Holy Saturday


I am apt to think of Holy Saturday as a day to prepare for our Easter celebrations or an empty gap between Good Friday and the Resurrection. To many medieval Christians, Holy Saturday was the day of the “Harrowing of Hell,” when hell itself was despoiled (invaded, robbed of its power to destroy, conquered by Christ’s triumphal entry.)  Harrowing is a derivative of the Old English word hergian, which means “to despoil.”

The Harrowing of Hell was a prevalent theme in medieval art and in early church drama—particularly the English mystery plays. The descent into hell was also a subject of the seventh-century poet Caedmon, and early church fathers such as John Chrystostom, Tertullian, and Irenaeus.

Christians worldwide proclaim the “Harrowing of Hell” when they recite the Apostles Creed. “Jesus Christ . . . was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day, he rose again . . .”

Biblically, two scriptures come to mind.

“Therefore, prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.'”  Ezekiel 37:12

“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice.”  John 5:28

On this Holy Saturday, as we prepare for Easter Sunday, let’s rejoice together that Jesus left no stone unturned in His atonement for our sins. His love surrounds us, reaching to the depths as well as the heights of our human experience.

 

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Ancient Byzantine Mosaic at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, Tabgha, Israel

The Fourth Sunday in Lent, called Laetare (or “Rejoice”) Sunday, takes its name from the first words of the Gregorian chant introit for this day, “Laetare Jerusalem”. The text, inspired by Isaiah 66: 10-11, translates:

“Rejoice, O Jerusalem; and gather round, all you who love her; rejoice in gladness, after having been in sorrow; exult and be replenished with the consolation flowing from her motherly bosom.”

Laetare Sunday, also known as Refreshment Sunday, Rose Sunday, and Mothering Sunday, gives us a “breather” in the midst of the long penitential season of Lent.  Historically on this day, strict Lenten observances were relaxed: fasts could be broken, weddings (prohibited in ancient times during the rest of Lent) could be performed, rose vestments could replace violet ones, flowers could be placed on the altar, and organ music could be played.  These same traditions were, and still are to some extent, followed on the third Sunday in Advent, called Gaudete Sunday.

In earlier times, the gospel reading for this fourth Sunday in Lent was always the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, another example of God’s loving provision and nourishment and yet another name for this day was the Sunday of the Five Loaves.

How loving of the Lord and the church to give us this day of refreshment and encouragement in the middle of Lent as we approach the darkness of Holy Week and look forward to the joy of the Resurrection that awaits us!

 

Third Sunday of Lent

I repotted plants recently. Some looked fine on the outside, others drooped or had yellowing leaves, but all needed help. A closer look showed that the roots had grown so large that there was very little room for the soil that gives the plants their nourishment.  Plants are supposed to grow, so eventually, if they are healthy, they will all become pot-bound and need a transplant.

Lent is a time of spiritual repotting. We all need it from time to time. Lent is a special time in the church year to give God permission to shake us up a bit, to show us where we’ve become in-grown, or need to break free from what binds us, like the rim of a pot.  It does not necessarily mean moving, or doing anything differently, but expanding spiritually, to be able to receive more of God’s grace, to become more aware of truth and beauty around us. Isaiah 54:2 says it a little differently: “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.”

Repotting can be messy, and there’s usually an adjustment. My plants looked assaulted at first, but after a few days, they were happy and healthy.

Lord, help me to grow this Lent, to expand my roots, to fill the space I am in, and then, if I feel circumstances changing around me, help me to trust you, knowing that you are just giving me a bigger pot. 

A Meditation on The Conversion of Saint Paul – January 25

Acts 9:3-7 As he (Saul) neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

I love the story of Saint Paul’s conversion. It has so much to teach us in our everyday lives. First of all, I’m struck with the mercy of God, that he would choose a man that was so vehemently against Christ. Paul, (or at that point, Saul) was sure he was doing the right thing by zealously persecuting Christians.

Secondly, I’m intrigued by Paul’s conversion process:

The Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Caravaggio, 1600)

 

First, there was light.

Then he fell to the ground.
Next, he heard the voice of Jesus.
He chose to believe the voice and say yes to it.

He was obedient to what Jesus said.
He fasted.
Temporarily blinded, he trusted others to lead him.
Baptized, he was spiritually reborn to solidify his conversion.

He received the strength of God, symbolized by taking food.

 

 

 

For us, in our daily conversion to be more like Christ, it is necessary that God’s light show us where we are not like Him. Often, we need to fall from the places where we think ourselves better than our neighbors, and therefore can’t love them the way Jesus wants us to. It takes hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit to convict us and to believe and say yes. Fasting from those places that distract us from going on our own “Damascus road” of His will can be so helpful. I have found that when the light of something about myself is very bright, I can hardly see straight, and I experience a moment of blindness. It is so helpful when I have a trusted friend to help lead me and help keep me on the way I hope to stay on! And finally, when there is an unwanted habit in me that has shifted, I’m barely aware that it has changed. I realize that I have more joy, and feel more centered in Jesus. What a wonderful testimony the story of Paul’s conversion is for all of us!

 

Feast of St. Agnes – January 21

St. Agnes was one of the most celebrated saints of the Middle Ages. Saints Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine all preached sermons about her exemplary life.  She died somewhere near the age of thirteen. We wonder how a child could be so commendable.  She hadn’t been tried through years of testing or proven through accomplishment.  Her parents were well-to-do Romans of the 4th century, so she would not have suffered poverty or neglect, and may even have been spoiled.

Agnes did not become a saint by how she lived, but by how she died.  She became a Christian in a time of persecution, and held on tenaciously to her faith, despite all odds.  In today’s language, she knew who she was, what she wanted, and would not let anyone, or any situation, push her off-course.  She was one of the “overcomers” in Revelation 12:11 who “loved not their lives unto death.” The fact that she was only 12 (or 13) is awe-inspiring.

Her difficulties began when she spurned the son of a Roman prefect.  When he found out she was a Christian, he denounced her.  Many attempts were made to force her to give up her faith, and she rejected them all.   According to accounts, she went to her death happily knowing she had remained true to herself and her God.  The year was 304, during the last wave of Christian persecution under Diocletian.  Two years later, Constantine became the new Roman Emperor.  In 313, the Edict of Milan was issued, which ended all the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.  Who knows how the well-known story of Agnes’ bravery may have influenced this change.

The name “Agnes” is like the Latin agnus, which means lamb.  She is often portrayed in art holding or alongside a lamb.

St. Antony of Egypt – January 17th

St. Antony Abbot of Egypt holding a rosary and a staff, with an angel – from the Book of Hours of Simon de Varie

St Antony of Egypt, also known as Antony the Great and Abbot Antony, lived between 251 and 356. He was not the first Christian monk, but he is considered to be the Father of all Christian Monasticism and his writings are regarded as the first monastic rule. Most of what we know about him today is from the 4th century manuscripts of St Athanasius the Great.

Antony was born into a wealthy Christian family and inherited the family fortune at the death of his parents when he was just 20 years old. He heard the words of Jesus to the rich young ruler speaking directly to him: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21). After providing for his younger sister, he sold everything, gave the proceeds to the poor, and set out for the desert, where he lived in total solitude for the next 20 years. There he fervently prayed, fasted, rarely slept, and faced many fierce attacks and temptations from the devil, fighting physical, as well as spiritual, battles with evil spirits. Eventually word of Saint Antony’s holiness spread and drew crowds of pilgrims to seek him out and without trying to organize a community, he soon had a following of monks. Under the persecution of the Roman Emperor Maximinus in 311, Antony offered himself as a martyr, but he was so respected that he was refused! Although considered basically unlearned, Antony was invited to participate in the Council of Nicaea and he was influential in stopping the Arian Heresy.

Despite his extreme bodily asceticism and his intense desire to die for his faith as a martyr, Antony was strong of body and of soul and lived to be 105 years old!

The Bells at Midnight

Ringing in the New Year is always a joy once you get there, but sometimes it’s so cold and wind windy, I’d rather stay cozy in my bed with the covers snug around my neck. So what inspires me to bundle up and trudge to our tower to ring at midnight on December thirty-first? Tradition! It’s a once a year gathering of our Band of Ringers to welcome in the New Year. It brings us together to remember what the past year brought, individually and corporately. We all have joys and sorrows, loss of loved ones, the birth of new little ones and things we found challenging, things we overcame and problems we have yet to master. So, with all our differing emotions, we shake off the old and embrace the new. We ring whether we’re happy or sad. We need to keep our tradition.

When I was in Croatia after the war in the Balkans, I was helping roof houses in a small, devastated village. I experienced a beautiful thing when the villagers went to bring home a Bell for their church that had been taken from them. That bell was carried home on the back of a horse-drawn wooden cart. Men had traveled through the night to make this happen. Flowers decorated the bell, adding to the beauty of the sight. Flowers adorned the entrance to the church as well. Everyone in the town gathered to sing and worship, as the bell was hung where it belonged.

Tradition! Let us ring and make a beautiful noise to celebrate life, joy and new beginnings. Wishing you a blessed New Year!

Quarter Peal

This year we decided to usher in The Vigil of the Nativity (Christmas Eve) with a Quarter Peal of Plain Bob Triples. Suffice it to say that a quarter peal is about one hour of non-stop ringing with no repeated patterns (the bells – in this case eight – regularly change their order). Before any type of Peal is rung it is publicized as an “attempt.”

As with team sports, bell ringing is no exception to the precarious and unpredictable nature of teamwork. Is bell ringing a microcosm of life? I (and I suspect others) approached the quarter peal with the usual mantra of, “I’ve got to get this right” and, “everything depends upon me so don’t mess up.” As we progressed into the peal, we realized teamwork was essential, so this mantra was transformed to, “we’ve got to get this right” or, “everything depends on helping each other.” With mutual encouraging looks and confident verbal corrections from our Conductor, we managed to correct many wrong turns and bring our ship safely into harbor.

At the close of our Quarter Peal, we all heaved a sigh of relief that our “attempt” became a reality. No matter how many times we were on the brink of collectively losing our path, we had made it through to the end.

Feast Day of St. Stephen – December 26

Martyrdom of Saint Stephen by Giovanni Andrea De Ferrari (1598-1669)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even

The day after Christmas is the Feast of Stephen. I discovered this first through curiosity-wondering why “Good King Wenceslas” was considered a “Christmas” carol. The king in the song gives gifts to the poor, but the Nativity is never mentioned. But, of course, St. Stephen’s Day is the day after Christmas, so the king is responding in the spirit of the Christ child. St. Stephen himself followed closely after Jesus, in his life and in his martyrdom. The Apostles chose him as a man “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” to oversee the distribution of food to widows. He was selected to bring peace to a situation that was dividing the disciples – that one group of widows was favored over another. Not only did he serve tables, but the Book of Acts tells us he preached, and “did great wonders and miracles among the people.” Acts, Chapter 7 recounts one of the greatest sermons ever preached. This same sermon led to his martyrdom.

As he was being persecuted, [Stephen] looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God . . . And said ”Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. (Acts 7:55-56)

And they “cast him out of the city and stoned him” (Acts 7:58). Yet, Stephen’s death was not the end of his influence. After his death, persecution forced the disciples to leave Jerusalem, causing the message of Jesus to spread far and wide. And one of the witnesses to his death was a young man named Saul, who although he agreed with Stephen’s persecutors, became Paul, one of the greatest teachers in the history of Christianity. Stephen’s death, no doubt, was the seed of Paul’s conversion.

 

Advent III

Living the Christian life can be like hanging onto the pommel of a bucking horse. This is often true in Advent. Advent is a time to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. But in our culture, it is also a time of much activity and pressure– not only in preparations for Christmas and giving to others, but because many jobs include tasks that have to be done “by the end of the year.”

We may want to give more time to quiet and reflection, but it doesn’t always work out.  Then, trying to be peaceful becomes frustration and anger at not having it. I have experienced this many times but knew there must be a better way to prepare our hearts in the midst of activity.

My answer came suddenly from one line in an Advent reading by Austin Farrer: “We do not ascend to God, he descends to us.” This is a radical statement, but it is the Gospel. I do not have to perform, I do not have to “rise to the occasion,” work my way into peace, or even get in the right Christmas spirit. Ascending to God is not the Advent message. To prepare my heart, all I can do is to come as a little child, admitting I can’t do any of those things myself. Then I’ll be ready to invite him in, as God descends to us, as a vulnerable baby, accepting us just as we are.