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Posts Tagged ‘Easter’

Here’s an essay by Wallace Adams-Riley (Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond and my regular running buddy) published in yesterday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.  In it Wallace provides some valuable insight into the seasons of the Christian year, and especially the traditions of Ash Wednesday, which was  observed yesterday by churches around the world.

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Late last fall, my family and I moved to Richmond from Florida and, at my wife’s suggestion, I bought an overcoat for the first time in my life. I wasn’t sure I needed it, but she, a Vermonter, told me I would. Only a couple of months later, I was glad I had listened to my wise wife.

We had lived in Florida for only five years, and yet I was amazed at how much I had lost touch, in that short time, with what it was like to live somewhere with actual seasons; first the colors of autumn’s leaves; then the wind chill and snow (or snows) of midwinter; and then, mercifully, the tantalizing first hints of spring, with the delicate green beginnings of budding and leafing, the steady and unmistakable uptick in the bird population and, as noticeably as anything, the exponential increase in birdsong.

I’ll always remember walking through the Fan last spring, with my mouth practi cally agape at how the robins, finches, and sparrows filled the trees and all the air around with their ever expansive, ebullient song.

To be conscious of the seasons is elemental, one of those things most essential to being alive. Therefore, it should be no surprise that since time immemorial, and long before the major world religions were born, human beings have looked to the seasons as primary metaphors for the human experience — and, in particular, the human experience of the Divine.

When, in time, Christianity emerged, it was only natural for Christians to follow that same essential pattern as well. Over the first few centuries of the life of the Church, Christians worked out a year-round calendar of feast days and fast days to commemorate the life and teachings of Jesus; and they arranged the architecture of the church year to maximize the metaphorical potential of the annual seasons.

For example, the Church situated the annual celebration of Christ’s birth in the very depths of winter, when the days are shortest and the world is darkest, thereby co-opting the entire natural world into the symbolism of the “light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

And so it is with Lent and the approach to Easter, that moment in the Church’s calendar we now enter. The natural, seasonal dynamics of death and rebirth, winter turning to spring, become a grand metaphor for the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. As with Christ’s birth in midwinter, so with his rebirth in the spring, the natural world joins in the annual remembrance of Christ’s Resurrection.

Indeed, the word “Lent” itself comes from the Old English lencten, used to describe the lengthening of days that marks the coming of spring. And, in the Church’s calendar, by dependable calculation (the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox), Easter always falls in spring. In fact, the word “Easter” was originally the name of a pre-Christian spring goddess.

That the Church takes such care to draw the whole natural world into the act of remembrance and the experience of worship is nothing less than sacramental. The sky, and the trees, and the birds, and the day and the night, like water and bread and wine, all become, as we say of sacraments, “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace,” signs of what God would do and is doing in our lives and in our world. For a faith which holds that, in the name of love, God took on the earthly stuff of flesh and blood, this correspondence is only natural.

Today, as the sign of the Cross is made on countless foreheads, with the words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we are reminded that, as divine as any faith may aspire to be, it is where that faith meets the lived experience of humanity that true colors are shown. Ash Wednesday is a day when we are especially aware of our creatureliness and mortality; and it begins a season of reflection and prayer, of rethinking and re-examining; a season to prepare for a change, a transformation, even a rebirth.

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456984652_dd7b5870b4Easter Sunday was a glorious day in more ways than one.  Not only did we gather for worship and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at First Baptist Church, but God himself was in a celebratory mood, festooning the city of Richmond with sunshine and soft, swirling breezes in honor of his Son.  Or so it seemed as I strolled along Monument Avenue with family and friends that afternoon, soaking up the joyful ambience of an event called “Easter on Parade.”

“When does the parade actually start?” I heard someone ask.

“Um, this is it.  YOU are it.”

And so we were: a great throng of happy people—friends walking arm in arm, parents pushing strollers, children in Osh-Kosh overalls, and dogs EVERYWHERE, many of them in costume.  I loved the three Greyhounds wearing tiny hats; the Dalmatian whose black spots had been supplemented with pink, green, blue, and yellow ones; and the Yorkshire Terrier who looked up at me over the frames of her very stylish sunglasses. 

I couldn’t stop smiling.  Christ had risen and everywhere I looked people seemed to be grateful for the gifts of warmth and sunshine, friends and family, children eating ice cream cones and dogs wearing funny hats.  But then I came to that corner where the street preacher was plying his trade. 

He stood on a stepladder, holding a microphone and shouting words of judgment at the crowd.  “Are you perfect?  Do you think you’re perfect?  Well, you’d better be, because if you’re not there will be hell to pay!”  I could see people cringing, complaining, and moving away from the sound of his voice.  I cringed and moved away, although I felt a little guilty about it.  Shouldn’t I be supportive of someone who would stand in the midst of that secular crowd and try to preach the gospel?  Shouldn’t I admire this young man for his courage, and at least give him a collegial thumbs-up? 

Maybe I should have, but I didn’t.  I winced and walked on by, my perfect afternoon tainted by that encounter.

I don’t think I would have minded so much if he were preaching the gospel, if anything he were saying sounded like good news, but all I could hear for as long as I could hear him were words of judgment and condemnation.  If I were strolling down Monument Avenue and knew nothing about God I might assume that the Maker of All Things was really mad at me, and wanted to roast me in the flames of hell forever.  Where is the good news in that?  The street preacher did mention Jesus occasionally, but only in the context of “bleeding and dying on the cross” to save me from my sins.  Again, if I knew nothing about God, I might gather that the Maker of All Things was really mad at me, but took his anger out on his Son instead, nailing him to a cross where he bled and died.  “Yikes!” I would think.  “This is one angry Maker!  And if I get saved I get to spend eternity with Him?  With someone who would send people to hell and nail his son to a cross?  No thanks!”

I said to a colleague later, “People like that make our job harder,” and he agreed, because reaching people who don’t know much about God and don’t want to have anything to do with Him is a little bit like coaxing wild deer to eat out of your hand.  You have to stand very still, and hold out that handful of grain in the least threatening manner possible.  Any sudden movement, any noise at all, will cause the deer to turn and bolt.  You have to earn their trust, and you do it by approaching them gently, offering them something good, and meaning no harm.

Here I was, walking among my fellow Richmonders on Monument Avenue, within sight of First Baptist Church.  I was speaking to people, smiling at people, trying to open myself up in every possible way to friendly conversation that might, in time, turn to important things.  But then the street preacher showed up, shouting judgment at the top of his voice, and it was like watching a herd of deer turn and bolt. 

What will those people think the next time God comes up in conversation, or the next time someone invites them to church?  How long will it take to undo the damage done on one sunny afternoon by a street preacher?

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I’m back from Homipalooza 2008 and my head is still hurting.  Not because it was such a wild party (it wasn’t), but because of all the big ideas my colleagues and I shared and all the heady discussions we had.  For example: it was my job to look ahead to Easter 2009 and talk about how we might plan our preaching for that season.  I began by saying that while the resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of Christian theology it is also one of those things some people have a hard time believing, people like Doubting Thomas, for instance, who swore that until he put his finger in the holes in Jesus’ hands and his hand in his side he would not believe.  In every church I’ve served there have been at least a few like Thomas who confessed that an Easter faith was hard for them.  They have studied enough science to know that dead bodies don’t (usually) come back to life.  They have a hard time quieting the many questions that keep them from believing. 

My colleagues at Homipalooza agreed that the same was true for them.  There were people like that in all their churches.  As good pastors and not only good preachers they wondered how to proclaim the good news of Easter without running roughshod over the honest intellectual struggle of those “doubters.” 

I found something in my files that spoke to that concern, and without asking you to read the whole thing let me share the closing paragraph of a sermon delivered three years ago at the First Baptist Church of Washington, DC.  It was about Doubting Thomas, who eventually looked on the risen Christ and believed, and about all those doubters who are still waiting for such a moment.  It was called “Easy for You; Hard for Me”:

We’ve worked pretty hard in the last few years to make sure that our building is accessible.  We put in a wheelchair lift over here, automatic doors on the front and back of the building.  We want to be sure that when a disabled person comes to our church it will be easy for him to get into our building and find a place in our pews.  You can see that symbol on some of our doors, the one with the little wheelchair on it, that proudly proclaims: “this church is accessible!”  I wish there were some way to put another symbol on the door, some small icon or image of Thomas, maybe, that would tell the world “This church is accessible to those who have some doubts.”  Because you never know when Jesus is going to show up.  You never know when someone who has been struggling with doubt might look on His face and say, as Thomas did, 

“My Lord and my God!”

 

 

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