Lent Versus Easter: The Importance of Seasonal Spiritual Practices

Lent Versus Easter_2He is Risen!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Happy, Happy Easter, good friends!!!

After a demanding and exhausting Lent, I greeted Easter Sunday morning with jubilation.  My husband and I went to church that morning in our Sunday best.  His shirt pressed.  My hair curled.  Then, along with our black lab donning a bright white bow, we met up with family for brunch.  The adults drank gin and tonic’s.  The kids searched for eggs.  We all indulged in ham, asparagus, potatoes, cake, candy, and cookies.  

I greeted that Easter Sunday evening, however, with less enthusiasm.  I had a stomach ache from all the sugar and a headache from all the alcohol.  Without my Lenten sacrifices and my practices, I felt unmoored and unsettled.  

I had been so intentional about how I would observe the Lenten season, but I had given almost no thought to how I would celebrate the Easter season.

In the Catholic tradition, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and ends 40 days later with Holy Thursday.  Then, the Easter season begins with Resurrection Sunday and ends 50 days later with Pentecost Sunday.

Lent is a time of fasting; Easter is a time of feasting.

Lent is a time of abstinence; Easter is a time of abundance.

Lent is a time of contrition; Easter is a time of celebration.

Most years, I regard Easter as an excuse to abandon my spiritual practices.  This year, however, after such a grueling Lent, Easter seemed different to me.  It was not a reason to pause my practices.  It was an opportunity to change my spiritual practices.  

Lent, after all, is just the opening act for the main event.  The resurrection is not the end of Lent; it is the beginning of Easter.  It inaugurates the new world and the new life for which we’ve been preparing.  

So, this year, I’ve decided to mark the Easter season as intentionally and diligently as I marked Lent.  I’m trading in my fast from sweets for prayers over all my meals.  I’m trading in my Evening Prayer for a daily gratitude journal.  

I still spend time with my Bible.  But, rather than dwelling in the dark scriptures, I bask in the Gospels’ resurrection accounts.  I still work in my journal.  But, rather than listing my shortcomings or supplications, I count my blessings.  I still offer up prayers.  But, rather than mourning over my sins, I rejoice in my salvation.  In this way, Easter does not thoughtlessly discard my Lenten spiritual practices; it thoughtfully builds upon them.

It is easy to see Lent as a goal we accomplish or a season we survive.  The penitential season, however, is actually just a preparation for the Easter celebration.  So, how do you intend to mark this Easter season?  How do you intend to embrace the new life and the new world that Easter brings?

A Beginner’s Prayer for Holy Thursday

Holy WeekHoly Thursday 2013.  I invited (dragged?) my now-husband, then-boyfriend to Mass without dinner.  The liturgy, full of chanting and processing, took three hours.  An argument, fueled by two, tired, angry, hungry people ensued.

With that memory in mind, I put together the Catholic Cliff Notes version of Holy Thursday.  If you’re attending a service this evening, it will help you navigate the liturgy. If not, it will help you commemorate this holy day on your own.  I invite you not just to read it, but to pray it.  I hope that the guide below will help you experience and appreciate Holy Thursday.  

Good and gracious God, send your spirit down upon me.  Quiet my heart and mind to hear your voice, see your movement, and feel your presence.  May your scriptures reveal to me your most perfect person and plan for our salvation.

  • The Institution of the Eucharist

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat, this is my body.”  Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28; NRSV)

  • The Institution of the Priesthood

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.  He came to Simon Peter, who said to him. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”  Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”  Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.  And you are clean, though not all of you.”  For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:3-15; NRSV)

  • The Announcement of the New Commandment

Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35; NRSV)

  • Jesus’ Prayer in the Garden

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”  He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated.  And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.”  And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.  He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep?  Could you not keep awake one hour?  Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.  And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him.  He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?  Enough!  The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.  Get up, let us be going.  See, my betrayer is at hand.” (Mark 14:32-42; NRSV)

If time permits, meditate with this Taize chant, or journal your reflections. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7GexIvX8HU

We praise you, Lord, for your infinite grace.  In becoming human, you experienced the incredible joys and pains of this life and this world.  We thank you, Lord, for saving and shepherding your people.  Please be with us throughout this Holy Week.  Help us to better know and appreciate your dying on the cross, so that we may better know and appreciate your rising from the tomb.

On Holy Week

Holy Week_1I received the reference book in eighth grade, from a dear family friend, for my Confirmation.  I turn to it when I have practical questions, not when I need spiritual encouragement.  I look to it for information, not inspiration.  I was surprised, then, when I recently stumbled upon a lovely little phrase.  The Triduum, it said, is that “to which all leads and from which all flows.”  The Triduum’s power and beauty, it seemed, had seeped into even the dullest, driest texts.

The Triduum, according to the Catholic tradition, refers to the three holy days before Easter.  It begins with sunset on Holy Thursday and ends at sunset on Holy Saturday.  It commemorates the Last Supper and the lengthy Passion, and it concludes as the celebration of the resurrection begins.  

For Christians, these events are truly “to which all leads and from which all flows.”  Each of them reveals a different component of Christ’s identity and our salvation.

The power and beauty of these events can seep into the driest, darkest, and dirtiest of hearts.  It can revive them.  It can restore them.  It can resurrect them.

After forty long days of Lent, I am eagerly anticipating the Triduum.  I am looking forward to meditating on these sacred events.  On each day of the Triduum, I will post a short reflection here on the blog.  I invite you to join me to more fully experience and embrace these highest holy days.

As that dry reference book stated, the events surrounding Christ’s dying and rising are “to which all leads and from which all flows.”  They are the core of our faith, and their commemoration can revive our faith.  My hope is that, come Easter Sunday, we will all better appreciate not just the power and beauty of these events but the power and beauty of our God.

How To Have a Last-Minute Lent

How To Have A Last-Minute Lent_1I’ve been there; we’ve all been there.  

First, the candy starts appearing in the convenience and grocery stores.  The bulbous Reese’s Eggs and the shimmering Yellow Peeps.

People start making plans for Spring Break.  Road trips to the beach or the nearby amusement park.

March Madness comes and goes.  Baseball season begins.

The sun returns; the leaves re-appear; your winter coat gets packed away.

Then, one Sunday, you arrive at church to find everyone holding palms and the pastor talking about extra parking for the holiday services.

Easter is right around the corner.  

And, you didn’t even see it coming.

Such is life.  It gets busy.  You really did mean to prepare for Easter thoughtfully and faithfully.  You just didn’t get around to it.

It’s okay.  I’ve been there.  We’ve all been there.

And, the good news is: you haven’t missed it yet!  You’ve still got time!

How To Have A Last-Minute Lent_2So, how can you make the most of the next few days?  How can you prepare to truly experience the beauty of the Last Supper, the sorrow of Good Friday, and the joy of the Resurrection?

1. Give Up Something You Love.

Intentional sacrifice reminds us how deeply we need and desire Christ.  I gave up desserts for Lent this year, and I am looking forward to Easter with all of my physical senses.  Its sweet scent.  Its cool texture.  The colorful sprinkles.  I’m desiring the Resurrection in spirit and body.

Since there isn’t too much time before Easter, consider giving up something you enjoy routinely.  Like meat or bread or alcohol or coffee.  Give up something you consume regularly, and you’ll be craving Easter asap.

2. Give Away Something You Want to Keep.

Almsgiving has long been part of the Lenten tradition.  Instead of giving a monetary donation or doing volunteer work, consider giving away something you really like. When we feel the pain of sacrifice, we better appreciate Christ’s costly sacrifice for us.

Some possible ideas:

  • Donate one of your favorite pieces of clothing to Goodwill.
  • Give one of your favorite mugs or books to a friend who is struggling right now.
  • Buy a snack or coffee for a friend or colleague with whom you’re struggle right now.
  • Grant forgiveness to someone from whom you’ve been refusing it.
  • Intentionally give your sins to Christ.

3. Read the Scriptures Surrounding Easter.

Each of the Gospel writers has an account of the events surrounding Easter.  Consider starting with the Preparations for Passover and continuing through the Resurrection.

  • Matthew 26-28
  • Mark 14-16
  • Luke 22-24:12
  • John 13; 17-20:18

How To Have A Last-Minute Lent_3

4. Attend an Additional Church Service.

The Resurrection on Sunday is only one part of the Easter story.  Many Protestant churches commemorate the Passion with a Good Friday service sometime between noon and three.  Some churches even present Living Stations.  Most Catholic churches also have special services on Thursday and Friday evening to mark the Last Supper and Good Friday.  

If you can’t make it to a church service, consider watching DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt or Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.  I’ll also be sharing a reflection here next week for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

5. Listen to Christian Music.

The background noises in our lives affect us in profound ways.  Try tuning into Christian music to keep your mind and heart oriented toward Christ.  I recommend checking out Gungor, Run River North, Emeli Sandí, or Punch Brothers.  Not all of these artists are “Christian” per se, but their songs delve into the spiritual themes.

6. Listen to Christian Podcasts.

A good podcast is a great way to restart or reassess your spiritual journey.  Right now, I’m enjoying The Happy Hour with Jamie Ivey and Catholic Stuff You Should Know.  I also have a love-hate relationship with The Liturgists.

7. Pray daily.

Take 15 minutes apart from the chaos of daily life to soak in the peace and joy of Christ. If you need some guidance and structure, feel free to join me on Facebook Live each night through April 12th for Evening Prayer.  I also recommend the Pray-As-You-Go podcast.

A Final Note:

These Lenten practices, of course, are only a means to an end.  We do not keep them to satisfy some rule or to elevate our own status.  We keep them as a way to deepen our relationship with Christ.  The practices are the means; the relationship is the end.

Easter, with all its candies and brunches, will come regardless of your preparations for it or celebration of it.  Just like spring.  Just like baseball season.  Lent, however, offers us an opportunity to experience and appreciate that Easter holiday in a more meaningful way.  Even at the last minute.

So, buy the candy.  Put away your winter coat.  And, take a few minutes to pray.  God is right there.

Why The Perfect Time To Pray Is When You Don’t Want To Pray

It’s 6:30 in the morning in March in Virginia, so the sky is still black and the air still crisp as we drive.  We park in the vast, empty lot before the big, dark church, and we walk into the warm, yellow light of the chapel.  About 20 or so teenagers are already seated, but everyone is silent and still.  A few minutes pass before Father Mark enters with Mrs. Moreau, the petite French woman who wears a black lace veil over her hair and speaks with a thick accent.  She holds the golden Book of Gospels high above her head and processes, with the priest, down the center aisle toward the altar.  It is 6:30 in the morning in March in Virginia and 15-year-old me is here to worship.

Why the Perfect Time to Pray_1Growing up, my church celebrated these early morning Masses each Wednesday during Lent and Advent.  I dreaded it each Tuesday night as I set my alarm.  I regretted it each Wednesday morning as I showered while the rest of my family slept.  I loved it, however, the second we pulled into the parking lot and saw the light spilling from that one room in the otherwise dark church.  Even at age 15, I sensed that something special was happening in that chapel before the sun came up.  

The Mass always ran swiftly.  Given the hour, my usual anxious thoughts weren’t awake yet, and every word and movement of the liturgy amazed me.  Isaiah’s poetry and Paul’s arguments.  Mrs. Moreau’s deep bow before the altar.  The splash of red wine as the priest filled the golden chalice.  The echo of young voices praying to “our Father, who art in heaven.”  The feel of my friends’ hands, some soft and some sharp, as we offered peace. Then, finally, the priest’s long arms drawing the sign of the cross over us and his deep voice telling us to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

At the time, I assumed our church leaders were teaching us some legalistic lesson about the importance of Mass attendance.

Now, some 15 years later, I know different.  

They were telling us:

This is where you come.  

This is to whom you come.

In the middle of the night, when you can’t see the way forward, when you’re anxious for the sun to rise, desperate for the Son to rise.

You come to God.

The youth minister, the priest, and even Mrs. Moreau knew that we would all, with time, experience the darkness and the ugliness of the world.  They knew that, in those moments, we would desire the light and beauty of the divine.  They knew that we would need God, and we would need to know how to reach Him.

So, they invited us and encouraged us to come together in prayer, even on a weekday, even before 7 in the morning.  And, now, I extend the same invitation to you.  

I invite you to pray, even when you don’t want to, especially when you don’t want to.  

Because, if we practice communing with God on our good days, it is a lot easier to commune with Him on our bad days.  

We’ll know where to search for Him.  We’ll know by which name to call Him.  We’ll know how to recognize the sound of His voice, the signs of His presence.

I have not seen Father Mark or Mrs. Moreau in well over a decade, but I recall and appreciate them each Lent.  Since high school, I have had several moments full of pre-dawn darkness and, thanks to them, I knew how to reach for God.  

It doesn’t often involve driving to church before 7 in the morning.  But it does involve whispering the Lord’s name, opening the Word, taking the Eucharist, sitting in sacred silence, and accepting peace from my neighbor.    

To be fair, there was never a Wednesday morning in high school when I leapt out of bed, eager to leave the comfort of my own house to rush to church.  There was also never a Wednesday morning that I left the chapel feeling less of the Lord’s joy and peace.  And, there has never been a day since that I longed for the Lord and could not locate Him. 

 

The Radical Relief of Repentance

pexels-photo-54566Today, millions of men and women around the world will begin preparing for Easter by celebrating Ash Wednesday.  Christians from both the Catholic and Protestant traditions will line up to hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” They will close their eyes as the minister scratches a cross of ashes onto their foreheads. They will acknowledge their weakness and ask God’s forgiveness.

As anyone who has ever celebrated Ash Wednesday can likely attest, the service is surprisingly popular.  Its appeal, I think, lies in its counter-cultural message.  It shares with us a truth that we are desperate to hear.  It tells us that the God who created and controls the universe is good.  It tells us that the world does not rest on our shoulders alone.  It tells that we are unconditionally loved.

Modern American culture, as described by David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise, tells us something different.  It rewards us according to our accomplishments.  It values us according to our achievements.  Any failures can be catastrophic.  Failures don’t just threaten our social or professional standing; they threaten our very identity and dignity. The result is a generation of men and women low on self-worth and high on anxiety.

As Ash Wednesday attests, however, there is room for imperfection in the Christian tradition.  In fact, there is an assumption of imperfection.  

Ash Wednesday is a reminder that no accomplishment or failure can add to or subtract from our God-given worth.  

For those of us caught up in the relentless pursuit of perfection, Ash Wednesday offers immense and immediate relief.  We can to admit our shortcomings without risking our dignity.  We can confess our sins without losing God’s love.  

Acknowledging our weakness and asking for forgiveness does not mire us in guilt.  It washes us in grace.  

Repentance, as epitomized in Ash Wednesday, does not destroy; it heals.

The Ash Wednesday service I attended at noon today was crowded.  People were packed in the pews, standing and squeezed into the foyer.  Some were in suits.  Some in police uniforms.  Some in scrubs.  People of various ages, of various races.  All burdened by the pursuit of perfection.  All worried their worth was lost.  All seeking salvation from their sins.  And, in one voice they echoed the words of the Psalmist, “have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.”

Amen.

 

An Invitation to Meet with God

An Invitation to Meet with God_1Just a few miles off the highway, tucked away in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, in the middle of Atlanta, the Jesuits run a retreat center.  There, in the chapel with the wall of windows that overlooks the Georgian wilderness, I went to meet with God.  

It was a weekday afternoon in the middle of July 2015, and I was on a field trip with one of my seminary classes.  We were a ragtag bunch of ten students led by a mystic, Methodist minister.  

The center was largely empty, since most of the Jesuits were, ironically, away on a retreat of their own.  The remaining priest, a somewhat gruff gentleman, led us into the chapel to talk before releasing us to explore the grounds – and God – on our own.  

We peppered him with questions about the practical points of prayer.  When and where should we pray?  Why and how should we pray?  He answered begrudgingly: Set aside a specific time every day.  Create a space apart, even if it’s just a corner in your closet. Perhaps try following the five steps of the Daily Examen.  

He couched each answer with a caveat.  Talking about, thinking about, reading about prayer misses the point of prayer.  Eventually, you just have to pray.  You have to just do it.  

An Invitation to Meet with God_2It is in that spirit that, starting today, I will be hosting a daily prayer service on Facebook Live.  You can join the service each day during Lent, from March 1 to April 12, at 7:00pm Eastern.  For 10-15 minutes, we’ll read some scripture, spend some time in silence, pray for some special intentions, and experiment with some different prayer techniques.  All you have to do to join is visit the Faith, Hope, Love, and Wine Facebook Page.  Each day’s video will also be recorded and uploaded to the Facebook Page, so, if you can’t join me at 7, you can pray along on your schedule.

I, like that Jesuit priest, know just how difficult it can be to set aside time for prayer.  I also know, however, that through prayer, the Lord can change us and heal us for our own good.

So, I invite you, regardless of where you are on your spiritual journey, to join me in prayer this Lent.  While we cannot all travel to a retreat center on the Chattahoochee, we can still come together and meet with God.

2 Questions to Consider for Ash Wednesday… and Lent and Easter and Everyday

2 Questions to Consider for Ash Wednesday_2Something big is coming.

Something life-changing.

Something world-changing.

As a general rule, I hate change.  I am quick to judge and slow to warm.  Transitions are tough for me.

These days, however, I am craving a change.  My anxiety, some of it my own creation and some of it borrowed from the outside world, has left me weary.  I’m eager for a fresh start. I’m excited for the something big.

As with most things, there is good news and bad news.  I’ll start with the bad: the something big requires a lot of work.  Think of how your body feels after a run: chest heaving, shins aching, hair sticking to your hot cheeks.  Imagine if your soul felt like that. The something big demands that sort of effort, exertion.  Now, for the good news: the something big comes with countless gifts.  Think of how your body feels after a shower: skin soft, muscles relaxed, hair dripping down your bare back.  Imagine if your soul felt like that.  The something big can cleanse you, calm you, heal you.

Even I’m okay with that kind of change.

Preparations for the something big start in 7 days, on March 1, with Ash Wednesday. Christians from the Catholic and Protestant traditions will spread ashes across their foreheads in acknowledgment of their iniquity and mortality.  Just like Job, they will pray, “I despise myself,/ and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).  

For approximately 40 days thereafter, us Christians will undertake certain sacrifices and practices to grow closer to God.  We will do so in the example of Jesus, who “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1b-2a).

Then, on Sunday, April 16, we will celebrate the biggest something that ever was: Easter. Just as Peter did some 2,000 years ago, we will get up and run to the tomb; stoop and look in, [and] see the linen cloths by themselves.  We will return home, amazed at what has happened (see Luke 24:12).

How will you prepare to fully experience and embrace the something big?  

If you’re not sure how to prepare, reflect on the questions below.  Your preparation may involve sacrificing something (e.g., alcohol, makeup, social media, etc) for the 40 days. Or, your preparation may involve doing something new (e.g., volunteering with a local charity, reading a devotional, calling your grandma, etc).  The questions below helped me make my own Lenten commitments, and I hope they will help you prepare appropriately for Easter. I pray that, when the something big does come, it will change us and our world like never before.

Questions

  1. How can I better love and serve God?
    • What practices help me connect with God (e.g., studying the Bible, walking a labyrinth, keeping a journal, etc)?
    • Can I engage in these practices more frequently?
    • If so, how can I make time and space for these practices?
  2. How can I better love and serve my neighbor?
    • Have I demonstrated all the fruits of of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, etc)?
    • If not, how can grow in one or more of these fruits?
    • Is there a particular relationship in my personal or professional life that needs particular attention or effort right now?
    • Is there a need in my local or national community that I can address?
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