Wonders and signs
During Easter season, we have the joy of reading the Acts of the Apostles. Seen as a historical document by theologians until the 1950’s, it’s now viewed as a theological one. The “second chapter,” if you will, of Luke’s Gospel, it tells the story of the founding of the Christian Church, and its spread to the Roman Empire. Probably written in 80 – 90 C.E, it begins with Jesus’ promise to the apostles that the Holy Spirit would come to them.
After the Spirit descends, in the coming glory of Pentecost Sunday (May 31), it tells of the acts done by the apostles. It tells of Peter’s conversion of the Gentiles to followers of Christ. It tells of Paul’s conversion on the road to Tarsus. It tells of the formation of the early church. Acts also tells the story of the gathering in Antioch, where the disciples were first called, “Christians” (Acts 11: 19-30). It is a story of the growth in presence and power of Jesus’ message.
Our Gospel for Sunday speaks of wonders and signs. In the confusing and unusual times we’re living in, people, for the most part, are obeying government guidelines on staying at home and social distancing. Food banks are busier than ever before. Neighbors are helping neighbors daily. Children are learning at home. Priests are learning to communicate in new and different ways. These, too, may be wonders and signs.
A new church polity may be forming. We’ll have to wait and see. But let us never doubt that the Holy Spirit is with us, as it was the disciples in Acts. Let us never doubt that Jesus’ love will be with us, and see us through.
praying in color
Some people pray as they walk. Some pray by singing. Others maintain silence. Still others use prayer beads. There are many ways to pray. One of them is doodling. Do you ever doodle? You can intercede for people as you doodle and in the process create beautiful drawings that illustrate your connections with them.
This new prayer form can take as little or as much time as you have or want to commit. Drawing is half the prayer, the other half is transporting the visual memories or actual images with you to pray throughout the day.
Praying in Color is an active, meditative, playful prayer practice. It is both process and product. The process involves a re-entry into the childlike world of coloring and improvising. The product is a colorful design or drawing that is a visual reminder of the time spent in prayer.
Sybil Macbeth, my daughter Sophia’s godmother, is the originator of Praying in Color. To find out more about this new path to God, visit https://prayingincolor.com/.
We can see in yesterday’s Easter story of supper at Emmaus a figure of the sacramental Presence of Jesus in the liturgy of the altar. But in the original story, as Jesus gave thanks, broke bread, shared it with His followers and only then was recognized by them, it was not a ceremonially stylized liturgical meal. Rather, it was an ordinary weekday supper at an ordinary table with an ordinary loaf of bread. And the blessing prayer of thanks for bread that He used may well have been spoken in the ordinary Jewish form called berakhah: “Blessed are you Lord God, Ruler of the universe; you bring forth bread from the earth.” As Jesus prayed, He and His companions would have known that bread didn’t just spring effortlessly from the earth—grain was sowed, harvested, milled, and baked before bread could arrive at the supper table. The blessing prayer of thanks recognizes all of this—bread comes from things of nature transformed by human work, in human connection.
Near the end of World War II my father, who had grown up on a farm, spent one year managing a farm attached to a former estate that had become what was then called an “old people’s home.” To save the tractor’s gasoline, which was rationed, he seeded forty acres of wheat by hand, walking along the furrows. In years after that when we lived in a small Minnesota town he would help out at wheat and corn harvesting times on certain farms where elderly couples didn’t have money to pay for extra workers. He knew in his bones that bread and human labor went together.
Now in this time of social distancing and shelter in place we are not able to meet Jesus and one another face to face in the community thanksgiving gathering we call Eucharist (Eucharistia—thanksgiving). But we still have daily bread at home. It comes to us through God’s continuing creating activity—in God’s provision of nature—soil, air, water, light, and plant life—and in God’s provision of people together, who sow, cultivate, harvest, mill, bake, and distribute, in relations of interdependence that should be—but not always are—right relationships, relations of justice. As we slice in half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or break apart a dinner roll we can give thanks to our Creator for daily bread in its fullest meaning. God indeed brings forth from the earth the bread that sustains human life, and God does so in and through human labor and human connection.
“Blessed are you Lord God, Ruler of the universe; you bring forth bread from the earth.”
Mary Magdalene, as you may know, figures prominently in the Resurrection. And, she is uniquely and stubbornly persistent in her pursuit of the Risen Lord. You may recall, in Matthew’s gospel (27:60-61), after Jesus’ corpse was placed in the tomb, and was “rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb,” “Mary Magdalene…was there, sitting opposite the tomb.” She would not budge. Close to the tomb of her beloved was her obvious place. After the Resurrection, as we read in John’s gospel (20:1), “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” Back to the tomb, first (ahead of the apostles, to whom she then runs to share the new of the empty tomb*), was her obvious place.
I often share the words of my favorite seminary professor: “Haste characterizes love.” In other words, when you love, you waste no time (easier said than done!). Mary Magdalene is actually lovingly persistent. She is in love with our Lord—in the deepest sense—and she wastes no time to be with Him. And she has something to teach us, both by example and by active assistance in each of our lives. She helps us to pursue our Risen Lord and, once found by Him, to sit at His feet full of wonder.
This painting by French painter, Georges Rouault (d. 1958), whom I discovered while in seminary in France (there is one of his pieces at Wesley Theological Seminary here in Washington!), although simply entitled “Christ et Saint Femme” (“Christ and the Holy Woman”, makes me think of Mary Magdalene with the Risen Lord. She sits at his feet full of wonder, while He extends to her a tender invitation to deeper relationship with Him. May we say “yes” to the same invitation, this day.
* As the Frankish Benedictine monk, Rabanus Maurus (d. 856) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) both say, Mary Madalene becomes the “apostolorum apostola” (“apostle to the apostles”) because she announces to the apostles what in turn they will announce to the whole world (Rabanus Maurus, De vita beatae Mariae Magdalenae, XXVII; Saint Thomas Aquinas, In Ioannem Evangelistam Expositio, c. XX, L. III, 6) and she becomes the first “witness of Divine Mercy” (Gregory the Great, XL Hom. In Evangelia, lib. II Hom. 25,10).
Imagine that you’re walking down a hot, dusty road, bound for a near-by town, three days after a momentous event. You’re joined by someone who appears to be a stranger. The stranger walks with you. And you chat about the biggest news in the country. The stranger begins to reveal Scripture to you in ways you hadn’t thought about before.
Night is approaching. Being hospitable (like to future Episcopalians!) you invite the stranger to stay the night and to break bread – have dinner – with you. As you eat, something remarkable happens – almost miraculous. You realize the continuity between the Old Testament and what is happening here and now. Scales fall from your eyes. You realize that the stranger is in fact the risen Lord – Jesus Christ. Then He vanishes.
This Easter has been like no other we’ve seen before. We’re isolated from each other. We’re isolated from the panoply of worship and community that has nourished us for so long. We can’t sit and hear a glorious liturgy in person. We can’t enjoy wonderful, sacred music in person.
But maybe it’s an opportunity – an opportunity to remember that the first Resurrection was not neat, clean and clearly revealed at first. It can be small things – a walk with a new companion. Hospitality offered to a stranger. A new insight into Scripture and its constant revelation.
This is the story in this Sunday’s Gospel – the journey to Emmaus. We may be on our own journey to Emmaus – full of uncertainties, with too much big news.
But Jesus Christ is here with us. As Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry preached on Easter Sunday, it’s still Easter. It may not look like Easter. It may not smell like Easter.
But it is Easter.
remebering martin rinkart
In times of sorrow, I sometimes remember Martin Rinkart, a Lutheran pastor in Ellenburg, Germany. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) coincided almost exactly with both his pastorate there and the last thirty years of his life. He is remembered largely for the popular hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” (396/397 in The Hymnal 1982). This joyous text has been translated into several languages and is found in many hymnbooks. It has been sung at countless weddings.
As a walled town, Ellenburg served as a place of refuge during wartime. In 1637, pestilence struck, and Rinkart found himself the only clergyman remaining there. He conducted 40-50 funerals each day for a total of over four thousand of the dead. This number included his first wife. Rinkart’s resources were then severely strained in responding to the famine that followed. Although he saved his town from Swedish invasion on two occasions, local authorities proved ungrateful. The date when Martin Rinkart wrote “Now thank we all our God” is uncertain, but he was still alive when it was sung in many places to mark the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
it's still easter
Easter is not just one morning, or even a full week; the “Octave” of Easter just completed yesterday. It is a whole season; weeks upon weeks. That’s how it was for the first disciples of Jesus. The wonder of the Resurrection was too much for them to take in all at once. Engaging its reality and significance took time, and Jesus gave them the time they needed. He not only appeared to them repeatedly after the Resurrection, He continued to teach them. Gradually they began to see new meanings in the Scriptures that they hadn’t realized before—the Messiah would not be a military hero who triumphed over Israel’s oppressors in a single stroke. Rather, the Messiah would suffer and die on the Cross. But that would not be the end of the story.
This is how deep learning takes place. Usually it’s not a single “Eureka” moment, but a gradual process that takes time.
Every morning through the window of my home office I can see a dogwood tree. A week ago little green buds had formed at the ends of its branches. Then the buds began to open, and day by day green flower petals grew in size. Now the flowers are completely open, with an echo of a green tinge, on their way to becoming pure white.
After the Resurrection Jesus gave His disciples a whole season for learning, as in His continuing presence they grew together from being a cluster of frightened and confused followers to being a community unified in new understanding and commitment, ready to become apostles. The Church today gives us the time we need for entering into more and more comprehension of what the Resurrection means now, for each of us and for the world around us. The significance of Resurrection is too much for us all at once. The full season of Easter gives us time to learn and grow.
There was a Christian woman, an Episcopalian, I believe, who had a parrot named Polly. Like owner, like pet, Polly was prim, proper and pretty. There was only one problem: Polly had a bad habit. Whenever she met anyone, she would screech, “Whoopee, Charlie, I’m a good-time girl!” Polly regularly embarrassed her very proper owner.
One day, the woman’s Rector, Fr. Williams, paid her a visit. Sure enough: as he entered the apartment, Polly screeched, “Whoopee, Charlie, I’m a good-time girl!” Fr. Williams was a little shocked and the woman a lot embarrassed. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I think I can help," Fr. Williams replied. “My dear friend, Reverend Jones, at First Baptist, keeps two parrots in his study at church. They’re very pious, upstanding. In fact, all they do is pray!”
So, she agreed, and Fr. Williams took prim, proper and pretty yet misbehaving Polly to the Baptist Church. When he entered Reverend Jones’ study, sure enough, his two parrots were deep in prayer. And, sure enough, Polly screeched, “Whoopee, Charlie, I’m a good-time girl!” Upon which, Reverend Jones’ pious, upstanding parrots stirred and one, with his wing, nudged the other energetically, “Hey, Luke, wake up! We finally got what we’ve been praying for!”
With Easter, “we finally got what we’ve been praying for!” The deepest longing of our hearts is for love that never ends. Or, more precisely, the deepest longing of our hearts is for someOne whose love for us never ends. Our Crucified and Risen Lord is that someOne.
Happy Easter Friday!
This Easter season may feel more like a long Good Friday. Death tolls, uncertainty of supplies, family, relatives and friends at potential risk, familiar and comforting routines disrupted – this may be the most untraditional and tragic Easter season that any of us have ever lived through.
But throughout it, there is love.
People are making face masks for neighbors, health care workers and first responders. Teachers are learning how to teach on-line so their pupils don’t get too far behind. Health care workers are going above and beyond the call of duty to care for the sick.
Volunteer banks are springing up all over to connect the willing and able with the needy and feeble. Folks are delivering groceries and medications to their elderly or infirm neighbors. Chefs are preparing hundreds of meals a day for those in need of food.
Folks are donating funds for relief of those affected by the virus. People, in this parish and in others, are calling parishioners to check on them and their needs. Priests all over the world are learning how to preach and minister on-line or at social distances.
These signs of love are everywhere. And that faith is based on love. Love will triumph, in the glorious events of the Resurrection and beyond.
the rejected stone
A key passage for engaging the mystery of Christ crucified and risen appears in the liturgy for today, the Wednesday in Easter Week. Psalm 118 announces: “The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
Christ is the cornerstone rejected by humanity. Yet he is essential to the divine construction project. What the Holy One is building depends on Christ, the one killed and raised to life. Our linear, logical plans fail in favor of a dramatically different architecture. When we begin to recognize this, we resist, telling the Trinity it’s our way or the highway.
The Father endorses the Son’s witness by delivering him from the tomb. Jesus goes forth as the incarnation of forgiveness for the world. He ascends, but God is not absent. The Spirit arrives to enflame human hearts. Saints keep appearing among us. Every one of them follows Jesus and thus encounters rejection. Yet they become stones in the edifice built on the victorious Christ. This is marvelous in our eyes.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington