Yesterday was All Saints Day. Today is the lesser known companion feast of “All Souls Day” or the “Feast of the Faithful Departed.” The collect for this day contains one of the those small phrases of liturgy that can so easily be passed over, but sometimes just do not…
God, the Maker and Redeemer of all believers: Grant to the faithful departed the unsearchable benefits of the passion of your Son; that on the day of his appearing they may be manifested as your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Whereas All Saints Day is more corporate and global and historical, celebrating “that vast multitude that no one can number,” the emphasis during All Souls Day is more personal, intended to honor a particular loved one or small set of intimate loved ones.
I’m not at all sure why exactly, but for some reason I’ve have been led to rediscover two other collects that at certain times have caused me to stop in my track, taking my breath away. Those times have are remembered for the blessing of hearing those prayers, said just in the right way and just at the right time, when the loss was overwhelming and I was in desperate need of some comforting assurance.
One is from the “Additional Prayers” that appears toward to the end The Burial for the Dead:
Father of all, we pray to you FOR THOSE WE LOVE, BUT SEE NO LONGER: Grant them your peace; let light perpetual shine upon them; and, in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work in them the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
There is another collect equally moving. Actually, it is heard not only in funeral services but often near the time of death of a loved one. As I’ve written in this blog, it cuts straight to the soul. It is a commendation for someone departing the “here and now” for the “There and Ever After.” It is a commission of sorts, an offering into God’s perfect providence a dear person who will be dearly missed:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant (Name). Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive (her) into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
Today’s “Feast of the Faithful Departed” is often celebrated by such things as listening to music that a special loved one really enjoyed, or preparing and savoring the food they found especially satisfying, or maybe wearing an article of their clothing, or carrying a personal item they treasured.
Whether it is by any of these special activities or simply pausing for a meaningful moment of reflection and gratitude, may each of us — on this “All Souls Day” — be granted the good Grace to reflect upon those bountiful gifts of Grace that we received from those lovely and loving special persons “whom we love but see no longer.”
Each of these women, each in their own way, faced oppression and injustice and took whatever steps they could, whenever they could and however the could to liberate and uplift others, changing American history in the process.
The appointed collect on this “Feast Day for Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner and Harriet” is truly a prayer for our time:
O God, whose Spirit guides us into all truth and makes us free: Strengthen and sustain us as you did your servants Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner, and Harriet. Give us vision and courage to stand against oppression and injustice and all that works against the glorious liberty to which you call all your children; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” a day when the Church recognizes and rejoices, through scripture and hymns and prayers, the special guidance, sure protection, relentless pursuit and loving care of God and Christ as a “good shepherd.” It is a metaphor that runs through both the Old and New Testaments.
It doesn’t happen often (Easter being a movable feast after all) but it does happen, when “Easter 4” falls on an early Sunday in May. For those special years, a marvelous combination of traditions occurs, when much of secular society celebrates “Mother’s Day.” It is a time of giving thanks and paying tribute to those special women in our lives who have supplied those same traits of a “good shepherd” — guiding, protecting and caring for each of us in unique, and uniquely needed, ways.
The psalm appointed for today is probably the best known of all psalms, the 23rd, proclaiming “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and praising a protective, attentive God providing all our real needs. The appointed Gospel speaks of Jesus as a shepherd who calls each of us his sheep by name, and whose voice we know. (John 10:22-30)
Even for those who — for any one of an infinite number of reasons — were not fortunate enough to have an earthly mother able to nurture them, many have been blessed with some motherly figure (sometimes more than one) who “shepherded” us through much of the “valleys” and “shadows of death” in our lives. It makes Mother’s Day a time of special significance.
It is an unusual joy, then, when church and secular calendars align just right, and we are called to focus an “attitude of gratitude” not just for our earthly moms but also our Heavenly Creator God. This awesome God (whom our patriarchal tradition often calls “Father” but Who of course transcends beyond all gender) so frequently reminds me of certain things, I think, if I could only be more open to them. Despite my cynical lawyer’s streak, I am coming to believe more and more that we are indeed creatures of Love, created for Love by a Creator Who is Love, and Who wraps perfectly loving arms around each precious creature…just like the Best. Mom. Ever!
Growing up, somehow I could pick out my mom’s voice over all other voices whenever she cried out to me, especially when calling me by name. (If ever my middle name was included, I knew I had better come running!) I suspect I am not alone in having such precious memories. So it is not surprising that today’s collect for this Good Shepherd Sunday, with its special timing this year honoring all moms, earthly and heavenly, bears special resonance.
“O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
(Originally written last year, February 2021. Updated to reflect changes in Covid status and the current war in Ukraine.)
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.
“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. Last year, that little uplifting ritual was self-imposed. As the priests marked each others’ foreheads above masked-faces, virtual worshippers in countless scattered ceremonies worldwide were encouraged to mark and remind themselves and, all those loved ones who may have been worshipping with them, from whence they came and their inevitable destination. This year, 2022, the outlook pandemic-wise may have lightened a little — at least enough for in-person services with actual cold dead ashes on actual live warm foreheads — but the world outlook is FAR from improved as Russian troops bear down on Ukraine.
This 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.
Did it know it was being noticed? Regarded? Admired? Worshipped for the Spirit that was within it and flowing from it?
I can’t imagine so. It was a tree after all. Who knows what a tree knows?
But I knew. For I was the one who had noticed, regarded, admired and worshiped the tallest of the tall oak trees, now completely bare and leafless in the midwinter cold, lining Providence Road outside Christ Church this past Sunday evening. I was sitting in the back pew at the 5pm evening Eucharist. Being late as usual, I had just sheepishly parked my walker/rollator out of the traffic pattern of the side aisle and surreptitiously slid into the vacant row. There was a smattering of worshippers spread out in the pews before me. Our deacon Emily was preaching, and I began listening.
She reflected on Paul’s metaphor in the appointed New Testament scripture for that Third Sunday after Epiphany (1 Cor. 12:21-31a), about how the different parts of our physical bodies are like the different members of the church, and how all of those members are part of one spiritual body in Christ.
As she spoke, I glanced outside, and began to take notice of how the shadow of the church sanctuary was slowly creeping up the main trunk of this magnificent oak. I thought about how long this tallest tree has been growing in that same spot, and suspect it must be significantly longer than the 80-year-old parish it now keeps company and watches over.
As I gazed, hundreds of the smallest branches extended to its outmost perimeter, all connected to dozens of not-so-small branches; all connected to a score or more of larger and thicker branches; all connected to the five or six huge and strong main branches which shot out at different heights and angles from its massive trunk. That trunk, of course, became even thicker as it extended into the ground where, unseen but so essential, silently grew equally large and deep roots. Over those roots cars now traveled, each with oblivious drivers and headlights beginning to come on.
Meanwhile, Emily the Deacon was reminding us scattered worshippers present how Paul wrote to the Corinthians, reminding them that “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor. 12:12,25)
Two millennia after Paul wrote these words, this one tree in that one moment gave me a gift of a great epiphany during this Epiphany season, one that I suspect will stay with me for a long time. It stood silent, proclaiming loudly and proudly to me that it was a pretty good metaphor for the Body of Christ, too.
It was later when I received a second gift, a bit of icing to go along with the delicious cake that this tree had served me. Just in case the Almighty wasn’t clear enough for my thick cynical lawyer-brain to get the message of the importance of paying attention, I noticed that night that the church bulletin for the evening service contained the appointed collect for the Third Sunday after Epiphany:
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
It is often said that the opposite of faith is doubt. When I look at the world today, and especially when I observe many self-proclaimed “Christians” in the news, the “evidence” points me to a different “verdict.”
The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty.
Many “Christians” on podcasts and TV and talk radio, particularly those that proclaim their Christianity the loudest, don’t remind me a whole lot of Jesus. They seem absolutely sure it is “God’s Will” — just to cite a few examples — that requiring a young student to wear a mask in school is “child abuse,” or that homosexuality is “an abomination,” or that government should force every woman to carry an unintended and unwanted pregnancy to term. It is one thing to sincerely have and prayerfully be led to those beliefs. It is quite another to be so cock-sure certain that your beliefs are in lock-step with the Almighty in every situation and for all time, and to impose those beliefs upon all of society. When that happens — and I wish it were not so often — it is not their faith that I see in action; it is their certainty.
That is not to say certainty is all bad. Indeed, certainty has a place in faith no doubt (pun intended). It is just of a different variety.
In one of the most moving prayers in the entire lexicon within The Book of Common Prayer, we Episcopalians express a form of certainty at the grave, as we fully “commit” and “commend” our dearest loved ones — and ourselves — to God’s never-failing care. These final words from “The Committal” liturgy never fail to take my breath away:
In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother/sister N., and we commit his/her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him/her and keep him/her, the Lord make his face to shine upon him/her and be gracious to him/her, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him/her and give him/her peace. Amen.
It may seem paradoxical that “hope” can somehow still be “sure” and “certain.” The older I get though, the more I find great truths in paradox.
There is no way to know the exact percentage, but Woody Allen was probably pretty close when he said “Eighty percent of life is just showing up.”
It was the fall just before Covid, two years ago. Another very normal Tuesday evening, after another excruciatingly normal day. I had talked with clients, staff and insurance adjusters, and communed (a lot) with my computer. One thing that was not normal was my decision to break out of my office early and make my way to the quiet 6 o’clock Eucharist that my parish offered on Tuesday evenings pre-pandemic in its small side chapel.
On a lot of Tuesdays (truth be told, MOST Tuesdays) I’d just think about it: “I’d love to get there, but way too much to do… Next week will be better.” And I’m sure my life would have been fine had I defaulted to that choice.
But it also would have been immeasurably impoverished.
Instead, I “just showed up” and was blessed to hear in the opening collect one of the most moving and meaningful prayers I had ever heard in our liturgy.
Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
To say it “spoke to me” would be an understatement.
For most of my adult life I’ve had to deal with having multiple sclerosis. Especially in the last decade or so, stumbling has been a way of life.
There have been dozens of times in my life where I have — quite literally — fallen flat. As often as not, when my feet do not respond to the neural messages sent from my brain, I can find myself – in an instant – violently thrown to the floor with whatever that was in my hands scattered in all directions. A room will fall deathly quiet in a heartbeat, all eyes on the poor decrepit fool who can’t even manage to keep his damn feet under him. (I know that no one in the room has the critical sentiment I just expressed; just me.)
As bitter and as embarrassing as those episodes have been, I know in my heart of my hearts that my worst stumbles have had nothing to do with MS. Maybe that’s why this prayer, randomly heard on a random Tuesday evening long ago, still resonates with me.
Though he may stumble, he will not fall; for the Lord upholds him with his hand. So says the Psalmist (37:24) about those who “delight in him.”
Somewhere along the line, years ago, I came across an acronym that is one of those almost-too-quaint, homespun little morsels that is both silly and profound: “OFIFOTO! (One Foot In Front Of The Other).” Silly as it might be, it seems to be a pretty damn good guide to a pretty damn good way to live most days.
Just for some people it is more literal than for others.
(For the five weeks of Lent 2021, special focus will be given to each of the five individual questions in “The Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant”)
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Generally speaking, we Episcopalians are not particularly known for our proclamations. Near the top of my list of favorite oxymorons (slightly ahead of “corporate culture” and “military intelligence,” but behind “Justice Thomas”) is “Episcopal evangelism.” It’s typically just not our style, which makes this third question of the Baptismal Covenant a bit problematic for many of us, at least for me.
I’m not at all sure why that is exactly, but a story by southern novelist Clyde Edgerton that he read here in Charlotte a few years back from one of his books offers a humorous clue. The scene was about an old man and a boy one Sunday morning on the front porch of a general store in Macon, Georgia. The old man is rocking while reading the Sunday paper, as the boy plays with baseball cards on the steps and a church bell rings out to signal the end of the service of the church across the street. “Look at them Episcopalians there, boy,” says the old man looking up from his paper and taking his reading specs off to watch the acolytes take the cross and candles around back to the sacristy and the priest in his vestments greet the parishioners recessing out into the humid air. “You know, there ain’t nothin‘ Episcopalians wouldn’t do for the love of God,” the man tells the boy, “…exceptin’ if it was tacky.”
That story is funny because in so many ways — at least in regards to this Episcopalian — it is so true. Why else, if not for fear of my being “tacky” would I feel the least twinge about the commitment to “proclaim…the good news”? It’s not that I am a particularly shy person, Lord knows. Indeed, family and friends would “proclaim” that I am most assuredly not. Nor am I all that shy about claiming to be Christian; I write this blog on the liturgy after all, and am a licensed lay preacher in the Diocese of North Carolina.
Why so shy?
The hesitancy, the twinge, the “shyness” (such that it is) in my proclaiming anything about Christianity is mainly because, I confess, I just don’t want to be associated with “those” kind of Christians…you know, the ones with a lot of hairspray.
I try not to look down my nose at those good church-going folks who fill big NBA-sized arenas to hear the word of ”JEE-YAH-UH-ZUSS” shouted at them with all the cock-sure certainty of used car dealers whose sole task and desire is “closing the sale.” I try, I really do. Those mega-churches do fill an obvious need for those that flock to them. Even so, I fail miserably most of the time.
And then there are the “Christians” for whom the term “tacky” seems for me far too benign. These are the folks who seem hellbent (an adjective chosen with care) on making sure that the “club“ of Christianity remains exclusive. You are either “in“ (i.e., you have at some point repeated a magic prayer and have been “saved“), or you have not and are therefore “out.” They seem not the least bit shy in proclaiming loudly their “Christian” views of what the Almighty most certainly dictated about a number of current issues — abortion, guns, welfare, the border, school prayer, child adoption by LGBTQ parents and a heavenly host of other matters not really mentioned specifically in Scripture. The absence of specific, literal guidance does not at all prevent these “Christians” from offering specific and literal guidance as to what beyond all doubt and discussion Jesus wants. The problem is, most of the time, those views do not sound a whole lot like the Jesus I read in the Gospels.
If “proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ” means being associated with those “Christians,” I just as soon take a pass on that part of the Baptismal Covenant.
The problem is…
There is a significant drawback to my timidity, though, besides the obvious flaws that it is snobbish and snooty, and well, timid, in a time when I believe our faith calls for boldness. That huge flaw is the inescapable fact that being a true follower of Jesus, by today’s earthly standards anyway, is pretty damn nutty. Let’s leave aside for a second the whole Nativity legend of virgin birth and heavenly beings appearing to Joseph (in one Gospel, but none of the others) and to Mary and Shepherds (in another Gospel, but none of the others). Let’s not even dwell on the main point of the Baby Jesus legend — the Omnipotent Yahweh of Creation, now appearing as a helpless bastard infant born to a poor oppressed girl with confused boyfriend in a Bethlehem stable.
Instead, let’s just look on the central message of the adult Jesus. His word and example was — and to believers very much IS — a loud proclamation that God’s overwhelming healing Love for each of us is lavish, undeserved, illogical and radical. And Jesus’ primary command to us — to love God and neighbor — means that followers who take him seriously must forgive attacks on them over and over and over again, and actually do good to any and all folks who abuse us. We are instructed to pray to God like a neighbor banging on your door late at night wanting some beer and snacks for some friends who dropped by. To “proclaim the Good News” we are told both requires and leads us to care about and show love for our most hateful enemies. In a world of self-esteem, self-image and self-actualization, we are told we must lose ourselves in order to save ourselves.
Such counter-cultural thinking is not always appreciated in pop culture, high society or the academic towers. So yeah, there’s a real risk of Christians in general and Lord forbid Episcopalians in particular of being seen as kind of weird, a little crazy, and even <gasp > tacky. Episcopalians need to get over it. To be more precise, I need to get over it.
Getting over it.
Ever so slowly, and with a lot of fake-it-til-you-make practice, I‘m finding my lawyer-brained, bet-hedging self more and more able to share in my crazy and tacky beliefs. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry – Biblical scholar and firebrand preacher all rolled into one — is helping me “get over it” when he writes a book he unapologetically entitles, “Crazy Christians.” He helps me further with his latest book (written just before the latest pandemic and racial upheaval and civil unrest, and released during the midst of them) that is premised on the ”crazy” but somehow absolutely true — and even empirically logical — notion that “Love Is The Only Way.”
Regardless of all the twists and turns and causes along the journey, I find myself more able — sometimes even willing and eager — to proclaim (even if more by word than example for now) that I have had these grand moments along the way, from “Lord knows” where. And those moments have been so grand and have given a small glimpse of a Divine Goodness beyond all human goodness, a Universal Beauty beyond all earthly beauty, and most of all an Infinite Unfathomable Love far beyond my ability to comprehend, or to resist. What small comprehension I can manage, though, inevitably leads me to person of Jesus of Nazareth as human embodiment of that Goodness, that Beauty, that Love. And who even now — two millennia later and with countless generous of “Christians” who have done their damnedest to muck things up — remains still Jesus the Christ, the Unifier and Healer of all living things.
Just this morning, after most of the above had been written, I happened to see an online sermon from one of my favorite priests preaching about today’s Gospel (John 3:14-21) for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, focusing on what it means to live as a Jesus-follower “in the light” versus trying to be a Christian hidden “in the dark.” He posed a question that his been gnawing at me all day, and seemed as good as any way to conclude: “Who is protected by keeping your faith a private affair?”
Regardless of my constant misgivings of doubts, uncertainties and silly concerns, I would do well to ask, whenever I hedge or hesitate to “…proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ,“ … Who indeed am I trying to protect? If I’m honest, I’ll have to admit it is probably me.
Ash Wednesday was a week ago. The Ash Wednesday liturgy, unlike Pentecost or the service of Baptism or a few other major dates in the church calendar year, does not include the litany for a “Renewal of Our Baptismal Covenant.” I’m thinking maybe it should.
As I’ve written before in another blogpiece on this WithGladness.org site, the reciting of the “Baptismal Covenant” is our liturgy’s way of focusing particular attention on what it means to “practice” Christianity, to put it in motion, to DO something rather than study or contemplate or believe something. This litany of renewal asks eight things of the congregation, and although the first three questions are indeed big and broad “creedal” belief statements, the last five…oh yes, those last five…are personal, individual, me-and-God questions. They cut right to the heart of what each individual Christian should do, how to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk.”
Suffice it to say, I “don’t” more than I “do.” I “talk” more than I “walk.” But maybe that’s kind of what Lent is all about, I’m thinking.
This season of Lent, of course, is a “penitential” season. To repent, in the original Greek (metanoia) meaning of the term, has more to do with a sense of rethinking things, of turning or readjusting, rather than eating dirt and worms and beating a Bible shouting how sinful everyone is. In that sense, penitence is a synonym for renewal.
Thus, it seems that Lent is the perfect time to focus more intently on those five personal questions posed while renewing our baptismal covenant. And, as it so happens, those five questions fall quite nicely, thank you, within the five full weeks of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Passion Sunday, leading to Holy Week and Easter.
Many years ago, my home parish (Christ Church Charlotte) had a series of five Wednesday dinners, with each dinner focusing on one of the five personal questions in the Baptismal Covenant. (I have to pause here…Just the mere notion of folks gathering together in one large space for a simple meal, six to eight at a table in close unmasked conversations discussing an evening lecture, seems so foreign during this time of Covid, a vague nostalgic recollection of a distant forgotten past.) I can’t say that I remember anything in particular about any of those dinner speakers, but I do remember that just the exercise of focus, that attention to intention, was a good thing.
So maybe it’s also a good thing – and a good time – to bring it back. If somehow I can mind my “intention” during this Covid-Lent with any sort of decent “attention” to this goal, we will see what musings develop.
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
This first personal question in the Baptismal Covenant liturgy is presumptive, and that’s a bit comforting. The “Will you continue…” presumes that I have been doing any of these things in the first place. The reality is I start and stop. A wonderful friend recently reminded me that when it comes to actually practicing such practices contemplated here, I’m probably in the same camp as 99.99% of Christians. That is, almost all of us do try, now and then, to follow these good spiritual habits, more or less. But very few might venture to say their efforts are near enough.
At times, I can be a pretty close follower of Paul’s letters and Peter’s preaching and even John’s poetic ramblings, especially if those times happen to be full of desperation and crisis. (It ain’t for nothing that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”) Most of the the time though, I am not in a depraved or desperate crisis — or maybe just not self-aware enough to recognize it — and so most of the time, I “follow” those practices…but at a safe distance.
After all, cautious southern privileged white-guy lawyers tend to like safe distances. That is especially true when that white-guy lawyer feels he might be getting “too close” to God, and maybe even more true if that guy is a life-long Episcopalian. We of that “frozen chosen” tribe can often make a habit of keeping a close-but-cautious distance, getting really good at practicing that faithful-but-safe stuff.
Lent just may be that time to venture — at least with a big toe if not a full headlong plunge — into the less safe. Perhaps intentionally living into this first covenant question and “testing the waters” of these faithful practices might even lead to a state of creative and fully-alive tension, what Frederick Buechner has called “holy recklessness.”
To devote one’s self to the habits suggested in that first personal question, to “continue” engaging the lessons of scripture, fellowship in the church, the breaking of bread secular and sacred, and in praying “the prayers” both corporate and public as well as personal and private… Well, that is probably a good place to start.
(An earlier version of this post was written in Advent 2014, but has been significantly revised and reposted here in Advent 2020 to ask whether we can “Rejoice, always!” even in the time of Covid.)
Two days ago was “Stir-up” Sunday — an irreverent nickname some of us “Whiskeypalians” give the Third Sunday of Advent, based on the (pun intended) “stirring” words of the opening collect:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
The more traditional name given “3 Advent” is Gaudete Sunday, from the first word of the introit of the Latin mass: “Gaudete Domino semper, iterum dico, Gaudete!…” or “Rejoice in The Lord always! Again, I will say, REJOICE!” That line comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phil. 4:4), a young church he seemed to have particularly loved on the east coast of Greece. (The ALL CAPS are mine…not sure whether his shaky pen writing ancient Greek on papyrus did the same.)
Writing from a Roman prison, a remarkably emancipated Paul suggested to this fledgling flock of new believers, and maybe to all of us in 2020, that we should “Rejoice, always. Again I say, rejoice! …The Lord is at hand.” And in the same breath, he speaks of a “Peace of God that passes all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). On the one hand, it can be seen as an utterly absurd notion, especially in times like these. But for generations of Christians ever since, it has proven to be more than a notion and somehow utterly true.
The Third Sunday of Advent also traditionally recognizes and celebrates Mary and her deep joy, hence the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath now illumined in her honor. And so the question is posed: on this Gaudete Sunday or “Rose Sunday” or “Stir-up” Sunday in 2020, is it possible to “rejoice in the Lord, always”? How can we follow, in such a year of turmoil and disease and death, Paul’s admonition to embrace an ineffable Peace and the “bountiful mercy and grace” of a “stirred-up” Lord?
At the beginning of Advent, I would likely have seen such a call as too much. And still it may be.
Indeed, just this week our nation passed 300,000 dead from this ravenous virus. Three hundred thousand chairs at last year’s Christmas tables will now be as empty as the hearts of those loved ones having to stare at them. And yet, also this week, nearing the end of this loooooooong and dismal year, there seems to be actual news about which we can in fact rejoice.
Thanks be to God – and thousands of researchers, scientists, healthcare workers and tens of thousands of volunteers willing to be guinea pigs in dozens of studies worldwide — vaccines are here! There’s a long way to go of course, but now the hope that seemed so far off is (as Paul reminded the Philippians about The Lord) “at hand.” That glimmer of light at the end of the proverbial Covid tunnel does not appear to be a train coming in the opposite direction.
For sure, we have this year been “sorely hindered” as the collect says, “by our sins” of neglect or ignorance or arrogance or all of the above — and more. Especially when looking at this nation, I confess that a daily dose of 9/11-sized deaths has, I greatly fear, made me numb, asleep to something too horrible to contemplate. To truly fathom the ongoing loss is crippling, and so out of a survival protection mode, I change the channel or click the next link. I suspect I’m not alone.
The power of powerful prayers like Sunday’s “Stir up” collect can bring me back, though, as can hearing once again the paradoxical Truth of a real Peace that does in fact simply pass human understanding. My lawyer-brain’s inability to make sense of it fails to make the Reality of It any less true. To delve into such Mystery behind a stirred-up, Rose-colored Gaudete Sunday is to be able to withstand the pain of knowing that much of 2021 will be too much like 2020, especially in the beginning. Throughout it all, though, the “Gaudete Sunday” of 3 Advent bids us look for, and indeed rejoice in, the “bountiful grace and mercy” to “speedily help and deliver us,” from a “stirred-up” Lord that indeed is close “at hand.”