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                               Lent and Winter Length 

 Last Sunday we passed the halfway point in our Lenten journey towards the great Christian festival of Easter. The Easter images of tulips and newborn fleecy white lambs and golden chicks seem far removed from our climate circumstances here in Western Newfoundland, where we are in the first of three days of what our local meteorologists are calling a spring storm. Isn’t is the whole purpose of spring to exile to the annals of history the winter weather of 2017? Alas, not here. The only thing white and fleecy in my world are the snowdrifts.

 Now I do not believe that climate change is a conspiracy of the Chinese government like one of our world leaders with the bigly intellect. But I do not attribute spring storms here to global warming. The reality is that we have at least one more month where a snow storm is always a possibility. That is why when we Canadians go abroad we sometimes refer to ourselves as the frozen chosen. I do find it difficult though to reconcile what is happening in my indoor and outdoor life. Outdoors, it is clearly still winter. When I go inside though I am confronted with tulips (cardboard renditions mostly) bunnies and the aforementioned woolly white lambs and golden-foiled chocolate chicks. 

 In my heart I am longing for my inside world to become my outside world. I want winter and its death grip to leave and to feel the restorative resurrection of spring. I want the silence of winter to be replaced with the spring sound of the chirping of birds. Like Lazarus emerging from the tomb (this week’s gospel) I want to throw away winter’s burial clothes of coats and stocking caps and mittens. I want to see the new life emerging on those docile lifeless branches. 

Still, I know that the sweetness of spring will be made all the sweeter because I am compelled to wait patiently for the world to be reborn. It is a bit analogous with what is happening in our church year. We are in the midst of Lent. Many have not noticed. Even Christians increasingly distance themselves from the Lenten journey. Ash Wednesday crowds have dwindled. The church’s call for fasting and focused prayer and charity are all but ignored. 

 In just a few more weeks we will arrive at our destination and hear the Good News that Jesus is risen. It will not resonate as it ought though if we have not journeyed with Jesus. You see we can only appreciate fully the glory of the resurrection if we have traveled with Jesus to Bethany and then to Jerusalem. We need to be there waving our palms as Jesus enters Jerusalem. We need to accompany Jesus to the upper room for the Last Supper. We need to stick with Jesus as He is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. We need to go to Pilate’s court for the trial. We need to stand at the foot of the cross on Good Friday and we need to keep a vigil on Saturday night. If we do that then the glory of the resurrection will be more real for us than it has ever been and we will be reborn just like the Spring Earth.

                            Why do we pray?

The photograph reminded me of a rare sight that I saw in Jerusalem when I was there last year. Two elderly gentlemen, one dressed clearly as a Jew and the other as a Muslim were walking together engaged in conversation as the old friends that they likely were. As they neared the western wall they shook hands and the Jewish man headed in the direction of the western wall while the Muslim man headed toward the Al-Aqsa mosque. I suspect they both prayed.

 When I was a teen I remember being fascinated watching British journalist, author and some would say theologian Malcolm Muggeridge arguing passionately on television that television was evil. It seemed a bit bizarre to me that a person would choose the very medium they are condemning to deliver their message. Yet I find myself in a similar role. I am a priest who questions sometimes the way that the church uses prayers.

 In the place where I minister we hold regular worship which involves a great deal of prayer. I visit hospitals and I pray with those who are gravely ill or dying and their families. I find in those context that prayers soothes and deepens faith. I have a rich personal prayer life. I have always been attracted to the Benedictine tradition where people meet for corporate worship but also practice personal contemplative prayer as they perform their daily task of making the cheese or tending the animals and crops or brewing the beer or whatever other tasks the monks are doing in support of the monastery and community. Any who know me will know that I am attracted to the Franciscan model that Francis of Assisi best expressed by saying, “Preach the gospel. When necessary use words.”

 There is prayer that I find unhelpful though. I have never been enamored about those occasions when I am asked to pray at the opening of an event. I don’t like saying grace at secular community meals, especially in places where you have to compete to be heard. I have always believed that providing an opportunity for participants to pray quietly is more effective. It drives me to distraction to see clergy praying at political conventions, union meetings and even city council chambers. It seems to me that sometimes we find ourselves blessing things that God might not bless. This type of prayer really is open to manipulation. 

A Polish military chaplain colleague told me a story about how the Russian Communists worked. In one small village the children were brought out of the school one day to pray in the school yard. They were poor and there was not a great deal to eat. The children were encouraged to pray to God for bread. They did and there was no bread. The next day they were in the yard again and this time they were encouraged to pray to Lenin for bread. Shortly after they began praying the bread trucks arrived. 

I may as well go for broke and say that the Wesleyan style of worshiping and praying loudly in the town square or in some other conspicuous spot does not do much for me either. In fact I have never understood it. I have friends who enjoy this style of worship a great deal but other than personal gratification what does it accomplish? Some of my friends tell me it is about witnessing their faith, but if you want to be a witness then take the advice of Francis of Assisi and feed the hungry, visit the sick or those in prison. Reach out your hands to those in need. Welcome the refugee. Take care of the dying. In the gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6) Jesus encourages those who would be His followers to be generous people of prayer. He rejects, however, those whose prayer life is accomplished only by drawing attention to themselves instead of to God. It reminds us that the purpose of prayer and worship is to deepen our relationship with God.

The Stone of Sacrifice

In the next week or so on the 1 March, Christians around the world will begin the season of Lent. Lent begins with the solemn day of Ash Wednesday where people are smudged with ashes and this reminder of our mortality is spoken: Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

If there ever was a season when the church could be called counter cultural it is Lent. Lent is really about service, suffering and sacrifice. We Christians try to deepen our spiritual journey toward God, using as our example the earthly life of Jesus and his willingness to die for us and for the entire world.

For those outside of Christianity it is sometimes difficult to grasp the Christian fascination with sacrifice. One of our earliest and most revered symbols is the cross, a means of execution. Notwithstanding the fascination with zombies in our present age, the average person spends as little time reflecting on themes of death and suffering as they can.

For sure sacrifice is not a recurring theme in our leadership in the western world today. When pressed for an example of sacrifice in his own life, the current President of the United States was unable to provide one concrete example. In Canada our youthful jet-setting Prime Minister was roundly criticized for his Christmas vacation on a private Caribbean Island of a billionaire friend by our equally youthful jet-setting leader of the opposition who spent her Christmas bobbing around the same Caribbean in the yacht of her billionaire friend. They are all for the middle class. They just loathe spending time with us or living in the lifestyle in which we live.

Perhaps this is one of the greatest attractions of Jesus. Lent recalls the forty days Jesus spent in the desert. There, Jesus was tempted by Satan to abandon the mission and use His unique status to attain earthly power. Jesus rejects all of this temptation revealing that He had come into the world to change it and save it.

Ultimately, this mission of Jesus would lead Him to Jerusalem where He would be tried, convicted and executed in short order. At the root of Christian theology is an understanding that Jesus needed to do this in order that His sacrifice would be an atonement for the shortcomings of the world.

The end of the journey for Jesus was what is now called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This massive building, built by Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, in the 4th century, housed the hill of Calvary and the Tomb of Jesus.

It also contains the Anointing Stone. In fact when you walk into the Church the first thing you see is the Anointing Stone and the mural behind it. (I have attached the pictures of both the stone and mural at the top of this blog.) Christians believe that it was on this stone that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea prepared the body of Jesus for burial. It is a sacred place where many Christians lay out a cloth to be blessed that will be kept as a burial shroud for their own funeral.

Lent can be a wonderful spiritual journey. It ultimately leads to an unjust death, but the beauty of the story gives Christians the great hope that this end is not an end at all. It is best appreciated when we journey through this season with Jesus. Understanding deeply His hardship and suffering allows us to become more accepting of the difficult times in our own lives, allowing us to see beyond them to a time and place when all suffering will end and all sacrifice will be unnecessary.

I have a dream …. Today, 16 January, is the day that our neighbours to the South, the United States of America, remember and commemorate the life and witness of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King JR. I was first introduced to King in a school assignment in Junior High. I read a portion of his powerful words recorded in the letter from a Birmingham jail. I don’t think I fully understood then that Dr. King was writing to a group of clergy who saw his civil disobedience and his arrest has unbecoming of a member of the cloth. You see for me it was not just the correctness of the civil rights movement that appealed. It wasn’t even Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence. It was Dr. King’s willingness to take his faith out of the pulpit and into the town square. It was not that racism wasn’t important. It was just that I grew up in Newfoundland and Labrador where no one could really be racist because there were no other races except us European-descended people. In fact there is a humorous but true story in our history about Lanier Phillips, the first Black American Sonar Technician to serve in the United States Navy. He was rescued on the South Coast of Newfoundland when his ship, the USS Truxton, was sunk during the Second World War. The women of that small community were washing the oil from the skin of the survivors and they kept scrubbing Phillip’s skin because they had never seen a person of African descent. Phillip’s described that community that he washed up in as a place without racism so when Phillip’s went back to the United States he marched with Dr. King because he knew there was a better way. When I went to the seminary to study for the priesthood, Dr. King remained one of my heroes. The accomplishments of the civil rights movement confirmed that there was a place for faith and the voice of the prophet in the political arena. I remained convinced of that to this day. Dr. King is joined by a growing list of modern Christian martyrs like Oscar Romero and Janani Luwum who remind us that sacrifice is in the DNA of every Christian. There is one final thing that appeals to me about Dr. King and that was that he was an optimist. He had faith in God that one day God would restore the Promise Land with Righteousness and Justice flowing like a mighty stream. Hear his words: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Me too Dr. King. Me too.

The Dean’s 2016 Christmas Message

In 1967 The Royal Guardsman wrote what remains my favourite piece of Christmas Music. It was called Snoopy’s Christmas and it is set during the First World War and features an aerial battle between the renowned German flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen, also known as The Red Baron, and Charles Schultz’s famous American cartoon beagle, Snoopy. The chorus reads:

Christmas bells those Christmas bells Ringing through the land Bringing peace to all the world And good will to man

It is a racy peace and the message of the story is how the magic of Christmas has been able to turn enemies into friends. My second favourite piece, I heard the Bells on Christmas Day is also a piece set in the midst of war. This time it is the American Civil war and the original poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is entitled “Christmas Bells.” It has been recorded by a variety of artist including Bing Cosby, Frank Sinatra, Bette Midler, Harry Belafonte, Richard Marx and of course The Once. Longfellow wrote the poem at a very difficult time in his life. In 1862 his wife Fanny had died in a freak fire and just before Christmas 1863 his oldest son Charles was severely wounded in a Battle at Potomac. In his journal Longfellow prays over those two years to have his heart lightened. Charles survived and in Christmas1864 Longfellow wrote the poem. Most of us have heard the song

"I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old familiar carols play, And wild and sweet The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Many of the original stanzas are not sung in versions like the one from Bing Cosby, for example. In fact I believe you will only hear the difficult stanzas from the Once. It is another reason to be proud of our local band. Here is what they say in the original poem:

Then from each black accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

In our present world we understand how Longfellow must have felt. As we look around this world and hear the news from places like Alleppo we know something of the challenges that life can bring. How can we not feel it in this town where for the first time perhaps ever, we had one of our own fall innocent victim to a terrorist attack this week? The world was and is a difficult place.

So listen to the scriptures with fresh ears. Isaiah tells of a time when people who walked in darkness would see a great light, but this did not occur without a preamble of extraordinary violence: the boots of trampling warriors and the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. And then what Isaiah sees is amazing.

Earlier this week in this Cathedral we sang the Messiah and what comes next according to the prophet Isaiah is my favourite part from Handel’s beautiful piece: ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.’

The circumstances surrounding tonight’s gospel also remind us of how tough the world can be. Jesus is born far from the comforts of his parent’s home in Nazareth. They are compelled, despite Mary’s condition, to obey the unfair rules of a terrible occupational government. There is no exception for one in her last days of pregnancy. And to a certain extent this is a story of our faith that defines us.

The paradoxical nature of Christianity is this. We are not a faith built on the foundations of strength and power. We are a faith built on the twin standards of love and compassion. In this astonishing story of the nativity, God comes to us in the weakness of an infant. And the angels give us this wonderful message: Do not be afraid. God becomes one of us, Emmanuel, the God who is with us. Jesus grows into a man who does not use His uniqueness to gain power. Instead he continually identifies with the poor and the rejected. Eventually, he chooses disgrace, denunciation and death, but all of this Jesus does, to set us free.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow figured that out. He discovered in his own life that no matter the calamity to this dying world, God sent a living saviour and then he wrote his last stanza. Sing along with him today because no matter how discouraged and disgruntled you may be God is offering us the gifts of hope and peace and joy and love. And even our children know that these gifts that cannot be purchased are the most precious ones. They cannot be wrapped and placed under the tree, they have to be shared with one another. So sing along with Longfellow that last stanza:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead; nor doth God sleep! The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

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