Tag Archives: love

Easter Lilies

Easter LiliesIt is a rich and glorious season, this time of Eastertide. 

As I plucked wilting blossoms off my Easter lilies near our front door I inhaled the sweetness of those remaining, taking care to avoid the staining powder of the yellow stamens. I then attended the roses that once sat on my dining table and now are over the kitchen sink. Five buds are left with shorter stems clustered together in a small pitcher between sculpted figures of Mary Magdalene and an angel. As I gaze at these reminders of the season, and especially of Easter Day, I wonder at it all.

The season of Eastertide, the fifty days linking Easter and Pentecost, provide a joyful time of quiet reflection on the meaning of the Resurrection. The immense implications of this historical event, when eternity intersected time, continues to stun me. And the scripture readings assigned for these days reflect as well, considering the meaning of this new world that was created by the empty tomb.

And indeed a new world was created with the death and resurrection of Christ. It is a revolution changing everything. In one of his first resurrection appearances to the disciples Jesus gently explains what has happened. As our preacher said this morning, Christ appears to them in an upper room where the doors have been locked. He has passed through material barriers to be in their midst. He has power over the world of matter in which we live. Is he a ghost? A vision?

St. John’s eyewitness account describes how Christ points to his wounds in his hands and his side as proof he is no ghost or vision. The disciples can see and touch him. He has a material body of flesh and blood. He is real. And yet he has the power to pass through matter.

In much the same way he seeks to enter our hearts, our own bodily chambers, to dwell in us. How does he do this? He gives the apostles power to forgive sins by breathing his spirit upon them. From this time on, the apostles, who give life to the Church, act for God in the forgiveness of sins. Why?

Christ desires clean-swept hearts, hearts of light that have expelled the dark. He can only enter a heart that is full of light, enlightened, clean of sin.

It is a profound mystery and yet it is profoundly simple, just as each of us is a profound mystery and yet profoundly simple. All creation teems with intricate complexity yet delightful simplicity. The day turns to night. The rain falls on the earth. The sun shines. And the layered meanings and conclusions of learned theologians can be summed in one sentence: God is love.

Just as I pluck the dying trumpet blossoms with their staining stamens, I pluck out my own selfishness, greed, envy, pride, my own staining sin. I trundle to Mass and confess. I repent and am forgiven. I can now enter the open doors of the Eucharist through prayer and praise, Creed and Scripture, to meet Christ in the bread and the wine. He enters my body, heart, and soul. I am given life and light and joy, having partaken of the divine.

All this Christ Jesus taught and showed in his life on earth, as he walked among us. The week before his death he gave us the Holy Supper and showed how he would return among us again and again with each Eucharist. After his resurrection, he gave us the Church and the way to forgiveness. After his ascension he gave us his Holy Spirit to strengthen, to comfort us. All told, Christ Jesus gave us himself, the only path to Heaven – the Way, the Truth, and the Life for, as St. John writes in today’s Epistle,

 “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.” (I John 5:4)

Passionate Passiontide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the Difference

star of bethlehem.jpgThomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution recently wrote about political lies of the last few years: 

“Lies are a wall between us and reality… Reality does not disappear because we don’t see it. It just hits us like a ton of bricks when we least expect it.”

Lies encourage us to deny reality, to “put our heads in the sand” and thus are dangerous. To say the Benghazi terrorist attacks (2012) were a demonstration over an inflammatory video, is a lie told to calm fear. But it invites complacency and so emboldens terrorists, both domestic and international. We have mourned lives lost in subsequent attacks because of this lie. This lie ensured the election of the current president, and a wall rose between our national defense and reality. 

And so too, as individuals, we might choose to believe lies for reasons of comfort. But such lies are dangerous as well, inviting greater suffering and confusion when reality “hits like a ton of bricks.” 

Reality has a way of eventually hitting us, and so too, belief in God and the claims of Christ are worthy of examination as to their truth, their reality. “What difference does it make?” many say, imbibing the lie of our culture that all beliefs are equal, all faiths equally true. While all believers are worthy of respect, how can all faiths be equally true, when one denies the claims of another? Alas, it makes a great deal of difference what a person believes. Living a true life means seeking the truth, embracing reality, sorting fact from fiction and avoiding the ton of bricks. One of the greatest lies of our age is that there is no truth. The truth exists apart from us, whether or not we can grasp it at any particular moment. 

I have long suspected the lie of “closure” in regards to mourning. Stephen J. Forman, a cancer doctor, writes in the Wall Street Journal “how the loss of a loved one is a part of each person’s life forever…. the reality is that closure is a myth.” Grief changes over time, but grief is woven into the weave of our souls, giving us greater compassion, understanding, and empathy. It makes us “wise” or “deep” or simply “good.” Suffering and grief helps us see. To remember at sudden moments, even with tears, those whom we have lost is a good thing, not one to be suppressed: 

“The danger of the idea of closure is that it heightens aloneness, by giving us a false expectation that these experiences should and will at some point end. They won’t… To deny (memories) is to deny precious moments of love, fellowship, gratitude and inspiration… To close the memory does not sustain the healing or help in proceeding with life. Such echoes from the past are voices in the present and are sometimes warmly felt.” 

This can be said of nations as well. To close echoes from the past is to deny who we are, forged by the past in this moment in time. To live only in the present is to force closure on the past, to live a lie, to disavow our nature. Our history is our life story, our identity as Americans. It is a cloak we cannot afford to shed, one our nation must wear in order to survive. 

To find closure after terrorism may for a time ease our national life. We pretend it didn’t happen and we carry on. But it is a lie to say it makes no difference. Of course it makes a difference. Those who died for our country must remind us continually what is real, what is true and what is false in our national narrative, how we face our future and defend our freedoms. 

Children long for boundaries. They beg for limits so that they can see the truth about their world, what is good and what is bad. Good parenting sets limits and teaches the truth, the reality, of forbidden territory. In this way they become responsible adults, for they have learned what is real. They can search for truth and face it. 

And so as we worshiped in church this morning on this First Sunday after Epiphany I gazed at our bishop’s chair, empty. He left us for Heaven, and now, seven months after his parting, his wife has joined him. As I looked upon the chair, I was gifted with a flashing memory of the bishop and his wife, as I knelt on the russet tiles, in the filtered light streaming from clerestory windows, in the singing together the Creed, the Gloria, the Our Father. The bishop and his wife were epiphanies that graced my life and I knew that they would continue to grace my life through the opening of my memory, the refusal of memory’s closure. Their lives were woven into mine, as mine was into theirs, through love, through the grace of God. I consider those memories, even in the depths of loss, to be precious piercings of my heart. These epiphanies, these openings, reweave my heart and soul, adding to the texture. I do not desire or need closure. 

In the Church, the Feast of Epiphany celebrates the coming of the Wise Men from the East who brought the Christ Child gifts. Epiphany means manifestation, the revealing of God in human form in Jesus in Bethlehem. With Epiphany, Christ is now manifested to the world, not just to Israel, not just to God’s chosen ones. The Wise Men follow a star so that the heavens as well take part in this epiphany, this revealing of God. They follow the star to a stable, a hillside cave. The universe shines a beam of light onto a newborn baby in the hay. The Magi, scientists of their time who studied the heavens, kneel before this child. They bring him gold for his kingship, frankincense for his divinity, and myrrh for his burial. After this epiphany in their lives, they will never be the same. 

And we will never be the same. Like the Magi, we kneel before Our Lord in our local church. We gather before his tabernacle, his stable, just as the Magi did two thousand years ago. We pray that we be made worthy to receive him through confession and absolution. As we pray, we are changed by the prayer itself, for we enter moments of epiphany, dwelling in time woven with eternity, knowing that God himself is with us and within us. 

To kneel before the manger or before the altar, experiencing such love, and to say it didn’t happen is to deny reality. It is to lie about the greatest truth of all, the greatest reality of all, God dwelling among us. For if God loves us and lives among us and within us, it makes all the difference to our own lives, and to all the world. We can now look truth in the face, even search for it boldly, knowing that we will be wiser, like the Magi on that holy night two thousand years ago. Our lives will never be about closure, but about opening. We will travel, epiphany by epiphany, into the open heart of God.

 

The Gift of Rosemary Kennedy

RosemarySuicides are on the rise, school shootings seem a regular event, insanity and violence not unexpected. Are we seeing the collapse of Western civilization? I often wonder. Then along comes a book like The Missing Kennedy, Rosemary Kennedy, by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff (Bancroft Press, 2015).

This is an important and encouraging book. The author tells the story of Rosemary Kennedy (1918-2005) from a personal perspective. Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff’s aunt, a nun, cared for Rosemary at St. Coletta’s in Wisconsin, a Roman Catholic home for the mentally ill. The young Elizabeth visited Rosemary when she visited her aunt, Sister Paulus. In this remarkable account, the grace of God ripples through the pages.

Rosemary Kennedy, “Rosie,” was born a slow learner, and it is thought brain damage occurred during her birth, but she had no physical handicaps. The highest reading level she achieved was 3rd-4th grade. As she matured physically into a beautiful young woman, she became vulnerable and at times disruptive in her innocence, and her brothers did their best to protect her. Her father, Joseph Kennedy, learning of a method that might calm her and ease her life, allowed a lobotomy to be performed, a procedure that had been occasionally successful (at the time). But the operation made things far worse, partially paralyzing Rosie age twenty-three, and nearly destroying her ability to speak. She would need assistance in the basic functions of living for the rest of her life.

This was truly a tragedy for all concerned. Joseph Kennedy sent Rosie to St. Coletta’s. For twenty years she was isolated from her family, the doctor decreeing such visits would disturb her. Finally, in 1961, sister Eunice and mother Rose began regular visits. So did the author, Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff.

The author, a Roman Catholic, was clearly influenced by Rosie and Sister Paulus, and I could see the grace of God working through them all. Elizabeth’s dedicated aunt, full of love for the helpless, the abandoned, and the unwanted, touched the hearts of all in her circle through her example. I could see that the author was given a deeper sense of appreciation for the handicapped and what it means to love sacrificially as her aunt loved. The dignity of every living person shines through these pages.

As I read this book, Governor Brown signed the bill legalizing assisted dying in California; the U.K. was studying the option, avoiding the word euthanasia, preferring death with dignity. Earlier and ongoing, the investigation of Planned Parenthood’s selling of baby body parts littered the news, the horrendous videos a reminder of what our nation has become. And of course, for the last forty-two years the unborn who might be handicapped or unwanted have been “terminated” in the womb under the euphemism of choice. What do these word-shifts do to our language? What do these actions do to our hearts? Do we become desensitized, hardened, with these images, these verbal aberrations, and these stories?

And does a book like The Missing Kennedy do the opposite? Does the story of Sister Paulus and Rosie, of the Kennedy family, the author Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff, make us more sensitive, opening our hearts to loving as we are meant to love, without regard to handicap, without regard to degrees of perfection.

When the Kennedys finally reunited with Rosie, they were inspired to help the mentally ill, funding research programs, passing legislation, and founding Summer Camp Shriver which became the Special Olympics. All of these efforts were the result of Rosie and her tragedy. Rosie’s handicaps became blessings, making those around her better. She taught them how to love. She taught our culture how to care.

There seem to be two streams running through America, one of selfishness and one of selflessness. The great irony, the devil’s victory, is that the former leads to unhappiness, depression, and suicide. The self-centered life chases a greedy illusion of met needs and devours itself in its turning inward. The self-giving life, one seeking God’s path of sacrificial love, ends up discovering joy, meaning, and the actual fulfillment of the self.

We are tempted today to throw out the undesirable, the inconvenient, the unborn, the less than perfect, the aged. And if we give in to this temptation, which might at times seem deceptively attractive and even arguable, we shall be changed as a people. We shall become hardened and we shall shatter.

The Missing Kennedy is full of photos, many from the author’s private collection. The ones I particularly loved were the group photos. At first there is just Rosie and Sister Paulus, then others join, including the author, then more and more Kennedys gather around Rosie. She becomes, in the end, the center of the family. We are all better for her having lived, reminding us that the Rosies of our world have a place in the heart of our culture. We are better, too, for Ms. Koehler-Pentacoff’s heartwarming memoir of Rosemary Kennedy’s life.

Celebrating the Seasons

Holy_TrinityI love the Church Year, the seasons of our faith moving from Advent through Trinity,  traveling from December into next year’s November. The story of Christ – birth, death, and life – is reflected in the nine seasons or “tides”: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Pre-Lent, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity. Colors are assigned to these times: purple, white, green, purple, purple, white, red, green.

So when we sing the song in Sunday School with the children, “Advent Tells Us Christ is Near,” I am especially happy, for in the verses we summarize our faith, what God did and does for us, out of his great love.

Songs are poetry set to music, two arts entwined. And poetry is man’s way of expressing truth. Christian truths can never be celebrated enough: that our lives are important, that they have meaning and purpose and direction, that God exists and loves each of us, that he has provided a pathway for us to be with him in eternal glory.

Living the Church Year within the Church gives our faith richness and depth and allows these truths to intersect our real lives, day to day, week to week. We are now in the long green Trinity season, that time that stretches from Trinity Sunday in June to the First Sunday in Advent in December. It is a green season for it is a quiet growing time in the faith, celebrating the parables and healings and miracles of Our Lord as he walked among us.

In Advent we prepare for Christmas, the glorious celebration of the Incarnation. In Epiphany we celebrate the epiphany of Christ, his manifestation or revealing to the world with the visit of the three kings, the wise men, to worship him. In Lent we prepare for Easter, the glorious celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord. Soon we celebrate his Ascension and the coming of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples, or Pentecost Sunday. Trinity follows soon after, bracketing this seven month life history of the Son of God, and sending us into the green seasons of summer and fall.

Living out the Church Year brings God into our everyday lives so that he truly inhabits our time alongside us. When we are betrayed, slandered, accused falsely, or whatever hurt we may be feeling, whatever abuse or disappointment, we have this ultimate standard of truth to hold onto, Christ himself. And that truth holds us up and keeps us from falling in our journey. And best of all, that truth is love without limits, a God with a sacred heart full of divine mercy.

As Christians, we travel through the Church Year, enriched and protected by the life and love of Christ intersecting our own lives and loves, and so we must in turn enrich our world with these true intersections. It is easy to hold on to our faithful truths, to keep them for ourselves, our own parish, but the light under the bushel will go out without air to breathe. As our world draws away from truth of any kind, and in so doing denies true love as well, we must be the beacon on the hill, the guiding star. We must share this intersection of the eternal in time with our world, our nation, our communities.

As the children sang and raised their arms in joy, as they twirled and clapped and grinned, I realized how simple it all really is to share eternity with time. All I need do is be faithful in prayer, scripture, and sacrament. The road may not always be painless – suffering is a part of love – but it will always end in joy.

So, “Last of all we humbly sing/Glory to our God and King/Glory to the one in three/On the Feast of Trinity.”

Gathering at the River

gathering at the riverMy good friend, wise counselor, and sacrificial priest, is dying of terminal cancer. He is ninety-one. He will be leaving us soon. 

I owe him my life, at least my reborn life, after returning from Canada to the Bay Area where I grew up. I was twenty-nine, wounded from a disintegrating marriage. On the third Sunday of January 1977, I climbed the broad steps of St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Oakland, holding firmly the hand of my towheaded, bouncing, four-year-old son. 

I was already an Anglo-Catholic, having come from Vancouver’s St. James, so I had high expectations as I entered the hushed nave, but my expectations were surpassed on that Sunday morning. The beauty of the liturgy with its fragrant incense, flaming candles, chanting responses, poetically profound hymns, pulled me into the heart of God. The sixteenth-century language – Shakespearean and Elizabethan words and phrasing – restored my soul and renewed my heart. I had come home to beauty, truth, and goodness, to the family of God, the Body of Christ. I had entered Love incarnate. 

The rector, a simple priest of large frame and thick hair, who preached earnestly about the love of God from the central aisle, welcomed us. The families of the parish adopted us. Over the years I traveled in the faith, learning its language, the necessary art and parts of prayer. I began to glimpse heaven, in the daily faithfulness of an Our Father and Glory Be, and in the increased faithfulness of Morning and Evening Prayer, in the joy of receiving the Eucharist into my body and soul, in the “parting of the veil” at the altar. 

I remarried at St. Peter’s, before that same altar. My son served as an acolyte and was confirmed before that altar. In the course of time, my priest and his wife traveled with me and my husband to Western Europe, to the Christian foundations of Western Civilization in Italy, France, and England. We visited monasteries, memorials, great basilicas and humble hermitages. We journeyed from abbeys to cathedrals to healing waters to shrines of the saints. My priest was a wise mentor, showing me how God worked in and through history. 

My first three novels were born of those travels. They explore our history through the journeys of Madeleine and Jack Seymour, a present-day couple who climb a ladder of Christian challenges – healing of body and soul, penitence and forgiveness, redemption and salvation, sacrificial love versus narcissistic lust. These stories comprise Pilgrimage, Offerings, and Inheritance, set in Italy, France, and England. My priest is the genius behind these stories; where they sing in key they do so because of him; where they sing off-key they do so because of me. They are given depth with his words, his beliefs, his ways of seeing and understanding that settled into my soul. 

The stories in turn gifted me with the joy of writing, and for this gift I must be ever in my friend’s debt. As he lay dying he turned to me with half closed eyes, my novel-in-progress on his mind. “The new book – don’t forget the changes,” he barely breathed. “I won’t,” I said. “They’ve already been made.” It was true, I had rewritten portions as he suggested after his reading an early draft, making The Fire Trail richer and more powerful in its consideration of barbarism and civilization. He won’t be able to read the new version until later, at the river. 

Christians never really say goodbye. They say God be with you (the origin of goodbye) or Till we meet again. My priest says he is leaving us, not that he is dying. He often said that we will “gather at the river.” I asked him one afternoon as he lay dying, “Which river? I need to know where we are gathering when we meet in heaven.” His eyes opened wide and locked on mine. “Why, the one that flows by the throne of God.” I laughed. “Of course,” I said. “Now I know where to gather.” I later looked up the lyrics, and sure enough, the refrain was just as he said: 

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.        (Robert Lowry, 1864)

When I left him that day, I kissed his forehead and said, “Till we meet again.” He barely nodded and smiled as he drifted off to sleep. 

We worked together on many projects, my saintly priest and I. I always considered it an honor to do what I could, as best I could, with the time given. I prayed about what to do next, listened to Holy Spirit nudges, trusting that the Holy Spirit, that Breath of God, would breathe me along the right path. When I made wrong turns, I prayed I would return to the crossroads and choose again. 

Sacramental Christianity, the faith taught me by my priest, is woven with these wonderful truths – the turning, the changing, the leading, the following the star. Life is a dance, a sacramental dance between heaven and earth, and through Christ, in Christ, the two – the invisible and the visible, God’s world and man’s world –  waltz with one another. Without the Incarnation, that first dance two thousand years ago, we would not be dancing with the angels. We would not know how. 

All this and much more I learned from my prayerful and penitential priest. I sing with gratitude for his life, so thankful that I could share a small part of it, and now, as he leaves us, he is teaching us how to make a “good death.” For one day I will follow him. I will leave; I will die. The best way, it seems to me, is to have made a “good life.” Then, leave that goodness in the hands of those you love and who love you. For love unites us all – the love of God, the love of Christ, the love of the Holy Spirit binding us together. And my priest loves each one of us, as we love him, binding us together in this God of infinite love.

In my freshman year in college in 1965 one of the final exam questions in my Western Civilization class was: “What is the good life?” It was of course a reference to the classical philosophers, but today I know the true answer. The good life is to know God, to be redeemed by Christ, and to live the life of a sacramental Christian. There is nothing better than that. Such goodness defines everything else.

And I owe the answer to my priest, who, in time, became bishop and then archbishop. At this writing, on Ascension Sunday 2015 celebrating the ascension of Christ to heaven, this earthly shepherd of souls lingers in his love for us, even after last rites. In my ongoing prayers for him, the river is never far from my thoughts, beckoning us, calling us to gather by the throne of God. And I realize now it is the river of life, eternal life and eternal love.

Deo Gratias…  Safe travels, dear friend.

Waving Our Palms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ash Wednesday

Ash WednesdayMy computer crashed during the week so I’m climbing the mountain called Steep Learning Curve. I’ve been introduced to Windows 8.1 and need say no more.

It was time for a new laptop anyway I told myself as I listened to the young man explain all the wonderful features on the one he was recommending, features that I would surely need and want. I tried to sort out what was true, exaggerated, and simply unnecessary. I prayed my angels were helping me along and I think they did and I’m so very grateful.

How did the crash happen, some have asked, their eyes wide. (Could it happen to them?) I was foolish, I said. As I was reading an online magazine article (John Yoo, National Review,  highly recommended), industriously researching a project for my bishop, I succumbed to a pop-up that insisted, in a seemingly sane manner, that I needed what they were offering in order to view the page I was reading. A few minutes after I downloaded it, I sensed something wasn’t right and exited. It wasn’t until the following morning when I turned on my computer that I realized what had happened. A blank blue Windows screen greeted me.

I’ll find out later if my files are salvageable, and a lovely lady at church this morning who knows something about all these mysteries said they usually are. We’ll see tomorrow. Fortunately, I had saved key files onto discs. But it’s all a distraction and hugely time consuming.

The deception of the hacker and the resulting theft of my time reminded me of the darkness of the human heart. Timely, I considered this Quinquagesima Sunday morning, to be so reminded as we near Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. For Lent is a time when we look into our own hearts and consider our own dark corners, where we have grown inward and not outward, where we have not loved enough, been self-less enough. For self-ishness prevents God entering.

Christianity, and Judaism as well, tell us to be good. They give us ideals and laws, churches and synagogues, to help us and say it is better to fail at trying to be good than not to try, not to have the ideals. But that makes us hypocrites, some say, so let’s not have ideals at all. We’ll be honest and throw them out. There is nothing worse than hypocrisy, they judge. Christians reply that in addition to the ideals,  we offer a way forward, an escape from the ashen heap of failure (and hypocrisy charges) and a way toward redemption. Christianity offers confession and repentance, ongoing change, again and again, turning toward the light, banishing the dark.

Sacramental Christianity, liturgical Christianity, offers certain seasons when these cleansings are highlighted in case we forget to confess and repent again and again, in case we think we are just fine as we are and draw into our selves away from love. So as we approach Lent we consider what we should be sorry for, measuring our lives against the Ten Commandments, the Cardinal Sins and Virtues, the many gentle promptings of our consciences.

Christianity, the child of Judaism, is radically different than other religions in this sense. For God is teaching us to love one another by loving us enough to walk among us two thousand years ago. To be sure, there were times when Christians failed to live up to the ideals God revealed in Christ, but there is no comparison between these times (i.e., the Crusades, the Inquisition) and Islamic terrorism, as President Obama stunningly stated at the recent National Prayer Breakfast. There is no comparison either, it should be added, between these dark “hypocritical” times and the secular horrors of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. A secular world without Judaic-Christian foundations, without Western ideals of tolerance and liberty and law, is just as dangerous as a world of terrorism.

Michael J. Ortiz writes recently in the Wall Street Journal:

“While we celebrate our freedoms, such freedoms also give us rampant abortion, commercialized eroticism and laws that make marriage anything one wishes it to mean. If we want the Muslim world to emulate our institutions of democracy, perhaps we should give them reasons for believing that democracy doesn’t automatically have to jettison publicly held moralities that actually ensure those freedoms in the first place.” (emphasis mine)

Indeed. Publicly held moralities. One such ideal we recently celebrated, the romantic love of Saint Valentine’s Day. Amidst the carnage of marriage, deep within, we know we can be better, can love better, that ideals are important even if we can’t attain them. We yearn to truly love and be truly loved so we look to Saint Valentine, a third-century Christian martyr.

Saint Valentine was a bishop. Fifth-century accounts as well as a history compiled by the Diocese of Terni, Italy claim that Bishop Valentine was born in Interamna (today Terni) and imprisoned and tortured in Rome on February 14, 273, beheaded for refusing to deny Christ. He was buried on the Via Flaminia. Over time February 14 became associated with romantic love as well (early spring pairings in nature) and colored the original history.

True love, sacrificial love, is one of the many Christian contributions to the West. Such ideals ensure our freedoms. We must not forget these pillars, and it is good to recall them as a hard-drive becomes corrupted and crashes. I do not want to become corrupted, for I do not want to crash. Just so, I do not want my country to be corrupted, for it will surely crash.

It is good to remember we are creatures of Adam, that we are but dust, and it is good to have an ashen cross drawn upon our foreheads this coming Wednesday. It is good to say, I’m sorry, I repent. I will try and be better. I will repent and be forgiven. For only then will my dust one day rise from the ashes, from death to life eternal.

Barbarians at the Gates

starWe headed for church this morning to celebrate the Epiphany, the coming of the Wise Men to worship the Christ Child, the following of the star to the manger. We drove through a thick fog, a bone-chilling fog. The damp fit my mood, as I reflected on the horrific massacres of this past week. For wildfires breached once again the fire trail of Western civilization. The barbarians entered the gates of Paris and the free world. Where was that Epiphany star?

The killers were attacking the West by trying to silence us. I, for one, prefer logical debate to satire, respect to ridicule. It troubles me when Christian images are ridiculed and defiled; I know how it feels. But we in the West discuss our differences in peaceful forums.

Peggy Noonan recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

“Without free speech no difference of opinion can be resolved, no progress made in the law or in politics, no truth found and held high, no scandal unearthed and stopped…We know on some level that this is how civilization keeps itself together.”

So the issue in the Paris massacre is not that the publisher should have been more restrained. The cartoonists were not “at fault” for their caricatures. The issue is how civil society deals with disagreement. We do not grab a rifle and shoot. We express our grievances through debate, speech, the courts.

Clearly terrorists who kill in the name of their god do not agree with our laws, or how we choose to redress insults. They are not interested in converting us to their beliefs through debate and apologetics. They are interested in forcing our submission, and submission is not peace. Submission is not freedom. We in the West honor freedom.

There are many trends in Western culture that I find disturbing, and so I wrote a novel about them called The Fire Trail (just finished the first draft). One of the themes is the need for individuals in our culture of freedom to practice self-discipline, to consider one another’s feelings. But without faith institutions to curtail excesses in word and image, we seem to be at a loss. We do not want to, nor should we, limit speech by legal means. It is far better, to be sure, to limit ourselves, to control our urge to ridicule.

In many universities some who see themselves offended have tried to limit free speech, by naming offensive speech “hate speech.” This is a dangerous road to travel. I would rather be offended than to criminalize offensive (hate) speech. Protection of free speech is far too important, far too intrinsic to who we are as a people. We need this First Amendment right in order to survive.

Perhaps it is simply easier to claim offense than to engage in debate. It is easier to ridicule than to reason. Perhaps both sides – the offender and the offended – act and react simplistically out of laziness, mental sloth. Perhaps they are used to easy and not trained in the difficult.

Much has been written about the need for the return of virtue to the public square. The West was built on Judeo-Christian virtues, blended with Greek virtues. As faith recedes, how do we return faith’s virtues to the public square? Without the authority of that Judeo-Christian God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how can we survive and still be free?

The Jewish legacy of the Ten Commandments gave us laws to honor God and one another. The Greeks spoke of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, courage. Christianity added faith, hope, and charity, giving us seven virtues to battle the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride.

I have often thought that if we practiced these virtues, or confessed and repented the vices, the sins, we would have little need for legal restraints. But we are children of Adam and Eve. It is difficult to practice these all the time; we are constantly tempted. It is easy to envy and be angry, even easier to be gluttonous and greedy. It is easy to lust, encouraged by the soft porn all around us. And pride honors all sins and has no need for virtues, not admitting they exist. Pride lives in denial. It’s blinding.

How do we infuse the public square with the desire to be good? We cannot legislate goodness. We cannot legislate love, honor, respect for one another. This is the great question of the twenty-first century, how to revive the legacy of faith as faith dims, as churches close and their lights go out.

So my little novel is my small peaceful contribution to the debate, a quiet call to recognize that the barbarians are on our borders, to admit our pride and our denial. I fear such admission and recognition may be too late for Europe, as one commentator lamented, but America has hidden strengths and is used to changing course and doing battle. Never before has there been such a need for such a change of course.

As the great Anglican scholar, C. S. Lewis, wrote in Mere Christianity: 

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

So as I gazed this morning in church upon the Christ Child in the manger, I knew it would all work out, in the end, for God’s glory. For there are still wise men who will bring their gifts to him and, in so doing, to our world. There are still shepherds who will bow before the Christ Child, who will care for the sheep who cannot care for themselves. There is still the love of Mary and Joseph, who show us how to practice virtue, how to say “yes” to God and how to hear his voice, in vision or dream or word or sacrament.

The great gift of Christmas, our preacher said this morning, is also the great gift of Easter. It is the gift of life itself, life on earth and life in eternity. And they are the same, he said, for eternity is now.

The great gift of Christmas is the gift of God to our world, the light shining in the darkness. It is the gift of love, and yes, the gift of Western Civilization, of civilized culture. For our culture – our freedom – has been built upon that gift, and that world is now threatened. We value life and love and freedom; others do not. The choice is clear. We must look to the star of Bethlehem, to the Shepherds, to the Wise Men, and to Abraham and Isaac.

We must return virtue to the public square and to the world.

A French Country Wedding

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We witnessed my niece’s wedding this weekend in the French countryside. 

The wedding was held outdoors at Domain des Evis, a fifteenth-century fortified farmhouse set in the rural landscape of the Perche region, not far from Verneuil-sur-Avre on the Normandy border. The few days before, unseasonable torrential rains poured upon the land, nearly flooding the narrow roads, but a Saturday sun worked its way mightily through dark billowing clouds.

We took our places on benches under the suddenly bright sun and watched the bridesmaids step up the aisle, followed by the bride, arm in arm between her father and her brother. It was a curious blend of old and new, and the secular ceremony, while never mentioning God, spoke of love and commitment and how-we-met. Poems were read and vows exchanged, hearts were touched, and eyes were moist with tears. The wedding reflected the beliefs of the bride and groom, as it surely should, for they are poised on the edge of a dying culture in a France tragically beautiful in its diminished faith.

Later, during the dinner, since they had asked me to speak as my niece’s godmother, I mentioned God who, while not invited to the wedding, was ever-present, loving them anyway:

As godmother I made my own vows for my niece at her baptism, and as her godmother I said a few extra prayers each evening, asking God to bless her. The prayers clearly worked, for she has found her prince charming who is now added to my list of intercessions each evening. And now two families have been united…

Weddings are rites of passage. The philosopher Roger Scruton notes that “rites of passage are the vows that bind generation to generation across the chasm of our appetites.” In this rite of passage we call marriage, family and friends of many generations witness the vows of love between a man and a woman. The vows are made in a public ceremony, before a community that gives assent and approval by their presence. When the bride walks up the aisle, alongside a member or members of her family, the journey through the gathered witnesses reflects her journey from one family into another, as well as the creation of a new family. This is the “giving away” of the bride and as archaic as it may sound in today’s world, it represents a giving over to the groom certain responsibilities, that of loving, protecting, and sheltering the future mother of his children.

The wedding ceremony in our Anglican Book of Common Prayer states that matrimony is a holy estate. Indeed, it is considered one of the seven sacraments, for it is sacred. Matrimony produces life, and all of life is holy, sacred. With marriage comes the blessing of children, and those children will step through their own rites of passage…

I thank my niece and her new husband for sharing this sacred day with us. Love and cherish one another, comfort one another, honor one another. Have and hold one another, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health. Be true to one another…

It is curious, I now reflect, that as the Judeo-Christian roots of Western Civilization shrivel, folks cling to these shadowy memories of faith. They hold on to the symbols and ceremonies that speak truth even though they don’t believe in the author of those truths, he who designed our marvel-ous natures, he who created us to love. For without belief in the source of love, the symbols and ceremonies will wither and disappear. How many generations will it take for nihilism to eclipse Christianity? And how many generations will it take for the religions of death to fill the void left behind?

We are entering a new Dark Age, for we take for granted the inheritance bequeathed by Judaism and Christianity, the values that birthed our culture of freedom. It is this heritage of liberty protected by law, rights birthed by responsibility, marriage and family ordained by sacraments, governance authorized by democracy, that has defined the Western world and has given hope to peoples living in poverty and tyranny. It is this Judeo-Christian culture of the West, planted and watered for millennia, that is envied the world over by refugees, regardless of their own beliefs. Immigrants flood our borders for they understand what and who we are. We all know the Western world is not perfect, for it is shaped by humans, but it is our best and brightest hope for the future and for peace.

So on Saturday we heard good words in this elegant and sweetly beautiful marriage ceremony beneath stone towers and alongside dry moats of medieval stone. We saw love blossom, taking root in the garden of marriage whether the lovers believed in the sacrament or not. Their love was watered by the words and the vows and the faux-rituals. One day they will hopefully bear children so that another generation will water the roots of our culture, if they can remember this day and others like it. Perhaps, in the future, they shall recognize the God who loves them so, reflected in the leaves.

I’m glad I was able to attend the wedding of my sister’s daughter, who I held in my arms the first week of her life. I’m glad I was present to see our two families intertwined, one French and one American. My prayer list is longer, and I rejoice in this binding of generations.