Clendenin reflects upon the way in which Lent transports us to a space where we recognize how much we werenotmade for this world.
Many of us are melancholy by nature. We like sad movies, sad music and think that tears rolling down the cheeks of a friend are a good thing. We may appear happy most of the time but there is a part of us that longs for those seasons of mourning. We’re not morose, we’re melancholy.
Those melancholies out there might think that this Lenten season is perfect for them. Yet, it is a season for all of us. We all need to settle down, get still and contemplate how God is at work. Perhaps you don’t see God working in the world right now. That is something to mourn. Perhaps you see how you’ve been working at cross-purposes with God. Still another thing to mourn.
On its own sadness is no virtue. But a sadness entered into with purpose and maintained with discipline has benefit. The season of Lent has been this for the church. This is not a sadness that we would associate as depression or despair. It is a melancholy that helps us be attentive to the work of God. Alexander Schmemann has called this “bright sadness”. This paradoxical phrase describes the environment that is created in our hearts and minds during the season of Lent. Through prayer and repentance it leads us to a place where, in the words of Schmemann:
… the noises, the fuss of life, of the street, of all that which usually fills our days and even nights, have no access—a place where they have no power. All that which seemed so tremendously important to us as to fill our mind, that state of anxiety which has virtually become our second nature, disappear somewhere and we begin to feel free, light and happy. It is not the noisy and superficial happiness which comes and goes twenty times a day and is so fragile and fugitive; it is a deep happiness which comes not from a single and particular reason but from our soul having in the words of Dostoevsky, “touched another world.” And that which it has touched is made up of light and peace and joy, of an inexpressible trust.
Some great thoughts on how to handle this wonderful time of year. Peace to you!
What finally helped me was an image from a medieval monk, Brother Lawrence, who saw all of us as trees in winter, with little to give, stripped of leaves and color and growth, whom God loves unconditionally, anyway. My priest friend Margaret, who works with the aged and who shared this image with me, wanted me to see that even though these old people are no longer useful in any traditional meaning of the word, they are there to be loved unconditionally, like trees in winter. (from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird)
Lent begins in the winter months. In our contemporary, climate controlled, always on world, the cold wintry beginning of Lent has some effect on our mood toward the ceremony. Winter, in spite of its austere beauty and the winter fun that many enjoy, is still a season of death, dormancy. It is the latent season.
Ash Wednesday is all about death.
We need to be reminded about death… we need to become acquainted with failure… we need to be OK with the fact that humility is our native posture, gratitude is our most basic discipline. Each to be engaged in with every breath.
So we pray the prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
And we smudge the greasy sign of the cross on one another’s foreheads: “from dust you have come and from dust you will return”.
We ease back into our place, once again, after months of triumph and patting one another on the back, taking joy in our accomplishments and, from our perspective, rightful pride in our experience. We regain our place—our low and humble place.
The winter is the best time to do this. Forced to be reflective by shorter days, by cold and inclement weather. Anticipating the future we wait by returning to the place where we belong–at Jesus’ feet. At the foot of his cross.
It’s here that we are loved once again not for what we are, nor for what we could be and certainly not for what we do but simply because we are. Brittle and fruitless.
Like trees in winter.
One of the special things about living in Wichita is that it is the center of Orthodox Christianity for the midwest. The Antiochene-Orthodox Bishop Basil who resides with the Cathedral of St. George is located here in the middle of Kansas.
For several years now I have wanted to attend the Orthodox worship service called Pascha which is the Orthodox celebration of Easter, the feast of the Resurrection. Several friends over the years have invited me to Pascha but because of commitments to my church I have been unable to attend until now. Here are a few observations:
Orthodox Worship requires endurance. The Pascha service begins at 11 PM and lasts approximately three hours. Many of us are used to worship services that last approximately an hour or hour and a half. When my kids stand with me in our worship service they sometimes complain that their legs are tired and they ask to sit down. This after only 10 minutes! Out of the three hours of worship we sat down for about 10 min! The Orthodox are the “iron-men” of worship.
Orthodox Worship is multi-sensory. The sounds, the smells, the sights are all so out of the ordinary that one can’t help but realize that they are in a special, if not sacred space. The choir leading worship, which was located to the left of the altar area, sang beautifully in English, Greek and Arabic. Worship is dramatic at Pascha. When you enter the sanctuary it is in almost complete darkness. The only lights are the flashlights of the ushers helping you to your seat. Suddenly, small candles begin to appear as the liturgy begins. Then, after a time of prayer and worship, candles are lit throughout the sanctuary and these words are shouted by the priests:
Christ is risen! – Christos Anesti! – Al Maseeh Qam! – Christos Voskrese!
In the light and warmth of the candles the congregation then responds:
Indeed He is risen! – Alithos Anesti! – Haqqan Qam! – Voistinu Voskrese!
The season leading up to Pascha is a multi-sensory experience that includes prayer, worship and fasting. For forty days previous to this night the congregation undergoes a fast from all rich foods such as meat, eggs, cheese, oil and wine. Like Lent in the western church the idea of the fast is to prepare the believer to have a proper experience of God’s grace through a celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection.
This theme of multi-sensory worship includes not only sights, smells, and sounds but also taste. For those who are a part of the Orthodox church they are invited to share in communion toward the end of the service. At the end of the service red easter eggs are brought out in large baskets for everyone to enjoy. The fast has been broken.
Pascha is not just a worship service but a feast. After nearly three hours of worship everyone leaves the sanctuary, proceeds down the hall to enjoy a large and indulgent breakfast. Many people bring their favorite wines and desserts to enjoy. It is a celebration. Everyone is laughing, enjoying one another’s presence and sharing the words: Christ is risen! – Indeed He is risen! It is the middle of the night and the very old, along with babes in arms, are enjoying the festivities and the presence of their fellow believers. By the way, it is after 2 AM.
Pascha is about grace. Let me explain this last part. One of the many critiques that Protestants have had of both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches is our perception that each religion is focused upon a doctrine of works righteousness. I am no expert in either tradition but I’ll let the Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom, read every year, speak for itself. Chrysostom (4th Century AD) means “golden-throat” and he was one of the greatest preachers the church has known. These words are proclaimed to everyone at the Pascha:
If any man be devout and loveth God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast! If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.
If any have laboured long in fasting, let him how receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.
For the Lord, who is jealous of his honour, will accept the last even as the first. He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
Indeed, how amazing! God’s grace reaching out to everyone regardless of their position, pride or place. This invitation to receive from God is then physically expressed with food and the extension for friendship. It is only right to end with Chrysostom again:
Let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free. he destroyed death by enduring it. Hades is angered because it has been mocked. It seized a Body, and lo, it discovered God. O Hades, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? Christ is risen, and you are abolished.
It is easy to forget that God is really concerned about our daily life. Rather than focusing on our “spiritual life” it seems that we would all do well to focus on the whole of our lives lived under God’s care and lordship. So, how encouraging it is to see a prayer from one of the giants of the faith (for info on St. Ephrem click). Some may look at St. Ephrem’s prayer as being less theological but more practical than others. When viewed this way we miss the truth that good doctrine, as it is described in Titus, is practical.
Good theology is theology we can pray, that we can live into, that can draw us together, and make us full of awe for God.
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.
“To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan, deceased former Senator from New York.
Maybe this is true of us all. Being a Christian means we are never really without hope. However, can one really follow Jesus without having a broken heart? A heart broken over and over again?
As we journey through Lent together and as we think about our own Pilgrimage let these prayers be both helpers and friends to us:
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: grant your people grace to love what you have commanded and desire what you promise; that among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
- from the Book of Common Prayer
I have had a big reading goal which has remained unmet for the last two years. This Lent I think I might see it come to pass, just maybe. One of my favorite authors (as evidenced by many posts here) is N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham. Wright began working on his magnum opus about a decade ago. It is a series of books, thick with historical, biblical and theological reflection, that, long after he is dead and gone, will remain as a testimony to a life rich with theological and pastoral contributions.
I did not start with the first book of the series but the third. It an 800+ page historical defense of the resurrection called The Resurrection of the Son of God. When commenting on her return to the Christian faith, the vampire novelist Anne Rice cited this book as the most compelling defense of the historic Christian doctrine of the resurrection. It is a daunting read but well worth it. Wright surveys all the relevant ancient literature, both pagan and Christian, examining what the concept of resurrection means. His conclusion is that the universal understanding among the early followers of Christ and those that observed them from the outside was that Christ had come back to life again. Whether those outside of the faith believed it or not they were convinced that this is what the early Christians believed.
This runs contra to many of the current theories about what the resurrection means. Today many suggest that the idea of resurrection meant that Jesus was somehow taken up into the life of God in a unique way but did not really come back to life after his execution. Another prominent point of view states that Jesus’ resurrection serves only a mythological function. I don’t disagree that it serves a mythological function but the implication is that myth is, as Picasso said, “a lie that leads to the truth”. Like C.S. Lewis I believe that myth doesn’t necessarily imply falsehood. In the case of Christianity the myth of Jesus coming back to life after being crucified is true in fact and true as a myth.
Wright writes in conversation with the biggest scholars in the field including those involved with the infamous “Jesus Seminar”. His scholarship is as solid as it gets and his work is seen as the best in the field by both conservatives and those on the more skeptical end of the religious spectrum.
What better time of year to dig in deep to a moving, well written description of this central Christian teaching.
I do have a couple of Lenten reading suggestions. These are a bit shorter and with a more personal twist. I just finished the first recommendation and I plan on reading the second before Easter arrives. It is a gift from my friend Brad and I can’t wait to dig into it: