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Lament

lament

You can’t miss the funeral bier. It rests in the center of the temple. Opulently decorated with flowers, it is the resting place for the body of Christ. For now. A tapestry depicting the sleeping Christ represents His body. Mourners gather, and as darkness begins to press in at the windows, we sing songs of adoration and lament.

O my sweet Lord Jesus,
My Salvation, my Light:
How art thou now by a grave and its darkness hid?
How unspeakable the mystery of thy love.

We hear his mother as she hymns the One to whom she gave birth…

Ah, my precious Springtime!
Ah, my Son beloved.
Ah, whither fades thy beauty?

Light more dear than seeing,
O my son most precious,
How in a grave dost hide thee?

As we sing of the myrrh bearing women who brought spices to the tomb at dawn, the priest sprinkles the bier and the mourners with rose water and little girls scatter baskets of rose petals. The scent of it all is heady. And fitting.

As thunder pounds and lightning flashes outside, we begin to sing the trisagion hymn in a setting used only for funerals. It is slow and deep and the very tones themselves speak of anguish. As we sing, bearers shoulder the bier and carry it out of doors and around the church followed by all the mourners. When they come back inside, they lift the bier high and all of us walk under it as we reenter, most of us reaching a hand up to touch it as we pass. It is a solemn and wondrous moment.

funeralbier

Truly, we grieve, but not as those who have no hope. Laced all through the service are rumblings. Intimations of resurrection. None more dramatic than the reading of Ezekiel 37:1-14 in which God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy to the dry bones bringing them back to life. It does not hurt that Dan who delivers this passage to us inhales the words and marvelously vivifies them. My eyes leak, my heart pounds, and I believe that the dry, dead places in me can live again.

Before we leave, we are reminded that Jesus foretold that he would live again. We go out feeling spent, but hopeful. In a few hours we will return and follow Christ as He descends into Hades for the Harrowing of Hell.

Today He is Suspended On a Tree

cross

A palpable weight hangs in the room. It will be a difficult evening. Twelve gospel passages recounting Christ’s last hours upon the earth.

The washing. Jesus cups the feet of the traitor in His hands and lovingly ministers to him one last time.

The table. This is my Body, broken. My Blood. Remember.

The garden. Lord if it be possible… Yet not my will.

The kiss.

The trial. The liars. The betrayal. The cock.

The scourging. The mockery. The people.

Crucify!

We drop to our knees, faces to the floor, as the priest comes out from the altar with the cross on his back. And he begins to sing…

Today He is suspended on a Tree who suspended the earth over the waters.
A crown of thorns was placed on the head of the King of angels.
He who wore a false purple robe, covered the heavens with clouds.
He was smitten who, in the Jordan, delivered Adam.
The Groom of the Church was fastened with nails, and the Son of the Virgin was pierced with a spear.
Thy sufferings we adore, O Christ.
Make us to behold they glorious Resurrection.

…and then we hear it. Hammer against nail. Like a kick to the stomach. And I can’t breathe. And my face is hot. And feel like I am going to throw up. And I want to yell at them to stop. As though that would undo it.

Woman, behold your son. Behold, your mother.

Today you shall be with me in Paradise.

I thirst.

Father, into thy hands…

It

is

finished.

 

*Quoted text from the Lenten Triodian, Orthros of Holy Friday (The Twelve Passion Gospels)

 

For the Healing of Soul and Body

healing

I can’t stop staring at my hands. At the crosses of oil traced on them by the priest. Words from the evening come flooding upon me in fragments.

From the seven epistle readings…

There confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power…If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, love never ends…Brethren, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

From the seven Gospel passages…

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out spirits without a word, and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”…”Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'”

From the prayers…

O Master who lovest mankind…hearken to us, thine unworthy servants, and wheresoever we bring this oil in thy great Name, do thou send down thy gift of healing, and the remission of sins, and heal thy servants in the plentitude of thy mercy…We beseech thee, our God, that thou wilt direct thy mercy upon this oil and upon those who are anointed therewith in thy Name, that it may be to them for the healing of soul and body, for the cleansing and removal of every passion, and of every infirmity and wound, and every defilement of the flesh and spirit…For as is thy majesty, so also is thy mercy, and unto thee we ascribe glory…

I watch as my brothers and sisters come forward. As the Gospel book is placed on each person’s head. My godson who lives with a chronic illness, a friend who just lost a baby, older members who lean heavy into a cane. Yes Lord, Mercy. With the words of the epistles still washing over me, I am most especially aware of my own need for the healing of soul. I know I am not alone in this. Who can know the stories each of us carries inside us as we come forward, palms open, expectant?

As the priest paints the cross onto my forehead and each of my hands he prays,

The blessing of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ: for the healing of the soul and body of the servant of God, Kassiani (my saint name), always now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

And all of this.

The Mercy, the love for my dear brothers and sisters, our deep need to be made clean.

All in two painted crosses of oil on my hands.

*All quotes from the Lenten Triodian, service of Holy Unction.

Behold…The Bridegroom

I behold Thy Bridal Chamber richly adorned, O my Savior.
But I have no wedding garment to worthily enter.
Make radiant the garment of my soul,
O Giver of Life and save me.

It is, for me, one of the loveliest, most poignant services of the whole church year. Bridegroom Matins. And the Church is kind enough to give it to us on three evenings of Holy Week. My story is all tangled up in here. And I sometimes feel like God and I are curled up in an armchair looking through an old photo album as He gently whispers, Remember…..

On the third evening we ponder the stories of Judas the traitor and the fallen woman.

I am the arrogant Judas, frustrated that God does not act as I think He should. Willing to take matters into my own hands. Faithless. Disloyal. Greedy. As much as I abhor his choice, it is a choice with which I am all too familiar.

I am also the fallen woman. Desperate. Without resource. Without hope. Standing outside the bridal chamber, filthy and unclothed. So broken that I would risk humiliation to pour myself out at the feet of One…the only One…who can save me.

Why is one saved and the other hopelessly lost?

When the sinful woman was offering her spice, the sinful disciple was making a bargain with the transgressors of the law. The one rejoiced in pouring out the spice so great in price, while the other hastened to sell the Priceless One. The one knew the Master, the other was separated from the Lord. She was freed and Judas became a slave to the enemy. Indifference is evil, but great is repentance

Ah for the wretchedness of Judas! For, seeing the adulteress kiss the traces of His feet, he was thinking with deceit of the kiss of betrayal. She loosed her braids, and he was bound with wrath, offering instead of spice, rotted evil; for envy knoweth not how to honor anything which is good

I belong here. In the Bridal Chamber. Not because I have done the right thing. Not because I have proved myself worthy. But because I have thrown myself upon His mercy. Because He has clothed me in His own righteousness, of His good pleasure.

Near the close of the service is sung the Troparion of Kassiani. She is my patron saint, and it is this hymn, in part, that wed my soul to hers. She has given most exquisite expression to the groaning of my soul.

O Lord God, the woman who had fallen into many sins,
having perceived Thy divinity received the rank of ointment-bearer,
offering Thee spices before Thy burial wailing and crying:
“Woe is me, for the love of adultery and sin hath given me a dark and lightless night;
accept the fountains of my tears O Thou Who drawest the waters of the sea by the clouds
incline Thou to the sigh of my heart
O Thou Who didst bend the heavens by Thine inapprehensible condescension;
I will kiss Thy pure feet and I will wipe them with my tresses.
I will kiss Thy feet Whose tread when it fell on the ears of Eve in Paradise dismayed her so that she did hide herself because of fear.
Who then shall examine the multitude of my sin and the depth of Thy judgment?
Wherefore, O my Saviour and the Deliverer of my soul
turn not away from Thy handmaiden
O Thou of boundless mercy”.

“May He who is going to His voluntary passion for our salvation, Christ our true God, have mercy on us and save us forasmuch as He is good and loveth mankind.”

*All unattributed quotes from the Lenten Triodion, Bridegroom Matins service. Hear the hymn of Kassiani HERE.

Early Will I Seek You

mistymorning

The sun climbs as I make my way through a world shrouded in mist. Sometimes I can see individual droplets dancing in the air on their lazy meander back to the sky. I pass an untended lot where bag shaped webs hang from last years dried grass. They capture bits of mist and sunlight and glow like lanterns on a summer evening.

I traverse this early morning wonderland to receive the Body and Blood. During this week of Passion, the Church gives us the gift of daily liturgy. We gather before work, before a day with children, errands, meetings, responsibility, to consider the cross. On this first morning, Jesus tenderly prepares His disciples for His coming death and for the suffering that awaits each of them. In the service, this is interwoven with the story of the Hebrew captivity under Pharaoh and Satan’s request to have his way with Job.

In the midst of all this, we pray. For the peace of the world, for forgiveness, for illumination. We are reminded that the voluntary Passion of Christ will “raise us who are dead in sin; for He is good and loves mankind.” Then, we are nourished with the Eucharist. The “medicine of immortality” St. John Chrysostom called it. And as I carry this mystical treasure about in me all day I cannot help but remember what it cost. And I am changed by it.

Flannery O’Connor and her mother began every day with liturgy. She carried the Body and Blood with her as she returned home to write. And I wonder how much that living quality, that indefinable something that makes her works breathe and meddle and transform, has to do with the fact that she housed that extraordinary gift inside her as she wrote.

morning

O God, you are my God: early will I seek you. My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips shall praise you.
~Psalm 63:1-3

Of Paradox and Palms…

hosanna

Lent is perpetual paradox. The church is dressed in somber purple. We are a people of longing. Yet, we meet on Sundays to celebrate Resurrection. The Resurrection that has been, that is, that is not yet. In between, we lament, we fast, we wait.

This weekend the church was all dressed up in gold again. We commemorated the raising of Lazarus and the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem. After this morning’s service, we formed a corridor out of doors with candles and palms, and as the priest moved among us with the icon of the feast we cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord!” We were Jerusalem receiving our King. We were all joy.

Tonight, we prayed the poignant and lovely Bridegroom Matins service. The purple is back. The hymns are somber. The coming days will be dark.

Palm Sunday has been melancholy for me for some time. Mostly, I blame it on the flannel graphs. When my children were little, I told them Bible stories using flannel graph pictures. A sweet remnant from my own childhood. It always troubled me that I was expected to use the same crowd of people who shout “Hosanna” to later shout “Crucify”. Truth is, they were the same people. And He knew it. Even as He moved among them, even as He received their adoration, He knew.

And I want to be angry at them. For breaking His heart.

Til I remember.

I am them.

I receive Christ with gladness. I adore Him. I long for Him with all that I am. Until I don’t. Until I become arrogant. Again. And seek my own way. And though I do not call out for His physical death, I close the gate against Him and behave, in that moment, as though He were dead.

Lord have mercy.

Tonight, in my head, songs of the triumphant King riding into Jerusalem on a colt mingle with songs of the suffering Bridegroom who gives Himself for the beloved. And my heart is restless as the paradox that was Lent spills over into Holy Week…

 

When God Weeps…

lazarus

*By way of explanation, the Eastern and Western calendars do not always align regarding the date of Pascha (Easter). I don’t completely understand it all. Something about full moons and the vernal equinox. Anyway, for us, Lent is coming to a close and Holy Week begins today*

And we begin where Christ began this week, at a tomb in Bethany…

Lazarus, the friend of Christ, becomes ill. His sisters send for Jesus, but he delays. He will not go until Lazarus dies. Even then, his disciples warn him of the danger of this proximity to Jerusalem. The environment there is becoming increasingly hostile. But there is work to be done…

Our priest began his homily this morning by revisiting a passage we had read on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son several weeks ago, just before commencing our Lenten return.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars
we hung our harps,

for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?

If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.

May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

Psalm 137:1-6

He reminded us that we are a people of exile. Although our world, like ancient Babylon, is comfortable and beautiful, it is not our home. Sickness and death offend and grieve us because they were never meant to be. They even grieve God.

We are told in the gospel of John that Jesus comes to the home of Mary and Martha after their brother has been dead for 4 days. Long enough for his body to stink. Long enough for his spirit to be irreconcilably absent the body. Jesus enters into the grief of His friends. And God weeps. He weeps for their sadness. He weeps for a world that is broken, for a people of exile. For all that we have lost. And in this moment, He is completely man. Feeling completely human sorrow.

Completely man, AND completely God.

He asks that the stone be removed from the tomb. Then he calls to Lazarus. By name. Which brings me to one of the more interesting parts of vespers last evening. In one of the canticles, death is given a voice and it seems to be nervous. It hurries Lazarus along saying,

“I implore thee, Lazarus, rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of  all those whom I swallowed in my anger.”

Prophetic words. For in just 8 days, the Resurrection and the Life will burst forth from his bonds with such impact that hundreds will be raised along with Him. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Jesus restores Lazarus to life, to the astonishment of all present. “And many believed in Him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done…from that day on they plotted to take his life.” (John 11) And so it begins…

We are a people of exile. As such, we know deep griefs. But we do not grieve alone. We have a God who weeps with us. Who understands the depth of our sorrow. A God who perpetually speaks life to us, by name.

*First in a series of reflections on Holy Week. If you live in the greater Nashville area, I would love to introduce you to the beauty of this week in person. Take a look at our service schedule HERE and give me a shout if you are coming.

pascha

 

Collision…

annun

It is an unforeseen serendipity, really. In Orthodox practice, there are intersecting cycles of worship. Some are fixed and some float according to where Easter falls (and it falls really late for eastern Christians this year: May 5th). But, somewhere in this seemingly random whirl of rubrics and such, two observations collided this year. The Sunday of Orthodoxy and the Annunciation. And I can’t stop thinking about this.

In the early church, an iconoclastic faction arose, a group that contended that to use images of Christ or of the saints in worship amounted to idolatry. It is an opinion that some might support even today. The church council called to consider this ultimately decided that the use of icons is appropriate because since Christ became man in the flesh, it is reasonable to depict Him in images. These images facilitate our worship. This decision is what we celebrate in the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”.

Of course, without the Annunciation there would be no Incarnation and Christ would not have become man. Therefore, the two are already intertwined in theme. But last night, they were intertwined in practice.

In a beautiful vesper service, members of several different Orthodox congregations in the Nashville area converged upon our church. We sang and prayed together. There was singing and commemoration in Greek, Russian, Serbian and English. We processed with icons. We broke bread together afterward. And woven all through this evening was the celebration of the blessed moment when the angel gave the news to Mary that she was to be the sacred vessel that would contain the Son of God.

I cannot tell you what it meant to be in that place. To experience a foretaste of the Kingdom where all tongues and tribes will sing together. To remember the great condescension in which God became like us so that we might one day be like Him. To commemorate the purity and the devotion of Mary, of her willingness to be the handmaiden of the Lord. The very first to welcome Him into her heart. Into her body. Into her life.

This morning we will celebrate liturgy for the Feast of the Annunciation. And we will remember the moment when Christ began His physical movement toward us. To step into our lives. To be God with us. To redeem us so that we might be with Him…

Thanks be to God!

 

annunciation

stuck

stuck. surrendering to despondency. numbing myself to the creative impulse because i am afraid. i feel tired and empty. nothing to say. where to start?

i watch others. new content, brilliant life-giving thoughts beautifully articulated day after day. a seemingly endless supply. i envy them. i hate them. a little.

god forgive me.

i blame my circumstances. so busy. so many demands on my time. but who isn’t busy? i imagine stephen king sitting in his utility room, typewriter on his lap, after a long day of teaching, crunching out novels. i watch friends who work full-time jobs, raise families, and write books. and i feel like a sluggard.

but mostly i’m a coward.

tentative, whipped, barely holding things together myself. how do i give anything to anyone else? paralyzed by my inactivity. inertia feeding inertia.

once upon a time i created every day. was most of it garbage? or did creativity beget creativity? did surrendering to the flow mean that the flow carried me? and now i am the artless swan, hauling my clumsy heft, afraid to surrender to the very flow that would carry me if i let it.

i don’t trust it.

i fear i will drop down in and there will be nothing there. and no one will read. and i will have no excuse. and it’s safer to pretend that i don’t want it, or that it is impossible, or that it is someone else’s fault, or that if circumstances were different, i would be different.

i am weary of myself.

weary of excuses. weary of lazy. weary of blaming.

ready

to surrender.

The Swan

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Robert Bly

swan

a mostly unedited, stream of consciousness blather, lifted from my morning pages.

Mad props to Nita Andrews and Patsy Clairmont who shared this provocative poem with me. It has been good food for thought.

Thin Places…

StillPoint-Evening

The walls of the ancient church are impregnated with incense. Candles flicker before the icons. Faded frescoes of Saints crowd round us; on columns, walls, ceiling. And in this moment I am aware of a palpable Presence. Centuries of worshipers have stood where I stand. Liturgy. Eucharist. Body and Blood. I hear them still…

The storm raged all afternoon. Dark as night. Rain hurling itself against windows. Thunder shaking the house. Explosions of lightning. Now, its fury is spent. And like a child who has cried itself all out, the world is soft. Clean. Curls of mist rise toward a sky that is painting itself in swirls of violet and azure, with flecks of gold. I stand barefoot in the wet grass and am completely lost in the extravagant glory of this…

We fall to our knees, faces to the floor, as the priest intones a lament, “Today is hung upon the Tree, He who did hang the land in the midst of the waters. A crown of thorns crowns Him who is King of Angels…” When the singing ends, silence lays heavy…like a blanket. Then the silence is rent by hammer slamming against wood. And I feel each blow like a kick to the stomach. And I am there, kneeling in the mud of a Judean hillside as the sweet body of the Lord is brutally nailed to a cross…

turbulance

“A sacrament is when something holy happens. It is transparent time, time which you can see through to something deep inside time…you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.” ~Frederick Buechner

The Celts called them thin places. Sacred thresholds where the veil between us and the world beyond dissolves…for a space. Much of the time, they just happen. They are gift. We cannot construct them. Or reconstruct them. Most of the time, we cannot even adequately explain them. All we can do is ready ourselves to receive them.

“Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?”
“As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”
“Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?”
“To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”
~Zen master to his disciple

Herein I recruit voices of wise ones to speak to some of the practices and ways of being that tend to make us ready for these up close encounters with the Holy.

Silence

Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals…
~Henri Nouwen

The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word He speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must be heard by the soul.
~St. John of the Cross

Stillness

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.
~ Richard Rohr (from Psalm 46:10)

Awareness

We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery.  God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.
~Kallistos Ware

…Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes…
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Humility

Give me the strength that waits upon You in silence and peace. Give me the humility in which alone is rest, and deliver me from pride which is the heaviest of burdens.
~Thomas Merton

The most courageous thing we will ever do is to bear humbly the mystery of our own reality.
~Richard Rohr

Contemplation

Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.
~Thomas Merton

…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
~Mary Oliver

In the beauty of God’s own economy, these encounters are not gift for us alone. As these moments spent in the Presence permeate our being, we become gift to others.

If our lives are truly “hid with Christ in God”, the astounding thing is that this hidden-ness is revealed in all that we do and say and write.
~Madeleine L’Engle

God utters me like a partial thought containing a partial word of Himself. ~Thomas Merton

If the idea of thin places appeals to you. If you crave a space to be refreshed and inspired…to converse, to commune, to be… I invite you to join me at Luminous. I am especially excited to hear from one of my artist heroes,  Makoto Fujimura. I have written about his remarkable illuminated gospels HERE, and his intriguing talk on Liminal Spaces (a prophetic/creative slant on thin places) HERE. The painting at the top of the post is Fujimura’s “Still Point Evening“.

*This post was inspired by the Luminous Project. Luminous is a creative spiritual event in Nashville May 1-3, 2013. To find out more, check out luminousproject.com. You can use the promo code ‘BRINGitHERE’ to get 35% off the registration price.

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