Tag Archives: Lent

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.

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.

Spring Cleaning

As these Lenten days lengthen and more light pours through my windows, banishing the darkness of night, I consider spring cleaning.

Lent is a time of cleaning out the cobwebs and dust of our souls. It is a time to open the windows to let in the light, but to make sure the windows are clean first. Then, when the light enlightens the rooms of our hearts and minds, we shall see those rooms clearly.

So I consider my envies, prides, gluttonies, truth-telling. Have I been snide, uncaring, thoughtless? Have I been absorbed by my own little wants and cares and needs? Have I forgotten someone who needs my love, ignored the lonely, rushed past the quiet ones not always seen? We call this scrutiny self-examination, and when we admit to what we see and we promise to do better, we name it confession and repentance.

Lent reminds us, pulls us to see, shines a spotlight on our hearts.

I try to do a little soul cleaning each night, but I’m afraid, truth be told, my cleaning out is more once a week, and sometimes not that. There – that’s one confession and promise to amend, my lack of examination. It is good to go to a priest for sacramental confession, but the daily intimate ones in the evening at the end of the day are valuable habits, a time alone with my Creator. And daily examination keeps the windows sparkling clean (or helps, anyway), allowing even more light inside.

Today’s Gospel was a cleaning-out account. Our Lord explains that casting out demons isn’t enough, for they will happily return in even greater numbers. He is talking about what happens with a vacuum, when something is emptied. We empty ourselves of the sins that dirty our sight, for windows are for looking out of as well bring light in, but what happens then? Our Lord says that he who is not with me is against me; he that gathers not with me, scatters; a house divided cannot stand. Famous words, important words, life-changing, life-fulfilling words.

So we need to empty, but also to be filled, full-filled, and the filling up is just as crucial to our sight as the emptying. The dirty window metaphor ends here, as all metaphors must end, having their limitations. But now what do we see, and what do we do to protect our hearts from invasion once again? We fill our hearts and minds and souls with God.

Our soul-house full of God, we enter time renewed, reborn, protected by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Not a bad result, I think. But how do we do this? How do we fill ourselves with God? Our preacher explained today we are fed, filled, by Holy Scripture, given to us by the Church, the Body of Christ. We are fed, filled, by Christ himself in the Holy Eucharist. We are fed, filled, by regular worship and daily prayer life.

All this has been given to us. All this – this festival of God – is here for the taking, for the sweet sweet joy of it.

This morning, for not the first time, I was swept on a tide of joy as I knelt in the pew with my parish family and joined in the Post-Communion hymn. My heart was filled with gratitude for the Church, this Body of Christ, that this richness, this God-life had been given to me. The hymn we sang was a familiar tune, that old altar-call Billy Graham often used:

Just as I am without one plea, But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bidd’st me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, though tossed about With many’s conflict, many a doubt;
Fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind; Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need, in thee to find, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am: thou wilt receive; Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse,relieve,
Because thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come.

Just as I am, thy love unknown Has broken every barrier down;
Now to be thine, yea, thine along, O Lamb of God, I come.

Just as I am, of thy great love The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above: O Lamb of God, I come.

 (Charlotte Elliott, 1836)

These words remind me as I write this that only God can truly clean us out, cast out those demons, take us just as we are, when we open the windows of our souls. But we must come.

These words also remind me that God does this through his incarnation, through becoming the Lamb of God, replacing the old sacrificial lamb of Israel, becoming the new covenant, slain, to redeem us all.

And so as these Lenten days lengthen we look to Easter, to Resurrection Day, and to the glory of that piercing, revealing, morning light.

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.