Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship…

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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.

We’ll see how it goes.

He stretched out his arms…

Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you … sent Jesus Christ …to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you…
He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

Jesus stretching out his arms. A lovely image…by itself.

But that’s not the whole phrase, of course. In the second sentence of Eucharistic Prayer A, we are reminded that Jesus’ affectionate yearning, his arms stretched out, is done with the most cruel and torturous of consequences.  In celebrating the Eucharist, the officiating priest reminds us that Jesus “stretched out his arms… UPON THE CROSS!”

I can’t say for sure when or where I was when I was first struck by the ironic juxtaposition of those words. But I do remember being just overwhelmed.  Hundreds of times I had heard that phrase, but this one time my mind’s eye I saw the image of my Lord affectionately yearning to me with arms outstretched, and I remember being so comforted. And then just a second later — in the same image — that comfort was jolted by the reminder that such yearning, such indescribable Divine Love, came at an unspeakable cost.

In that one little phrase, only eight words, the paradox of Christian faith is defined and delivered in a sacred corporate prayer. I count it as one of the purist gifts ever given to me.

Coming to Jesus’ table on that occasion, I heard Jesus described in the most poignant and bittersweet of ways. Welcoming, yet weary. Beckoning, yet bloody. Christ crucified.

Maybe that’s what Irving Stone was trying to convey when he titled his novel about Michelangelo and his attempts to capture and convey that sacred paradox, as “The Agony and The Ecstasy.”

It’s not for nothing that the the bread we eat at that table is broken.