Lightning on the Stone

Blogger’s Note: At the Easter Vigil last night, the Resurrection account was from Matthew. The image of the angel appearing like lightning and sitting upon the stone struck meand Lightning on the Stone seemed like a bluesy spiritual someone ought to try to write. So I did this morning. It’s not quite as raw or ragged as it might be if someone sang it over a blues riff…but I’m satisfied.

In dark we walked to that dark tomb

And darkly dreamt of you

Your broken body sealed in stone

And lost in darkness, too, Lord

And lost in darkness too

In gloom we came to Golgotha

As black gave way to gray

I asked our sister Mary who

Would roll the stone away, Lord

Would roll the stone away

The Skull grinned blue—when like a flash

Of lightning from the Throne

An angel, gleaming white, threw back

And sat upon the stone, Lord

And sat upon the stone

As at the rising of the Sun

The Daystar shares its rays

Just so my face with wonder shone

To hear you had been raised, Lord

To hear you had been raised

The sky above was brilliant blue

As blue as any sea

And we rejoiced to tell that you

Were bound for Galilee, Lord

Were bound for Galilee

Fool for Christ: An Easter Reflection

Such fools, these followers of Jesus. Witless tradesmen, traitors, cowards, and louts, smelling of dust and sweat and fish—with a carpenter to lead them! The honest one, Nathanael, spoke well when he asked, Can anything good come from Nazareth? Yet even he was smitten—by a wandering woodworker!

And then what? This Jesus rides into Jerusalem like God’s gift to humanity, picks a fight with the scribes and scholars, and blasphemes before the high priest. Who could stand for it? They had him flogged and humiliated, beaten within an inch of his life—they gave him every opportunity—and still he would not repent. So they had him crucified.

Great wickedness demands great atonement.

Such disciples! Most of them fled when God’s arm was revealed. Only the young one, John, stuck it out to the end. His mother was there, too, I hear. Poor woman. She raised him right, by all accounts, and this is her thanks: a criminal in an early grave. She must be proud.

They’ve been in hiding since. What would you do, if you left your home and livelihood to follow your heart’s desire, only to see it crushed completely and come to nothing? They say he worked wonders: fed the masses, healed the sick, even raised the dead! But how could that be, unless he came from God Himself? And why would God would allow his servant to be profaned so publicly, so completely—on the Passover, no less! Why could he not save himself?

Unless…

But no. Nothing short of bodily resurrection could make up for so great a loss. For the man Jesus to redeem Himself and his followers, He would have to burst from that tomb of his own accord, bathed in light and breathing God’s own spirit, baptizing in fire as the beheaded Baptist foretold, with angels as His heralds and judgment on His lips. He would have to show Himself victorious over not only worldly powers, but over sin and death itself.

Some say he will. Just imagine: the stone rolled back, an empty tomb, the astonished guards. Imagine the embarrassment of the Romans, the recriminations among the Jewish leaders, the joy and wonder among His followers.

Mercy! Who could stand before so great a Redeemer as that?

On that day, may every knee bend at His holy name. May He find a people worthy to be called His disciples.

And may I be one of them.

Book Break: The Great Divorce

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had a profound Good Friday, but that was only half the story. The other half of the story is that, early that Friday morning, I sought out some spiritual reading for the day, and wound up with a new top-five favorite book: C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Of course, when reading spiritually, the Bible is always a good place to start, and I’m also making slow but steady progress through Dante’s Divine Comedy a canto or two a day. But I wanted something fresh, something I could possibly read in a day, and something related to the penitential character of Good Friday and the great saving act of our Lord.

On a hunch, I took C.S, Lewis’s The Great Divorce from the bookshelf. I have great regard for Lewis as a writer and had heard good things about the book, particularly from my good friend Angie at Take Time for Him.

Lewis had me hooked from the preface, which begins by explaining the title of his fantasy:

BLAKE WROTE the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If I have written of their Divorce, this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant. But in some sense or other the attempt to make that marriage is perennial. The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable “either-or”; that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain.

The book begins with our narrator in line at a bus stop in a grey and gloomy town, surrounded by people he doesn’t know and wouldn’t want to — unsure of where he is or where he’s going. It unfolds like Dante’s Divine Comedy in modern miniature: a pilgrim’s journey from hell to the edge of heaven in just 128 pages. I’m reading Dante now, too, canto by canto, and it is powerful in its way, but this held my attention from the preface to the end, with every word relevant to this sinner and this sinful time. Lewis articulates with poetic beauty and unflinching honesty the glory of God and his angels and saints, the pain of detaching from this world, and the stubbornness, the grasping, the pride and distrust that keep even “good” people from choosing God and reaching Heaven.

The book challenges the reader particularly on the Greatest Commandment: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). On this point, Dante provides an unintended summary (being some seven centuries older) which, as providence would have it, I read over lunch on Easter Monday. In Purgatorio, Canto IX, Lines 127-132, he writes the words of the angel guarding the gates of Purgatory proper:

“I hold these keys from Peter, who advised
‘Admit to many, rather than too few,
if they but cast themselves before your feet.'” 
Then pushing back the portal’s holy door,
“Enter,” he said to us, “but first be warned;
to look back means to go back out again.”

We sin when we put anything — even the blessings of life on this good Earth — ahead of loving and seeking God. Pilgrim after pilgrim turns his or her back on Heaven because the cost of entry is too high: the cost of admitting that they are mere creatures and of letting go of their earthly pleasures, passions, and prejudices. They want Heaven on their own terms and choose Hell to feel like they have some say in the matter. They cannot stand the humiliation of grace as an unmerited gift.

It is a powerful book: perhaps tied at this moment with Steinbeck’s East of Eden as my favorite of all time (although Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings (which I still need to review as an adult) and Sigrid Unset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy are right up there, too!) It paints a stark and revealing picture of how far so many of us have to go to be purged of all sin. So I will end this post with Lewis’s words from the Preface, on a hopeful note:

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A wrong sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot “develop” into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, “with backward mutters of dissevering power”– or else not. It is still “either-or.” If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell. I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.”

The Great Divorce. Find it. Read it.

20 Years a Fool: A Resurrection Story

One of the things I gave up for Lent this year was the last word. It might seem an odd thing from which to fast, but on the home front I crave the last word, savor it, seek it with such reckless abandon that I scatter piles of lesser words about the house until at last I have it. In the past I have recognized this fault in myself: that I want to be right, or at very least, heard and understood, in all things. I manage to tamp down this tendency in public, but in private, in flourishes.

Jodi knew of my sacrifice, and just prior to Holy Week, I asked for her honest assessment as to how much progress I had made. She hesitated a long moment, so I said, “It’s alright — I need you to be straight with me.”

She said, “Honestly, I haven’t noticed much of a difference.”

Just as I thought. I knew I hadn’t done well in this regard — and considering the number of times I know I bit my tongue or choked down one last pointed comment, I now knew how gluttonous my appetite for the last word had truly been.

Lent was not a complete loss, however. For one thing, my self-conscious failures led me to look for little things I could do to make up for being a jackass: simple acts of love and kindness like making the bed, which I have rarely if ever done of my own accord. For another, after this sobering conversation with my bride came Holy Week, and the sacrament of Penance, and the Triduum.

Like so many of the faithful, Holy Week crept up on me with alarming quickness and stealth. Once I realized time was short, I redoubled my efforts to hold my tongue, with at least some renewed success. On Tuesday, Jodi and I went to Confession at Mary Queen of Peace, to a young priest who cut us both to the quick, condensing a plethora of sins to a single, focused flaw, then concocting a penance to match.

In my case, he said something like this: “A simple definition of love is giving of yourself to another. A simple definition of pride is claiming for yourself what isn’t yours. All yours sins seem related to this tendency to take things for yourself: wanting to look better than you are to those around you, wanting recognition for what you do, even taking on more responsibility for what’s happening at work or in the world than belongs to you.”

For my penance, he asked me to find three people or causes to which I could give of myself before the end of Holy Week. And it helped.

After work on Holy Thursday, I shut off my computer and phone until after the Easter Vigil. It’s remarkable how peaceful it can be to escape the endless barrage of email and social media “news,” especially in an election year. Nevertheless, in the wee hours of the morning on Good Friday I found myself unable to sleep, and finally rose around 4:30 a.m. to pray and journal.

I sat near the front window with a cup of black coffee in the foreground and choral music in the back; two candles providing a flickering light so as not to deaden the dawn when it arose. My mind wandered across the years of marriage and family life, and I thought of St. Joseph, who is never quoted but ever present in the early life of Jesus in the gospels — the epitome of the “strong, silent type”; the carpenter, whose rough hands and faithful heart made dead wood bloom. Here was a model of a husband and father: quiet, hard-working, life-giving.

Life-giving…

For nearly 20 years of marriage, I have accepted the truth that I married well: a woman of beauty, faith, and virtue who was meant to guide me to Christ. For those same 20 years, I have acknowledged her as life-giver, and myself as a sponge, simply soaking up the love she pours forth.

While all of these things are true, for 20 years I’ve used them as a crutch — something to lean on in my weakness. It sounds so sweet and humble to say, “I’m not worthy,” but when did that become good enough? Should I not strive to become worthy?

For the past several years Jodi and I have helped with engaged couple retreats at our parish. Many times over those years we’ve helped to share this analogy between marriage and the Holy Trinity: God the Father loves God the Son; the Son receives that love and reflects it back to Father; and that love between them is God the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the Giver of Life.” Similarly, a husband loves his wife; the wife receives that love and reflects it back to her husband; and the love between them becomes so tangible that it gives life — sometimes literally, resulting in a third person.

For years I’ve helped share this message without directly applying it to my role in our marriage. The husband is the life-giver. The husband initiates. His bride receives what he gives, transforms it, and gives it back — but I’m meant to the source. Not a sponge, but a spigot.

I sat, dumbfounded, as dawn arose. All these years of “wearing the pants” in this family, and Jodi has been trying to do both our jobs. When the sun finally rose, I felt like a new man. Or rather, a man rising to new life.

Dust that we are, a day later I was struggling to recall these revelations and was again longing for a sign from God to guide me — like those whom Jesus fed with a few loaves and fishes, who, the very next day, asked Him, “What can you do?

So I resolved to write them down and share them. May they be my own little resurrection story: after 20 years, a fool became more the man he is called to be. Amen.

O Death, Where Is Your Sting?

At long last, we celebrate Easter, and the resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ! Perhaps you’ve been steadfast in prayer, heartbroken and sincere in penance, and generous in alms-giving. Or perhaps you feel you’ve done too little, too late, for our Lord — perhaps you’ve slipped in your Lenten commitments or find that Easter has crept up on you almost unawares.
Either way, take comfort in the Easter homily below from St. John Chrysotom. Drawing on the gospel of Matthew, chapter 20, he reminds us that we never come too late to God and always receive full payment!

Easter Homily by St. John Chrysostom

Let all pious men and all lovers of God rejoice in the splendor of this feast; let the wise servants blissfully enter into the joy of their Lord; let those who have borne the burden of Lent now receive their pay, and those who have toiled since the first hour, let them now receive their due reward; let any who came after the third hour be grateful to join in the feast, and those who may have come after the sixth, let them not be afraid of being too late; for the Lord is gracious and He receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him who comes on the eleventh hour as well as to him who has toiled since the first: yes, He has pity on the last and He serves the first; He rewards the one and praises the effort. 

Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day; you who have kept the fast and you who have not, rejoice today. The table is richly loaded: enjoy its royal banquet. The calf is a fatted one: let no one go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of faith; all of you receive the riches of his goodness. Let no one grieve over his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed; let no one weep over his sins, for pardon has shone from the grave; let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free: He has destroyed it by enduring it, He has despoiled Hades by going down into its kingdom, He has angered it by allowing it to taste of his flesh. 

When Isaias foresaw all this, he cried out: “O Hades, you have been angered by encountering Him in the nether world.” Hades is angered because frustrated, it is angered because it has been mocked, it is angered because it has been destroyed, it is angered because it has been reduced to naught, it is angered because it is now captive. It seized a body, and, lo! it encountered heaven; it seized the visible, and was overcome by the invisible.

O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? Christ is risen and you are abolished. Christ is risen and the demons are cast down. Christ is risen and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen and life is freed. Christ is risen and the tomb is emptied of the dead: for Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the Leader and Reviver of those who had fallen asleep. To Him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen. 

He is risen, indeed — let us feast and rejoice this day like no other! Alleluia!