Category Archives: Faith and Spirituality

The Day of Resurrection!

The day of resurrection!  Earth, tell it out abroad;

the Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.

From death to life eternal, from earth unto the sky,

our Christ hath brought us over, with hymns of victory.

Now let the heavens be joyful!  Let earth the song begin!

Let the round world keep triumph, and all that is therein!

Let all things seen and unseen their notes in gladness blend,

for Christ the Lord hath risen, our joy that hath no end. 

The Day of Resurrection; Words by John of Damascus; trans. by John Mason Neale, 1862; Music by Henry T. Smart, 1835

Where is the Good in Good Friday?

What is good about Good Friday?  How can there be any good in a day on which the very Son of God died a barbaric death, betrayed and dismissed by the very ones he came to earth to love and to save? 

On Good Friday, we give thanks to a loving, compassionate God who suffers with us. Our God is not a remote, impassive being who rules from on high. He came down to our level; he entered into the midst of our messy lives. Jesus, our brother, gave his own life to save us, his unworthy siblings. He died for us while we were yet sinners. He knows our worst pain, because he has endured it first-hand: betrayal, sorrow, humiliation, physical agony, and death. God the Father knows intimately the terrible reality of losing a child. Our God continues to suffer as we suffer. He grieves as we grieve, because we are his. We are family. Our God surrounds us with his Holy Spirit, as close as our own breath, to sustain and comfort us.

Good Friday is good because our God is good. This day commemorates the completion of Jesus’s mission. From the cross, he cried out, not in exhausted defeat, but in triumph, in victory: “It is finished.” The perfect sacrifice has been made.  The mission is accomplished, but the story is far from over. 

Because of Good Friday, Easter is in the works.  The stone of the tomb will be rolled away.  Because Christ our Savior lives, so we shall also live.  Death will be swallowed up in victory.

Let us give thanks to our Good Friday God! 

Before His Death, Advice from a Brother

On the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus gathered with his disciples for one last time to share the Passover meal together.  He knew that his life on earth was drawing to a close.  He had tried to explain to his dearest friends that he would soon be facing death, and doing so willingly.  But the disciples didn’t understand.  Probably some of them were expecting to witness a magnificent earthly triumph.  Judas, the betrayer, may have been counting on such a victory.  None of the disciples, it seems, were expecting their friend, teacher and Messiah to die an ordinary criminal’s death on the cross.

But the group must have been fearful and confused.  They were back in crowded, dangerous Jerusalem, where Jesus’s life had been threatened multiple times during clashes with the Jewish religious leaders.  And so, on that fateful final night, Jesus had the full and rapt attention of his disciples.  He chose his words, and his actions, with care. 

According to the Gospel of John (13:1 – 17), after the meal, he did something completely unexpected: he got up from the table and began to wash the feet of his friends.  In those days, traveling, for people of ordinary means, meant walking, in sandals, or even barefoot, along dusty, dirty roads, through fields and stretches of sandy wilderness.  A servant typically washed the feet of guests as they entered a home.  If there were no servants, guests usually washed their own feet from a basin near the door.  John the Baptist refers to this practice when asked by Jewish leaders if he is the Messiah.  According to John 1:27, he replies, “I baptize with water.  Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize.  He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.”  The disciples were clearly uncomfortable with their leader and teacher washing their dirty feet.  Had foot washing been done upon entering the upper room that night?  It’s uncertain. Maybe there had been no basin set up for the purpose until Jesus poured water into one, as mentioned in John 13:5.  The Pharisees had criticized Jesus when they noticed that some of his disciples failed to wash their hands before eating (Mark 7: 1-5).  Certainly, Jesus’s focus was not on Jewish rituals of purity.  External, physical cleanliness was evidently not one of his primary concerns.  He may not have been a stickler for foot-washing prior to that last gathering. 

The disciple Peter’s reaction supports this (John 13: 6-11). Peter was fiery, passionate and impulsive.  Like many of us, he was often a bit dense.  He couldn’t stand the idea of Jesus abasing himself to wash his feet.  Foot washing was the job of an underling, a slave.  Peter jumped up and exclaimed, “You’ll never wash my feet!”   When Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me,” Peter was all in. “Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!” 

Jesus went on to explain his puzzling behavior. “Do you understand what I was doing?  You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am.  And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet.  I have given you an example to follow. . .Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.” (13:12-15, 17). 

Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that he had in mind much more than literal foot washing.  Following his example is to mean humbling oneself in order to serve and help others.  To further drive home his point, he continued:  “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other.  Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.  Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (13:34-35).

Jesus had spent three years traveling with this rag-tag group.  They’d heard him teach and preach, seen him heal the sick and cast out demons.  On three separate occasions, he’d even restored the dead to life.  The disciples had been with him as he confronted the Jewish authorities and challenged their interpretation of the Law.  Sometimes his words and actions had been difficult to comprehend.  But on the night before his death, Jesus summed up the essence of his ministry in the simplest of terms:  Serve others.  Love others.  Just as I have served and loved you, so you should love others.

For those of us who call ourselves Christians, let’s take this Maundy Thursday message to heart.  Let’s heed the wise counsel of our dear brother Jesus.  Do our best to follow his example.  Try our hardest to model his caring, compassionate behavior.  We won’t always succeed.  Sometimes we’ll backslide and act in ways that are selfish and petty.  But let’s persevere.   And change the world, little by little, through service and love. 

{The Thursday of Holy Week is known as Maundy Thursday from mandatum, the Latin for command, because we remember the new commandment that Jesus gave his disciples during the Last Supper.}

On Ash Wednesday, From Darkness to Light

It’s a bitterly cold Ash Wednesday here in Northern Virginia, as in much of the country.  An icy breeze whips up from time to time.  But the sun is shining brightly, and at least for a brief while, nothing frozen is falling from the sky.  The weather seems appropriate.  It’s conducive to imagining the joy and beauty of an ideal Easter morning while experiencing the big chill of Ash Wednesday.  This is a day for a clear-eyed, head-on look at our mortality, a time to peer into the bleakness of what would have been, had it not been for God’s saving grace. It marks the start of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter, during which prayer, repentance and self-denial are encouraged. Lent’s Biblical basis is Christ’s retreat to the wilderness to commune with the Father in preparation for his ministry.

Ash Wednesday dawns in Charlottesville.   

So what’s the deal with the ashes?  Why the messy smudges on foreheads of neatly dressed and otherwise well-scrubbed people?  It’s because of these words from Genesis 3:19, declared by God to Adam and Eve, just before He ushered them out of Eden, the paradise garden He had intended as their eternal, blissful home. 

You are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

Tough words from the Creator and Landlord.  What did the privileged First Couple do to make God so angry?  Incensed enough that He sent the two, created in His own image, out into desolation, to eke out a living through toil and pain? 

Many of you who didn’t grow up attending church and Sunday School, along with some of you who did, no doubt consider the saga of Adam and Eve just another myth for the simple-minded.  Whether you see it as God’s literal Truth, an interesting folk tale or something in between, it’s a powerful story worth contemplating.  Here’s my take on the Fall and its particular significance on Ash Wednesday.

Adam and Eve lived in a glorious garden created by God, suffused with His divine light, life and love.  They had full-time leisure, full-time luxury.  God walked with them there in the garden.  The trees dripped with delicious treats, theirs for the easy picking.  All except for the apples on one tree.  A tree with an impressive-sounding name:  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.   

Life was wonderful.  Life was beautiful.  

Among the friendly and fantastic creatures of the garden, there was a serpent.  He was wise and wily, and he knew about that whole free-will thing.  Indeed, he owed his very existence to what he saw as the weak link in God’s great plan.  The serpent looked with contempt upon the innocent contentment of the two humans.  He realized the fragility of the thread that kept them in their lovely home.  It wasn’t long before this scaly Con Guy Supreme made his move.  Appealing to Eve’s pride, he offered an opportunity for further greatness.  Knowledge equal to God’s was at her fingertips, but God selfishly chose to keep this power to Himself.  She deserved better, didn’t she?  So Eve ate from the tree.  Adam, who apparently needed no convincing, munched long complacently.

God found out.  He wasn’t happy.  Paradise was lost, for the taste of a forbidden fruit.  We may think we would have known better.  But probably not.  Like Eve, we might have been tripped up by pride.  Or maybe, like Adam, we might have given very little thought to the matter.  If Eve says it’s fine, it must be.  In simply thinking we would have known better, it’s evident that we would not have.  With free will comes the ability to make the wrong choice, a choice we tend to exercise repeatedly.  Like Adam and Eve, if left to our own devices, our fate would be to wander in the dust.

But we are not abandoned, without hope, in a barren land.  Paradise is still within our grasp, as these words from Mark 1:15 tell us:

Repent and believe the good news!

On Ash Wednesday, we confront the grim reality of our tendency toward pride, selfishness and petty meanness.  On our own, none of us will ever be good enough to work our way back to Eden.  But we don’t have to be.  The Christ that was already present within creation since God spoke the universe into existence, the very Word of God described in John 1: 1 – 5, came to earth in human form.  Jesus, fully divine yet fully human, took our sins upon Himself.  As the spotless Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice, He wiped our messy slates clean.

To accept Christ’s free gift of salvation, we merely need to acknowledge our wrongheadedness and to ask forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness is granted for our willingness to repent; it’s not contingent on our going forward without a misstep.  We are human; we will stumble and lose our way at times.  We cannot be perfect in this lifetime, but we can desire to achieve perfection.

The Ash Wednesday ashes are marked on the forehead in the shape of a cross, the instrument of death that became the tree of life.  Christ’s good news saves us from a future of ashy, dusty nothingness, replacing it with the promise of unimaginable joy in a paradise everlasting.  We can’t even comprehend unending joy; our flawed human nature prevents us.  But we will understand it fully, and magnificently, one day, I am convinced.

On this frigid Ash Wednesday, the sun’s rays fall on new green shoots and buds.  We are reminded of the new life that comes of death, of the new birth offered to us without price.  On this Ash Wednesday, look into the darkness of the ashes.  Then give thanks for the love that pulls us back into the light of love.   

Early morning Ash Wednesday sunshine begins to illuminate the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.  Thanks to my daughter for the Charlottesville photos. 

Merry Christmas 2018

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Let earth receive her King;

let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing,

and heaven and nature sing,

and heaven, and heaven, and nature sing!

*******************************************************************

May the light of God’s love dwell in you now and always.

May you share that sacred light with those around you in the darkness of our troubled world.

And may the joy of Christmas fill your heart all year long!

Ash Valentine’s Day

This year, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day both fall on February 14.  The two are unlikely bedfellows, so to speak.   

Ash Wednesday is a day for Christians to face our mortality head-on and clear-eyed, to gaze into the bleakness of what would have been, had it not been for God’s saving grace.  It marks the start of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter, during which prayer, repentance and self-denial are encouraged.  Lent’s Biblical basis is Christ’s retreat to the wilderness to commune with the Father in preparation for his ministry. 

Valentine’s Day, on the other hand, needs no explanation.  For most of us, it involves the giving and getting of various treats.  It’s a day for indulgence, not denial. 

To Lenten sticklers for self-abnegation, the concurrence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day will likely pose a conundrum.  To deny or not to deny?  Chocolate or no chocolate?  Dessert or no dessert?  Wine or no wine with that special Valentine dinner?  Perhaps a compromise:  to begin the denial process on February 15? 

I’ve written several times about Ash Wednesday.  See: Looking into the Ashes (March 1, 2017), and Saved from the Ashes (February 10, 2016).  I’ve tried Lenten self-denial in the past, but I’ve been known to lose track of the larger purpose.  The season’s truly spiritual pursuits–prayer, Bible reading, penitential introspection–they sometimes were left in the dust of Ash Wednesday.  A couple of times, when I renounced all things sweet, my Lenten journey became little more than a period of dieting.  I wince when I recall certain instances of self-righteous forbearance that must have made me a most disagreeable companion.  See Mindful Eating, and a Mindful Lent (March 24, 2012). 

The purpose of Lent is to try to become more like Christ.  Instead, in our singular focus on denial, we become more like the Pharisees, those elite Jewish leaders who prided themselves on following every iota of the Mosaic Law.  They were probably among those Jesus denounced for ostentatious fasting:  “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting.  I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.” (Matthew 6: 16, New Living Translation)  Jesus called out the Pharisees for their empty, showy arrogance and for the stumbling blocks they set up for others:  “You shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces.  You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either” (Matthew 23: 13).  Overly zealous regarding trivial details, they missed the big picture:  “You are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law–justice, mercy and faith.  You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides!  You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23: 23-24).   

On this Ash Wednesday, I look into the dark ashes and contemplate Jesus’s supreme sacrifice.  I give thanks that his unimaginable love lifts me from the depths of destruction and despair. 

On this Valentine’s Day, If I know my husband, he’ll come home with a big box of Russell Stover’s candy.  

During Lent, I will try to take Jesus as my role model.  I will keep my Bible close at hand.  And I will eat some chocolates.  I may also swallow a few gnats.  But I hope to avoid the camels.  

Happy Ash Valentine’s Day!

Hold onto Your Hope (Happy New Year 2018)

 

On this first day of the new year, as I look back to 2017, I must say “Whew!”  Last year was packed to excess with major life changes for our family.  It felt like a Netflix series with too many unlikely, simultaneous subplots.  I’m hoping that in 2018 I’ll have time to appreciate the scenery and enjoy some quirky character development.     

The stressful process of selling and packing up my mother’s Atlanta home, buying the Virginia house, the complicated logistics of the relocation–that’s all behind us.  Now Mama is next door, mere steps away.  While the two weeks following her surgery were perhaps even more miserable than her surgeons had expected, she can now move without excruciating pain, sometimes without the aid of her walker.  She made the trek on Christmas day from her place to ours and back, as I had hoped. 

The anxiety surrounding my daughter’s college decision is fading into the mists of memory.  After a period of adjustment, she’s very happy at the University of Virginia.  We all appreciate the fact that she’s a pleasant two-hour drive away from home.  An additional plus is that when she’s here, she has a greater appreciation for her parents (and grandmother).  Those mundane, homely comforts–my cooking, her own room, Kiko sleeping sweetly–all 0nce taken for granted, are now recognized as the luxuries they are.  And time zips by.  The breaks–fall, winter, and soon, spring–are upon us before we know it.   

When I was searching for an appropriate New Year’s photo, this one of my daughter as Glinda the Good Witch in her last high school musical, The Wizard of Oz, came to mind.  Glinda looks into the distance towards a vision of the glowing Emerald City, which, with a little help from her white magic, has just been revealed.  She’s about to send Dorothy and friends off on the final leg of their journey to Oz.  So in a way, she’s looking into the future.  Toward a new year. 

Glinda sings this song as she points toward the bright horizon:   

You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark,

You’re out of the night.

Step into the sun, step into the light.

Keep straight ahead

For the most glorious place on the face of the earth or the sky.

Hold onto your breath, hold onto your heart,

Hold onto your hope. 

We all get lost from time to time in the metaphorical woods.  But may you start out this new year on a good path, heading toward a good place, in good company.  When you wander off track, may you find your way quickly back into the light.  And may hope and love go with you.