We seem to have entered a time in our lives where the truth holds little to no meaning. Truth seems to have become whatever we hear that appeals to us or confirms what we want to be true. When confronted with a truth that challenges or discomforts us, we ignore it, brush it aside, or call it "fake." We manufacture a narrative of the world that conforms to "the devices and desires of own hearts," and avoid at all costs any call to self-examination.
As Christians we are not permitted this dubious luxury. We have one Truth - Jesus Christ; if we are uncertain about how that Truth looks or what it says, we turn to the Gospel. If, like me, you find yourself searching for some clarity about the Truth, about what Jesus might say to us in these uncertain times, I offer you the following passages from the Gospels. They are not the whole Truth, but they are a better place for us to seek the Truth than many other options currently before us. We may not like what the Gospel tells us; it may challenge and unsettle us; we are not, however, allowed to ignore or change it.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. Luke 1:50-53
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John 15:10-12
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:34-40
"Pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
This seems like an impossible task at first. There are many ways Christians have tried to pray without ceasing. One way is to set aside different times during the day for prayer. This creates a pattern of going between work and prayer until work and prayer flow seamlessly together. All of our life becomes prayer.
These set times of prayer are known as the Daily Office. In our Prayer Book, there are currently four offices: Morning, Noon, Evening, and Compline. Praying the offices was once considered the job of clergy and monks. However, since the time of the Reformation, the Anglican tradition has encouraged all Christians—clergy, monks, and laity alike—to pray the offices. It is a great way to intentionally meet God throughout your day.
While you can pray the offices by yourself, it is better to pray it with a community. Morning and Evening Prayer is prayed at St. Paul’s on weekdays. If you are not able to come in person, a great way to join is through the Facebook page Morning Prayer in GA. Morning Prayer is streamed live at 9 each morning, so you can join in as the prayers are being prayed (you can also join in praying at a later time if you are not able to at 9).
I am Nathan Wilson, the new parish intern. Here are a few facts about me so y’all can get to know me a little better: I am originally from Eagleville, TN. I have three siblings—an older brother and sister as well as a younger sister. I enjoy Star Trek (I am currently re-watching Deep Space 9) and The Lord of the Rings (I recently finished reading Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth). I have been a vegan for the past four years, which began after giving up meat for Lent.
I was raised in the Church of God (Anderson). If you are not familiar with the Church of God, it is sufficient here to say that it is quite different from the Episcopal Church. If you want to know more, ask me. I am happy to talk about it; I love exploring the differences in the various Christian traditions.
I was baptized on March 12, 2000. When I was in Middle School, I first sensed a call to ministry. It happened one Sunday morning as a missionary couple spoke about their work. My sense of calling has as evolved over time. My current sense of call is to the priesthood. Ultimately, I believe that each of us in our calls to various ministries are being called to God and to live deeper in God’s life.
I attended Mid-America Christian University in Oklahoma City for my undergraduate from 2011-2015; I majored in Bible/Theology/Pastoral Care. While at Mid-America, I began my journey to the Episcopal Church. This academic setting created room for me to explore questions about my own spiritual life. My understanding of faith was broadened as I delved deeper into the Tradition of the Church. I found life in the Sacraments and the Liturgy. In 2014, I joined the United Methodist Church, which proved to be a transitional space for me; however, I never quite felt at home there.
I went to Duke University for my Master of Divinity (MDiv). After my first year, I joined the Episcopal Church. I found that the Episcopal has a greater liturgical and sacramental life. It was also important to me to be a part of a community that offered full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons. On April 15, 2017, I was confirmed at the Easter Vigil. I graduated from Duke last month.
I am excited about my time at St. Michael’s. I look forward to working with you all and getting to know y’all better.
It's with a deep sadness that we share the news of the death of Danny Hill. Danny died Wednesday morning with Susan and their daughters at his side. He had recently been diagnosed with cancer and developed complications from it and from treatment he was receiving for it.
Danny's funeral will be Friday, June 8 at 2:00pm at All Saints' Episcopal Church on Tybee Island. A "visitation" will be held (in typical Tybee fashion, as Susan put it) the following day, Saturday, June 9 from 2-4pm at the American Legion.
I'm sure many of you will want to attend one or both events. If you are planning to go to the funeral, remember that All Saints' is small, and they have even less parking than we do, so you might want to get there early, and you definitely want to carpool if you can. We are waiting to hear if they need help with food for the reception; if so, we will get that word out as soon as we have it, so that our Angels here can contribute.
If you were here when Danny and Susan were, you know what a kind and gentle soul he was, always with a quick smile and a hearty laugh. Please hold Susan and all the Hill family in your prayers in the coming days.
Rest eternal grant to Danny, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon him. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.
By now you've probably either seen the most recent royal wedding, or you've at least heard about it. There's quite a lot of buzz about it, not just because of the wedding itself (always a big deal) but because of the preacher, our own Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev'd Michael Curry. If you missed it entirely, here's a link to his sermon at St. George's Chapel.
Of course, many of us got to hear him live just a few months ago, when he preached at our own Diocese of Georgia Revival, held at Honey Creek. If you missed that, here's the video from it.
While Bishop Curry might not be a typical example of preachers in the Episcopal Church, he does make clear what our approach to "church" is - that we are called above all else to love one another as Jesus loved us. I included the photo of our graduates and their families from this past Sunday because that day showed me again how the congregation of St. Michael's seeks to live out that call. We sure aren't perfect, so we often fall short of the mark of Jesus' love, but this past Sunday showed me again what even imperfect lovers can do when God is in our midst.
While the world is still talking about the wedding of Meghan and Harry and wondering who this preacher was, we can take the opportunity to show them not only who he is but who we are as well. Our little corner of God's Kingdom at Washington and Waters has much to offer the world; it is up to us to make sure they know who we are.
Congratulations to all our 2018 St. Michael's graduates and their families!! Below are the names of those whom we know are graduating this year. Please keep them in your prayers as they begin the next part of their journey.
St. Michael & All Angel’s 2018 Graduates
Colleges and Universities
Matthew Lemley, Southern Polytechnic College of Engineering (Georgia Fogarty)
Ben Smith, The University of Mississippi (Charlean Smith)
Andrew Vassil, Mississippi State University (Georgia Fogarty)
Jacob Brown (Jean Brown)
Olivia Heintschel (Jean Brown)
Sophie Horan, Savannah Arts Academy (Rob and Robin Horan)
Jack Kelly, Savannah Arts Academy (Kevin and Christine Kelly)
John Simshauser, Islands High School (John and Kim Simshauser)
Julia Elizabeth Vassil, Blessed Trinity High School (Georgia Fogarty)
Luke Farmer (Terry and Julia Timmons)
Zachary Farmer (Terry and Julia Timmons)
A Blessing for our Graduates
All wise, all loving God, we thank you for all your gifts to us; for making us, for saving us in Christ, for calling us to be your people. Look with love on our graduates and bless them as they complete their years of school.May your Spirit give them many skills and talents, and help them to use these gifts for your glory and for the good of all people. In your kindness, guide them along paths that are level and smooth. We ask these blessings through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This past Thursday was the fortieth day of the Easter Season, the day we celebrate Christ's ascent into heaven. The timing of the Feast of the Ascension, as it is known, has long created confusion about Easter Season. The season itself, known as the Queen of Feasts, is fifty days long, lasting from Easter Day until the Day of Pentecost. Ascension is always on a Thursday and comes ten days prior to Pentecost, but it is not the end of the Easter Season.
The old rubrics of the church, those instructions that tell us how to structure our worship and thus much of our doctrine, instructed that the Paschal Candle was to burn for all services from Easter Day until Ascension Day. During the reading from Acts on that day, when it mentions Jesus ascending into heaven and being taken from the sight of the disciples, the Paschal Candle was extinguished. While that is certainly a striking visual, it does give the sense that Jesus isn't just gone from our sight but is gone from us entirely. That's not what Jesus said, though, when he promised to be with us always, "even to the end of the ages." The Church decided to separate the putting away of the Paschal Candle from the Ascension, and to have it present and lit throughout the entire season of Easter.
This may seem a small thing and not worthy of much mention, but I would disagree. Jesus is always present with us, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we need to remember that. We have not been abandoned, and God has not moved on from us. That is not in keeping with anything we know about who God is or how God works. We do not always keep our promises, but thankfully, God does.
Last week I wrote about a new parish initiative, a ministry to our local police officers. I'm delighted to say that's underway. We think we have identified a space; now it's a matter of figuring out how to arrange and set it up. We also have a potential donor for the keypad entry lock for our doors. Stay tuned as details unfold about that.
This week I want to tell you about something else new at St. Michael's - Third Sundays. Okay, third Sundays, in and of themselves, are not new; we have one every month. What we do with them will be, though. On first Sundays we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries for the coming month (that will happen for May this Sunday, by the way); on second Sundays we gather and bless the food for the I AM Food Pantry (that particular ministry features prominently in this Sunday's sermon). Third Sundays, however, have sort of gone on without anything really special about them. We're going to change that.
Starting this month, Third Sundays will be our day to celebrate or mark something special going on in the life of congregation. It might be a ministry or a program - our children's formation program or the handbell choir; it might be a particular birthday or anniversary - someone's 50th wedding anniversary, perhaps; or it could be a special event in the general life of our congregation. It might also be a time to share a concern one or more of us is facing, though, one that needs us all to hold the people concerned in prayer for a time. It might be that someone is grieving a loss or will be taking leave of us because they're moving away. These are all things that happen in every home, in every family, in every congregation, but not every congregation seems to take to heart the joys and sorrows of its members the way St. Michael's does. We are a community of faith deeply connected to one another; Sunday mornings aren't just a time for us to pray or worship individually in the same room. There is a real sense that when something is happening to one of us, all of us are concerned with walking together through that event, no matter if it is cause for rejoicing or for mourning.
The caption of the photo above, "one of the best parts of belonging to St. Michael's," points to our common life together. If you are here, you belong to us because we all belong to Christ, and in him we are knitted together as one body, to live with, love, and serve one another. I hope that you'll help with this new approach to Third Sundays - not just taking part (I already know you'll do that without being asked) but by helping to identify those moments and happenings in our lives that need or deserve our attention. Please help us identify those parts of belonging to St. Michael's that need a space on a Third Sunday.
Did you know that St. Michael is the patron saint of police officers (among several other groups and individuals)? I only recently found that out. Because we live next door to the church, our family is quite aware of how often we hear police sirens zooming down either Washington or Waters Avenue. Putting those two pieces of information together has led to an idea forming in my head, one I have shared with our Vestry.
I'd like to create a space at St. Michael's for our local police officers to come when they are on duty and need a break. That might be simply a quiet place to sit and write a report, a place to have a moment's solitude and a hot cup of coffee, or a place to come in and pray if they need to. Following a tradition of our I AM Food Pantry, i also envision a place for them to leave prayer requests for us, so that we can hold them in our own prayers.
I wonder what it would mean to our local police force to know that there was a place at a church just for them whenever they needed it? To know that this parish was holding them, their work, and their families in our prayers, even if we've never actually met them? What might that mean for them as they go about their duties of keeping us and the rest of our community safe and protected?
I've found the St. Michael's medal pictured above for a pretty reasonable price. I'd like to offer it to the officers if they'd want one, as a tangible sign of our prayers for them and a reminder that St. Michael is watching over them as they work. In addition to that, there are a few other things we'd need to start this ministry. The first is a place inside our building that we could set aside for them; we'd need a Keurig and some supplies to go with it, so they could make a fresh cup of coffee; we'd need to replace the keyed lock on our Waters Ave door with a numeric entry lock, so that we could give them a code to enter the building at night. There are probably some other items we would want, but those should get us started.
If you're interested in helping start this ministry or in donating some of the items we need, please let Fr. Kevin know. We'll keep you posted as it unfolds and let you know when we launch it.
A couple of you have asked why the altar at St. Michael's is now "against the wall." It's a good question, and while I may not answer it satisfactorily, let me at least offer some thoughts. In liturgical language, this posture is referred to as ad orientum or "towards the East." A celebration of the Eucharist where the priest stands behind the altar, facing the congregation is known as versus populum, or "having turned towards the people."
Celebrating ad orientum is an ancient Christian practice, as St. Augustine references, "When we rise to pray, we turn East, where heaven begins. And we do this not because God is there, as if He had moved away from the other directions on earth..., but rather to help us remember to turn our mind towards a higher order, that is, to God." Since the sun rises in the East, that direction has long been associated with the resurrection; in CS Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, it is the direction in which Aslan's Country lies. When celebrants of the Eucharist face the the altar, they are also facing the same direction as the congregation, and doing so does enhance the notion that they are praying with the congregation as opposed to praying at them.
Versus populum also has its benefits. When the church is oriented that way, we are given a lovely image of the People of God gathered around the Table of God, but it is worth noting that this way of thinking implies a shift in theology about the nature of the altar itself. That's a lengthy subject best left to another article of its own. There is something moving about priest and congregation being able to see one another's faces during the celebration, but at the same time, doing so can lead us to believe that the priest is saying those words to the congregation rather than to God, on the people's behalf. I often see clergy deliberating making eye contact with the congregation during the Words of Institution, and I'm always reminded that at that moment they're supposed to be speaking for me, not to me. By the way, it seems versus populum came into being sometime during the sixteenth century, so while certainly not new, it was not part of the early Church's practice.
So why are we doing it as St. Michael's right now? We generally orient our liturgy this way during Holy Week, as one way of setting that time apart from the rest of the year. This year I've found the experience of celebrating ad orientum so profoundly moving that I haven't yet been able to bring myself to change back. There is a moment during the Words of Institution when I lift the chalice up over my head. At that moment, if i look at the chalice, in the curved surface of the cup, I can see the entire congregation, choir, acolytes, and Eucharistic Ministers reflected in its surface; that has come to be one of the most powerful moments of Sunday morning for me, as it gives me a glimpse of all of us, in St. Augustine's language, remembering to turn our minds toward God.
I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences of our Eucharistic celebration facing East. Please share them with me.
As Episcopalians (and many other Christians, too!), Easter isn't simply a day; it's a season. Called The Queen of Feasts, it lasts fifty days until the Day of Pentecost. Longer than any other season outside of Ordinary Time, Easter is the most joyous time of the year. The church is decked in white; the readings are all about resurrection and renewal, life and hope.
Easter is also full of Alleluias, the great shout of praise. Alleluia, or hallelujah in Hebrew, translates as "Praise ye the Lord!" There is always an implied exclamation point at the end, for we do not mumble Alleluia; we shout it. It returns to the fraction anthem in the Eucharist where it had been omitted during Lent, as well as taking its place in the opening acclamation - "Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!"
In Easter - and only in Easter - Alleluia is added to the dismissal. Some parishes have adopted the custom (in direct violation of Prayer Book rubrics) of adding those Alleluias to the dismissal year round. I know some of our parishioners favor this practice as well. We don't do it, though, for the same reason we don't celebrate our birthday every day of the year. While we hopefully are thankful every day for our lives, and it's probably a safe bet that other people are happy we're around, too, we know that the celebration of our birth comes around once each year, on its anniversary. There is a different quality to our thanksgiving on that day, as there should be. Doing so marks that day as different from the rest of the year. The same applies for Easter. Yes, each Sunday is a feast of the Resurrection, and so in some sense each Sunday is a "Little Easter," but not every Sunday falls within Easter Season, that Queen of Feasts, and those that day deserve a little special treatment.
As we make our way through Holy Week we find ourselves in a time known as The Sacred Triduum - Holy Three Days - spanning the time from evening on Maundy Thursday through the Great Vigil of Easter. While Christmas generally gets the most attention as far as church days go (at least here in America), these three days are the holiest time of the year for Christians.
Maundy Thursday - called that from the Latin mandatum, or commandment, is the celebration of the institution of the Lord's Supper, the washing of the disciples' feet, and the New Commandment given by Jesus - that we are to love one another as he loves us. All these are driven by the coming Passion of our Lord. All that we are as Christians takes its meaning from the events of this evening.
Good Friday - or more appropriately, Holy Friday - is the day we remember the crucifixion and death of Jesus. All decorations have been removed from the church, and our mood is somber and reflective. We are called simply to draw near to the cross of Christ and remain there with him. It is a difficult day, not only because we are commanded to be present to the sufferings of Jesus but to be reminded our our own part in causing them.
The Great Vigil of Easter, the first celebration of the Easter season, is our Passover. It is the night Christ passes over from death into life, the night we are joined in that holy journey as well. The Great Vigil starts in darkness; the new fire is then kindled, so that the Light of Christ may shine brightly in our lives and in the world.
These three days are really one event, and when we take part in that event we are joined to the life, death, and new life of Christ. In other words, we are changed and are never the same again. At this writing, we are squarely in the middle of the Sacred Triduum. Holy Friday services continue with Stations of the Cross at 6pm and the Good Friday liturgy at 7pm. We celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter at 8pm on Saturday evening. You are invited to join in this most holy of times as we witness and take part in the new life of creation once again.
On Sunday (weather permitting, of course) we will gather in Daffin Park to begin the Liturgy of the Palms before processing down the street and into the church for the rest of our service. So begins the most important week not just in the Church year but in our lives. As Christians, our lives find their meaning in the life of Jesus and especially in the part of his life that lies between the Last Supper and the Resurrection. More on that in next week's post.
For this week I want us just to focus on Palm Sunday. We begin with recreating in our own time Christ's entry into Jerusalem where a cheering crowd as gathered to greet him. Their shout is "Hosanna!" - a shout of praise to God. The mood is all joy, excitement, and expectation. The long awaited heir to David's throne has come, and all will be set right.
We know, though, that in just a few days, by Friday, that shout will turn ugly, frenzied, and deathly. "Hosanna!" gives way to "Crucify him!" and we play the part of the raucous crowd turned angry mob. Given a choice, I expect most of us would much rather choose to play the first part but not the second, or if we're feeling particularly morose or repentant, we might decide we are unworthy to greet the Lord with palms and should stick to calls for his cross. Here's the truth, though - we're not allowed either of those luxuries. What makes Palm Sunday so powerful is that both of those words come out of our mouths. We are not only Christ's triumphant supporters or his sinister accusers; we are both, all the time. It is the turn from one to the other, the betrayal and treachery that lies within us, that Palm Sunday and Holy Week force us to confront and admit. WE see ourselves as we are - sometimes faithful and sometimes not; sometimes glad and other times filled with rage; sometimes loving but also often hateful. This week reminds us that not one of us is so good that we don't need redemption or so bad that we are beyond it. We are all in need of of God to save us and all within God's reach to do so.
Oh, and the first shout of joy - hosanna? Do you know what it actually means? "Save us, we pray."
Holy Week begins this year on Sunday, March 25th, Palm Sunday. St. Michael's will hold services every evening of that week, Monday through Friday (along with a noonday service on Friday). Consider this a quick commercial plug for Holy Week services. Palm Sunday is moving and powerful, as we take our part in the two great crowds of Holy Week - the first welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem and hailing him as King of Kings, the second gathered in front of Pilate's headquarters, screaming for his death. Easter Day is joyful and glorious with bright flowers and cheerful hymns and celebration of the empty tomb.
As wonderful as these two days are in their own respects, how we get from one to the other matters. If you think of those two days as bookends around Holy Week, then the days of that week make up the book in between them. Holy Week is the text, the story of Jesus' words and actions that reveal who he is more clearly than all the rest of his life put together. Holy Week is the condensed and concentrated version of the entire story of Creation and Salvation, a story we need to be a part of.
I have said for some time that if everyone came to every service during Holy Week, by the time we get to Easter Day, we wouldn't even need a sermon; we would all just "get it." I encourage you to come to church this Holy Week, not just once or twice, but every day if you can. Immerse yourself in these sacred stories, take part in the journey of Jesus from Palm Sunday to Easter, and i think you will come to see Easter in a whole new light.
Statement of the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church
Camp Allen, Texas
March 7, 2018
"I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live." (Deuteronomy 30:19)
At this critical moment young people of the United States are inviting us to turn away from the nightmare of gun violence to the dream of choosing life. The young people of Parkland, Florida are calling for elected officials to:
* ban the sale of assault weapons
* prohibit the sale of high capacity magazines
* close loopholes in background checks
Others are seeking to:
* ban the sale of bump stocks
* raise the age to 21 years to purchase firearms
* challenge the National Rifle Association to support safe gun legislation.
We, the bishops of The Episcopal Church, wholeheartedly support and join with the youth in this call to action.
At the same time, we acknowledge that black and brown youth have continuously challenged the United States to address the gun violence that they and their communities are experiencing. We repent that, as bishops, we have failed to heed their call.
As bishops we commit to following the youth of the United States in their prophetic leadership. To that end we will observe a day of Lament and Action on March 14th, one month to the day after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. We pledge ourselves, and we invite our dioceses, to participate in the "March for our Lives" on March 24 in Washington DC and in cities and towns across the United States. We recognize the urgency of this moment and we recommit to working for safe gun legislation as our church has called for in multiple General Convention resolutions. In addition, we pledge ourselves to bring the values of the gospel to bear on a society that increasingly glorifies violence and trivializes the sacredness of every human life.
We will walk with the youth of the United States today and into the future in choosing life.
This Sunday our Handbell Choir is playing the prelude before the 10:30 service. This group of dedicated parishioners gathers every (and I mean every) Thursday at 12:30 to rehearse. They do not play every Sunday, and usually the pieces that they play are not terribly long, but they have become a vital part of the liturgical ministry of our congregation.
A prelude before the Sunday service isn't just background music, at least it's not supposed to be. It is an introduction of what is to come. Preludes point to and illuminate something that is to come, something we do not want to miss. One of the downsides (and I admit that there aren't many) to being clergy on Sunday morning is that I'm usually getting vested or making other last minute preparations for the service, and oftentimes I miss the prelude entirely. Sometimes, though, as i am putting on my Eucharistic vestments, the sacristy is otherwise empty, and all i hear is that piece of music drifting through the door leading into the sanctuary. I'm thankful for those moments, as they help me shift my thoughts and my intentions away from whatever else might have been occupying my attention and towards what is at hand - the celebration of the mystery of the death and resurrection of our Lord.
When the Handbell Choir provides the prelude, I cherish that time even more. You may have noticed that on those Sundays, the prelude actually begins at 10:30, not a few minutes prior. They do that specifically so all of us (even your sometimes tardy rector) can be present and settled and can turn our attention not just to the music they will play, but to that which it introduces, to that which is to come.
This Sunday the prelude is O Sacred Head Now Wounded, a lovely and traditional Holy Week composition. It points us not just to the mass that follows it but also towards Holy Week, towards Good Friday, towards the moment of our salvation and redemption.
I am so thankful for our music program here, for our Organist and choir, and for the other musicians who on occasion accompany them. This week I am especially grateful for our Handbells, for their faithful ministry, and for the gift of the prelude they will offer.
As we enter the season of Lent, I want to remind you of a liturgy we offer to help mark this holy time, The Way of the Cross or The Stations of the Cross. The practice of walking in the footsteps of Jesus' last hours before he was crucified goes back at least until the fourth century. After legalizing Christianity, the emperor Constantine set up official markers along the path that Jesus walked from Jerusalem to Calvary, and the Church's traditions hold that Jesus' mother Mary walked that path daily throughout her own life. Each year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims descend upon Jerusalem during Lent and especially Holy Week, to walk that same road.
While most of us cannot do that literally, the Church has developed a way for us to walk those steps with Jesus wherever we are. The Way of the Cross is a short devotional service. We process around the inside of the church building, stopping along the way before plaques bearing a cross and a carved image representing the particular moment each station marks. Our set of Stations were made for us by Scott Woodside in 1989. One of the most striking ones to me is the first one, which bears a hand (Pilate's) with the thumb pointing down, in a universal symbol of condemnation. At each Station, we read a prayer, a short passage of scripture, and a very brief meditation. The whole service lasts about 25 minutes.
I hope you'll come, at least once. The real power in this service, though, lies in its repetition. That's why we offer it not just on Good Friday but on every Friday in Lent, beginning with this one. Consider adding this service to your other Lenten observances; you may be surprised how powerful it can be.
As I'm sure you know, this Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. It is one of two major fast days on our calendar (the other being Good Friday) during which we are called to observe a fast - to not eat or to eat far less than normal - for the day. Also on Ash Wednesday we will hold our traditional services for the day, at noon and at 7:00pm. Both liturgies include Holy Eucharist, and both will also have something particular to the day - the imposition of ashes. Members of the congregation are invited to come kneel at the altar rail and to have a small smudge of ashes placed on their foreheads, generally in the shape of the cross. You are probably familiar with both of these if you're accustomed to coming to Ash Wednesday service.
According to the Prayer Book, the ashes serve as "a sign of our mortality and penitence;" we acknowledge when we receive them that we know we are not going to live for ever and also that we have sins for which we need to ask forgiveness. As Madeleine L'Engel so eloquently put it, those ashes are nothing less than the first handful of dirt thrown onto our grave. We receive the ashes during a portion of the service known as "An Invitation to a Holy Lent," and that is what i want us to focus on for a moment.
During that invitation, the priest tells the congregation about the origins and meaning of Lent, how it was historically a time of preparation for baptism and a time of restoration of those who had been "separated from the body of the faithful," or put out of the church because of some notorious sinfulness on their part. This restoration was made known to the congregation at large, and the penitents often were required to perform some public display of penance as part of it. (I suspect many of us are thankful that nowadays we tend to deal with sin and penance more quietly.) The whole church, then, was aware of Lent as a full season and not just a collection of Sundays leading up to Easter. The Prayer Book invites us to observe the holiness of that full season and not just think about Lent on Sundays. That observance is marked "by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word." Getting ashes rubbed on our forehead isn't the essence of Lent or even of Ash Wednesday; it is only a "right beginning." We come up for those ashes only if we intend to dedicate ourselves to observing the season of Lent, not just because it's a special day.
The Prayer Book lays out three ways to observe Lent properly: 1) Self-examination and repentance - we look honestly at our lives, our words and our actions, and where we are amiss, we make amends; 2) Prayer, fasting, and self-denial - this is what we generally think of as our Lenten Discipline, something that we normally do that we abstain from for this season as an intentional sacrifice to God. (That's why i can't give up kale or coconut for Lent; doing so would hardly be sacrificial on my part); and 3) Reading and meditating on God's Word - reading and reflecting upon God's Word as contained in the Scriptures. Our Presiding Bishop has offered us a vehicle to do just that by reading Luke and Acts throughout the Lenten and Easter seasons, something he's calling The Good Book Club; (click that link for more information.)
However you intend to observe the season of Lent, I hope that you will do something. If you have questions about it, talk to Fr. Kevin or to someone else you know with a serious spiritual life. Come to Stations of the Cross on Fridays or the Wednesday healing mass - or both. Lent is our time to reset the pattern of our spiritual life, to increase its depth and scope. Ash Wednesday is certainly a good beginning, but we remember that it is only a beginning.