The Divine Hours of Lent

Lent ends today; or more correctly, this is the last, full day of Lent. Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday, and tomorrow night at sunset, Lent gives way to the Triduum…to the three days that are the culmination of Lent.
Tomorrow night, Christian around the world will commemorate the Last Supper, the final Passover meal that Jesus ate with His disciples in the Upper Room. At the commencing of that meal, we are told that he removed His outer garment, took a basin of water, and then washed and dried the feet of all His disciples in sign and symbol of how they–and we–are to be with one another. Taking up his outer garment again, He sat with them at table, instructing them, counseling them, preparing them for what the next few hours were to bring.
Then, taking the bread from the table, He broke it and gave it to them, saying the words: Take, Eat. This is my body broken for you. After that, taking up the cup, He gave it to them saying: This is my blood shed for you. Drink you all of it. After that, they left together for the Garden, where He would pray until such time as the betraying Judas and the Temple guards would come looking for Him, and the events of Black Friday would at last be set in motion.
Tomorrow at sundown, Christians will gather in their churches and holy places to read those words again. Some of them will also stop and wash one another’s feet in re-enactment of what the Christ Himself did. All of them will observe the Lord’s Supper together. Then, in stark silence, those serving at the altar will clear away the vessels that have held the wine and bread. They will take such bits and pieces of consecrated bread and wine as may be left and lock them out of both sight and reach in a niche or sanctuary in the chancel wall.
They will clear away next all the cloths and fair linen that have draped the altar, bringing basins of water to wash the altar down, as people watch, many of them crying. No part of the sacred meal may be left. All trace of it must be obliterated. The altar of God’s presence is closed while all of Heaven and earth together mourn what is being recalled. Last, the priest or pastor extinguishes the sanctuary light or lamp. It will not burn again until the Easter Vigil when, just after midnight, the cry will go up: He is risen! He is risen indeed!
Between those two things–between the extinguishing of the Sanctuary lamp and the Easter cry of resurrection, there will be no music played in sacred space. There will be masses said, no weddings celebrated, no baptisms performed, no funerals conducted. The Church has lost her Lord to death, and she can neither be nor do without His sanctifying presence.
Friday, Christians will keep vigil, reading and praying both in their homes and, by rotation, in their sacred places. Many will gather with one another from noon on Friday until three o’clock in order to keep watch with Him during the last three hours of agony on the cross. By three o’clock, though, He has cried, “It is finished,” and there will no more. There will be nothing. Nothing until the midnight which heralds the coming of Easter.
I will be here in this place with you as we enter the Triduum, but I will not speak then of Lenten things. Nor will I be able to say then, as I still can today, how much I have treasured this time with you and how deeply I have appreciated your comments and e-mails and notes. It is a good thing that we should have walked Lent’s long weeks together, and I am grateful. I won’t be talking here after the Triduum and Easter Sunday, obviously, but I hope you will join me from time to time at . The commentary there, though hardly daily, concerns itself with the Sayings of Our Lord, just as the web-site’s url suggests and–most important–everyone’s contribution to the conversation can be heard and shared there.

Many long years ago–meaning well over a quarter of a century ago–I wrote a book about Lent entitled Final Sanity. It and/or pieces of it have been re-printed so many times that I don’t even have a record of where and when, except to say that it was re-published in toto by Loyola Press some three or four years ago under the title, Wisdom in the Waiting. I love that title, Wisdom in the Waiting. I can say so because it was not my idea. But I also love the phrase “Final Sanity,” because that’s what Lent really is to me.
What I want to do now is perhaps a presumption on my part. If it seems so to you, then I hope you will either forgive or just simply ignore me, as seems best to you. But for all practical purposes, today is the last day in Lent 2008 that is not more or less regimented by liturgical circumstances and considerations. And I can not bear to let it all go by without at least telling you what I thought, and still think, Lent is also about.
Imagine, if you will, that the time is the early 1980’s and the scene is The Farm In Lucy where Sam and I are raising, children, cows, and mayhem in equal proportions. Imagine, and then come along with me:
Last night there was a storm…a cold front shifting suddenly and dropping onto us with ferocity and winds that bent down the pine trees along the fence line. Sometime after I went to bed, it tore open the pasture gate; so we awoke this morning to bitter cold and a scattered herd. Two pregnant heifers in the front yard, six more in the garden eating up what was left of the turnip greens, and seven others, mostly yearlings, playing at some kind of heifer tag in the windy orchard.
The mud from last month’s snow was three inches thick. Even frozen, it came laughing up to suck off our boots. We slopped and fell and prodded swollen bellies until, ourselves covered with ooze, we fell onto the broken gate and laughed our laugh to the gray dawn skies and the startled blackbirds. We drove the last ones through finally, my son and I, and repaired the gate right enough, coming in out of the cold with feet so wet and frozen that we couldn’t feel them and with our nightclothes covered in half-thawed manure. We stank up the kitchen with the good stench of late winter and of the earth when it is resisting one last cold front with the heat of coming fertility.
Later I stood at the spigot and washed the mud from our boots and felt again, as I do every year at this season, a grief for the passing cold. Looking across the pastures to the pond below, I knew it had indeed been the last storm before the spring, and I wanted to run backward toward the early morning, towards the winds and breaking limbs of last night.
“Lenzin” our German ancestors used to call this season, and since then we have called it “Lent.” It is a time when Christians decorate stone churches with the sea’s color and wrap their priests in the mollusk’s purple. It was once a time when all things passed through the natural depression of seclusion, short food supplies, and inactivity, a time when body and land both rested. It is still, in the country, a final sanity before the absurd wastefulness of spring.
Each year at this time it is harder for me to desire butterflies and lilies, even to wish for resurrection. Each year I come a little closer to needing the dullness of the sky and the rarity of a single redheaded woodpecker knocking for grubs in my pine bark. Each year also I come a little closer to the single-mindedness of the drake who, muddy underside showing, waddles now across the ice to the cold center water to wash himself for his mate, all in the hope of ducklings later on.
Through the thin, sharp air I can hear the younger children in the barn. They are building tunnels again, making forts from the dried bales of hay. From the yapping I know that even the dogs can join in the intricacies which imagination has contrived. The five-year-old chases field mice as her brothers build. She will catch another soon and drown it in the water trough with unsullied sadism, feeling only the accomplishment that comes from having helped to keep her part of the world in balance.
In the summer, the mice will leave, going back to the fields again, and she will take to pulling everything that blooms instead, bringing them all to me indiscriminately. The tin-roofed barn will be stifling, and the forts will have all been eaten. The boys will be picking beans and complaining of the itch from the okra leaves, being themselves too hot and tired to desire anything except nightfall and bed. The drake will have a family, which he will abandon to the mate he so much desires now, and the woodpecker’s carmine head will burn to tired tan. The farm in the summer becomes like the city is all year…too much color, too much noise, too much growing, too much hurry to stave off loss and destruction, too little natural death and gentle ending, too little time for play, too little pointless imagination.
I can remember many summers now; it is the singular advantage of years that one can do so. And I remember that once summer comes, I spend it wallowing in the easiness of it; the excess of its fruits and vegetables, the companionship of its constant sounds as the hum of insects and Rototillers gives way in the evening to the croaking of the frogs and the raucousness of the katydids. I remember also that I begin early, in that green time of summer, to dread the stillness of the coming cold; to fear the weariness of winter menus, the bitterness of breaking open pond water for thirsty cattle and of packing lunches–interminable lunches–for reluctant children on their way to school.
But for right now it is Lent, and for one more snow I can luxuriate in the isolation of the cold, attend laconically to who I am and what I value and why I’m here. Religion has always kept earth time. Liturgy only gives sanction to what the heart already knows.

My father was an academic all of his adult life. He started his career as the entire faculty and administration of a tiny, rural school and ended up as the Academic Dean of East Tennessee State University, a position he held for almost two decades before his retirement. The undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral level education necessary to the leading of that kind of professional life was expensive, however, even in the early twentieth century when he was trying to obtain it.
As the fifteenth child in a family of sixteen, he had understood from the beginning that while he might expect some financial help from his family, he had best be prepared to hustle the lion’s share of the requisite funds for himself. Accordingly and by his own admission, he went looking early in life for something he could do that was both lucrative and still flexible enough to not interfere with class schedules and academic calendars. At what exact point he figured out that music was the answer, I never knew; but he did. I never knew, either, how old he was when he determined that he needed to know how to play a piano and, having so decided, managed to earn lessons for himself by yard work and fast talking, but he did.
I don’t think the result would ever have been regarded by an accomplished professor of piano as being of concert quality, which was all right. All my father wanted to do–at least originally–was play piano bar well enough to take in significant tips in the speak-easys and honky-tonks. But because Sunday was also a free day academically and because he was going to be in church anyway, he also wanted to be skilled enough to hire out as the pianist for a decent-sized church in the urban areas where universities are normally located. He succeeded in both venues, never apparently remarking, even to himself, upon the dichotomy between honky-tonk all night on Saturday and the chancel all morning on Sunday. What mattered to him was that it worked and allowed him the funds with which to do his real work.
Over the years, of course, he ceased to play publicly. First, in the bars, for reasons of reputation and professional politics. Then, in church, for as a devout Presbyterian, he wanted to worship within his own communion. And then too, as a persuaded Christian, he spent all the Sunday mornings of his full adulthood, not playing the piano, but teaching Adult Sunday School, serving as church elder, and frequently performing as the guest preacher somewhere or other. The result was that by the time I came along, all of his piano playing was for Mother and me….and then, increasingly, for me.
It broke his heart that I had no ability at all for playing or even for singing; but his heart was somewhat repaired by the fact that I loved passionately to hear him play, especially when he would play the old hymns of his earlier career and would sing the words as he played. He was a tall man–6 feet, 4 inches–and his voice was in proportion to his size. I can remember when, at about six and a half, I perceived for the first time that I could “feel” his voice as well as hear it.
But the years rolled on, and by the time I was ten or so, he had developed arthritis. I don’t think it ever pained him in the way that that disease process pains many people, but it did cripple his hands beyond any hope of music-making. He would sit at the piano, rub his hands together and then one with the other, shake them, and then try; but he would miss the notes or slur a timing or simply not be able to strike a chord powerfully enough. The loss was more painful to him than arthritis itself could ever physically have been.
Yet to the end, there was one hymn or song he would not give up. Mangled or not, less than perfectly delivered or not, he always played it, every Christmas and every Easter. He played it and he sang it and he rejoiced in it. All of Holy Week, he played it until I, tone-deaf and musically inept as I was, could even sing it with joy. It was “The Holy City” by Frederick E Weatherly and Stephen Adams.
“The Holy City” was originally written and scored by Weatherly and Adams in 1893, and one does not hear it sung much anymore, if ever. What it meant to my father’s generation, I shall never know, of course, other than to know that it was very important culturally as religiously. James Joyce, for instance, even uses it in Ulysses as well as again in another fragment, Stephen Hero. For me, its importance is my father, obviously, and the dear way of the song’s coming into me. Entering Holy Week without “The Holy City” is an impossibility for me. It’s just that simple. But there is one other reason for my re-printing it here.
Yesterday, I wrote about my great admiration for, and rejoicing delight in, N. T. Wright’s volume, Surprised by Hope. It is not lost on me, however, that the grandeur underlying the lyrics of “The Holy City” is the grandeur underlying at least part of Bishop Wright’s theology. May we all find joy in both.
Last night I lay asleeping.
There came a dream so fair.
I stood in old Jerusalem
Beside the Temple there.
I heard the children singing
And ever as they sang,
Me thought the voice of angels
From heaven in answer rang:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Lift up your gates and sing
Hosanna in the highest
Hosanna to you King!
And then me thought my dream was changed.
The streets no longer rang.
Hushed were the glad hosannas
The little children sang.
The sun grew dark with mystery,
The moon was cold and chill
As the shadow of a cross arose
Upon a lonely hill.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
Hark how the angels sing!
Hosanna in the highest!
Hosanna to your King.!
And then methought my dream was changed.
New earth there seemed to be.
I saw the Holy City beside the tideless sea.
The light of God was on its streets.
The gates were open wide,
And all who would might enter
And no one was denied.
No need of moon or stars by night
Or sun to shine by day.
It was the new Jerusalem
That would not pass away.
It was the new Jerusalem
That would not pass away.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Sing for your night is over!
Hosanna in the highest,
Hosanna forever more!
Hosanna in the highest,
Hosanna forever more!

Today is the first day of Holy Week, though actually, it’s also a bit more than that: Palm Sunday is an interruption in Lent that manages somehow to lop off the next three days of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from the rest of Lent and then leave them, in a manner of speaking, just hanging there like a dangerous cul-de-sac of distraction and lost focus. But be that as it may, the triumph that Palm Sunday re-enacts is also a powerful counter-point to what lies ahead before week’s end. Palm Sunday’s re-enacted drama of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem is for us Christians only a dress rehearsal of what will occur when the Christ returns as Lord of the New Jerusalem, of the new Heaven and Earth.
Such talk as this has not been much engaged in of late, of course. Understandably, there’s a certain squeamishness on the part of many Christians when we are forced to get down to the brass tacks of what we believe. Some–many, perhaps–of the fundamental elements of basic Christian thought are as susceptible to ridicule as they are hard to defend with logic. Moreover, we live in a christianized culture where one can function quite easily and fully without ever having to parade the defining particularities of one’s faith around for all to see. In truth, a lot of us out-right cringe at those Christians who do insist on over-much public display and parading of doctrinal positions. And then there is always the unfortunate fact that talk of end-times and second comings has been conducted, for the last forty years in this country anyway, not with dignity and prayer among the faithful so much as in popular books best known for their horrors and their ability to chill and thrill.
I’m not sure of the rules of blogging…or even if there are any operative rules at all. But I am reasonably sure that most folks who bother to read a blog would prefer for it to contain content itself rather than refer to content that is located elsewhere. By and large, I think that’s a pretty good and fair principle, if not a rule; so I try to adhere to it…but just not today. Today I want to talk about content to be found off-site and elsewhere. Today I want to talk about a book.
Talking about books is what I used to do for a living, more or less. It is certainly something I still do a lot of in conversation and lectures. But rarely, if ever, in all these many years of talking and writing about books, have I found myself so stunned and so persuaded by a book that I hesitate even to discuss it, lest I err by omission or, by some misstep, deter another from reading for him or her self. Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright, however, is such a book.
Released in this country in conjunction with Lent, Easter, and the Great Fifty Days that follow, Surprised by Hope is a crystal-clear, powerful course-correction for all of us–Christian or otherwise–who think that eternity is somewhere “over there” or “in the sweet by-and-by.” It is a sobering call for Christians to return to the basic operating principle of a redeemed creation whose redemption began on Easter, is presently in process, and will be completed with the final Triumphal Entry. It is also somewhere between a death knell and an impediment to a whole lot of 19th and 20th century conversation about how life for the faithful is only a matter of journeying to somewhere else through a vale of tears and temptations that are to be passively endured.
In other words, and in my opinion, if you want to know what Easter is about, get yourself a copy of Surprised by Hope and hunker down for the read of a lifetime….literally.