Good Friday: The Quick and the Dead

In the old-school version (i.e. the one based off of William Tyndale’s English Bible) of the Nicene Creed (and the Apostles’ Creed), it says that we believe Jesus is in Heaven and will return to “judge the quick and the dead.”  “Quick” in this sense is an archaic word for “living, alive”, like quicksand and cutting to the quick.  It was only later that it became a word for speed.  I like this use, this quickness of the heart that still beats, the blood that still flows, the lungs that still pull in even the smallest amount of air.

Today is a day in which I want to gather to myself the slowness; today is the day the heart stops, the blood halts, the lungs cease their rhythmic movement.  Today is the day of Christ’s death.

It’s weird to be observing Good Friday with such a different pattern than I’ve had the last five or so years; I went to work this morning and then to one of my other jobs (I’ll actually go to all three today, come to think of it).  I went to a party for student appreciation—a party on Good Friday, which felt so jarring and yet not jarring at all because I still can’t wrap my head around it being Good Friday.  I didn’t see it coming, didn’t really do anything for Lent this year.  I’m not ready for this death.

The thing of it is, though, that you can never be ready for death.  My family has been on a kind of low-level deathwatch for my one remaining grandparent for a couple of months now—it is definitely her time and her body is shutting down bit by bit.  But I know that even when she dies, we won’t actually be ready for it.  We can’t be.  Death, in all its slowness, comes quick; death steals into even the most-watched spaces.  Death, even the expected kind, is always a surprise.  I can’t even imagine how intense the shock must have been for the disciples.

Think of it—Jesus had been trying for weeks to get the disciples to understand, to prepare themselves even to some small degree, to set up their own kind of deathwatch.  They didn’t take it seriously.  Who could?  Jesus was at the top of His game, in the prime of His life.  A crowd had just laid their own clothing on the dusty ground for Him.  Radical things were happening; there was change in the dry, desert air.

But then there is the inexplicable jumpiness of Judas, and the incomprehensible things Jesus says at the table about bodies and blood, and then there is the garden and the need to stay awake when they don’t know why, don’t know why they couldn’t just sleep; it had been such a long week, after all.  Jesus’ voice is so quick in its frustration, straining against something they don’t understand, a pain they don’t feel—and then there is the crashing of the soldiers, so loud in that quiet space, so bright in the darkness.  Peter lashes out; he always thinks with his body first, speaks the first thought, never reflects.  Peter is quick.  The soldier is too slow and the shriek of pain slices through the murmurs of the crowd, the blood pouring red on red cloth under grey armor and Jesus is quick, too, stooping down to pick up the ear, holding His hand to the man’s head while the blood pours over His fingers and slows, slows, stops.

The trials are not quick.  The walks between the political poles are endless as Jesus’ heart still beats and the disciples cower, quick to refuse any connection others ascribe, anxious not to end up in that same slow circle of accusation and torment where no one takes responsibility.  The crowd is quick to choose Barabbas, opening like a hungry maw to receive him into itself from the platform where Jesus sways slowly, exhausted from holding the world together.  The soldiers hurry Him away and the women who love Him, who stand in the crowd shouting His name against the louder voices of the priests’ plants, do not know they will never again see Him whole like this.

PICEDITOR-SMHThe crucifixion does not feel quick.  Jesus’ last breaths come slowly, His words making sure community remains even as the sweat slides into the blood dripping down His naked skin, the cuts on His back pressing into wooden splinters as He pushes against the nails that hold Him there, splayed for the world and God to see what it looks like to slow, and slow, and die.

It is finished,” He says, and there is no more quickness in Him.

Lighting flashes, a quick bolt shattering the sky suddenly darker than night as the sun and stars hide their faces in grief and the earth shudders at the violence she must bear on her sacred soil.  A curtain tears and God is as naked as Himself, His body and His secret dwelling place both on display in this unthinkable space where Death claims what he believes to be his.

No one was ready.  No one is ever ready for this.

 

When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”  (Matthew 27:54, ESV)

Advent, Week Three: Joy

 Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!

In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
    He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55, CEB)

As the Christmas advertisements become ever more frequent and the music proclaiming “Joy to the World” looped on the radio stations starts to become a little stale, let the Church be at the forefront of declaring that joy is not the same thing as happiness.  Psychologies, a British women’s magazine, describes joy as “more consistent” than happiness and “cultivated internally.  It comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are and how you are, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts and events.”  This is not to say that joy and happiness are mutually exclusive or that either joy or happiness is somehow bad; it is to say that they draw from different sources, and as this third week of Advent calls us to joy we must be aware that that is not the same thing as telling us to be happy.

Women, in this season fraught with Sexy Santa Helpers imagery, the misuse of the Marian narrative to tell all females they are incomplete without children, and cultural stereotypes that expect a perfect Christmas dinner made by a perfect hostess for everyone who may cross the threshold, may not feel all that happy.  (The frustration around the expectations of women are somewhat painfully addressed in a Saturday Night Live skit with Emma Stone.)  They may not even feel all that joyful.  And that is a real and honest place to be in this Advent season.  Happiness is not what the Church should be asking of women; it should be enabling them, however, to experience joy.

This third Sunday is also known as Gaudete Sunday, a name taken from the beginning of the liturgy in the Latin Catholic mass; “gaudete” means “rejoice.”  Mary’s hymn (today’s Scripture reading) is known as the Magnificat (from the opening line in Latin, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum,” “My soul magnifies the Lord”) and the text is pervaded with a sense of joy even in the uncertainty of Mary’s pregnancy and its complications.  This Sunday reminds us that this season, women are at the forefront:  in Advent we hear of Mary, we hear of Elizabeth, we hear of women in Jesus’ family tree and say in this season, at least, women are valued by the Church.  Joy to the women! an Advent devotional proclaims, and indeed this season calls out the joy—the deep wellspring bubbling to the surface happiness—of recognizing the gifts women bring not only to culture but to the Church itself.

Yet not everyone recognizes these gifts, telling women they have no place in Church leadership despite the stories of their grace in ministry like A Day in the Life of a Female Pastor’s Husband.  At this time of the holidays, also, not everyone recognizes the need for agency in sharing those gifts and sharing of selves; pressure on both women and men to go to familial structures that may be painful and damaging in the false name of the importance of genetic connection makes many dread the season.  There is no joy in pretending happiness at the expense of your own peace and no one who loves you should ever ask you to do that which steals your joy or makes you feel unsafe.  As Mary says, “In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior;” from her very spirit that animates her comes the ability to rejoice, not from someone else telling her she needs to feel joy.  She is now exalted, mindfully part of the story of Christmas, of Christianity itself, because she was given the choice to say yes, I will be part of this.

Joy, like hope and peace, takes work.  It takes trust and space and time and choice; it takes an awareness of the self that may be a difficult thing to hold.  In a world and a Church that often tells women to smile, reinforcing the idea that women are only as useful as their beauty or cheerfulness, we who claim this faith must advocate for and work toward the reality where joy is what is asked and what is cultivated, where the status of the soul is far more important than a facial expression.  This season, find the things that bring you joy, and be unapologetic about claiming them as God’s great gift from Her own wellspring.

People of the Books: The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

I truly did not mean to stay away for a month, my apologies.  Every time I think I have a handle on this semester, something else comes along—however, now that we’re in midterms (can you believe it?) I think I might be finding a rhythm.  This is a semester where I spent A LOT of time actually in class, which is unusual for graduate school.  I’m hoping this is not the case next semester; be patient with me, Reader, and stick around.

I have a great many books that have been piling up and it’s been some time since I did a review, so I present The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley.  I don’t remember where or when I got this, but I do remember picking it up solely because Huxley (of Brave New World fame) wrote it and I was fascinated to see what he’d do with devils.

It is, I discovered, a historical overview of a spate of supposed possessions in a convent in Loudun, France, in the 17th century.  Or it’s an indictment of 17th century Church corruption.  Or it’s a showcase of what happens when you tell people sexuality is bad but then make it enticing.  Or it’s religious theory.  Or it’s psychology.  Or it’s poetry.  Or it’s comparative religion, drawing on Taoism and Buddhism as well as Christianity and Judaism.

Or it’s all of that.  Huxley isn’t writing a novel (which is what I originally thought this was, especially having read The Devils by John Whiting, which is a play based on these same possessions.)  It reminded me a lot of The Cheese and the Worms in terms of taking a historical event/text and extrapolating with stories and theories about the personalities and relationships involved.  And Huxley has a lot to work with:  as I mentioned, it’s about possessions at a convent in France.  A priest named Urbain Grandier was accused of bringing a whole slew of devils to torment (mostly via impure thoughts and some flopping about and such) a nunnery; he was eventually convicted and burned to death as a sorcerer.  Along the way, though, Huxley goes through how the politics of religious France allowed this, what relationships Grandier was having that would have set him up for such a claim, what the abbess of the nunnery was doing in claiming such possession, and whether or not the entire affair had any grounding.

Huxley comes down hard on the side of this whole thing being a frame-up because the nuns were sexually frustrated and Grandier slept with all the wrong gals, but fortunately he doesn’t dismiss the reality of the situation for the people involved.  He’s pretty good about not judging the actors through 20th century eyes, which not every historian can pull off.

Be warned:  there are a lot of times when Huxley will quote from some document or other in French or Latin and just move on without translating.  That can be frustrating if you don’t quite know what’s being said, but fortunately it’s never anything on which the argument turns.  And there are sparse citations in this book; there are a few footnotes, but they’re as random as the choices to translate.

Huxley goes through so many tunnels to get at his objective of totally dismantling this entire mess and tearing apart the politics of the Church and the fear of evil, especially as it manifests in sexuality.  I found myself feeling awful for pretty much all of the characters because they got caught in this machine they’d foolishly started and then couldn’t stop, ground in its gears without mercy or tempered judgment.

Let me share some quotes with you that I found particularly of note:

“A Church divided by intestine hatreds cannot systematically practise love and cannot, without manifest hypocrisy, preach it.”  (27; oh modern Church, do you hear?)

“Christ delights in the lilies precisely because they are not prudent, because they neither toil nor spin and yet are incomparably lovelier than the most gorgeous of Hebrew kings…[they] enjoy a glory which has this in common with the Order of the Garter—that ‘there’s no damned merit about it.’  That, precisely, is their point; that is why, for us human beings, they are so refreshing and, on a level much deeper than that of morality, so profoundly instructive.”  (85-86)

“Such was the atmosphere in a convent of demoniac nuns, and such the persons with whom, in an intimacy that was a compound of the intimacies existing between gynaecologist and patient, trainer and animal, adored psychiatrist and loquacious neurotic, the officiating priest passed many hours of every day and night…The long-drawn debauch took place in the imagination and was never physical.”  (121, on the weird sexual tension between the possessed nuns and the exorcists brought in to cure them)

“[A]ll the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural…Few people now believe in the devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number.  In order to justify their behaviour, they turn their theories into dogmas, their by-laws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils.”  (125; oh, that doesn’t sound familiar at all here in 2016…)

“And Montaigne concludes with one of those golden sentences which deserve to be inscribed over the altar of every church, above the bench of every magistrate, on the walls of every lecture hall, every senate and parliament, every government office and council chamber…’After all, it is rating one’s conjectures at a very high price to roast a man alive on the strength of them.'”  (133)

“For the first time in his life he knew the meaning of contrition—not doctrinally, not by scholastic definition, but from within, as an anguish of regret and self-condemnation…Father Ambrose pronounced the formula of absolution…and spoke a little about the will of God.  Nothing was to be asked for, he said, and nothing refused.  Except for sin, all that might happen to one was not merely to be accepted with resignation; it was to be willed, moment by moment, as God’s will for that particular moment.  Suffering was to be willed, affliction was to be willed…And in the act of being willed they would be understood.  And in the act of being understood they would be transfigured, would be seen, not with the eyes of the natural man, but as God saw them.”  (203)

“At Saintes, for the first time in ten years, Surin found himself treated with sympathy and consideration—as a sick man undergoing a spiritual ordeal, not as a kind of criminal undergoing punishment at the hands of God and therefore deserving of yet more punishment at the hands of men.  It was still all but impossible for him to leave his prison and communicate with the world; but now the world was moving in and trying to communicate with him.”  (297)

 

Rating:  3.5/5 stars  3-5-stars

People of the Books: Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Hullo, Reader!  Thanks for your patience with me in my not warning you I’d be dropping off the radar last week; I had a conference last weekend (and also confirmation at church), so I wasn’t able to get to this.  But I’m back now (albeit a day late)—happy Saturday!  Have a book review!

Quo Vadis (which has apparently been made into a movie that I’m going to have to see now) is another of those books that somehow magically made it into my library when I wasn’t paying attention.  I have no memory of buying this or being given it, but I know I’ve moved it from at least one place to another with me.  In my great I Have to Read All These Books Before I Move Them Again project (yeah, it’s not going well; Reader, I own a lot of books) I finally decided to sit down with this one.

I must say, it was slow going at first.  Sienkiewicz doesn’t pull punches in how he sets up the story; he expects you to keep up as he throws you into 60s A.D. Rome under the craziness of Nero’s rule.  But stick with it; once you get situated in the overwhelming city (fortunately, my version had a map at the back so I could follow Sienkiewicz’s characters talking about where things were), you realize this is a pretty epic story.

The basic premise is that Marcus Vinicius, a nobleman of one of the ancient families and a decorated soldier now hanging about in Rome, falls in love with a gal named Ligia.  Add in the complication—Ligia is a Christian.  This is a time when Christianity was kept on the downlow because it wasn’t outright illegal but it definitely wasn’t liked, so Ligia’s faith is already questionable but also it’s a totally foreign idea to Vinicius.  He has all the power and wealth he could want; why on earth would someone want to follow a faith that tells you to give up stuff like that?  Foolishness.

So with this very simple plot, off we go.  Of course it gets more complicated; it’s set against the backdrop of Nero, who was batshit crazy and a half.  Petronius, Vinicius’s uncle, is one of Nero’s advisors (of a sort) and through his eyes we get to see the court falling apart as Nero loses touch with reality more and more.  The main punch of the book is when Rome gets set on fire, which Sienkiewicz described brilliantly, hauntingly, and horrifyingly.  For a city that large and that flammable to catch fire would indeed have been a sight for the ages, but the amount of people it displaced for the whims of a mad emperor is just staggering.

And then Nero blames it on the Christians—cue lions, torture, gore, and all of the awful debauchery that Rome could offer.  We of the 21st century are scary good at causing pain, but we have nothing on Rome.  They were terrifying in the amounts of ways they concocted to kill people; it’s even reflected in the language.  There are over thirty different verbs for “to kill” in ancient Latin.

I do try to correct folks when they think everything from Jesus to Constantine was lions eating Christians because that isn’t true.  Wide-scale persecution was relatively rare; most of the time Christians were mistrusted and ignored or simply thrown in jail for a while.  But sometimes they became scapegoats of epic proportions, and Sienkiewicz does a fantastic job of capturing how frightening and overwhelming that would be.  And one of the best parts about this book is that it makes you look at Christianity itself all over again.

Christianity is so completely embedded in modern Western culture we simply can’t look around without seeing it.  But when it was new and weird and secretive and still being ironed out—I don’t want to romanticize that at all, but I do love reading stories that make me remember it.  This is a time where there aren’t written stories but instead you would hear the Gospel from Peter himself (yeah, Peter and Paul have bit parts in this; it’s pretty awesome because I’m always ready to have them be ornery humans with their own doubts and fears, not knowing how much they would become pillars of the Church).  This is a time when there are the earliest of hymns, when people were still using the fish (ichthus) to identify each other, when books like Revelation make sense because people really did think Jesus was coming back any day because surely the world was tearing itself apart at the seams.

Sienkiewicz definitely has an angle—Nero bad, Christians good—but this isn’t at all a religion pitch.  He returns over and over again to how hard it is to be part of this faith and how different the early version of it was compared to what we know.  And the remarkable thing is that he was writing at the turn of the 20th century yet you can tell his heart is in the history of this rather than any attempts to convert the reader (of course, he would likely have assumed all of his readers would have been Christian already anyway).  Some of the characters don’t get Christianity and end the book still not getting it and yet being fully themselves, and five million points to an author who respects his/her characters enough not to try and force them into conversion moments.  My only real problem with characterization is in how Sienkiewicz talks about Ursus, Ligia’s bodyguard; a lot of the language there is very much about how this barbarian (they’re political hostages from a northern kingdom) is so very slow and more brawn than brains.  That caught me up several times because it’s so bald, but Ursus was still a real and marvelous character who actually stands in for the reader sometimes when we’re trying to understand what’s going on.  He also becomes a paradigm of loyalty and an example to be followed.

There is violence and sex and this is not for the faint of heart, Reader, but it is well worth the time, especially in this more modern translation (mad props to W. S. Kuniczak).  It’s a great story as well as a really well-written imagining of the early days of Christianity. I’ll definitely be keeping this on hand.

 

Rating:  4.5/5 stars  People of the Books:  Why I Am a Catholic by Garry Wills

 

Always, Always Learning

I am super educated.

I have a master’s degree in an esoteric field that most people equate with renaissance festivals.  I’m about to go get another master’s degree because, like potato chips, you can never have just one.  On one side of my family, mine is the first generation in three to have people who stopped going to school after their bachelor’s degrees.  With this kind of education comes a horrendous bias that I fight far less often than I should.

This past Sunday I went to the graduation party of a former student of mine.  She befriended me on Facebook after her semester in my class and still maintains mine was her favorite of the whole degree and that I was her favorite teacher.  We’ve kept in a distant sort of touch as she finished her schoolwork and I was surprised but delighted at her invitation to this celebration.  I bickered with myself until I got in my car on whether or not I was going to attend, but go I did—if nothing else, I wanted the connection to my old life of academia after a long weekend of church politics and procedures.  I also remembered how much it had meant to me when some of my teachers had attended my high school graduation party and wanted to be able to be that for this student, if possible.

She lives, I discovered as I wound my way through various country roads, in what is not affectionately called trailer country, a series of broken-down double-wides huddling amidst yards full of goggle-eyed chickens and rusted-out cars and gathered detritus.  This was the type of living, more than any other, that I was taught to fear growing up.  Get educated, I was told; make something of yourself so you don’t wind up stuck here with the trailer trash.

My heart breaks, Reader, to even admit these things to myself, let alone you.  I have since known dear friends who wound up in trailers for whatever reason; I have had family who made their way in their double-wides.  But the initial prejudice remains, and I as searched my way down the row of mailboxes looking for my student’s house, I hated the running judgment in the back of my mind.

At the party—just past the tarp-covered car on cinder blocks and the knot of people in faded t-shirts chain-smoking e-cigs—I met my student, a vibrant and hilarious young woman in a bright dress who hugged me fiercely and offered me sweet tea.  She introduced me to her father as a kindred spirit of geekery and we talked for some time.  Her father is, indeed, a delightful man and we swapped favorite post-apocalyptic books and talked about the film Kingdom of Heaven and how well-choreographed the battle scenes in Troy were.  He shared his amazement at the rise of acceptance of nerd culture in the last decade and I spoke of being able to connect with my students by knowing their references.  My student introduced me to her boyfriend and we talked about Star Wars and the university where I work and being incredibly socially awkward at these sorts of blind gatherings.  My student told me of what she plans to do and how she’s waiting a year before applying to master’s degree programs and I stood in their double-wide trailer with its clean and spare decor and this bright woman figuring out her way in the world and I felt so utterly humbled.

It is so easy for me, with my alphabet soup of degrees and my history of being The Smart Kid, to assign a lack of intelligence or drive or humanity to people in the trailer country.  We as a society don’t help because we continually portray people in those situations as trailer trash, as rednecks, as all manner of insults we save for those we deem uncultured and poor in various ways.  But this—this assumption is my sin, is my moment of standing with a cup of sweet tea and hearing God ever-so-gently tell me to get off my high horse because these, too, are God’s people.

I’ve had various people speculate as to what kind of church the bishop will assign me when I finish seminary, but several have said that it had better not be rural because I would be bored out of my mind.  I need the intellectual stimulation, I am told, and that may be right.  But far be it from me to tell God that I cannot serve in trailer country because they aren’t as smart as I am, because they won’t understand my sermons, because I am in some sense too good for that kind of a congregation.  What arrogance!  What foolishness!  Did my student’s father need to have read the Iliad (in English or its original Greek) to discuss film battle scenes with me?  Did he need to understand the liberties taken with the historical accounts of the crusades to speak of the power of his favorite movie?  Of course not.

I will never say that knowing these things is bad or that education is too much; it both angers and saddens me that we in the church almost fear education sometimes in the way that we talk about our faith and its history.  I delight in having read the Iliad, delight in learning Greek, delight in telling the stories of the crusades because we should never shy away from the richness of all that has come before, both good and bad.  But my knowing these things should never, ever give me license to forget that those who don’t know—and even, though it pains me to say it, those who don’t care—are still children of God.  God loves each of us, even those in trailer country, even those with several degrees, even those with a yard full of chickens and trash.

God is for all.  God is with all.  God loves all.  And I have no right to say that I am more loved or valuable than another.  Ever.

Thank you for teaching me, student, however unintentionally.

 

 

Were you born the first Adam,
    brought forth before the hills?
Did you listen in God’s council;
    is wisdom limited to you?
What do you know that we don’t know;
    what do you understand that isn’t among us?  (Job 15:7-9, CEB)

Lent, Week Seven: Anointing the Sick

My apologies for how late this post is this week, Reader.  On top of the usual reality that Good Friday is complicated for me, my car died Thursday.  For a wannabe pastoral type, of course the best time to be without transportation is Maundy Thursday leading into the Paschal Triduum.  Fortunately, my music director was willing to give me a ride to work, my coworker loaned me her car so I could get to class, and then Interpreter graciously ferried me around for the rest of the day and then on Friday.  It helps that he and I were already going to the same places—it’s church week, y’all—but it was still a moment of grace for him to step in and for me to let him.  It’s hard to be dependent on another; it’s hard not to feel like an imposition, a burden.  But in letting that happen while I waited for my dear car to be resurrected (how apropos, no?) we got to talk with each other, break down events with each other, talk shop and not talk at all.  We’re both introverts, after all, so sometimes we are perfectly happy just to pay attention to the road and say nothing.

I do now have my car back (thanks be to God, although my checkbook doesn’t agree) and that is good because I truly don’t live a life of a format or in a place that can count on rides from others and public transportation.  But it was an unlooked for gift, I think, to have that time of simply being with a friend and of seeing the generosity of others.

So what does that have to do with the one remaining sacrament?  Not much, on the surface.  The anointing of the sick, formerly known as Last Rites or Extreme Unction, is very much about humans and not cars.  But it is (even still in the Catholic Church, though they’ve changed the name and broadened the parameters) about death.  This sacrament was originally the last connection in this life to God’s grace; it served as an outward sign just before death that God was on both sides of that great divide with the person dying.  Now it includes those who are very ill and may yet survive, but the concept is the same; “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”

I saved this sacrament for last because I knew it would fall on this holy weekend, Reader.  I realize that technically Lent ended Thursday night, but we are still in the wilderness.  Perhaps we are even more so, because right now our tradition states that Jesus’s body, broken and bloodied and stabbed, lies entombed.  Christ has died.

One of the most awful of the Seven Last Words to me is the one often left in Hebrew (or Aramaic, if you go with Mark):  Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?  (“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”)  In the hour of His death, Jesus had no one to administer the reminder of grace; no priest hovered in the approaching darkness to reassure Him that the Light would not be overcome.  He was Himself the Light, and He died.

I don’t say this to get into a theological argument of how God can desert Himself but to underscore that death is the one thing we can reliably count on to freak us all the hell out.  It is the one thing that we concretely know happens and don’t know much about.  We persons of faith have lots of ideas, sure, but we don’t know.  We can’t.  Death is beyond all of us; only One has ever come back from it, and He didn’t spend any time at all talking about what it was like.  So to have a ritualized reminder that God is there with us even in that most unnerving of hours is an amazing thing; we are not left alone as Jesus was, we are not forsaken in that time of great need.

Because Jesus was.

Here’s the amazing thing I re-learn every Good Friday—Sunday is coming.  Here on Holy Saturday when Jesus is not in the story, is not in this world, when His disciples huddle together in a room that holds memories now painful and stare blankly at each other wondering what they missed and what else they could have done right, there are birds chirping outside my window.  The slowly dropping sun slants in through my front window and makes my silver-edged table shine, the empty glass on it sparkling in the light.  Soon I will head out for an Easter vigil service and then wake far too early in the morning to go to a sunrise Easter service because Death did not win.  Yes, Christ has died, but Christ is risenand Christ will come again.

If I don’t fully believe that, I need to start playing for a different team.

But in believing that—and doubting it and fighting with it and being totally confused by it and worrying about it and celebrating it—I myself am still confronted by Death.  My best friend will die, my favorite uncle will die, my first love will die, my last grandparent will die.  But in that space of standing on Death’s threshold and feeling his hand reach for ours, we do not have to be alone.  In this sacrament or merely the spirit of it (for those of us who aren’t Catholic) we are reminded that Jesus has stood here and taken that hand and will come back for us every time.

So I know it’s a few hours early, Reader, but let me hear it all the way up here in the Land of Pilgrims:  Christ has risen.

Christ has risen indeed!

 

And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.  And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.  (Mark 16:1-2, AKJV)

Lent, Week Six: Confirmation

I love that this fell in for this week because I’m heading off on a retreat with my confirmands once I leave work—mixed feelings about that because I’m tired as all get out from not having slept well and having a lot on my mind and in my life and Lord, but I don’t want to deal with kids who can’t be bothered to actually, you know, care.  But I also know that these things present amazing possibilities for the kids (and us adults, to be sure!) to think about things in new ways, to see new things, to grow and change and discover.

And that’s what confirmation is.  In the Catholic Church, this is one of the three Sacraments of Initiation (along with baptism and the Eucharist); it didn’t make it into the Holy Pair for us non-Catholics because it doesn’t explicitly show up anywhere in the Bible (sola scriptura, you know) but it’s still important in a lot of the mainstream denominations who do infant (rather than adult) baptisms.  It’s sort of baptism’s sequel, The Return of the Spirit.

Confirmation is the cognizant commitment to the Christian life.  For the denominations who only do adult baptism it’s part of that rite and so doesn’t merit its own consideration, but for the paedobaptists (didn’t know you’d be getting your Greek in today, did you?) there’s no way that the baptizee can make these kinds of promises.  The parents (grandparents/godparents/foster parents/whatever) make the promises on behalf of the kid:  we promise that we believe in one God and will raise the kid to know Who God is, we reject the temptations of Satan and will teach him/her to do the same, we will remain loyal to Christ and His Church and will nuture this kid in this family of faith, etc.  Whether the parentals actually follow through on these promises is kind of their problem (well, and that of the whole church, because in most denominations there’s a line in the baptismal rite for the congregation to bind themselves to this new creation), but confirmation is when that kid gets to say these things for him/herself.

So baptism has to come first (which is really fun when a kid hasn’t been baptized before so we do that and then about five minutes later have to say as part of the confirmation liturgy “remember your baptism”), but baptism isn’t the end of the story.  Neither is confirmation, for that matter, which is hard to get both kids and their parents to understand.  Confirmation isn’t the finish line of faith—it’s the start, it’s the moment when you step into your own as an adult (in the sense that no one is living this for you now).  It’s a pretty intense thing, especially when it’s presented as a true choice.

My church goes to some lengths to ensure that the kids going through the two-year-long process (7th and 8th grade) of confirmation understand that it is totally acceptable for them to say, at the end, “No thanks, this isn’t for me” and not become a member of the church or get confirmed.  I have been part of churches that did not make that effort, continuing to push kids forward through the ceremony as though it were just another graduation that you had to do where you memorize some stuff and suddenly you’re a church member.  That cheapens this sacrament, I think, even though most wouldn’t consider it a sacrament.  But it is; it is a sacred thing for a person to say either “I want to know more about this faith and will myself claim God as my God even though I don’t completely understand that” or “I don’t see these beliefs in myself and do not wish to swear to stuff with which I don’t agree.”  Both of these are holy things because both of these are autonomous moments of choice.

One of the really big Theological Things in Christianity is this idea of Free Will (well, unless you’re a Calvinist).  This can get a bit tetchy because of the whole omniscient-and-all-powerful-God thing, but for me I really love that there is this moment built right into the Christian life that says our choice matters.  We are not only encouraged but mandated to make a choice about where we stand with God—and that’s not to say that we can’t change our minds either direction later (trust me, our understanding of God has to be mutable or it would never work), but it is to say that we have to make a public stand.  For all the noise of 21st-century America, we don’t actually like to take public stands all that often.  And trying to do so when you’re 13?  Yeah, right!  You don’t even want to take a public stand on whether or not you like your own hair at that age, let alone how you understand a faith connected to organized religion.  So surely this is a special kind of torture that we enact on poor kids.

But it’s not.  “Tweens,” as they’re now called, have no voice anywhere.  They are just old enough to realize that they have thoughts that may not match the adults around them or even their friends, but no one wants to hear them.  They have no rights anywhere and are constantly told how whiny, ungrateful, lazy, and moody they are—I know this because I have said these things to my confirmands who most certainly have been all four of those.

And yet.

The Church—that monolithic scary thing that everyone says is dying because apparently no one has ever met a caterpillar—takes this time to give kids the space to say what they believe about God, which is kind of the most important thing.  We adults have done what we can to bring them this far; now it’s their turn to own who they are as children of the Spirit or own that God won’t smite them if they walk away.

Yeah, that’s pretty sacred.

 

Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young, but be an example for other believers in your speech, behavior, love, faithfulness, and purity.  (1 Timothy 4:12, ISV)