Holy Thursday: Chapter 22 of Joan Chittister’s ‘The Liturgical Year’

by Ian Walden

“Holy Thursday is, indeed, a study in mixed emotions.”

Today, we disparate disciples will enjoy Communion like no other – but by night’s end we’ll be scattered, each to our own fears. Today, we see the beginning of a new Eucharistic world – and hear the clank of soldiers’ boots on the garden path. Today, we get our feet washed, and see in Jesus’ servanthood a new vision of authority, one that will nourish and cultivate rather than dominate – only to have our beloved leader taken from us. Today, we are intimate with the recently-hailed King of God’s people – but still have little idea where he is going, why he is going there, or what he expects from us in his absence. Today, we get closer to Jesus than ever before – and realise how prone we are to betray or abandon him when he leads us toward any kind of danger.

This is, as Chittister insists, a threshold – both for Jesus and for us – between life and death, between community and life as they should be, and how they/we still are. It is hard to know how to feel. It is hard to truly rejoice and truly lament. (It’s a relief to admit this; I’ve always found it makes for an emotionally frantic week.)

This is also Jesus’ time to give injunctions; nice, clear ones. “Do this in remembrance of me.” “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” If ever there was a time for conversion, for a new kind of living, this is it. And since we’re not anywhere close to obeying these injunctions yet, it’s a time for pondering that gap, and for raising pleas to heaven that grace will enable us to change anew.

All of this is good reason, then, to end our Thursday services in silence – a silence that will last a further 48 hours. A fast for eyes and ears; a chance for hearts to ponder, to catch up. And boy is there a lot of catching up to do … Any ideas how this liturgical silence can be carried into Friday and Saturday for those of us not in monastic orders??

Holy Week: Chapters 20 & 21 of Joan Chittister’s ‘The Liturgical Year’

by Andrea Tisher

Holy Week is here. Now. We’re in it. Already.

Jesus has entered the city of peace. He has been sung to, lauded, waved at with greenery. He has wept over the misunderstanding of who He is.

And now there’s really not much left to do, except to stay mindful of the events of the rest of the week. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

Chittister rightly warns of the intensity of the drama that unfolds during this week.

Her opening comments are helpful, and I’ll return to them.

But first, I must quibble with Chittister. Which I really hate to do. She’s been such a lovely conversation partner and guide. But here, in what could be argued is the most important week, she drops the ball. Vague references to the opening liturgies of Holy Monday-Wednesday. Holy what? And then a whole chapter on the ways days of the week were measured and other assorted mundane topics. I’m trusting that as she leads us through the days of the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) that she’ll regain her footing in offering us ways to view these days and doorways into meaningful participation. But these overview chapters left me a little disappointed.

Back to her opening comments, as I think that’s where there are some gems…

Of Palm/Passion Sunday: “It reminds us that at the moment of what seems to be the height of Jesus’ public acceptance aslo begins the process of His public betrayal, His public failure, His public abandonment.”(130)

And of the week in general: “Why must this happen? What is all this suffering about? But deep down inside of us, we already know what the life of Jesus and these first days of Holy Week confirm: there are some things worth living for, even if we find ourselves having to die for them as well.” (130-131)

Suffering: Chapter 19 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

by Ian Walden

“With or without our permission, with or without our understanding, eventually suffering comes. Then the only question is how to endure it, how to accept it, how to cope with it, how to turn it from dross to gleam.”

How, indeed? Chittister helps by laying bare our more usual, rather less Christ-like, responses to the pain, the disappointment, the anxiety, the rejection and emptiness life throws at us.

Suffering anticipated leaves us paralysed in fear – content to settle for stasis, for comfort, for the illusion of control – rather than attempt anything worthwhile or important or spiritually necessary, for fear of the pain that will (make no mistake) accompany it.

Suffering experienced leaves us crushed in despair – content to survive and endure, to switch off from the life of the world beyond our pain, to allow darkness to fill our horizons and hide our hope – rather than continue to love our (equally hurting) friends and world in whatever ways are left to us.

Coptic Icon“Lent is the season that teaches us that darkness may overtake us but will not overcome good as long as we doggedly refuse to give in to our lesser selves…” Chittister is clear that following Jesus through Lent is about imitating his choice of the worthwhile over the easy, imitating his missional drive (that accepts pain and death as its corollary), and imitating his forgiving, inspiring love for his Father’s world – even from within his own various agonies.

Because as Stacey said last week, until He comes again, we’re it. We are the only presence of Christ on earth that many will ever know. Even if we hurt so much, or fear so much, that that’s barely possible to believe.

Have you recently witnessed anyone’s choices to live, to risk, to step into a new and difficult arena? Have you found strength to love while in pain yourself? If so, I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to hear your story. We all need to know pain isn’t the end; that it does not always, cannot always, must not always, have the last word.

Amen. Lord have mercy.

I Hate Fasting: Chapter 17 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

I hate fasting. I hate not being able to eat what I want when I want it. I especially hate not being able to eat chocolate when it is desperately needed. My decision to follow the liturgical year has led me to fast from sweets for 40 days. I’m disturbed by how difficult this is – not only because it’s a constant excercise of willpower – but also because of sheer thoughtlessness. The other day I finished off a handful of yogurt-covered cranberries that someone offered me without even thinking about it.

So why should we fast during Lent (whether it is from sugar, from social media, or from some other habit or excess in our lives)? What is it about this season that requires us to give up something?

Chittister states that “Lent calls each of us to renew our ongoing commitment to the implications of the Resurrection in our own lives, here and now” (p. 110). And what shows commitment better than being willing and able to give up something for it, even something as minor as a sugar habit? Fasting, says Chittister, “exposes to seekers the distance between self-control and the compulsion to self-satisfaction” thus “Lent enables us to face ourselves, to see the weak places, to touch the wounds in our own soul, and to determine to try once more to live beyond our lowest aspirations” (p. 112).

“To live beyond our lowest aspirations.” I think I’ve just found my new life-motto. And it’s not an easy one, either. I’ve always joked that it’s best to aim low. Set low expectations and you will nearly always exceed them. But an aspiration is, by its very definition, already something beyond us. To live beyond our lowest aspirations first teaches us to reach high – and then to reach higher. Chittister states:

Having conquered our impulses for the immediate, having tamed our desires for the physical, perhaps we will be able to bring ourselves to rise above the greed that consumes us. Maybe we will be able to control the anger that is a veil between us and the face of God. Perhaps we will have reason now to forswear the pride that is a barrier to growth. Possibly we will learn to foreswear the lust that denies us the freeing grace of simplicity. Maybe we will even find the energy to fight the sloth that deters us from making spiritual progress, the gluttony that ties us to our bellies, and the envy that makes it impossible for us to be joyful givers of the gifts we have been given. (p. 113)

I am humbled. I don’t think I have ever aspired to this – not in my wildest dreams. This is definitely above my lowest aspirations, because my aspirations are just that: low. My aspirations tend to be based on acquiring blessing rather than being a blessing to others. My aspirations tend to be directed at fame and glory rather than humility and growth. And it’s important that this change, and soon. Because, as Chittister states in this chapter, until Christ comes again – we’re it. The church, the community of Christ, WE are the presence of Christ on earth. This is why the fast of Lent is so important – why it is important to live beyond our lowest aspirations – because the life of the world depends on it.

So I hope, as I undertake the small aspiration of refusing sugar for 40 days, that this small withholding will begin to stir a larger change. That I will be inspired to live beyond this lowest aspiration of mine.

Have you given up something for Lent this year? How is it going? What are you withholding from yourself, and how is/will that withholding spur you to live beyond your own lowest aspirations?

Adult Afresh: Lenten Asceticism in Chapter 16 of Joan Chittister’s ‘The Liturgical Year’

by Ian Walden

As we’ve already noticed, Christmas easily becomes a child-centric  celebration. Not so Lent! What kid can easily be induced to forgo getting things for six whole weeks, let alone take up a practice like giving their precious treasures away? In her recollections of childhood lent exercises, Chittister states starkly that this “was about spirituality become adult.” Whether we are young or old, Lent is remorseless in posing one central question to us all: “If life is not about permanent and continual self-satisfaction, what is it about?” Indeed.

But as she has already intimated in chapter 15, Lent is also a voice calling us to live newly (no matter what our life has been like until now), to live fully, to live in the hope and light of promised mercy, guaranteed new life. In other words, Lent is supposed to be a gift to us of all the fresh-faced, open-skied, hopeful-futured possibility of youth. Even to us jaded ‘adults’.

So how is this rejuvenation to be achieved? According to Chittister, Lent is “our salvation from the depths of nothingness. It is our guide to the more of life.” The ascetic discipline it proffers is to “concentrate the soul, viselike, on the center of life rather than on its peripherals.” It is “the gift of self-conquest.” It seems that Lenten self-denial is about replacing the triviality in our lives with purpose, filling our inner emptiness with a new fullness, and substituting freedom in place of our slavery and addiction to various sins.

Lent’s renunciation, then, requires courage from us in order that it may work its magic. Courage, to acknowledge that life is too short and too fragile to be wasted the way I’ve been wasting it (hence the mortality-reminder on Ash Wednesday). Courage, to admit that too much of what I fill my life with is just a papering over of my inner emptiness, of a heart forgetful of grace, of calling, of missional purpose. Courage, to admit that I still need salvation from my home-made crutches and addictions and mis-placed priorities.

In return, the very practice of renunciation instils us with many gifts. In it we find faith, the daring to believe anew that I need less than I think of creation’s good things, because I am in fact the Creator’s friend. And hope, hope that by God’s mighty immanent grace, today can still be that better day, the day of Kingdom Come – and so I need not pin my hopes for ‘a better life’ on the next indulgence, the next vacation, the next tv programme or bit of human recognition. Asceticism, in short, is a form of training, training to say ‘no’ to my small-god-self, to depose myself in order to make way for others, for Another. It frees me from my tiny wisdom, my limited will. It frees my gifts to benefit more than just me. It frees and clears my consciousness for the very ‘contemplation’ that Ordinary Time calls me to (see chapter 15).

In Lent, it seems, it turns out that the true children (the hopeful, the liberated) are those who have ‘grown up’ via renunciation. How true does this picture of Lent ring for you? What practices have helped you ‘grow up’ in these ways in Lent seasons past? What kind of helps have enabled you to persist in the face of much temptation?

Ch. 18: Ash Wednesday and the Voices of Lent

by Andrea Tisher

Today we enter into the season of Lent (and so skip ahead to chapter 18). Ash Wednesday stands as a gateway into the season that calls us to follow Jesus, and to follow Jesus with all His other followers. It calls us back to what is important, refocuses our attention on a God that demonstrates His glory though suffering, and refutes the lie that we are alone.

Ash Wednesday is a day for “accepting what we have allowed ourselves to become and beginning to be all the rest of what we are meant to be.” (118)

And how does Ash Wednesday accomplish this? By speaking a very strange set of words over us.

“Remember that you are dust. And to dust you shall return.”

What a bizarre thing to say to someone. But how freeing. You don’t have to have it all together. (You are dust.) But you do have this life to spend well, so why are we spending so much time and energy on _____? (And to dust you shall return.)

The first time that I was privileged to be part of a service where we practiced the Imposition of Ashes (was I an Impositor?) it was absolutely striking and unforgettable to say these words to each of the congregants as they came to the front. It was hard to say. I kept thinking, “I’m really saying, ‘You’re going to die’ … how is that helpful?” But as the experience continued I started to see the gift it was. Each one of these people were following Jesus in their own imperfect ways, constantly aware that they should “do it better” and here I was saying,

“It’s okay. You’re going to die. You’re not perfect. You don’t have numerous lifetimes to perfect this, you just have your one precious life. So if you’re expecting too much of yourself, let’s be a little more realistic. And if you’re not expecting anything, remember that you have a life to spend… and so let’s choose wisely.”

And so Ash Wednesday sends out the call to pay particular attention during Lent. Particular attention to the way we’re spending our lives. Particular attention to the Word of God. Particular attention to the journey of Jesus toward the cross. Particular attention to our souls and to being human. Chittister writes:

Ash Wednesday issues a challenge “to become fully alive, fully human rather than simply, grossly, abysmally, self-centeredly human.” (119)

And then Lent gives us the chance to remember who we are – who we are meant to be – and where we have come from. Lent’s reputation about being sad and sorrowful is only half true. It is also all about newness and a call to fully human living. As we walk into the season, may we embrace this call with our whole hearts.

What is Lent looking like for you this year? Are you preparing yourself or others for baptism? Are you fasting or instensifying a discipline? If you’re looking for ideas, I thought this was a fabulous list.

And as strange as it sounds, I hope someone blesses you today by reminding you that you’re going to die…

Chapter 15 Ordinary Time I: The Wisdom of Enoughness

(or the post in which I blog on the chapter I was supposed to last Monday…)

by Andrea Tisher

There was a long time in my life when the only two celebrations of the church year that I knew about were Christmas and Easter. Christmas was celebrated with a “Carols by Candlelight” service on Christmas Eve and Easter was a big extravaganza of “He is risen” hymns on a Sunday in April.

Christmas always started bef0re the fact, with decorations in the church and the addition of some carols week by week. Easter was a little more abrupt. One Sunday a year we declared emphatically that the Jesus who was crucified sometime back in history had risen from the dead.

The rest of the year was just…ordinary.

Turns out that my experience is not totally unlike the history of the liturgical year. Chittister reminds us that Ordinary Time used to be all of the time of the year that wasn’t Christmas or Easter. Now that the calendar is more complete, we have two major chunks of Ordinary Time. One between Christmas and Lent and another between Pentecost and Advent. This first Ordinary Time is shorter and seems to naturally be focused on the life of the man who was born in Bethlehem as we always know that Lent is not that far away (see last week’s post, Auden says it better). But Chittister rightly points out that this bit of Ordinary Time gives us a chance “to contemplate the intersection between the life of Jesus and our own.” (97) And after all the celebration of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, suddenly there is no distraction. No religious or liturgical actions to get caught up in… “Jesus was, is and will come again.” (99) And this is enough. And we’ll need a few weeks to sit with just this before we’re ready to journey toward the cross during Lent. The calendar gives us a little breathing room before then next bit of the story is told.

Ordinary Time: the time in the calendar when the simple truth of Jesus who was, is and will come again is more than enough.