist (that one was easy).

The Epistle assigned to Septuagesima is St. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Paul says to run a race to receive the price by striving for mastery of the body. Every athlete knows this prescription to be true, that the mind must train and direct the body to do its will, must educate the “muscle memory.” The Super Bowl athletes running down the field at this moment know this to be true. Concentration and subjection of the flesh lead to winning the crown.

Corinth was known for the Olympic games; Paul uses an apt metaphor. But he is speaking of Heaven of course, not so much a competition as a preparation for seeing God face-to-face. Will we be ready at the end of the course assigned to each of us? 

C. S. Lewis writes of the divide between Heaven and Hell in his brilliant fantasy-parable, The Great Divorce. He describes Heaven as being painfully real to the wraiths visiting from Hell on their tour bus. They have little substance to them. The blades of grass in Heaven cut into their ghostly feet. Most want to return to Hell. They do not choose to stay in Heaven.

At the end of our earthly race, we want to be so real that we can see in Heaven’s light, walk on the so-real grass, join in the joyous songs of praise. But how do we run this race? Septuagesima helps us, by calling us to train our minds to discipline our bodies, to order our wills. In such discipline lies freedom to do more, love more, to live the life that God intends each one of us to live.

I’m a little winded from my own race this week. But then The Fire Trail is about such discipline, about what defines our humanity as opposed to our bestiality, about the jungle versus the civilized, about the wild versus the tame. It is about the place for custom and tradition in a free society, and the vital role that history plays in the conscience of a nation. It is about the sexual revolution and its destruction of marriage and family. It is, in the end, about what makes a civilization civil, and how we choose to live with one another, charitably and safely, freely and respectfully.

The course to Easter is set before us. We begin to consider considering our own hearts and minds and bodies. What to add, what to take away. What to permit, what to deny. In this way one day we will become strong enough to walk on real grass in blinding light with glorious song. In this way we will learn how to love.

On Life and Death and Life Again

I attended a funeral for a friend on Friday. Kathryn was a member of our parish family who joined about a year ago. We didn’t know she was dying of cancer.

She was bright, witty, with a big smile and an infectious joy in living. One Sunday, shortly before she died, as I was leaving the parish hall, I turned to her and waved goodbye. She grinned, waved back and shouted, “I love you.” I smiled back and shouted, “I love you too.” That was the last time I saw her.

She had orchestrated her dying. She found a church that would help with her year of preparation, but she didn’t want anyone to know (except our priest). When I learned she had gone into the hospital, then was dying at home, I felt as though I had been cheated of knowing her better. Others said the same thing to me. “We wished we had known…”

I understand her choice of silence. We would have treated her differently and she didn’t want that. She wanted to live life to the fullest up to the last minute in as ordinary a manner as possible. And what a life she had had: she had several advanced degrees; she was a classical violinist; she wrote and published a volume of “poetic letters”; she was a stewardess for World Airways, a librarian, a model for I Magnin’s. She had a house full of cats and stacks of books. As I gazed at the photos in the booklet given to us at her funeral, I saw she was beautiful, intelligent, and precocious at an early age.

Our priest said in his homily on Friday that she died a “good death.” She prepared the booklet ahead of time, chose the hymns and the pictures and the readings. And as I left the church, walking through the narthex on Friday morning, I paused before the open casket. I said to her, see you in Heaven, Kathryn, I love you.

A body no longer living is a body that no longer has God’s breath breathing through its lungs, no longer has blood beating through its heart. Kathryn was close to seventy-one, but her face was smooth, all life lines gone. I knew she wasn’t in that body anymore, but I also sensed she was with us for the moment, that she was out-of-body, smiling her big smile and laughing.

I thought of her on Saturday when I attended a joyous bridal shower for another friend in the parish. Twenty ladies gathered to sip champagne and iced tea, lunch on quiche and salads and cake, and open presents to the chorus of oohs and ahs and grandmotherly advice and sayings. Did you know that the number of times you cut the ribbon is the number of children you will have? We of course were hoping for many children… to add to our parish joy. (She seemed to cut the ribbon quite a few times.) Kathryn would have loved the moment, she was so full of life.

And I thought of her as I sat in church this morning on Good Shepherd Sunday, the Second Sunday after Easter. Kathryn was one of the sheep who had come into our little fold, had chosen us to be with, as she did her dying (what an honor). She knew the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd, so that when he called her name she could follow. She trusted him to care for her, to protect her, in life and in death and in life again. She knew where she was going, she knew how to get there (unlike St. Thomas), and she knew she would recognize the gate to Heaven.

On Friday we read together the beloved Twenty-third Psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Anglican, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Catholic churches have shepherds – bishops. Bishop comes from the word episcopos, Greek for “overseer,” or “shepherd,” one who guards. Bishops are priests elected and consecrated to guard us, to protect us from that which is not true (heresy) and from those who proclaim that which is not true (heretics), i.e., from wolves in the sheepfold. We trust our bishops to lead us on the path to Heaven and keep us safe along the way. But bishops are human and frail just like us, so our trust is not always rewarded. Nevertheless, in the Church we repent and forgive one another as Christ teaches us to do.

This morning we sang Eastertide resurrection hymns, but we also sang, The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never, I nothing lack if I am his and he is mine forever…   I was thankful that our Good Shepherd, who conquered death, who knows me as I know him, leads me through this world and into the next just as he led Kathryn.

Resurrection Flowers

The great festival of Easter is the pivotal point of Christianity, and indeed, the history of the world. 

There is no point to such faith, and indeed, to life itself, without Easter’s celebration, the resurrection of Christ. Everything depends upon it. Without the resurrection, we are left with an itinerant preacher who might have healed, might have walked on water, might have fed the five thousand with a few loaves and a few fish. We are left with a self-styled prophet who told us how to live but who lied about who he was. We are left with a delusional beggar who gave us false hope. 

But there is ample evidence that the resurrection occurred. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, “King of the Jews,” is chronicled in accounts of the time. More importantly, we have witnesses to the empty tomb, and scores of witnesses to the risen Christ as he walked the earth before his ascension to heaven. 

So on Easter morning, as the children and teachers placed the colorful freshly cut flowers in the straw baskets and waited in the back pew for the right moment, I thought of the small but immense part we played in this great drama. After the triumphal procession (Hail thee festival day…), after the Epistle and Gospel readings, after we affirmed the Nicene Creed as one voice, we stepped up the aisle toward the white wooden cross.

The cross had been placed at the foot of the chancel steps. Beyond, under the thirteenth-century crucifix, I could see the white-tented tabernacle in its garden of lilies and flaming candles. As the congregation sang Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia… the children shoved the green stems into the deep holes on the cross, clothing the whiteness with brilliant color. The cross now glowed with life, life sacrificed in our gardens. The sign of salvation was peopled with petals glorifying this Son of God who gave himself to us for us.

Spring is our season of resurrection. Gone are the cold dark nights of winter. Born to us is the flowering life of spring. Everywhere we see creation budding, birthing, mating, and mothering. Easter distills this rebirthing, this life-banishing-death into a few hours of incredible – credible – beauty. The Church pulls us into this intense beauty as she portrays and celebrates this drama of redemption. 

Scripture tells us that after his death, Christ went into Hades, the place of sleep for all those who had died before his incarnation. He opens the gates and rescues the prisoners, so that not one would be lost who desired to be saved. Then on Easter morning, robed as a gardener, he greets Mary Magdalene who came to the tomb with precious oils to anoint the body of her Lord.

This is the real Magdalene mystery. This is the pivotal point of our history, upon which everything depends. Have we solved the mystery? Is her account true? Do we trust the witnesses and those who recorded their testimony? Is it all a hopeful dream, a great leap of faith? We must consider the sources, examine the accounts, and most of all, read the testimonies of those who gathered in that first century to celebrate Christ Jesus’ resurrection. How did they behave? What happened in those early gatherings? Were these early followers, the first Church, changed by their belief in Christ? Was the world changed by them? 

These questions have been asked and answered, again and again, and all point to the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. The accounts, recorded on codices and handed through the centuries to our present day in the form of Gospels and Epistles, reflect a high degree of probability, the same degree we apply to other historical accounts we assume to be true.

But then, if Christ rose from the dead, we must listen to him. We must take him seriously. We must follow his commandments, and those of his people, the sons and daughters of Israel. We must believe in judgment day, and we must believe that our sins can be forgiven, if we choose to repent.

And if it is indeed true that he with the wounded hands and feet and side conquered death to give us life, we are the most happy of men, the most blessed of women. For we, through this suffering act of love become part of the resurrected one, part of his divine nature. His spirit infuses ours, and we become his body as we eat and drink in the supper he ordained for us.

So as we flowered the cross with the new life from our gardens, we knew Christ flowered us as we became one with him, filled with his risen life.

True Love

It rained this last week, alleviating only slightly the California drought. More rain is promised for later this week, more watering our dryness, the ground drinking thirstily and thankfully.

But the sun broke through today, Sunday, bluing the sky and glistening the land, and a hesitant, wondering, breeze nudges the silvery leaves of the olive tree outside my window as I write. The oaks are greening too and the grassy hills are waking up to new life hesitantly here and there. The cherry trees in our neighborhood blossomed their Valentine’s gift of big pink bouquets, giving us far greater hope than any February groundhog. 

The incredible beauty and the horrible devastation of nature continues to astound  me. Blizzards kill in the East as sun shines in the West. Yet the four seasons repeat regularly, we count on them, and we assume spring will one day replace winter. Just so we yearn that the darkness in our hearts will be enlightened, that hate will turn to love, that judgment will be banished with forgiveness. We yearn for peace, yet we cannot pacify ourselves.

We look to spring and we hope for love, and perhaps this is why we embrace Saint Valentine’s festival in mid-February, a season of reaching for the greater light of Easter, the longer daylight of April. It is thought that Valentine did truly exist, that he suffered martyrdom for his witness to the love of God. But the many legends of the many Valentines woven into present day are not as verifiable. The medieval court of love loved St. Valentine, defining this love as the romantic sort, and it is this Valentine that we recall with hearts and flowers and romantic dinners. 

The secular has adopted the sacred, for all people recognize truth, the core and kernel of truth, of who we are. We desire to love; we desire to be loved. Courtly love, with its rituals of honoring and respecting the woman for her womanhood, for her ability to carry and birth life, for her female beauty as dazzlingly different from rough masculinity, tried to tame the bestial nature of mating. Courtly love grew and flourished through the years, fed by Shakespeare and sonnets and the Romantic poets. It has faded in our time and our world, but still we yearn to celebrate the love between a man and a woman, to celebrate something more than the power of lust, to remember true love on St. Valentine’s Day.

It is fitting that such a day in February points to spring, to hope, to love. Such a day reminds us to honor one another, regardless of race, gender, creed, handicap, temperament, age, whether in the womb or near death. Such a day points to Easter, for resurrection day is the ultimate holiday of love, when God the Son, the crucified one, gives us the grace, indeed the ability, to love one another.

This last week I wrote another scene in my novel-in-progress, a story about the coarsening of love in our culture, the jungle encroaching upon the civilized world. Mankind has striven for centuries to civilize the jungle, to tame his own animal within as well as the wilderness without, but we seem to be undoing all that has been done. The working title is The Fire Trail, that boundary between the civil and the uncivil, between safety and danger. It is a love story searching for a way to love in a world of un-love. My recently released novel, The Magdalene Mystery, sought the truth that Mary Magdalene saw in the garden that first Easter morning two thousand years ago. The Fire Trail considers what that vision means to us today.

Today is Septuagesima Sunday, three weeks before the beginning of Lent, the forty days in which we prepare for Easter, April 20, 2014. Today we look into our hearts to root out all un-love. We pray, “Lord, show me every sin, every particle of un-love, that darkens my heart. Show me each time I dishonored or disrespected others, when I coveted, lied, stole, killed, in thought, in word, and in deed. Lighten my dark places, so that I may see, repent, and learn to love.”

Like the breeze nudging the leaves outside my window, my heart is nudged too. With Lent and its lengthening of days, I shall grow towards the light, toward the sun. The dry places shall be watered and my heart shall blossom.