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 peonie, 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 peonie, 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 wrapt 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 wayin which Jesus teaches and embodies it surprises and challenges Jesus’ disciples; it goes beyond their expectations[iv]:
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[i]In dying, we live. Anything would be more palatable. Nothing is so essential. We must surrender, losing and letting go, being vulnerable again and again, dying to ourselves in order to live. This Holy Week we face Jesus on the cross.
When serving as a hospital chaplain, I found it exhausting continually listening to heartache. One day I realized Jesus was listening to the same heartache yet not for a few minutes per person and not just how many people I met. Jesus knows everyone and listens to all hearts, to everyone sick and dying, to all who are grieving, to each in any kind of suffering, and indeed to us all. Jesus draws the whole world to himself with a loving ear in a listening embrace.
All of us need and glory in the cross. Jesus invites each to die to self-sufficiency and secrecy. Jesus invites us to pray the whole truth of our lives, naming what weighs us down, our grief and questions, our wounds and concerns, as well as joys, thanks, and desires. Jesus listens directly and in the flesh through other people. Jesus, exposed and vulnerable on the cross, invites us to expose ourselves, share our inner life and struggles, pray in the dark, and pray our hearts.
Telling our stories can be painful, like touching wounds, a kind of death. Like wheat dying to bear fruit, safe exposure of our story heals. We like to edit, restrict, categorize, or deny our lives. Good listeners help by attending to our stories with their surprises, seeming contradictions, and scattered pieces. Listeners help us hear how these pieces together form us.
In Jesus’ day, palms were carried in joyful, triumphant processions by Jews and Romans alike. Roman soldiers, returning from a successful conquest, would wave palms as they returned home to their welcome. Jews used palm adornments for their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to the Festival of Tabernacles. And palm decorations were carved in stone within the Temple. Palms symbolized an oasis in the desert, victory in public games and in conquests, and a sign of blessing and homage.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem replicates how the Roman Emperor and his emissaries would enter the city: on a roadway strewn with palms, and with the crowds waving palms, shouting their praise. The crowds welcoming Jesus are shouting, “Hosanna,” which, in Hebrew, means “savior.” “Savior” is the very title already claimed by the Roman Emperor. The Roman Emperor’s titles included the “Savior of the World,” and “Son of God,” and “Lord of Lords.”[i] That’s the Roman Emperor. Unlike the Emperor and his party, whose processional entry would be on magnificent Persian stallions, Jesus is on a donkey.