Black is Gold

The black colour is normally associated with the sobriety and austerity of Lent. Priests, pastors and worship decor are draped in the ashen dark to remind us of our common mortality. The visual symbols enwrapped in black point to the crucified Christ and the path of suffering and death.

I think some of us who wear the black clerical shirts year round do so mindful of the unimaginative simplicity and seeming pedestrian quality of this colour.

In the German tradition of worship on Good Friday, special effort is made to emphasize and cover as much as possible with the colour black. In the common understanding of this practice, we have taken this to mean ‘black is mournful’. Indeed, do we not wear black at funerals? And is not Good Friday about the death of Jesus?

We therefore come to worship on Good Friday with heads hung low, faces heavy with sadness, shuffling mournfully down the aisle. An interpretation about the colour black has led to this predominantly sorrowful approach to Good Friday worship.

While I appreciate a collectively mindful appreciation of Jesus’ self-giving sacrifice, I’ve also appreciated a colleague’s clarification of the history of manufacturing black colours in clothing and art. The reason behind bringing the black colour, especially on Good Friday, stems from pre-industrial, organic processes of pigmentation.

In late medieval times, the colour black became the popular fashion choice for royalty in Europe. The most common, least expensive methods of pigmentation resulted in a brighter array of colours. But ‘vine black’ — obtained from burning the twigs of grape vines — was according to the 15th century painter Cennino Cennini “the perfect colour”.

To extract even a little bit of this perfect colour, hard, laborious work was employed. In order to yield the perfect result on a canvas or in clothing, a sacrifice of comparable worth was made. Thus, the colour black was suited for the observance of Good Friday: Not just so that worshippers would feel dour and down on Good Friday; Not only to inculcate a depressive, mournful mood on Good Friday.

Black was gold. Black indicated a valuable and, above all, worthwhile, expression of faith especially on “Good” Friday. The day’s name suggests another paradox: While black can signal temperance and penitence, it also points to a greatness beyond any human effort — the greatest, most perfect, sacrifice of love by God that yields the greatest power even over death itself.

Worth celebrating. Worth our thanksgiving.

Prayer power; moving from dilemma to choice

It may seem strange to hear this Gospel (Luke 23:33-43) for the Festival of Christ the King. At first glance, this traditional Good Friday text at the end of November seems as odd to me as Christmas in July.

So, right off the bat, we are faced with a paradox on at least a couple of levels. First, the demonstration of the kind of God we follow flies in the face of everything the world values as powerful; a king who suffers for us and becomes vulnerable in a self-giving sacrifice?! He was an object of sport and scorn. No wonder the people around the cross laughed at him: A naked, nailed-down Jesus was scarcely a powerful king.

He was, instead, a sign of failure, weakness and incompetence. This is just not the way the game is played today in the echelons of power, right?

And yet, we Christians believe that the crucifixion of Jesus is actually his moment of greatest power. To lend weight to this truth, the placement of this text a month before Christmas invites us – indeed, prods us – to reflect again on the meaning of our discipleship.

Perhaps those who devised the lectionary were wise. Because the crucifixion of Jesus is not only a record of history to be read and remembered during Holy Week when we recall Jesus last, tortured days on earth. The crucifixion of Jesus demonstrates the whole point of our identity and mission as followers of Christ. In other words, Jesus’ reign reveals values of a kingdom relevant to us today. Jesus preached, “The kingdom of God is near!” (Luke 21:31); and, “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). This is a recognition that dramatically turns our reality upside down, if we choose to live it so.

Ultimately, should we follow this king we say we worship, this paradox must be resolved. But how do we resolve this strange juxtaposition of heavenly value of power reflecting vulnerability, surrender and mercy on the one hand; and on the other, the earthly value of power reflecting competition, judgment and comparisons? I believe this paradox must resolve itself not merely in a dilemma to be thought and talked about, but a choice that leads to behavior and action.

I remember a story my mom told me once when I was younger that helped me when I had questions about how to follow Jesus in this world: “There once was a great king,” she said, “that decided to share his wealth with his subjects. The king had a spacious compound right in front of his castle and marked it off with a large stone wall. In the compound he placed all his treasures and at its centre he positioned his throne.

“Then he sat down, called his subjects together and announced, ‘I am about to share all of my treasures with you. Choose whatever you wish in this compound — and it is yours. Choose wisely, and do not leave the area until I have dismissed you.’

“So his subjects began to scramble over his possessions, taking whatever they wished. In the hubbub, an elderly woman, small in stature and great in years, approached the king to ask, ‘ Your majesty, have I understood you correctly? If I choose anything in this compound, it will be mine?’ ‘Yes,’ the king assured her that she had understood correctly and he invited her, again, to choose wisely.

“The woman paused for a moment deep in thought. Then she looked hard at the king and said, ‘Your majesty, I choose you!‘ The crowd grew silent at her words, waiting to hear the king’s response. The king smiled at the woman and said, ‘You have chosen most wisely. And because you chose me, all my kingdom will be yours as well.’ There was abundant joy in the land that day, because the woman was much loved, and everyone shared in the king’s treasure.”

Not only are we invited this Christ the King Sunday to reflect on what kind of king and reign Jesus is and represents, we have a choice to make. Will we be the hands and feet of Jesus today in a world that suffers? Will we go to the highways and byways of our city, our country and our neighborhood to see the face of Christ in those we serve and those in need? Is this Jesus – the one who hangs on the cross – the God we follow, the Lord of our time, the Lord of our use of material wealth and our talents? Is Jesus the king in whose service we daily engage and rejoice? We know who rules the heavens. But does Christ rule our hearts?

We can choose: to play the game according to the world’s rules — competition, aggression, judgment and comparison; or, we can make choices based in compassionate justice, generosity, confidence, intentionality and trust. How do we do that?

Prayer. Prayer will move us from dilemma to choice.

I have the proud distinction this year to be the first in my extended family to produce my Christmas wish list. In fact, I had it ready last weekend, and copies to give to my rather shocked family.

Prayer at its best is not about presenting our wish list to God. Because prayer doesn’t start with us; it starts with God. Origen from the second century wrote that prayer is not about trying to get benefits from God; rather, it is about becoming united with God; about reflecting God’s gaze upon us.

We are told today that in the first few years of life, infants see themselves entirely mirrored in their parents’ eyes, especially the mother’s (p.67, Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs); “What her eyes tell about ourselves, we believe and we become … Prayer is much the same: we receive and return the divine gaze.” In other words, we know ourselves and our purpose in life in the security of the living God in Christ who holds us and continues to gaze upon our lives.

All forms of prayer are good and right and true. But without also giving time in prayer to be simply silent and still, to contemplate this knowing that is neither a mental activity nor a mere ‘good work’ on our part, is necessary. I invite each and every one of you to join our group on Wednesday evenings to learn more about this form of prayer called “Christian Meditation.” It is a form of prayer that propels us to reflect and engage the nature and mission of God in us and in the world.

But a warning: Christian Meditation is a way of prayer that exercises a surrendering, a letting go, a powerlessness that echoes the values of the Cross of Christ. It is seemingly unproductive use of time, so contrary to the values of the world of glamour, achievement and progress. But, in its very form, contemplative prayer is thus fundamentally Christian.

Because, in the end, it’s not about us, it’s about the kingdom of God – a topic Jesus spent more time talking about in the Gospels than any other topic or issue, values that continue to challenge us to the core of our being. We are more like the thieves who hung next to Jesus than we are like Jesus: it is hard for us to believe in the gracious God, in the forgiving God, in the God who would love us even when we disappoint and sin. Yet, Jesus last words to another human being before his death and resurrection were words of forgiveness, words consistent with the ministry of Jesus’ short life.

Thank God our salvation is not dependent on us, but on a loving, grace-giving, self-giving, merciful God. We may not be able to do things rightly. We may not be able. But God is. That’s why we are who we are and do what we do: Christ crucified; Christ risen.


From Golgotha to Homs

This Holy Week our attention focuses on the story of Jesus’ Passion. For people of faith especially the suffering and violence to which Jesus eventually surrenders in death on a cross stirs the emotions and even brings tears during the liturgies of the week.

It is a moving story of sacrifice, love, betrayal and ultimate vindication and victory. It’s impact has literally changed the world and altered the course of history.

But if our humble observance this week stops at a reverent gazing upon the Cross of Christ, how then does our faith translate to today’s realities? Would Christ on the cross two thousand years ago not lead us to see Christ in the faces of those who suffer today?

Some Christians express concern today for the various ways people of faith strive to make religion relevant, popular, exciting and culturally palatable.

Then they need Good Friday. Because the cross keeps us grounded in the primary action of Christ. The cross stands at the center of the holy story. If any will question and scrutinize the actions of Christians, it will never be in helping the poor, standing with the marginalized, advocating for justice for those who suffer, all in the name of Jesus — as unpopular and undesirable as doing this might be.

This year the observance of Holy Week falls at a time when the crisis in Syria heightens and refugees stream over the borders into neighboring Jordan –Escaping violence, searching for safety and security, forced from their homeland. The escalating hundreds of thousands of refugees are alarming international aid organizations and local governments.

The Cross of Christ cannot but point us to look in this direction today. To the suffering, the dying. I was astounded to read earlier this week that tens of thousands of children die each day in poverty and from malnutrition — conditions often exacerbated in refugee camps.

Action among the living faithful must emerge out of a holy observance about God’s great acts in Christ. For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son ….

The world yesterday. The world today. And the world tomorrow.

From Golgotha to Homs, with love.

To hear a first hand account and learn more about the growing crisis in Syria, the Christian Council of the Ottawa Area invites you to “Joining in Prayer for Syria” on Thursday April 11 beginning with welcome and refreshments at 7:15pm at the Arch Diocese Centre at 1247 Kilborn Place in Ottawa.

A presentation will be given by Huda Kandalaft of Homs, Syria, and now of Ottawa. She will speak about the struggles of Christians in Syria today.

Simplicity II – Holy Week

On Good Friday, we focus on the Cross — the central symbol of Christianity. And we reflect on the meaning of what God accomplished on that Cross in the person of Jesus Christ. The cross we bring today, you will notice, is bear, along with the altar and other chancel appointments. Stripped bear. In order to appreciate what it all means, we need to be called in our hearts to a greater simplicity. Indeed, throughout the forty days of Lent, this has been the spiritual call – to simplicity.

This call to simplicity perhaps first makes sense to us in “giving something up for Lent” – chocolate, coffee, snacks, desserts, TV, etc. I can say I have appreciated the opportunity during past Lenten seasons to simplify and try to shed peels off the proverbial onion of my life – not that some of those peels are bad things in and of themselves. But that those things are not the most important nor helpful for my physical, spiritual, mental health. It’s good to do from time to time: Simplify. Because when we do we begin to get at what’s essential in life.

And so, this holy week concludes a season of going where we don’t normally want to — call it downward mobility, or doing without, or looking at that part of our lives we keep hidden from others.

When Jesus was stripped of his dignity, his clothes, his honour and humiliated; when the king of kings submitted to torture and brutal death a criminal of the state, I can’t think of much else to do except approach the Cross with humble adoration. And bring the truth of our lives to the foot of the Cross as well.

Every time a sports team struggles through a losing streak, I hear the same thing from coaches when they’re interviewed and asked why their team is losing; often they say – “we have to get back to basics, doing the small things right.” Simplify. When the chips are down, when we’re at ground zero, it’s back-to-basics time.

And while at first this may seem an unfortunate development, it’s actually important to return to those basics. In the couple of days leading up to the Superbowl — the biggest championship game on earth — the coaches for both of the best two teams in the league were advised to have their players review basic skills and focus on these.

Getting back-to-basics doesn’t just mean taking things away. On the contrary, when we focus on what is essential we may need to return to something that we’ve forgotten over the years, such as intentional prayer with God.

And not that we must pray the same way. But simply, in our communion with God who connects with us in our hearts: as we listen, as we wait, as we praise, as we lift our hands and hearts, as we use words even as words aren’t always necessary, as we reach out in prayerful action in the name of Christ. Prayer – getting back to basics. Doing small but meaningful things from the heart.

The call to simplicity on Good Friday is then also a call to come to terms with our own mortality. Admittedly, this is not a popular way. The reality of death is one we naturally want to deny, to put off thinking about – because its unpleasantness and mystery can unnerve us. No wonder many Christians care not to worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – and wait then to rejoin the worshipping assembly on Easter morning.

But without Good Friday there can be no Easter. This Friday is “Good” because without the Cross stripped bear there would be no salvation. Winning teams are always committed to doing the basics, the fundamentals, of their game well.

That’s the starting point: You can’t have Easter without, first, Good Friday. We must not deny the suffering, dying Christ – nor our own. We must first accept it.

Archbishop Desmund Tutu, fighting prostate cancer, gave an interview a few years ago right before Easter. In it he spoke of the redemptive side of suffering, the good that can come out of embracing, owning and accepting your own pain and suffering. He said, “When you have a potentially terminal disease, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. It gives a new intensity to life. You discover how many things you have taken for granted: the love of your spouse, the Beethoven symphony, the dew on the rose, the laughter on the face of your grandchild.”

Often we think of times of suffering in our lives as the “dark” times. We often associate darkness with suffering and death – and therefore bad. Christian writer Joyce Rupp admits that it is difficult to believe that darkness could be a source of growth and new life. She writes:

“Darkness to a child, as well as to many adults, can be a scary, fearsome place where wild creatures wait to pounce and prey. But, in actuality, some kinds of darkness are truly our friends. The world of our mother’s womb had no light: It is where we grew wonderfully and filled out our tiny limbs of life. Our earth would be quite lifeless, too, if we did not plant seeds deep within the lonely darkness of the soil so they could germinate and bring forth green shoots. I know, too,” she continues, “that we would soon die of an overheated planet if nightfall did not come to soothe the sun-filled land. Darkness is very essential for some aspects of growth and protection.” (p.3-4 The Star in My Heart).

When we come to terms with our own suffering by answering the call to simplicity, good things come out of it. Betty Ford, former first lady in the United States, talked openly about her cancer. She changed the culture of the time – which in the 1970s was very guarded, embarrassed, and hidden when it came to talk of breast cancer. As a woman, those secrets were at best whispered in the privacy of the home; as a woman you just didn’t talk openly about it.

But thanks be to God for Betty Ford – that she took the risk of vulnerability, for her not being ashamed or fearful. As a result, her public witness is estimated to have saved millions of women’s lives in subsequent decades – because now women could speak legitimately about their problem openly, own it, accept as their own – and therefore receive needed, life-saving medical attention.

So, finally, the call to simplicity means having an attitude of gratitude. Being thankful for simple things doesn’t begin by noticing other people’s suffering and then saying – “Well, I’m better off.” It doesn’t begin by comparing ourselves to others worse off. The kind of gratitude I speak of begins deep in the heart of our own suffering. Because we know – given what Jesus did for us on the Cross – we know that God won’t let our suffering be the end of us.

On this Good Friday, let us be thankful for the small mercies and the moments of grace that surround us and come to us, even in our suffering and death. Above all, let us give thanks to the Lord for his love for us, a love that led him to make that incomprehensible sacrifice, for us. Thanks be to God!

Holy Place: A Lenten Exercise

A hymn we often sing during Lent and Holy Week, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”, leads us into an appreciation of physical space.

The title of the hymn suggests that we view Jesus from a certain standpoint, a particular perspective — at the foot of the Cross. It is from this spot on the earth that we look up to Jesus and see what he is doing for us. From this inner stance, we express our faith in the Holy One who died on that Cross to fulfill his Call of Love for us and for the whole world.

The Gospel message of Jesus finds its grounding, its rooting, in the Cross. Of course, we know the end of the story. But even the message of new life, of resurrection, fresh starts, new beginnings emerges from that original place – beneath the Cross of Jesus.

An awareness of where we are, brings us into the holy. The Lenten season is about recognizing a holy place where God meets us and we meet God.

In developing a theme of “A Holy Place”, I invite you to reflect on one space and place in your life you have considered “holy”. Describe it: What surrounded you? Was there anyone with you? What were you doing – being still, physically, or active? What did you sense in this place – smells, sounds, tastes, visions? What happened in the time you were in this place? How did you feel?

And then, consider what about this “holy place” reflects the character of God? Is it quiet or noisy? Funny or serious? Solemn or filled with laughter? Is it in some way gentle and sweet, powerful and overwhelming, or busy and active? Did the holy place come to you quite unexpectedly, like a surprise, or by accident? Or was it the result of an intentional discipline and preparation on your part? What is it about God that this holy place teaches you?

Finally, consider a biblical text, scriptural quote or story from the bible that enhances, converges with and affirms your experience of God in this holy place. Conclude with a short prayer.

Thank God, during Lent, for that holy place.

Once you’ve thought about it, would you, sometimes during the Lenten season, tell someone about your holy place?