Every ten years in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, they hold the world-famous Passion Play. One of the most famous actors who portrayed Christ was Anton Lang. And there’s a story of how one day, after a performance, a tourist and his wife went back stage to meet the actors. After taking Lang’s picture, the man noticed the great cross that the actor had carried during the performance. He said to his wife, “Here, take the camera and I’ll lift the cross on my shoulder, and then snap my picture.” Before Lang could say anything, the tourist had stooped down to lift the prop to his shoulder. He couldn’t budge it. The cross was made with solid oak beams. In amazement the man turned to Lang and said, “I thought it would be hollow and light. Why do you carry a cross which is so terribly heavy?” The actor replied, “Sir, if I did not feel the weight of the cross, I could not play his part.”
To feel the weight of the cross is what we have been doing in different ways during this season of Lent, and what we are about to do in a focused and intentional way as we begin to live this Holy Week. But during this particular Lent, which we have all had to bear, continues to be very, very heavy. In the midst of this pandemic, isolation, anxiety, sickness, bereavement, have already weighed heavily on all of us.
Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scripture bids us fast; the Church says, now:
It is a poem I return to each Lent, because that first phrase turns everything upside down for me. I need to be reminded that Lent is not a time of misery, but of joy and delight. It is the springtime of the Church, and holds within it the promise of new life, similar to what we see emerging all around us, at this time of year.
Like any gardener anxiously eyeing the weather, and scouring seed catalogues, waiting, waiting, waiting, to begin the hard work of preparing the garden for another season, we turn our eyes inward, and begin the hard work of preparation, so that like Mary Magdalene, we too can encounter the Risen Lord in the garden of our souls.
Though her eyes were filled with tears, and at first unable to see clearly, Mary, like Herbert, was richly rewarded.
Who goeth in the way which Christ has gone,
That travelleth byways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.
We begin Lent today in this way: kneeling, with ashes on our foreheads, and reminded of our sins. This is not in order to make us feel guilty and miserable, but in order to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, and hands, to the mystery of love, and the One who is Love. With eyes and hands open, we may find God taking us by the hand, and leading us the rest of the way. When that happens we, and all God’s people, will discover the fast which God chooses:
Is not this the fast that I choose: [says God]
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Lent is not a time to be miserable. It is a time to feast on the mercy, love, and justice of God. And that feast begins, kneeling in the garden of our souls.
 George Herbert (1593 – 1633), priest and poet
 Herbert, George, Lent as found in George Herbert, The Country Parson, The Temple, The Classics of Western Spirituality, edited by John Wall, Paulist Press, New York, 1981, page 204
 Isaiah 58: 6 – 7
When I was a student in graduate school, our chaplain, Cameron Partridge, introduced me to a concept that has never left me: liturgical hinges, or, those places in the church’s year that are marked by their liminality. Places that sit in a fertile tension between the thematic demarcations of two seasons. Days in the liturgical calendar that begin to ease our praying imaginations into the content of a new season, tantalize us with vexing ideas, incongruities, or questions, or provide us space to step back from our habitual readings of our relationship with God and others. Think of those two peculiar days between the last Sunday of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, or that liminal week after Christ the King as the church begins to hinge itself into the waiting of Advent. If you consult the seemingly arcane groupings of variable propers for the days after the First Sunday of Christmas, you will find that we are, even here and now, in the midst of such a hinge.
I love these oddities of the church calendar because of their signature “fuzziness,” as if we were removing one pair of spiritual glasses—the expanse of Ordinary Time after Trinity Sunday, let’s say—for another—in this case, Advent. We tend to know what to expect from the terrain of Ordinary Time or Advent (or Lent, or Easter). Their contours, while somehow always new, are familiar to us. They remind us that the whole journey of conversion is itself is life-long pivot from the familiar.
I had just loaded my suitcase into the car and was headed toward the back gate of the monastery. I was departing for a week of personal retreat and my mind was already settling into a cabin in the silent, sunlit forest at Emery House. One of my brothers suddenly thrust a small vase into my hands, with three flowers: a bright pink peony, a red rose, and a white lily. He beamed, winked, and then vanished: a guerilla ambush of kindness.
As I set the vase down on the desk in the cabin, and as I gazed at it in the days to come, it became something of a parable. The peony, by nature already large and attention-grabbing, unfolded and unfolded until she was only light and air, all her petals cast with abandon onto the floor by day two. The rose, generous but with a measured gravitas, let her petals drop more slowly. By day four, rose had departed. But the lily was a sharp, closed cone of white: fuller and rounder with every hour but cloistered within herself. I became quite certain that I would see the exact moment she blossomed. I took a long walk on the morning of day six, and of course I returned to the cabin to find her moment had arrived… under the watchful eye of God alone. Yet the fragrance filled the room, as if to thank me nonetheless for my faithful waiting and vigilant watching.
Isaiah 11:1-10 :: Romans 12:4-13 :: Matthew 3:1-12
As the years go by, I find myself more and more aware of a peculiar dissonance. Before the leftovers of our Thanksgiving Day feasts have even cooled, our culture plunges into a season of marked material excess. Commercial advertisements don the gay apparel of remixed, upbeat holiday jingles. Tinsel and lights adorn city streets and public squares. Numberless holiday sales abound, drawing us into a frenzy of stressful shopping, trailed shortly after by the accompanying waste. All attended by the familiar, portly figure of a jolly Santa Claus.
Please don’t misunderstand me; it is not my attempt here to polemicize the popular festivities of our ambient culture. (Not entirely.) There is nothing wrong with the desire to give gifts to one another, per se. There is nothing wrong with warming the dark, frigid nights of a northern December with song, festivities, fellowship, and lights, per se. These are all good things, to be sure, and doubtless God can speak some word of life to us through it all. Nevertheless, the moment our culture attaches the name of Jesus Christ to this prolonged cultural season of excess, I have to wonder if we are really being adequately prepared for the significance of Christmas. The difference of horizon between a season marked by Santa Claus and one marked (at least in part) by John the Baptist, it is safe to say, is a difference not of quality but of kind.
Advent is by contrast a full-blooded, lean, and demanding season in the life of the church. A season characterized by expectant waiting and honest self-examination. A season that seeks to prepare us for a revolution, but not just any revolution. Today and next Sunday are marked by the unmistakable cry of John the Baptist—the gaunt, desert-dwelling prophet, clad in a camel’s hair mantle and a lone leather belt.
Isaiah 11: 1 – 10
Psalm 72: 1 – 8
Luke 10: 21 – 24
We’ve probably all seen them somewhere: in a poster shop; at an art gallery; on a book or magazine cover. Depictions of the peaceable kingdom, as this passage from Isaiah is often called, are popular among artists and illustrators from a variety of traditions. One nineteenth century artist, Edward Hicks, even painted 62 slightly different versions of the peaceable kingdom!
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain….
But I am not an art historian, and this is not an art appreciation class, and as fascinating as it is to consider why Hicks painted so many different version of this passage, and what those differences might mean, the real question for us tonight is not, why we should care about Hicks, but why this passage from Isaiah is so important!
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Before I entered monastic life, I experienced the Ascension in both its scriptural telling and its liturgical observance a bit the same way I experienced a lay-over between flights. Why this seemingly unnecessary stop on the journey from Easter to Pentecost – and so close to our final destination? Jesus had risen. Why did he now need to go up still farther – to a Heaven I certainly believe in but did not (and do not) regard to be “up” at all? In the monastery, where scripture rains from above and seeps up from below until it gets inside you, it was clear that the Ascension meant more – much, much more than I had assumed. But it still felt like an irritant – a grain of sand that might produce a pearl – one day.
My relationship with the Ascension is now very different. I now delight to get off the Easter-to-Ascension plane, stretch my legs, and take in the breath-taking view before climbing aboard for the Ascension-to-Pentecost leg of the journey. I understand why lay-overs and way-stations are necessary on long journeys – and what they can do to shift the perspective of the traveler toward the terrain. I understand that “direct flights” in the spiritual life are available only to angels. I do not understand the Ascension, anymore than I can levitate – or fly. But I love the Ascension because I love the Ascended Christ and I sense now more than ever what his Ascension means for us here below.
It’s Easter Day! Today our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised gloriously from the dead. Alleluia! Today is a day for rejoicing. He is Risen: Alleluia!
But on Monday, just six days ago, I was not rejoicing. I was tearful. I was staring in shock and stunned silence – as you may have been too – watching those pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burning. I first went to Notre Dame when I was 14; I was staying with my pen friend’s family in Paris. I was struck dumb, even at that age, with the beauty, the colour and light, the sheer holinessof the place. I remember we lit candles, and sat gazing in rapt silence at a great rose window, shimmering like a jewel.
Throughout most of my life, as a parish priest in England, I tried to go back most years to Notre Dame, to light candles and pray for friends and parishioners who were sick or in need. Back to the place where for me, in Eliot’s words, “prayer had been valid.”
So it was heartbreaking to see this place of beauty and loveliness where I have for years felt so close to God, mauled and wounded and ravaged by fire.
“It is finished.”[i]
Logically, there should be no more to say. “It is finished.” The altar is naked, the flame extinguished, the holy water dried up.
And yet, we linger here where powerful truths have been expressed and ineffable mysteries suggested.
The Truth: that the Love of God risks everything, forsakes all sense, abandons natural order, acts contrary to human expectation. We read in this truth the voluntary self-gift of God’s only-begotten Son “into the hands of sinners” that he fashioned from clay.
And the Truth: that the Love of God can – and shall – convert every instrument of death that cruel humans can invent into a key that opens the door to Life. We read this truth in the Cross that bore his Body.
And the Truth: that the Love of God endures the worst imaginable suffering. Through this, not in spite of this, as a ray of light pierces the darkest storm cloud, God’s glory is made manifest. We read this truth in the flesh of Jesus Christ: beaten, bleeding, broken, dying…drawing all people to himself.
Maundy Thursday. If you’re anything like me, you may have to be reminded each year what the word “maundy” means; it’s not a word that comes up in everyday conversations. “Maundy” is derived from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our English word “mandate.” Mandatum, then, refers to a mandate or a command. In the context of tonight’s liturgy, it is tied to Jesus’ words in John 13:34, where he gives his disciples a mandatum novum, a “new command,” namely, to love one another as he has loved them.
What’snewabout that? we might ask. After all, hasn’t God always been a God of love, and haven’t God’s people always been instructed to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself”? (Luke 10:27)[ii]This command did not originate with Jesus and his followers; it was deeply embedded in the religious tradition they practiced.[iii]
The command itself isn’t new, but the radical way in which Jesus teaches and embodies it surprises and challenges Jesus’ disciples; it goes beyond their expectations[iv]: