Saturday, March 26, 2016

Exsultet! Rejoice!

"Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels...Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth...Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church..." (The Exsultet, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 286)

This evening as we move from darkness into light and begin our Easter celebration, here's a repost from April 13, 2009. Overcoming the strand of dualism in religion is a necessary to step to tapping into the deep compassion for the world that might move us to do the work of healing what has been broken in our relationship to the earth and the atmosphere.

A joyous Easter to all!

The Great Vigil of Easter is celebrated between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter morning. The determination of the time of the service according to the times of sunrise and sunset is significant, as the entire liturgy in its lessons and prayers and use of light, water, oil, bread, and wine points to the integration of spiritual things with the order of nature.

This first service of Easter begins with the lighting of the Paschal candle from the new fire. The deacon carries the Paschal candle into the church, and then sings the Exsultet (beginning on p. 286 of The Book of Common Prayer): “Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels…” As a deacon, I practice the Exsultet throughout Lent, and get very familiar with the words – a necessity when singing an important piece of liturgy by candlelight. The Exsultet is in my head and on my lips as spring begins, the days get longer, and the first tiny green leaves appear on bushes and trees. “Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor, for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.”

Some of my non-Episcopalian friends, both believers in other traditions and non-believers, comment on the connections to the Earth season as if they suspect that either our joy in the coming of springtime might somehow eclipse or diminish the appreciation of the Resurrection, or that the Gospel story is a sort of culturally approved and maybe even a slightly shady cover for a pagan celebration. What this tells me is that there are lots of people both in the Church and outside of the Church who want to keep the physical and the spiritual well separated: dualism has many devotees in today’s world.

Among the many gifts of the Holy Night proclaimed in the Exsultet is this one: “How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and [we are] reconciled to God.” That image of the realms of earth and heaven being joined together in unity, and the linking of that joining to the restoration of a good and holy relationship between God and humankind get to the depths of the Easter message: in Christ, the chasm has been bridged. All of creation is infused with God’s Holy Spirit; the spiritual and the physical are intertwined. That’s why the things around us can serve as signs of God’s grace; it’s why we believe in the sacraments, and also in sacramental living in a wider sense.

The Exsultet ends with an entreaty for God to accept the offering of the Paschal candle: “May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning – he who gives his light to all creation, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.”

May we remember throughout the year that Earth and heaven are joined, and that the world around us is God’s good and holy creation.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday: Darkness coming over the land

From noon on, darkness came over the land until three in the afternoon. (Matthew 27:45)

I spent some of the time between noon and three o’clock this afternoon reading and thinking about the darkness that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include in their accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. John’s Gospel account of the Passion, the one we will hear in churches using the Good Friday liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer, doesn’t mention this. But the synoptic Gospels all do, with Matthew and Luke (Luke 23:44-45) adding that the curtain of the temple was torn in two when Jesus was crucified. Matthew adds (Matthew 27:51) that “the earth shook, and the rocks were split.”

Commentaries disagree on the meaning of all of this. Some argue that this was a solar eclipse, while others say it is was a different kind of gloom. As thunderstorms and snowstorms swept across Nebraska on Wednesday, lots of us saw streetlights come in during daylight hours; we know that darkness at noon doesn’t necessarily mean a solar eclipse. Commentators also disagree on whether the Greek should be translated to tell us darkness came over the land or over the entire earth. And then there is discussion about the earthquake mentioned by Matthew: are we to understand that there was the sort of earthquake that today would be recorded by a seismograph, or was this report of a shaking of the earth more a way to describe the meaning of Jesus’s death?

No matter which combination of Gospel accounts and commentaries strike us as the best interpretation of this piece of the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, what stands out is the underlying claim that the crucifixion and death of Jesus was not only experienced in the hearts and emotions of the people who witnessed it, but was also felt or experienced in some way by all of creation. This is an important claim, because if we put any stock at all in the claim of darkness coming over the land (or the earth), we agree that the connection between Jesus and creation is such that the suffering and death of Jesus was echoed in the nonhuman world around him. In this, we affirm that our relationship with Jesus not only can’t be isolated from our relationships with one another, but that our relationship with Jesus can’t be isolated from our relationship with all of creation.

The Catechism in The Book of Common Prayer (p. 848) answers the question “What is sin?” this way:
Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. 
Given that, it is difficult to understand why we in the Church don’t pay more attention to what is happening to God’s creation, especially since people who are marginalized by virtue of economic status or race more often than not experience the effects of pollution and climate change first and worst. Environmental degradation is still a side issue for many in the church, and we continue to pray, preach, plan, and act as if we were living in a world unaffected by the great changes happening today.

This Good Friday, this deacon finds it important to share something that got mention in the news this Holy Week but may not make it into the hearts and prayers of many worshipers on Easter Sunday. I share it in the hope that we might be moved to include the changes in the earth's climates and its effects on us and other living things in our prayers, our conversations, and our moral choices.

A paper published in the European journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics looks at effects of melting ice beyond the effects of sea level rise. Sea level rise itself might happen sooner than earlier predicted because of the sort of feedback loops scientists are studying. The paper claims that beyond the obvious dangers of sea level rise, cold meltwater entering the ocean can lead to changes in the circulation systems such as a possible shutdown of the North Atlantic Ocean circulation. One result of a slowdown or shutdown of this system is an increase in extreme storms.

Here is Dr. James Hansen discussing the main points of the paper:

In the transcript of the video, Dr. Hansen includes this preface:
The main point that I want to make concerns the threat of irreparable harm, which I feel we have not communicated well enough to people who most need to know, the public and policymakers. I’m not sure how we can do that better, but I comment on it at the end of this transcript.
Climate Progress has a piece by Joe Romm that both clarifies the main points of the paper and discusses some of the implications. (See Leading Climate Scientists: ‘We Have A Global Emergency,’ Must Slash CO2 ASAP)

Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake with him while he prayed the night before his crucifixion, but the disciples were unable to keep awake. Can we stay awake and aware in our own time to witness the suffering unfolding around us, or will we sleep unaware through this “threat of irreparable harm”?