For Advent, I’ll be keeping the Holy Trinity blog (http://holytrinitychatham.tumblr.com/) humming with new content, reflections, images, etc. Start following and let me know how Advent is going for you (firstname.lastname@example.org).
An Advent Reading Tradition - A Lost Chapter from Herodotus
by C. S. Lewis
And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and the north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, and though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from other barbarians who occupy the north- western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.
In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas, and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card . But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival, guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the market-place is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.
But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.
They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.
But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest and the most miserable of citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk in the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchasers become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think that some great calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the ExmasRush .
But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with theRush , lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.
Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas , which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.) But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, It is not lawful, O Stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left. And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, It is, O Stranger, a racket ; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis ).
But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For the first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.
Seamus Heaney blew my mind when I read “Tollund Man” in an Irish Poetry class my junior year at Appalachian State. Reading it was like having someone paint an image in my mind with careful but potent strokes. I gobbled up his poetry that year. It saddened me to hear of his death last week.
Over the years, particularly as I’ve become more rooted in my faith and service to Christ and his Church, I often wondered about Heaney’s faith. He was thoughtful but seemed content to write earthy, boggish, Irish poetry. Nothing in reading his work led me to believe anything one way or another about what he may believe about the Divine, or Jesus, or anything for that matter.
Today, I read an article by Cathleen Falsani entitled, “The unsilenced voice of Seamus Heaney.” It’s a good read with a great poem by Heaney which I’ve never read before. It explains a lot. And yet, as it was with him, he paints his picture, draws you in close but then turns and goes, leaving you wanting more.
A FOUND POEM
Like everybody else, I bowed my head during the consecration of the bread and wine, lifted my eyes to the raised host and raised chalice, believed (whatever it means) that a change occurred.
I went to the alter rails and received the mystery on my tongue, returned to my place, shut my eyes fast, made an act of thanksgiving, opened my eyes and felt time starting up again.
There was never a scene when I had it out with myself or with an other. The loss of faith occurred off stage. Yet I cannot disrespect words like ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘host’ or even ‘communion wafer.’ They have an undying pallor and draw, like well water far down.
(read at last Thursday’s Morning Prayer - Eucharist service.)
The Lord himself gave this order to his commandments: the commandment to love God is the first and greatest, and the commandment to love one’s neighbour is second in order and like the first, or rather it completes the first and depends on it.
We possess the power to love implanted in us from the first moment that we were formed. The proof of this is not external, but can be learnt from within oneself because by nature we desire beautiful things and without being taught we have affection for those near to us and towards all our benefactors. Now what is more marvellous than the divine beauty? What desire is so keen and intolerable as that which comes from God upon the soul cleansed from all evil and causes it to cry, I am wounded by love? Wholly indescribable and inexplicable are the flashes of the divine beauty: speech cannot express them, hearing cannot receive them. This beauty is unseen by fleshly eyes, and comprehended only by the soul when it has illumined one of the saints and left in them the sting of intolerable desire. Oppressed by this life as if it were a prison. Those souls touched by the divine desire could hardly restrain themselves, they had an insatiable desire to behold the divine beauty and prayed that their contemplation of the sweetness of the Lord might last on into life eternal. So then, humans naturally desire beauty. But the good is properly beautiful and lovable. Now God is good, and all things desire good. Therefore all things desire God.
As we have been commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves, we can also ask whether we have power from God to fulfil this commandment too. Now we all know that a human being is a tame and sociable animal, not a solitary and fierce one, for nothing is so characteristic of our nature as to associate with one another, to need one another and to love our kind. So the Lord himself first gave us the seeds of these things, and now demands their fruits, saying, A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. He even links the commandments in such a way as to transfer to himself the good done to our neighbour, for he says, I was hungry and you gave me food, and adds: As you did it to one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to me. Therefore in keeping the first commandment one also keeps the second: and through the second one returns again to the first. The one who loves the Lord also loves his neighbour and the one who loves his neighbour also loves God, since God accepts the favour as conferred on himself.
Isn’t it interesting how essential the paradoxes are? The sweet and the bitter are there for me today.
As to the sweet, today is my youngest son’s ninth birthday. I remember like it was yesterday when I first saw his face. He has been a joy to our family with his energy and curiosity and humor. I cannot imagine my life without him being in it.
As to the bitter, Gary, a friend from my childhood, died this morning. He was 41 and had been suffering from brain cancer. He is the second friend from my neighborhood to die this year. It’s a bit strange, to say the least, to bid farewell this soon to two old friends.
Life here is marked both by celebrating our joys and fullness but also by lamenting the losses of that which we enjoyed and received. While this place is transient, there is that other country which beckons. It is free from changes and chances. And there is our hope. So it matters how we live and it matters how we die. May we do both well.
Reminds me of this old prayer:
GOOD Lord, give me the grace so to spend my life, that when the day of my death shall come, though I feel pain in my body, I may feel comfort in soul; and with faithful hope of Thy mercy, in due love towards Thee and charity towards the world, I may through Thy grace part hence into Thy glory. Amen.
Spiritual renewal will only happen when “local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.”
Our culture’s pursuit of happiness does not prepare us well for pain, grief, or mourning. We anaesthetise ourselves against all discomfort and disappointment. We are in denial about the ravages of death – with collagen to keep our skin taught and steroids to keep our muscles bulking we research the possibilities of anti-aging medicine and if all else fails; cryonics. Generally we will not discuss death or dying except to promote euthanasia – yet another attempt to avoid reality. Animals are no longer killed or ‘put down’ now they are ‘euthanased’. - See more at: http://phillipjensen.com/articles/why-wasnt-there-a-eulogy/#sthash.kw9olfak.dpuf
At this past Thursday morning’s Eucharist, I read a sermon Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached in Berlin on Pentecost Sunday, 1932. It was the occasion of his nephew Thomas’ baptism. The text for the sermon was 1 John 4:16:
God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
That afternoon, I was preparing a homily for a wedding this weekend and wishing I could just read Bonhoeffer’s sermon in the place of what I was writing. It’s that good. I am preaching about the meaning of true love (can’t help but think about how much I sound like this guy) and Bonhoeffer gets it so right.
He begins his sermon by stating that by faith and through our baptism we are not free from fate but we become bound the Lord of fate, who just happens to be the God of love! And to so live in relationship with this God is to know your life, every corner of it, is in his hands. The laws your human life seems subject to, are broken through when his love comes over you.
The response to this God who is love is and must always be to abide in his love. I’ll quote from the final paragraphs of this fine sermon.
To abide in love means to have open eyes, to be able to see something that only a few see, namely, the outstretched, begging hands of the others who are along the way, and now not be able to do anything else but to act, to help, to do one’s duty, using everything one has. That may be here or there. Most important is that, wherever it is, one can always allow oneself to be interrupted by God.
But one can only abide in love unknowingly. Just as the eye does not see itself, love does not see itself. If I think that I am abiding in love, I am not abiding in love, because I am seeing myself. But only in blindness toward myself do I, abiding in love, walk my path with the confidence of God. I believe all things; I hope all things; I endure all things; I forgive all things. If it is really all things until the end, then there is no disappointment, no doubt, no stopping. Then it is true that love never ends but continues through from time into eternity.
Those who abide in love take not the prescribed path of excellence in the world but their own, often incomprehensible, often foolish paths. They lack the last bit of worldly cleverness that is called selfishness. But in these foolish, strange paths the one who has eyes to see will see some of the glow from God’s own glory.
Only one person walked that path in the world completely. It led him to the cross. It leads us through the cross, but to the true life in God.
God’s glory revealed in abiding love.
When you talk to people who have committed themselves to Christian marriage for many years and have worked to stay engaged with one another, to press into one another and nurture intimacy, you learn how selfless they have become.
When you ask them how this has happened, they really can’t give you a good answer. It just happened. Abiding in love for one another quietly subverts your natural tendencies. The grace given in a most sacramental way at marriage works it way into the whole thing. It takes much time. But what you can see is that marriage can make you more like Christ and in doing so, make you holy.
May it be so for those being married during this season at Holy Trinity.
I’ve been reading Thomas Smail’s “Reflected Glory: The Spirit in Christ and Christians” and have quite enjoyed it. Smail, a Scottish theologian who was ordained an Anglican priest, was a charismatic. He was a proponent of the renewal movement though he became increasingly convinced the Anglican liturgical tradition was indeed a gift of the Spirit in and of itself.
Here is an interesting paragraph on the role of the gifts of the Spirit in manifesting Christ in our relationships:
In the New Testament both sanctification and charismatic empowering are essentially corporate in character. The fruit of the Spirit is less a catalogue of individual virtues, than the forms of relationship that bind together the Body of Christ; the gifts of the Spirit are less individual endowments, far less spiritual status symbols, than ways in which we work together within the Body of Christ. The “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” of Galatians 6:22, 23, are descriptions of the way we relate together in the Church, so that our relationships manifest Christ.
Thomas Smail, “Reflected Glory,” page 130.
It seems to me Smail is correct. Spiritual gifts of any flavor are not contingent on the propensity of the individual’s relationship with Christ. As in, “I am so intimately connected with Christ, I have _____ gift.” Smail’s point is the gifts are made real in the context of the church’s needs. That is the gifts are contingent on what is necessary for the Christian community.
I knew waking up this morning would mean learning more details from the tragedy in Moore, OK. It is always difficult to reconcile any tragedy, to make it fit nice and neatly within our categories. It is especially difficult when the tragedy is this massive and includes children. Our deep longing for justice is violated and we often do not know what to do with the emerging emotions.
We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Weâve decided to quit being a welcoming church. No kidding. Weâre giving it up. It wonât be easy, but weâre committed to it. Weâll have to do it in stages, easing our folks into it step by step. We…
Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.
Where is that fire which once descended
On thy Apostles? thou didst then
Keep open house, richly attended,
Feasting all comers by twelve chosen men.
Such glorious gifts thou didst bestow,
That th’ earth did like a heav’n appeare;
The starres were coming down to know
If they might mend their wages, and serve here.
The sunne, which once did shine alone,
Hung down his head, and wisht for night,
When he beheld twelve sunnes for one
Going about the world, and giving light.
But since those pipes of gold, which brought
That cordiall water to our ground,
Were cut and martyr’d by the fault
Of those, who did themselves through their side wound,
Thou shutt’st the doore, and keep’st within;
Scarce a good joy creeps through the chink:
And if the braves of conqu’ring sinne
Did not excite thee, we should wholly sink.
Lord, though we change, thou art the same;
The same sweet God of love and light:
Restore this day, for thy great name,
Unto his ancient and miraculous right.
I’ve never heard Dietrich Bonhoeffer speak to the importance of the sacraments at length. He’s always presented to me as a fairly standard inheritor of the Pietist movement within Lutheranism which is why I was both surprised and encouraged by his Ascension Day sermon, entitled “Joy of the Ascension” from The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a magnificent sermon for the day. It speaks to true Christian joy and the hope that is rightfully ours as Christians. Here are his closing words
Christ’s ascension—the curtain falls, the church of faith waits, and its joy is the sacrament. Christ’s coming again—heaven opens up. Home at last, our thirst is slaked—the community of the blessed sees the incomprehensible mystery. Its joy is Jesus Christ, none other than God. At present we are still strangers, wandering in the time between his ascension and his second coming, waiting long in hope and fear. But the ransomed of the Lord shall return with singing, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads [Isa. 35:10]. Rejoice, o Christendom. Amen.
Julian’s feast day is tomorrow, May 8th. Revelations of Divine Love is worth a read (only .99 on Kindle).
For our soul is so specially loved by him who is highest, that it surpasses the knowing of all creatures: that is to say, there is no creature made who can fully grasp quite how much and how sweetly and how tenderly our maker loves us. And therefore, only with his grace and his help may we stand in spiritual contemplation, forever marvelling at the lofty, overflowing and inestimable love that almighty God has for us in his goodness. And so with reverence we can ask of our lover all that we will.
The programmatic and singular place of Jesus was without parallel or precedent in the Jewish matrix in which earliest Jesus-followers emerged. So in that Roman religious environment, early Christian prayer-practice reflected sense of having a particular and distinguishing identity.
Great letter on keeping the faith from Flannery O'Connor
A letter sent to me from a friend between Flannery O’Connor and Alfred Corn - now a rather famous poet and editor, but at the time he was just a confused kid. He wrote to O’Connor after hearing her at Emory U his freshman year. He was convinced that he was losing his faith — so he wrote to her for advice (a total stranger). This was the first letter back of many that were exchanged between them. I love how she handles all of this with so much coolness and vigilance at the same time. I love this line:
Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian skepticism. It will keep you free – not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.
To Alfred Corn,
I think that this experience you are having of losing your faith, or as you think, of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this.
I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief. This may be the case always and not just in the 20th century. Peter [sic] said, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” It is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.
As a freshman in college you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of ideas, new frames or reference, an activation of the intellectual life which is only beginning, but which is already running ahead of your lived experience. After a year of this, you think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it, but you are too young to decide you don’t have faith just because you feel you can’t believe. About the only way we know whether we believe or not is by what we do, and I think from your letter that you will not take the path of least resistance in this matter and simply decide that you have lost your faith and that there is nothing you can do about it.
One result of the stimulation of your intellectual life that takes place in college is usually a shrinking of the imaginative life. This sounds like a paradox, but I have often found it to be true. Students get so bound up with difficulties such as reconciling the clashing of so many different faiths such as Buddhism, Mohammedanism, etc., that they cease to look for God in other ways. Bridges once wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he, Bridges, could believe. He must have expected from Hopkins a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, “Give alms.” He was trying to say to Bridges that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for the divine image in human beings). Don’t get so entangled with intellectual difficulties that you fail to look for God in this way.
The intellectual difficulties have to be met, however, and you will be meeting them for the rest of your life. When you get a reasonable hold on one, another will come to take its place. At one time, the clash of the different world religions was a difficulty for me. Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. The reason this clash doesn’t bother me any longer is because I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of heaven and earth. You can’t fit the Almighty into your intellectual categories. I might suggest that you look into some of the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man et al.). He was a paleontologist–helped to discover Peking man–and also a man of God. I don’t suggest that you go to him for answers but for different questions, for that stretching of the imagination that you need to make you a skeptic in the face of much that you are learning, much of which is new and shocking but which when boiled down becomes less so and takes place in the general scheme of things. What kept me a skeptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.
If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation. For every book you read that is anti-Christian, make it your business to read one that presents the other side of the picture; if one isn’t satisfactory read others. Don’t think that you have to abandon reason to be a Christian.
A book that might help you is The Unity of Philosophical Experience by Etienne Gilson. Another is Newman’s The Grammar of Assent. To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to go to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you. Much of the criticism of belief that you find today comes from people who are judging it from the standpoint of another and narrower discipline. The Biblical criticism of the 19th century, for instance, was the product of historical disciplines. It has been entirely revamped in the 20th century by applying broader criteria it, and those people who lost their faith in the 19th century because of it, could better have hung on in blind trust.
Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It’s there, even when he can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian skepticism. It will keep you free – not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you. I don’t know if this is the kind of answer that can help you, but any time you care to write me, I can try to do better.
Source: The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979), pages 476-78.
In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.
This has been a rich Eastertide. I’ve found my soul strengthened and encouraged in surprising ways. Jesus Christ has come to me in ways I did not plan or suspect.
But isn’t that the way it is with Resurrection? The Resurrection of Jesus Christ by all accounts took everyone by surprise. No one was expecting him to return. He told them he would… yet they were not prepared for Easter. I love the sense of shock at what may have been the original ending to St. Mark’s Gospel:
"And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)
The Resurrection happened in the dark and in the quiet. There was no fanfare, no bells of the Great Vigil, no anticipation. They had no idea what was to come.
What I find most exhilarating is how this cosmos changing event occurred and the disciples did nothing to effect its going or coming. They were huddled away worried about a plethora of other things but certainly not about planning an Easter celebration brunch!
Three things come to mind.
First, most of us, et ego, overestimate our own contribution to what God is doing. Even in the life of the Church, we busy ourselves to the detraction of our own God awareness. God awareness comes when we live out this logic, “If I know God is at work all around me (he is everywhere present and filling all things), then I am to be faithful and do no more, so I may wait and watch for him.”
Second, we cannot master spiritual formation. My soul is shaped by encounter with the Beloved. I can hope to remove impediments that might prevent this encounter. But he comes when he wills. The soul cannot control its Beloved nor should it want to. The psalmist declares his posture of desperate waiting, “My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning.” (Psalm 130:6) And, “As the deer longs/pants for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God.” (Psalm 42:1)
Third, resurrection stories reveal such pure surprise and uncensored amazement…and fear. How we have lost the ability to be astonished. Our knowledge of the world around us and our grasp of the inmost workings of things makes the world more domesticated and safe. Chesterton (I think) said, “The greatest of all illusions is the illusion of familiarity.” Familiarity puts to death the ability to respect and experience wonder. When we are no longer poised for surprise or amazement then we have truly lost an important part of what it means to be creature, to be human, and to know the fear of the Lord.
Prayer, … to speak somewhat boldly, is to converse with God. Even if we address him in a whisper, without opening our lips or uttering a sound, still we cry to him in our heart. For God never ceases to listen to the inward conversations in our hearts. For this reason also we raise our head and lift our hands towards heaven, and stand on tiptoe as we join in the closing prayer, following the eager flight of the spirit into the intelligible world.
And while we endeavor to detach the body from the earth by lifting it upwards along with the uttered words, we spurn the fetters of the flesh and constrain the soul, winged with desire of better things, to ascend into the holy place. And since the East symbolizes the day of birth, and it is from thence that the light spreads after it has first ‘shone forth out of darkness’ …, and indeed from thence that the day of the knowledge of the truth dawned like the sun upon those who were lying in ignorance, … therefore our prayers are directed towards the place where the sun rises. It was for this reason that the most ancient temples looked towards the West in order that they who stood facing the images might be taught to turn eastwards. ‘Let my prayer ascend up as incense before thee, the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice’ is the language of the Psalms.
Frederick Buechner writes of his conversion to Christ upon hearing those words preached by the famous New York City Presbyterian preacher, George Buttrick. I’ve always loved those words and thinking about how joy is an inseparable part of the Christian life. It has to be, even while it emerges from confession and tears.
Here are Buuchner’s own words from The Sacred Journey.
Jesus Christ refused the crown that Satan offered him in the wilderness, Buttrick said, but he is king nonetheless because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, “among confession, and tears, and great laughter.” It was the phrase great laughter that did it, did whatever it was that I believe must have been hiddenly in the doing all the years of my journey up till then. It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon.
Unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy
Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you … remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business … even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought … unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy … What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort … than being able from time to time to stop that chatter …
Holy week… The most important seven days in the history of man… Although the exact sequence of events is not always clear to us, we can discern, even now, the straight lines of divine order… Sunday: The garments in the dust - the Hosannahs as the prelude to the “Crucify.”… Monday: Sermons with the urgent note of finality - the withered fig tree - Caesar’s coin… Tuesday: The terrifying wrath of the Lamb over institutionalized and personal sin among the Scribes and Pharisees - the fire and color of His last sermon to the city and the world - the sureness of justice and the coming of judgment… Night and prayer in the light of the Easter moon on the Mount of Olives…
Wednesday is silent… If anything happened, the holy writers have drawn the veil… Everything that God could say before the Upper Room had been said… It was man’s turn now… Perhaps there were quiet words in a corner of the Garden, both to His children who would flee and to His Father who would stay… Wednesday was His… The heart of that mad, crowded Holy Week was quiet… Tomorrow the soliders would come, and Friday there would be God’s great signature in the sky… Thursday and Friday would belong to time and eternity, but Wednesday was of heaven alone…
Silent Wednesday… If our Lord needed it, how much more we whose life is the story of the Hosannah and the Crucify… Time for prayer, for adoration… Time to call the soul into the inner court and the Garden… In our crowded world we are lonely because we are never alone… No time to go where prayer is the only sound and God is the only light… We need more silent Wednesdays… In the glory of the Cross above our dust our silence can become purging and peace… God speaks most clearly to the heart that is silent before Him….
I was alerted to this unusual but not surprising approach to Holy Scripture: The Personal Promise Bible. I enter my name into the field, click the button, and, quick as a whip, the sacred texts which have shaped people of faith for thousands of years are now customized just for little ol’ me. See how 2 Peter is addressed to me?
I don’t typically spend time on snarky posts but this makes me feel awfully snarky. The Bible does speak to us personally in our lives but it is intended to shape the communal and familial life of the people of God. Does the church in the West really need to be more entrenched in its putrid individualism? Must we so domesticate so wondrous a thing?
Walker Percy contrasts the experience of the first European to “discover” the Grand Canyon for the first time (First Nations’ folks aside here in Percy’s mind) with that of the modern sight seer. There is already a “pre-formulation” in the sight seer’s mind, so then the Grand Canyon is experienced not as the wonder it is but based on whether or not it measures up to the expectations formed by the depictions he has seen on a postcard, in a travel book or movie.
I fear a tool that copies and pastes Holy Scripture into such a single dimensional, caricature of itself, turns it into something so familiar and individualized it does not surprise and astonish us anymore. It supports the a priori formulation that whatever we read in it is just for us. With a few simple key strokes, we can indeed have the Word of God our way.
This morning’s office reading from the Old Testament comes from the prophet Jeremiah 25:1-17. In verse 15, the Lord says to Jeremiah:
"Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. They shall drink and stagger and be crazed because of the sword which I am sending among them.
The Lord did send his sword on the nations he used to judge Israel. In the end, it is never a good thing to be the nation God uses to bring judgment against another nation. But how severe a judgment was to come and how great a mercy?
In a garden the Lord himself prayed that another way might be made for him and the salvation of the world. A way that avoided him turning up that very cup and drinking it himself. The cup of God’s wrath once offered to the nations was there before him. Did he consider this verse from the prophet? Did he fear being staggered and crazed by the sword that would come to him?
I have struggled fitfully and unsuccessfully with the inevitable before. There are situations where the sequence of events is set, the outcome is already decided, and no measure of prayer can dissuade what will come.
Christ faces the inevitable. The cup of wine of wrath will be drained to its dregs by the Lord himself for the salvation of the world.
In Ben Quash’s book Abiding (this year’s recommended book of Lent by the Archbishop of Canterbury), considers arguing as a form of care, a way to stay with someone, and to serve them. Here’s an interesting quote on the role of liturgy in this:
In light of this comment, I can’t help but think of how confrontational the Collect for Purity actually is! To the unassuming but attentive person, their deceptions and inconsistencies will suddenly be exposed by the presence of Almighty God:
Almighty God, to You all hearts are open, all desires known, and from You no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Or consider how utterly polemical The Great Litany can be! With its thorough and bold petitions, it confronts not only this world but our own lives with the reality of God’s holiness. Just this past week, I found myself confronted not-so-gently with my want of charity, as I prayed:
From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want of charity,
Good Lord, deliver us.
Indeed, Jesus argued with those around him, not to be right, not to inflate his ego, but because he cared for them. His desire was to see their lives properly ordered and thoroughly converted. The liturgy works towards these ends as well.
In Catholic tradition, Francis of Assisi had a mystical vision in which Christ told him to rebuild his Church. In taking the name Francis, this pope seems to be pledging himself to rebuild the image and integrity of a church that has suffered from widespread allegations of corruption, and the cover-up of the child sex abuse by innumerable members of her clergy.
After becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, he sold the archbishop’s palace, preferring instead to live in an apartment. He was known to cook his own meals, and rejected the services of a chauffeur, preferring instead to ride the bus. As Jesuit Provincial, he put an end to the Liberation Theology being taught among Jesuits under him, demanding they stop their involvement in politics, and place their energies on serving the spiritual needs of their people.
This is the man who went to a hospice during Holy Week, and washed the feet of twelve aids patients. Known for a simple lifestyle and for dedication to social justice, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had taken a strong stand against the corruption of politicians and business men in Argentina. He has not only been a champion of the poor, but a champion of democracy.
Pope Francis, upon coming out on the papal balcony, asked the crowd to join him in praying “for our emeritus bishop, Benedict XVI.” Following the “Our Father,” the “Ave Maria,” and “Glory Be” prayers in Italian, the Argentinean then continued: “Now, let’s start working together, walking together…this is part of the governance of love, of trust.”
And before giving the traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing to those in the crowd, the Argentinean asked “for a favor. Before the bishop blesses his people, he asks that you pray to the Lord to bless me, the prayer of the people for the blessing of their bishop.” As he said these words, he bowed his head and clasped his hands. A 15-second silence lasted in the reported 100,000-person crowd.
In taking the name of a saint known for humility and a simple lifestyle, Pope Francis promises to be the Christ-like image of leadership the Roman Catholic Church, and, dare I say, the whole world, needs. With the rise of secularism, atheism, and Islam, the Christ-like witness we see in this pope, promises to be a leaven for the rebuilding of a Christianity that has been in decline. This, to my mind, is a pope we Orthodox can work with, and a man we can love.
This Sunday’s Gospel passage is from John 12:1-8 where Jesus is in Bethany with his friends, Mary, Martha, and the newly resuscitated Lazarus. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with nard and her wipes it on with her hair. A confrontation with Judas ensues about the poor.
Anoint the feet of Jesus: follow the Lord’s footsteps by a good life. Wipe them with your hair (the abundance of your possessions), give to the poor, and you have wiped the feet of the Lord.
The sight of a wounded boxer wearing a victor’s crown would make someone ignorant of the games think only of the boxer’s wounds and how painful they must be. Such a person would know nothing of the happiness the crown gives. And it is the same when people see the things we suffer without knowing why we do so. It naturally seems to them to be suffering pure and simple. They see us struggling and facing danger, but beyond their vision are the rewards, the crowns of victory—all we hope to gain through the contest!
From a friend of a parishioner who died recently. A final entry in her journal:
Notes for my Caretakers: 12/17/12
I’m dying. You would think I would have something important to say. Something profound. I keep reaching for the notepad, but all I can think of are mundane things.
*My trash man, David, is paid quarterly. His next payment is due on 3/5/13. He has to be paid on the 5th in cash or he risk being evicted from the Sleepy Hollow Motel on HWY 29. He lives in a room there with his wife and two kids. If you pay him with a check - he is too proud to let you know he doesn’t have a bank account. You won’t know until the check never clears the account. He speaks very little English, but his daughter Julia who is seven rides with him sometimes and can interpret for him. I hope someone will pay David on time in cash ($250) - even though I’m not here and there is no trash to pick up. When you live paycheck-to-paycheck, one lost client can really hurt. It worries me to think my passing could cause trouble for him and his family. Pay David trash or not!
*The mailman. Our regular mailman has been on vacation in Austin, TX visiting his grandchildren. I’ve know him for seven years, but I don’t know his name. He knows mine of course from the mail, but I never asked his and our friendship has gone one for too long to inquire now. There is a thermos in the cupboard with the name Phillis. Phillis is his wife. Seven years ago his car got stuck in our ditch during a snow storm. I asked him inside while he waited for the tow truck. He brought in the thermos and when he opened it - I smelt the most wonderful cinnamon laced hot apple cider. I complemented him on the aroma and he said that my coffee smelt good to him. He explained that his wife’s family owned Green Apples Orchard in Sperryville and he hated apple cider - had grown weary of it after so many years, but didn’t have the heart to tell his wife who labored all Fall bottling the brew. I offered to trade his cider for my coffee. We traded stories about our children and grandchildren until his car was clear.
He forgot his thermos. So we unintentionally started this ritual. Every Thursday (he’ll leave a note in the mail box if he’s off or his schedule changes) I fill this thermos with instant Folgers (two spoons of coffee/two spoons of cream/two spoons of sugar - boiled water - top & shake). Every Tuesday he leaves the thermos in the mail box for me with hot cider. I worry that he won’t know of my passing and will misunderstand why I’m not keeping things up. Please leave him the attached note the 1st Thursday in February when he’s suppose to return from holiday.
Note: Dear Mailman, I’ve so enjoyed our years of coffee & cider. I fell ill while you were on holiday and at last our ritual will need to come to it’s end. Please remember me when it snows by driving safe. Visit TX more often and cherish Phillis and your grand babies. I’m returning Phillis’ thermos empty, but please know my heart is full. Best, Mrs. Jackson
Postscript: Mr. & Mrs. Cornett brought three jugs of apple cider to my sister, Linda, on 2/14/13. Mrs. Cornett commented that she wondered why the thermos always smelled of coffee. Linda commented that she always wondered who was Phillis and why did we have a thermos with her name.
*Ben Miller is a boy I met at the VA Juvenile Detention Center two years ago when I volunteered as a nurse. He is serving a four year sentence. He’s angry and rude, but an amazing by-ear piano player. My friend, Ruth Lee Davis lost Mr. Davis and her teaching job within the hour. She gives private music lessons to keep the farm. I pay her $150 every month to visit the detention center and teach Ben to read music. For the next two years I would appreciate if this bill would continue to be paid as long as Ruth Lee and Ben are willing and able. Her address is on the refrigerator door and a check can be mailed accordingly. I phoned and made her and Ben aware.
I think all of my other debts are well documented in my bank records. Mr. Willis (you all know him well) our attorney should be able to answer any questions.
I guess this is profound. As I reread my notes, I’m reminded of how Christ concerned himself with the two strangers - the criminals on each side of him as he died on the cross. I guess when it’s all said and done - we’re here to offer what we can to those we encounter. To care for family, friends and strangers alike.
In your final hours you learn that the mundane (breathing, eating, wasting) is profound and what you thought was profound (that next big purchase, what shoes to wear, what so-and-so said) is really mundane. Well I guess that is all for now. If I wake tomorrow we’ll see if there’s more. If I don’t wake tomorrow in my right mind - than this will prove to be enough for a life well lived and a death of old age. They call it natural causes. Trust me - there’s nothing natural about it. It’s the most unnatural experience we all hope to live long enough to abide by. The true knowledge of the grace of God.
About the shoes - always wear the highest heel you can handle or go barefoot. Peace!
God immediately forgives those who ask forgiveness in humility and contrition, who ceaselessly invoke His holy name, who repent to God and unite with Him by frequent and patient prayers and by confessing sins to Him each day.