Ecce gratia

This is a reflection I wrote last week for the Good Friday Project that St. James Episcopal Church presented on April 19, 2019. It’s an annual program they present, a variety of artists from their community, and from other churches in the area, offer pieces of music, poetry, dance, and more, in a contemplative setting.

Part I: Ecce homo “Behold the man”
“It is finished.”
They long for the final 
exhalation, these lips that still
pucker at the tang of sour wine;
Arid gust swirls a faint muskysweet  po
scent upward from the Mary who
kneels at the foot of my cross.
Ah, I recall the rough silk of her
hair on my feet. Nard for burial
while I breathed and lived. Her gesture 
was for me; she graced my death,
where Peter and the others could not.
There, my mother and my beloved disciple;
no man can sunder such love.
I focus on their loved faces and my pain
subsides. 
Ecce homo, Pilate commanded.
Demanded the city look and see.
He did not ask of me, ecce populus;
no matter, all is Rome’s
Ah, but I love them nonetheless.
They know not how scorn
echoes down the ages.
Father, I will bear the agony
that in the garden began. 

Part II: Ecce tibi “Behold oneself”
Boston in spring 2007. Our heroine, a grad student presenting at a national conference. Pop Culture—easy to get into, true–exciting, nonetheless. Her paper all about quest literature. The lesson: there’s no one in Avalon to save us; we must save ourselves. Medieval studies sessions catch her attention. The grail’s in Boston, she learns—alive and well in the public library. So, on that Friday in glorious spring, she’s skipping out to quest and finds Edwin Abbott’s eerie paintings in the library’s reading room. Perceval’s gaze still haunts her dreams, and the Holy Grail, that sacred cup, is unveiled in sacred, public space. Behold! What a joyous day with still time to quest. Out into the square she steps. Across the way, a well-aged church beckons her; come. No hesitation, off she goes, such pride in all she’s accomplished. “You can’t take pictures, she’s told at the door, “but please come in and be seated in silence.” The usher hands her a bulletin. It’s not until she’s seated and seen the quote straight back on the wall of the nave–He who does not love does not know God, for God is lovedoes she see the words on the top of the pageGood Friday—come in and pray. Our heroine weeps with sudden understanding: salvation and God have been present all along. She’s just finally been opened to God’s call. 

Part III: Ecce ipsi “Behold ourselves
Have you heard the prophet C. S. Lewis’ words? 
“No man can be an exile if he remembers that all the world is one city.”  

Part IV: Ecce familia 
Today, we stand outside of time and watch and pray.
Behold thy family, graciously, O Lord.
Love again begins. 

 

 

Credits: The C. S. Lewis quote is from Till We Have Faces. The featured image is What Our Lord Saw From the Cross, by James Tissot, painted between 1886 and 1894.

Making Space for God’s Daily Visits

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. Collect of the Day for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary

One of my paid jobs is working as a bookseller at the largest independent bookstore in Texas. We’re open for a few hours on Christmas Day, and I volunteered to be one of those who work that day.

Yesterday, a regular customer (who might have dementia) approached me to ask if we were open on Christmas Day. “Yes, we are; noon to six pm.” “That’s a sin,” she says, no hint of humor in her voice, no skip of a beat.

Today, when asked what I’m doing for the holidays: “I’m working at the store.” Friend says, “They’re open on Christmas? I don’t know how I feel about that.”

I do know how I feel about that. I don’t feel it’s a sin.

Yes, the store isn’t doing this for purely altruistic reasons, and to be honest, neither am I (double-time pay and lunch courtesy of the store).

But. . .

We will have people come in to the store who have nowhere else to go, especially when the libraries are closed for the holiday–homeless people, in other words.
We will have people who’ve come in to sit at the cafe to have space with friends and open gifts.
We will have lonely people who are just glad that we’re open and welcoming. They can come in and feel connected.
Yes, we’ll have the people who are happy we’re open because they want to return a gift or may need to still buy one and don’t need anything further than that.
We will have people who aren’t celebrating the birth of Christ, for whatever reason, and those who are, like myself.

On Tuesday, I’ll strive to be present to the people who come in to the bookstore for the reasons listed above and more, smiling and answering questions, getting frustrated with some of them, I’m sure. I’ll have a good day with my co-workers, whose reasons for being there are similar and different than my own. I’ll be out in the world, doing something I love, in a place I love, for agape’s sake.

Christmas is a celebration of a birth that took place in a lowly, to become holy, place to a couple who couldn’t find anywhere else to be. Care for our neighbors happens anywhere and everywhere, no matter what day it is, and should happen in the most unlikely places, especially at times when it seems that capitalism and consumerism are holding the most sway over our lives.

I don’t feel conflicted about sharing the gospel in any space I can. Where do you find yourself making space?

 

Art: Visitation, 20th century?, Church of Saint Elizabeth, El Sitio, El Salvador, http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56718.

 

Should My Next Tattoo Be a Blue Night Light?

In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

         —from Canticle 16, The Song of Zechariah, Luke 1:78-79

A few years ago now, a friend referred to me as “a blue night light.” A group of us were walking back to our seminary housing after a gathering. I was wearing a blue shirt (blue is my favorite color) at the time; my friend simply used the words to let me know that I was a comforting presence. It was a seemingly fluffy compliment that held no lasting meaning for him. However, I hold on to the image as a part of my identity, especially as I consider what my next tattoo should be.

One tattoo already wraps around my left wrist—seven stars and one crescent moon, all blue—as a reminder of my love of the night sky and how connected I feel to God when out under it. Given his words, and similar ones from others, a blue night light seems fitting, convenient. But why another person’s compliment? my friend asked when told.

Why indeed?

I began attending church ten years ago, after largely resisting formal religion for most of my life, because all I could see was the darkness I associated with dogma–exclusion, bitterness, ignorance. When I read the phrase being Jesus’s hands and feet in the world” as part of the mission statement in the bulletin of the church I went to, a great light bloomed in my heart. Finding a community that looked to serve those in
need–a deeper understanding of what it meant to follow Christ began to dawn on me. Belonging took on new meaning as did serving others.

On this second Sunday of Advent, with the words of John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah–harbinger of a harbinger of the Messiah’s arrival–to give us hope, I can think of no greater compliment than to be called a light in someone else’s darkness.

 

 

Photo from Inhabitots, Eco-night light Moon Jar

Setting Our Minds on Divine Things: Death, Grace, and Love

by The Rev. Ashley Freeman

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25 NRSV

This week my family and I have dealt with an incredible loss. In the past few days, my grandmother, unexpectedly, became very ill and died. Her death has left me and my family grieving and hurting in ways we are not even aware of yet. Nonetheless, this is where I find myself as I begin to reflect upon Jesus’s words in this verse from Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus’ statement here is one of the most challenging in the gospel. How does one save one’s life by losing it? Does following Jesus require that we actually die in his service? Is Jesus speaking metaphorically? If so, how do we lose our life for his sake? These questions and many others have surfaced for me this week as I have thought about Jesus’ statement in light of my grandmother’s death. Chief among these questions has been, what steps must we take to die?

This week as I sat in the waiting room, surrounded by family members and friends, many of whom I have not seen in years, and others who I rarely see, a thought occurred to me. My grandmother was able to do something in her death that rarely occurred in her life. While laying weak in the ICU, unable to speak, and laboring to breath, she gathered us together. Many were physically in the waiting room, others present via mobile phone and social media as they offered their love and support from afar. The grace and love she shared with others in her life now drew them all together in her death.

The ability for the dying to gather the living is not unique to my grandmother. As a priest, a central part of my ministry is spending time with families as they await the death of loved ones. The experience is always different. However, almost always one’s death gathers together those whom they loved.

The last great work of love performed by the dying is the weaving together, like a fabric, of the lives of all those they are leaving behind. This weaving is powerful and profound. So much so that I have witnessed, on multiple occasions, people who have been angry and spiteful toward one another for years tearfully embracing one another as they gathered at the death of a loved one. Perhaps a few days after the death, these individuals returned to their spite and anger. However, the fact remains the love and grace they shared in life and death offered them reconciliation, even if only for a moment.

So how do these insights help us answer my question, “what steps must we take to die?”

In short, I do not know. It seems to me that often Christians, myself included, think of God’s love and grace as an exchange system, in which we hope our doing, asking, praying, or saying something in the proper way, persuades or convinces God to demonstrate love and grace. This is rarely the case, if ever. Rather, God’s grace and love is present in our lives at all times. When a death, like my grandmother’s, gathers people into community and intimately weaves their lives together, fostering the bonds of love, mutuality, or at times reconciliation, it becomes a moment that highlights God’s grace and love for us, even in the face of death.

At this moment, even though I do not know what steps I need to take in order to die, it seems to me that Jesus’s advice to Peter, to set our minds on divine things will be required. My hope is that my experience of God’s grace and love during my grandmother’s death will empower my family and empower others, too, to seek the divine in all aspects of our lives. Perhaps then, we can begin to die and start to find the life to which God is calling each of us.

The. Rev. Ashley Freeman, graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest (MDiv ’15), is the rector of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Zachary, LA, where he resides with his wife, three children, and three dogs.

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