Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Drama of Holy Week

During Lent we live into a liturgical drama. We veil the cross to live as though there had been no cross, and we symbolically journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. During Lent we live intentionally naive of the victory over sin and death that Jesus accomplished for us upon the cross. This liturgical drama and journey to Jerusalem is intensified during Holy Week.

In Holy Week we stand as pilgrims and witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday we join in the drama as we wave palms in our procession into the nave of the church crying "Hosanna!" But as the day is intended to reflect, we soon learn of Jesus' fate. We hear the passion of Jesus read. This is why we leave church in silence on Palm Sunday- we know Jesus will die.

Our liturgical drama is than acted out during the following days leading up to Easter. It is tradition in most parishes to offer communion on the first days of Holy Week, as we do on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday we mark the day with Tenebrae. Though we do a shortened version of the service, it is intended to foreshadow the days to come. After each Psalm a candle is extinguished until only a single candle remains burning. That candle is then hidden to symbolize the death and burial of Jesus. The single candle is returned to its place. The entire church is dark, and everyone leaves in silence to contemplate the mystery of the evening's liturgy.

On Thursday we begin what is called Triduum (TRIDD-oo-um; Latin triduumsacrum,sacred three days). These three days re-enact the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Thurdsay in Holy week is called Maundy Thursday, which is derived from the Latin term mandatum whic means "commandment." On this day we re-enact the evening when Jesus instituted the Last Supper, which we called the Eucharist or Holy Communion, but we also follow his commandment to be servants of one another by washing each others feet. This humbling act recreates the evening when Jesus laid aside his pride and proved himself to be the servent of us all. When we wash one another's feet we are following his command.

Maundy Thursday continues with the Agape meal. Agape is the Greek word for love. Literally an Agape meal is a re-enactment of a "love feast." The earliest Christians were Jews. The Agape was intended to resemble a Jewish Seder. We eat soup, bread and other foods and drink wine. We say prayers over specific items of the dinner. The meal is intended to be festive, yet somber at the same time. The feast ends as we process back into the church where we witness the stripping of the alter.

We strip the alter and we remove all items of comfort. This stripping is intended to remind us of the evening when Jesus was apprehended as a common criminal. The kneeler cousins are removed, as are the seat cushions at the alter. The holy vessels are purged, and the Holy Oils used for anointing the sick and the newly baptized are poured out onto the ground. Even the cotton used in the oil stock is burned. The alter is washed as one would wash a body after death. Finally, the remaining bread and wine, the body and blood, are carried to the Alter of Repose where we begin the Minor Vigil. It is called the Minor Vigil to distinguish it from the Great Vigil. The Minor Vigil is intended to put us in mind of sitting in vigil with the deceased. The reserve Sacrament is placed on the Alter of Repose and hourly we light candles until the point when the sacrament is removed form the alter for Communion on Good Friday.

Good Friday is the only day of the year when we are forbidden from celebrating the Eucharist. On this day we receive Communion from the "Pre-sanctified" or Reserve Sacrament, meaning that which was consecrated the evening before. On Good Friday we also "Venerate the Cross." That is the act whereby we pay respect to the work Jesus accomplished for us on the cross. Everyone is invited to come forward to the cross to offer a brief prayer or thanksgiving. Most people will kiss the cross or at least touch it. In so doing we acknowledge that the cross that was veiled for the Lenten Season has been reveiled, and with it we learn of the fulfillment of Jesus' mission. After Communion we leave in silence.

By the time we reach Saturday we are into the third day of the Triduum. Most people think that Easter Sunday is the principal celebration of the Christian year, but that is not historically the case. The Great Vigil historically developed as the chief celebration of the Christian Year. Originally intended to be a vigil from sundown to sunrise, we now celebrate it in a shortened fashion realizing that few people could tolerate such a lengthy service.

The Great Vigil begins with the kindling of a new fire, meaning that we build a fire outside the church with everyone gathered around. We light our lanterns from the new fire as we process into the church. During the first part of the liturgy we hear readings from the Old Testament and the Psalms. If there are converts to be baptized, Confirmed or Received it is done during this time. Bear in mind Confirmation and Reception must take place before the bishop. All of this takes place in the darkness to symbolize our time before Christ when we lived in darkness. Then with a loud noise to recreate the rolling away of the stone from Jesus' tomb we sing "Alleluia!" The light is restored to the entire church. {By the way, everyone is invited to bring their own noise maker for the time of the "great noise.") From this point the celebration proceeds as any typical Sunday Eucharist. Thus ends the Triduum.

Many who attend these Holy week liturgies are very moved by the symbolism and drama. Over the years I have known more than a few who have left these services in tears. What is most fascinating to me is that Christians all over the world participate in these liturgies, and we have for hundreds of years. Through the numbers are growing, few churches celebrate the liturgies of Holy Week. It truly is a liturgical drama to witness, and as a witness you become a participant in these liturgies. You become the spectator in the crowd witnessing the trial, crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

Please join us this Holy Week (March 28- April 4) as we journey with Jesus.

Rev'd Daniel C. Gunn
St Stephen's Episcopal Church

Sunday, March 14, 2010

An Open Letter

Rector's Message
Written by The Rev'd Daniel C. Gunn - March 2010

An Open Letter: Below is the response I sent to many parishioners and community members on Ash Wednesday.
Dear All, A Blessed Ash Wednesday to you. I hope you have seen the stories in the local papers the past three days. (They are attached below.) I think this is good news for us. The reporters have been balanced and reasonably accurate. For the record, I went down to Reach this morning and was greeted with a chorus of “Good morning, Father!” and even inquiries of when the Ash Wednesday Services were scheduled. (Jokingly, I asked them to go out to the street and assault someone so we could be in the paper again on Thursday. They all declined.) I have spent a great deal of my time in the past few years trying to make certain that Reach is operated in an appropriate manner. If you read the articles in recent days you will hear a great deal of innuendo and speculations. In four years I have only found one needle, 3 drug packets (I have them in my desk), and a couple dozen beer cans. I would love to say that there had been none of these items, but I live in reality. Downtown Wilkes-Barre is an inner-city, and that comes with all the problems of such a place. For those of you who read the local papers on-line as I do, please scroll to the end of the articles and read the posted comments. The overwhelming majority of the feedback is POSITIVE toward St. Stephen’s and Reach. One person even said that we are the one church that “practices what we preach.” Another said that we are the only church open and active during the week while others are locked and guarded except on Sundays. One of my mentors tells me that this sort of press is good press, and better than any advertisement we could buy. I tend to agree. Please if you or any of your neighbors have questions direct them to me. I will be happy to respond as I am able. It is times like these when I think about our brothers and sisters in Kajo-Keji (maybe because I was there this time last year) and wonder where would our critics want to send them? They’re uneducated, poorly clothed, poor and black, suffering from years of mistreatment. Our mission, though at times needing critique, is true and good and right, whether in Downtown Wilkes-Barre or in Africa. We are truly an International Parish: we need to tell others about our good works. Just as we welcome Bishop Anthony in a few days, we welcome Kevin whom I met in the basement of Boscov’s today who asked me to bless the cross he was wearing around his neck and say a prayer for him, too. We are known by our deeds, whether they be acts of charity or music or liturgy. We are a dynamic church and God bless those who think and say otherwise. Finally, Rabbi Ed Friedman, whom you have heard me speak of often, said that “You know you have reached a new level of maturity when you can hear criticism as affirmation.” He went on to say that “criticism is an act of pursuit.” This is true for individuals and parishes. In the past few days I have heard an abundance of affirmation. I have also felt pursued. Can you feel it? Can you hear it with me?

In peace, Dg


Addendum: As most of you know, I am on the Board of Directors for the Osterhout Library. I have heard no concerns from the Library, and I have met with the Executive Director who also has no concerns.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Lent's Terrible Gift - by Kay Lynn Northcutt

Features - christiancentury.org
March 09, 2010
Lent's terrible gift
Lessons in dying
by Kay Lynn Northcutt
At the end of every yoga class we practice dying. Our teacher cautions us that the corpse pose, or shavasana, is the most difficult of all yoga postures to master, but for those of us whose legs and arms are trembling from an hour's exertion in warrior pose, downward-facing dog and cobra, the prospect of relaxing horizontally on one's yoga mat brings both relief and the impertinent question, "How hard can it be?"

Fascinated, I report to my husband, "Every day at the conclusion of yoga class we practice dying." "That's interesting," he says, trying to share my enthusiasm. "It's kind of like Lent," I venture, "except it's a physical practice, not so much a spiritual one. Lent is when we're supposed to practice dying, right?"

When I was a young woman and my best friend died of lung cancer, my minister told me, "You've been given a terrible gift at so young an age, Kay. A terrible gift." That two-word phrase, "terrible gift," functions as a parable for me. New Testament scholar Brandon Scott re minds us that the Greek word parabole can mean to "throw beside." Most typically a parable throws something beside something else—unexpectedly.

Take the kingdom of God being like a woman, for example. That must have been a real howler to first-century listeners of Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is like a woman? No way. Women are property. Women are chattel. Women are impure. The kingdom of God is like a woman? Impossible. Ridiculous. Insulting.

But this is what a parable does. Like a belly flop into a lake, a parable leaves one feeling emotionally and theologically stinging, breathless, disoriented—like "terrible" and "gift." They aren't ordinarily thrown down beside each other. But that's what Lent does. It throws life down with death, and death with life. We practice dying. We learn living.

With the advent of hospice, many of us have been given the terrible gift of walking alongside those we love who are dying. When my mother's dying began in earnest she'd call from her bed, "Girls!" My sister and I would come running. "What, Momma?" "You've got to do something about all these children playing under my bed." My sister Amy stood at one side of the bed, I on the other. Our eyes met. This wasn't the first time those children had been caught playing under Mom's bed. We had a plan.

"Mom, you're having another hallucination." She lay quietly. Several minutes passed as she absorbed the information. "Right. It's a hallucination. I'm dying," Mom said slowly and patiently to us (as if my sister and I were a couple of slow-witted children). "But could you please take all these children out from underneath my bed and outside to play? They need sunlight and fresh air. Give them a good lunch. I'm going to rest while you and your sister take care of them. I just love having them, but I'm too tired."

Amy bent down on the far side of the bed, I on the other. Together we gently shooed imaginary children out from under the bed. As we opened the door to the backyard, Mom expended the last drop of energy she had for that day, calling out, "Thank you, girls!" Then, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, Amy and I sat down outside in the Oklahoma sun and did both.

Lent, if we accept its terrible gift, gives us 40 days to practice dying. Para doxically, Lent's terrible, life-giving wisdom is painfully simple: each of us dies the way we have lived. I don't mean that the easiness or difficulty of our dying is determined by our living. Physically speaking, my mother's death was a difficult, traumatic one. But in her death, my mother, who spent her life caring for children as an early childhood educator, was herself cared for—and kept company by—children. In the last 21 days of her life, Mom whispered to us about "the most darling little boy" who was holding her hand.

As I watched my mom with those imaginary children, I was reminded of another dying time, when, as a graduate student at the Univer sity of Chicago, I was a reader for theologian Joseph Sittler at the end of his life. He spent his last days precisely as he had lived his best ones: with a relentless hunger for God, poetry, wisdom. He wanted to hear Emily Dickinson's poems read aloud. He was restless for a note-by-note harmonic explanation of the most exquisite moment of Bach's Saint John Passion so that he might, as he said, "know exactly what Bach is doing right here."

Those rambunctious children under Mom's bed and Sittler's unquenchable thirst for wisdom during the final heartbeats of his life make Lent's typical claim on us seem abstemious. Bittersweet, that during the church season in which we anticipate our dying we preoccupy ourselves with small things, inessential things "given up" for 40 days.

Thomas Merton noted the uncanny way North American culture focuses our attention on the inessential. Spiritual teachers for centuries call such misplaced focus "distraction." Merton excoriated our North American preoccupation with the question, "Am I happy?" as exemplifying the diversion of our lives to banality, superficiality and achingly empty living:

When we live superficially . . . we are always outside ourselves, never quite "with" ourselves, always divided and pulled in many directions . . . we find ourselves doing many things that we do not really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we secretly realize to be worthless and without meaning in our lives. (Thomas Merton: Love and Living)

Although Merton did not live to see the Columbine massacre or the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, he anticipated their possibility, warning that lives adapted to the American pursuit of happiness create an uncontrollable monster called self-alienation that seeks release in "dramas of violence." In an unpublished lecture to novices, Merton insisted that the right question, the true question, is not "Am I happy?" but "Am I free?"

The question "Am I free?" is the terrible gift Lent comes bearing in its arms for us this and every year. Lent asks us how we are living our lives, and reminds us that we die the way we live. Lent is the time not for giving up something of little consequence, but for identifying what is most essential in our lives, what it is that we are living for. As Merton put it, "Ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for" (My Argument with the Gestapo). That is Lent's terrible gift: an examination of our living.

Recently, in a conversation with a woman whose faith was great, I couldn't help asking, "What do you think happens when we die?" Without a pause she said, "I think Jesus sends someone to comfort us. Someone particularly special to us that only Jesus would know about. Not a saint. Jesus would never send a saint or anyone 'big' in the pantheon of the church."

Wishing desperately to believe such a thing but unable to get my theological worldview wrapped around it, my mind's eye went to the final weeks of Mom's dying and to that darling little boy who held her hand—the one we never saw, but whom we suspect of being the source of her smile every once in a while, even long after she'd lost consciousness.

We die the way we lived. Of course Mom died with a little boy's hand holding hers and Joseph Sittler with Bach's Saint John's Passion in his strong hands. Lent is a perfect time to spend 40 days becoming crashingly clear about the lives we are living, and a great time to practice dying so we that can live.
Kay Lynn Northcutt teaches preaching and worship at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is the author of Kindling Desire for God: Preaching as Spiritual Direction (Fortress).