…with those who work, or watch or weep this night.

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Sitting in a dimly lit kitchen at 3:40 a.m. The silence is deafening. The stillness roars like a roller coaster.

Earlier, I turned over – again – in bed to see the alarm clock flash its low red signal, now 2:19, and then 2:47, and then 3:14. And now I’m now vertical, at the kitchen island, feeling very tired. But not a bit sleepy.

Insomnia can be doubly frustrating when there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it.

Oh, I have had PLENTY of reasons in my life not to sleep, and no doubt will have plenty more in the future. Most of the time, a death is somehow involved. A death of a loved one or a relationship or a job or a trial. Or, just as often, it can be just the fear of losing those things.

But on this night, there is no such anxiety, no identifiable reason to be so “Sleepless in Charlotte.” There was no caffeine before bed (not even chocolate), no screen time, no spicy dinner. I even remembered to take my usual one tablet of Tylenol PM.

But finally at 4:05 a.m., I finally do have an explanation I can understand why now I’m too anxious to sleep, too frustrated and fixated to even think of going back to my pillow. It is my growing anger over the fact that I cannot sleep.

Spiraling down further and further in a combination of self-pity, self-doubt and self-disdain, I finally do what I often do when I run out of options. I pray.

Funny how prayer for me is so often the last resort, and rarely the first option. Truth be told, I don’t feel like I’m that good at praying, especially at night. I might mumble a few quiet incoherent thoughts, “Lord, let me sleep please,” as if the Almighty is purposely just poking me in the ribs or stealing my covers. Most of the time, I need help to pray, so like any good Whiskeypalian, I look in the “Prayuh Book.” I search for the service of Compline.

Compline is an ancient liturgy for corporate worship at the very end of the day when the faith community is ready to surrender to sleep. It is perhaps the most contemplative liturgical practice, peaceful and gentle, calming and restful and restorative.

There in the final prayers of Compline, I find a prayer that (to borrow that hackneyed phrase)“soothes my soul.”

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

I can’t explain it. But it does soothe my soul. I read it again it, and then whisper it slowly aloud.

Keep watch... (God is watching. The Lord does not slumber or sleep, so the Psalmist tells us.)

…with those who work or watch or weep this night (I am not the only one up right now. I think of them, and the different reasons they have to also be sleepless.)

…and give your angels charge over those who sleep. (I am too much a cynical trial lawyer to really know if that’s true, if Angels really do exist, and really do keep charge of us as we slumber. But I do know this — I want it to be true. And in the pitch darkness on this night that is enough.

I crawl back to bed, and whisper the prayer once more.

The alarm wakes me up. It is a new day.

…that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness…

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Ash Wednesday is not a day for high self-esteem.

In the centuries-old tradition of Lent, we strange Christians begin this forty-day season of penitence, preparing for the joy of Easter by submitting – however hesitantly – to the uncomfortable but undeniable fact that we, ALL of us, are really just passing through.

Ash Wednesday 1“You are dust,” the priest reminds each one of the assembled, one by one.  And just to make the point clear, ashen dust is smeared on each forehead in the sign of a cross.  “…And to dust you shall return.”

(That’s in normal times, of course, not Covid times.  This year, that little uplifting ritual is self-imposed.  As the priests marked each others’ foreheads above masked-faces, virtual worshippers in today’s scattered ceremonies worldwide were encouraged to mark and remind themselves and all those loved ones who may have been worshipping with them.)

Whoopee!

That dismal exercise is meant to set the stage for a reflective, more intentional and “penitent” Lent.  Today’s virtual service began — like any other year — with no introductory fanfare of any kind, no processional music, no opening acclamation or liturgical response; just a silent slow procession through the (for now empty) church sanctuary.

For me, the opening collect of Ash Wednesday paints a distressing portrait of humankind’s depraved state and utter need for redemption:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who ae penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Before we are smudged with ashes and once again given our yearly instruction regarding our dusty ancestry and legacy, the Ash Wednesday liturgy calls for the Celebrant to pray with words lifted from Psalm 51, beseeching God to “create and make in us new and contrite hearts” while we go about “worthily lamenting our sins” and “acknowledging our wretchedness.”

And yet, amidst all this lamentation, there are reminders not just of our desperate need for redemption, but thankfully God’s eager yearning to offer it.

Thus, for all its solemnity and breast-beating, Ash Wednesday’s liturgy is an invitation, and a glorious one at that.

If I can somehow focus my feeble five-second attention with a faithful more-focused intention for the next forty days (thankfully we get Sundays off), then such a Lenten journey just might crack open a mysterious door a little wider.  Lord knows what is on the other side of that door.  On this side is the fervent hope of a “perfect remission and forgiveness” from an “Almighty and Everlasting God” who indeed “hates NOTHING”…not even a frenetic and distracted and sometimes disillusioned cynical lawyer who too-often seems more concerned with finding answers instead of just accepting gifts.

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle…

A year ago, on Good Friday, I sat alone with a dear friend keeping early morning vigil in a silent church, dark at first but growing in light as our hour passed.  I wrote then of the ineffable inmost dwellings of our yearnings for the Other.  I tried to write, as best I could, of those things that are quite simply beyond words.

This year, the church was the same, but the circumstances different.  This year, my Good Friday was not that of a quiet lonely morning vigil, with no clergy or music but only growing light and deafening silence.  Rather, this Good Friday contained a bleak service at high noon, with the clergy moving in deliberate slowness dressed only in unadorned black robes, two simple but profound songs and a couple dozen fellow travelers.  A cross with a veil was quietly brought down the aisle to begin the Liturgy of Good Friday, with the small assembled congregation slowly bowing as it passed each pew.

In this starkness, the Celebrant begins… Continue reading

Hosanna! (Revisited)

Updated Friday, March 27, 2015   Once again, on this Palm Sunday, we will all proclaim this “song” that has echoed through the generations.

A year ago, I wrote of how this word — this unique and solitary word — expresses an ineffable awe of, and to, the Divine.  Tradition holds it is both a salutation and a lament.

Sometime shortly after writing that blog post (see below), I was blessed to hear a song of the same name.  Although most of modern “Christian rock” music leaves me cold, “Hosanna” by Hillsong United is a gracious and gorgeous ballad of contemporary worship.  And like the ancient Hebrew expression itself, it is both an expression of thanks and praise for what is, and a lament for what is yet to come; a “new revival” for here and now, and a deep yearning for what has not been accomplished.

Maybe it was just what I was going through at the time, but the words of the “bridge” pierced as deep as I’d heard in a while: I was simply overcome:

Heal my heart and make it clean
Open up my eyes to the things Unseen
Show me how to love
Like You have loved me.
Break my heart for what breaks Yours
Everything I am for Your Kingdom’s cause
As I walk with You into
Eternity

On this chilly Saturday before we enter into this Holy Week, I gladly share it:

Originally Published April 14, 2014 — We say or sing it every Sunday, as part of the “Holy, holy, holy” acclamation to begin each Eucharistic Prayer.  But today, on THIS Sunday — Palm Sunday — “Hosanna in the Highest” takes on “passionate” significance. 

But, like so many of my prayers, I’m not really sure what I’m saying a lot of the time. To confidently proclaim “Hosanna in the Highest!” is to speak in words rarely used other than in a liturgical context. (Seriously, do any of us ever utter it outside of worship? “Hey honey, can you pick up [fill in the blank] on your way home?  You can?!? Hosanna in the highest…!”)

Even when we speak it in church, its true meaning is less than clear. 

An old Biblical Commentary text --  part of the "hot discussion" over the meaning of a strange but wonderful word.

An old Biblical Commentary text — part of the “hot discussion” over the meaning of a strange but wonderful word.

The derivation and definition of “Hosanna” in old Aramaic and Hebrew texts are apparently matters of some hot discussion (at least among those who lead such lives that allow for the hot discussion of such things).   

Is “Hosanna” a form of great praise, as the Jerusalem crowds seemed to suggest as they welcomed Jesus in today’s “Palm Sunday” Gospel?  Or is it more of a cry for help for The Lord to “Save Us!” as suggested by the Old Testament, such as in Psalm 118?  I’m not convinced there is that much of a contradiction.  The Psalmist’s cries of “Hosanna” in Psalm 118:25 are pleas that are exclaimed in the midst of celebration and triumph.  I suspect that the multitudes crowded in Jerusalem for Passover had the same mixture of hope, praise and desperation, as they cheered this charismatic young carpenter turned preacher who came riding into town.

Ultimately though, for me at least, “Hosanna in the highest” is a phrase of ineffable joy, spoken uniquely to The Divine.   Perhaps more than any other phrase in the liturgy, it is what we bring to it.  

Maybe some additional insight into the meaning of “Hosanna in the Highest” can be gleaned by a phrase that is even more prominent in Psalm 118.  “Steadfast love” appears four times in the first four verses, when we are told that God’s steadfast love “will endure forever.”  Such a powerful word is “steadfast,” and by using it, the Psalmist conveys to us an even more powerful and enduring love.  Thus, “Hosanna” becomes a uniquely powerful and enduring response.

That love — powerful, unique, enduring — is of course on radiant and heart-wrenching display this week. And at the end of the week, even a word as joyous and mysterious and wonderful as “Hosanna” will take a backseat to one even better.  An old friend we Episcopalians haven’t said in quite a while…

“Alleluia!”