Easter

On Paczki’s, Fat Tuesday, and Ashes

What’s going on with Packi’s and Mardi Gras?

Today in many grocery stores In Chicago you will find the polish pastry paczki, prominently displayed for sale. Today is of course Paczki Day, or Mardi Gras. If one is from New Orleans the celebration of Mardi Gras isn’t confined to this Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, in Brazil and other Countries this SEASON before Ash Wednesday is known as Carnival. Tomorrow, many Christians of various traditions will begin the season of Lent by receiving ashes on the forehead. This all may appear to be very disjointed and individualized. How does this all fit together? What connects Mardi Gras, the eating of paczkis and receiving of ashes upon the forehead?

A sense one may have from all this is individual indulgence followed by Forty days of individual self-denial. Celebration of life and abundance and the confrontation of mortality and limits. This picture isn’t entirely wrong but it largely misses the point. Carnival, Mardi Gras Ash Wednesday and Lent are all of a piece. We feast and we fast aiming for the same goal. In each we are preparing to receive again the mysteries of the faith of the church.

The dishes of Mardi Gras, are intended to use up items that one won’t be eating in one’s fast. In this way, the feasting of Mardi Gras is a holy act of preparation, so that we might be prepared (through not having in our cupboards empty of the items from which we will be fasting during Lent. Of course, buying the paczki from the grocery store on Fat Tuesday forgets this aspect of our feasting.

Preparing to Receive again the Mysteries of the Faith

Yet even if our feasting doesn’t literally empty our cupboards, we should recall that feasting and celebration of Mardi Gras are as much part of our preparation for Holy Week and Easter as is the fasting of Lent. However, we may observe the Lenten fast Today is part of that practice. Feasting today is part, our observing Lent.

In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday before ash is put upon the forehead and we hear “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are called to the observation of a holy Lent. What is a holy lent? It is one in which we take up with greater focus the practices fasting, alms giving and other acts of pious act of charity and justice. This all from carnival to Ash Wednesday up to Holy Week is all preparation. A holy Lent is one that prepares us to return to who we became through our baptism, ready to reaffirm those vows of baptism and receive again the mysteries of our faith, “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again”. A holy lent is preparation is what we do as the Church, members of Christ. None of this is some individualistic celebration and navel gazing upon our individual mortality.

Unfortunately the way we often observe lent reduces it to individual piety, “What will I give up for lent” and we focus on one aspect of the liturgy of Ash Wednesday (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”) that we forget that this remembrance of mortality is to send us into the arms of Mother Church, the body of Christ, to regain and renew our being as the baptized who are being joined together as the body of Christ, holy stones of the holy temple of God. Our repentance, our fasting, our alms giving all are oriented to this goal or remembering who we are that we may be renewed by the great mysteries of our faith.

We should stop and question the ways we may individualize and separate ourselves off from this corporate feasting and fasting in preparation to receive the mysteries of our very being as the body of Christ. Lent is to return us to ourselves as the Church, the Body of Christ. However, we observe Lent, we are to seek to be more like Christ and to grow more into our Baptism. If we aren’t focused growing father into Christ anticipating and preparing ourselves to renew our baptism and return to the Church, then we aren’t observing a holy Lent. So, do what your community or your spiritual director encourages you to do. Don’t worry if you are doing too little or too much, don’t worry about how strict or lax you are. Focus on being ready for Easter. Whatever you do have as your goal to renew and deepen your sense and understanding of yourself as a member of the Church, our mother.

Examining a practice “Ashes on the Go”

A few years back some priests and ministers experimented with getting Christian liturgy in the streets on Ash Wednesday with Ashes on the Go. I wonder if Ashes on the Go by focusing on the moment most individuated within the liturgy of Ash Wednesday if this fails to communicate the meaning of receiving these ashes in this time of preparation? Given that we already have the tendency to view Lenten disciplines as individualistic private pious acts disconnected from our being called back into the church and back to our baptism, there’s a danger this innovation reinforces individualistic interpretations of Lent and Lenten disciplines.

If Ashes on the Go is just this one moment of the Ash Wednesday liturgy I see “Ashes on the Go” reinforcing an individualistic pious interpretation of the day. How would one communicate the corporate nature of this act without a gathered body of believers? There would need to be some reminder in the liturgy of Ashes on the Go that those who receive the ashes should also be finding and involved with a local body of believers in following through on their having received ashes, some reminder of their baptism and membership in the body of Christ. Otherwise this innovation risks (whether the priest intends this or not) of reinforcing the individualized misinterpretations of Lent and Ashe Wednesday that are prevalent in our treatment of Lenten practices.

Ash Wednesday as an act of becoming church.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about confronting my own mortality, nor an individual penitence. It includes those things, but only as an act of joining with the other members of Christ. It is more importantly a collective entering a time of self-examination and repentance to be prepared to receive again the central mysteries of the faith of the Church.

In Ash Wednesday, we are asked as members of Christ to face how we have both individually and collectively exhibited a failure to live into the call l or baptism and our collective mortality. We are reminded that being a member of Christ isn’t a space of triumphalism nor a celebration of our ability as individuals to bravely face our limits. Rather, it is a space of humility, to again remember we need God and each other, to be what we are called to and that we often forget in a short time, what it means to be the body of Christ, we were initiated into at our baptism.

When we receive ashes, and reflect upon our mortality as an act of corporate repentance and humility, we are called back to who we are as baptized members of Christ Body, the temple of God.

As you feast today, and as you receive ash and begin your Lenten practice tomorrow, let it be focused upon return, renewal and receiving again the mystery of who we are as the church, baptized members of Christ. Then we can know that we are observing a holy lent no matter what we do, or don’t do, as we prepare ourselves to come face to face with the mystery of our Faith.

Mystagogy of Easter: Vine and Branches

If you are like me raised in Sunday School the Gospel for the 5th Sunday of Easter may be very familiar to you: I am the vine you are the branches. This familiarity shouldn’t render impotent this rich and deeply mystical analogical reflection.

Part of what this analogy convey’s is our dependence upon Christ.  Yet, this isn’t the focus that Christ gives to the metaphor of vine and branches. Rather Jesus clarifies his metaphor with the injunction to abide in him. “Abide in me as I Abide in you.”   Here is the intimacy of a deep and mystical relationship. Dependence is to speak of need, abide speaks of desire and rest.

Christ in interpreting his own metaphor of vine and branches pushes the metaphor to an absurdist level. a branch of the vine doesn’t make a choice of whether or not to abide in the vine. It is the vine the grows the branches.

If we abide in Christ like a branch abides in a vine then we will have the same life and love flowing through us that is in Chirst, we will have the love of God available to us.  This abiding is for us and for ourselves.  This abiding empowers us to present Christ and the life of God to others, as God the spirit leads us.  In this way we are transformed and the world is transformed.

are you living in the life of God through participation in Christ.

Now it is true that certain things are contrary to participation in the life of God, but some things that we have thought exclude one form life, like the being a eunuch for the people of Israel isn’t.

God is love, love and hate in the member of Christ can’t coincide.  Love of God and love of other human beings are intimately linked. We know this, but I think more often see the failure to love in others, than in ourselves

The Mystery of the Good Shepherd: Easter Mystagogy Week 4

How are we to hear the parabolic speech of Christ and God as our shepherd?  “The Lord is my shepherd…” and “I am the Good Shepherd...”?  In these passages of the third week of Easter and in the image of the Good Shepherd we are contemplating belonging. We are contemplating hearing and speech: “...they will listen to my voice.“.

Jesus alludes to Psalm 23 when he says he is the Good Shepherd. Within this parable we are in the midst of John’s subtle but persistent high Christology. Though, Jesus takes the shepherd analogy, in a different direction than the psalmist.  Jesus uses the economic investment a shepherd has in his flock to illustrate Jesus’ investment in us.  Investment is elided with care.  The shepherd will care for the sheep and defend them from danger in ways a hired hand simply wont.  The hired hand doesn’t have the same investment in the sheep as the shepherd does.

What sort of investment does the Good shepherd have in his sheep?  Life itself.  God in Jesus Christ lays down his life, undergoes death.  God invested God’s very life in us.  This is even greater than any human shepherd will actually do for his sheep.  a Shepherd may risk more in the face of danger than the hired hand, but actual death?.  Here the analogy is exploded to give us an image in which God’s love for us can come through in its extra-ordinariness.

But what is the point of all this the laying down of the life to take it up again.  A shepherds care, sheep responding to the shepherds voice and not the hired hand or the thief?

Is not the point love and relationship that leads to life.  Is it not an appeal to continue to respond to God’s voice to as the psalmist says: “Today, oh that you would hear his voice! Harden not your heart, as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness:”

God speaks to us a continual invitation into the life of the Holy Trinity.  This Life will shepherd us in the way of life.  But are we listening? Do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, and the invitation into the community the fold of God?  Do we trust and listen as sheep who know the difference between the one who really cares for them and the one paid to care for them?

Are our hearts softened by the voice of the Good Shepherd and do we turn to the voice?  Are we transformed by our name being spoken and do we allow are hearts to be softened thus that we can love as the Good shepherd has loved us?

Are we in the fold? or have we wondered off?  Are we in the fold of the very life and love of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit?

This is our life, this is the place of transformation : hearing God’s voice in our hearts, invited into the fold of God’s love.

 

 

The Mystagogy of Easter: According to what Reality Do We Live?

(For the first in this Easter mystagogy series see The Doubt of Thomas the Twin)

Mystagogy for the Third Week of Easter: The Meaning of God’s Union with Humanity

We are encouraged in the texts for the third Sunday of Easter to revel in the joyful astonishment of the Resurrection and to ecstatically contemplate the amazing work of God in Jesus of Nazareth. In the Gospel of Luke we continue to hear of that first Easter day, with the Twelve and the disciples of Jesus in that upper room.

Now that we have passed through the waters of baptism and have died and been risen with Christ, in the Easter Vigil, we see two things:  1) Christ’s death and resurrection is an amazing thing and is contrary to what we intuit and expect from Scripture and 2) it is what God had always set out to do and has been part of God’s revelation and what the witnesses to this revelation have consistently been saying.  Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of the Scriptures and Hebrew prophets.  Moses, the writings and prophets all anticipated what is unexpected and astounding.

These two things show us that only after the incarnation passion and resurrection can we then read the Scriptures in the fullness of God’s self-revelation, and through this new reading and renewed understanding, enter God’s saving and loving work in the cosmos for all time.  If we look and interpret the world and the Scriptures from outside this vantage point of Jesus of Nazareth we see a very different world and hear a different word. We read a different text.

This is a source of the joy and awe of the Resurrection: without the Resurrection and prior to the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, the universe and the human condition makes sense but leads one to only death and futility (“vanity”).  While this understanding leads the Church to affirm God’s revelation in the particularity of the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, this biological identity isn’t a guarantee of hearing God’s revelation. The church also affirms that human reflection and contemplation on divinity and the cosmos has encountered something of God. Yet thsi all needs a consummation and completion accomplished by God.  God’s theophanies and self-revelation to the particular people of Israel and human seeking to know and understanding the divine share a similarity in these understandings of God are only completed or fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God.

There is a further mystery: the fullness of God found in Jesus Christ doesn’t impart new knowledge , rather the fullness of God in Jesus Christ becomes a way to see all knowledge, and previous understandings of God.

The mystery we wrestle with now after – after Jesus’ Resurrection and ascension, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, after our baptism- is that after is often much like before.

What makes the difference? 

This is our awe. Nothing is erased, not even the suffering of God the Son. Rather it is all taken up into God, and thus sin and our separation are transformed.  What makes the difference is only the incarnation of God the Son as Jesus of Nazareth. We live either in the awareness of this reality or the reality of the universe before the incarnation, before the union of God and humanity and all creation.  We can see the world and in seeing experience the world in very radically different ways, one of true liberation or one of bondage and futile struggle.

This is the meaning of the Resurrection, there is a new way to be in the universe, and there is a new way of being for all of creation.  The created, physical, and human order is now united to God – reconciled to God.  The logic of this way of being is life that has passed through and overcome death and futility.

We can still be blind to this reality.  We can still fail to understand and see that God, in Jesus of Nazareth, accomplished a new thing. But if we commit to the path of theosis, to living in the Resurrection, we live in the age to come and no longer need to be bound to the age that was and is now passing away, but is still here bound to sin and death.

The Mystagogy of Easter : The Doubt of Thomas the Twin

The lectionary each season of Easter brings us back to the same texts. Lent has a similar structure but there is a little more variation between each year in the three year cycle, while for Easter we read the same  passages from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John.

This all is related to Baptism: preparing for the waters of Baptism at Easter and then unpacking the meaning of living in our new life given at baptism.  The teaching that prepares one for baptism is called catechesis and the teaching of the meaning of the baptismal life is called mystagogy, teaching about what had remained hidden before one gained sight in the waters of baptism.  We must learn to see.

The texts for the Second Sunday of Easter direct us to sight and touch.  The author of the epistle of John claims the reality he is speaking of and witnessing to is what he and the other apostles not only saw but handled. And of course the Apostle Thomas famously says I will not believe unless I touch the wound in his side and holes in his hands.

We can get caught up in Thomas’ doubt.  When so many Christians act so very certain, Thomas becomes the patron saint of those who aren’t always so sure.  This use of  this story of the Resurrection of Christ allows many to have the faith of Thomas in the face of the absolutism in which doubt is seen as akin to darkness and thus a sign of God’s absence in a distorted interpretation of 1 John 1:7.  Yet, we shouldn’t settle into the comfort of this interpretation, which still focuses on the doubt rather than the encounter.

1 John 1 is about the tangibility of the truth which the Twelve Apostles handed on and which has come down to us.  They saw and handled.  Thomas, an Apostle needs to handle his faith. While, Jesus’ words of blessing to those who believe without the tangibility given to the Twelve and the disciples, still affirms that we have faith in  something that was visible and tangible: that is in the physical and not just ethereal, spiritual or psychological, but something that affects the whole of us and the universe.

1 John 1 expands upon the story of Thomas the Twin: It invites us into faith beyond mere assent.  We misread the testimony of the epistle of John if we think it says just accept what I say because I say I handled and saw.  No, this witness of seeing and handling is an invitation into the tangibility of the faith of the Church, the Body of Christ.  We are invited into the actualization of the Blessing Christ bestows on those who will hear Thomas’s story and his encounter with the Risen body of Jesus Christ, still bearing the wounds of his passion.  This is real, no fantasy, no story to make us feel better. The doubt of Saint Thomas the apostle tells us there’s no point to go along with it all if one has never had the encounter with God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

If someone tells me they don’t believe because they have never encountered God, or experienced the reality of Christ (and especially if they say this as one who had been formerly a Christian, as one merely assenting to propositional belief), I think of Thomas, and I say yes, there is nothing I can say to you – mere assent to belief you haven’t encountered isn’t the faith of the Church.  All I can do is witness to my own encounter within the realm of the faith of the Church that has been handed down from Thomas the Twin and the other eleven Apostles, who handled and saw this mystery. Through their witness handed down through the centuries I too have handled and seen.

On Living in a Futile and Crooked Generation

This reflection is a riff on  the Sermon I preached at Reconciler on May 4th, the Third Sunday of  Easter. The Gospel text is the Road to Emmaus, the other Scripture texts are a portion of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost and the beginning of the First Letter of Peter

We can lose sight of the meaning of Pascha, of the Resurrection and this season of Easter.  Conservative or Liberal we may be tempted to see this as about morals, or justice, or ethics.  Or maybe we want the Resurrection and the incarnation to be a principle we can apply.  All of this doesn’t take seriously enough the human predicament.  Doesn’t take seriously our own, my own, predicament.

Our predicament (my predicament) is futile, it leads towards death. It is a dead end.

What was Peter preaching on that first Pentecost?  Was he calling people to repent from being part of the mob that handed Jesus of Nazareth over to be crucified. I don’t think so. Jesus on the way to Emmaus tells Cleopas and his companion that  the Messiah had to suffer, had to die, had to enter the tomb.  It doesn’t help to repent from our predicament, that we are stuck.  That we live in a world dominated by death, violence, injustice and oppression.  No, the change of mind Peter called for and which Peter still calls us to, is to decide with what will we identify, the one who was crucified, who we crucified, or the crooked generation.  Are we going to identify the one who entered our tombs our dead end world, or are we going to identify with an age and a generation that can only offer us a life that ends in our death, the dead end.

If we have difficulty understanding the faith of the Apostles and the nature of the Joy of this season of  Easter it is because we think God came to transform a dead end age into the Kingdom of God.  This is also what everyone at the time of jesus thought the Messiah was going to do, no one thought the Messiah was going to become accursed in Death, die on a Cross.  The Messiah wasn’t supposed to do that, Cleopas says so.

Jesus has to set us on a different path.

Jesus, as we know from the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Easter after the Resurrection still has the wounds.  Christ really died, and by death beat down death an on those in the tombs bestowing life.

If we are to understand what has been achieved for us and live it out in our daily life,  ff the joy of the Resurrection is to penetrate, we must admit that we are still in the tombs.  It is to us and all humanity that Christ has come.  The tombs, Christ undergoing death isn’t simply some past event, it is what it means to be rescued from the futility and meandering path of our generation, of this age.

This should lead us to repentance and conversion (one that is continual throughout our lives, not a one time event) as we encounter again and again how we tend to simply wander to our deaths, without purpose.  Continually repent from how we live according to this generation and age that is passing away and convert to the age of life and Joy that has come, and is to come.

The futility and crookedness of this age has little  to do with its ethics or morality, nor its principles, but simply that it is given over to death.  We can live as Martin Heidegger described in his philosophy as being towards death, or we can become identified in baptism and Eucharist with the one who is Life itself.  This doesn’t change the nature of this generation and age that is being towards death, but it changes us so that in these tombs we and those around us may have life.  This is the path of discipleship, this is the path of the cross, this is the purpose of the ascetic and mystical path, that we may be Christ, who is life in the midst of this futile age that is passing away, that is being towards death.

There’s another possible misunderstanding here, to identify this age or generation with the physical universe and the age to come and of life with the non-material.   Or to see it as a past/present verse future dichotomy.  What is proclaimed though is to ages and generations existing as alternate “dimensions”.  Or another way of putting it two ways of being, one way which is being towards death the other which is being in life.  Both are physical and spiritual, material and immaterial.  This is why it is key to affirm the bodily Resurrection of jesus and that Thomas could have put his finger in Jesus’ wounds.

I recommend also reading the sermon, if you haven’t already done so, to get the fullness of this thought.