Tag Archives: Eucharist

Gaudete Sunday

???????????????????????????????The heavens opened early Thursday morning, and rain poured upon our California soil, slaking the thirst of the earth but soon bursting gutters and filling low places with floodwaters. In drought-plagued California, we didn’t dare complain, but were thankful.

We live in the foothills of Mount Diablo, and while our house is on bedrock, our northern hillside falls steeply into a ravine. Friday morning we noticed part of the fence was missing, and it had taken some of the landscaping with it as it slid to the bottom of the hill. I thought, as I have thought many times, how suddenly nature makes short work of man’s efforts to tame her, shattering our pride.

The earth is drying out now, and this morning we headed for church, bundled up for temps are in the low fifties (cold for us). The skies had changed from threatening to sudden beauty, with white clouds scuttling against brilliant blue patches, the low sun clarifying the air as though trying to fit more light into shorter days.

And in this winter-scape we prepare for the light of the Incarnation, to me always a stunning event, one repeated in a different way on humble altars in glorious Eucharists. It is Advent, and we prepare for Christmas, the coming of the Christ Child, God becoming one of us, with us, Emanuele. We celebrate the love, sacrificial and humble, of a God who loves his creation so much that he would do such a thing, that he would be born in a manger-cave, among animals, to a poor, devout Jewish couple who believed in his angel messengers and obeyed them.

And so, stepping into the warm nave of our parish church, the symbols of the space textured this story of miraculous birth. The Virgin Mary and her holy Child stood to the left, Gospel side, a bank of votives flaming at her feet. Three of the four Advent candles in their bed of greens had been lit (two purples and one rose). The American flag stood proudly, a testimony to our freedom of worship. Against the red brick apsidal wall, the white marble altar was draped in purple, and six tall tapers burned on either side of the purple-tented tabernacle. A crèche set in greenery, to the far right, Epistle side, told the humble story of glory, this huge contradiction, one of many fascinating ones in our faith, of glorious humility. Somehow true glory can only be found, we are told, in true humility. Somehow true joy can only be found in true sacrifice. Somehow the Creator must become part of his creation to save it from itself.

I love Advent III, called Rose Sunday, Gaudete Sunday. We light the rose candle along with the first two purple candles. Today is Gaudete Sunday because of the opening prayer, the Introit: Gaudete in Domino semper, or Rejoice in the Lord always… Rose Sunday is a break in the penitential purple of Advent, and this is the only Advent Sunday we have flowers on the altar. We emphasize the joy of anticipating Christmas rather than the penitence of preparing for Christmas.

In the daily readings of the Morning and Evening Prayer offices, the mood is definitely one of penitence and preparation. Most of the readings have been Old Testament prophecies, warnings, and judgments in Isaiah and the Psalms. We read the early chapters of the Gospel of Mark, of the beginnings of Christ’s ministry, but not the Christmas story, not yet. But most fascinating are the chapters in Revelation, or The Apocalypse, the great vision given to St. John on the Island of Patmos, detailing the end-times, the last days, the Second Coming of Christ.

We have been immersed in these daily prayers, not reflecting the coming of Christ to Bethlehem but reflecting the Second Coming of Christ in Judgment. We are “woken up” with these future realities, these warnings and visions, given a “heads up.” Are we ready for Christ to come? How will we fare when judged? Have we loved enough? Have we cleaned out our hearts to receive him? For he will not enter a cluttered heart fettered with sins, the detritus of selfishness and pride, envy and greed. There will be no room for him in such a heart. We need to make room for him.

So Advent, often called “Little Lent,” reminds us of the four great events, the adventures, to come to us: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell. How will we – our lives – be measured?

This morning I entered the nave of our warm parish church and knelt in a pew, giving thanks for the clergy, the people of the parish, and the freedom to worship. I asked God to clean out my little heart, to remove all the obstacles to his advent in my soul. My gaze fell on the purple-draped tabernacle and knew that this weekly ritual, this rite, would set me right with God. I knew that the habit of confession would serve me well in the time span of my life, would ensure that I have the time of my life, ride the waves of glory in this great adventure. I knew that, encouraged by the words of the liturgy – confession, absolution, the great action of the Mass, Holy Communion – I would unite once again with Christ, in bread and wine placed on my tongue. I knew that each Eucharist prepared my heart and soul, mind and body, for the great Feast of the Lamb that would await me in Heaven. And I wanted to be ready. I wanted as many Eucharistic feasts as I could manage before then, readying my heart and soul. I want to sing with the angels and the saints.

I also love Advent III because we usually practice (after Mass) for the Christmas Pageant. Young and old gather together to portray our story of redemption, beginning with the Fall of Adam and Eve and ending with the Nativity of Our Lord, the beginning of our salvation, the antidote to the Fall. Lessons are read and carols sung. We rehearsed today; next Sunday we don costumes and prayers and wings (I get to be an angel, and yes, even with wings…) We have a five-year old Mary and an eleven-year old Joseph.

The days are wintry and short. We prepare to celebrate Christmas, the year of our Lord, Anno Domini, A.D.  Some of this sense, this pairing of season with humble glory, has been captured by the poet Christina Rossetti:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

 

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.

In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

 

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,

Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;

Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,

The ox and ass and camel which adore.

 

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,

Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;

But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,

Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

 

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

 Christina Rossetti (1830-1895), “In the Bleak Midwinter”

 

 Yes, Advent is a time to give him our hearts: clean, ready, and open.

Singing with Saints

SAINTS2I’m afraid I don’t appreciate falling back an hour so that we can spring forward later in order to move an hour of light from evening to morning. It confuses the body’s natural clock, and I’ve yet to find a good reason to practice daylight saving time today. I’m told it has to do with farmers needing earlier morning light, but the advantage only lasts a few weeks.

And yet, just as when I travel across time zones, the change brings to mind the strangeness of time itself, its movement, its speed usually governed by my own attention. Time speeds up when I am thinking; it slows down when I am not focused. But we all know this is an illusion, a fact that makes the whole process even more strange.

Aging speeds time too. We live a certain life-time, a set span as though we inhabit parentheses or brackets or quotation marks. Perhaps birth is a capital letter and death the period; we are the sentence and we hope we have many clauses and interesting verbs and fascinating, colorful nouns. One way or another we travel a road through time from birth to death, like flipping pages in a book, and the traveling seems to speed up as we move along. Those childhood years stretched out, especially those summer months with no school (at least in my childhood) and those long lazy days of reading and riding bikes into dusk and darkness and someone called you in.

And so it seemed appropriate that the Festival of All Saints landed this weekend, All Saints on Saturday with its extra hour (a sweet gift to be taken back later) and All Souls moved to tomorrow, Monday. All Saints and All Souls is a festival of time, I’ve often thought, celebrating the mystery of human life, and God within each of those human lives. We talk about the Communion of Saints, linking those from the past with those in the present with those to come, all in communion with us when we receive our Communion, communing together on a Sunday morning.

As our preacher explained, when we worship God we take part in the glory and worship of those in Heaven – the souls, saints, and angels, as described in the Revelation of St. John, the Epistle for All Saints Day:

I beheld… a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands, and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God with sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels stood around about the throne, and about the elders and the four living creatures, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen. (Rev. 7:2+)

In our earthly hour of liturgical worship, ritual choreographed like a dance incorporating all the earthly senses (hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, smelling), we worship outside of time with those before, those now, those to come. We also worship deep inside time, in its very heart, the kernel of created life, deep within God himself as he enters deep within us. It is a pinpoint moment all pulled together as the Host is placed on the tongue and we sip from the chalice.

Time is telescoped on a Sunday morning in a simple church, so that when we leave the sacred and re-enter the worldly rushing world around us, where time devours seconds on a dial or falls into the abyss of a digital screen, gone – when we re-enter our ordinary comings and goings – we bring that timeless telescopic moment with us. We carry that jeweled moment, and all the jeweled moments of worship, collected in each of us, recreating us to be who we truly are. We become further sculpted and more defined. We have been fed and enriched and changed each time we join this host of witnesses, each time we sing our songs of worship as one voice:

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who thee…..  by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be for ev – er blest,
Al – le – lu – ia,  al – le – lu – ia!
                (#126, 1940 Episcopal Hymnal)
 

Our preacher spoke of the tortures of the early saints, their long, drawn-out martyrdoms as they confessed the lordship of Jesus of Nazareth. We look around our world today and see similar Christian martyrdoms, but we feel safe on our own soil. So far. Would we deny our faith? We wonder on days like today, when we recall Tertullian’s “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” We are thankful for these saints, for where would we be today without them?

Time would be a dull thing, scattered and meaningless, with no end in sight and too many ends in sight. We would be devoured by the noise and rush of the world or simply our own silent pride. We would be blind to beauty, truth, goodness. We would not see God, and so we would not appreciate the life he has given us; life would be cheap.

And so, in a way, All Saints is a prelude to Thanksgiving for, while every Eucharist is a festival of thanksgiving, today is a day in which we give special thanks for that emerald moment of worship promised, that moment we join with the heavenly host in the worship of God with the great Communion of Saints.

Focusing on God

I’ve been sitting in my home office looking out the window, meditating on the sun glancing off olive tree leaves, considering what to focus on this afternoon in this space, this First Sunday after Trinity and this Octave of Corpus Christi. I’ve got multiple projects on my desk – pieces promised  (two posts, two reviews), the final draft of Father Raynes’s Darkness No Darkness (an ACU reprint), a booklet reprint for one of our parishes, copies of The Magdalene Mystery to be sent to the Filipino priests I met in Rome, and lastly, my novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail, which I have returned to, determined to give it a couple of hours each day, but alas, not succeeding. Oh, and did I mention the brochure the Bishop asked me to help write and the Facebook site we will be setting up for our seminary chapel, St. Joseph of Arimathea?

I could write in this space about any of these things that clutter my little brain, but which one or two or three? Suddenly, across the lawn loped a coyote, at least I think he was a coyote. He was slim, the size of a midsize dog. Long narrow snout. Darkish gray, like a deer. Clearly wild and headed across our front lawn and down the hill toward the base of Mount Diablo. Clearly focused.

I suddenly realized how important choices were. I thought of all the ideas roaming in my head and how this coyote banished them in an instant. He focused my attention on his swift run through the plowed golden grass of the hill. He focused my attention on focusing. I wanted to run swiftly, on target, like he ran.

We are bombarded with choices every day, ways to spend our time, ways to waste our time, ways to kill our time. With each choice, we move in a certain direction and are then bombarded with more choices. How does one choose?

St. Joseph's 002compWe attended St. Joseph’s today, our seminary chapel in Berkeley a block from campus. It was easy in that domed and tiled space to become focused, to not waste any of the hour given. The organ thundered as we sang, Alleluia, Sing to Jesus. The acolytes and clergy processed in with flaming candles and crucifix held high. The stone altar was alight with six white wax pillars framing the tabernacle. Soon we were praying together the familiar words of the Anglican Mass, poetic language going back to the sixteenth century. We listened to Holy Scripture and the preacher preached on the Feast of Corpus Christi celebrated this last week, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and the wine of our Eucharistic celebration.

We were focused in that hour. We had made choices this day, decisions not to go to the park, not to go shopping, not to have a late brunch or lunch, not to sit here and work on projects at my desk. We didn’t have to choose to get up early since the service was at 11:30, for which we were grateful. But we did have to choose to take a couple of hours out of our Sunday to worship God with his Body of Christ in Berkeley.

And that choice made all the difference. It will make all the difference in my life this week, and it made all the difference in my life last week. Our preacher said that there was a time in his life when he he didn’t choose church, he didn’t choose to have God in his life. He chose other things to do with his time given. But soon he felt a deep emptiness in his soul. Soon he was hungry for God and it was a hunger that he couldn’t fill with other choices. So he returned to church, and I am glad for that, for he is a powerful preacher, bringing the intimacy of God’s love to each one of us.

Choosing is like carving, with careful attention given to each shaving of the soul. We whittle away at our lives to create a sculpted image, the person that God intended and intends us to be. We need to be careful to carve in the right places, to choose no sometimes and to choose yes other times. So we need an educated soul, as well as a fully fed soul. We need God’s Word through Scripture and sermon, and we need God himself, through the mysterious miracle of the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist.

The coyote was heading for food and water, I am sure. Our choices are more subtle and yet just that simple too. For choosing God, choosing to worship and be fed and watered by him each week, lightens our darkness, and makes all the other choosings easy.

I became, have become, focused, for life has come into focus, at least until my next encounter with God.

Rejoice Sunday

I continue to be astounded by the richness of our Anglican liturgy, the way the colors and seasons weave into one another to create a fascinating and beautiful tapestry of time. 

It is a liturgy shared, of course, with Roman Catholics and to an extent Eastern Orthodox: the love of symbols, saints, and sacraments; the dramatization of deep and joyous beliefs; the pleasure taken in incense, song, chant, processions, and common prayers we know by heart so we can pray in common together. 

We call our sixteenth-century prayer book The Book of Common Prayer, for it provides prayers learned by rote for those of us in the pews so that we can pray as one voice. It also provides assurance that the prayers prayed at the altar are theologically true, for they reflect words chosen carefully through the centuries. We call this catholic in the sense that it represents what is true for all time in all places for all people. 

I read recently that new education studies show that children are better prepared to succeed in life if they learn the old fashioned way, that is, by rote, by memory work and drill. I learned the old fashioned way and while it took effort and patience, I was rewarded with a strong sense of accomplishment. We learned poems and times tables and history dates. Often boring, but usually productive. I think I also learned how to accept boredom, how to not expect constant entertainment, how to go the distance, how to, in essence, work. I learned how to meet goals set by teachers so that later I would learn how to meet goals set by myself or employers. 

Our liturgy is full of these small and large milestones. It is not meant to entertain (although it often does in a glorious way, suddenly, unexpectedly), but rather it is meant to meet certain goals. “Liturgy” is the “work of the people.” We call the Holy Eucharist an action in the phrase the “Action of the Mass.” Something truly happens, and we, with God’s help, help to make it happen. We add our unified, voiced prayers, memorized (eventually through repetition), to those of the priest who celebrates the Mass. As the priest stands before the altar he stands before God, representing us. But during the Action, he represents Christ, consecrating the bread and wine into body and blood; Christ is made manifest in the “creatures” of bread and wine through this action.

To be worthy of receiving Almighty God into our hearts and bodies, we examine our lives for deeds done and undone, those things separating us from God. We need to be perfect, washed clean, to meet him at the altar rail. And so we confess together, as one and as many, and are absolved. We are made perfect in that moment.

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. It is called Laetare Sunday, meaning “Rejoice,” named for the traditional Introit, “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem; and be ye glad for her…”. It lands midway in Lent, and is meant to be a lighter brighter more joyful Sunday than the others in Lent. Rose vestments and altar cloths sometimes replace the somber purple, and flowers are allowed on the altar (not so the other Sundays in Lent).

We draw closer to Passiontide, the two weeks before Easter, and so it is as though we are refreshed today, before we return to the road to Jerusalem and the way of the Cross. We consider our Lenten rules – our self-discipline of time and desire. I for one am not midway through my memory work: First Corinthians 13. I have the first few verses down, sort of, but it has been a struggle, as is anything worth doing. It may take Lent and Advent and another Lent for this old soul to learn it by heart. Nevertheless, I keep at it, the passage printed out, handy for the odd moment of time. Perhaps it is discipline that, in the end, forms disciples.

Today’s Gospel is the account of the feeding of the five thousand, the multiplying of the loaves and fishes, one of many feeding miracles recorded in Holy Scripture. But John’s Chapter Six account is followed by Christ’s stunning announcement that one must eat his flesh and drink his blood to attain eternal life. It is not surprising that many followers left him after that statement, confused and probably overwhelmed at the very least.

Christianity is not a religion for the faint of heart, although our God mends broken hearts. It is not for the lazy, although our God empowers us with his own life. It is definitely a faith for those who admit helplessness in these matters, for with steady slugging along, we are rewarded with stunning joy. Not a bad exchange. It is an exciting journey with God to God, full of miracles and happiness. I’ve had more Road-to-Damascus moments than I could possibly count. 

So it is with great delight that I am certain that all I have to do is show up at church on Sundays. All I have to do is pray with the Body of Christ, the Church, and be part of the great Action of the Mass. All I have to do is repent and be forgiven. I do these things every Sunday and everything else falls into place, as though angels rain grace upon my life. I don’t need to see and understand everything all the time. All I need to do is go to my little parish church and be faithful.

Passages

It has been a season of passages for my ever-widening circle of friends, and since we love one another, I have walked alongside them, mourning and celebrating with them. 

The deaths – those passages from this world to the next – mark time and remind us of time. We don’t have steeple bells in our neighborhoods anymore, but the tolling is heard just the same. And in the Church, these passages are not just mourned, but are framed by births, Baptisms, Confirmations, and weddings. The dry grass of our elders is replaced by new growth, greening the soil of our parish. New life replaces the old; bells ring for the new just as they toll for the old. 

As Christians, we believe that death is a temporary parting. Something greater awaits us, something glorious, and one day we shall see those we love and who love us. Yet we remain here, rooted in time and earth, housed in flesh not yet transformed to glory. 

In this time we have been given, we have one another to cherish, and as I gazed upon the newlyweds in our church undercroft this morning, I shared in their joy. Their eyes were full of one another, as though each had sunk into the other’s heart and desired nothing more. Earlier we had worshiped together as a family. We had sung together, prayed together, and with one voice boldly proclaimed our beliefs together. We had taken part in the Eucharistic supper of the Lamb.

Baptism, our preacher explained, was our invitation to this holy supper, this wedding feast of the Christ and his bride, the Church. We are baptized near the entrance, for this is the beginning of our path. We enter the Church through Baptism and are invited to journey in time to the altar table. We reply to this invitation in Holy Confirmation. We say yes, and now we don our wedding garment – our spirit of penitence and worship – to take a seat at the festival table, to take part in the great celebration, the Eucharistic feast. 

So the Bride of Christ becomes the Family of God, as God enters each of us, and we are linked with one another in a deeply satisfying and sacramental way. We cherish one another and we partake, take part, in one another’s joys and sorrows. The newlyweds I congratulated this morning hopefully will be blessed with children, the incarnation of their love. So too, our Family of God shall share this blessing with them; we shall welcome each child through the open doors of our parish church. We shall baptize them and through water and spirit shall invite them on the journey to the altar, to their Confirmation, to their taking part in the wedding feast of the Lamb at the Eucharistic table.

We live in a dark and nihilistic age. And so, it seems to me, that the light within the Church shines even brighter, in contrast. But each of us must accept the invitation to enter the light, so that we may truly love one another, so that we may fully see the path ahead, the choices we will  need to make along the way. We must don the wedding garments of Baptism and Confirmation. We must wear the robe of penitence and sing the songs of praise, as we mourn and we celebrate our sisters and our brothers.

We have been invited to love, to share incarnation on earth, to journey with one another, to ring the chimes and toll the bells as we pass through these remarkable and holy passages of life.

On Flying Dancing Halls

It is a glorious and satisfying thing to discover an author who speaks to you in new and miraculous ways, an author sending you on a mission to read everything he has ever written. I have discovered authors like this over the years, with Lewis, Tolkien, Austen, Dostoevsky. I went through a Sherlock Holmes period, a Dickens period, and as a child I read every Nancy Drew that the library offered. On the other hand, I did not feel this way about Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sartre, Camus, Woolf, Ibsen, or Henry James. I fear I gave Shakespeare no more attention than was required in my Literature major, having to work too hard on his poetic diction. These authors come to mind now, but there were dozens more – some who invited me on another leg of the journey, and some who didn’t.

So when I received the small used volume titled Father Malachy’s Miracle by Bruce Marshall in the mail, the book having been transported through the air from London, I opened it not knowing if it would challenge or change me. I’ve read it twice now, since I will be reviewing it on CatholicFiction.net. I’m sure I shall read it many more times, and be warned that I am cornering the market on any other books by Mr. Marshall that I can find. Alas, his books are out of print, something I hope to remedy one day.

But getting back to Father Malachy and his miracle, for he has become part of the peopled universe in my giddy brain. The book is, as the title implies, about miracles. The writing is dense, poetic, with rhythmically long sentences that flow like a sweet river to a welcoming sea. The metaphors stun me with their humorous and loving descriptions of ordinary people. God shines brightly through this lay-Catholic writer. When I am not sighing with authorial envy or jotting down ideas to use one day, I am nodding my head in agreement (aha, finally someone has written exactly what I think, and yes, that’s exactly how it is or was…), or I am laughing out loud.

One of many delicious passages is the author’s description of the Bishop’s Bad Brother (the “Bee Bee Bee”), a man of the world who enjoys dancing halls and wine bars:

The Bee Bee Bee was a simple soul who lived, as do many souls less simple than he, as though his sense perceptions were the only realities and as though arm-chairs and pork pies and pretty girls were exclusively and finally arm-chairs, pork pies and pretty girls.

We learn he has little interest in scientific mysteries or theological mysteries or angels dancing on the head of a pin. He lives for the moment, but he is a mystic:

Like most of his kind, he would have scorned the name of mystic even if he had known precisely what it meant. And yet that was what he was: a mystic, an inverted mystic who found in beer and dancing instructresses what tired business men found in golf, and worldly young women in lovemaking, and monks and nuns in prayer and contemplation: an escape from his own personality or rather a taking of it and plunging it in something bigger than and exterior to itself. 

An inverted mystic. He escapes from his own personality by plunging it in something bigger. I have often thought we are all mystics in this sense, that everyone has a desire to lose themselves in something or someone. We say we fall in love, we say we are swept away by a movie or a book. We want to jump on bandwagons because they are large and powerful and tell us what to think. When we say we are swept up or swept away we sigh with pleasure simply in the recollection. We plunge into work or play or fashion, fads, or Facebook. We lose ourselves in nature – beneath giant redwoods, beside a crashing sea, within a rose garden. We soar outside of time, killing it.

Perhaps this urge to lose ourselves in something bigger is an innate desire for God, a desire for our Creator, a desire for our Heavenly Father who calls us home, invites us to his table again and again, back to himself. I often think the Church is the messenger, the host of that invitation, or the invitation itself, to dine with God, dine on God in the Eucharist. Through his Church, God welcomes us into his own dancing hall, with his own family to love, sisters and brothers who return that love. We are brought inside his circle, made members of the Body of Christ, and we know we are  home, that we be-long, that we are longed-for.

We are mystics and we have found our heart’s desire. And oddly enough, in finding our Creator, we rediscover our true selves. For who knows me better than the one who made me?

The idea of the inverted mystic was one small miracle in this little book of miracles, a sweet novel set in Scotland in the 1930’s in which a dancing hall flies through the air (by power of the Holy Ghost) to land on an island called the Bass Rock. And as we consider the flying dancing hall we also consider other movements of electrons in our world, changes made to bread and wine, resurrections not governed by scientific theory, events we call supernatural. We consider miracles and the Creator of our world, the one who has power to change that world’s matter.

I must end this here, for I have just opened a small brown paper parcel containing Bruce Marshall’s The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith. The invitation is loud and compelling.

There may be echoes of Father Malachy in my next novel about a deserted chapel in a park in a suburb of San Francisco. Father Malachy, or his twin brother, may fly from Scotland and into my pages, flit across a great sea, and land in the present. But such is the stuff of miracles.

The Magdalene Mystery

Thursday I received the proof copy for my novel, The Magdalene Mystery. This is often a moment of surprise, in spite of the fact that I have been watching for the manuscript file to appear in my inbox each day (okay, sometimes three times a day…).  I know when I see and open the attached file, it is time to clear my desk and cancel appointments for the next few days. It is time to do a last read, checking for typos, repetitions, and inconsistencies. I finished the reading and correcting yesterday and sent it back to OakTara. Hopefully we shall see the novel in print within the next month.

How did I arrive at this place in my life? I often wonder at times like this. Being faithful in prayer and sacrament, waiting on God, I usually reply to myself, simple stuff really. And today, I would add, accepting an invitation many years ago and many many Sundays since.

In today’s Gospel Christ tells the parable of the man who made a great supper and invited many friends. But the many friends had better things to do – one needed to check his property, one his cattle, and one just got married (an odd excuse, maybe it was his honeymoon). So the master of the house invited “the poor, the maimed, the halt, the lame, the blind…” (Luke 14:16+).

This story is traditionally seen as an invitation to the Holy Eucharist, a personal invitation from God to each of us. Like the parable of the sower and the parable of the wedding guest, God wants to plant himself in the soil of my soul, feed me at his table. Do I accept this intimate and loving invitation? Or do I have what I consider more important things to do?

In the spring of 1967, I accepted the invitation. I said yes, not fully understanding what I was doing. It wasn’t an altar call, and it wasn’t a road-to-Damascus conversion, but it was a moment of surprise-by-joy. My reason had been won over by C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and I wanted to experience Lewis’s choice of church, his own Anglican Church, the Episcopal Church in the U.S.  Having been raised in a purposely plain Presbyterian Church, the experience of the Liturgy of Holy Eucharist (incense, bells, candles, processions) with its chanting and kneeling and the receiving of the Son of God at the altar, stunned me. I fell in love. I happily, giddily, said yes to the invitation. Yes, absolutely, I’m coming, sign me up! It was by far too good, too beautiful, too glorious, to be true, I mistakenly worried at the time, but I didn’t want to miss this chance, so I boldly entered through the door, crossed the threshold, and was soon confirmed by the bishop. I was twenty.

The Church nursed me through my infancy as a Catholic Christian, taught me to speak her language, sing her psalms, confess her creeds, pray her prayers. I grew up, hopefully, up and up and up and continue to grow, to mature in this fabulous Faith. I shall never be fully grown, a true adult, I know, until I meet God face to face in heaven, but the journey in the meantime is a joyful one. I have no regrets that I accepted the invitation, accepted, as the evangelicals say, Jesus the Christ as my Lord and Savior, as my one true God.

But without crossing that threshold in 1967 to eat and drink of the Eucharistic banquet I would never have grown out of my infancy. I would not have learned to speak, to sing, to dance. I would not have been fed with and by God in this sacramental way. I would be one of those who had turned down the supper invitation, one who, Christ says at the end of this story, would not be invited again.

So over the last few days, as I read through the words on my screen, the sentences and paragraphs and chapters that form The Magdalene Mystery, I prayed for discernment, for a good eye to spot mistakes. The story is about truth, its telling and its abuse, or its not telling. It’s about media lies and Internet predators. It’s about witnessing to what is real and what is not. It’s about that moment two thousand years ago when a healed woman named Mary from the village of Magdala reached to touch the risen Christ. It’s about our search today for truth and our yearning to touch God. And, also, it’s a literal cliff-hanger…

Mary Magdalene accepted the invitation from the risen Christ to go and tell the others. She said yes and told the news of her Lord’s resurrection. Just so, we can say yes. We can cross the threshold each week and kneel before the altar table. We can tell the truth, the good news, what its like to be fed by God, to touch him.

Corpus Christi

The Feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated last Thursday, so today, Sunday, we formed a Corpus Christi procession.

In my soon-to-be-released novel, The Magdalene Mystery, my protagonists witness a Corpus Christi procession in Rome. From inside the basilica Santa Maria Maggiore they hear chanting outside. They follow the sounds to the porch steps in the growing dusk. A crowd has gathered. Soon they see clergy, monks, and nuns walking toward them up the Via Merulana from the basilica San Giovanni Laterano. They are singing the Pangue Linqua, St. Thomas Aquinas’s hymn to the Eucharistic Presence, Now my tongue, the mystery telling, of the glorious body sing… Daylight has turned to twilight as the sun drops behind domes silhouetted against a glowing Roman sky, but lanterns held by the processing singers lighten the darkness. The Pope is part of the procession. He kneels in an open van before a monstrance cradling the Blessed Sacrament. When he arrives at Maria Maggiore, he processes with the Blessed Sacrament into the gilded Marian basilica for the liturgy of Benediction and Adoration.

I’ve always loved processions – their beginnings, middles, and ends – for they reflect our own journeys through time, satisfyingly. They are an art form, portraying the People of God as the Body of Christ.

Last Sunday in our own parish church we stepped outside, leaving the inner safe sanctum of the church, and had processed up Lawton Street as we sang to the Trinity. Today we we stepped out onto the sidewalk, singing to the mystery and miracle of Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist.

Raised a Presbyterian, I had some doubt about the claims of the Eucharistic Presence when I first heard about it. But over the years scripture and tradition have testified powerfully and personally to the reality of the Real Presence. We are told when we receive Christ in the Eucharist we are fed by God in a unique and saving way. We are told Christ’s Presence is one of the three comings of Christ – the first, two thousand years ago, taking on human flesh in Bethlehem; the second, in the daily consecration of bread and wine and the reception by millions of faithful; the third, the Second Coming of Christ in the future in judgment. Our Lord commanded us to receive him in this way the night before his death, at the Last Supper (Maundy Thursday of Holy Week) so it is fitting that Corpus Christi falls at the end of the glorious seasons  of Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost, chasing Trinity Sunday, as though it were an exclamation mark at the end of a beautiful sentence. For we have added a postlude to the Easter season of salvation with this mysterious and miraculous gift of bread and wine. We may now enter into the long season of Trinitytide, when we grow steadily in our faith, quietly, with fewer exclamation points.

It may be the everyday nature of this Eucharistic miracle that has made it less of a mystery, so that it is often taken for granted. It may be we live in a doubting age, an age that isn’t interested in God, or in God’s love for us. But for me, I have always been in awe before the Blessed Sacrament, transfixed and transformed.  I have experienced love, the love of the Creator for the creation, the love of God the Father for his children and personally for me as his own precious child. This is no small thing. It is true nourishment, without which I am smaller, without which I enter my week weaker.

So the Corpus Christi procession, winding through the public squares of our world, stepping into the communities of disbelief and doubt, is a witness to that love of the Father for his children, the  precious prodigals that he so desires to come home, to come to him.

Unlike the Roman procession, it was not dusk as we walked the half block outside the church. A bright morning sun emblazoned the cross raised high by the crucifer. It lit the golden monstrance holding the host.  We held our hymnals, following the words linked to the notes, bar by bar, verse by verse, and occasionally I glanced up to the Corpus Christi, carried with care, with tremendous honor (as he later told me), by our devout deacon. It is an image I shall never forget, this gilded circle with the Real Presence in its center, carried along Lawton Street, rising and falling gently with the stepping of our deacon, in a heartbeat rhythm. We followed the cross and the monstrance; we the Body of Christ followed the Body of Christ. We had received him at the altar, and now we flowed like a river through a neighborhood in the Rockridge community of Oakland.

When I set the first part of my story in Rome, I studied my monthly calendar to choose the most appropriate and meaningful season, month, week, day, hour. When I saw the Feast of Corpus Christi in its Thursday-after-Trinity square, the decision was easy. For in this mystery, the mystery of God and man, the mystery of God touching us and we touching him, beats the heart of our Christian faith. And since my novel’s story was about reasoned belief and dubious doubt, historical truth and media lies, the real Mary Magdalene and the imagined Mary Magdalene, I began to research the Rome procession with the help of a nun at San Giovanni Laterano, the Pope’s cathedral as Bishop of Rome.

It has been a rich, fruity season, this spring in the year 2013, like a burst of cherry in a glimmering Beaujolais. We began the month of May processing, singing to Mary. We ended it processing, singing to the Holy Trinity. And we begin June processing, singing to the Blessed Sacrament, as the door to summer opens.

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.

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.