Still confused about why Easter's so dang early this year? Unable to believe that spring technically has already arrived?
I thought I understood the whole dating of Easter, until I picked up Mapping Time, in an effort to understand why Passover is sometimes on a different timeline. Well! I guess I didn't know as much as I thought I did.
There are nearly 30 fine print pages on the dating of Easter and its fraught history, containing sentences like:
The 19-year Metonic cycle contains 12 common years each consisting of 12 months or lunations and seven embolismic years each containing 13 lunations.
In any case, I know understand -- sort of -- why Passover and Easter are sometimes nearly a month apart. The best story of the book:
Before the days of Google, an Englishman was wondering when Easter would occur the following year. Knowing that Easter depended on both the equinox and the lunar cycle, he contacted the obvious experts --astronomers at the Royal Observatory. The astronomers took his call and said they'd get back to him. They did -- after consulting the Book of Common Prayer.
Three good reasons to know that Easter is a season lasting 50 days:
1. When Easter morning looks like this outside, you can still know that spring will appear before the season is over.
2. When the "Youth Easter breakfast" gets moved into May, you can still argue that it is still an Easter breakfast
3. When the Easter bunny doesn't get around to your house until Easter Tuesday, your children can still fully enjoy their chocolate as an Easter treat (and the Easter bunny can take full advantage of those 50% off specials).
Make no mistake, I'm a church geek. Long before I was ordained I went to every Holy Week service available. Easter Vigil was not part of my childhood church life, but once I discovered it as an adult, it became indispensable. Vigil is wonderful for a lot of reasons. It engages all the senses and both the sacraments. It moves one physically from a womb-like darkness to the bright loudness of resurrection joy. It rehearses some of the most dramatic stories of the Old Testament, including my all-time favorite, the farcical tale of Shadrach Meschach and Abednego. (Try reading it some time with the rhythms of Dr. Seuss.) I've wished for years that we could get more people engaged in this service, but, of course, it's usually just church geeks like myself who show up. This year, however, Easter's early arrival gave us an opportunity to draw in our Sunday School families in a new way. Hardly anyone was on spring break yet, so every class was given a story to tell, and no one was exempt since it was just part of the Sunday School time during Lent. And, in deference to small children, we started at 6 and kept the service short. We had 133 people there on Saturday night -- easily three times our average. A good Easter Vigil is really all the Easter I need. (I made a point of telling families that Saturday night "counted" as Easter church). I have long admired the Holy Week practice of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. Easter Vigil is unquestionably the year's highlight, and the next morning there is no liturgy -- only a community picnic. (They also make the eminently practical move of having "Maundy Tuesday," partly to spread out the liturgical commitments of the week.) After gathering with the most involved members of the community around the most central part of our faith for a few hours at Vigil, Easter morning often feels almost a letdown to me. Sure, there are 500 people through the doors, but many of them are people I don't see very often the rest of the year. It's hard not to be cynical about the ratio of energy put out to community return. I'd much rather have a picnic with the folks who just helped make Holy Week happen. But, of course, the hospitality of Easter morning is undeniably a resurrection practice -- maybe an indispensable one. All those people who only show up two or three times a year are not going to come to Easter Vigil. They come Easter morning, and the Gospel is for them, even if they do see it as an obligation to be done before brunch. In fact, one could argue that Jesus' resurrection appearances focus on those whose faith is most at risk -- Thomas and his doubts, Peter after his denials, and the two leaving the disciples in Jerusalem and heading to Emmaus. Jesus spends his limited post-resurrection time on them. It makes sense for the church to do the same.
I hope, hope, hope that Americans either watch or read the speech Obama gave today about Jeremiah Wright, his relationship with his pastor and, more importantly, race in America. When is the last time we heard a politician speak with such nuance about race in this country? When is the last time we heard a politician speak so honestly about the complicated relationships we all have with people in their lives?
Of course, as a pastor, I am bemused by how much press some singular remarks from the pulpit have gotten. When is the last time any words from the puplit came under such national scrutiny? How many white pulpits have been held up to the same light? I don't know how anyone could argue there isn't a double standard at work here. Obama rightly points out that he has a complex and long-standing relationship with Rev. Wright, one of deep respect mixed with honest disagreement. Has anyone examined, say, the remarks of McCain's military buddies, and held him accountable for them?
More importantly, though, Obama has articulated the truth about racism in its power to wound both white and black folk in this country. I am so grateful to hear such things said from a national platform. Andrew Sullivan's remarks sum it up:
And it was a reflection of faith - deep, hopeful, transcending faith in the promises of the Gospels. And it was about America - its unique promise, its historic purpose, and our duty to take up the burden to perfect this union - today, in our time, in our way.
One of our favorite picture books, Zen Shorts,
offers a zen master in the form of a panda bear named Stillwater. He befriends three children and
tells each one an appropriate Zen tale as they deal with questions of fate and forgiveness. Jon Muth’s watercolors and ink drawings are a delight.
The story of the “Farmer’s Luck” has been running through my
head as I contemplate Good Friday coming up. In this tale, a series of events
befall a farmer, and after each one, his neighbors respond with sympathy or
“What good luck!” they say when wild horses appear on his
“Maybe,” he replies.
“What horrible luck!” they murmur when his son breaks his
leg trying to ride one of said horses.
“Maybe” the farmer
“What good luck!”
they say, as the army shows up to conscript young men into war, and the son
with the broken leg remains free.
“Maybe,” the farmer
replies, and Muth’s lovely ink illustration shows the son ensconced in a La-Z-Boy in front
of the TV.
The story captures for me the uncertainty that the cross
casts across all our assessments of what is really going on in the world. As
far as I know, the English language is the only one that calls this Friday “Good.” In German, French and Spanish it is simply called "holy."
To me, “holy” seems a better fit with the mystery that is
the cross. Is it “good” that Jesus died? Maybe. Yes, we can say, God
accomplished our salvation on the cross. But no, to call such torture and
injustice ‘good’ is a bit of a stretch.
As a lens for looking at our own suffering, the cross puts a
great big “maybe” on all those things we simply declare bad, unfortunate,
outside the pale. If God can be at work on the cross, then maybe even those
moments when God seems most distant to us are not what they appear. Maybe –
maybe – they are where God is at work most profoundly, most powerfully.
This morning our congregation celebrated Palm Sunday with singing from our smaller ones and the passion reading done by some of our high school youth. It felt good not only to have their involvement in the liturgy, but to have their particular voices in the midst of this cycle which can feel so familiar to those of us who are not so young. Here it is the fifth year of the war, and we are still praying for peace. Here it is, Holy Week again, and the papers are still full of scandals. Here it is, another election year, and we know that our hopes ultimately cannot rest in political leaders. But somehow these young voices do bring something new, something hopeful which is not like all the other years.
I'm not preaching Easter this year -- just Good Friday. So my working kernel of thought for the week is this: the story of Jesus' passion shows us how quickly we want to identify with the powerful, and how quickly that desire makes us betray Jesus. The story doesn't give us many alternatives: either we call for Jesus' crucifixion, or we are with him in suffering and death. Either we shout out "save yourself!" or we humbly suffer on our own cross and say, "Jesus remember me." Either we stand by a condemned man and take his own mother into our care, or we deny that we ever knew him at all.
I'd like to think there is more middle ground, that there can be more innocent bystanders. But the Gospel stories don't really offer us that kind of alternative. The cross forces us to look at our world and see where Jesus really is -- suffering, powerless, alone -- and decide if we will be with him.
I've found myself listening -- more though osmosis than intent -- to the flood of media coverage about Eliot Spitzer this week. It's fascinating to see how the story is covered, with a peculiar mix of American moralism, schadenfreude and gender bias. I have no comprehensive theory, but a few thoughts:
NPR interviews an expert on sexual misbehavior and public figures. Of course, he brings up former President Clinton, among other people. The NPR commentator refuses the premise, because what Spitzer did "was clearly illegal." The expert insists he's not talking about legality, but about what causes men to act out sexually period. . .is that so hard to comprehend?
We had about one day of coverage about Spitzer himself, followed by three solid days about his wife, and political wives in general, and what is going through their heads when they "stand by their man." I know the curiosity is natural, and of course much of it comes out of sympathy for what such a spouse is going through. But what strikes me about most of the speculation is how arrogant we are to assume we know what the logical or correct response is in such a situation. All those people saying "I would never. . . " ought to pipe down. They have no idea what they would actually do. They can't know.
Lots of editorials have appeared about how there was evidence Spitzer was this "kind of person" after all. Somehow Americans have a hard time accepting that even "good people" can f*** up royally. In fact, some psychologists would argue that it is people with the most perfect public images that are most likely to suffer such a fall. But you don't need psychology to explain this. It's called sin. People do dumb things that wound the ones they love and betray the trust others place in them. Sometimes they even do these things in calculated ways. It happens.