Saturday, April 26, 2014
Sunday, April 20, 2014
Christ as a Gardener
by Andrew Hudgins
The boxwoods planted in the park spelled LIVE.
I never noticed it until they died.
Before, the entwined green had smudged the word
unreadable. And when they take their own advice
again—come spring, come Easter—no one will know
a word is buried in the leaves. I love the way
that Mary thought her resurrected Lord
a gardener. It wasn’t just the broad-brimmed hat
and muddy robe that fooled her: he was that changed.
He looks across the unturned field, the riot
of unscathed grass, the smattering of wildflowers.
Before he can stop himself, he’s on his knees.
He roots up stubborn weeds, pinches the suckers,
deciding order here—what lives, what dies,
and how. But it goes deeper even than that.
His hands burn and his bare feet smolder. He longs
to lie down inside the long, dew-moist furrows
and press his pierced side and his broken forehead
into the dirt. But he’s already done it—
passed through one death and out the other side.
He laughs. He kicks his bright spade in the earth
and turns it over. Spring flashes by, then harvest.
Beneath his feet, seeds dance into the air.
They rise, and he, not noticing, ascends
on midair steppingstones of dandelion,
of milkweed, thistle, cattail, and goldenrod.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
MAUNDY or HOLY THURSDAY
The Paschal Triduum (Latin, three days) begins with Maundy Thursday, celebrated from the 4th century on, since Good Friday was reckoned from sunset on the previous evening. The ancient traditional name of this day is "Thursday of the Lord's Supper", commemorating the historical gospel events surrounding the Last Supper and the institution of the Holy Eucharist. The title, "Maundy" Thursday, is a corruption of the Latin, mandatum = commandment. The service includes a reenactment of the solemn ritual of washing of feet in imitation of Jesus who washed his disciples' feet at the Last Supper, and from his words, "A new commandment I give you…": signs of his humility and service to others. Anyone can have their feet washed, though participants are usually chosen from the parish at large, or from those in parish leadership roles. Some parishes intentionally include the very poor or "rejected" citizens to send a more vivid message.
At the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy, consecrated bread and wine are carried in procession to an altar of reservation, to be used in Good Friday's Communion liturgy. An atmosphere of quiet waiting with the Lord begins, with some places keeping vigil through the night hours.
A sign of anticipation of Christ's suffering and death on Good Friday is evidenced in the complete stripping of the altar and the sanctuary of all liturgical appointments & linens by the celebrant and others.
This is the anniversary of the death of Jesus on a cross, outside the walls of the Holy City, Jerusalem. This moment finds its completion on the following day as the Holy Saturday night hours change into the Sunday of the Resurrection, Easter Sunday. The origin of the term "Good" is unknown, but probably emphasizes the saving value of the historical event of Jesus' crucifixion. Some would also say it refers to "God's" Friday. Historically and liturgically, the atmosphere of this day is one of quiet sadness and mourning for the crucified and dead Jesus.
The Eucharist, as such, is not celebrated on Good Friday, but people receive the reserved elements, consecrated the previous day. The absence of the usual celebration of the Eucharist respects the historical sacrificial action of Jesus on the cross. The Church's celebration of this day emphasizes a liturgy of the Word, with a reading of the Passion narrative, and psalms prophesying the suffering of Jesus.
An atmosphere of quiet and even silence is appropriate and to be encouraged, even in this day and age, with a curtailing, as much as possible, of usual secular activities.
THE GREAT VIGIL OF EASTER
The annual celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus dates back to the first generation of Christianity. The original celebration of what would become the Sunday of the Resurrection or Easter Sunday was done by way of a vigil (Latin, vigilia = a watch or waiting. Celebrating the resurrection during the night hours served as an expression of people's religious experience of Christ victorious over death and sin, and their victory along with his. All the Gospels (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20) attest to the mystery which took place during those dark hours of night, turning into the first day of the week.
With modifications, especially in respect to length of time, today's renewed Vigil service continues that ancient tradition. When the evening star became visible, there was a celebration of new fire. There were Scripture readings and prayers, emphasizing the theme of new creation and salvation through water, including the biblical stories of creation, the Fall, the flood, the sacrifice of Isaac, the Passover, the crossing of the Reed Sea, the entry into the Promised Land.
As the hours of night progressed, this theme was ritualized in an initiation into the Christian community through the water of Baptism. Our modern Easter Vigil largely includes elements of the original ritual: the solemn blessing of Easter water, the chanting of the Litany of the Saints, the plunging of the Paschal Candle, symbolizing Christ and new life, into the "womb" of the Easter water, the mixing of the water with holy and healing oils. Originally, catechumens who had been in preparation during the weeks of Lent, sometimes even for years, at this time renounced the Adversary/Satan's influence on their former lives, confessed their faith, and were baptized, anointed and dressed in white robes. Eventually, the chrismation or anointing by the bishop, evolved into a separate rite which today we call Confirmation.
During the first centuries it was common to give blessed milk and honey to the newly baptized, symbolizing that they were, in effect, still infants in the faith: neophytes, to use their term. They had symbolically crossed over into the new Promised Land, said to be "flowing with milk and honey."
Finally, as the hours of the ancient Vigil approached dawn, the newly baptized shared the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, for the first time.
In our times many parishes begin the Great Vigil of Easter with the lighting of the new fire just outside the church. From that fire the Paschal Candle, symbolizing Christ the Light and Wisdom, is lit. From the Paschal Candle the candles of the participants are lighted. This is a remnant of the ancient daily ritual of the Lucernarium = lighting of the lamps. The deacon leads the participants in procession into a completely darkened church. At three stops along the way, he or she chants "Lumen Christi = The Light of Christ", to which the participants respond "Deo gratis! = Thanks be to God!" After the third stop, all the lights in the church are turned on, adding to all the light from the participants' candles.
The deacon, celebrant or cantor then sings the ancient hymn of praise: the Exsultet, a joyous song celebrating God and Christ as the source of liberation for humanity. It is similar to the Jewish practice of the youngest in a family reciting the narrative of the Exodus Passover.
Several readings, beginning with the story of creation and ending with the great prophetic visions of the gathering and renewing of God's people, then follow.
If there are any people who are coming into the community of faith as candidates for Baptism, the ancient rite of Christian Initiation or sacramental Baptism is reenacted. In any case, the whole congregation also participates in a Renewal of Baptismal Vows, by which they reaffirm their faith in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and by which they pledge to devote themselves to the service of all others in their lives.
The Great Vigil concludes with the Holy Eucharist, the first celebration of the Resurrection, centering on the theme of Christ as the Light and the Presence of our lives. It is also customary on Sunday morning to celebrate the Easter Eucharist. In many places there is a service at sunrise, while others have the Eucharist according to their regular schedules.
Sunday, April 6, 2014
Ezekiel's dramatic vision (37:1-14) of all those dry bones joining together and coming to life again strikingly resembles the vision of creation in Genesis 2: "Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." That same breath of God, always associated with God's ruah, God's breath, is what Ezekiel is told in a vision to call upon: "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live."
In this story God's creating spirit, who in the beginning had brought life into being by breathing into human flesh, is seen as recreating life out of death for the whole people of Israel, a people carried off captive into exile, and wondering if ever again they would become a strong, free, living people.
Ezekiel prophesies to them in their near despair, in their living death: "Thus says the Lord God: 'Behold I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel...And I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.'" Raising up dry bones, bringing life again where there is the emptiness of death, is the work of God's creating and recreating Spirit, a work which continues in our lives.
As humans, each of us who follow Jesus walk in our own personal valley of dry bones in two ways: 1) confronting and dealing with the reality of death; and 2) confronting and dealing with the reality of our limitedness and selfishness, also called sin. They're two unpleasant facts, however tempted we might be to gloss over them or avoid them, or pretend they're not so, or ignore them.
First, death. In John's Gospel (11:1-45) the family and friends of Lazarus, including Jesus, are faced with Lazarus' illness which leads to his death. Lazarus' sisters, Martha and Mary, and their friends ask, in effect, the question which we all ask at some time or other: "Why? Why did this happen? Why now? Why me, or my loved one?" Ultimately, there's really no satisfying human answer. Among the explanations offered is the one which holds that death isn't a punishment. It's simply a fact of life. All people who begin to live sooner or later stop living. Many people of faith recognize that God isn't the problem. It isn't God's choice that a person dies, especially if the situation is a particularly tragic and sudden one: a heart attack, cancer, a shooting, an automobile accident. Sometimes, other hold, there's simply no logical reason for death. Sometimes things happen at random, in those corners of the universe where the creative light of God's Spirit hasn't yet penetrated.
For those who try to understand with the eyes of faith, there are further explanations. In its directions for An Order of Burial, the Book of Common Prayer (p. 507) notes: "...It [death] finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised...This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend [Lazarus]. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn." Jesus, indeed, wept at the death of his friend, but he also affirmed that "...the one who believes in me, though he die, yet shall live."
The second unpleasant reality is our human finiteness and selfishness. Most of us, at least periodically, give in and accept this condition as "just the way I am", resigning ourselves to the reality of self-absorption and sinfulness. Look at the Israelites in exile: surely some among them had concluded that, for all the hardships they'd endured, for all the insult and indignity they'd suffered as a captive people, maybe this was the best that life could be for them, that to hope and strive for more was to dream an impossible dream, that it might be better to accept second-class citizenship under foreigners rather than to risk losing even that in pursuing something better.
We've all experienced the strong temptation to just "let things slide", to come to terms, perhaps too quickly, and to accept the failings of our human lot as a given. Not only that, but aren't we often strongly tempted to make believe that what we've settled for, that for which we've compromised, isn't really so bad an existence after all. At least, we get by.
Over and against all such glossing over who and where we actually are, Ezekiel throws down before us his vision of this valley of dry bones. He dares us to see ourselves within it. For all our attempts to convince ourselves otherwise, for all our covering up to the contrary, many of us, much of the time, are living in a valley of dry bones. When we gain the courage to face failure and fear, when we stand up and refuse to settle for the shallow, the sordid, the second-best in our lives, then we allow God's creating and recreating Spirit the freedom to raise up our dry bones, to breathe into them the refreshing, revitalizing power of God's presence. This, according to the Gospel, is exactly what setting our hearts on Jesus the Christ is based upon. This is what God did for the crucified Jesus, and what God ever does for you and me through the Risen Christ. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
How do you and I deal with all this during these two weeks before celebrating the great feast of the Resurrection? How do we come to that recognition and hopefulness when we're down and know we're down? Are we, at last, willing to admit it, and to reach out to each other, the community of faith, in whom the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ dwells, the Spirit who reaches out to raise us to new life. In the Eucharist you and I are most dependent on one another as partners in faith: on one another who often, quite unconsciously, through a word, a comment, a gesture, a look in the eyes, convey to each other in a marvelously real way the new life which God is ever holding out to us. We're not doomed forever to our valley of dry bones. Through God's Spirit, groaning within us according to St. Paul, what we bring to and renew in each other is Jesus' own promise: "I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in me, even though he die, yet shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."
Rabbi Harold Kushner relates the beautiful story of a Chinese woman whose only son had died. She went to her holy man and said: "What prayers, what magical formulas do you have to bring my son back to life?" The holy man responded: "Fetch me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow, and we'll use it to drive the sorrow out of your life." The woman went out, and in every house she visited she found misfortune, suffering, or despair. She began to stay in each house in order to comfort those in grief. Eventually, she became so involved that she forgot about her original quest for the magical mustard seed, never realizing that, in fact, it had been driven out of her life. The lady felt herself awakening. She came to know the power of resurrection in her own life because she was willing to walk with others through their valley of dry bones.