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Historically, Lent has shifted its meaning over the centuries of Christianity. In its early years, it is thought that days were counted backwards from Easter, days that would be devoted to continuous prayer and fasting as a way to prepare for the celebration of the Resurrection. First it was two or three, and then an entire week to orient oneself to the revelation and mystery of Easter. Since the Vigil of Easter (the service that usually falls on a Saturday evening and includes a re-telling of the history of God’s work as recounted in both the Old and New Testaments) has historically been the time that people are baptized into the faith, another thought is that Lent developed as a formal marking of that time of preparation. This period usually lasted between three and six weeks, and was a time for new converts (and those who had been excommunicated and desired to return to the church) to be taught the doctrines and rituals central to the Christian faith. Over time, those who were already “baptized or confirmed would observe Lent as a time of renewal in sympathy with those being initiated and re-welcomed.”
This year at St. Paul we have put together a variety of ways that you, too, can re-affirm those aspects of our faith that center you in the redeeming work of God. Whether you are someone who likes getting daily devotions in your email, reading the wisdom of other Christian thinkers in a Lenten devotional book, taking a deep dive with the Bible, or finding ways to give to those in need, I encourage you to check out our Lent 2019 flyer for new inspirations.
One Lenten activity that we are excited about this year is participating in Lent Madness. Ten years ago, Episcopal Priest the Rev. Tim Schenck wanted to combine his love of Saints with his love of sports. Lent Madness is the church’s equivalent to March Madness – the NAACP Basketball tournament that finds everyone around the globe crafting brackets to see who will be the champion. This is, admittedly, a practice that carries with it more levity than your usually Lenten offerings, but it is a wonderful way to get the whole family involved in learning more about the saints that the church commemorates. Below is an article from the website for Lent Madness, and we will have the materials available starting this Sunday.
Lent still has mystery for me. It is a time for reflection, centering, action, and community. The season has concrete elements of devotion – the ways in which we deepen the practices of our faith. And yet as we acknowledge our humanity and its finitude, we know that as an Easter people we believe that death does not have the final word. Today, when I see those black and smudgy crosses – now a plenitude of them gazing back at me from the congregation on ash Wednesday - I see what lies beneath them – the crosses placed on our foreheads at baptism shining out from behind the dark edges of mortality; the affirmation that we are sealed with Christ and that God is with us always.
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Epiphany. According to Merriam Webster, it is “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something;” or “an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking;” or “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.”
It wasn’t until I started going to church that I learned epiphany had any other meaning than that light-bulb over the head feeling when you finally got something that, for a time, you didn’t understand: the ultimate bright idea. The word epiphany comes from the Greek, ἐπιφάνεια, (epipháneia), meaning “to appear.” It was used in early Greek texts to refer to the rising of the sun and to the appearance of enemies on the battlefield. But most of all it was used in reference to the appearance of a god in the human realm – a theophany. In the Christian church, the holiday of Epiphany first appeared in the Greek-speaking East as the celebration of the baptism of Jesus as the official “appearance” of his being the Son of God. Later, in the Latin West, Epiphany came to be associated with the visit of the Magi (documented in the gospel of Matthew) and the “appearance” or manifestation of Jesus as the son of God to the Gentiles.
Given that these are two different ideas about when and where Jesus is truly manifest as divine, it opens up the possibility of other epiphanies in the narrative life of Jesus. Another common epiphany is Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding at Cana (John 2), where he turns water into wine.
Some years ago I was commissioned to make Epiphany banners for my home church, Third Lutheran, in Louisville, Kentucky. As I was conceiving of those pieces, I felt I had to go all the way back to the Annunciation as the first epiphany in a series. God is made know to Mary and Joseph, and then to angels and the shepherds, to the greater people of the world (the Magi) and finally to Jesus himself at the baptism.
The contemporary theologian Miroslav Volf suggests that the heart of Epiphany is the joy that comes from these revelations about God. And that to experience a true rejoicing, which is not a mistaken interpretation of something that might bring pleasure, the thing over which we have joy must both be good and also “appear to us as good. Joy is a fruit of truthful seeing of genuine goods.”
Volf goes on to make us think deeply about the season of the Epiphany. He writes:
Christ has come to bring joy not only by turning darkness into light, conquering powers of evil, and establishing the reign of justice. He has also come to bring joy by turning water into wine, by overcoming what we lack, and helping sustain and enhance the goods we already enjoy.
As we travel the seven weeks of the Epiphany season, let us take a look around and ask ourselves: where is Jesus continuing to be revealed in our world today? Where is the genuine joy that comes from the things that are gifts of the Spirit and of our work in the world, our calling to be the hands and feet of Christ?
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If there is one thing so central to Christianity that, should it go missing, it would cause at least a double take, that thing would be prayer. Though certainly not something exclusive to Christianity, prayer for the followers of Christ has been the center point of worship and personal devotion since the words of Jesus were first recorded by the gospel writers. And prayer has been one of those things that many in the pews have wrestled with time and time again. Mary Oliver, in her poem Praying, gives voice to that struggle – the human desire to do things just right, to find the perfect inspiration and the exceptional words. Instead, Oliver writes, we should just “pay attention” to whatever is in front of us, and then “patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate.”
The point of prayer is to get on with the praying, as Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Th 5:16). Or as Martin Luther put it, “nothing is so necessary as to call on God incessantly and to drum into God’s ears our prayer that God may give, preserve, and increase in us faith.”1 If we think about God as a relational God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit intertwining and intermingling – then prayer is a way to enter into relationship with that God. And as we speak our hearts into prayer, we open a space for a response. This point is beautifully illustrated by Oliver at the end of her poem:
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak
South African conceptual artist James Webb has taken on this central element of faith in his installation James Webb: Prayer on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. The piece, which had its premier in 2000 when apartheid was abolished in South Africa, is now in its tenth iteration and the Chicago presentation is both the largest and the first in the United States. The installation process begins with Webb recording people at prayer in a specific community, in this case metro Chicago. The recordings are then played back via speakers placed on a red carpet in the gallery. In order to listen to the recordings, visitors must first remove their shoes, and then bend over or kneel on the carpet to get close to the speakers – in poses that resemble those common in praying.
For the practitioner or the observer, Webb’s work asks the viewer to consider the meaning and significance of prayer by getting up close and personal with it. I wonder, in our life together, what we might do to take a second look at how we pray?
1. Luther, Martin. “The Large Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther.” In The Annotated Luther Vol 1: Word and Faith. Edited by Kirsi I. Stjerna. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015. 366.
Yet Another Genesis
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I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Isaiah 43:19
Just a week ago, I was driving along interstate 84 on day two of my journey toward New England and the place I would call my physical and vocational home for the next year. Every so often on the trek across the entire state of Pennsylvania, the highway would bring me to a peak in the road and I could see stretched out across my field of vision the rolling hills of the Appalachian mountains. At one point I slowed way down in the right-hand lane and, when the area was clear, was able to snap a quick picture with my phone. It is probably the worst picture ever – think back to the days, for those who will remember, of the kinds of not-so-fabulous photographs inevitably taken with those Kodak disposable cameras. Blurriness and bad composition notwithstanding, I was able to capture in the frame two layers of tree-covered mountains in the far distance that establish a false horizon. And in the middle is the road, ever so clear in the foreground but curving to the left to disappear into a density of still-green foliage.
This picture invokes a feeling I had as I moved eastward toward Massachusetts – a feeling I have had many times before. There is a sense of familiarity that relates to other moves and many miles driven on other interstates with different mountains and trees. And with each journey there is the anticipation – both exciting and apprehensive – of a new beginning. Where will this trip take me? Who will I meet? What joys and sorrows lie ahead?
That uncertain and obscured turn in the road eventually brought me here to St. Paul, and revealed in the clearing were generous and friendly folk – you – who have welcomed me with kind words, with encouragement, and with much, much grace. I’ve already heard some of your joys and some of your sorrow, and I am grateful that those whom I have already met have offered the kind of unbridled hospitality that ensures new beginnings are also good ones.
As church, we know much about new beginnings, one of which is upon us this week as we begin our 2018-2019 program year. Young people embark on deeper learning about their Christian and Lutheran heritage, hard-working committees put into action creative visions dreamed about in prior seasons, and new goals are revealed that will continue the work that we are called to do as a community. And sooner than we can even imagine it will be December, and Advent, and the beginning of yet another church year where we can travel the road, together, to the manger, on to Calvary, and beyond to the sure and present hope of the resurrection.
At the beginning it may be too soon to think about the end, but I can already imagine flipping to that blurry photograph taken on the highway in Pennsylvania and remember that as the road turned to the left there you were with God’s love and God’s grace in your welcome and open arms. For those I have already met - Thank you! And to those I will get to know, I’m excited to meet you and learn from you. Here’s to our new beginning!
Farewell and Godspeed
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This week's song of the summer [the ultimate offering from Vicar Andrew's playlist this summer] is perhaps the greatest song about leave-taking ever written. "To Live is to Fly" by Townes Van Zandt is suffused with melancholy and gratitude.
Melancholy and gratitude...that pretty much sums up my feelings this week as I prepare to end my time at St. Paul. At first, it seems hard to believe that it's already been a year since I arrived. Then I start to I think back on all of the joys and challenges of this last year, on opportunities both grasped and unfulfilled, on what I was able to do and what I left undone...and suddenly it feels like I've been here a lifetime. This is such a testament to this community; I immediately felt welcomed and affirmed and empowered upon my arrival. You all have high expectations of your interns, and you have enough compassion and grace to allow us to flourish.
I've been told by numerous members of this congregation that "we mark the time we've been here by vicars," and then they'll count out the previous interns that they've spent time with over the years. I'm here to tell you this works both ways: I have been marked by my time here, in deep, formative, life-changing ways. So when Townes sings "Days, up and down they come/like rain on a conga drum/forget most, remember some/but don't throw none away," I feel it in my bones. This year has been so full of memories that I can't even begin to list them. I'm so thankful for all of the days I've gotten this year, and I will carry what I learned here long after I leave.
I thank God for my time here and what the Spirit has called us to together. What a blessing it has been to serve here, thank you from the bottom of my heart.