Codependency and Egoism: Two Ways To Obscure Easter

It is that time of year when, once again, Churches of all denominations ramp up their hospitality.  One need not look far to find flier invitations for Easter egg hunts, local ads for sunrise services, or Church billboards declaring that all are invited to join them for Easter service.  According to Christian tradition, this is exactly as it should be.  Easter is the most important day in the Church calendar – the Feast of all Feasts – and is the greatest declaration of our salvation.

However, when we take this opportunity to tell people about the Christianity, our advertisements often betray bad beliefs which we have adopted alongside the good.  I have observed two strong motivational trends which I think betray such bad ideas: (1) the “Jesus wants to give you stuff” message, and (2) the “You should pay Jesus back for all He did” message.  The first invites me to come to Jesus because I want stuff for myself, the second invites me to come to Jesus because I feel badly for Him. Continue reading Codependency and Egoism: Two Ways To Obscure Easter

Book Review: “Let Us Keep The Feast: living the Church year at home (Holy Week & Easter)”

Doulos Resources recently released a series of short books outlining seasons of the Christian liturgical year. Guides for Advent & Christmas and Lent & Epiphany are currently available for purchase, and future editions will be released later this year. I just finished Holy Week & Easter, which is available for pre-order.

Let Us Keep The Feast: living the Church Year at home (Holy Week & Easter) postures itself as a beginner’s guide to the (Western) liturgical year and traditions surrounding these seasons. Starting with a general introduction by editor Jessica Snell, the book is divided into two main chapters: “Holy Week” (written by Jennifer Snell) and “Easter” (written by Lindsay Marshall). In addition to outlining historical and global traditions as well as ways to involve children and community members in the season, the authors include Resources sections at the end of each chapter, listing various readings, music, and prayers related to Holy Week and Easter. These lists are a lovely taste of how these seasons have been celebrated over time, functioning both as a sort of educational survey of seasonal expression and as a suggestion for materials that can supplement the celebration of Holy Week and Easter in one’s church.

The authors highlight some important truths about Holy Week and Easter, as well as Christian tradition in general. Jennifer Snell, in her chapter on Holy Week, speaks of the need to slow our busy schedules in order to fully experience these seasons. In her introduction, Jessica Snell says that “Christians developed seasonal devotional practices that helped remind God’s people of God’s mercies,” affirming the importance of being mindful of these seasons’ significance to the Christian history and faith and how traditions and rituals aid such mindfulness. The authors rightly emphasize active participation in liturgical seasons, particularly within the context of one’s church. Jennifer Snell says it well in the quotation that sticks with me most: “No private devotion can substitute for the corporate journey to Easter in the company of your church.” Easter is more than a single Sunday service in the year; it is, as the authors continually point out, a season that is the focal point of the Church year, just as Christ’s resurrection is the focal point of the Christian faith.

I am by no means an expert on church history and tradition, but based on some research into topics I was less familiar with (and after running a few things by my seminarian husband), the book’s historicity seems to generally hold up (but again, I can’t make any truly authoritative statements in this regard). For other non-experts like myself, the book seems to be a good starting point for learning about various aspects of Western Christian tradition and a potentially good jumping-off point into conducting further research, if readers should desire to do so. The book’s success in this regard could have been even greater if the authors had included more citations of church history texts. It’s possible the authors (understandably) wanted to avoid an overly academic tone, but more prolific historical citations would have enhanced the authors’ credibility and provided additional historical resources for readers to explore. The Bibliography does include some historical works, but most are only directly referenced once or twice; even including a more comprehensive list of historical “Works Consulted,” or something similar, would have bolstered the book in this area.

I came away from the book feeling that the authors should have more clearly stated (even in the form of merely one or two sentences) that their focus is on Western Christian traditions and practices; while some Eastern church practices are mentioned briefly, the book primarily presents Holy Week, Easter, and the cycles of the church year through the lens of Western Christianity (that is, Roman Catholicism and denominations derived from it, such as Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and Presbyterianism). This is implicit in the text, which, as one example, often references the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but readers who are unfamiliar with church history or any sort of liturgical tradition may not make that inference.

Unfortunately, the book contains some typographical errors; nothing egregious, but enough to be noticeable. For example, the title of a book cited, The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas J. Talley, is printed correctly on the Bibliography page but incorrectly when referenced in the text itself. Even the name of the book, as printed on the cover, does not match the book’s name as printed on the title page or front matter page: on the cover, it’s “living the Church Year at home,” while on the other pages it’s “celebrating the Church Year at home.”

Beyond these critiques, the book offers important insight into the history of celebrating the seasons of Holy Week and Easter, and it also provides inspiration for how and why Christians of all backgrounds should work to internalize and cultivate in their daily lives an active participation in the liturgical seasons.

Death, Thanksgiving, and the Resurrection

“Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” — St. Silouan the Athonite

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. An acquaintance of mine is a widower, and while I knew previously that his wife died several years ago, I only recently learned how: she suffered a sudden and massive heart attack. This woman was in her early thirties and in good health, and she died shortly after giving birth to the couple’s first child.

It’s easy for me to think of tragedy as something very distant and other. Tragedy happens to people on the news. It is sad and horrible, but always in a somewhat abstract way.

It’s easy to put my faith in statistics and regular exercise and my daily vegetable intake.

It’s easy to believe that because I am young and reasonably healthy I have a lot of life ahead of me.

Of course, if asked point-blank, I would not say that I expect to live to a certain age or that my life will go exactly as I hope and plan it will; no rational person can say that with certainty. Tragedy teaches us that life is very uncertain. Yet my underlying attitude comes out in my words: I joke with my husband about “when we’re old and gray;” I muse about parenting strategies and baby names in preparation for “when we have kids.” I use language of certainty when I speak of the future.

Like so many things in a young person’s mind, I often and far too easily relegate death to the far-off “someday” category. It will come when I’m old and after I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to accomplish. Perhaps I don’t believe this completely or even all the time, but in some small corner of my heart, I believe that death will come when I’m ready for it.

And so, it seems I have built an altar to my hopes and dreams, to what I expect out of life and what I think I deserve. I rely on a good diet and good luck for a fulfilled life, and in so doing I ignore the reality of death and tragedy, which really boils down to ignoring God and my need for him.

A former priest of mine used to respond to the question, “How are you doing?” with the statement, “Thank God.” That is, regardless of the circumstances in his life at that moment—whether joyous or tragic or somewhere in between—he responded in this way to practice continual thanksgiving. This is a good reminder of what our baseline should be as Christians: thankfulness to God for every good and perfect thing, and, more importantly, thankfulness for his unchanging goodness and mercy despite our current life circumstances.

After my priest’s example, I am trying to change the way I talk about my life. I speak of the future in terms of God’s will instead of my own plans. Rather than saying, “When I’m an old woman,” I’ll say, “Lord willing, when I’m old.” It’s not bad to hope for good things, but it is bad to idolize our desires and expectations.  We must remember who is ultimately in control, placing our faith in God’s sovereignty and grace above all else, especially when life doesn’t go according to plan.

This past Saturday, my church celebrated Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead. I was moved by one of the Scripture readings during the service, from the book of Hebrews:

“Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’…Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” — Hebrews 13:5-6, 8

In just a few verses there is such a profound and overarching message: that we must be content with what we have, for the greatest thing we always have is a God who will never abandon us, and that is all we could ever need.

While ignoring the reality of death and tragedy can be detrimental, I am not promoting the opposite extreme of being so consumed with the notion of death and mortality that we become hopeless and fail to live our lives well. Rather, we must be mindful of death, our weaknesses, and other realities that ultimately illumine our continual need for God and his grace. The Jesus Prayer, inspired by the parable of the tax collector in Luke 18, is a powerful aid for such mindfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

My contemplation of death seems appropriately timed, as we near the end of Holy Week and rapidly approach Easter Sunday. Soon, the Christian world will celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Death has been defeated, and while it is still a terrible reality of this life, it is not our end. Our mortality and our shortcomings remind us to be humble, but, as St. Silouan says in the quote above, we must not despair. This is not to say that tragedy and suffering are to be dismissed as insignificant; Christ himself mourned the death of Lazarus, which points to how death is unnatural and against God’s will. Death is a horrific thing that tears apart a human’s very being. But thanks to Christ, we have hope beyond death and despite tragedy and suffering, as our savior tells us:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33

Thank God.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Repentance Songs and Easter

As many Christians in the world celebrated Easter this week, I think of the long, self-reflective days of Lent drawing to their exciting fulfillment. In my church, Lent is a period of intentional reflection and repentant prayer, hemmed together with the hope of forgiveness and deliverance from those things we find in ourselves that we wish weren’t there. Moving toward Easter in that mindset has helped me reflect on the nature of repentance.

Repentance begins in the true and beautiful, humble self-knowledge required of the Christian. This self-knowledge is not hateful, but compassionate; not despairing, but realistic; not lax, but dynamic; not aloof, but developmental. It is Dante’s Purgatory, where the creatures sing as they work on unlearning their sin, and know their sin without self-hatred, but hope.

They sing because opening the palm that clenched sin so long is a relief. They sing because finally (finally!) they get to be free of being what they were. They’re grateful for the momentous and intense gift of forgiveness, and also for the chance to learn how to be holy, to be what they always wished they were.

I can clench my fist tightly around my sin, bury it deep in my palm, and make it as invisible as possible. And I do that because I wish they weren’t there—I wish I wasn’t proud or vain or slothful or timid. Through repentance, God unclenches my fist, and there it is; sin, lying exposed and ugly in my sweaty, tired palm.

To the Christian, it’s clear that repentance is beneficial, but we still anticipate its unpleasantness, like swallowing medicine, getting the oil changed, doing taxes. Actions which must be done, which we choose, and which we drag our feet toward and get through as quickly as possible. But, the sustained effort of Lent occasions its own joy. That unattractive side of my soul that I lie to myself about can’t hide from the ongoing spotlight continual prayers of repentance and reflection cast.

Self-deception covered it, and kept me sick.

Self-knowledge—that revelation God gives me of my own weakness, that surgical blade’s kind and painful prodding—exposes everything I can stand to see.

Without Easter, that self-knowledge would have to melt into the shoulder-shrugging aloofness the world gives to sin, or else mount into hopeless self-loathing. But, Easter will not leave me at self-knowledge. Easter brings a new life. In Dante’s Purgatory, the would-be saints attend the school of repentance with their eyes on heaven: they accomplish their tasks, unlearn their vices, and teach their hands and bodies the habits of virtue. And, of course, they sing.

While he doesn’t get the afterlife correct, Dante understands the Christian life well, especially the fundamental principle that one of the worst punishments for sinning is having to be a sinner. The best thing about repentance and renewal in Christ is getting to be forgiven and holy. The repentant Christian knows the song Dante gives to the would-be saints of purgatory: it is the joyful, still song of thankful relief from burdens of being what we were never made to be.

He Is Risen!

He is risen indeed!

Jesus spent three days in the grave, and today He is risen.

He is risen indeed!

The resurrection gives us hope, even in light of death. Jesus died and rose again, and after we die we will rise again with him. This is a great hope for anyone who lives in the face of death, be that many years ago, four years ago, or even today. Some people die on Easter, but Christ raises those who accept his sacrifice and follow him.

Spend Easter reflecting especially on Christ’s resurrection, though this should be a daily thought. Spend time with people who Christ loved enough to die for. What better recommendation can someone request than that a perfect man was willing to die for them?

Christ Abide. He is risen!

Editor’s note: We’ll be taking Monday off. Come back on Tuesday.

A Brief Good Friday Reflection

Today there is proof that a thing that is Good need not always be Pleasant.

We do not celebrate so much as remember, as much as we commemorate. We sit in the shadow of the Cross, witnessing the last breaths of the man who claims to be our Savior. We eagerly await Easter, and are grateful we know it will come. It can be difficult to dismiss the resurrection of Easter in order to more fully see the suffering of Christ and the devastation of the apostles. We are fortunate to live after the fact; watching Jesus suffer not knowing the outcome would be nigh unbearable. The lashes, the pain, the agony, the torment, and finally, his death. We take this time to remember Christ’s sacrifice, even more explicitly than we do year-round.

To lose a friend or a family member is to experience what can only be described as hell-on-earth. To lose someone you believed to be the messiah, someone you were sure would save everyone? Hell is entirely descriptive, here. A weekend of hell, those apostles must have experienced. So take some time today and this weekend to remember that hindsight can be a blessing.

Remember the sacrifice of Jesus. Consider the lashes, the agony, and recall the suffering. Never lose sight of Easter, however. Our lives are situated in the Resurrection, not the Cross. We are asked to pick up our crosses, but we see the result, we see the end. We see the risen Savior, even as we bear the lashes he endured, though we only bear lesser torments.

May we live in light of Easter, even as we reflect on Good Friday.

Though we may fall, He has risen

Christ has risen. Easter has come. We have celebrated with church and feasting and games. Those of us who fasted have finished and are happily returning to our regular meals, and those other relishes that remind us of the bounty of the lives we have been given by God. As we return to normal time, it’s tempting to give up a meditative spirit as easily as we give up the privation which fostered it. Though we gladly leave behind a long dark 40 days for a renewed sense of Christ’s triumph, let us not forget the good of the fasting which whetted our appetite for the feast day.

One of the greatest gifts of Lenten fasting is that it intimately acquaints us with our limitations. I failed each one of my fasts repeatedly throughout Lent. Though I can only speak for myself, I doubt I was the only one who fell short of my own low bar. Such failure harkens back to failed New Years resolutions. Lent can make us give up trying to give up anything altogether. Lent can be another experience of inadequacy or failure. And, in a way, it’s meant to be.

The 40 days of Lent are reminiscent not only of Christ’s testing, but of Israel’s – not only of Christ’s shining moral triumph, but of the wandering tribes’ repeating moral failings. My Lenten experience was far closer to that of the faithless children of Israel than to that of the victorious Son of God, and this echo is not accidental. Where Israel failed, Christ was triumphant. Where we fall, he still stands. Lent confronts those of us who fail its rigors with our pervasive weakness, our inveterate inability to deny ourselves, to take up our cross. But even these confrontations with our own failure fit us to turn to him who denied himself unto death, even death on a cross.

Easter has come. We give up our mourning and turn to feasting. Where we fail, he has won. Where we succumb, he has overcome. Where we repeatedly fall, he has risen indeed. Glory be to God. ‘