It’s snowing tonight, fat flakes that obscure vision, that matched the chanting on my local NPR station (something I’d not heard on NPR before) as I came back from town. The lights were on in the houses that I drove by, some had curtains open and so I could see the TV, the lamps and comfortable furnishings, but in snow like this, in the dark, listening to men chant, you sort of feel like you are the only one on the world.
This weekend I was away at school, and my friends and I accosted (this is the correct word, I assure you) a priest. We wanted to know what sort of Orthodox he was. He was with a bishop, and another priest and this huge group of stunning children. They were beautiful and exotic and well behaved. He had been loitering near the elevators and we just sort of came upon him, and so I said, can I ask you a question?
He smiled and granted permission. And then he stood in the hallway and talked to us. He told us how Genesis is a love story, how when God banished Adam and Eve it was an act of love, because he could not love them and allow them to live with their sin forever. He said the whole bible is a love story. He told us about the first resurrection, when the dead were raised and walked among the living, he swears it is right there in the New Testament, and told us we should spend more time reading our bibles.
We went to their Saturday Vespers service, held in the huge post modern brick church at our facility. The chapel is two stories tall and the light diffuses as it breaks through the stained glass windows that line the ceiling, and everything echos and was robed in purple; but these people are outside of Lent right now, they aren’t in the desert yet, but they are approaching. We listened to their beautiful children sing in what I can only imagine was Greek, we watched the bells bounce on the thurible as incense floated skyward and intersected the prismatic colored light as the sun set outside while the small choir hummed that single note and a cantor sang.
We thought we could sneak out when the church was invited to come forward and be blessed by the bishop and to venerate an icon of the Prodigal Son, we tried to do this because we didn’t want anyone to feel awkward if that blessing was not for us. But there was Father Joe, huffing down the aisle, calling us back, telling us we were welcome, waving us toward a very tall man with an imposing staff in one hand and an icon in the other. The very tall bishop addressed those assembled briefly, after he had given us all a blessing, while his small choir intoned (like he talked and they sang and it was a glorious thing to hear the music and the blessing all at once), and he told the kids that repentance was a life long act, not a one time thing, not a Sunday thing, not a liturgy thing. It was the act of turning toward God, over and over again, a journey. That is what repentance means, to turn around. It’s really hauntingly simple. Turn. Around.
I like to hear about a problem and then immediately imagine a solution, I am a fixer. I don’t take baths because they waste my time. I don’t sit down very often, I am not good at still. But I sat in this huge facility, down the hall from retired holy men, in a Catholic church and listened to a Greek Orthodox choir sing, listened to their bishop tell me to turn from sin and toward God, over and again, to turn around — I closed my eyes. I breathed. We find peace in strange places.
Our Lent, my Lent, is a place that is cold and dry. It is a place where I am thirsty and willing myself to unclasp my hands to take the offered drink. It is a place where I am not good enough, where I can’t ever be, where the wide and radical and ridiculous grace of a risen Christ seems so very far away. But I live into it, I try. I winced every time one of my classmates wished one another a Happy Easter! today, because we won’t see each other before then, but what is Lent for if we are wishing each other a Happy Easter now? What is the point? Is there meaning in it or is it something to be skipped when schedules don’t line up?
Listening to Father Joe chant was akin to entering a room with tiled walls and floors, a sunken tub steaming and fragrant. I came into the room battle weary, dusty and bruised, in heavy armor to keep out all that I cannot allow in.
The room is dim, lit with candles, and I realize that I must remove my armor. It clanks heavily to the floor and I am naked and shivering.
We talked about how we must know who we are to be ministers, how our sense of self must be solid if we are to go out into this world and not be engulfed by the pain that we must encounter and witness, the hopelessness that exists and that we must see. We talked about how hard that is, to look in the mirror and to really see, how it is the work of a lifetime, not, unfortunately, a task to be checked off the list in due course.
I will have to wade into the bath, I will have to allow the water to touch me, to lap against the things that I hate, the ways that I wish I could be different. I must rest. I must.
I must wait, watch, keep heart.
We long for the sun to rise, for the calvary to come bowling down the wide avenue on their horses to ransom the house where we are held captive.
We long for water to seep up through the sand, for the brown, dead leaves to suddenly become green and supple again, for the withered apples to suddenly become plump and red, for the organ fanfare at the Great Vigil; we long for things to be made new.
We long to be made new.
Father Joe said that there is an angel with a flaming sword who guards the Garden of Eden, he said our course, our destiny, is to get back into the garden, to return to God. And so I see us, clothed in our leaves and rags, dirty and dusty and outside and other, creeping around the walls of a great garden, searching for an unlocked door. Eden became the metaphor of the Promised Land, and we are seeking that land.
What we like to forget is that the Promised Land is over the next hill, the next dune. We forget that we must enter the wood that houses that stunning ruin of our humanity and to, somehow, make that new.
For now though, we rest when we can, even when we are forced to. We remove our armor and we float in the fragrant water. We imagine the color of the ribbons we would tie to a goat that we will send out to Azazel, the goat so be-ribboned, will carry our sins away from us, to a deity who stores them up for some unknown purpose. We imagine how the goat would look with the colors of the rainbow tied to his fur as we drive him away, how he wouldn’t understand, and we know how he feels; weighed down with the brokenness and the pain of the whole world, the failings of humanity, in a bright and colorful array, but driven out.
Moses didn’t want to be a prophet, and I wonder sometimes if Jesus felt the same way, as he grew out of boyhood, watched the tides begin to turn and realized how this thing would end. I wonder if he talked to God and thought up other ways, offered other solutions. In the end he was that goat, laden with our sin and our fear and our contempt, our disregard and our brokenness. He was the one who was covered with colored ribbons, hanging on a cross, sent to bear all that we could not to one who would store it up.
Open your drawer and choose the color of your ribbon. I am feeling my way across my patchwork cloak, I am pulling threads that sparkle and shine and adding them to the pile. Ponder, as you choose, not just the color of your sin, but the one who bears it. Ponder how we bear it for each other, how we are all called out of the room with the tiles and the bath, called back into our armor, called to battle.
When hell grasped a corpse it met God, but that is not the end of this story.
It is not.