Tag Archives: Easter

Living the Christian Year

I love the Christian year. Many have written about it and for good reason. Living out the year, Sunday to Sunday, season to season, orders the chaos of our souls in the same way secular rituals gather together, and perhaps heal, communities. 

Human beings are creatures of liturgy, ritual, and ceremony. We use these means to express who we are as a people, not only as a church but as a nation. States, cities, clubs, all manner of civic and social gatherings use these means to define themselves, to organize their times together, to ensure justice and democracy, to ensure free speech, to create order. We “call the meeting to order” with a gavel meant to silence the many, so that the few – the single speaker, one at a time – may be heard in an orderly manner. 

Both secular and sacred bodies create time liturgies which we call seasons and calendars. Within the twelve months organized in our solar Gregorian calendar we celebrate winter, spring, summer, fall. 

Inside each season, Americans gather to honor national heroes, presidents, soldiers, peacemakers, the birth of our nation. We reflect on each old year and celebrate the beginning of each new one with New Year’s Eve and Day. We parade, marching and trumpeting down Main Street, we give speeches, we fly flags, and we sing songs we learned by heart so that we could sing as one. In school we once pledged allegiance to the United States of America, one nation under God… a ceremony that bound us together. At ball games we sing our national anthem and place our hands over our hearts. We memorize words and actions, by rote, by ritual, so that we may say and sing and do these things together. We form a national circle and dance America’s story through the year. 

Sacred bodies, churches, also express themselves through seasons and calendars, through song and dance, through processions rather than parades. The Christian liturgical year has, over time, been divided into nine seasons in which the life of Christ and its meaning for each of us is acted out. We step deeper into this meaningful life, immerse ourselves in the love of God in these seasons. Christianity is sacramental, meaning that God is involved in our world, his creation. He desires an intimate conversation, face to face, and we call this prayer. As we portray his mighty acts in history, he acts among us in our own time, drawing us close to him. God responds to our song, and we call this Grace. So it is natural that we act out our faith through the year; it is natural to use all of our senses to express who we are; it is natural that we follow the music of the spheres, both heavenly and earthly. 

The Church Year begins with the purple (penitential) season of Advent, which prepares us for the coming of Christ in Bethlehem. Then we live out the white season of Christmas, particularly rich with symbol and song, announcing the incarnation of God in human flesh. Epiphany trumpets, manifests, this good news to the world, lighting the darkness. 

Soon we enter Lent, a time of self-examination and penitence, to follow the Way of the Cross to Golgotha, acting out Christ’s last days and his crucifixion. Easter morning we walk with Mary Magdalene to the empty tomb and share her wonder and awe. The following weeks, Eastertide, reflect the resurrected Christ’s appearances to many before his ascending to Heaven on Ascension Day. Ten days later we join the Apostles as the Holy Spirit descends upon them (and us), birthing the Church on the day of Pentecost. 

From the beginning of December (Advent) through the end of May (Pentecost) we have acted out the greatest drama ever told. These six months, half the year, tell of God’s redemptive acts among us, two thousand years ago, in the ancient lands of the Middle East, the land of Israel. From Pentecost to Advent, June through November, the second half, we enter the long green season called Trinity, a growing time, a season of learning what all of this means to us, a time of celebrating the many mysteries and miracles only touched on earlier, a time rich with saints and angels and transfigurations, a time of growing, a time of pondering our three-in-one God, the Trinity. 

The colors we see in the church reflect the seasons: purple for penitence (Advent, Lent); white for purity (Christmas, Easter, saints); red for fire and blood (Pentecost; martyrs); green for growth (all other times). Vestments and altars coverings reflect these colors and these seasons. The songs we sing, the hymns, reflect the seasons as well, as do the processions, pageants, and even plantings. We bake pretzels (praying hands) and hot cross buns. We form processions, waving palms. We flower the white Easter cross. We light candles to witness to the light lighting the darkness, and we swing sweet incense up the aisle to remind us of heaven and the winging of our prayers. The words we hear in the readings tell the story too; the sermon amplifies those readings. 

As with all ceremony, these rituals can be greatly gratifying, artful, poetic expressions of our hearts and minds. But they can also be empty and dead. We must choose whether they be full or empty, alive or dead. Liturgy is the “work of the people” and the Liturgical Year is our great dance through seasons of darkness and light, penitence and resurrection. We weave God into our years, our months, our weeks, our days, our hours. As we genuflect,  as we bow, as we make the Sign of the Cross over our heads and hearts, we intersect eternity, kneeling in our Sunday pew. As we step to the altar, we receive more than bread and wine; we receive body and blood; we are fed, filled by God; his time is one with our time.

Today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphanytide. Next Sunday we begin three Sundays (“Pre-Lent”) that usher in Lent, a season that prepares us for the great festival of Easter, a time of spring and rebirth, resurrection and new life.

Flowering the Cross

We had risen early, while it was still dark. The morning was wet, a light rain having washed our world here in Northern California, but as the the night became day, the sun burned through in fleeting patches. Gray cumulus clouds waited nearby, as though offstage.  I had cut flowers and put them in a glass of water, and this morning I gathered them into a bunch, wrapped the stems in wet paper toweling and inserted this moist bundle into a plastic bag, slipped a rubber band around it to hold it securely, and set the colorful bouquet of red and pink and blue and yellow and green into a wicker basket.

We headed for church, to be early, to be ready.

As always on these high holy days I was expectant. No two Easters are ever alike. I wondered what this morning would bring, what drama would unfold. Who would come to worship, who would fill the pews, what miraculous words would our preacher preach from the central aisle, his eyes on fire with God? I wondered expectantly about the simple and extraordinary communion of bread and wine, each time unique but the same. Would this Easter be different from other times that I had knelt in the pew watching the angels dance about the altar? And then, when I was filled with God, would I know joy or peace or both? And last, I wondered, as we drove into the parking lot, which children would be there to help me place the flowers into the deep holes in the white Easter cross? Which children would have other family obligations in another church, another community and not make it to ours?

And so, as the morning passed, and the children bounced into the Sunday School with their Easter dresses and jackets and ties, I marveled, watching from some sweet place in my heart the drama unfold. There were visiting children, children from the past who we had not seen recently, and then we had our regulars as well. The children formed their own bouquet of color as they joined the teachers to place their flowers in baskets to carry up the aisle.

I waited with the children in the narthex for the right moment, our baskets clutched in our fingers. After the people proclaimed the Creed, we opened wide the doors into the nave. The acolytes had brought the barren cross to the head of the red-carpeted aisle where the steps to the altar began, and as the organ played the first notes of Hymn 94, Come ye faithful raise the strain of triumphant gladness… and the congregation began the first verse, the children, the teachers, and a few moms with babies processed to the cross. The deep holes were slowly filled, the young ones lifted up, the older ones choosing carefully where and how, absorbed in the task. Soon splotches of red, pink, yellow, and green covered the white wood, Our Lord’s wood. He had said, let them come to me, and we did. We let them come.

Later, after Scripture, Song, and Sacrament, we gathered in the courtyard. The cross, many-colored like an Impressionist painting or a stained glass window or even Joseph’s coat, was carried outside to the porch, and the sun suddenly appeared, burning in a blaze of glory. Our king was among us indeed, weaving among his people as they greeted one another, “Christ is risen,” and “He is risen indeed!”

I recalled all of these wondrous happenings this afternoon from my kitchen sink as I cut up fruit for the fruit salad, set out the ham, and prepared the salmon steaks for baking in their bed of pearl onions. We had spruced up the house a bit – new doormats, new doorbell (hadn’t been ringing in years), fresh pots of flowers in the back yard. I had set the table on Saturday with its white damask cloth, silver, and goblets. White roses in a small vase were placed in the center. My santon of Mary Magdalene stood next to a lamb and two sheep amid some greenery. Four white tapers waited to be lit by the youngest grandchild coming that day, eleven going on sixteen.

Mary Magdalene was in the back of my mind today as I wondered expectantly through the minutes and hours, for she was the one who came to the tomb while it was still dark that first Easter, that Sunday two thousand years ago. She was the one who first saw the risen Lord in the garden. She was the one who was open, expectant. “They have taken my Lord and I do not know what they have done with him.” Those words wring my heart year after year. And then, his response, “Mary,” opens it.

She was on my mind as well because my novel, The Magdalene Mystery, fortuitously is on its way to publication this Eastertide. So I had much to be thankful for during this Easter Eucharist, the chief thanksgiving sacrament of the Church. On Maundy Thursday we had celebrated this thanksgiving sacrament, recalling Christ’s last supper with the apostles, the future bishops of his Church, His Body. This, we remembered, was the night in which he was betrayed, and this was the night he took bread and wine, saying, this is my body and this is my blood. This was the night he did not drink of the fourth ritual Seder cup, for he himself would be that cup on Good Friday. He would complete the exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. He would become our exodus from this world to eternal life, the paradise promised us.

So this afternoon when the doorbell didn’t ring, but instead I heard happy greetings outside, I rushed to see. My husband had gone out to meet our guests, and was already ushering them in through the open front door. The younger grandchildren stepped inside, so serious, so mature now at eleven and fourteen, followed by an older granddaughter with a serious suitor, then our son and daughter-in-law and her parents. They carried pies and promising gifts of chocolate.

We gathered these flowers of our family and arranged them around the white damask table now bright with burning candles. I watched and listened to the giddy chatter and the sober discussions weaving among us. I toasted family, friends, resurrection.

The sky had grown dark, and night was falling upon us. A silent, gentle rain was watering the earth. I recalled the bright flowered cross standing on the church porch in the blazing sun, the clouds parting. I was thankful that my cross, where my heart lived, was a flowery one, full of new life.

Palm Sunday

This week I completed the first draft of a reprint of  The Life of Raymond Raynes by Nicholas Mosley. I have been immersed in Father Raynes’s love and Father Raynes’s suffering, as he allowed God to work through his life to feed others with God himself, to help others know God.

He lived this life until he died a painful death at the age of fifty-five and entered the gates of his new life, his Jerusalem.

Raymond Raynes was a tall thin man, increasingly gaunt in his last years, a monk who ate little and slept little, but who loved a great deal, loved through his prayers and his time spent caring for others. He changed lives in the countryside of England and in the slums of South Africa, and he changed lives in Denver, Dallas, and San Francisco when he came to speak on his American missions. He wanted to stir up the Church, to wake up the Body of Christ. Why? So that they could see and know God.

Today, Palm Sunday, we re-member Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. He rides a lowly donkey, yet the people greet him as a king. Hosanna, they cry. Hosanna to the Son of David. Jesus will be their new king, they think. They learn differently in the following week. We tell this story, act it out even as we process, holding our palm fronds, around the nave and sing, All glory laud and honor… By telling the story we draw closer so that we may know God better.

It is a dramatic moment when the Lord of All Creation so humbly enters this city of man. Born in a stable to humble parents, Jesus of Nazareth lived among a persecuted people, a poor people. After his time in the desert, after his baptism by John, he gathered his followers and spoke the truth to the crowds. Often the truth was too harsh and they fled, and often the truth today is too harsh, and we flee. But, as our preacher said this morning, those who knew him stayed, and those who know him today, stay too. When he said that we must eat his body and drink his blood, many left. Just so, many leave today. But those who knew him recognized him as the Messiah, the long awaited one, the Lord of All Creation. Those who know him today, those who worship faithfully with sacrament and scripture week after week – those folks understand who he is, the long promised savior.

I have an icon on my wall that shows this scene at the gates of Jerusalem. The colors are vivid – golds and greens and reds. We re-member and re-fashion, re-creating the true glory of this humble scene, this moment in history. Our preacher today spoke of those palm branches. He said that in this arid land only the rich would have palm trees. The palm branch, with its green fronds, meant water was near. So it is particularly poignant and meaningful that children waved their branches of life-giving water and royal privilege, before this humble man riding on a donkey.

In church, as I gazed upon the purple-draped chancel – so much purple! – the giant green palm branches that rose twenty plus feet on either side of the altar filled me with joy, the hope of Easter. They arced gently, nearly reaching the purple cloths over the crucifix. They said, soon, soon, it will be finished. Soon, soon, all will be renewed, reborn. Soon, soon, we shall be resurrected.

How do I know this? Because I have tried to be faithful in Sacrament and Scripture. I have worshiped regularly, have received the Body and Blood into my own body. I have listened to the sermons and the lessons that help me know God. I have listened for God’s voice in prayer. There is no magic involved in any of this. No luck. Maybe some grace and a little blessing and some angels urging me along the way. But through simple faithfulness we can know him. There is no other way. There are no shortcuts.

My novel, The Magdalene Mystery, is to be released in mid-May. It is the story of a quest to find the real Mary Magdalene, the woman who was the first to see the resurrected Christ. She came to the tomb out of faithfulness, doing what needed to be done. She didn’t expect to find the stone rolled away or the the man she thought was the gardener speak to her. But when he called her name, Mary, she knew him. Because she was faithful.

Father Raynes was faithful, and he taught us how to be faithful, how to know God. Like Christ Jesus, he tells the truth and not everyone wants to hear it. Some of his demands are difficult, some are inconvenient. But truth is the only way to life. As part of the Body of Christ, the Church, I shall be ever grateful for his stirring up, for his call to be faithful.  For in being faithful, we know God, and in knowing God, we live.

Infinite Complexity

The infinite complexity of each human life is extraordinary.

It has been said that each person’s story is a novel or novels or perhaps countless encyclopedias. As a writer, I have come to see that a character, to become real on the page, must reveal many layers – experience, likes and dislikes, loves and hates, joys and sorrows.

Just so, it has been said that each person carries within himself his own universe, with many worlds orbiting one another, many planets, many suns and moons all in relationship, affecting one another with their movements.

With each choice I make I add to my own character in the finite span of time on earth, so that I am continually changing as I continually choose, each minute in each hour.

A bit mind-boggling and even numbing. Certainly humbling.

Habit of course encumbers or aids each choice, and we examine our habits from time to time, evaluating their goodness, necessity, and effect on our souls. Habit is often unseen, as though we live and work within a powerful frame, an architecture of habits, that isn’t always acknowledged. As Lent approaches, I shall consider my habits – which to celebrate and strengthen, and which to curb or deny.

We are the sum of our choices, it is said, just as are characters created in fiction. The author develops a “backstory” for each person, as detailed as possible, a history that may only appear in fragments on the page, but will fully appear in the choices that character makes.

Yesterday, tens of thousands made the choice to march for life in San Francisco. With each step they testified that even before our first breath we carry a universe in our genes, in our bodies, in our minds, and in our souls. With each step, these marchers testified that our country has made a habit of killing its unwanted children, and we must break that habitual horror, overturn the case our court chose to uphold, forty years ago. For such a decision, such a law, will destroy us. It already has destroyed several generations.

This morning in church we celebrated a new life, a child in the womb that will soon emerge into the bright air of our world and breathe oxygen into his lungs for the first time. Oddly, this is the requirement in our culture for protection by law: breathing.

So today, after the anniversary and birthday blessings, a young mother, heavy with child, stood and stepped to the center of the red-carpeted aisle where our priest blessed her and the child in her womb (a son). With these words of comfort and hope and strength, he affirmed the preciousness of the life within her body. He affirmed that we believe in a Creator God of love, not of death. He affirmed that the Church through this priest gave mother and child God’s blessing.

Today is Septuagesima, seven weeks before Easter. We call this three-week season “Pre-Lent,” a time to ease gently into true Lent when we examine our lives and consider our habits. St. Paul in the Epistle reading today exhorts us to “run the race,” a wonderful image of running through our life-time to the finish line. Christ in the Gospel reading gives us the parable of the laborers, how the first were paid the same as the last. Our preacher explained that the Gospel tells us how we must run this life-race: we do not covet others’ relationship with God, for our primary concern should be our own relationship with God. This is our focus. This is our story. In this narrative we shall live and breathe.

I am the central person in my story, in the miraculous universe of life given me, and this God loves me infinitely and intimately and individually, and I must add, uniquely. This is the prize I seek in my running-race. In a sense I have already reached the finish for, through the Church, I already have God with me. But in another sense, God helps me run the race, following the track through this fallen world, a world of pitfalls and temptations. He coaches me through sacrament, prayer, and Scripture, through the lens of the Church. As long as I am faithful, He leads me on the path of righteousness, beside still waters, restoring my soul. As long as I worship Him on Sundays as He commanded His people so long ago, and as long as I keep the other nine commandments (including thou shalt not kill and thou shalt not covet) I shall win the prize of Heaven, the next world. And when I stumble in the dark on the rocky path, He shall pick me up and set me a-right again, and guide me to the light. I shall confess and be absolved. I shall receive Him in the Eucharist and give thanks.

So, as I witnessed the blessing of the child in the womb, this universe of complexity, I smiled. Here was true hope for each of us, for our parish, for our community, for our nation, for the world. This child shall be born, shall be allowed to breathe. This child shall be our future, infinitely complex and glorious, just as our Creator intended.

Deo Gratias.