From the wilderness into the light

 

Today’s Gospel reading for the Sunday Eucharist is John 4.5-42: The Story of the woman of Samaria.  So many questions spring to mind.  Was this Samaritan woman an outcast (as has often been interpreted from this passage)?  Was she going through her own desert wilderness in life?  Was her thirst just as much a spiritual longing as a physical need for water?  Just how many social taboos did Jesus trample on when speaking to her – a woman; a Samaritan?  And how did this make her feel?  It does seem that she returned to her people, overflowing with news of the Messiah who had seen right through her and told her everything she had done.  It seems something changed within her.  There’s a freedom about her as she is offered the water of eternal life.  She is free.  She flies.  Certainly, we read that many believed because of her testimony.  Listen to Touch the Sky from the soundtrack of the Walt Disney film, Brave.  I’ve often used it the middle of a Lent course.  Written by Alex Mandel and Mark Andrews, and performed by Julie Fowlis, I find this Celtic inspired song begins to lead us out of the kind of wilderness that the Samaritan woman may have been experiencing ‘into the light’.  The woman at the well had a life-changing story to tell.  We, too, can be part of that amazing story of Christ’s love, which enables us all to ‘ride’, to ‘fly’, to ‘chase the wind’ and ‘touch the sky’.

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Whispered Conversation

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Read John 3.1-17 (today’s Gospel reading for the Sunday Eucharist) and listen to the whispered conversation in the middle of the night between the Pharisee Nicodemus and Jesus; mysterious Rabbi who, rumour has it, comes from God.

Here, there is both earthy language and spiritual expression. Encountering these characters, we are reminded of our physicality; think of the start of Lent – we are but dust. Yet, a heavenly reality takes us beyond this worldly fact to show us that we are anything but dust. We are created to be in relationship with our Creator. We are loved by God. We are reborn.

Let the wind blow us to the height and depth of that love that we, though aware of our brokenness, might know through God’s Son, Jesus, and in our inner-most being, the living presence of God, his grace and his mercy, this Lententide. The darkness of the cross is before us during Lent. But even now we can see a chink of light beyond the shadow. The promise of rebirth and new life.

Psalm 32

Sunday by Sunday we sing Psalms. We concentrate on getting them right. But the words?

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven,

and whose sin is put away!

Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt,

and in whose spirit there is no guile!

Peace perfect peace! Guileless and guiltless! Perfect happiness! Can we expect such perfection in our real lives? Lord, have you set the bar too high?

While I held my tongue, my bones withered away,

because of my groaning all day long.

For your hand was heavy on me day and night;

my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.

The world tells me to just move on. Put it behind you they say. Is this not the right way? Lord, repentance is hard. Forgiveness needs action, it needs self examination. Why should I do it? But then the Psalmist tells it like it is. The guilt, the wrongness working within me. Do I need this? Isn’t the world right?  Time heals all wounds. Forgiveness? Is it not just the frost in the morning, burned away with the heat of the morning sun?

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,

and did not conceal my guilt.

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.”

Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

Lord, it is simple isn’t it? Repentance, looking at my life and realizing what is wrong. Lord, I do not have the strength to do this but sometimes need to be carried. Then I can take that first step. The darkness lightens, a gleam of hope appears. Suddenly the meaning of this season appears. We are following in your footsteps toward the cross. We are living within a promise of forgiveness. Thank you Lord!

Remembering

I remember my first Lent like it was yesterday. I was 27 when I first joined the Church and had only distant memories of a large grey building at Granny’s where pandrops were dispensed from fur coat pockets and boxed pews kept you firmly ensconced. The joy and riot of colour and drama and smells and sounds of the Episcopal Church were shocking to me, but also familiar. Not familiar in church terms, but made me feel like I was at home. As each season passed I knew that this was where I wanted to stay. This was where I belonged.

And so my first Lent came to pass. I walked in to church and gasped at the beauty and delight of the purpleness. The altar frontal, the burse and veil, the flashes of it around the building, the lack of flowers, the starkness all set the scene. Then there were these unfamiliar Anglican hymns but there was something more. I’m not a musician but even I could tell that the tone was different, the tempo was slower, the words were more poignant. I think it was then that I first realised that hymns were chosen to fit the season, to fit the liturgy and how important that was. The notices told me that Confession was available, something which I had previously thought of as strictly for the Roman Catholics, but then I realised that this was all part of the season of preparation.  To turn from sin and seek repentance. To cleanse and purify our hearts. To rouse us to prayer, self-denial and service of neighbour.

I’d never given anything up for Lent before. Of course I’d heard people talk about it – usually chocolate, cigarettes or booze – but I’d never made that kind of commitment before. But I also heard the gospel say that we shouldn’t talk about it, that it should be done in secret with God alone, and that we should oil our faces and keep cheerful. That’s what I heard, that first Lent. But I felt unprepared. I hadn’t had enough time to think about it, to plan it. But I really wanted to take it seriously, to make a promise to God and to keep it. To do something as a sacrifice that would make me a better person because I still didn’t really believe that God loved me as I was.

Nothing prepared me for the powerfulness of that first Ash Wednesday service. Nor for the emotion that would well up when the priest said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Repent and turn to Christ.” Tears sprung to my eyes and I really didn’t know why. Perhaps it was the seriousness of it. Perhaps it was the touch on my forehead and the sign of the cross, so recently given to me in oil at my Confirmation. Perhaps it was the purpleness, the solemnity, the music – who knows? All I knew as I walked away from the altar rail and saw that Mr W also had an ash cross, as did Mrs L and Mrs R and all the rest, all much better Christians than I, all who were much further along this path with God, all were marked with the same cross and all reminded of their mortality and the need for repentance. All of us there that night were in it together. And that each year they came back to be reminded again.

I’ll never forget that first Lent. As the drama unfolded over the weeks I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. It was like finding a favourite series on TV when you can’t wait for the next episode. The following year I thought I would be better prepared and asked in the pub after church one Sunday if there was a book anyone could recommend which would tell me what it all meant. “Yes, there is,” said someone, and I whipped out my filofax to write down its title, “its called the Bible!”

Ever since then I’ve never lost the thrill of the change of seasons in Church and in particular the journey and drama of Lent. Since ordination I’ve wanted every single one of my little flocks to gasp as they walk into church when the seasons change and feel the drama unfold in words and symbols. The signs and symbols work best for me. I know that now. For some its the words and I’ve tried to work with them too. I don’t give up so much these days as try to take something on. I’m afraid there is little sacrifice in saying Morning Prayer with others but I always do that in church each Lent and Advent. But whatever I do, there is nothing that quite compares with that first Lent.

Seven Stanzas At Easter

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.
John Updike