Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Easter Week: Abiding in His Resurrected Presence

O God, who by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light: Grant that we, who have been raised with him, may abide in his presence and rejoice in the hope of eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be dominion and praise for ever and ever. Amen.
The Collect for Tuesday in Easter Week

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Now that Easter Day has come (and gone), we in the Church are offered the opportunity to experience the Resurrection as more than a “one-shot deal” by entering into the Great Fifty Days of Easter. Eastertide is the longest season of the Church Year (the so-called “Green Season” after Pentecost is not, technically, a season but “ordinary time”). This is of great significance. For, the Church Year is more than an assemblage of events and commemorations: it is for us a proclamation of the Gospel message itself, lived out in that most precious gift of time.

Easter Season begins with Easter Week, which is the only official Octave in the Episcopal Church’s Calendar. In this usage, Octave means an eight-day celebration of a particular feast.  The period from the First Eucharist of Easter at the Great Vigil until the end of Thomas Sunday (the 2nd Sunday of Easter) forms one “day” of celebrating the news of the Resurrection. Since Eastertide—a 50 day season—is a “week of weeks” plus the Day of Pentecost, the first week of rejoicing really amounts to letting the reality of the Day of Resurrection settle in; afterwards, the meaning and impact of what this New Life is about will be explored.

But before we hurry on to all those Sundays of Easter, we do well to recall one Very Big Fact: that Jesus Christ is Risen. This is the point, the essence, the totality. New Life has appeared, Life that is not conditioned by death, defined by death, in dialog with death. And this kind of Life (Zoƫ life, in Greek) is fundamentally at odds with what passes for life in the world and (far too often) the institutional Church.

Each day of Easter Week, we are immersed in another part of the Resurrection accounts, digging deeper and deeper into the fact of Resurrection, venturing like people long locked in a dark room into the bright light of a mid-summer noon. We do this because resurrection is not natural to us and our world. It is profoundly unnatural, and the world we are in hates it and fights it like poison. Like Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Risen Christ in the Gospel according to John, it is going to take us a lot to accept that this has really happened, that the gardener really is Jesus, and that we can’t just go back to life as it was…because that “life” is over, swallowed up by Life as it is.

This is why we need to monitor rather carefully our haste to “move on” from Easter Day, and why Easter Week and the Great 50 Days are so important in our calendar. If we come to think of the period after Pentecost each year as “normal life,” and if we are inclined to treat the season of resurrection as just another liturgical curiosity, we are making clear that this—and probably the rest of the Liturgical Year—is really just so much show, magic, and empty pomp. But, for those who (in the language of today’s collect) take the time to abide in Christ’s resurrected presence, we there find out both the ways we are tempted to return to death masquerading as life, and Christ’s power to overcome this temptation.

One small way I was taught to put the “spanner” of Christ’s resurrection into the well-oiled works of death in our secular world is to begin each letter and e-mail during the Great 50 Days with the Paschal Greeting: “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” In its simple way, it brings the reality of this new Life into the unreality of our daily life, yet does so in the kindest manner. It helps me abide in Easter and its message throughout the season, and reminds me that Christ really has “destroyed death and brought light and immortality to life,” even in the usually un-evangelized recesses of my correspondence and “practical” communication.

Eastertide will move on from the Octave of Easter, contemplating the Paschal Mystery from the other side of the Tomb in myriad ways…but this week, let us simply let it soak in, abiding in His resurrected presence long enough that the rejoicing we felt on Easter Day truly becomes a song we take up each day and in the face of every temptation and trial. Then—and only then, perhaps—the resurrection will move from being merely a doctrine to an experience in our lives as disciples.

And that is what makes for a true witness to Christ as Lord: when we shine with his light, his love in all the recesses and relationships of our life. No truer evangelism exists than being transparent to Christ’s resurrection.

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Holy Week: Not Tourists but Pilgrims

When the church is readied for the Great Vigil
of Easter, do we participate as tourists, or pilgrims?
We are often quick to treat those coming to our churches as tourists—as consumers to whom we will offer a set of services designed to make their journey easier, more fun, and less complicated. Somehow, we seem to think, if we just lower the bar enough and make it accessible enough, they will stay. Yet this discounts the power of the journey, the richness of self-offering. Those coming through our doors are not necessarily looking for an easy faith—their lives are not easy and they need a faith demanding and complex enough to actually call them into newness of being. (from “Yearning,” by Robert Hendrickson, p. 8)

Holy Week and Easter are, without doubt, at the center of our lives as Christians and in the life of this parish. What can seem to an outsider as only a lot of work for an annual festivity is, for us, participating in the mystery of salvation, the source of meaning. Without the Triduum, the Vigil, the Agape Feast, we would be left with the “lowered bar” with its correspondingly diminished journey and sense of self-offering Fr. Hendrickson describes in the above quote. For us, the Christian life is not tourism built on convenience, but a sacred pilgrimage founded on the personal experience of Christ’s death and resurrection, alive and working in and through us as individuals and as a community.

There is immense pressure to make the Church just another consumable, another ideology amongst many. The idea of “lowering the bar” is commonplace when we turn the Church into just another business, social-service provider, or club. In our age, confusing inclusiveness with trivialization is perhaps the norm. But when we hear the words of Christ from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” we cannot respond by "lowering the bar:" it is rather up to us to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, in his strength and doing his will, carrying our own cross in often difficult and demanding lives.

It is often said that Christianity is something caught, not taught. I find this very true. Only when the Gospel has become our experience of Truth, our experience of Life is it really the Source of our existence, not merely an extraneous consumer item or ideology. Similarly, spiritual tourism is a dead end, a dry river, an empty daydream. We cannot tour our way to Christ, always taking the position of a spectator or observer: we must dive in to waters of faith as true participants, and there be held by Christ who is Life.

What we are all about to experience in the sacred Triduum is an invitation to pilgrimage deeper into the mystery of God and the mystery of our life and that of our brothers and sisters—indeed, the very Creation itself. This is our self-offering of will and presence, and it is essential. It is the “narrow door” through which we must pass in order to receive the gift that only comes when we forsake the trivialized life of the mere consumer or tourist.

I pray that none of us will choose to ignore this invitation, and that we will extend an invitation to all around us who hunger for authentic, transformative encounter with Christ. All of us crave this newness of being (we were made for it, after all), and it will be offered freely and with great power in the liturgies of Holy Week. Rather than “lowering the bar” and hiding out in the “tourist spots” of faith, let us journey together with Christ from death to eternal life!