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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lord, have mercy!

No matter the particular font from whence your Christianity flows - East or West - you gotta love the byzantine ways of the institutional church, especially as it calculates the liturgical calendar.

This year, the calendar for Lent, Holy Week and Easter used by most of Western Christianity follows the Orthodox Christian calendar - or, vise versa, depending on the person you're talking with - and coincides on the same schedule and dates.

Today, Palm Sunday happens to coincide with the Jewish celebration of Passover, which, Scripture tells us, is the presenting reason Jesus was in Jerusalem in the first place.

It's all so nice an tidy, isn't it? Must mean that it was all historically accurate, right? Well, this year, anyway. Other years, you're pretty much on your own - historically speaking.

The "Cowley Fathers" in Cambridge, MA - the Society of St. John the Evangelist - had an interesting post in today's daily Lenten email about how today, Palm Sunday, is the 40th Day of Lent.

Here's the explanation:
Enumeration of the days of Lent can follow at least two different schedules: in one, Ash Wednesday and the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday following are not regarded as days of Lent; rather, they are preparatory days for Sunday, the day on which Lent begins. In this system, the fortieth day of Lent will occur on Thursday of Holy Week, the beginning of the so-called Triduum.

The Book of Common Prayer 1979 uses an alternate system which includes Ash Wednesday and the days following as days of Lent, but which excludes Sundays during the season, and therefore culminates with Day 40 falling on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, where our focus shifts dramatically.
Well, there it is, then.

It's official: Lent is over.

Break out the chocolates, alcohol or red meat from which you have been fasting.

Wait! Hang on! Not so fast with the not-fasting.

It's not over.  Yet. Indeed, it's about to get even more demanding.

Holy Week has begun.

Well, that's only if you are Episcopalian. If not, you've still got five more days to go.

See what I mean about being byzantine? 

Lord, have mercy!

I learned something new from Penny, my dear, sweet friend of some 30+ years who is Greek Orthodox. She was telling me about the word 'eleison'. We've been saying it a lot during Lent - as in "Kyrie eleison" - "Lord, have mercy".

The word 'eleison' έλεος has as its root in the word 'elison' ελιά. My Greek is Very Rusty, but I think I spelled that right. (Someone will write and tell me, no doubt.)

At any rate, the Greek word for 'mercy' has its root in the word 'olive'.

Penny tells me this is because oil, of course, is extracted from the olives which grow so abundantly in the Middle East and has been used, since ancient times, as an agent of healing and comfort (as well as cooking).

So, when we ask for God's mercy, we are asking to be anointed - bathed, soaked, drenched - in the oil of Divine Healing which we call "mercy".

Not a bad idea as we begin Holy Week - today or, depending on your calculations, Maundy Thursday.

There's another coincidence on the calendar this year - a collision of Good Friday and Earth Day - which has not escaped the attention of The Episcopal Church.

On the church's official website, we are told that it is a "profound coincidence" that Good Friday lands on Earth Day. Or, vise versa, depending on your priorities and point of view.

There is a whole host of educational, liturgical and other resources which one can avail oneself of, should one be so inclined, to assist in exploring the profundity of this coincidence.

The church tells its members "when Earth is degraded and species go extinct, a part of God's body experiences a different type of crucifixion, and another way of seeing and experiencing God is diminished."

Now, I'm a progressive sort of Episcopalian but there are somethings that make me cringe and feel like an old fuddy-duddy. This is one of them.

Look, as a feminist and a Christian, I am committed to Eco-justice and the creation of a more sustainable, compassionate economy and way of life. I do what I can to recycle, use energy efficient light bulbs, wear a sweater instead of turning up the heat on a cold night, and turn off the faucet when I'm brushing my teeth.

I'm also an Episcopal priest who, like many of my colleagues, knows her way around a metaphor. I can wring the life out of a metaphor with the best of them, and have a few drops left over for another sermon.

I understand the temptation to equate the crucifixion of Jesus with the extinction of plants and animals and the killing of innocent human beings and the devastation of all life forms during 'unholy' wars.

But, Good Friday and Earth Day? Really?

It strikes me that this connection out-byzantines the most intricately, convoluted byzantine among us. It probably ought to earn some kind of award as the Metaphor of the Year by The Association of Episcopal Clergy.

It's a coincidence, to be sure. 'Profound'? Well, I suppose that's in the eye of the beholder.

Sort of the way Palm Sunday - or, is it Maunday Thursday? - marks the end of Lent. Or, depending whether or not you are looking East or West, when Lent begins and Easter is celebrated.

If someone is passionate about Eco-Justice and finds a deeper meaning to their vocational work and the crucifixion of Jesus and the joy of Easter, then, well, is that a bad thing? Really?

It's not that The Episcopal Church is saying, "Thus saith the Lord: thou shalt, henceforth and furthermore, celebrate Earth Day on Good Friday and read, mark, learn and inwardly digest this 'different form of crucifixion, another way of seeing how God is diminished'."

It's simply an opportunity to make a connection between our daily faith and our daily lives. It's a way to raise awareness about one way to make our faith come alive in the world around us.

Which - Lord, have mercy! - is not a bad thing.

As I look out my window, I see glorious colors of the deep brown earth contrasting against the evermore brilliant shades of green grass as the forsythia buds open in stunning colors of yellow. There are white sage and purple and blue ground ivy and pale blue speedwell and rosy dead nettle blossoms springing up everywhere.

It's as if the whole 'round earth is coming alive again. It's an earthly resurrection of - dare I say it? - 'profound coincidence', happening, as it is, during Passover, the end of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week and the 'three holy days' of The Triduum. 

It's a wonderful metaphor crying out to be used and simply begging to be exploited.

Frankly, I think Jesus gets confused about where he's supposed to be on any given day on the calendars of all the various parts of His Body, the Church. It's an exhausting schedule. I'm sure glad I don't have to be Him.

I'm not so concerned, these days, with a strict observance of the calendar of the church as I am being in sync with the rhythm of nature as a manifestation of God's ways which can not be contained.

I'm less and less interested in how we mark the days of our lives than the quality with which we live them. Ultimately, I think God is, too.

I don't give two figs - or, olives, for that matter - about whether or not you earned an attendance check mark for going to church today or waved your Palm branch around as you walked to your car parked on the side street near the church or had the children weave your palm branch into a cross to pin on your lapel for all to see when you walked into the Coffee Shop or Diner after church.

I'm much more interested in what part you have to play in the Story of The Passion and what you do about the corruption of power and state sanctioned execution.

I want to know if you have ever betrayed or been betrayed and what that felt like and whether or not you sought or found forgiveness.

I want to know if you have stood by, helpless and hopeless, as you witnessed the unjust, unmerited suffering of a friend - or, even a stranger.

I want to know if you have suffered for something you believe in and were willing to let a part of yourself die for your convictions.

It is the intricate, convoluted, byzantine stories or our lives that make the most sense to me - not the imposed calendar of the church - and how those stories reflect the narratives of our faith as they are given to us in Holy Scripture.

The Church, in all of her foolishness and foibles, tries to call us to that work. Sometimes, She does it with such breathtaking profundity as to cause a transformation in our lives. And, other times, well, She just makes me giggle.

In and through it all - the sublime and the ridiculous - God anoints us with healing and compassion and forgiveness and hope.

Ultimately, it may well be that there are only two appropriate responses to the miracle of all the Holy Weeks and Easters of our lives:

Kyrie eleison! And, Alleluia!

Mother Church, in Her way, has taught us that, for which I am forever and eternally grateful.

Have a Most Blessed Holy Week!


Dr. Adam DeVille said...

Though I appreciate what you are getting at, and note you lower-cased it, nonetheless increasingly modern scholarship would suggest that the use of the word 'Byzantine' as a pejorative is really quite misplaced. See here for more details:

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I suppose I am behind the 'increasingly modern scholarship' which had, I confess, passed me by and left me completely unaware of the changes. I'm glad to have you bring me up to date. Thank you.

I just wish to note that I meant it as a descriptive, not as a pejorative term.