Archives for March 2012

‘Still’ Explores the Middle

Lauren Winner's 'Still' offers insight into the middle of a faith journey

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. Lauren F. Winner. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. 239 pp.

Native speakers of English are not very familiar with the middle voice, a grammatical construct found in ancient Greek, Sandskrit, and old Norse, among other languages. The middle voice hovers between the active and the passive. For example, “That scotch drank smoothly,” or “This books reads well.” Faith also has a middle, a time when things are less certain, God’s presence is less palpable, and shadows dominate more than light. It is a place most of us would rather not go; a journey that, to the abecedarian, appears to be unnecessary. Westerners, Americans especially, with our expectations of upward mobility, success, and gratification, are averse to embracing something as ambiguous as “middle” faith.

But the great spiritual writers and mystics have consistently taught that the middle experience is ultimately unavoidable if one is truly on a journey to mature faith. Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, plunges into the depths of the middle of Lauren Winner’s own faith pilgrimage, baring scenes of precipitating failure and perseverance, frightening upheaval and solidarity, disconsolate emptiness and unexpected grace.

Winner, a professor at Duke Divinity School, is a convert to the Episcopal Church from Judaism. Her first book, Girls Meets God, was a memoir of her journey to Christianity. Still represents the next phase of her faith life – that chapter when the glow and euphoria of the newly baptized gives way to the reality of Dante’s dark forest, where the “straightforward path has been lost.”

Employing a choppy but engaging style, Winner offers snapshots of indicative moments along with little pearls of insight. (Chapters range in length from a mere half page to several pages.) She begins, appropriately, with a chapter entitled “failure,” which provides key contexts for the reflections to come: the death of her mother three weeks before her marriage, and the end of the marriage in divorce five years later.

It is with an admirable honesty and courage that Winner confronts the tender underbelly of her self and her struggle to find God in the midst of darkness. And she offers valuable insights into small transformations that can occur when seemingly woebegone moments are touched with grace. When feeling despondent about having to take a twin bed in someone else’s house when she has nowhere else to go, a friend observes that she should hold off feeling pathetic and “recognize that you are vulnerable and someone is showing you hospitality.”

Whatever turmoil she is facing, she exhibits a persistent loyalty to her church, as when she seeks the counsel of a priest in the face of a marriage on the rocks. Aware that Winner might have had “fractured intentions” about the marriage from the beginning, he suggests that perhaps she was never married at all because, “you stood in a sacramental moment, before priest and community, and lied. And that is a serious sin you have to deal with.” The brutal frankness of this kind of reality therapy might bruise some egos, but Winner keeps coming back, finding peace especially in the quiet moments of worship and the rhythm of the liturgical year. Furthermore, her reflections are peppered with thoughts and insights on the Eucharist, feast days, the sacraments, and even pie socials.

Poetry, especially that of Emily Dickinson, is a frequent companion to Winner’s reflections. The Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr has noted that those moving toward wisdom and mature faith often find that poetry better expresses their experience than more intellectual prose or dogmatic formulae, and Winner demonstrates his point aptly. Her numerous references to poems and poets, and the thoughts and emotions they have evoked in her, are evidence of the journey she is making into her soul. Winner’s ruminations on what often appear to be ambiguous and even bleak verses reveal a tender heart in touch with the ineffable ambivalence that is part and parcel of authentic faith.

Every generation gives rise to voices that speak to the realities of trying to live through periods when the soul finds itself in the desert. Qoheleth, Mother Theresa, and Lady Julian have all walked this road and, by the grace of God, have shared their stories so that the rest of us may draw solace when we encounter our own moment of fear and trembling. Lauren Winner offers a small contribution to this most important body of spiritual reflection with Still. One finishes this book with a sense of hope – that despite the darkness, we are inexorably pulled to continue in the journey.

— Brian B. Pinter, the director of Campus Ministry at Regis High School in New York City, studies Bible at the General Theological Seminary. He and his family are members of Christ the Savior Melkite Greek Catholic Church.

The first fruits of a new garden, Easter Day (B) – 2012

April 8, 2012

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

Mary Magdalene is lost in the grief following her rabbi, Jesus’, death. Then there is the shock of finding the tomb empty. She runs to get Peter and the Beloved Disciple, who see the tomb and return home. Mary remains. She is weeping inconsolably when angels ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” In her deep loss she finds the words,They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Then she turns and sees him, Jesus. He is standing in front of her, resurrected from the dead, never to die again. Mary is not flooded with joy. She is still lost in her grief. She doesn’t know that this is Jesus. She supposes that this man is the gardener.


Could Mary Magdalene have been more wrong? There are no stories of Jesus ever tending a garden. Once his ministry began, Jesus was never in one place long enough to plant and raise crops. He said in both Matthew and Luke, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but I, the Son of Man, have no home of my own, not even a place to lay my head.”

When Jesus did tell stories of gardening, they were not exactly examples of wisdom from a master gardener. After all, Jesus told of a man sowing seed who did so by casting the seed broadly, so that he wasted seed on rocky soil, thorn-covered ground, and even the path through the garden. He was a wasteful gardener, and Jesus seems fine with what any careful sower would consider a misuse of the seeds.

Another time he told of a man who planted good seed only to have someone else come and plant weeds among his plants. When he is asked whether he wants the garden weeded, he says no. He prefers to let the weeds grow along with the good crop; they’ll sort the weeding out at harvest time.

Good gardeners weed their gardens all through the growing season. Could Jesus have been a gardener without knowing this? Obviously Jesus uses his gardening analogies to make points that have nothing to do with tending plants. In the process, he seems unconcerned about using farming analogies in a way that shows he knows how to garden.

But Mary’s confusion is short lived. Once Mary hears Jesus call her name, she recognizes Jesus for who he is and calls him Rabbouni, which means “my teacher.” Now this was fitting, for Jesus had not given gardening advice, but he had been a gifted teacher who used stories from everyday life to teach the people.

It was a simple case of mistaken identity. She thought the man in the garden was a gardener, but it turned out to be Jesus, her teacher. Yet, before we move on too quickly, we do well to recognize that this was no small detail. Why do we know about this brief case of mistaken identity? The only one in the garden with Jesus was Mary Magdalene. She thought this momentary lapse was worth retelling, and John felt it had to be shared in his gospel. There was something to this mistaken identity worth holding on to. On reflection, Mary had Jesus’ identity more closely aligned to the Truth when she thought he was the gardener, and missed a deeper way of seeing who Jesus was and is when she called him “my teacher.”

God had always been a gardener. The Book of Genesis tells us, “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he placed the man he had created.”

And John’s gospel tells us that on the night before he died, Jesus told his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” He said this in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before his arrest. Then in John 19 we are told, “The place of crucifixion was near a garden, where there was a new tomb, never used before.”

This is a second garden, one that, theologically, takes the place of Eden. For in John 12, Jesus had said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” and it is Jesus’ earthly life, his mortal remains, which are laid to rest in this garden. Jesus dies and is resurrected, and so bears much fruit in defeating death itself.

With this in mind, look again at what our gospel reading reveals. Jesus’ whole life and ministry were part of a project undertaken by God to help humanity find its way back into the Garden of Eden. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the final stages in his defeat of death itself. The second person of the Trinity willingly offered his life for the sins of the world. Now through faith in Jesus, all can regain their original innocence and make their way back into the Kingdom of God, back into the garden. And now at the culmination of this long project, working its way through all human history, Mary Magdalene sees Jesus as the gardener. And in this, she is the most right.

Jesus was not simply a teacher. He didn’t come to teach lessons to prepare you for a test. Jesus came to work the soil in his father’s garden, to help spark spiritual growth in the depths of your soul.

Jesus was the Good Gardener who came not to judge the world. He didn’t come to separate the wheat from the chaff. Jesus came to save the world, to work the hard soil in the human heart. Jesus came to give us living water so that we could grow, blossom, and bear much fruit. This is why the mistaken identity was so memorable. Jesus, the one sent to tend God’s garden, was mistaken for a gardener. He wasn’t a teacher who was once mistaken for a gardener, but a gardener who was frequently mistaken to merely be a teacher.

If you leave this Easter and think Jesus was simply a great teacher, then you will have missed the point of this great feast day of the church. For on this day we gather not to remember something Jesus taught. We are gathered today to remember that God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruits of a new creation, a new garden.

Leave instead challenged to think of Jesus as more than a teacher. He did not give us “Seven Keys to Spiritual Riches” or “Ten Laws for a Successful Life” or any other simplistic teaching. Jesus came “to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us” to God. He came to offer himself, “a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”

When in disobedience and sin, we humans turned our backs on God, Jesus entered into the chaos we created and planted the garden anew, planting his Word in our hearts.

Within each of us is some stony soil. Within each of us there are weeds. We see this too in the disciples who Jesus knew and loved and taught. They lived alongside him seeing with their own eyes God with us. Yet, each of them fell short of the glory of God. On the night of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane most of his followers fled and none stood alongside him in his trial. None were arrested with him or crucified alongside their rabbi. The grace of God is shown clearly as Jesus appears to the disciples in a locked room. They are gathered in fear. Jesus offers peace.

Yes, he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, but Jesus is also the Good Gardener who never gives up on the plant, tending it back to life and helping it bear fruit. Jesus came to offer the loving care that a gardener gives to that beloved prize-winning plant that is the centerpiece of the garden. That plant is you. And the story of this Easter is that the gardener did all he did in order for you to have life and have it abundantly.


— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia.

Then God Said, “Let It Be Messy”

A.J. Swoboda's Messy takes a humorous look at creation as a work-in-progress

Messy: God Likes It That Way. A.J. Swoboda. Kregel Publications, 2012. 184 pp.

I once thought that being a Christian meant having all the answers, with all of my proverbial ducks in a row, all neat and orderly-like. Then “life” happened, and it was anything but tidy. Downright “messy” would be a better description. These days I find myself looking for God in the mess, rather than asking God to wave some magic wand and, voila, make it all disappear.

Which is precisely the point, according to Portland, Oregon-based pastor and professor A.J. Swoboda, in Messy: God Likes It That Way. A mix of the free-wheeling conversationalism of a Rob Bell and the endearing candor of an Anne Lamott, Messy is Swoboda’s first book. I hope it is not his last.

Swoboda’s refreshing honesty about the Christian life comes salted with some downright funny anecdotes and a collection of truly clever one-liners. These had me giggling and pausing to think with almost every page. How is this for a one-liner, for example? “Religion is the Botox of resurrection.” Or “being a follower of Jesus and not loving the unlikeable is on par with eating a Big Mac while watching The Biggest Loser.” Or “trust is what God resurrects when our security dies.”

In an unsystematic (messy, really), post-modern way, Swoboda succeeds in hoeing some well-trodden theological territory, from church and prayer to sex and suffering – all with the result of gently and humorously opening up some new contemplative spaces for his reader.

I, in turn, am left wishing to dwell longer in these pockets of freshly tilled earth. Swoboda’s reflections on God’s intentionally unkempt act of creation, and later, on the nature of human sin, leave me asking how the “mess” that God creates differs from the mess we human beings make, and how we are to distinguish these two – or for that matter, if we are in the first place.

Then there are the implications of Swoboda’s understanding of church and community. If you are looking for a self-help manual for how to grow your church or craft a vision statement, you will be disappointed. Swoboda instead is quick to let out the poorly kept yet nonetheless sacred secret that Christians are as much of a mess as anyone else – because they are human beings. I applaud him for it.

If we “idealize” church, Swoboda writes, we also “idolize” it. In this context of “church” as a collection of deeply flawed human beings, the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ is also incredibly hard: insofar as it must be shared and tried on for size within a community of other followers of Jesus, it requires us to assume that we will be wounded by belonging to the church. Forgiveness of those who have hurt us is our witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Swoboda stops short of teasing out the implications of this ecclesiology for how we very imperfect followers of Jesus might approach the challenge of God’s mission, (laid out, for instance, in the book of Acts, when Jesus dispatches his followers into the far corners of the earth with the command to “make disciples” of the nations). The image that comes to mind is an odd mix of Keystone Kops and “Mission Impossible.” This inquiring mind wants to know more.

It would seem, too, that the mess that God blesses and deems good is a function of being in the middle of the gospel story, in the in-betweenness of the “now and not yet” of the in-breaking kingdom of God. In other words, the mess is to a certain degree only provisionally good, because of an ending that we can be assured gives meaning and order to the preceding mess.

This has me wondering about just how much God really does in fact like messiness in the first place.

— Kristina Robb-Dover is a writer and minister. Her first book, Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls, she hopes will one day be published. In the meantime, you can find her musing at the intersection between life and God here:

The Greatest Show on Earth, Easter Vigil (A,B,C) – 2012

April 7, 2012

(Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13; Genesis 22:1-18; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Isaiah 55:1-11; Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4; Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6; Ezekiel 36:24-28; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Romans 6:3-11; Mark 16:1-8)

[NOTE: At least two of the Old Testament lessons are read, one of which is always the lesson from Exodus. Readers, please omit any paragraph, 9-19, that does not relate to a lesson read at your Vigil service.]

Welcome to the circus! Yes, that’s what I said: welcome to the circus. Tonight this place of worship becomes the big top, the circus, the greatest show on earth.

For consider: What makes a circus? According to theologian and attorney William Stringfellow, the circus is a parable of God’s purpose, because in it “human beings are represented as freed from consignment to death.”

This freedom from consignment to death is represented at the circus in many suspenseful, delightful ways:

One person walks a wire fifty feet above the ground.
Another stands upside down on a forefinger.
Another juggles a dozen disparate balls simultaneously.
Another hangs in the air by the heels.
One upholds twelve in a human pyramid.
Another is shot from a cannon.

In each case, according to Stringfellow, the circus performer is presented as “emancipated from frailty and inhibition, exhilarant, militant, transcendent over death – neither confined nor conformed by the fear of death anymore.”

The circus performer is presented as someone who has moved out beyond the shadow of death. The ringmaster loudly heralds these events as what they are: DEATH-DEFYING! The power of death is exposed by the performer, and it is transcended. This is the fun, the joy of the circus.

The Old Testament readings we heard tonight function in the same way. They represent people as freed from consignment to death.

Let us consider briefly each of these passages in turn.

The first one, the story of creation, which opens the Bible, features a new universe replete with life, summoned out of nothing by the commands of God. This stunning array of living creatures constitute a wholesale defiance of death.

When the earth is covered by the waters of a flood, humans and animals enough for a new beginning, travel safely in Noah’s ark until dry ground becomes visible. Then God establishes a rainbow covenant with creation, promising not to flood the earth again and not to despair of human sin.

The Lord then alternately commands and forbids the sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of his father. The divine voice interrupts at the last moment, with the audience on the edge of their seats. Any justification for human sacrifice disappears. Isaac is not consigned to destruction; instead, the Lord provides.

In the Exodus story, the Lord leads his people out from the land of bondage and toward a new land of freedom. At the Red Sea an unexpected deliverance occurs, this time of an entire nation, a mass victory over the powers of death.

Lines from the Book of Isaiah promise abundant food and drink, and all for free! There will be no empty, bitter harvest, but the divine Word will bear fruit. The seed yields the desired crop in abundance, the hungry receive a generous welcome, yet again life prevails against death.

The Book of Baruch summons us to leave the abode of despair, to seek instead the place where wisdom dwells. God’s promise – and our hope – is that all who cling to wisdom will live. We walk toward wisdom’s light; thus we forsake death.

Persist in listening, my friends! Still the circus continues, one act after another. The show must go on, this defiance of death!

Lady Wisdom takes her stand in public places, where she calls on the simple-minded to learn prudence. She freely endows with wealth all who love her; she beckons everyone, even the senseless, to take their places at her feasting table. “Eat my bread, drink my wine,” she invites us. Lay aside immaturity, that you may not die, but live.

We hear of God’s people summoned home again from every place of exile. They will undergo radical surgery: in place of stone hearts they will receive hearts of vital, feeling flesh. On their ancestral lands they will live, truly live.

The prophet Ezekiel is brought by God’s Spirit to a valley full of dry bones, the whole house of Israel. Told to prophesy to the bones, he watches as bodies are reconstituted, reanimated, made alive and breathing once again. The Lord promises to open graves, bring his people home, and place them alive again upon their own soil.

Rejoicing with voice and movement, Zephaniah demands that Jerusalem shout, dance the divine victory, trust the promises of God. The Lord himself appears on the scene, chief carouser at the wedding banquet of life, who defies death by pure celebration.

These readings leave us overwhelmed. We experience wonder and delight. This wonder and delight is sublime. Through these passages, these instances where death is defied, we acquire a new way of seeing. Our eyes are opened.

And what is it we see? Truly, the greatest show on earth: God’s kingdom, God’s reign manifest among us. When we look wide-eyed, with this new vision, what we see is death dying among us that life may reign, life at its most abundant – and then some. Tonight’s circus is sublime, for when we gaze with the eyes of faith, we see not only divine promise, but its irresistible fulfillment.

John Dear, Christian pacifist and author, tells of a class of teenagers in a remote parish in New Mexico. He asked them about the kingdom of God presented in the gospels. One student impatiently responded, “The kingdom of God is life.”

So the circus is where death-defying deeds occur, where “humans are represented as freed from consignment to death.”

And the Easter Vigil is a circus, where through scripture readings we encounter death-defying deeds, a circus put on by the God of life, life simple, abundant, unending.

But something more must be said about tonight’s performance. This is a strange circus indeed, for the Easter Vigil is a circus with no audience. There are only performers.

Everyone is invited to step into the center ring and take a turn at the defiance of death. We are invited into a playfulness that turns the world upside down.

Jesus is already there, making light of the disgrace that comes from the cross. He defies death and leaves behind an empty tomb, which shocks both friend and foe. Jesus addresses the stands, inviting us, one and all, out of death’s dark shadow, out of its deep valley, and into the glare of the circus spotlight.

The death-defying deeds we perform are spectacular, ordinary decisions on behalf of faith and hope and love. These deeds done in obedience to our covenant of baptism are threatening, not simply because they involve risk, but because our performance of them empowered by the Holy Spirit threatens with resurrection every moment in which we exist, whatever the place and circumstance and relationship where we find ourselves.

The tomb is empty. The angel speaks the message. The women run, their hearts pounding. They were accustomed to a world where death is in control. But they have instantly overdosed on a new and exhilarating freedom. Jesus is alive; he goes ahead into Galilee. The final cosmic joke is this: Death has died.

Have you ever wanted to run away and join the circus? By faith you have done so already.

Easter means that the circus comes true, in our lives and every life, now and forever.

To be a Christian means coming under the big top and entering the center ring.

A Christian ridicules death by living a life of delightful defiance. Let us laugh in the face of death, for Easter is a feast of defiance, the hope of the circus parable made real forever.

Enter the cage with lions and tigers. Dance along the high wire. Climb into the cannon. The show is life, the circus master is Jesus alive again, and the show must go on!


— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2003).


Our hearts are broken but not destroyed, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2012

April 6, 2012

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9John 18:1-19:42

[Note to the reader: This sermon is intended as a meditation to be read after the Passion Gospel. It should be read with pauses for reflection where indicated.]

For some this is just another Friday. Fifty years ago in much of the country banks were closed from noon to three o’clock; and many businesses also closed. Now, except for a nod from the Stock Exchange, which is closed, and most public school systems, which begin a long Easter weekend, everything else goes on as usual.

Was it that different the day Christ was crucified? In the city, were there not bargains to be made, tasks to be done before the Jewish Sabbath? Other than a rag-tag group of people following a man with a cross, escorted by a Roman cohort, there was little to call attention to what was happening. No one outside of Jerusalem would have known anything about the day’s events.

So, those of us who have come to ponder the crucifixion and its meaning for us are always a very few. And that is how God seems to work in the world. Oh, there are places where whole villages and towns observe this day with great solemnity, but not in the places where most of us live.

Whether you are in a major city or a rural area, you will see this today – life going on, seemingly without people taking time to notice. As the first chapter of Lamentations asks, “Is it nothing to you who pass by?” [pause]

For those of us who have come to the foot of the cross today, it is something. There is a depth to this day, a profound power in its quiet solemnity. There is strong emotion, a sense of meaning difficult to capture in words. It is a profound power found in the weakness of suffering. It is a contradiction, a scandal, and yet …

When our immortal souls meet the Risen Lord, we will know him because of this day. We will know him because of his suffering the worst of pain and shame we can imagine. We will know him because we too sit with those who suffer, we give a cup of cold water to stranger, or feed someone who is hungry. That is what is “good” about Good Friday.

Today we will stand at the cross for others who cannot be here. We will stand here for those who cannot begin to fathom this day, for those whose own pain keeps them from being here. We will stand at the cross for those who do not know Jesus, and those who openly scorn him. We will stand at the cross for those who have been exploited by others and for their exploiters.

We will stand at the cross for those who think life is an opportunity to get all one can. We stand at the cross for those who are in prison for their crimes, for those who fight on the field of battle, for those who are tormented by memories of war and terror. We will stand at the cross for those who are dying at this moment.

We will stand at the cross for those who cannot pray, for those who no longer believe, and for those who have lost all hope of salvation.

We will kneel at the cross for ourselves and for the sins of the whole world. And as it says in the Book of Common Prayer, we will pray that Jesus will indeed set his passion, cross, and death between his judgment and our souls.

In the silence of this day we will feel the emptiness of God dying, and we will experience something of what it is like to be without God in our lives – the light gone out, and the encroaching darkness coming to replace it. [pause]

The Liturgy of Good Friday takes us to this place. The image of the suffering servant, the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” at the beginning of Psalm 22, and the reading of the Passion according to John – these things strip our minds of any trivialities. They are stark in their portrayal of a suffering God, and sparse yet full of meaning in their depictions.

Every year in the small town of Lindsborg, Kansas, the Bethany College Oratorio Society performs Handel’s “The Messiah” on Palm Sunday and Easter. On Good Friday evening they perform J.S. Bach’s “St Matthew Passion.” Many of the singers in the chorus and musicians in the orchestra are veterans of dozens of performances. Usually performances of “The Messiah” are sold out, but there is a consistently large audience for Good Friday as well. One long-time singer stepped down from the risers to a new string player after the Bach was finished and said, “You’re new this year, so you’re probably like me when I started singing years ago. You love the Handel and puzzle over the Bach. But after thirty-five years I can say it’s the ‘Passion’ that moves me the most.”

Christ’s Passion, his suffering and death, move us as well. Our hearts are broken but not destroyed; our sins are purged by this day, our business set aside, relegated to non-important. There is no need to transact business because hallowing this day is our business. It leaves us profoundly silent. And as the liturgy concludes and we return to our homes, or our work, our lives are deeply transformed. We know now that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son … that all should have eternal life.” [pause]

On this day we take time to meet at the foot of the cross. There are no words that can describe our hearts, there are no sorrows that can embrace Jesus’ sorrows. The shadows, the darkness of that day are what embrace us. On the day God dies for us, we die to self, and there is room in our broken and contrite hearts for the crucified God to enter them and heal them. Now that we have died with Christ, let the healing begin. O Savior of the world, who by thy cross and precious blood hast redeemed us: Save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee. Amen.


— Ben Helmer is a priest in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He and his wife were orchestra musicians with the Bethany Oratorio Society while they lived in Kansas.

I Give You a New Commandment, That You Love One Another, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2012

April 5, 2012

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Today is Maundy Thursday, the last Thursday of our annual Lenten observance.

The word “Maundy” does not have any meaning in and of itself. It is one of those exotic Episcopal or Anglican terms we sooner or later all become familiar with in our church. Scholars are not even sure of the word’s origin, though most now believe it to be a Middle English corruption of the Latin word mandatum – “commandment” – which appears in an ancient antiphon assigned for this day: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

This antiphon, taken of course from today’s gospel account, is an apt summary of what this day is about. And Jesus’ commandment to love is as much a new commandment today as it was in his own time. The command to love is, after all, always new – as is love itself. And the lesson of this day, Maundy Thursday, applies equally well to last Thursday and next Thursday and to all the Thursdays and other days yet to come. It is a lesson or mandate we, as followers of Christ, dare not forget.

Many Episcopalians today remember Maundy Thursday as the day when clergy and parishioners wash one another’s feet at church, recalling the ritual recounted in today’s gospel narrative when our Lord washes the feet of his disciples as a powerful example of love and servanthood. While contemporary Christians may be a bit squeamish about the rite, their discomfort is nothing compared to that of Peter and perhaps the other disciples as well. “You will never wash my feet,” Peter protests to Jesus.

Masters after all – as Peter well knows – most emphatically do not wash the feet of their disciples. It simply is not done. Yet Jesus surely does it. And eventually even Peter catches on, proclaiming, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” He has learned, in his own larger-than-life way, the lesson of Maundy Thursday, the new commandment of love.

After washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus returns to table and quietly asks his disciples, “Do you know what I have done to you?” He answers his own question. “I have set you an example,” he explains. It is an example of profound respect and caring for the other. And what he does for his disciples, he does for us too. He sets us an example. He shows us how things are to be done among his followers even to this day.

An example is always transformative. It commands our attention and changes us whether we want it to or not. We cannot witness another’s example of compassion and love without ourselves being challenged and changed by it. Our Lord does more than wipe the dust from his disciples’ feet. He alters their perception and awareness of human reality itself. He makes them conscious of others and their needs in a new way, which goes far beyond practical hospitality and kindliness.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

We, along with the disciples, can now no longer be unaware or ignorant of the unmistakable mandate given us to “love one another.” We cannot say we did not understand. We cannot say: If Jesus had only been a little clearer. Our actions – to the extent that they do not conform to Jesus’ example – betray us as surely as Judas’ kiss betrayed our Lord himself. The integrity of our faith is measured not by words alone but by the example of our own deeds.

Jesus gives us another “new” commandment that last night with his disciples before the cross, although it is oddly missing from the Gospel of John. Paul tells us about it in our second reading – a passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians. In what is arguably the earliest extant retelling of the Last Supper story, Paul hands on to us what he himself “received from the Lord.” After offering the disciples the bread and wine transformed to his body and blood, Jesus tells them to “do this in remembrance of me.”

He commands them, in other words, to remember.

The ancient words of the Book of Common Prayer echo our Lord’s words. “Take and eat,” declares priest or Eucharistic minister in our Rite One service, “in remembrance that Christ died for thee.” The Eucharistic bread and wine become for us the food of recollection – the provisions that remind us of Christ’s example and commandment. And Christ’s death on the cross, remembered and experienced in the Eucharist, gives us a share in the life to come – where he has gone but we cannot yet come.

But if, in the meantime, we feed only ourselves, we will never truly be nourished. We will always hunger for more and, ironically, starve to death in the midst of spiritual plenty. This is what the Lord’s example has done to us. The Eucharist itself demands of us not only that we remember, but also that we share and serve.

God does not forget us, his people. As we recall this Maundy Thursday what Christ has done for us, so too the Lord “remembers” forward the kingdom to come – and our heritage in it.

And in that kingdom, the Eucharistic meal we share this day is not the Last Supper but the First.


— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a chaplaincy of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” St. Margaret’s Facebook page at

Thy will be done, Palm Sunday (B) – 2012

April 1, 2012

By Katerina K. Whitley

(Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47) 

What words can one utter after the reading of this gospel? The most dramatic events in all creation are recounted by Mark in his customary simplicity and minimal use of words, but both the telling and the hearing break the heart. We ask: How can people be so cruel? How could the disciples have been so blind? We cringe at the hypocrisy of the high priests of the time. We are repelled by the fickle crowd. We are shocked, astounded, and then we come to our senses and realize that had we been present we probably would have acted as they did.

Just a moment, you will say. Yes, we are surrounded by hypocrisy and meanness of heart and misery of spirit, but at least we are not dealing with the Son of God. They did not know who he was.

Most of the time, we act as if we don’t know who he is. All the foibles, sins, and vices presented here in such an understated manner persist in our society and plague our lives also.

Friendship and love are gifts of immeasurable value. The pain in Jesus when he speaks the words “one of you will betray me,” cuts us to the core. Betrayal of friendship is bitter and affects both the betrayer and the betrayed. Judas must have had good qualities when Jesus chose him. It was probably the sin of pride that brought him to the horrible act portrayed in this gospel. Even more so, betrayal of love leaves wounds that never quite heal. Poor Peter. How sure he was of his love for his friend and teacher and how bitterly he denied him during the course of this terrible night. After the resurrection, Jesus will spend precious hours teaching Peter about the meaning of love and forgiveness, and Peter will spend the rest of his life proving to himself that indeed his love and loyalty are beyond reproach. Cowardice will no longer be a part of his personality.

In all this heartbreak, the abandonment of the beloved in the hour of his greatest need hurts the most. “Watch and pray with me,” Jesus asks his closest friends. Nothing in the gospels shows as poignantly that Jesus, like each one of us, needs his friends as he walks through the valley of death and agony. We are not meant to go through the dreadful experience of death all alone. A loved one who remains with us to the end, a friend who continues to pray fervently even when all hope is extinguished, a hospice nurse who remains to sustain the family, all these offer a service that Jesus asked of his disciples but did not receive. Again, his full humanity with all its accompanying terror of abandonment is revealed in the loneliness of the Garden of Gethsemane, and before such agony we remain speechless. “Let this cup pass from me,” and the answer is No.

And we who pray for healing, for deliverance, for reprieve from pain, for a miracle even, go back to this painful story and learn from Jesus to say, “Thy will be done.”

Outside the circle of love and friendship, the fickleness of the crowd surprises us. A few days before, they were clamoring for him because he had fed them with both bread and stories, and he had healed their sick. Now they are appalled by his weakness and, together with the mob, cry out for his blood. We like for our leaders to be invincible. Even in the church we have too little patience for any weakness we see in others, especially our clergy. We are too easily swayed and seduced by gossip, innuendo, and all the lies that slip through the airwaves. But we in the church are asked to remain faithful, careful, and not to be judgmental. Let us not be arrogant in thinking that we would have acted with more decorum and loyalty as Palm Sunday ends and the fear slips through.

Palm Sunday, so filled with triumph and hope, is already forgotten. The darkness of the events of Holy Week is beginning to cast its shadow over us all. In remembering the events of this crucial week in the long unfolding of humanity’s history, we are filled with sorrow and then with gratitude. We will not be abandoned to remain in the darkness. The light will break forth again after the fear and the loneliness of that horrible death in Golgotha. We will be pulled out of the abyss. And all because Jesus accepted the will of his Father even unto death and, remembering all of us in the hour of his death, he prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

In this forgiveness we trust as we continue moving toward the light.


— Katerina Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows (Morehouse, 2003) among other books of Biblical monologues. She lives and writes in Boone, North Carolina.