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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pentecostal Sounds of Mother's Day

“Receive the Holy Spirit “(John 20:19-23)
The Day of Pentecost – May 11, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Pentecost. The celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit. The birthday of the church. It is a festive day in the liturgical cycle and in this moment in our lives
of faith.

Today is also Mother’s Day. A secular holiday, to be sure, but one born of the deeply religious and spiritual faith of Julia Ward Howe who called for the creation of this day in 1872 as the means for women to protest the carnage of the Civil War. The conception of this day was inspired by a passion for peace among all people – all nations – at all times.

Into this morning’s observance comes Jesus, preaching the gospel of forgiveness. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he is quoted as saying, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

I always find these strangely appropriate words for the Feast of Pentecost. Strange because these are the words spoken by a man who was betrayed by his own – who was scourged and mocked and tried by a court not of his peers.

These are the words of a man who suffered the humiliating death of a thief and a traitor: crucifixion. Crucifixion. A hideous and humiliating and monstrously painful death. And yet, listen to Him: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian message. It is the one necessary thing for there to be peace among people, among nations, and in the world. It is an impossible and often bitter pill to swallow.

So, I’m going to say it again: Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian message. It is not only, as our Calvinist-evangelical friends, like to remind us, about the forgiveness by God of our sins. Yes, it is this, but that’s an easy task for God; it is a much, much more difficult task for us to forgive ourselves.

Ultimately, it is about the forgiveness of the sins of others done unto us. And, even more impossibly, it is about the forgiveness of our sins done unto others which is impossible without the gift of the Resurrection of Jesus, the ultimate gift of Peace.

Let me tell you a Mother’s Day story that might help to explain this impossible mystery of the Holy Spirit for you.

As many of you have heard me say, my grandmother was a simple peasant girl, born in the rural area outside of Lisbon, the 15th child and only girl of 14 brothers. Hers was a hard life made impossible by the position of her status in life – the only daughter and youngest child of 14 sons and a man who was widowed in the prime of life.

She knew her lot in life and she did the impossible for a young woman of her age and time and status – she refused to accept it. Instead, she chose for herself an impossible path, a path beyond her imagining, a path of the fullest liberation of her human spirit which she believed with all her heart was what Jesus wanted for her.

My grandmother came to this country alone at age 14, with no money in her pocket and just the clothes on her back, a few possessions in her carpet luggage and the guitara left to her by her grandmother.

This is it. This is her guitara. I used to play it once, a long time ago. The strings are long gone. There are cracks in the wood and a piece of the backside is missing.
Still, it sings to me. The guitara has a unique sound – part mandolin, part violin. It always sounded to me like tears – like a woman crying. My grandmother’s guitara sings to me of the Spirit known to those at the moment of Pentecost.

I remember being in my grandmother’s parlor, sitting at her feet, listening to her sing fado. Now, you must understand how revolutionary a thing this was. Fado in Portuguese means ‘fate', and in this music, people experience things in the extremes.

When you’re in love, you’re very, very in love, When you’re sad, you are really, really miserable.

In fado, every emotion is very intense. It is bluesy and jazzy and folksy, but with all the high drama known to the upper echelons of operatic genius.

Fado is thought by many to be the music of colonialism, but in its purest essence, it is poetry. It came to Portugal via sailors sailing the triangle of Portugal, Africa and Brazil. They brought back African slaves who had a dance called fado which was then banned for being too erotic. So, they started singing.

Fado expresses what is called ‘saudade’ – when you cry for something. It is that cry that comes from the empty place in your soul, the place that has been emptied out by your tears and is yearning, longing, crying out to be filled again. That is saudade.

Originally, it belonged to the working classes, to a mix of people, races and cultures. In Coimbra, the location of one of the oldest university in Europe, Fado remains an art form forbidden for women to employ. Only men can sing it in its classical forms.

So, understand, please, that for my grandmother to sing fado, to sing of fate and destiny, the classical definition and sole propriety of men, was, well, something very near blasphemy. My grandfather could never stay in the room while she sang it, but I know he sat outside the open parlor window, listening to every single illegal note.

Still, she sang. She sang while she played her guitara which has a sound like tears, weeping to fill our longing souls with the sounds and vibrations that came from the middle of the middle of creation.

When I hear the sound of fado I hear the sound of the Holy Spirit. I hear the sound fate, the sound of the guitara, the sound of the words spoken by Jesus at the gift of the Holy Spirit: , “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus was a man who had accepted his destiny and was offering forgiveness to all who could stand to take this precious gift.

Fado in Portuguese may mean fate, but it sounds to me more like the forgiveness that lies at the heart of the gospel and the experience of Pentecost. It is the submission to one’s destiny, a resignation, the mixture of yearning and sadness that is part of the complexity of forgiveness.

It is an impossible burden, this forgiveness, for us to bear alone. Which is why Jesus, in his great generosity, gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who will lead us to all Truth.

Some of us are sitting here, on this Mother’s Day, as mothers who are sorely in need of forgiveness. Others of us are sorely in need of forgiving our Mothers. It is a bittersweet fate, this call on this day.

The sound of the Holy Spirit on this Mother’s Day is, for us, the sound of the guitara, the sound of a woman weeping her fate – of having been betrayed, but still being asked to forgive. Of having been mistreated or misunderstood, and still being exonerated. Of having been abused, but still being asked to absolve. It is the sound of forgiveness and redemption, salvation and the peace of God which passes all human understanding.

My grandmother insisted that I have this guitara, the symbol of both her heritage and her freedom, as a gift to me when I left my home to be with Barbara and our children to make a new family.

It was, I am convinced, her way of forgiving me the blasphemy of what was to her as strange a new life as her new life in this country was to her fathers and brothers in Portugal This guitara is, for me, a sign and symbol of the radical forgiveness available to us in the Holy Spirit. For me, this guitara is an mage of Pentecost.

It is the gift of the fado – the acceptance of one’s vocation – sometimes known as one’s fate or destiny. It is the gift of the sound of a woman weeping the tears of forgiveness so that she might know acceptance and move on to follow the irresistible sound of life calling to life.

It is the pathway to the peace of God, which passes all understanding. It is the sound of the forgiveness asked of us by Jesus is his own personal lament, his own fado: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

For me, the Pentecostal spirit of Jesus is encapsulated in this fado entitled ‘Tell Me Why.” I remember my grandmother singing it, and delighted to once hear it sung by opera diva, Beverly Sills. I will make of it a Pentecost fado for you.

(Sung) Time has come for me to leave you.
Tis the moment for goodbye.
Ah my sweet, we have to part now.
Please brush your tears from those dear eyes.
We have shared so much together.

T'is not the end but a new start.
Ah, my dear, I’ll always love you.
You'll be forever in my heart.
Ah, my dear, I'll always love you.
You'll be forever in my heart.



Kirkepiscatoid said...

Ah, Elizabeth, you are your grandmother's grandchild, as we say in these parts. Your grandmother just out and out did something women were not supposed to do--with that "just try to stop me and see what happens" attitude. You chose a vocation that required a little bit of the same although the attitudes were starting to change a little about women and vocations.

My grandmother was cut from the same mold, having lived through the Depression. Although her feisty-ness could be a royal pain in the backside sometimes, if she was bound and determined to do something, heaven help the person who tried to get in the way! Strong and noble women, the whole lot of 'em.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yup. This apple didn't fall too far from that tree.