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Lent is a Bridge

 

Once upon a time there was a people who looked at what was happening around the world and in their own country and began to be concerned about their own survival. “How can we be sure that we will have enough when the crisis comes? Let’s start collecting food, materials, and knowledge so that we’ll be safe and secure.” So they started hoarding. Sure enough, things began falling apart and other people started to protest: “You have much more than you need, but we don’t have enough to survive. Give us part of what you have saved!” But the hoarders said: “No, no, we need it for ourselves!” But the others cried out, “We are dying, please give us food and materials to survive!”

The hoarders became even more fearful, afraid that the poor and hungry would attack them. So they said to one another: “Let us build walls to protect our provisions. They erected walls so high that they could not even see any more whether there were any people outside the walls or not. But their fear increased and they told each other: “Our enemies have become so numerous that they may try to tear our walls down. We need to put bombs on top of the walls so that nobody will dare to even come close to us.”

But instead of feeling safe and secure behind their armed walls they found themselves trapped in the prison they had built with their own fear. They even became afraid of their own bombs, wondering if they might harm themselves more than their enemies.

Meanwhile, outside their walls, the land became fruitful again, life gradually returned to normal. But the fearful hoarders inside the walls had no idea, as they could not even see what was happening outside their high, bomb-protected walls.

The Dutch Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, wrote this parable in one of his many books, and I changed the ending in order to make it less suicidal. It’s a good parable for starting our entry into Lent. After all, the Church also chose parables to start our journey to Lent in the previous three Sundays (Publican and Pharisee, Prodigal Son, Sheep and Goats).

Why this parable today? Because too much of what passes for Lenten spiritual advice seems to tell us to shut down and protect our senses, to withdraw, to look inward. I disagree. Lent is a time to break down walls that we build around ourselves. Take a cue from nature. Lent always comes in that part of the year when winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance. By the time Lent ends and ushers in Holy Week, spring will have gained the upper hand. It’s the time of spiritual struggle, as the darkness and light inside every one of us struggle for dominance.

I’m not ready for Lent. I don’t want to fast, I don’t want extra church services. I’m not ready. The darkness inside me doesn’t want to yield to fasting or extra worship. Perhaps you can relate. And yet yield I must – and at the end of six weeks I will be grateful for the growing light inside me just as outside in the natural world.

Lent is not a time to build walls to protect our spirits. Let monks and fear mongers build walls. Lent is a bridge, not a time for walls. It’s a bridge to the light of Easter.

weil2Simone Weil was a remarkable woman who lived only 34 years in the early part of the 20th century. Albert Camus called her “the only great spirit of our time.” T. S. Eliot said, “We must simply expose ourselves to the personality of a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.” “Simone Weil is a mystery that should keep us all humble,” said Flannery O’Connor about her – and Flannery herself was something of a mystery!

She was a Jewish Frenchwoman who was drawn to Jesus Christ and the Christian faith but refused to be baptized for reasons that I don’t need to explain. The other great passion in her intellectual life was the civilization of Ancient Greece. Her notebooks are full of direct quotes from Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Homer…all in the original Classical Greek. She wrote one of the most penetrating essays on Homer’s Iliad.

A typical page from Simone Weil's notebooks with large amounts of classical Greek.

A typical page from Simone Weil’s notebooks with large amounts of classical Greek.

She loved the Greek word μεταξύ. There are pages of her notebooks filled with several uses of this word. She even used it in discussing Buddhist and Hindu concepts, even mathematics! This single word became almost a shorthand for some of her most important spiritual insights. “Need for μεταξύ in order to prevent us from seizing hold of nothingness instead of full being.” It helped her understand ‘The breadth and depth of the love of Christ.’

“The bridges of the Greeks. We have inherited them but we do not know how to use them. We thought they were intended to have houses built upon them. We have erected skyscrapers on them to which we ceaselessly add stories. We no longer know that they are bridges, things made so that we may pass along them, and that by passing along them we go toward God.”

415aduvvbzl-_sx322_bo1204203200_This quote comes from her book, Gravity and Grace. I think it’s perfect for my message today. Lent is one of the bridges connecting us, guiding us to God. And yet how much we have covered this bridge with buildings of our own making which keep us bound, closed in, walled in. We have covered this bridge with legalistic, pharisaic rules that keep our spirits bound rather than uplifted. Are we like those hoarders after all, afraid to let go of any of our attachments? Afraid even to question the legalistic stuff that do nothing except make pharisees of many of us?

“True earthly goods are μεταξύ. We can only respect those of others if we regard those we possess ourselves only as μεταξύ —which implies that one is on the way towards the point where one will be able to do without them.”

There is so much Simone Weil’s favorite word can teach us. So much Lent can do in our lives. Let it be a time of spiritual openness; not a time of closed, walled-in spirit.


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Before Lent, a Party!

 

My hometown Patra is famous for two reasons, maybe three. It’s where the Greek Revolution officially began on 25 March 1821. But today it is most famous for its annual Carnival, Καρναβάλι, the best in Greece and one of the best in the world. It is almost as old as the Greek Revolution and reflects the huge Italian influence in the city’s appearance and lifestyle.

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There is nothing like the Patrino Karnavali in any other Orthodox country. It lasts for many days, reaching its climax last night and concluding today with the grand parade of floats. The floats are like nothing you’ll see anywhere else, gargantuan homages to various stories and persons, including many that are satirical. As a child, I looked forward to the chocolates that were thrown from the various floats.

Even the waters of Patra harbor share in the parade of floats!

Even the waters of Patra harbor share in the parade of floats!

It’s a grand party to welcome Lent. And why not? Rio has its carnival before the Catholic Lent begins. New Orleans has its Mardi Gras. Everywhere, Lent is welcomed with partying, dancing, singing, lots of drinking and big parades. Lent begins at the end of partying and Lent comes to an end in order that we may enjoy an even greater joy, the joy of Easter, the joy of resurrection.

Why do we need Lent? For the same reason that we need Easter and resurrection. Lent reminds us of our fall from communion with God. And it is that communion and union with God that Jesus restored with his own passion and resurrection.

Every year we are given the opportunity to renew our connection with God. We drift away every day that we are alive. We miss the mark – the στόχος of our existence. This is what sin is. We miss the mark, we fall short, we fall behind. Lent comes around to help us catch up.

Catch up to what, to whom? To whom might be the better question. To Jesus of course. He walks in front of us, showing us how he lived and walked 2,000 years ago, in a society that had as many problems as our modern world has. And the biggest problem then is the same as today. As I said last Sunday, it’s all about seeing – seeing the other person, the person in need, seeing our own need for God and for each other. Blindness is our problem. That’s why the first and second commandments are what they are; You shall love the Lord your God… and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. We love God because we need God; we love the neighbor because we need the neighbor!

We need each other. We need Christ in our lives. So we party to be with each other. And when we are with Christ it will be another party, much grander than anything even Patra can throw together.

Three parables have brought us to this Sunday:

Three weeks ago, the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.

Two weeks ago, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Last week, the Parable of the Last Judgment (the Sheep and Goats).

All three parables tell us important truths about our life with God and with each other. Finally, today’s Gospel reading tells us we need forgiveness. Like the Pharisee, we act with pride and hypocrisy. Like the Prodigal Son, we drift far from God. And like the goats at the Last Judgment, we are self-centered and ignore those who need our compassion.

Notice the sequence: pride and hypocrisy ☛ lead to distance from God ⥤ result in self-centered lack of love for others. This is how we miss the mark of our purpose for existing. Lent is about bringing us back to our true selves. It’s an invitation to come to ourselves, like the prodigal son did, before it’s too late and we end up like one of the goats. And just like the prodigal returned to a party, so also there is joy in God’s house when every one of his prodigal sons and daughters returns.

Patras_from_Ferry_2003

The eastern waterfront of Patra. The huge shrine church of St. Andrew the Apostle is clearly visible (click to enlarge).


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Waiting for Humans

The story of creation continues in today’s reading from Genesis 1:14-23. Everything is now almost ready for the appearance of human beings. I say “almost” because the “fifth day” of creation only brought into being the living creatures of the air and the waters. Land animals will appear on the sixth day, on the same “day” as humans!

Somewhere after the “fifth day” or in the middle of the “sixth day” God perhaps took a deep breath and contemplated the final act of creation. Will humans be a blessing or a curse upon the earth? The two other readings for today give us a preview of the answer to that question: Isaiah 1:19-2:3 and Proverbs 1:20-33. The picture in both readings is bleak. The “city” has failed (Isaiah 1:21); Wisdom cries out in the streets of the city (Proverbs 1:20), vainly looking for reason and faithfulness. The human domain has proven to be a failure! But God looks to a restoration, a return to “mountain” imagery rather than “city” landscape! Yes, it is the city Zion that “mountain of the Lord” refers to (Isaiah 2:2-3) and the terms are used interchangeably throughout the scriptures, but here in Isaiah the language serves also to emphasize the failure of the “city” and God’s preference for “mountain” language.

In Romans 8:19, we read: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons and daughters of God…” We will discuss the fuller context of that statement in future reflections, but for now we can stop here at the fifth day of creation and imagine creation and God’s heavenly realm waiting in eager anticipation for the final act of God’s days of creation, and that will come in tomorrow’s reading from Genesis. The narrative is about to reach its climax. But it will be a climax that does not appear separately from what precedes it. God’s six days of creation are indeed one majestic symphonic movement.

I like what our Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, spoke at a symposium in 1997 at the Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in California. It beautifully expresses the continuity of God’s creative action: “The Lord suffuses all of creation with His divine presence in one continuous legato from the substance of atoms to the Mind of God. Let us renew the harmony between heaven and Earth and transfigure every detail, every particle of life.” I love his use of the word legato, a musical term that describes the interpretive approach that avoids choppy, disconnected articulation and brings out the flow and continuity of musical phrases. It is an approach most masterfully employed by great conductors like Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Most of the hymnography this week is influenced by monastic negativity toward the body and its passions. Whereas the bleak pictures that Isaiah and Proverbs have presented to us concern failure to do justice and to know God, the church fell captive to monastic language of self-mortification – for example: “Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, but by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions; that we who are enslaved by the tyranny of the flesh….” and so on, you get the drift. Nevertheless, the genuine gospel spirit survives in some of the hymnography: “Let us begin, O people, the pure Fast that is our soul’s salvation. Let us serve the Lord with fear: let us anoint our heads with the oil of charity, and let us wash our faces in the waters of purity. Let us not use vain repetitions in our prayers, but as we have been taught, let us say: Our Father, who art in heaven, forgive us our trespasses in your love for humankind.” One may wince at the idea that fasting is “our soul’s salvation” – clearly that is not the Lord’s teaching – but the rest of this and similar other hymns for this week clearly resonates with memories of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 6:1-18.

I’ve enjoyed reading a wonderful book, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril; edited by Kathleen Dean Morris and Michael P. Nelson (Trinity University Press, 2010) – a volume to which Patriarch Bartholomew and other religious and spiritual leaders have contributed. One of the “action” pages in this book (p. 163) provides a more creative way to look at fasting:

Say thank you before morning coffee, which is a gift of grace from the water and the soil, which owe you nothing.

Celebrate the season of harvest with feasting, the season of scarcity with fasting, the season of new life with dancing, and the season of ripeness with listening.

Now that’s what it means to understand the unity and “legato” of God’s creative work. And we share in that legato by harmonizing with the seasons. When you start each day with an attitude of thanksgiving, it is easier to understand how fasting has its place in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps, without consciously knowing it, the church instituted the season of the Fast out of a subconscious understanding of the “season of scarcity” which we call winter. Deep in our collective DNA there is a memory of life without supermarkets, packaged foods, GMOs, and global trade – when life depended on understanding the seasons and our indebtedness to the goodness of the earth. I’ve lived my entire life in cities and I love what the city provides, but perhaps we need some of that wild mountain language that God uses in Isaiah and elsewhere. Jesus himself preferred the desert and the mountains for his reflective moments and encounters. We need the world, this planet and all life on it. Without it we are incomplete; and without us the planet is incomplete. Can we appreciate that? The future depends on it.

Planet_Earth_by_sanmonku


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The Word and my words

And so we begin. During the weekdays of Lent, the Orthodox Church reads from the Old Testament instead of the Gospels and the Letters of Paul. And three books of the Old Testament in particular are read on a daily basis: Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs. Today, it’s the beginning of each of those three books: Genesis 1:1-13; Isaiah 1:1-20; and Proverbs 1:1-20.

CreationOfLight%28008236%29__25713.1409569925.1280.1280How extraordinary those opening sentences of Genesis, they never grow old. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep… Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light….” 

god_the_geometer

CreationSeriesGroup__50522.1405401018.900.900And so it continues. God speaks and things come into being; and things order themselves according to God’s wishes – and God sees it all, and it’s all good.

Or, is it? Isaiah paints a bleaker picture. Here, too, God speaks. But God speaks to lament:I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” A new “word” is now spoken – not a word that creates, but a word that judges: “Hear the word of the Lord… What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?… bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me… When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”

Prophet_Isaias__20333.1409482756.490.588Have you ever read such words before in any holy book of any religion? This is why I love the Old Testament. There is nothing “old” about it; that’s a terrible misnomer that Christians use to devalue words of God that are just as contemporary today as they were three thousand years ago! What is “old” about what we read in this opening of Isaiah? Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” It just doesn’t sound like the god of many of today’s Christians, does it?

But this is a god who is open to dialogue: Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord…” That’s why this is no ordinary god, but God! This is why the Bible is no ordinary human document. It is a human document permeated by an experience of the living God. Too bad we look at Isaiah as primarily a prophet of the coming of Christ. We end up missing 95% of his message.

And what about the third book that the Orthodox Church uses during this Lenten season, the Book of Proverbs? Let’s be honest; most of this biblical book is full of antiquated moralistic teaching, much of it patriarchal and misogynistic. And yet, scattered here and there, in this book also, there are extraordinary insights into the same truths that Genesis and Isaiah reveal more frequently. And so we read in this opening chapter of Proverbs words that sound remarkably like those in Isaiah: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction… If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent… do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths; for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood… they lie in wait—to kill themselves! and set an ambush—for their own lives! Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.”

The language in Proverbs is less cosmic, less awe-inspiring than what we read in Isaiah, but the message is the same: Flee from evil, flee from greed – it will take possession of you and drive you away from God, the living God. The “fear” of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: not so much fear of punishment, but fear of losing the intimate reverence and fellowship that was meant to be ours from those first words spoken at the very beginning: “Let there be light…” Not only the light of cosmic creation, but light in our lives and in our relationship with others.

Yesterday, the Matins service included the following Kontakion: Τῆς σοφίας ὁδηγέ, φρονήσεως χορηγέ, τῶν ἀφρόνων παιδευτά, καὶ πτωχῶν ὑπερασπιστά, στήριξον, συνέτισον τὴν καρδίαν μου Δέσποτα. Σὺ δίδου μοι λόγον, ὁ τοῦ Πατρός Λόγος· ἰδοὺ γὰρ τὰ χείλη μου, οὐ μὴ κωλύσω ἐν τῷ κράζειν σοι· Ἐλεῆμον, ἐλέησόν με τὸν παραπεσόντα.

Beautiful prayer for the last day before Lent: O Master, Guide to wisdom, Giver of good counsel, Instructor of the unknowing and Champion of the poor: Make my heart firm and understanding. O Word of the Father, give me word: so that my lips will not stop crying out to you: Merciful One, have mercy on me the fallen. And here, of course, Word (Logos) is the name that the Gospel of John (1:1-18, especially verses 1 & 14) designates for the eternal existence of Jesus.

It’s too bad that monastic self-absorption crept in at the end of this kontakion. How much more meaningful if the writer of this kontakion had been inspired by Isaiah instead of the morbid theology that has poisoned many lives with self-loathing. Here is what we read in Isaiah 50:4 – The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.” (Most modern translations have really messed up this verse and taken away its poetry, which is why I prefer the Revised Standard Version which I have quoted here.)

How much even more meaningful this kontakion would be if we took our lead from Isaiah and today’s Bible readings – and from the first half of this same kontakion! – to say something like this: “O Word of the Father, give me word, so that I may comfort the weary, instruct the unknowing and defend the poor.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of myself as “fallen”! I know I sin and I need forgiveness, but to call myself “fallen” seems to deny everything that Orthodox theology has taught me. If the monks want to consider themselves fallen, that’s their privilege, but don’t put words in my mouth to speak their sentiments. I’d rather the Word put words in my mouth so that I can speak comfort – to myself and to others – and speak wisdom – again, to myself and to others – and to speak up for the poor and the oppressed.

That’s what Lent means to me. It’s a season that tells me to listen as one who is taught, so that the Word might to speak through my words. The Bible speaks to us today and every day with words of creation (Genesis), words of challenge and correction (Isaiah), and words that instruct and alert us (Proverbs). How the Word relates to my words is the essential lesson I need to learn during Lent. Everything else follows from this.


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The Last Party

My hometown Patra is best known for its Carnival. On the last weekend before Lent (Feb 21-22 this year), Patra hosts the biggest party in Greece. I loved the Carnival parade when I was a boy growing up in Patra. I especially loved all the chocolate they used to throw from the floats. Perhaps that’s where my love for chocolate started.

Other cities around the world are known for their carnivals. Think Rio de Janeiro – probably the biggest carnival in the world. And in this country New Orleans has its Mardi Gras. Throughout the Catholic world, Carnival is the last big opportunity for excess partying before the sobriety of Lent sets in. And even though Lent has ceased to be much of anything for most people, the idea of carnival persists. People love to party, whatever the excuse.

Perhaps the reason why Patra has had its Carnival for such a long time (around 180 years!) is precisely because it had a large Italian population. One of my great-grandmothers was Italian. The word carnival itself (karnavali in Greek) comes from the Latin. The Greek equivalent is apokre-es, and people speak of apokreatiko glendi. But an apokreatiko glendi is not a Carnival. Patra proudly prefers the word Karnavali for its big splash before Lent. It is closer in spirit to the carnivals in Catholic countries than to anything in the Orthodox world. It is, as I said, what Patra is most famous for.

Lent in the Greek-speaking world begins with “Clean Monday” – kathara deutera. That’s today, February 23rd. The label is suggestive of what Lent offers: an opportunity to make a new start, a renewed journey to our authentic self, a new opportunity to see our neighbor and to care for those who are desperate for compassion and understanding. Fasting is the least important aspect of Lent; and quite frankly it’s rather self-serving and self-focused. Fasting that does not open our eyes to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters is useless.

And maybe this is the reason why I think Carnival is such a wonderful part of the whole Lenten idea. Carnival is a party, the last party before Lent. But it’s a party that is shared by multitudes. There are no restrictions, no invitations. Indeed, it is analogous to that parable in Luke where the banquet is opened to anyone and everyone who cares to come in. Carnival allows the open interaction of strangers in an atmosphere of joy – young and old, rich and poor, Christian and atheist….

Then it becomes possible that the stranger with whom I shared laughter and dancing on Carnival Sunday might turn out to be one of the least of Christ’s brothers or sisters who needs my compassion a week later. Carnival is a break from my lonely, secure existence. It allows for the risky opening of my soul and heart. And Lent transforms what Carnival starts, so that the opening to the other, the stranger, the one different from me, becomes an experience of Christ’s presence! (Read again Matthew 25:31-46 if you need reminding.)

Here are some photos of the Carnival in Patra, 22 Feb 2015, which I gathered from the Internet. From the looks of it, the floats have become much more extravagant than anything I remember from my childhood years in Patra. I wish I were there.

George-Galanis-patras-carnival-karnavali-2015-programma-ellada-ksefantoma-elladakarnabali-patras2442_Karnaval-v-Grecii-3patrino-karnavalipatrino_karnavaliPatras_Carnival_2015_540xpatras-greece-21711303Great_Sunday_Parade

 

 

 

 


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Lessons for Lent

In an interview several years ago, the famous German conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-89), was talking about his early years as a musician. He made this remarkable statement: “Then came the decisive day when I discovered that my two hands weren’t enough to express what I wanted to express.”

His two hands were not enough to express what he wanted to express. That’s how he discovered that he needed a hundred pairs of hands to express what he wanted to express. In other words, he needed a fully symphony orchestra, and that’s how he discovered his calling to be one of the leading conductors of the 20th century, who went on to become music director for life of the most famous orchestra in the world, the Berlin Philharmonic.

The same can be said of the Bible. It needed many hands to get its story out. And the story got told many times, in many variations. The Bible is indeed a collection of stories. Jesus himself taught mainly in stories; we call them parables.

And three of those parables have prepared us for the beginning of Lent.

  • Three weeks ago, the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, taught us to watch out for pride and hypocrisy in our lives.
  • Two weeks ago, the Parable of the Prodigal Son gave us the story of a young man who squandered his inheritance in a far country until he “came to himself.” The parable is a call for us to come home!
  • Last week, the Parable of the Last Judgment (the Sheep and Goats) told us that it’s not theology that decides our standing with God, but rather whether we notice and help those less fortunate than ourselves.
  • Finally, today’s Gospel reading tells us we need forgiveness. And this is why we need forgiveness: Like the Pharisee, we act with pride and hypocrisy. Like the Prodigal Son, we drift far from God. And like the goats at the Last Judgment, we are self-centered and ignore those who need our compassion.

In the final analysis, we are invited to enter Lent with awareness that we are not alone. The Christian life is not simply about me and God, my personal relationship with Jesus. You can’t have a relationship with Jesus alone! The Gospel today tells us that you can’t ask God to forgive you if you don’t forgive those who have done bad things to you.

My sermon today explored this theme in greater detail. The audio file is here: