First Sunday of Lent

In recent days, many of my conversations contain the words, “What are you giving up for Lent?” What AM I giving up? Whatever it is, I’m fairly certain I’ll take it back on Easter Sunday. Let’s say I choose candy and sweet treats. Well, forty days from now, M & M’s will still look, feel, and taste like M & M’s and there’s no reason I shouldn’t eat one. Or two, maybe six. And while the residual “deny myself” will linger, past experience tells me it’s not long for this world.

But what if we change the words from giving up to letting go? I propose that Lent is more about letting go and Jesus is our example. Just read the Gospel of John, Chapters 14-17, the Farewell Discourse. Spoken to the eleven that remained with Him at the Last Supper, Jesus first tells them He’s going away to the Father but will send the Holy Spirit to guide them. He then bestows peace, and encourages them to love one another. He warns of persecutions to come and trouble they will encounter as true believers. Jesus prays for love, that his followers “may all be one as He and the Father are one” and that “the love with which the Father loves Him may be in them.”

In essence, Jesus prepares them for letting go of their human relationship with Him, the way of life they’ve traveled, and the closeness they’ve enjoyed so that a new dimension of faith can be born. He places the entirety of His earthly mission in their hands, these bumblers and sinners, and men of brave heart. He asks of his disciples that which is both simple and extremely difficult: let go of the familiar and hold on to the promises from the Greatest Friend they’ve ever known.

This Lent I hope to let go of a two-year breach in a relationship, caused by deep pain not within my grasp to understand. It will require more sacrifice than a cut back in sugar and more work than walking past the candy dish empty-handed. But I know it’s time for me to forgive and Lent is the grace-filled time in which to try.

Feast Day of Saints Perpetua, Felicity, and Their Companions – March 7

Community of JesusThe Passion of Saints Perpetua, Felicitas, and their Companions, one of the earliest Christian Texts, contains a first-person diary-like testimony of the young martyr, Perpetua.

Saint Perpetua was a well-educated, married noblewoman and mother.  Born to a pagan father and Christian mother, she chose to follow her mother’s faith and ignored the pleas of her father, who feared for her safety.

Saint Felicity was a Christian slave girl, imprisoned with Perpetua, and was herself expecting a child. Both free and slave alike were tortured and condemned to death. While incarcerated, Felicity gave birth to a daughter who was secretly taken away and cared for by Christian friends. Saints Perpetua and Felicity, Third Century martyrs, are among seven women and eight men commemorated by name in the list of ancient martyrs.

The passion narrative describes the arrest of five catechumens, that is, Christians being instructed in the faith but not yet baptized.  The five included three men, two of whom were free and one a slave and Perpetua and Felicity.  An additional man joined their group, one who voluntarily went before a magistrate and declared himself a Christian.  The six were tortured and executed at military games held in celebration of the Emperor Septimius Severus’s birthday.

Controversies surround the authorship of Perpetua’s Passio.  Personal accounts of female martyrs are rare and crucial documents accredited to female authorship even more so.   Modifications of her writing reveal the struggle of gender issues that were prevalent and the accepted definition and role of women within the church itself.  However, in this story of male and female, slave and free, we honor the courage and unbreakable unity of those called Christian. Martyrdom recognizes no class distinction and all are made one in the love of Christ.

The Approach of Lent: Ash Wednesday

March turns toward April. The temperature still swings below freezing at night.
On sunny days, I catch a hint of imminent Spring. The salamanders in the woods
have not yet crawled from their earthen homes in search of vernal pools. The
winter birds, buffleheads, mergansers, and eiders still swim the unfrozen pools in
the harbor. And the sun, somewhat a stranger these past few months moves
across the morning sky at a sharp angle, never quite reaching overhead. Last night
it snowed. It lilted down in the darkness and left the yard clothed in gold and lace.

In some ways, the passage of seasons corresponds to the ebb and flow of our
inner life as followers of Christ. We head into Lent this week. We are tired of
winter. It echoes the struggle with darkness in our lives, and hearts that forget
and grow cold. Again and again, we return and make a conscious effort to seek
His Light in our lives; to have our hearts rekindled by prayer, reading, silence.
The flame will glow again just as surely as our place on earth will lean into the sun
with the arrival of Spring.


I walk the path through the snow today. It’s soft under my shoes. Somewhat mysterious how it drifts down to cover the earth. I’m reminded of the verse:

Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.

 

His Eye is on the Sparrow (and a Few Others)

There are many times when God catches my attention through nature. The other day I was dashing around cooking dinner in the late afternoon. I was planning on steak tips, and I thought I would grill them since the weather seemed to be cooperating. I left the grilling to the last minute since it usually doesn’t take very long. I went outside, removed the grill’s cloth cover and started to turn on the propane tank. To my great surprise, I discovered a large round nest of leaves sitting on the grill rack. The leaves had been trimmed down to size and the nest carefully constructed into a thick, cozy mound. I leaned down and quickly shut off the propane. A little mouse suddenly poked out of the nest, looked me over, then promptly fled to the edge of the rack. There it hung upside down by its back feet as it scrambled to exit.

I had a decision to make. Do I sweep away the leaves, clean the grill surface and cook my steak? Or do I accept that the little mouse, perhaps a mother raising young, needed protection for a few weeks.

Frankly, I was amazed at her considerable ingenuity. This tiny creature had created a warm dwelling as a home for her young, and a place of safety against predators and the bitter cold. Needless to say, I did not have the heart to sweep her away. I closed the lid, and put the cover over the grill, but not without taking a quick picture of those little beady eyes saying thank you.

 

Gratitude

Here at our monastery different ones of us take turns giving regular tours of our church to anyone who wishes to see it. In the winter months visitors are less frequent, and so on my one day a week of tour duty, I often have a few extra minutes to browse the bookstore for new authors. Last week I picked up a beautifully covered book by Ann Voskamp, not an unknown name, but one I haven’t read. Feeling a bit depressed that day, the sub-title “Reflections on finding everyday graces” caught my attention as something I’d like to find today!

Recently I’ve started the habit of starting and ending each day with things for which I’m grateful. I jot down 10 things I was grateful for from the day, especially on days I feel down. In Voskamp’s first reflection, Surprising Grace, she writes, “To bring the sacrifice of thanksgiving means to sacrifice our understanding of what is beneficial and thank God for everything because He is benevolent. A sacrifice of thanks lays down our perspective and raises hands in praise anyways—always.”

Laying down my perspective is the challenge for me-always. I know God to be only good, but some days, like this particular day, when something I really want doesn’t happen, I don’t want to remain grateful to God. I’d rather blame him, be angry at him and cry out why aren’t things different? Why can’t my perspective work? Laying down and giving thanks-always, doesn’t naturally come to practice. But in His grace he always answers us and is always patient with us.

Voskamp sums it up more eloquently, “We give thanks to God not because of how we feel but because of who He is.” Amen to that—and thank God for his never changing nature which always only has our truest and best intentions in mind.

Learning the Art of Sharing  

Yesterday a friend asked me if I had plans for this Summer, a lovely thought in the middle of all this ice and snow. As it happens, I am planning a bit of extra bell ringing for Summer. She had never heard of change ringing and I suddenly found myself attempting to explain bell ringers, without pictures, or any context. I suppose that is no small task, but I’m not sure I did a very good job explaining the art of ringing. In my head I had all the ins and outs of Grandsire Caters from practice last week (…one blow in 3rds then in to lead, dodge up to 5ths, dodge down to 4ths, etc….), meanwhile, as I notice her eyes glazing over and I hear the word “algorithms” coming out of my mouth, realizing, I ought to mention about bell towers, and handling and ringers pulling ropes attached to bells, and celebrating after services, and, and, and…so much to share! In the end, I’m not sure I quite got the picture across, but, I knew she could tell I was excited for Summer ringing plans, and that I really love ringing. Maybe it was a good explanation after all.

Church of the Transfiguration Angel in the Winter Sky from Cape Cod Bay

Feast Day of Saint Polycarp, Martyr and Bishop – February 23rd

St. Polycarp, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

There are few churches named after Polycarp (compared to other saints), and, although a celebrated martyr, he was not a subject of medieval art in the same way as Agnes or Laurence. However, Polycarp (a name meaning “much fruit” in Greek), may be one of the most important figures in the history of Christianity.

Born in 69 AD, as a young man he was a disciple of the Apostle John. Jerome tells us, John, before his death around the year 98 AD, ordained Polycarp as Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp’s relationship with John makes him a valuable link to one of the last eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

He wrote one letter that still exists—to the church in Philippi. In it, he urges his readers to keep the true faith, citing other writings that are now in the New Testament.  He also warns against heresy, saying that “Everyone who does not believe that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is of the antichrist,” a direct reference to Gnosticism, which appeared in the church during his lifetime.

We know Polycarp was a man of great faith. When commanded to burn incense to the Roman Emperor (and renounce his Christianity), he said, “Eighty-six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. I will not deny my King now.” He willingly offered himself to be burned at the stake, letting the Roman officials know there was no need to strap him down, as he would submit to the fire. The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom was widely circulated among the early Christians and referred to by both Jerome and Ignatius.

Recently, the Biblical scholar David Trobisch has suggested that Polycarp was responsible for compiling the New Testament as it is today, as a response to the heresies in the church in the 2nd century. (This is much earlier than has been generally thought). The theory is still new, but it makes sense that a man of faith with access to the Gospels, the writings of Paul, and the Book of Revelation (as a disciple of John), would want to ensure the true faith, by compiling them into a “New Testament” for future generations.

Give Us This Day

A few weeks ago, I heard a homily about how important it is to read the Bible. Probably every Christian has heard that before, but it is essential to keep the Bible alive in our daily lives.

Even though my Dad lived just down the road, on special events, he would write me letters on how he felt. Although my Dad died years ago, I still have some of these notes, cards, and letters from him. I now realize what a gift they are- they are so full of wisdom and love. It’s almost like there is a piece of my father that he has left behind for me to cherish, and pull out when I need it. It’s interesting because I see new things in them according to what my present need is.

The other day, I realized that these notes from my earthly father are quite similar to reading the Bible. The Bible also reminds me of how much I am loved. It is full of wisdom and teaches me who my Heavenly Father is. Even though the words are quite familiar, (some I know by heart), I see new things each time I read them according to what I need at that particular moment.

Saints Cyril and Methodius Day – February 14th

Ss Cyril & Methodius, University of Skopje

Celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church on May 11th, the Catholic and Anglican churches chose a February feast day for the two brothers, Cyril and Methodius. Born in Thessalonica, Greece, both men spent the majority of their missionary years in Eastern Europe and were instrumental in the translation of the Gospels into Slavic languages.

Cyril (825-869) was primarily a philosopher and later an ordained priest. Methodius (826-884) served five years as governor of a Slavic region in the Greek empire and eventually became a monk. In 861, both men traveled as missionaries to Russia.

Cyril developed the Cyrillic alphabet, which enabled the Slavic translation of the Psalms and the New Testament and gave the brothers’ the ability to preach and celebrate Mass. They wrote a Slavic Civil Code as well to improve the lives of the common people. The Cyrillic alphabet is still used in modern Russia and other Slavic nations. For their dedication and work, Cyril and Methodius earned respect and the title “Apostles to the Slavs.”

Both men suffered for their faith and came under the scrutiny of the church hierarchy with much of the controversy instigated by German clergy. A contributing factor was that Saints Cyril and Methodius served the people as one of them. Called to Rome and forced to defend their actions, the papacy declared emphatically for the two brothers and not only exonerated them but sought their consecration as bishops.

Cyril died before his consecration and Methodius, though consecrated, was deposed by a German synod and imprisoned for two years. They lived, as Christian Saints often do, misunderstood for their zeal and venerated after death for that very same unquenchable love for God.

Block and Stone

In the hurriedness of a day, it can be useful to pause and reflect. Our liturgical calendar helps us remember by emphasizing the essential points in the life and work of Jesus on their various feast days and those of the Saints of the church as well. Regular calendars, of course, highlight civic events, anniversaries and holidays.

It so happens that 2019 is an anniversary year for the bell tower of the Church of the Transfiguration. Ten years ago at the dawn of 2009, the tower was about 1/2 built (not counting the very deep foundation which had been formed and reburied a couple of years earlier.) As soon as winter weather broke – probably in April – the Pizzotti crew returned to continue pushing the tower sky-ward: 60 feet, 70, big sound lantern windows installed by crane, 80 feet, 90-something feet for the top courses of block and stone. The last few feet to the peak height were taken by the timber and metal roof, again installed by crane.

Meanwhile, our CJ volunteer crews were mobilizing to blitz the laying of porphyry and bluestone pavements in and around the tower. Subject to the weather, it needed special care both in following the intricate design patterns and also to get all the pitching angles correct so water will not pool. As soon as we removed the staging from the tower walls, crews sprang into action during the first weeks of summer. No sooner was the pavement laid and sealed when a large metal shipping container arrived on a flat-bed and was offloaded (not without drama) by another crane. We unpacked all the wheels, frames for housings, headstocks and other arcane accoutrements needed to mount a set of English-style change ringing bells, and the ten beautiful new bells themselves!

How many stages and steps have come and gone in each of our lives since those days. Very hard to measure much less to enumerate. Still, it is well to stop and consider what the Good Lord has wrought among us, allowing us the great privilege of walking, working, learning (leaning) along with him in what he does. Quite amazing.