Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ember Wednesday in Lent

The background and origin of the Ember Days in the Church's calendar have always been something of a mystery to me and to most other Christians. Just this morning my dear friend, Fr. Leo Joseph, OSF, sent me a copy of his parish newsletter, in which he gives a wonderful summary of what Ember Days are all about. Plus a tempting Lenten recipe! I couldn't help but reproduce it here for the benefit of blog readers:

Today is Ember Wednesday!  Whenever confronted by an unfamiliar observance, a friend of mine years ago in New York City, would always say 'Oh my God! What ever should I wear?' I might have suggested a hair-shirt, but she never wore anything that did not have a designer label sewn in it. In fact, Friday and Saturday of this week are also Ember Days -- the Ember Days of Lent.   

It is often supposed that the ancient Christian church co-opted pagan feasts and reoriented them to Christian purposes, but that actually seems to be true in this instance. In pagan Rome offerings were made to various gods and goddesses of agriculture in the hope that the deities would provide a bountiful harvest. Others point to the  Celtic custom of observing various festivals at three-month intervals: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. 

The Christian observation of this seasonal observance of the Ember Days had its origin in Rome and from Rome the Ember Days gradually spread unevenly to Britain and the whole of Western Christendom. The English name for these days, 'Ember', derives from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren, a circuit or revolution (from ymb, around, and ryne, a course, running), clearly relating to the annual cycle of the year.  

We often find Ember Weeks and Days to be rarely celebrated or discussed amongst Anglicans, except maybe by seminarians who are reminded to write to their bishop this week.  Yet Ember Days are dutifully noted, four times a year, on our Episcopal liturgical  calendars and in the Book of Common Prayer.  But what is compelling is the purposes for which Ember Days remain in our calendar.  They mark the ebb and flow of the seasons with a pause for gratitude to God – not just the transition from spring and summer’s bounty to autumn’s harvest and winter’s rest – but from our birth in baptism, to life in the Eucharist, to anointing and death. Clergy are often ordained during Ember Weeks, to serve as the stewards of these sacramental mysteries.   Priests and deacons are charged to help the people make the bridge from things temporal to things eternal. By that same token, Ember Days allow us all to remember that we live by a different calendar in the Christian Church than that of the secular world.  As Christ’s own, we celebrate Ember Days as a seasonal pause for thanksgiving for God’s gifts, whatever they may be. The Collects for the Ember Days are found in the Book of Common Prayer on pages 205-206 (Traditional) and pages  256-257 (Contemporary) and are titled For the Ministry (Ember Days)...

Having said your prayers, you may now want to slip into the kitchen and prepare this special Ember Day treat that comes down to us from the Middle Ages! 

Ember Day Tart
Since Ember days were considered fasting days this recipe is meatless. Foods on the medieval table didn’t have the definite division  between savoury and sweet that today's foods do. This recipe is slightly sweet, even though it resembles  modern quiche. 

1 pie shell recipe (you may want to buy a good quality pre-made pie shell)  
2 medium onions,
3 eggs  
1 cup cream  
1/4 cup raisins  
1/8 tsp. cinnamon  
1/8 tsp. nutmeg  
Salt and pepper to taste  
1/8 tsp. saffron (optional)  
1 cup soft cheese, such as gruyere (optional)  
1/8 tsp ginger paste (or powdered ginger)  
2 tbsp. butter  
2 tbsp. sugar 
1 cup fresh parsley or cilantro (optional).

Roll out your pie dough and line a pie pan, crimping the edges. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Peel and chop your onions, not too finely. If you are using saffron, heat your cream in the mircowave or on the stove until just hot, then put in the saffron threads. Keep heating just until small bubbles form around the edges, then remove from the heat. 

Saute the onions in the butter until soft and slightly golden.
Spread in the pie shell. Sprinkle the raisins onto the onion layer. If you are using cheese, shred the cheese and sprinkle into the crust next. Break the eggs into a bowl and beat until foamy. Now you need to incorporate the hot cream into the eggs. 
While you are beating, add just 1/4 cup of the cream. When beaten together, add another 1/4 cup, beating constantly.
What you are doing is raising the temperature of the eggs without causing them to cook prematurely. Keeps adding the cream 1/4 at a time until all is added. Now you can add the spices, the sugar, and if you wish, the parsley, chopped finely. Carefully pour into the pie shell. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until the center puffs up. (This shows you the eggs are completely cooked).

Now, wouldn't this be a perfect way to end a rough day of prayer and fasting!

Fr. Leo+

Monday, February 27, 2012

On Turning 75

Today started well: I woke up breathing and able to get out of bed!

The first tune which popped up on my iPod, as I was doing my 30 minutes on the treadmill, fittingly turned out to be Gerald Finzi's arrangement of the Magnificat: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior..."

Though I'm finding it hard to relate to it, my thoughts turn back these days over the past 3/4 of a century since that February 27th day in 1937, two years before the start of World War II, when I emerged in the delivery room of St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Dayton, OH. In past retreats I've used the introduction line: "I was conceived in grace and born of grace, since my mother's name is Grace!" Mom has since gone on to her reward, in 2003, at the age of 88. I can only hope that perhaps I'll have the "grace" to live that long, or beyond.

I think it's not by accident that, over the past few weeks, I was led to pick up and read The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg. During my seminary days and early years in the priesthood, I was a great admirer of Dorothy and a loyal subscriber to the Catholic Worker. At some point I also read her book The Long Loneliness, which, she insists in her diaries, wasn't an autobiography, but rather a story of how she came to conversion in the Catholic faith. As I was reading the diaries, and now that I'm close to finishing them, I realize how similar a view she and I had/have about life, religion, people, etc., even though she was 40 years older than I. It's a regret that I never had the opportunity to meet her, though I remember that my spiritual director at college, Fr. Bob Lechner, had met her and spoke to me about her. She was a remarkable human being and Christian, who had an uncanny realization of what life was all about.

What have I learned in my 3/4 of a century of living? To name but a few things:
- That of all the books of Scripture, the Psalms express most articulately what I feel in the depths of my being.
- That God has created every human being good, even though one is challenged at times to seek and find that goodness.
- That, as Scott Peck has written and as I and others have experienced it, "life is difficult".
- That, if one allows it, hope, indeed, springs in the heart eternal.
- That the beauty and occasions for wonder in this world of people and things is endless.
- That love, which I've never truly understood and, perhaps, have rarely experienced or given, is still possible.
- That it seems to be an unfortunate characteristic of most human beings that they really don't want to know the truth as you perceive it.
- That I have an intense dislike for ants, pit bulls and leaf-blowers, and comprehend no reason why God created them.
- That things are usually never quite as they appear to be, whether for good or ill.
- That I've frequently made life far too complicated than it needs to be.
- That I've been abundantly blessed in the friendships and acquaintances that have come my way.
- That my two best human accomplishments so far were fathering my daughter and son.

At this point in my life, my health is good, my energy level high, my interest in learning and experiencing the world and people about me is ongoing, and my need for inward spiritual growth is vast. 25 more years doesn't seem unreasonable as a goal, but life turns on a dime, so who can know? It's enough to humbly accept whatever days the Lord allots and to try to use them for the best benefit of my fellow human beings.  For now, the words of Psalm 90 are as good a prayer as any:
The span of our life is seventy years,
perhaps in strength even eighty;
yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow,
for they pass quickly and we are gone.

So teach us to number our days
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom...

Satisfy us by your loving-kindness in the morning; 
so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life...

May the graciousness of God be upon us;
prosper the work of our hands;
prosper our handiwork.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Learning To Survive In The Lenten Desert

The Gospel readings of the first and last Sundays after Epiphany and the first Sunday in Lent have a common feature: the testimony of the Holy God that Jesus is "the Beloved" and that God is "well-pleased" with him.  Surely that's a tip-off that this is something extremely important for us to take notice of. In fact, last Sunday's reading verbalizes the need to "listen to him!"

Particularly in Lent, then, Jesus is the model, the exemplar upon whose words and actions ours are to be articulated and done.  In addition to Mark's Gospel reading today (1:9-15), the Collect reminds us that the "blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan...", and it asks that God who "know[s] the weaknesses of each of us" -- far better than we even know ourselves -- will come "quickly to help us...

Using Matthew's version of the temptation (which is used on Epiphany 1) rather than Mark’s, art interpreter, Sister Wendy Beckett, in her delightful little book, Sister Wendy's Meditations on the Mysteries of Our Faith (Liguori, 2007), comments: "We live in Lent for forty days in memory of the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, when he set himself to work out what was his Father’s will for him, and to encounter, unprotected, the full force of temptation... Matthew's Gospel is quite explicit: he was led by the Spirit into the desert 'to be tempted'..."  

Sr. Wendy uses the dramatic painting of the Temptation on the Mountain, painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna, originally on the back of his magnificent altarpiece, known as the Maestà, in order to meditate on temptation, both in Jesus and in us, and on the themes of darkness and light. The Maestà, composed of some 43 panels, was Duccio's master work, commissioned by the city of Siena for Siena's cathedral in 1308, and installed in June, 1311.  Sister Wendy narrates how Jesus is put in an unwanted situation by Satan the Adversary, and notes that "His face is very somber, and he clutches his cloak to his body as if to defend himself against contamination...", even as we ourselves cringe from temptations occasioned by unwholesome wandering thoughts, fantasies, and images of our "monkey-mind" which insert themselves so readily.  Sr. Wendy is struck by the contrast Duccio has painted between Satan, the figure of "a moving darkness, and emptiness on the landscape", and the figure of Jesus, "tempted in every way that we are, but without sin", repudiating temptation with a firm gesture of his hand, giving us the strength and resolve to turn away in our own times of testing.  "In the desert, hungry and alone," she says, "Jesus concentrated on his goals: he examined his life and possible future.  We are taken into Lent each year to urge us to do the same...

The Lenten desert country into which you and I have been invited once again is a landscape both "fascinating and terrifying”. We instinctively dread taking time to be face to face with ourselves before God, even for a short time like 6 1/2 weeks. Despite our best intentions, we often seek to fill the silences in our lives with diversion, with something to do, with something, as we often say, “meaningful”.  But, as an anonymous Swiss monk writes: “...The essence of the desert is the absence of man;...Where man is not, is neither sin nor rumour of the business of the world...” 

We enter these weeks of Lent not to do or to accomplish or to make ourselves become anything; not to “give up” cookies, or chocolate, or lattes, etc.; but something much deeper and more costly: namely, to give up our self-fullness. A young friend of mine in the Order of Julian of Norwich, Sister Therese, sent me a wonderful little card a few years ago which reads, “Abandon all hope of fruition.”  The only thing you and I are called to “do” during our desert journey these next few weeks is to get ourselves out of God’s way and to let God do what God wants to do with us.  Carmelite Sister Ruth Burrows poses this question: “...For what is the mystical life but God coming to do what we cannot do..? [It] is beyond our power, nothing we can do can bring us to it, but God is longing to give it to us, to all of us, not to a select few...The prerequisite on our part is an acceptance of poverty, of need, of helplessness; the deep awareness that we need Jesus our saviour...who is our holiness...
The desert is the place of essentials, of the bottom-line. It’s the place where you and I are vulnerable to all our hidden demons and temptations. God bids us to withdraw to this place of spiritual inconvenience, in fact, God woos us to it. It’s the place of the unexpected. God doesn’t tip us off in advance as to what the Lenten desert has in store for us, and no two of us will encounter our desert in exactly the same way.

One thing is sure, however: despite its rigors, the desert will reveal to us, if we allow it, how totally God loves us, how utterly favored, "beloved",  we are by God, even as Jesus was God’s “beloved”. At the end of the desert journey there awaits the joy of renewed life, hope, and resurrection. But there is a cost. The anonymous monk quoted earlier gives us this advice: “...Humble and detached, go into the desert. For God, awaiting you there, you bring nothing worth having, except your entire availability...[God] is calling you to live on friendly terms with [God], to nothing else...You must be content to lose yourself entirely. If you secretly desire to be or to become ‘somebody’, you are doomed to failure. The desert is pitiless; it infallibly rejects all self-seekers...

In the Prologue of his Rule for monks St. Benedict recommends that they willingly let the divine light into the desert country of their souls, “...and with startled ears” to “listen to what the divine voice is calling out every day...”:  an echo of the desire of our hearts which Psalm 95 voices: “Oh that today we would hearken to your voice!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Finding The Help We Need

" shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." (Isaiah 58:9b-14)

The whole Lenten season is a sort of renewed crying out to God for help. How consoling to know that God's reply, year after year, is always the same: "Here I am." Notice that God doesn't just leave it at that, however. Some very specific suggestions are offered in order that the darkness of our mind and spirit can be enlightened, that a map of the way forward can be given to guide us, that God can "satisfy our needs" and strengthen us, and that in the whole process we can be refreshed, renewed.

The suggestions?? Seeing to it that other peoples' burdens are lightened. Sharing food with those who are hungry. Addressing and dealing with the issues of those who are suffering. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase The Message, puts it more graphically: "...get[ting] rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people's sins,...refusing 'business as usual', making money, running here and there..." God stresses that the key to being able to act on these suggestions is learning how to be selfless, learning how to rise above self-interest, "not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs..."

If, out of the depths of our need for help, we can accept God's grace, we'll become (again, in Peterson's translation) repairers of the breach between God and humanity, "restorer[s] of the streets", "those who can fix anything...[those who can] make the community livable again...Then you'll be free to enjoy God!"

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ash Wednesday: A Lenten Call To Prayer

Almighty and everlasting God,...create and make in us new and contrite
hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins...may obtain of you, the God
of all mercy...perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
You are dust, and to dust you will return.” With this ancient formula, heard by Christians all over the world on Ash Wednesday as the sign of the Cross is traced on their foreheads, we begin the season of Lent. This symbolic act is both a solemn reminder of our being marked in Baptism “as Christ’s own,  forever”, as well as an invitation to renew our lives. Ash Wednesday and Lent are marked by the practice and spirit of penitence. The process of repentance isn’t, some sick form of regret about past mistakes. At the outset of his public ministry Jesus proclaimed, “Repent,  for the reign of God has come!” In Greek repentance literally means a change of mind, of heart, a change of spiritual presence in the heart. In Baptism you and I began to live, as St. Paul puts it, “in Christ”. Jesus hints that to live in him is to be part of and to dwell already in the reign of God: “the reign of God is within you”. Given our human condition, you and I are well aware that we continually stand in need of being called back to change our minds and hearts, and to live in the reign, the presence of Jesus the Christ.
By God’s grace this Lent holds promise of being a special season and time for all of us together to discover or to rediscover Jesus’ presence and peace in our lives. The beloved prayer of St. Francis Assisi expresses this theme so well, and can be of particular help during Lent.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. 
Where there is hatred, let us sow love; 
where there is injury, pardon; 
where there is discord, union; 
where there is doubt, faith; 
where there is despair, hope; 
where there is darkness, light; 
where there is sadness, joy. 
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; 
to be understood as to understand; 
to be loved as to love. 
For it is in giving that we receive; 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
One of Lent’s traditional disciplines, and the chief way we come to find God’s presence and peace, is to pray for it. We pray for all sorts of things: healing for a sick relative; peace for a dying friend; for inspiration in taking an exam; for the relief of suffering folks throughout the world. St. Francis reminds us that, above all, in praying we need to pray for God. The focus isn’t on asking God for something, but asking that God be there, be present, in everything. Thousand of years before St. Francis, another saint, Augustine of Hippo, exclaimed: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you!” Andrew Weyermann says, “We have a spirit that curves us into ourselves so that our every want becomes an insatiable need.” We feel all sorts of compelling needs: to put ourselves first; to outdo those who oppose us or differ with our opinions; to be powerful and to possess; to be noticed and needed: even, and perhaps especially, after all those emptinesses have been sated and satisfied, if only momentarily. We find ourselves still reaching out for something more to ease the hollowness and loneliness. But how does one ask for that? How do we pray? “We do not know how we ought to pray...”, says St. Paul.
As we journey together through Lent, anticipating the celebration of Jesus‘ Resurrection, perhaps we can learn to allow the Holy Spirit of God and of Jesus to plead for us, as Paul continues, “with sighs too deep for words...” Perhaps, following Francis‘ example, we can ask for a special measure of God’s presence: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” In praying like that we ask for two things:       
  • Make me in your presence.” So often those words, “make me”, are spoken as words of defiance, of declaring a war of wills. In saying them to God, they take on a whole different meaning, expressing our willingness to hand ourselves over to God present, to allow ourselves to be shaped into something new. St. Paul discovered such a rebirth in the presence of the Risen Christ on the way to Damascus. For Francis, God’s renewing presence took the form of a leper whom others found loathesome, but whom Francis nevertheless lovingly embraced. In Baptism you and I became a new creation in God’s presence, and each time we turn back to God, each time we change our hearts, God stands with us: present, here. “Make me, Lord; create me anew.
  • Use me for your presence.” No one likes to be used, in the sense of having to cater to someone else’s needs and desires, being taken advantage of. Yet there is a sense in which we need to be and choose to be used for God’s purposes. “Make me an instrument of your peace.” It’s similar to the eager team player on the bench who begs his coach: “Use me.” You and I need the assurance that we and our lives count for something, that we’re here on this planet for a reason. St. Paul expresses the reason in this way: “God...through Christ...has given us the ministry of reconciliation...We are ambassadors for Christ...” Perhaps this poem by Thomas Merton, The Candlemas Procession, will resonate with us as we go about our Lenten renewal:
Look kindly, Jesus where we come,
New Simeons, to kindle,
Each at Your infant sacrifice his own life’s candle.
And when Your flame turns into many tongues,
See how the One is multiplied, among us, hundreds!
And goes among the humble, and consoles our sinful kindred.
...Nor burn we now with brown and smoking flames, but bright
Until our sacrifice is done,
(By which not we, but You are known)
And then, returning to our Father, one by one
Give back our lives like wise and waxen lights.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

End of Epiphany, Beginning of Lent: Put On Your Crash Helmets!

Fairly or not, noted author Annie Dillard describes church folk as “cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute...The tourists are having coffee and doughnuts on Deck C.  Presumably someone is minding the ship...The wind seems to be picking up...
Today the season of Epiphany concludes, and we prepare for the forty days of Lent, beginning this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday.  You can hardly read the Scripture passages today with any kind of real understanding and not notice that, indeed, “the wind is picking up”!  Try as we might be tempted to ignore, to pass off, or to resist it, -- and you and I do all of the above -- these readings are full of visions of transfiguration, transformation, something new in the making: the end of “business as usual”.  God’s reign is coming among us in full force! 
Along with Elisha and the company of prophets from Jericho in the first reading (2 Kings 2:1-12) we can hardly believe our ears and eyes in witnessing the whirlwind, the chariot and horses of fire which sweep Elijah up and snatch him “into heaven”, according to the writer.  Our modern skeptical minds, are probably thinking, along with those motley prophets: “Let’s get the search party out there! It was a nice show, but surely God must have dropped Elijah out on some mountain or into a ravine. Let’s go and seek your master.”  And Elisha forbids them.  Elisha knows that this isn’t business as usual.  The event has nothing to do with confirming his credentials as a prophet after his mentor, Elijah.
Prior to the event the Jericho prophets had been chittering to Elisha: “Hey, you know that God’s going to take your master away from you today, right? Now, you’ll be the master!”  Partisan politics.  Good PR to secure Elisha’s credentials.  The motivation for spiritual and political self-advancement.  But Elisha knows better.  God has taken Elijah away in a unique and revelatory event: a sign of something which has nothing to do with cheap religion or politics.  When the prophets’ search party returns, after three days,  there’s no Elijah. Elisha reminds them: “Did I not say to you, ‘Do not go’?
Using a literary device known as epanalepsis (repetition, resumption, taking up again) the passage from 2 Kings is set between two passages which say (the end of Chap. 1): “Jehoram succeeded [Ahaziah] as king in the second year of King Jehoram son of Jehoshaphat of Judah...” and (the beginning of Chap. 3): “In the 18th year of King Jehoshapat of Judah, Jehoram son of Ahab became king...” -- all political stuff.  The writer means to single out the Elijah event to show that it is outside and beyond the “business as usual” of narrating Israel’s political history.  God has taken Elijah, bodily, from this world, exempting him from death and receiving him into God’s glory.  It’s a symbol for us that Death has met its match, because God is triumphant.  We’re thereby assured that the same thing can happen in our time as when, historically, God’s power was demonstrated to all in Jesus’ Passion & Resurrection, and that it continues to happen with all humankind.  God’s saving power affects all of creation; new life and hope emerge from the darkness of Death.  We and our world are reoriented.  Just as Elisha, later in Chapter 2, immediately turns, by God’s power, to ministering to others, so God shows us in the Elijah event that the only meaning our human lives can have is in serving God by caring for one another.
When we turn to Mark’s Gospel passage (9:2-9), lo and behold, who should be there again but Elijah, along with Moses and with a now resplendent, transfigured Jesus on the mountain.  Mark declares that by this event, too, God’s ultimate, open restoration of all things in power is here.  In Jesus the reign of God has arrived.
If Peter, James, and John, who knew Jesus firsthand, had travelled with him, heard him proclaim God’s good news, if they, as Mark says, “did not know what to say, for they were terrified” at this sight, then what about us who live our lives so routinely and lackadaisically most of the time! What will it take to shake us up and open our eyes to become really serious about our commission to be God’s Church??
Just as Elisha had to shush the prophetic company as they mistakenly chittered on and on about religion and politics, so Jesus and his Father, in essence, shut the disciples up.  Peter is going on and on:  “Rabbi, isn’t just great that we’re here! Look at us.  We need to build some dwellings here: for you, for Moses, for Elijah, and [by implication] for me too.
What Peter has in mind are the tents mentioned in Numbers (11:1-30).  Remember that scene in the wilderness? The people were not only on Moses’ back, but on God’s back: they hated the place; they hated the food; it was all much better back in Egypt when they had cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions and garlic, and now they’re tired of walking, and all God gives them is this...manna stuff.  Yech!  The writer of Numbers clues us in that, at this point, God has just about “had it” (v. 1): “...the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled.  Then the fire of the Lord burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp...”  Then Moses starts in (vv. 11-15): “Why do you treat me so badly? Why do I get stuck with the burden of these idiots? Did I conceive them or give them birth, that you should say to me ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a child’?  Where do you expect me to get food for all of them -- you know there aren’t many supermarkets along the way out here! I can’t do it alone! It’s too much! If you’re going to treat me this way, then why not just shoot me now?!”  And what does God finally do: he tells Moses to gather together 70 elders and bring them to the tent of meetingand they shall bear the burden of the people along with you...” (v. 17)  So it’s there at the tent where God send his spirit on some new “bureaucrats”, people who now have some political standing among the people.  
And that’s what Peter thinks is happening on the mountain, and he’d like to believe he’s now Jesus’ new bureaucrat.  Politics as usual; business as usual.  “Let’s get tents pitched and me in office as the new administrator!
And don’t we in the Church repeat that same scenario over and over and over again! The Good News in Christ is right before our eyes and we miss it; we don’t want to be bothered to hear it, much less to live it.  Because it’s demanding; it costs.  It’s not business or religion or politics as usual.  And if you don’t believe it, look at the other 11 verses of 2 Corinthians, Chapter 4, the verses before and after the snippet which is today’s second reading (2 Corinthians 4:3-6): “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
Annie Dillard, whom I mentioned before, writes: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews...
The Lenten season ahead of us is not time for “business as usual” in our spiritual lives, for worrying about ourselves and our wants, but time for prayer, fasting, and reaching out to others, for becoming one with our Master who “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified...”  God grant that we, “walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ...our Savior...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Choosing To Heal

The Gospel reading for this Sunday's liturgy, what we used to call Sexigesima Sunday, 60 days before Easter, is Luke 1:40-45.

"And a man with a scale-disease came up to him and saying, 'If you choose, you are able to cleanse me.' And he,  becoming incensed, stretched out his hand and touched him and said, 'I do choose; be cleansed.' And immediately the scale-disease left him, and he was cleansed. And Jesus, snorting with indignation, immediately cast him out and said to him,  'See that you say don't say anything to anyone, but go and show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.' But he went out and began to proclaim it all over and to spread the news abroad, so that Jesus was no longer able to go into a city openly, but had to remain out in deserted places. And the people came to him from everywhere.

Where does one go with a text like this? Let me say right up front that I'm using the translation of Joel Marcus in his Anchor Bible commentary on Mark. The reason: seems that over the centuries various commentators have "softened" up some of the meaning of several key words which describe Jesus' state of mind. Instead of "moved with compassion" in v. 41, Jesus was actually expressing some anger, though not at the man, certainly. And in v. 43 "sternly" doesn't capture the classical Greek sense of snorting like a horse, or letting go an explosive breath, or growling. This is more than pickiness over small details. The differences in the accuracy of the words really affect the message here.

There are a lot of dynamics to the story which, in our culture, tend to be missed. First of all, this isn't a story about Jesus curing someone with Hansen's Disease, which we call leprosy. The term "scale-disease" covers a range of afflictions of the skin which were prevalent in Jesus' time. In either case, however, these were afflictions considered to threaten the cultic purity of the community, and thus there were strict Jewish laws about what such folks could do or where they could be. In effect, such people were "corpses". If you touched one of them, you were judged defiled. The afflicted had to run about in ragged clothing and with disheveled hair, and cry "Unclean!" if anyone approached. They were banished to live alone, outside the community.

So, this man, in approaching Jesus' venue and asking for healing, was where he should not have been and was at risk of defiling people around him. Jesus, too, did the unusual, actually the forbidden, by reaching out and touching the man while cleansing him. Undoubtedly, Jesus was quite aware of exactly what he was doing, and in a nod to Jewish law, he very emphatically sends the man straight to the priest in order to make the offering required by Mosaic Law for having been cleansed.

But in a remarkable reversal of situations at the conclusion of the story, the healed man goes out onto Jesus' "turf", among the people, and begins to tell anyone who'll listen about his miraculous cure. Meanwhile, because of this and because of all the publicity it engenders, Jesus is essentially consigned to "deserted places", and to have people come to him.  And they do, says Mark, "from everywhere".

A few observations: the man with the skin disease obviously has heard of Jesus and his healing power. He appears to have and to express faith. Now what about the anger thing with Jesus? As I said, it's not directed at the man, unless you want to see it as Jesus being bothered because he felt the man presumptuous, or because it was an inconvenient time. I seriously doubt that! I believe that Jesus, at that moment when this outcast of society comes to him, becomes so consumed by his loathing of all the elements of evil -- cultural, societal, the religious establishment, prejudice, etc., which have conspired to demean this human being, that he reacts, simply reacts, out of  his deep sense of righteousness and compassion. "I do choose, deliberately and decisively, to cleanse you into freedom from all that oppresses you." Further, I can imagine Jesus still grinding his teeth and growling as he sends the man off to the religious authorities who've made not only the man's, but Jesus' life also, so miserable. Nevertheless, and knowing that the Law with all its observances is only temporary and will be superseded soon in his dying and rising, Jesus humbly submits even to this.

This passage makes me think of two very immediate situations. The first is that just yesterday my son came out of a two-week stay in the hospital...again! I've lost track of how many times this has happened since his illness began almost 12 years ago. It makes me want to snort like a horse each time it happens! He gets so tired of it, and I know that I do. Yet, over and over, like the man who was cleansed, I have to keep saying to Jesus: "If you choose, you are able to heal Andrew." In ways that I don't understand and may never know in this lifetime, I know that Jesus does choose to bring healing.

The other example is occasioned by the tragic premature death this weekend of Whitney Houston. Again, I can't count the times even in my lifetime that this sad scenario has played itself out with other celebrities. It enrages me, it makes me growl, to see beautiful, talented, good young people end up throwing their lives away, whatever the reason, though many of the very same societal institutions, as in Jesus' time, bear some responsibility in all this. 

When all is said and done, I'm convinced that Jesus does choose to deal with the enormity of all our human misery. Perhaps his expectation of me is to rise above my own anger and disgruntlement, and to choose to do what I can to not be the occasion for anyone else's misfortune, suffering, oppression, or downfall. Somehow, I don't think Jesus will hold it against me if, in doing this, I go out and proclaim this message all over and spread the news abroad!   

Friday, February 10, 2012

St. Haralampos (Charalampos), c. 89-202 - Healer & Hieromartyr

Today is the closest thing to a namesday for me that I've ever been able to figure out. A friend of mine, of Greek descent, told me some years ago that Haralampos/Charalampos, with many variations, is "Harry" in Greek. Close enough!

Haralampos apparently was a hearty soul, since he's said to have lived to age 113, then was martyred by Roman soldiers. My first reaction to that is why didn't they just let the old guy go at that age! Just put him a prison and forget about him. Apparently, though, his refusal to sacrifice to idols and his eloquent confession of his faith was more than they could handle, thus the overkill. He is said to have been mercilessly tortured and then beheaded. Military brutality indeed!

Many miracles are said to have been worked through prayer and the intercession by St. Haralampos, among them the raising up of a dead young person, and the healing of a man tormented by demons for 35 years.

The story about the latter says that when Haralampos was being tortured, the persecuting emperor, Septimius Severus, learned about his miracle-working power and ordered an insane man to be brought to Haralampos so that the emperor could be convinced that Haralampos could, indeed, heal him. The devil is said to have tormented this man for 35 years, driving him into the wilderness and hill country, and hurling him into mud or into gorges. When the deranged man finally approached Haralampos, the demon sensed a sweet-smelling fragrance emanating from the holy man and shouted: "I beg you, servant of God, do not torment me before my time, but rather command me and I will depart. If you wish, I will tell you how it came about that I entered into this man." St. Haralampos commanded the demon to tell the story. "This man wanted to steal from his neighbor," said the devil, "and thought to himself: 'If I don't kill the man first, I'll not be able to seize his goods.' So he killed his neighbor. Catching him in the act of doing so, I entered him and behold for thirty-five years I have dwelt in him." Hearing this, St. Haralampos commanded the demon to depart from the man immediately and to leave him in peace. The demon did so, and the demented man was restored to health and became tranquil.

The emperor apparently either wasn't convinced or deemed it of little importance, because Haralampos still paid the price.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Fr. Robert Llewllyn (1909-2008)

Today the Order of Julian of Norwich commemorates the 4th anniversary of the death of Fr. Robert Llewelyn, who died on February 6, 2008, at age 98. His godly life in the Church of England and his expertise as a notable teacher of prayer endeared him to many others acrosss the world.
In his service as chaplain of the cell of Dame Julian in the town of Norwich, Fr. Robert made known to countless people the life and writings of this English mystic who lived in the small cell attached to a church at the turn of the 14th-15th centuries. He compiled a book of 200 of Dame Julian’s sayings, and it sold more than 100,000 copies. It was the first in a series of small devotional books authored by Fr. Robert. In 1994 he was awarded the Templeton Prize for his contribution to the advancement of religion in the field of spirituality.
Born Robert Charles Llewelyn at Exmouth, Devon, on July 6 1909, Robert’s great-grandmother, who lived on the Isle of Wight, was a friend of Queen Victoria. He was raised in a devout Anglican home, and first attended Pangbourne College, hoping to enter the Navy. Deciding that this didn’t suit him, Robert completed his schooling as head boy at King Edward VI School, Southampton. He read Mathematics at Pembroke College, Cambridge, then joined the teaching staff of Westminster School, where Peter Ustinov and Tony Benn were among his pupils.
Robert was ordained by Bishop Winnington Ingram in St Paul's Cathedral, London, and, while continuing to teach Mathematics, he spent much of the rest of his time in prayer and meditation in Westminster Abbey’s St. Faith’s Chapel. At this time he was greatly influenced by the Cowley Fathers, whose house was nearby.
In August, 1939 Fr. Robert took leave to travel to India. There he spent a year with the Cawnpore Brotherhood, a missionary community. It turned out that he was on the last passenger ship for several years to sail through the Suez Canal.
Fr. Robert found it impossible to get back to England after his year in India because of World War II, and he was cajoled into to becoming the headmaster of the Hallet War School. This had been established in an abandoned former Anglo-Indian school, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Robert was asked to create an emergency school for the children of British officials and others who could no longer be sent to public schools in England. A temporary teaching staff was recruited from various parts of the sub-continent, and the school, continuing until the end of the war, was a huge success. Its students’ examination results were comparable to those of long-established English schools.
In 1945 Fr. Robert returned to Westminster School as chaplain, but a year later was invited to go to the Bahamas to establish a diocesan school, St John's College, in Nassau. Under his six years of leadership, the school, with a large, mainly black, student body, thrived.
Fr. Robert was called back to India in 1951 to become headmaster of Sherwood College, the Lucknow diocesan boys' school, which had fallen on hard times and was in danger of closure. He reversed the situation there, and during his 15 years the enrollment reached 500, many of the pupils coming from East Africa. 
He returned to England in 1966, India but was immediately asked to return to serve as chaplain to the Wantage Sisters, an outpost of an English religious community at Poona. He also became priest-in-charge of St. Mary's Church, and eventually Archdeacon, though he preferred his ministry in the convent and the prayerful discipline of a monastic life.
Back in England again in 1972, Fr. Robert accepted an invitation to become Warden of Bede House at Staplehurst, Kent, the community of the enclosed Sisters of the Love of God. In addition to celebrating Mass and offering priestly ministry to the nuns, Llewelyn welcomed visitors and travelled to other parts of the country to conduct retreats.
In 1976, as he was about to retire, he received a request to go to Norwich and simply be a “presence” at the shrine of Dame Julian’s cell. The original cell occupied by Julian had long since disappeared, and the church to which it had been attached was itself severely damaged by bombing during the war. A tiny chapel had been rebuilt on what was believed to have been the site of Julian's cell, but wasn’t much used until after Fr. Robert, who publicized its existence to his many contacts arrived.
With a renewed interest in Julian, in large part thanks to Fr. Robert, who remained celibate his whole life, and increasing awareness of the place of women in the Church, Julian’s cell has become a significant focal point of devotion and inspiration for many people of all faiths from around the world. Robert’s contribution was to offer daily prayer, give talks on Julian, her life and Revelations, and, when required, to give spiritual counsel to those who journeyed there.
Fr. Robert’s own spirituality was in some ways very similar to that of Julian. He was aware of the supernatural in everything, and took very seriously reports of visions, voices, healings and coincidences. On one occasion, when wondering whether or not he should retire from his chaplaincy at the shrine, he asked God to remove a small but long-neglected lump from the back of his neck. "Lord, if you make the lump go down, I shall take it as a sign that I should continue my work." Within a few days the lump had disappeared, and Fr. Robert remained at the cell for until he was 81.
There were many influences on Fr. Robert’s spirituality. Certainly in no way neglecting the Anglican tradition, he made several visits to Medjugorje, in Bosnia, the site of six teenagers’ purported appearances from the Virgin Mary. Lourdes was less attractive to him, though he nonetheless made a number of visits there. By way of contrast, Fr. Robert also visited Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, where he had no difficulty in appreciating the spiritual factor in members’ of the congregation falling to the floor or speaking in tongues. His insights into prayer were also deepened by attending a Zen Buddhist retreat. 
Robert Llewellyn was a priest of unquestionable holiness of life and a warm human being. Undoubtedly, Fr. Robert read the following words, from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 64, and savored their meaning: "Suddenly, said our courteous Lord, you will be taken out of all your pain, all your sickness, all your unrest and all your woe. And you will come up above and you will have me for your reward, and you will be filled full of joy and bliss, and you will never again have any kind of pain, any kind of sickness, any kind of displeasure, no lack of will, but always joy and bliss without end. I saw that God rewarded man for the patience which he has in awaiting God's will and his time, and that man has patience to endure throughout the span of his life, because he does not know when the time for him to die will come. It is God's will that so long as the soul is in the body it should seem to a man that he is always on the point of being taken. For all this life and this longing we have here is only an instant of time, and when we are suddenly taken into bliss out of pain, then pain will be nothing."