Monthly Archives: February 2013

O Felix Culpa [Luke 15]

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–The Woman and the Lost Drachma, Domenico Fetti, 1618-22

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. [v. 7]

An old proverb says, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell God you have a plan.’ This series of parables says, ‘If you want to make God happy, tell God you have a sin to repent of.’ According to Luke’s Jesus, God is happy when we repent— happier in fact when we sin and repent than when we don’t sin and have no need to repent.

So in a perverse sort of way you could say it’s a good thing that one lamb strayed from the flock, one small coin rolled into a dusty crevice, one willful boy took the money and ran; because if they’d all stayed put and been good, if they hadn’t gotten themselves so lost, then a woman, a shepherd, all their friends and neighbors, and a patient father would never have known what it was like to be glad like that when all those lost things got found.

The ‘good’ sin is an early (and odd) Christian conceit. On the eve of Easter, Christians who gathered for the Great Vigil used to sing a hymn that, among other things, actually praised the granddaddy of all sins, the ‘original’ sin of Adam: O felix culpa!  ‘O happy fault!’

Why is this sin a happy one? Because, the hymn continues, “you gained for us so great a savior!” If human beings had not sinned, the song implies, we wouldn’t be as happy as we are now, for we would never have known the sweetness of Christ’s love. Even God would not be as happy as God is now, for God would never have known the peculiar, sublime joy of human repentance.

Now, it’s weird to say sin is a ‘happy’ thing because of the repentance and mercy that follow. It’s theologically dicey and maybe even morally indefensible in fact. Human sin causes untold misery, after all, and not even the most profound repentance can undo its harmful effects. So what kind of religion is this that appears to like people more and holds out more hope for them when they mess up than when they don’t? What kind of teaching is it that delights more in a careless boy than in a careful one? What sort of justice blithely informs an aggrieved long-loyal son to suck it up, for virtue is its own reward?

And if God loves the fallen more than the upright, why not stop trying to be good, do whatever we want and, when we get in trouble bank on the shepherd’s care, the woman’s diligence, the old man’s mercy? If even desperate repentance born of starvation in a pigsty makes God so all-fired happy, why not let loose?

Questions like these have no answer. They have no answer because they’re the wrong questions. We usually ask them in the hope of justifying ourselves. The truth is that Jesus’ isn’t telling stories to be reasonable and moral. His teachings are not common sense. He tells these stories to disarm logic, to blow apart ordinary categories of good and bad, fairness and recompense. Stories are not explanations or arguments for anything. They are a pure shock of recognition. I mean, don’t you see yourself more clearly, even a little bit, when Jesus tells you that sinning and repenting is better than preserving your innocence? (Julien Green put it this way: “’I want to get rid of sin from my life,’ says the Christian. ‘Oh, good; I will help you,’ says Pride.”)

Jesus wants us to know that striving to be upright is laudable and necessary in one sense, but ridiculous and doomed in another. He wants us to know that there are worse things we could be than bad: we could be good like the Pharisees. In Luke’s caricature of them, they are all about avoiding sin, which is a good thing, but it turns out that they do it mostly by avoiding sinners, and their program was to teach others to do the same. That’s why they are depicted as grumbling about Jesus: his program was about being with sinners, and teaching others to be with them too.

As Luke depicts them, the Pharisees make it possible for observant people to exempt themselves from the sinner category. Their program allows ‘good’ people to create groups of ‘bad’ people whom they are to spend their lives avoiding, spurning, placing beneath them. It gives good people divine permission to hold designated bad people in contempt, making contempt itself a kind of virtue.

But here’s the problem Jesus saw in that approach: if we take this road of self-exemption and contempt, we end up distanced not only from others but also from ourselves. Because we are all in fact sinners, distancing ourselves from sinners sets us not only against ‘them,’ but also against our own hearts. Putting ourselves in the category of the good, creating an imaginary place of innocence and occupying it, means we have to delude ourselves daily and live by a false conscience that sets up impossible, judgmental, perfectionist demands. If you’ve ever tried to live like this, if you’re living like this now, you know that being good can be bad.

And sinning? Being bad? Falling flat on our weak, wounded and willful faces? Being stupid or selfish or hurtful or indifferent or unforgiving or resentful or full of fear? Well, those things are not truly good exactly, but at least being bad does not separate or distinguish us from anybody else, and God knows that any kind of human solidarity is better than distance, exclusion, and cold contempt. We also know that sin is the one thing that keeps God hot on our trail, and since God never loses the scent, that’s a good thing too. Beyond that, there’s not much to say that isn’t even odder and even more mysterious.

So maybe it’s best not to say anything else. Maybe it’s enough simply to remember that Jesus himself joined a line of sinners asking for John’s baptism of repentance. That story has the same ending as the ones we read today: God was so happy with him!

Maybe it’s enough to close our eyes and let our hearts be lured by party music wafting over the fields from inside a delirious farmhouse, lured into rejoicing over our sins too. And if we are not yet capable of rejoicing over our sins, perhaps we haven’t yet understood where we’d be without them.

So if all else fails, let’s at least pray. Pray that this Lent, as we go up again with Jesus to Jerusalem and see him die, as we traditionally say, ‘for our sins,’ the Holy Spirit will help us grasp just a little what it might mean for us and the church to contemplate our poor pathetic condition, to look more clear-eyed at our sins, and then to sing with joy and confidence in Christ that perverse little phrase, ‘O felix culpa: O happy fault!’

Valentine’s Day Confession

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I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day. Mostly it’s because I’m not a sentimental person. It’s a character flaw: I’m not particularly proud of it, but there it is.

I like spending money as much as the next profligate; no one who knows me could say I’m cheap, but I also resist spending money on ephemera as a way of showing people I love them. I know, it’s silly, but there it is. Again.

I’m also wary of the exaltation and exploitation of romantic love that characterizes our culture. I think it contributes to the deforming and diminishing of our capacity for fruitful, lasting relationships.

And I don’t like ‘holidays’ manufactured primarily to be sold to women and driven by a pernicious female stereotype—our emotional desperation to be loved and cherished uniquely by a Very Special Someone.

All this, my friends tell me, is to read way too much into a simple day of sappy, silly, affectionate frivolity: I ought to lighten up. They are undoubtedly correct. But… well, I said it already, there it is.

So I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, but I decided this year that instead of sniffing disapprovingly about it (see all of the above), I’d re-make it for my own purposes as a day—or at least an hour—for examining my conscience about whether I even love other people at all, or whether, when push comes to shove, I really love only myself.

vertical_column_of_pink_hearts_0071-0801-3017-0838_SMUOf course, the answer was a foregone conclusion. Frantic self-preoccupation is a permanent squatter in the house of my heart. It’s unlikely I’ll ever evict it on this side of the grave. There’s a way in which it’s just a fact that I love only myself, and it was almost a waste of time to examine myself about it.

I needed to set the bar a lot lower and ask a different question. Have I loved others in this way: by inflicting on them as little harm as possible?

Don’t laugh. The truth is that I usually find even this low level love to be immensely challenging. Maybe not so much in the doing harm department—as a witty writer recently observed about himself, I’ve never been much more than a run-of-the-mill harm-doer (mostly from lack of opportunity). But I’m a pretty competitive harm-sayer, and I’m a first-rate harm-thinker, especially when I hear someone spouting stuff I think is wicked nonsense. So you see, even with the bar set at such a modest height, I rarely reach it.

Every now and then, however, I do have an inkling of something else, fleeting instances of something ‘more.’ Not true Christian charity by any stretch, seeing Christ in my neighbor or loving the other as I love myself, but as that same writer put it, more like a sense that ‘here is a human being burdened enough without my piling on.’

vertical_column_of_pink_hearts_0071-0801-3017-0838_SMUThere’s an opening in this sensibility. An opening, not an achievement, and by no means a conversion. But something. And if this opening is all there ever is in me, I’m hoping it might be enough to spare me on the last day when, St John of the Cross says, we will be examined on love, on love and nothing more.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Order of Service for Ash Wednesday, including Holy Communion

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NOTE: This order of service is in a straightforward traditional form, nothing fancy or hip; so it will not appeal to everyone, nor be useful in congregations that prefer more laid back styles of worship–although I think its formality is not stuffy, only serious. Note also that this order of service includes communion, which is a fitting beginning to the season of Lent–food for the journey, companionship along the way, the centrality of Jesus, etc.There is, however, no sermon in this service. What ‘sermon’ there is is in the form of brief introductory reflections and commentary throughout the liturgy. I have preferred to let the rituals of Ashes and the Table take center stage instead of the sermon. The service may seem long and wordy at first glance, but without a sermon, it actually runs about 45-50 minutes, depending on how many people receive ashes and communion, how many ministers may be assisting, and how much time is given to the silences that give rhythm to the section, ‘readings and responses.’ Nearly all the ‘words’–intros, readings, communion liturgy, are also fairly brief, and will move smoothly if uninterrupted by unnecessary directions, such as “Now please stand and join me in singing hymn #235,” No verbal directions at all need to be given if everything is clearly marked, and if the worship leaders lead by confident example, gesturing with gentle movement for people to stand or sit if need be.

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Assembling for Worship

Prelude

*Greeting and Introduction

The peace of the Lord be with you always.

And on the whole world, peace!

Friends in Christ:

The holy season of Lent has begun, by God’s grace and mercy. And what a mercy it is to begin this season in this way, together. For now, more than ever, we need each other—each others’ faith, each others’ presence, each others’ compassion. Because Lent is a time of conversion; a time when, with the Spirit’s help, we open ourselves to change. We ask the Spirit to turn our lives around so that they are oriented towards God and towards the good of our neighbor. We contemplate the temptations and suffering of Jesus, and humble ourselves with him, as he travels the way of the cross, bearing in his own body the weight of human grief and need. On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we are asked to face without flinching the unyielding realities of human experience—

that we are creatures made from the stuff of earth, beautiful and good in God’s sight;

but that we are not God—we are mortals, and we shall one day die;

that none of us comes to the end of our lives without having contributed something regrettable, of our own making, to the great abyss of suffering;

and that no one comes to the end of life without having been wounded by the sin of another.

Sobered by these things, but not alone, we will make our way through this season with truth and gratitude, until the light of resurrection breaks. Let us begin the journey, then, with Jesus, with each other, and with the whole church everywhere.

*Hymn I want Jesus to walk with me

Readings and Responses

1. Ashes, a sign of creation

Now we acknowledge that we are creatures, wonderfully-made. In receiving ashes, we gratefully honor our earthy origins and our likeness to all other creatures; and we welcome God’s sovereignty over all that exits.

Reading Genesis 2:4b-9

Silence

*Response  From Psalm 8

O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

When I look to the heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars you established—

what are human beings that you are mindful of us?

mortals that you care for us?

Yet you have made us only a little less than divine

and crowned us with glory and honor.

O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

2. Ashes, a sign of mortality 

Now we acknowledge that we are discontented creatures; we fall into to estrangement and alienation. We confess too that we are finite creatures, and we will one day die. In receiving ashes, we express our trust that in life and in death, by divine mercy, we shall always be safe in God.

Reading Genesis 3:8-13, 17-19

Silence

*Response Hymn By gracious powers

3. Ashes, a sign of repentance 

Now we acknowledge that we sin, and that we are much-sinned-against; we need forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. In receiving ashes, we ask God to change our hearts, to make us and others whole, and to help us offer reconciliation in this world.

Reading Isaiah 58:1-12

Silence

*Response From Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord

Lord hear my voice!

Be attentive to my supplication!

If you should count our sins against us, Lord, who could stand?

But with you is forgiveness, so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for God,

more than those who watch for the morning,

more than those who watch for the dawn.

Hope in the Lord forever,

for with God is steadfast love and power to save.

4. Ashes in the sign of the Cross

Now we acknowledge that Jesus freely chose a life of service that led him to lay down his life in love. In receiving ashes, we humbly follow his Way, and commit ourselves to love kindness, mercy and justice as he did, even if it means laying down our own lives.

Reading Matthew 16:21-26a

Silence

*Response Hymn What wondrous love is this?

The Ritual of Ashes

Blessing of the Ashes

Bless by your Holy Spirit, O God, these ashes, this dust of the earth. May all who receive them, and all who look upon them, be moved to repentance and renewal, for their own sakes and for the sake of the suffering world. May these ashes be no empty sign; but by your mercy, may all who bear them live what they signify—your steadfast love for our mortal flesh,  your power to save, and your boundless mercy. Praise to you, Holy One! In life and death we belong to you.

The Sign of Ashes

If you wish to receive ashes, please come forward. As ashes are placed on your forehead, a minister will address you with one of the following admonitions:

Remember, [name], that you were made from the earth in the image of God.

Remember, [name], that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

[Name], repent and believe the Good News!

During the distribution of ashes, there may be a choir anthem (e. g., Senzeni Na?) or suitable Ash Wednesday/Lenten hymns of Taize chants may be sung.

Holy Communion

Hymn These I lay down, insert  [Chalice Hymnal]

Please remain seated for the hymn.

Invitation

L: Friends, we have acknowledged before God and in each others’ presence that we depend on God for our lives, that we are sorry for our sins, that we long to be reconciled in the peace of Christ, and that we are ready to turn around and walk in  a new way of love. Come now to the table of Jesus, where he presides, our gracious host. Come to the table of Jesus, where he calls us and where he waits for us, eager to heal us, to persuade us of his love, to welcome us with an unconditional welcome. Come to the table of Jesus, where he feeds his friends with wonderful gifts. Come to this table, from which we always arise with a blessing, no longer strangers, not even guests, but children all alike of our merciful God—children safe at home.

Thanksgiving and Praise

Holy God, we thank you for the gift of life, for time to turn around, and for your steadfast love. Most of all we thank you for Jesus, our teacher, savior and friend, who made his way through this life, delighting you and serving us. We rewarded his tenderness and truth with derision and a cruel death; and he loved us still: “Forgive them,” he said to you, “They do not know what they are doing.”

Words of Institution

And we remember that on the bleak night of betrayal, he gathered his friends. Even with his betrayer beside him, he was grateful to you for life and all the gifts of this earth. He blessed and broke the bread, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, broken for you. Eat it and remember me.’

And when supper was over,

he took a cup filled with wine, and blessed it.

He gave it to them saying,

‘Take this and drink it,

it is my life-blood poured out for you

so that sins may be forgiven.

And then he said, “When you do these things together, remember me.”

Prayer to the Holy Spirit

Come Holy Spirit, bless these gifts that earth has given and human hands have made.

By our eating and drinking,

fill us with the joy of Christ

and keep us persevering in his way,

honoring our bodies,

serving our neighbor, 

and praising your name.

The Lord’s Prayer

Sharing the Meal

Communion should be by intinction if possible. During the distribution of the elements, there may be a choir song, suitable congregational hymns or chants, or instrumental music only.

*Thanksgiving

Let us give thanks.

Thank you, God,

for life in the Spirit of Jesus,

for gladness in this bread and cup, 

for love that cannot die,

for peace the world cannot give, 

for joy in the company of friends,

for the splendors of creation,

and for the mission of justice you have made our own.

Give us the fruits of this holy communion:

oneness of heart, love for neighbors,

forgiveness of enemies,

the will to serve you every day,

and life that never ends.

In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

*Hymn How firm a foundation

Blessing, Sending, and Peace

*Blessing (Cf. Isaiah 61:1-4)

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you,

because the Lord has anointed you;

God is sending you to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim a season of God’s favor,

to comfort all who mourn—

to give them a garland instead of ashes,

gladness instead of sorrow,

a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

And you will be called oaks of righteousness,

the plantings of the Lord to display God’s glory.

You shall build up the ancient devastation,

repair the ruined cities,

and heal the despair of many generations.

*Response

And I shall greatly rejoice in the Lord;

for God has clothed me in garments of salvation,

and covered me with a robe of righteousness!

As the earth brings forth its shoots,

so God will cause justice and praise

to spring up before all nations!

*Peace

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord!

Thanks be to God!

Now share with each other a sign of Christ’s peace!

The people share the peace and depart.

———

* All who are able may stand.

The people’s parts are in bold.

“Apparently You Couldn’t Be Bothered…” [Luke 4:1-13]

j-b-handelsman-i-asked-you-in-the-nicest-possible-way-to-make-me-a-better-person-but-new-yorker-cartoon–J. B. Handelsman, The New Yorker, September 14, 1998

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons depicts a middle-aged man on his knees, praying at his bedside. Looking upward, he says to God, “I asked You, in the nicest possible way, to make me a better person, but apparently you couldn’t be bothered.”

That cartoon contains several sermons. There’s one in there about asking nicely, as if God were touchy about our tone, answering only prayers preceded by “please.”

There’s another one in there about blaming God for our imperfections, as if the fact that we are stubborn, greedy, irritable and dishonest were the result of divine dereliction of duty.

But the one that intrigues me most is the man’s prayer to become “a better person.”

I think the man on his knees is right about God’s attitude. God really can’t be bothered. No matter how nicely the man asks, or how often, it is unlikely that his prayer will get God’s attention because “becoming better persons” has so little to do with the divine project laid out in the Scriptures.

To be sure, the Bible contains plenty of commandments and rules that we are to live by. It has plenty of praise for the blameless and the upright, and plenty of condemnation for the wicked and the lawless; but the Bible is also persistent in acknowledging that no one, no matter how observant of God’s commandments, no matter how “good” a person he or she may become, can claim moral rectitude in God’s sight.

Even more, everywhere you look in Scripture a paradoxical undercutting of God’s own command to obey the commandments keeps cropping up. Some of the people who sin most often and most flagrantly in the Bible are people after God’s own heart whose sins seem only to bind them closer to God, even when God does not hesitate to punish them for what they’ve done.

The brazen sins of King David come immediately to mind, of course, but David is not alone. The Scriptures as a whole simply will not let us regard our lives or our God solely through the lens of morality. It seems that God has better things to do with us than to make us better, and much, much better things to do with us than to make us better according to our ideas of what it means to be “a better person.”

Personal makeovers used to be a hot thing on reality TV. These shows featured people who were massively unhappy with their bodies. They were whisked away from their family and friends for months on end and received tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of facelifts and nose jobs and tummy tucks and dental work. They returned home to a grand “reveal” and, they supposed, to the end of their problems, and a truly new life.

If it were up to the man in the cartoon, and if it were up to many of us, we would like God to be fully-employed in the business of personal moral makeovers. Somehow we have come to believe that the answer to our problems, to the human dilemma generally, and to the world’s sad mess, is for all of us to become “better persons.”

Because Lent is a time of repentance and conversion, we have been taught that it is also an opportune time to try to become a better person. Many people treat Lent as a time to re-make failed New Year’s resolutions to quit smoking, eat less, spend more time with the family, or take on some extra benevolence, some good deed. And if the turn of the calendar page to the Lenten season serves as a jump-start for self-improvement projects, so be it; but if the Scriptures are any indication, God will not be bothered to be of very much help to us in those projects as long as our sights remain so low and our expectations so small as to confine ourselves to becoming better persons.

What else is there, then? What is the larger horizon, the deeper quest? The thing that makes for sinning saints, for giants of God who were not always also giants of moral virtue? What other prayer can we make by our bedsides if not the prayer of the man in the cartoon “to become a better person?” And how might we spare ourselves perpetual disappointment in a God who can’t be bothered?

We could ask God, to paraphrase Eugene Peterson, to be made forever unwilling to be the subjects of our own little life projects, and to let ourselves instead be participants in who God is and what God is doing in us and in the world.

We could ask to be given the grace to step away from the center of our own self-preoccupied universes, even our religious and moral ones, and to be drawn instead into the mystery of divine action in, for, with, and through us.

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–Temptations of Jesus, San Marco

We could ask to be led into a place empty of landmarks, a wilderness filled not only with wild beasts and wilder devils; a place not only of disorientation, temptation and moral danger; but also, as Scripture attests in many foundational stories, a place illumined by what Rowan Williams calls “a ray of darkness,” full of undreamed possibility. A place of the most profound re-making of a different kind, a time and a space for God to speak through uncluttered air not to our behaviors nor to our need for things to make moral sense, but simply to our hearts.

We could pray not to become better persons, but to live in Jesus and be assimilated to him:

He comes up out of the waters of the Jordan, having been baptized by John and confirmed in his identity by the voice from a cloud. Then the Spirit drives him in the wilderness for forty days, where he is tested by Satan to see what sort of “Son of God” we have here; and whether this Son of God will accept the vocation to be fully and dangerously transparent to the life of the God who loves him fiercely, whom he loves fiercely, and by whose moving Spirit he lives and acts for us and our salvation.

Out there, Jesus defeats the devil’s lie that he, and by extension any of us, can rightly seek a deeper, more meaningful, more successful and happier life – including a religious life – without being deeply immersed in the only true life there is, the life of God, a life that is mostly mystery.

Jesus’ victory over Satan in the wilderness was not a victory of moral virtue. To be sure, our traditions teach that Jesus was a sinless man, but it is not because he was sinless that he triumphed. He didn’t beat evil because he was good and getting better. Even though he is the protagonist, the story is not even about him—not Jesus as a tower or strength and the answer to every question, anyway.

It is rather about Jesus-in-God and God-in-Jesus. It is about the way Jesus has for forty days had his heart enraptured and refined so that it is fixed on God and God’s concerns in such a way that when the devil tempts, all Jesus can say in reply to every blandishment is “God” – we live by God’s word, we worship God alone, God is not to be tested.

The story is about God who is not responsible either for our sins or for our earnest acquisition of virtue, who is not in the business of moral makeovers or of things finally falling into place, but who is in the business of love and its cascades and cataclysms.

It is about God who does not want us so much to be better as to be lost – lost without a compass in the wilderness of God; lost, as the great hymn says, “in wonder, love, and praise,” disoriented to ourselves and reoriented to the One who is all in all.

Going Somewhere Special

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After college, some of my high school friends settled down in their hometown of Concord, New Hampshire. They married and raised kids there, never venturing much beyond the Merrimack Valley. They rarely go anyplace special now either, except maybe to Manchester or Boston for a concert or a show once or twice a year.

The teenage kids I once taught in the Lower Mills section of Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston, were even more circumscribed. Their known world dropped away as the MBTA’s Red Line reached Ashmont Station, Boston’ downtown as distant and daunting as the Indies. They had to be bribed to take a field trip with me to the Fine Arts Museum in the Fens. That trip, no more than 15 miles total, was about as far as any of them will ever travel in their lifetimes.

This sort of localized living was the norm in past generations. People died in the houses they were born in, stayed put in the same congregation, and accomplished the purpose of their existence in a few square miles.

I used to think that local lives were lesser lives for never having seen the world. Not so. Writer Richard Lischer puts it this way:

In my first parish, I ministered in a small rural community 50 miles from St. Louis. Most of my members rarely traveled as far as St, Louis, and their lives did not reflect the frenetic shifts so characteristic of American culture. In my three years in that parish, I never met anyone who was going someplace as the world measures mobility or advancement, but the whole congregation was rife with a sense of journey, and most accounted their life a great adventure. A woman named Annie was dying in the bedroom in which she was born, almost within view of the church cemetery where she would be buried. She had farmed her land, raised her kids and served her church. She had fought the good fight. What a ride! she seemed to say to me. All the way from baptism in Emmaus Lutheran Church to burial in Emmaus Lutheran Cemetery. What a journey my life has been!

This, he concludes, is the journey that counts.

Despite my own wanderings and multiple careers, I’ve rarely gone anyplace special myself, nor has any of us who moves from city to city, profession to profession, relationship to relationship, church to church, if we don’t know where we’re really headed and what it means to be going there. We all go no place special if what counts as travel is only the well-worn route up the ladder of success or down the road of self-preoccupation.

The season of Lent invites us to accompany Jesus (who spent 33 years in a place the size of New Jersey) on his journey to resurrection. Here is a different kind of mobility, a progress from starving hearts to milk and honey, from false selves to real ones, from estrangement to embrace.

It’s a group tour too, which is its special grace. Together, the whole church will make its way towards someplace really special. Through the mystery of self-gift, suffering, and death, we’ll rendezvous at an empty grave.

It’s the trip of a lifetime. Everyone can take it, without leaving home.

Practicing in Lent

20EuroCents

In 2002, I was on vacation in Spain during the first week in which the peseta was retired and the Euro introduced as the official currency. ATM machines dispensed only Euros, taxi meters displayed fares in Euros, restaurant menus listed prices in Euros  – everyone was using Euros, but it was far too soon for anyone to be at ease with them.

I saw a woman who’d been walking briskly down the street suddenly stop short, take a handful of coins out of her purse, stare at them for a while, move them around on her palm, arrange them in different ways –by size or value – trying to get a literal feel for the new tender.

I saw grown men huddled over pocket calculators at kiosks and in bars talking themselves through simple transactions aloud, like children learning to count.

Whenever it was time to pay for something, the world slowed down, and everyone became a learner. What had been a reflex the week before, when pesetas were the common coin, had suddenly to be practiced as a deliberate act.

When people in the ancient world asked to be baptized into the church, they were not marched straight to the font. They first underwent a lengthy period of instruction and moral reorientation. The human life they thought they had mastered had to be re-learned in the light of the Gospel.

2EuroCentsLike people with a new currency, neophytes practiced  – they turned over coins of grace in their palms day after day, took time to count aloud each transaction of mercy, attended to the tasks of being a new kind of human with purpose, and approached the ordinary with discipline, with an intention of excellence.

Only thus, over time, did the disorienting shock of Gospel living became second-nature. Only thus did the faith they had received root deeply, and their witness flower in the world.

The season of Lent originated in these preparations for baptism, a ritual that signaled the end of one life and the start of another. For us, Lent is a holy opportunity to adopt and undergo a similar converting discipline, to learn anew what some of us thought we’d already mastered – a fully human life in Christ, facility with the new coinage of grace.

Perhaps this year, with the world as grimly attached to a currency of violence and exclusion as ever, we might use these forty days to practice some of the things required for a successful introduction of a new tender — slowing down, cultivating a learner’s pose, taking deliberate care with mundane transactions, paying attention to the sacred potential of the ordinary, maintaining an intention of excellence, practicing the faith.

1EuroThe example of the saints, living and dead, declares that if we practice gratefully over time, by God’s help we will eventually come to transact life with ease and poise, and with such graceful mastery that the dying world will know a resurrection and a life beyond its wildest dreams.

A Communion Liturgy for Lent

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*Invitation

Dear friends, we are going to Jerusalem with Jesus.

He is our pardon, our healing, and our peace!

We will suffer the trial with him, resisting evil.

With him, we will walk the path to life.

But come first to the table where there is food for the journey.

With hearts full of joy we come,

giving thanks to God, our maker,

and offering our praise!

*Praise

We are right to praise you, faithful God!

You answer sin with grace;

you guide our wayward steps toward home.

You are mending for the broken,

safety for the poor, belonging for the outcast,

strength for the weak, and pardon for the sinner.

You reveal your kindness in every sorrow,

your mercy even in death.

All your creatures see your works;

they sing your steadfast love.

We too declare your wonder and grace

as with angels and saints we sing:

*Holy, holy, holy…

Remembering and Giving Thanks

Now, O God, we remember Jesus.

Silence…

He fasted and prayed; he was tempted and tried.

He relied on you for everything.

He was obedient to you and scorned by the powers of this world.

He confounded the haughty and gave hope to the humble.

He was betrayed and deserted. He died between thieves and was buried in a borrowed grave.

You gave him new life. He lives even now, our healer and friend.

He loved us well, loved us to the end, and loves us still.

Even on the night of betrayal, he ate supper with his friends.

Words of Institution…

Prayer to the Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit, come! Make all things new.

Bless this bread which you have given

and human hands have made.

Let it become for us the bread of life.

Bless also this cup, fruit of the vine

and work of human hands.

Let it become for us the cup of salvation.

Bless us also who eat and drink,

that in this sharing we may know the living Christ

who is with us now, and to the end of the age.

Nourish us by these gifts to be willing servants of your world

until the new age [or, kingdom] comes, and every creature beholds it.

We pray in the name of Jesus, who taught us to say:

Our Father….

Breaking Bread

Sharing Bread and Cup…

*Thanksgiving

Let us give thanks!

Thank you, merciful God,

for gladness in this bread and cup,

for love that cannot die,

for peace the world cannot give,

for joy in the company of friends,

for the splendors of creation,

and for the mission of justice

you have made our own.

Give us the gifts of this holy communion —

oneness of heart, love for neighbors,

forgiveness of enemies,

the will to serve you every day,

and life that never ends.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.