Saturday, February 16, 2008

Easter, Even In Lent

   St. Timothy's has experienced two funerals in the last eight days. In the very beginning of our Lenten observance, we have already twice done away with our fast from Alleluia, the somber purple vestments of Lent, and the penitential character of the Lenten liturgies. For these two times, we have stood in the radiance of the Resurrected Christ, in the splendor of Easter even while making our way through the Great Fast. It can be a bit jarring for some, but it serves as a valuable reminder of a deep truth.
   The Funeral Liturgy is always an Easter Liturgy. There is never a time when the message of Resurrection at the burial of a Christian should be put aside. Though we fast from the jubilation of Easter during this season, even the Lenten Sundays are not used in reckoning the length of Lent: they are Sundays in Lent -- not Sundays of Lent. That is a small but key difference! Sunday, like the Burial Liturgy, is always a celebration of the Resurrection. Though Lent tempers this, it remains an unalterable fact of the Faith: Life and Redemption are God's final word to us. The hope and power of Christ the Victor shines through, inspiring us and leading us to live lives worthy of our calling.
   The triumph of Christ is a non-negotiable fact in the Christian's life, just as is the suffering on the Cross. The Love and Redemption made known in both places puts the Christian firmly in the hands of God. Jesus promises us that where He goes, His faithful disciples will follow. This means indeed we will go to the Cross with Him, taking up our own cross and following along. It also means that faithful discipleship will bring us to union with God through Christ. Nothing, not even Lent, can deny this... save one thing. We, and we alone, can deny ourselves this gift and joy. As the Burial Liturgy puts it: "Though we go down to the dust, even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia."
Whether we sing this song or another is up to us; whether others will learn this song by association with us is also up to us. A Lenten burial, especially on a sunny, warm, dry February day in the Willamette Valley, reminds us of this fact. 
   Our Lenten observance is not a time to impose an artificial sorrow for sins we were happy to commit and will commit again when opportunity arises. It is a season of joyful return to the song that is always ours, the melody of redemption, humility, service, and love which belongs to us because Christ has given it to us. Let us sing it with the souls of those gone before us into the Kingdom of God; let the Truth of Easter be with us always, especially in this Holy Lenten season.

Friday, February 8, 2008

These Three Things: A Primer on Lenten Observance

Below is a homily by St. Peter Chrysologus (the “golden-worded”, 406-450 A.D.) Bishop of Ravenna. These words express in great economy the spirit with which we must offer our Lenten ascesis. Like the boats shown in this mosaic from Ravenna, the three holy disciplines of prayer, fasting, and mercy will provide us safe transit to the Kingdom of God when offered in a holy manner. May you know a Holy Lent, reaping richly the fruits of repentance!

"There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are
 prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.

 Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.

 When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery.

Let this be the pattern for all men when they practise mercy: show mercy to others in the same way, with the same generosity, with the same promptness, as you want others to show mercy to you.

 Therefore, let prayer, mercy and fasting be one single plea to God on our behalf, one speech in our defence, a threefold united prayer in our favour.

 Let us use fasting to make up for what we have lost by despising others. Let us offer our souls in sacrifice by means of fasting. There is nothing more pleasing that we can offer to God, as the psalmist said in prophecy: A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God does not despise a bruised and humbled heart.

 Offer your soul to God, make him an oblation of your fasting, so that your soul may be a pure offering, a holy sacrifice, a living victim, remaining your own and at the same time made over to God. Whoever fails to give this to God will not be excused, for if you are to give him yourself you are never without the means of giving.

 To make these acceptable, mercy must be added. Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.

 When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others."

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Transfigured, Challenged, Changed

When we are faced with unexpected, holy events, we sometimes let the mask slip and show a bit of who we are. I remember when my first-born was delivered. Pamela had a very difficult, long labor, and then there were signs of fetal distress. The doctor decided that the situation had become serious, and recommended a fairly hasty ceasarean. Suddenly, we were in a operating room and I was speaking to my wife while a screen was being erected, blocking our view of what was really major surgery performed on an anesthetized but fully-conscious person. Things had become very serious very quickly. I was concerned for the safety of my wife and my child. I prayed, I tried to be “in the moment” and supportive…but I was scared. After what seemed like a very short while, I heard a child’s cry. My first thought was: “now this is a very serious and tense situation; WHO LET A CHILD IN HERE?” Only after I had completed this thought did I realize just how idiotic it was.

When St. Peter uttered his famous request to “build booths” as a response to the Transfiguration of Our Lord, it was only natural. He was doing what the religious tradition recognized as an appropriate way of marking the holiness of the event; he was honoring Jesus, Moses and Elijah. But, he was also wrong.

I say this because of a basic rule in prayer: when we are in direct contact with God, it is always a sign of our having lost the point, our being unfocussed when we start multi-tasking in prayer – or when we think about praying while we are praying. As with any face-to-face contact with someone we value (or any one to whom we desire to show common courtesy), we don’t talk on the phone with someone else at the same time. St. Peter is in effect attempting to do this, and it means that he is unable to experience the event as fully as he might. As the Gospel according to Mark says, “he did not know what to say” in his fear. Just as with my son’s birth, he spoke out of his “true self.” With me it was kind of petulant protectiveness. With St. Peter it was a religious impulse to “do the right thing” and enshrine the event.

The Transfiguration means many things; it forms the great transition from Jesus’ ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing in the hinterlands to the final stage of ministry in Jerusalem. It is a foretaste of his Resurrected glory, and deep mystery showing forth Christ’s lordship over the living (Elijah) and the dead (Moses), as well as his being the fulfillment of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). Beyond this, we experience the Uncreated Light of God in the brilliant light issuing forth from Jesus, and the majestic words of the Father: “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased: listen to him.” It is an overwhelming disclosure, a profound experience of the Divine in Jesus.

But it is also a challenge to us as disciples to stand before our Great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, in the moment; not to multi-task, not to think about Jesus when we are in his presence and should simply listen, learn, and love. We cannot control or enshrine the Holy; we can only receive the gift on God's terms and then live it out. When we do, we experience the profound peace that comes from knowing the words in today's Gospel about being “the beloved, in whom God is well pleased” not only describing Christ Jesus, but also us when we are in Christ Jesus. It is that peace, that confidence, that power to be ambassadors of such a message we need to think about today. Then, when we contemplate Holy Lent and the character of what is holding us back from living out that peace, we will know where we are called to place our focus in repentance, ascesis, prayer, and reflection.

In today’s Epistle reading, St. Peter reflects years later on the events of the day of Transfiguration. He understands quite clearly by then the nature and meaning of that holy event – a calling to live lives worthy of the Light we have received in Christ. He speaks about this experience as being a lamp burning in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning-star arises in our hearts. It is a holy reminder of who God is, who we are called to be in God, and the absolute necessity we have to be ready for the moments of transfiguration in daily life presented by God.

The old hymn asks: “Were you there?” Were you there not only when they crucified the Lord, or when they nailed him to the tree, or when they laid him in the tomb? But also, were you there when God presented you with a person needing your care and compassion? Were you there when the Church needed your commitment and gifts? Were you there when God gave you the opportunity to forgive? Were you there when something beautiful, awesome, and profound was offered to you by God? If we were there, but were so busy multi-tasking that we failed to notice what was happening, then we were really not there - dead to God’s work in our life. But, we are given this Feast of the Transfiguration and the season of Lent which begins on Wednesday to wake up from our sleep, to rise from our deathly state, and to turn again to the truth. For that we may thankful, indeed.