Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Have a Gloomy Lent!
Have a Gloomy Lent!
The once Bishop of Western New York, whose see city is in Buffalo, was an impish fellow by the name of David Bowman. He, like many Episcopalians I know and love has a bit of a wry sense of humor, and refuses to take himself too seriously. On Ash Wednesday of every year he is fond of calling around to his best friends to greet them with that playful voice of his. When you pick up the phone he says; “This is the Bishop and I’m calling to wish you a gloomy Lent”.
Which brings us to Ash Wednesday; that time in the church year when we take the ashes from last year’s palms, burned now to a cinder, and impose those ashes on our foreheads with the ancient words; “Remember that dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Yes, this is indeed a mark of our mortality.
We Celts I’m told were fond of keeping a skull on our desks in the cells of our monasteries many centuries ago as a reminder of whose we are; of where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. A senior warden from St Mark’s Church in St Albans WV got a chuckle out of that one too when I mentioned it. He also had an impish smile. Sipping his tea at coffee hour he’d say to me; “Alas poor Yorick!”
There is a monastery of the Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts just steps from Harvard University. The current Bishop of Massachusetts is a monk from The Society of Saint John the Evangelist. It is situated pleasantly on the banks of the Charles River. It is a quiet place of prayer in the midst of a very busy city. And in the very capital of the halls of power and influence there sits this holy place. Many flee to it for peace, renewal and prayer. More than twenty years ago the monks began a weekly Eucharist on Tuesday evenings at the Monastery chapel for the Harvard Community. Interestingly enough, the chapel is packed week after week after week with young scholars who hunger and thirst for good preaching and excellent liturgy.
There is a dinner that follows. There is mirth and merriment, and good intelligent and lively conversation among the students and the monks. It is possible to take time there to be in retreat and nourish your spirit.
So on this Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent, I read these words from Brother Malmquist, a member of the community I’ve known for many years, known and respected for many, many years.
“We are loaned back into life for a little while with Jesus’ promise that he’s going to use us, he’s going to use you. You represent Christ to this world – your sheer presence, your words, your touch, your actions, beyond which you could ask or imagine, and in ways that Christ will set up.”
Yes, imagine, we are loaned back into life for a space of time, perhaps seventy or eighty years; some more, some less. But we are loaned back into life. What a stunning way to put it.
For those of us who respond to the call of Jesus, we do have the promise that he will use us. We have this promise, he will use you. Your words, your touch, your actions, beyond which you could even begin to ask for or imagine and in ways that Jesus has already prepared for and me you to walk in.
Lent is a good time to give something up or to take something up; in either case as a way of disciplining ourselves in ever new and creative ways to the devotion we seek to Jesus, to the church, and of course to one another.
But what makes Lent even more especially powerful for me is the notion that I can hardly restrain myself. So much do I love God and Jesus, so much do I love you that I can hardly restrain myself.
Whether it is visiting the sick in the hospital, the elderly in the Keystone Villa, telling stories to the children, feeding the poor at the Community Center in Birdsboro, preparing for a pilgrimage to France with the young people, preaching the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments, or the hundreds of other things you and I make it our business to do...I can hardly restrain myself. Neither can you.
This is because it is our Joy and Care to be represent Christ to the world we live in by our presence, by our words, our touch and our actions, and far beyond anything we could have ever possibly asked or imagined, because it is Jesus who has prepared these pathways for us to walk in.
So as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel “Do not look dismal”. Aren’t those wonderful words for an impish bishop, a senior warden, or the rest of us. For God’s sake, don’t go moping around looking dismal!
And of course, beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.
But you certainly may do this. You may very well let your light so shine before others so that they may see the good you do and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Not to draw attention to ourselves, but to give glory to God.
But that’s exactly what I can hardly restrain myself from doing. This is exactly what has drawn me to the work of the church all my life.
This is Lent. This is what it is to observe a holy Lent. We may give something up or take something up, either way, to mark our devotion to God and to one another. We are to mark the active presence of Christ in life. You are loaned back into life for a while. You are to represent Jesus with your sheer presence, your words, your touch, your actions.
And because we awe loaned back into life for a while we do not store up treasures for ourselves where thieves break in or steal and where moth and rust corrupts. We lay up treasures where they count; in the hearts and souls of those we love, recognizing that their lives and own own lives are a gift from God that returns to God when the time comes.
The mark of our mortality with which we embrace on Ash Wednesday is the profoundest celebration I know to bring to mind the knowledge that we can hardly restrain ourselves as we set about to do the work that God has given us to do.
Paul puts it this way in the Epistle; “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” That’s what makes our nature so irrepressibly joyful!
The Psalmist says it even more energetically;
Bless the LORD, O my soul, *
and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.
He redeems your life from the grave *
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
So go ahead and have a gloomy Lent, rather an irrepressibly joyful Lent, one in which you too will hardly be able to restrain yourselves, filled with the knowledge that you have been loaned back again for a while so that you can represent Christ to this world. And may you be filled with all the fullness of God.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.